50 Hacks for Smarter Last-Minute Travel Planning
Putting together a trip on short notice, whether out of impulse or necessity, doesn’t have to break the bank — or you. Stay calm and check out these savvy suggestions from more than a dozen travel experts on how to plan (and save money on) a perfect spontaneous getaway. Compiled by Talia Avakian, Christopher Elliott, Melanie Lieberman, Jess McHugh, John Scarpinato, Emma Stoneall, Christopher Tkaczyk, and Shivani Vora
1. Know When to Book
Airlines often discount flights on Sundays and Tuesdays for travel later that week. "Including a Saturday-night stay generally results in locking in the lowest ticket prices," says Expedia spokesperson Alexis Tiacoh.
2. Compare One-Way Tickets
Purchasing separate one-way flights on two different carriers can sometimes offer a better value than booking a round-trip ticket. If you're traveling internationally, you'll need to show proof of your return flight at check-in and at border control, so bring printouts of all itineraries and receipts.
3. Set Fare Alerts
Sign up to receive alerts on Expertflyer.com or the Hopper app to notify you as soon as seats become available on a particular route, letting you book before others — and score last-minute deals.
4. Consult a Specialist
Paul Tumpowsky, owner of the travel agency Skylark, says that many firms, like his, have access to seats that don't show up on airlines' websites. If you're finding only sky-high fares for a trip this weekend, don't assume that cheaper options aren't available.
5. Look for Combo Deals
While you might pay a little more for the airfare, bundling your flight, hotel, rental car, and activities can often reduce the total cost of a spontaneous vacation. Booking.com, Priceline, and Travelocity all offer good-value vacation packages.
6. Use a Consolidator for Foreign Travel
"Airfare consolidators sell the types of fares that don't require advance purchase, but most are on international routes and carry other restrictions, such as being totally nonrefundable," says Airfarewatchdog founder George Hobica. Check out airlineconsolidator.com.
7. Utilize Transferable Points
"Keep a bank of transferable points with programs like Citibank Thank You, American Express Membership Rewards, and Chase Ultimate Rewards," recommends MilesTalk.com founder Dave Grossman. "Airlines often open up award space just a day or two before travel when there are unsold seats."
8. Train It, Don't Plane It
Unless you're traveling the Northeast Corridor, where heavy demand requires early booking, last-minute tickets on Amtrak can be an affordable alternative to short-haul or regional flights. Look for discounted tickets and promotions at amtrak.com/deals.
9. Check International Travel Sites
"When flying with foreign airlines, it often makes sense to pay in the local currency," says Brian Kelly, a.k.a. the Points Guy. He notes that you can do that by booking directly with a carrier on its native website — he cites Norwegian as one example — or by using the international sites of Expedia and other aggregators.
10. Travel in Low Season
You can often get great last-minute deals on destinations that aren't in high season. For example, visit the Caribbean from May through October or Europe from September through March.
11. Pay Attention to Newsletters
Subscribe to e-mails from your favorite airlines to find out about last-minute flight deals. Third-party sites, such as Airfarewatchdog, Scottscheapflights, and the paid service DealRay will also help you find cheap fares.
12. Use the GTFO App
The Get the Flight Out app (iOS only) from fare tracker Hopper is a go-to choice for travelers looking for same-day flights. The inventory is from major airlines as well as low-cost carriers, and the prices are always favorable. A recent search found a British Airways round-trip from JFK Airport to London's Heathrow for $500.
13. Be Open to the Unexpected
Google Flights' Discover Destinations feature lets travelers plug in their preferred travel dates — starting with the current day —and get a list of dozens of destinations that have the best airfare specials.
14. Have a Complete Plan
Be careful not to book too fast, suggests Julie Danziger, director of luxury travel services at Ovation Vacations. Don't grab a great deal on a flight before securing your hotel — especially when traveling during high season. "Too often, travelers book one part of their trip in a rush, only to discover that the other components don't fall into place," she says.
15. Steer Clear of the Business Crowd
To get the best deals on last-minute fares, avoid Friday evenings and Monday mornings, when business travelers, who often pay premium rates, are frequent fliers. You're most likely to find low fares when traveling on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday.
16. Try a Sharing Service
Two car-sharing services with cheaper rates than Zipcar cater to short-term renters. Car2Go, owned by Daimler, has launched in seven U.S. cities, including New York, Denver, and Seattle, and Maven, from General Motors, rents vehicles in 14 metropolitan areas in the U.S. and Canada.
