Suppose it is the week before Christmas. Aunt June calls from Florida, demanding to know why you are not attending the family festivities this year. You could blame it on her dry turkey or your awkward Uncle Ralph who likes to hug too much. But instead you just tell her that traveling is expensive and not in your budget this year.
Aunt June is a savvy shopper. A coupon diva. The queen of bargains. She knows that last minute travel need not be expensive. In fact, she offers to share a slew of tips with you on how to make last-minute travel plans on a budget.
Think Groupon and Living Social hold the keys to the great kingdom of budget travel? Not so. Here’s how to score last-minute travel deals on the cheap:
Wait a second. Isn’t this a contradiction? Not at all. Many savvy travelers book last-minute vacations. They stay on top of deals by signing up for special-offer e-newsletters from travel planning sites, airlines, hotels and even credit card companies. You may not need them at the moment, but by signing up for these email alerts now you will have them on hand should you need them.
Aunt June doesn't want you to be more limber in the physical sense, but she does want you to be more flexible. Last-minute deals arise when airlines and hotels need to fill seats and rooms. So it’s much easier to find bargains if you have no particular travel agenda. This might mean traveling on weekdays, flying very early or late in the day or on indirect flights, or visiting a destination in the off-season.
Visit specialized websites
Did you know there are websites that specialize in last minute travel? One-stop sites like LastMinute.com can save you up to 70% on airfare, hotel rooms, activities and even entire packages. Travelzoo and Kayak carefully screen thousands of website and e-newsletter deals. VacationstoGo is great for last-minute cruises. Packages on these sites tend to be non-refundable, so take caution when booking.
Last-minute deals are exactly that–last minute. So when you find one, move quickly! It is best to book flights or transportation first and then work on further accommodations. Don't worry if accommodations are not in place yet when booking your transportation. By the time you do that the deal could be gone. Flight first. Hotel/Rental car second.
Never pay full price for slumber
Most hotels have some deal going at any given time (staying at Aunt June's might be free, but it just isn't worth having to share bathroom towels with Cousin Ed). Often these specials run for weeks or even an entire season, so there’s no need to book until you’ve found the cheapest airfare (as mentioned above). Depending on the terms and conditions of the hotel offer, you might save additional money through memberships in organizations like AAA or AARP. With larger hotel chains, check for deals on both the main and local property sites. And don’t be afraid to call the hotel for an unadvertised special or a manager willing to make a last-minute deal to fill an empty room! A lot of times, just asking nicely helps a lot.
One is the magic number
Travel alone. It is as simple as that. It’s easy to grab one cheap ticket, but much harder to find four or five. If traveling in a group, coordinate a meeting at the destination and allow a liberal window of time for arrivals. When the trip involves a group of adults, go it alone. Traveling alone may not be as fun, but in a bind it is surely cheaper.
Ask an agent
If the situation looks bleak, enlist the help of an agent. A travel agent adds a fee when you book with them, but that shouldn’t prevent you from saving money. Agents have access to discounted tickets that might not be available to the general public. Also, they do all the time-consuming legwork required to find the best price! That leaves you time to pack, and make sure you grab a gift for Aunt June!