By Catharine Hamm
10:30 AM EDT, April 7, 2014
Question: A reader writes that she and her husband are retired, older than 70 and want to travel. They can leave at a moment's notice, so they want to know whether they can take advantage of last-minute deals and, if so, where. (For security reasons, we are not using their names, which are unusual and could make them a target of thieves.)
Answer: Travel industry providers have trained us to expect to pay a premium for last-minute travel, except when it's to their benefit, such as moving unsold inventory that will otherwise go unused. Then we are their new BFFs.
It's a twisted relationship, but if you're like the letter writer, you can put up with a lot to save a lot.
First, look for package discounts that combine a hotel stay or cruise with airfare, for example. That's the advice of Sarah Gavin, an Expedia travel expert. Not doing so, she says, is the No. 1 travel mistake. You'll save at least 10% on average, she says, and often more if you're traveling to a big vacation market such as the Caribbean or Hawaii.
Second, she says, social media are your friend. Airlines will send email blasts with last-minute deals, but you'll find excellent "flash sales" on social media (especially Twitter).
Which leads to her third tip: Hold the phone. As people become increasingly comfortable booking on their smartphones, it's wise to keep yours at hand. About half the public has a smartphone these days, and this puts you in the thick of the bargain hunt.
Not that there's a lack of places to find bargains. Expedia, for instance, can speed you toward bargains with its ASAP: A Sudden Amazing Price (www.lat.ms/1dIlYSy). On Monday, I found a four-night Monday-Friday package to San José del Cabo, Mexico, that included flight and hotel for $617 per person, double occupancy. The hotel was Melia Cabo Real All-Inclusive Beach & Golf Resort, which generally gets very good marks on TripAdvisor. There was a $25-a-night double-occupancy deal for the Malika d'Angkor Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia (includes transfers and the use of a bicycle), which gets good to very good marks on TripAdvisor. Because the deals change according to the need of the travel property, they may have disappeared, but new ones will be in their stead.
Expedia and AARP have also partnered in the travel bargain arena (www.expedia-aarp.com). It gave me a $2,023-per-person six-night trip to London, which included airfare, based on double occupancy, and a double room at the Best Western near Paddington Station for an April 10-17 trip. (I've stayed at that hotel, which is nicer than it sounds, and was about a 10-minute walk from the station and, thus, the Heathrow Express.) The best nonstop fare I found using Kayak.com 10 days in advance was $1,259. The hotel was $1,713 (that's for two people), which is a savings of more than $900 off the total package. Again, this deal may already be gone, but others will have taken its place.
Look too at such sites as LivingSocial and even AmazonLocal. AmazonLocal offered a $5 coupon for up to 25% off a Virgin America flight. What made that especially sweet was that I had failed to book a ticket about eight weeks before the trip when Virgin had offered a fare sale. Booking three weeks out, I saved one-quarter on the fare and felt less like a dolt for failing to follow the first rule of airfare booking: If you see a great fare, grab it.
For trips closer to home, check out Travelzoo.com. "We cater … to the user based on the geography," said Andrew Young, editorial director for the deal site. "If you're in L.A., you're more likely to see Palm Springs or San Diego than you are New Hampshire or Montreal or Bermuda."
On Monday, Newport Beach's Balboa Bay Resort was offered for $199 a night (usually $367), and the Las Vegas Palms Casino Resort was as little as $49 a night (midweek stay) and $59 weekend. The New York Hilton Midtown was offered for $179 a night with continental breakfast. (If you can get a New York hotel for less than $200 a night, you're doing well.)
Cruises are a different matter. We think of last minute that involves airfare as being very close to departure; that's not so with cruises, where last-minute rates might be as much as 90 days out. Travel agents often have news of great cruise bargains, and you can also find them online in various places, including CruiseCritic.com, which directed me to a Travelocity bargain for a seven-night Alaska cruise for a June 1-8 trip starting at $539 on Holland America's Oosterdam.
The keys to last-minute travel remain the same no matter the mode: Be flexible on dates. Let price dictate the destination. And, perhaps most important, know a bargain when you see one by doing the math. See what a package would cost you if booked separately. Check out that hotel to see what it would charge you on any given night. Check a cruise fare by calling the cruise line.
The bargains are out there, and they allow you to enjoy your vacation twice: First is the thrill of the hunt and second is the actual experience. And remember that every buck saved is a chance to apply the savings to your next destination.
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