If you’re a savvy spender, you likely map out your trips months in advance, collecting credit card reward points and researching routes to your dream destinations. However, many of us prefer a little spontaneity with our travel. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a planner to enjoy an incredible travel adventure at the last minute.
1. Consider Combo Deals
If you want to travel in style on a budget, look for package deals that don’t have advance purchase requirements. For example, JetBlue offers some surprising deals that include both airfare and hotel.
“So, in fact, the hotel plus air packages could be less if bought last minute than the last-minute airfare,” said George Hobica, founder of airfare alert website Airfarewatchdog. “Someone I know actually bought a package on JetBlue and never used the hotel, because it saved money over buying the airfare alone.”
2. Don’t Splurge for Airline Upgrades
Expert travelers know it typically makes more sense to pay for priority boarding and other upgrades with points instead of cash, said Natasha-Rachel Smith, consumer affairs editor for TopCashback.
“If you have a flight booked already, use any reward miles you might have to upgrade to a better seat on the plane, since that gives you the best value for your points,” she said. “Also, the majority of airlines are part of the three major alliance groups — Oneworld, Star Alliance or SkyTeam — so you can combine airline miles toward one big upgrade as long as the airlines are part of the same family.”
3. Take the Train
If you don’t mind taking the scenic route and adding a few hours to your journey, comparing costs between airfare and train tickets could save you some cash.
4. Check Cruise Sites for Last-Minute Travel Deals
Some cruise lines have abandoned last-minute discounting, but others would still rather book passengers at a discount than set sail with empty rooms. Norwegian Cruise Line even displays great cruise deals prominently on the company site, said David Yeskel, a travel journalist who writes frequently about the cruise industry.
“And although prices vary depending on ship and sailing date, some are for voyages as far out as a month and a half, thus enabling prospective cruisers to lock in both their cruises and airfare at reasonable rates,” he said. “And some of the current best deals are actually found on the line’s newer ships, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway.”
5. Stay Updated With Apps
Sometimes, it’s also possible to take advantage of last-minute travel deals or limited-availability offers even after you’ve booked a cruise. The cruise review site Cruiseline and its related Ship Mate app offer a price alert feature.
Although not all cruise lines offer refunds when a trip’s price declines, many will provide some sort of compensation to ensure smooth sailing and keep customers coming back. For instance, Norwegian Cruise Line offers consumers who find a better price on the company site or another mode of communication from the cruise line 110 percent of the price difference in the form of an onboard credit.
6. Leave Fun Up to Fate
The online travel agency CheapCaribbean offers a Deal of Fortune feature that lists several destinations, along with “sun” ratings for specific resorts at each locale. Intrepid travelers can book packages, which usually include airfare and stays at all-inclusive resorts on extremely short notice or a few months in advance for a discount of up to 65 percent. The only catch — travelers won’t know the name of the resort until a week before boarding the plane.
7. Try Hotel Hopping
Travel insiders have their secret ways to save money on hotels. In this case, last-minute deal seekers staying in the same city for more than one night might be able to save on room rates by booking each night individually — even if they stay in the same hotel — or by hotel hopping to comparable properties. The website FindOptimal searches for the best multi-night deal, and also accounts for preferences such as distance from attractions, guest ratings and number of times travelers are willing to switch rooms. According to the site, savvy shoppers can save as much as 40 percent.
8. Prepay and Clip Car Rental Coupons
“Car rental companies will typically offer good discounts for prepayment of the rental, but look in their deals section and search online to find a coupon code that offers last-minute savings,” said Vishal Singh, chief digital officer for the travel industry consulting firm Digital Hotel Sales.
For instance, National Car Rental showcases last-minute rates and other specials on its website. And Alamo Rent a Car touts savings of up to 5 percent on prepaid car rentals, although these deals can’t be stacked or combined with other discounts.
9. Feed Fido for Less
TrustedHousesitters has been operating overseas for several years and recently launched in the U.S. For an annual fee, pet owners can get unlimited house-sitting services and pet care from verified house sitters registered on the site. House sitters, who pay the same annual fee, get free accommodations and animal companionship when they travel.
Homeowners and house sitters connect through the TrustedHousesitters site, which leads members through a matching process that includes background checks, reference listings and video profiles.
10. Scour Social Sites for Last-Minute Deals
“If you are flexible and just looking to get away for a deal, keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter for flash sales,” said KAYAK digital content editor Amanda Festa.
“Or watch your inbox for promo codes and discounts from sites like Orbitz and Hotels.com,” she said. “The best deals, though, might be the package vacation offerings. “
11. Don’t Stop Shopping
You should keep an eye out for falling fares even after you’ve booked a flight. U.S. regulations require airlines to give customers a 24-hour grace period to cancel a booking at no cost.
“If you find a better fare, just cancel and rebook,” said Festa. “And many online travel brands also offer price guarantees on booking. For example, if you’ve booked a trip with Priceline and find a publicly available price on the same itinerary, you can cancel any portion of your trip that’s not prepaid to rebook that better deal. For prepaid portions, you will be refunded the difference after the trip.”