17. Search for Car-Rental Coupons
If you're heading out on a spontaneous road trip, you'll find that many agencies routinely offer discount codes on their sites, usually for fully prepaid rentals. A recent Hertz promotion shaved 15 percent off the base rate. Check to make sure that the offer is valid at your rental location before booking.
18. Use a Discount Aggregator
While car-rental companies will sometimes offer significant discounts on unreserved cars, check out aggregator sites, too. Carrentals.com has some of the best deals, and it allows you to sign up for price-drop alerts. Members-only discount retailers BJ's and Costco also offer discounts on car rentals.
19. Cast a Wider Net
Renting a car at the last minute in a major city is notoriously expensive, especially on weekends. Consider taking public transportation to the suburbs, where name-brand agencies often charge less.
20. Rent Your Car to (and from) Others
Rather than pay for long-term parking, let Travelcar rent your car while you're out of town. The Paris-based company just launched in Los Angeles and San Francisco, with five additional cities in the U.S. coming in 2017. If you're traveling to one of these places, you can rent someone else's car for up to 70 percent less than with a typical rental agency.
Where to Stay
21. Contact Hotels Directly
Call and ask to speak to the manager or front desk (not the reservations line) to ask for the best available rate. First check the price listed online for your dates, then ask whether the hotel can do better.
22. Compare Online Prices
If you prefer to book online, "always compare rates quoted on aggregator sites and booking apps to those on a hotel's own site," says miles expert Dave Grossman. "I've seen some amazing deals, but have also seen cases where it would have been significantly cheaper to book directly with the hotel."
23. Take Your Chances
Travel sites like Hotwire and Priceline have offers for unnamed hotel properties (and car rentals) that aren't revealed until you commit to a purchase. Some of their best deals can arrive at the last minute. Put on your blindfold and leave it to fate — you can often be rewarded with as much as 60 percent off published rates.
24. Be Willing to Hotel-Hop
Consider packing light and staying at more than one hotel. Once you've arrived at your destination, upgrading to another property with steep day-of price reductions on vacant rooms can be cost-effective.
25. Enlist a Travel Agent
Sometimes a hotel's website will indicate no availability for your preferred dates, but a good consultant has the connections to get a last-minute reservation.
26. Become a Member
Online travel agencies, such as Booking.com, Expedia, Kayak, and Hotels.com, give their members extra savings of 10 percent or more on last-minute bookings.
27. Use an App
Find spur-of-the-moment hotel deals by using three great apps: HotelTonight can be used to book up to one week ahead of travel and has special Geo Rates that target users based on their GPS location, One:Night offers same-day bookings for dozens of luxury properties, and Secret Escapes has last-minute deals for upscale hotels — sometimes as much as 70 percent off published rates.
28. Go Off-Peak
Some cities have visitor patterns that you can work to your advantage. Las Vegas, a popular spot for weekenders, is cheaper during the week, for example, while New York City is often cheaper on the weekends since it's a big draw for business travelers.
29. Install Honey
The Web-browser extension Honey searches the Internet for promo codes to help you save on retail sites such as Amazon, Target, and Macy's. Its newly launched travel site offers exclusive discounts of up to 55 percent on hotels.
30. Bargain with Your Host
When booking on Airbnb, you're dealing directly with the property owner (or renter), and rates can be negotiable, especially if you're traveling at the last minute. While lowballing could misfire, a reasonably discounted offer might score you some savings.
31. Know Someone Who Knows Someone
The members-only app I Know the Chef can guarantee seating at dozens of restaurants in Chicago, Miami, and New York City. The $75 quarterly fee is steep, but a 10-day trial costs $25.
32. Use Dining Apps
A spontaneous trip means you'll likely be unable to get reservations at the city's hottest restaurants. OpenTable is the go-to booking app for reservations in dozens of cities around the world, though not every restaurant uses it. Rezhound.com will alert you when a slot becomes available on OpenTable. Also check out Resy if you're visiting New York City, Washington, D.C., Miami, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. "If you can't find a desired time, sign up for an alert," says Paola Graham, destination manager for American Express Travel. "This tactic once scored me a last-minute reservation at coveted Japanese spot N/Naka in L.A."
33. Go Early for Dinner
Walk-ins are often accommodated late in the afternoon, and reservations at buzzy restaurants are more plentiful then, too. "Plus you'll experience a more leisurely meal," says Caroline Potter, chief dining officer at OpenTable, "and the restaurant is less likely to have run out of any specials."
34. Ask Your Concierge
Hotel concierges have the connections to help you score a table at the most sought-after restaurants. Even if they can't fulfill your wildest dreams, they will have suggestions for little-known or up-and-coming hot spots.
