How to Book Last-Minute Travel Plans on the Cheap

Got the travel bug? With the holidays behind you and summer months away, you might be itching for a spontaneous weekend getaway. But airfare on last-minute bookings are sky-high, and you’ll be pressed to find hotels offering competitive rates — or so you think.

There are plenty of ways you can save big on last-minute travel. Here are some of the best.

man checking o his smartphone

Although booking through travel sites sounds like a good idea, you might find yourself paying a premium. That's according to one study conducted by Triptease over a nine-month period for the Sunday Mirror. The website analyzed 200 million price comparisons and found that, in 53 percent of cases, it was more expensive to book through a comparison site than directly.

One reason that might be true is because comparison sites generate at least some of their revenue through bookings. So, you might be paying extra for the convenience of using those sites. Some hotels even actively encourage direct bookings. The Portola Hotel & Spa in Monterey, Calif., for example, offers free WiFi, no resort fees and a best-rate guarantee for guests booking through its website.

Meanwhile, airlines can help you book vacation packages. United Vacations offers an online portal for vacationers and over-the-phone booking. The service will help you book airfare, plus accommodations and a car rental. It offers a best-price guarantee to ensure your vacation is the cheapest available.

See: 20 Secret Ways to Save on Your Next Hotel Stay

man with beanie and headphones using his laptop

1. Search for Last-Minute Offers

Certain travel sites offer limited-time specials and last-minute deals for spontaneous travelers. You can even find deals for a low-cost vacation getaway.

Travelocity, for example, dedicates a segment of its site to last-minute getaways. The site recently offered round-trip airfare from New York's JFK airport to the Bahamas for $332 for the weekend of Feb. 10. That offer is a steal compared to flights for the following weekend. A getaway starting Feb. 17 costs $620.19, or $428 using Google Flights — granted, that's President's Day weekend.

Use the site's 24-hour deals section for even more inspiration. A stay at the Villa del Palmar Cancun Luxury Beach Resort & Spa starts at $196 per night through the site.

For vacation packages, start your search on Expedia and Travelocity. Even if you don't find the perfect travel deal, you can get inspiration for a weekend getaway, such as to Las Vegas or Boston. One Expedia package to Vegas cost $481 and includes your flight plus a two-night stay at the Mandalay Bay.

For car rentals, Alamo has a section dedicated to last-minute specials. Simply enter your pickup location and dates of travel, and you'll see rates on different categories of vehicles. These specials are available in as little as one hour's notice.

close up of groupon website open on a computer screen
Evan Lorne /

2. Check Groupon and Costco Travel

Costco is notorious for deals on bulk items, and Groupon is famous for deals on tourist attractions and local services, like massages and fitness classes. But, don't overlook these offline and online resources for booking cheap travel.

While Groupon offers vacation deals across the U.S., its international vacation packages are top notch. One deal to Scotland and Ireland offers airfare from Boston or New York, accommodations and car rental for eight days and six nights. You'll pay $799 for your trip between March 15 and April 30.

Although Sam's Club suspended its travel services starting in 2017, Costco offers cruise and vacation packages. A four-night cruise from Los Angeles to Mexico starts at $259, with travel dates in March. The Costco site even has a four-night Garza Blanca Preserve Resort & Spa package from $469, with a $100 resort credit, ground transportation and hotel taxes included.

The Costco site even has a section dedicated to last-minute cruise deals. You can find Carnival, Celebrity, Disney and Royal Caribbean cruises, with travelers receiving Costco Cash cards following their vacations.

See: Last-Minute Cruise Deals from Costco

american airlines app open on a smartphone
Syafiq Adnan /

3. Use Mobile Apps

You might be used to making travel plans on your home computer, but you might be paying more on reservations if you're neglecting using mobile apps.

Although research from Skyscanner debunked the travel myth that sites raise pricing based on your browser's cookies, mobile apps and email newsletters offer exclusive deals to subscribers — and these resources give you greater access to potential deals to your dream vacation spot.

Mahesh Chaddah, co-founder of hotel reservations website, agreed with the sentiment. He recommended using apps because "many hotels offer limited discount rates to mobile users only." After all, these brands want to encourage you to use their apps whenever you research pricing — and good deals are one way to keep you an active user.

Not sure which apps to download? Travelocity and Orbitz are good options. Each offer mobile-exclusive deals through their apps.

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4. Comparison Shop Dates and Airports

If you have some flexibility in your schedule, you need to use that to your full advantage, said Keith Nowak, director of communications at Travelocity. He recommended shopping for similar trips within a few days of your original trip dates so you can potentially take advantage of lower rates and last-minute deals.

A round-trip Spirit Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Seattle on Friday, Feb. 17, and returning Monday, Feb. 20, costs $166. However, if you depart on Saturday, Feb. 18, and return Tuesday, Feb. 21, your trip is nearly half the cost, at $87.

Similarly, if you are flying to or from a big city, you can find cheaper airfare to nearby airports. A weekend trip to Miami from Dallas, from Feb. 24 to 26, will cost you $342 aboard American Airlines. However, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., is a 30-minute drive from Miami, and you can book a flight aboard Spirit Airlines for the same week for $150.

reno biggest little city in the world
BestStockFoto /

5. Travel to Lesser-Known Destinations

If it's Monday and you can hardly wait until the weekend to scratch that travel itch, there's no reason you can't be at least a little flexible about where you travel.

Airfare to Las Vegas can be tough to beat. You'll find fares from Los Angeles to Reno, Nev., and Atlantic City, N.J., costing hundreds more for the last weekend in February. But who says you have to fly to Vegas to gamble? The iconic city is great for photo-ops, but if you're looking for a wild weekend gambling, drinking and dancing the night away, nothing's stopping you from booking a room at a local casino and clubbing downtown.

But if you need to get out of town, look for lesser-known destinations. Jackson Hole, Wyo., is a renowned ski town, but even airfare from Salt Lake City in the last weekend of February will run you about $539. Flights to Reno-Tahoe International, however, cost about $241 and is about one hour from the highly rated Northstar California Resort.

See: Amazing Small Towns You Must Visit

No matter when and where you plan to travel, you can find plenty of ways to save on bookings. Use online comparison sites to find good deals, and then call hotels and airlines directly for even better pricing. Look to lesser-known travel destinations and use mobile apps to find exclusive deals. That way, you can vacation knowing you got the best deal possible.

contributed to the reporting for this article.

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