Still, savvy travelers should read the fine print on these policies before booking to double check their exact refund rights.
12. Be Social and Get Excursion Discounts
Rather than booking everything in advance, travel blogger Andre Arriaza reaches out to tour companies and similar organizations via their social media sites the day before a scheduled activity or excursion to check for openings. He often gets rapid responses that include a coupon code or other last-minute vacation discount.
“I learned that, in many instances, tour operators would prefer to fill up the last spots available by providing an incentive rather than having them empty,” said Arriaza, who also co-founded Barcelona Eat Local Food Tours. “This doesn’t require much effort, just a simple and nice message praising their activity and asking if they have spots available.”
13. Be Spontaneous
The search site Wanderu lets travelers compare and book bus and train tickets. It also includes an Explore search tool that offers attractive deals based on the spontaneous sojourner’s location.
“It allows people to find cool destinations to visit based on their location and budget,” said Wanderu public relations manager Staffo Dobrev. “It’s particularly useful for those who want to go on a last-minute trip but are not sure where to go.”
14. Skip the Nonstop Flight
“Save by accepting inconvenience,” said Elizabeth Avery, founder of the travel site Solo Trekker 4 U. “Take the flight in the middle of the night or the one that stops absolutely everywhere.”
Avery finds such flights by searching several sites and signing up for deal alerts and fare reduction notices.
15. Skip Travel Hot Spots
Avery also cuts costs by choosing lesser-known locales that offer the same attractions as better-known vacation spots nearby.
“Instead of Tahiti, I vacationed in Rarotonga and Aitutaki. This saves [money] because lodging is less where demand is not as competitive,” she said. “The easy way to do this is to figure out what your vacation goal is: Do you want to stroll through the Louvre? Or are you looking for castles, culture and cuisine, which are everywhere in the French, Italian and Spanish countryside for less than the heart of Paris?”
16. Go With Gift Cards
Sites such as Raise allow consumers to buy discounted gift cards on all kinds of goods and services, including resort rooms and airfare. For example, Raise recently had electronic gift cards from Delta Airlines selling at a 5 percent discount and Hotels.com gift cards listed at a 7 percent discount.
17. Haggle With Hosts
“Negotiating with Airbnb hosts is my favorite way to save money on last-minute travel,” said Annie Erling Gofus, vice president of content for TripScout, a mobile app that offers self-guided tours for more than 50 cities. “Airbnb hosts want to keep their rentals booked solid, so most are willing to wiggle on the price in order to keep their spaces from staying empty.”
To implement the strategy, she sends an Airbnb host a message one to three days before her trip, asking for a discount of anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent of the booking.
18. Let the Deal Determine the Destination
Ty Govaars, who pens the travel blog The Weekend Edit, often employs Google Flights’ multi-destination search and flexible destination map search to ferret out the best last-minute flights.
“With multi-destination, you can save money and time by pricing all relevant cities on your itinerary at once,” she said. “This can be beneficial if, for instance, you know you want to get away to Europe and plan to visit Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague. Before your itinerary is set, you can use multi-destination search to price flights from your departure city to all three destinations at once and see which is cheaper to fly in and out of.”
And when she’s open to almost any destination, she uses the flexible destination map search to find fabulous fares.
“This trick gives you similar results to the tip above, best used if you just know you want to get away right now and are open to the destination,” she said. “These simple modifications are what truly makes Google Flight’s search a savvy traveler’s best friend.”
19. Book Rooms the Day of Your Stay
Apps like HotelTonight offer discounted room rates for travelers who don’t mind waiting until the day of a stay to snag some savings. The app is also an excellent option for last-minute day trips or a night or two on the town, said Jess Segraves, marketing manager for the online peer-to-peer boat rental marketplace GetMyBoat.
“I especially like HotelTonight for finding cheap hotels in San Francisco. I live in the Bay Area but not San Francisco proper, so the GeoRates [feature] makes it easy to find amazing deals for a weekend in the city,” Segraves said.
20. Book a Room for the Day
HotelsByDay provides day stays at top hotels around the country. Most stays fall between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and offer guests all the amenities of an overnight stay at a significant discount. The online booking site is an ideal option for long layovers and business travelers looking for somewhere to unwind between meetings.
21. Buy City Sightseeing Cards
These passes can save travelers time and money, since many offer not only discounts, but also separate, shorter lines at attractions. And many, including the London Pass, can be downloaded directly to your smartphone, making spur-of-the-moment savings simple.
“These cards allow access to a number of top vacation hot spots, including attractions, museums, tours and more, and are likely available in one or multi-day price points,” said London Pass spokesperson Maria Hayworth.
For instance, the London Pass covers the admission cost to attractions like the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey. Single-day adult passes start at around $90, with flash sales on multi-day passes providing more bang for your buck.