35. Sign Up for Discounts
Whether or not you receive Groupon's subscription-based offers in your home city, taking advantage of its dining deals in your destination is an easy way to help with the cost of your vacation. And you can always unsubscribe from the destination-specific newsletters after your trip.
36. Consider Breakfast or Brunch
Instead of dinner, a meal earlier in the day could be the next-best thing, notes Amex's Graham. "Nobu Malibu offers a weekend brunch that's worth it for the ocean views alone," she says.
37. Sit at the Bar
If you can't nab a table at your desired restaurant, consider seats at the bar or the chef's counter. Sometimes bar seats even have privileges like special menus with better pricing. Also make friends with the bartender, who might be able to tell you about off-menu dishes.
38. Embrace Tuesday as the New Saturday
"When you dine midweek, there's more availability, and the restaurant will appreciate your business. I have a restaurant-owner friend who always says, 'If you want to show me how much you love my restaurant, show up on a Tuesday, not a Saturday when we're slammed.'" —Caroline Potter, OpenTable
39. Be Aware of What You're Getting
Not all cruise fares are all-inclusive, so double-check to see what's excluded. Alcoholic beverages, Wi-Fi, and shore excursions may be extra. A very cheap cruise might seem attractive — until you add it all up. In the end, a pricier cruise might be a better option.
40. Keep Checking Prices
If you find your cabin offered for a lower rate after you've paid for it, call the cruise company to see if it will refund you the difference. At the very least, they may give you a shipboard credit.
41. Call a Travel Agent
As cruising has grown in popularity in recent years, many ships now sell out months in advance. But an industry specialist will have close ties with reservation managers. Ruth Turpin, owner of Cruises Etc., says, "We know whom to call if we need something last-minute, because sometimes the cruise lines hold back cabins for last-minute issues."
42. Confirm Your Cabin Choice
When booking at the last minute, you may have to take whatever accommodation is available. But if you want a specific cabin, "make sure your confirmation shows the room number. Sometimes it will say "GTY," which means "guarantee" for a specific category, such as ocean-view or interior room or balcony," says Liz Sadie Sutton, president of Alabama World Travel.
43. Download the Cruise Finder App
Though you normally have to book cruises well in advance, this app from iCruise shows fares for more than 25,000 itineraries and has a Hot Deals feature for last-minute sailings. A recent search showed us a four-night cruise in the Bahamas on Carnival with ocean-view rooms for $479 per person, just two weeks ahead of travel.
44. Be Alert to Price Drops
The cruise lines' websites and social media are usually the first place to look for deals, as they will slash pricing to fill the boat. Also check CheapCaribbean, and follow Last Minute Cruises on Twitter for fare sales. You can also track fare fluctuations on Cruise Critic's Price Drop search tool, which lets you sign up for notifications.
45. Trust the Locals
If you're traveling on a whim, chances are you haven't had time to properly research the must-do activities in your destination, let alone where to shop, take the kids to a playground, or find a babysitter. Don't hesitate to ask shop owners and waiters for recommendations. And if you're staying in an Airbnb property, your host can be an invaluable resource.
46. Hire a Stylist for House Calls
If you've flown on short notice to, say, a celebration or work event and you need your hair, nails, and makeup done, author of the Fashion Poet blog Annie Vazquez recommends GlamSquad, which operates in Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, and Washington, D.C. "They'll come directly to your hotel room or your Airbnb," she says.
47. Book a Private Tour
Tickets to popular attractions, such as the Sagrada Família, in Barcelona, or Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, in Milan, can sell out weeks in advance. You may still be able to gain access by booking a private tour, says Michael Brozek, a destination manager for American Express Travel. Context Travel, which operates in more than 40 cities globally, gives private tours and can access many top attractions.
48. Look on Social Media for Discounts
Follow your favorite tour operators, hotels, and airlines on social media, where they'll often post flash sales and last-minute deals. "If space becomes available in a popular destination, we'll share the opportunity with our social community first," says Abercrombie & Kent founder Geoffrey Kent. Also search Twitter for "last-minute travel deal."
49. Rent Your Own Yacht
YachtLife, the Uber for private yachts, launched last year in Miami and manages more than 1,000 rentals in 23 locations around the world, including Miami, the Hamptons, and the Mediterranean. "We don't promote ourselves as a last-minute app, but we can usually have you on a boat in a little more than an hour," says cofounder Patrick Curley.
50. Look for Cancellations
Group-tour operators, such as Abercrombie & Kent, Butterfield & Robinson, and Wild Frontiers, often have openings at the last minute. Expeditions to bucket-list destinations often sell out far in advance, but check for cancellations, especially around the holidays.