T+L’s personal finance columnist, Jean Chatzky, answers your questions. This month: Last-minute trip planning.

Q: It’s already December, and although I’d like to take my family on a vacation sometime this winter, I have yet to make a single plan. What can you tell me about shopping for bargains on last-minute travel?—Sheila West, Hartford, Conn.

A: The news is good, Sheila. Hotels, airlines, and cruise companies realized a long time ago that unsold tickets, rooms, and cabins mean revenue they’ll never recoup. The result is that when excess capacity exists, you can often snag as good a deal—sometimes an even better one—than if you’d booked way in advance. That said, with 14 percent more people flying last year than in 2003, last-minute travel is not the free-for-all it was just a few years ago. Here are my suggestions for finding the best of the best:

Use the Web. The Internet is a great tool for travel providers looking to market their unsold inventory. Web sites such as LastMinuteTravel.com, Site59.com, and 11thhourvacations.com have begun sprouting up to sell these leftovers. Typically, the sites offer package vacations for up to two weeks in advance, with departures as early as the next day.

Price bundles vs. à la carte. When you’re shopping for a trip, you can either buy travel in pieces—separately pricing the airfare, hotel, and rental car—or in combinations that can include all three. Double-check the location and quality of a hotel and make sure it’s what you want. If it’s not, don’t toss the package aside; the bundle is often cheaper than the airfare by itself, which means that even if you decide to pay extra to stay elsewhere, you’ll still save.

Time it right. Certain months of the year are better for last-minute discounts. You’re unlikely to find impromptu ski vacations in February, when many schools are out on break. However, the first week in January, which tends to be a quiet time after the holiday rush, can be ripe for the picking. Look at the month you wish to travel and choose a place that won’t be in high demand. For instance, many people avoid London in January because they’re worried about the rain. But with all those incredible museums, galleries, and restaurants, you can have a great time there, even when the weather is lousy.

Use your home base for all it’s worth. Subscribe to the e-mail newsletters of airlines that fly out of nearby airports, to receive alerts on last-minute specials. Or let a Web site like SmarterTravel.com consolidate those deals for you. Input your gateway city and receive a weekly e-mail update.

Cruising is trickier, but not impossible. Before 9/11, if you wanted a last-minute cruise you could go to the pier and book an available cabin. With all the security regulations now in place, you need to reserve a few days in advance. Even so, there are some good deals offered on Web sites like Cruise Critic.com and WorldwideCruises.com. One caveat: these consolidators often don’t cover airfare, so if you live in or near a city with a port, search for a vessel that leaves from there.

Don’t forget the human factor. Despite all the talk of Web sites and consolidators, a good old-fashioned phone call can sometimes work last-minute miracles. If a wedding party cancels, the Web sites won’t know, nor will the operator on the hotel’s toll-free number. Instead, call the hotel directly and speak to the manager on duty or the director of sales, not reservations—they are the best sources of rooms in these situations.

Additional reporting by Arielle McGowen.

Ask Jean! Send your queries about value-related travel issues to AskJean@aexp.com. We regret that questions can be answered only in the column.