22. Be Opaque
Online travel agencies, including Hotwire and Priceline, are known for offering deep discounts for hotels that keep their names hidden until after the booking is complete. These so-called “opaque rates” often feature savings of 60 percent, said Clem Bason, a former president of Hotwire who currently serves as CEO of the travel search site goSeek.
“Both companies work with hotels to help them fill rooms that would have otherwise gone empty, often at the last minute,” said Bason. “As a customer, you know the hotel star rating, amenities and reviews prior to booking. But you don’t know the exact name or address of the hotel. You find out after you complete the non-refundable reservation.”
23. Use Smartphone Searches
Those who want to save without the sense of suspense should try smartphone searches. HotelTonight, Priceline and the Expedia family of companies — Expedia, Hotels.com, Orbitz, Travelocity and CheapTickets — all offer last-minute deals to people browsing on their phones, said Bason. His company goSeek scans these sites for the best smartphone rates and puts them in one central place.
“Unlike opaque rates, you can see all the hotel details before booking, but the discounts often aren’t as deep,” he said. “They tend to range from 10 percent to 25 percent off.”
24. Reach Out Directly
Last-minute deal seekers can often score the best room rates by calling the hotel directly, said Cathy Christopher, director of sales and marketing at The Inn On Fifth in downtown Naples, Fla.
“Good hotel desk agents know what the markup is for the OTA’s (online travel agencies) and will discount accordingly if the availability is there,” she said. “Plus, guests are more likely to receive an upgrade or preferred room location when booking direct.”
25. Don’t Cross an Ocean
Exotic locations often come with expensive airfare, said Amy Chang, PR and communications manager at Slickdeals.
“Yes, Fiji and the French Riviera sound glamorous, but the cost of getting there alone could eat up your entire travel budget. Stay close to home and visit places like the beaches of Florida or even Mexico if you must go international.”
Once vacationers decide on a destination, Chang recommends using keywords to set up deal alerts with Slickdeals, which can search numerous travel sites for savings.
“Keep in mind that slick deals, especially travel-related ones, don’t last, so you’ll want to jump on them immediately,” she said.
26. Have a Flexible Flight Plan
Benjamin Glaser, former editor for the comparison shopping site DealNews, suggested searching for one-way flights as well as round-trip tickets, since booking separate, one-way fares is sometimes cheaper. He also expands his search to include multiple airports near his desired destination to get the best flight deal.
“Look for alternate airports,” he said. “They are often smaller and further from cities and serve budget airlines like Spirit. But the fares might still be cheaper, even including additional costs for cabs or buses. For example, I’ve flown out of Westchester County Airport. It’s much cheaper than flights out of JFK, LaGuardia or Newark, as long as you can get a ride.”
27. Let Destinations Determine Dates
If you’re traveling for a three-day weekend, Isar Meitis, president of e-commerce at Tourico Holidays, recommended taking that vacation day on Monday rather than Friday, since Sunday nights typically offer the cheapest room rates. Still, there are exceptions to every rule, so it can pay to learn a little about your destination before you book.
“Business cities like New York and Washington tend to have higher rates during the week, when business travelers are more likely to stay versus the weekend, when leisure travelers come into town,” Meitis said. “Orlando and Miami, on the other hand, are more likely to have lower rates during the week.”
28. Shop Shoulder Season
Similarly, even the most popular vacation destinations might be less pricey and less packed if travelers avoid the destination’s busiest weeks or months, Meitis said, and reap the financial benefits of off-season travel.
“Traveling to touristy places right before or after peak season can be a great way to save up to 50 percent and avoid crowds,” he said.
As just one example, Pikes Peak Resort in Woodland Park, Colo., advertises off-peak specials valid for most dates between the day after Labor Day and the Friday before Memorial Day. The off-peak, midweek special gives guests who book three consecutive nights between Sunday and Thursday the third night free.
29. Get Your Groupon
Roni Faida, who operates the travel blog The Travel Guru, combs Groupon for city-specific deals before hitting the road. Electronic vouchers can typically be redeemed within a day or two of purchase and cover a wide variety of accommodations, activities, restaurants, retailers and more.
“Groupon almost always has deals on restaurants, things to do, places to visit and hotels, even at the last minute,” she said. “All a traveler has to do is search the city they are traveling to and see what deals they can come up with.”
For instance, Groupon currently features a discounted deal for bike rentals through Alcatraz Bike & Tours, offering about 50 percent off full-day bike rentals.
30. Take Advantage of Online Errors
Even major airlines make typos from time to time, and now there are websites to help savvy travelers find them, said Alana Tagliabue, who operates the travel blog Family Bites Travel.
“Go to websites like Secret Flying that show error deals and uber-cheap flights,” she said. “Ensure you follow them online and get notifications, as the deals are often very short lived or the error is fixed. Often, these are for last-minute flights.”
Click through to learn how to score airline tickets so cheap it should be illegal.
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Gabrielle Olya contributed to the reporting for this article.