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Last-minute travel can be exciting — a sudden, unexpected chance to go someplace fun, see old friends or spend time with loved ones. But that thrill can fade fast the minute you start looking at costs. Airfare, hotels and rental cars are usually a lot pricier when you book last minute, and choices can be extremely limited.
To avoid getting gouged, you need to put in some extra effort. Here’s how to get the best deal possible on that last-minute trip.
Search lots of booking sites
Those multi-search booking engines that promise to check rates every place under the sun all at once — they do. Yet their best rates can differ substantially. Try multiple multi-search engines including Trivago, Expedia, goSeek, Kayak, Hotels.com and any others you’ve had success with in the past.
But don’t stop there. Compare their rates with prices offered directly by the airline, hotel or car rental company. This late in the game, you just can’t know who’s most eager to earn your business. The only way to find out is to check.
Check different hotel dates before booking a flight (and vice versa)
If that big, beautiful beach resort you’ve been drooling over seems unusually expensive, search for slightly different travel dates. A hotel that costs $250 a night from Oct. 1 through Oct. 7 might cost $175 a night from Oct. 2 through Oct. 7, simply because a big convention at the hotel wraps up on Oct. 1.
If your dates are flexible, you’re in a better position to save money. But even if they aren’t, check a few different date ranges to find out whether unknown variables could be affecting your rate.
Check bundle deals
If you’re lucky, packages that include both a hotel room and a flight can offer amazing last-minute travel deals. That’s because of wholesaling, in which large blocks of hotel rooms are purchased or reserved by a company that tries to resell them to you at a profit. If they buy too many, they may start slashing rates at the last minute.
Check the “vacations” or “package deals” option on airline websites, as well as with online travel agencies like Pleasant Holidays, Costco, Travelocity or Orbitz.
Don’t forget about vacation rentals
Sites like VRBO.com and HomeAway.com offer a comprehensive, searchable database of privately owned vacation rentals that might be booked up by the time you’re planning a last-minute trip. But you won’t know until you look. And if they still have openings, private owners may be willing to cut their rates to fill rooms.
Know your airline’s 24-hour cancellation policy
Unless you’re willing to pay a premium, most airfare is nonrefundable. But did you know that “nonrefundable” often doesn’t kick in until 24 hours after you’ve made your purchase? All major U.S. airlines will let you cancel for a full refund within 24 hours (they’re subject to rules from the Department of Transportation, which other booking sites may or may not follow).
Since last-minute travelers are navigating a landscape of wildly fluctuating prices, you might as well check fares one more time 23 hours after you book, just in case you find a better deal.
Don’t assume award redemption rates mirror cash rates
If you’re thinking of using points or miles to avoid a high last-minute fare, check out your options first. The formula airlines use to decide when to make saver-level award seats available is famously opaque. Sometimes the airlines can offer well-priced redemptions when you least expect them — like at the last minute. If you have miles to spend, check cash prices vs. redemption rates; the better option may surprise you.
Look at seating charts, available rooms and car rental options
By the time you’re reserving a last-minute flight, there may be only two seats on the plane: a middle seat for you in row 20 and a middle seat for your travel companion in row 39. You’ll want to know that in advance, and decide whether it’s worth paying extra to sit together on another flight or in an upgraded cabin.
For hotels, regardless of where you book, check the hotel website to see what room categories are still available. If they’re down to just one room type, that means you probably won’t be able to change rooms if you’re unhappy since they’re almost at capacity. You may get a better rate at a property that still has many empty rooms.
Definitely reserve a car as soon as you can. You don’t want to arrive at your destination airport to learn there are no rental cars available. And just because you’re able to make a reservation online doesn’t necessarily mean the car rental company has vehicles available. Call ahead to be sure, and ask about any active discounts.
Peruse restaurant and activity reservations online
If you’re headed to a ski resort, theme park, spring break hot spot or other likely crowded destination, restaurants could be booked weeks in advance. If you envision a sit-down meal or two, take a quick peek at OpenTable or Yelp Reservations to make sure you’re not left wandering around hungry. You can also check the availability of many tours, spas and activities online by playing with their reservations tool to select various dates.
Get to know your credit card’s travel concierge
If you have a travel rewards card, you may have a personal travel assistant right in your wallet. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, The Platinum Card® from American Express, the Citi Prestige® Card and Mastercards with the World Elite logo come with complimentary 24-hour concierge service. Terms apply.
This means real humans are standing by to help you find everything from hotel rooms to Broadway tickets. When better to tap their expertise than when you’re looking for last-minute deals? If you’re not sure exactly what the concierge can do, they can help you with that too — just ask.
Get your house in order
In the scramble to find last-minute deals, don’t forget all the other things you must do to get out the door fast. Make sure the dog walker is in town. Put a vacation hold on your mail delivery. Get your prescriptions filled and load the kids’ devices with books, games and in-flight entertainment.
We recommend making a list of every task you need to complete, to make sure you’re not boarding a plane and wondering if you remembered to pack your reading glasses or unlock the gate for the landscaper.
And finally, have fun. Last-minute travel can be a great adventure when you’re doing your best to both save money and experience something new.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card
Planning a trip? Check out these articles for more inspiration and advice: Find the best travel credit card for you Snag these hotel loyalty perks, even if you’re disloyal Earn more points and miles with these 6 strategies