In Search of Last-Minute Travel Bargains
page 15 | TRAVEL AND LEISURE
THE EARLY BIRD may get the worm--and early bookers often get terrific deals on travel. But there are bargains for procrastinators, too, and now is a good time to brush up your last-minute vacation-booking skills. Late autumn is prime time for 11th-hour bargains because, at most locales, it's between the peak and low seasons. Here, we generally define "last minute" as within two of departure.
Airlines tend to hike fares a week or two before most weekday flights depart, figuring business travelers can't balk at paying premium prices to fly on short notice. But there is a way around the high prices: Buy a package that includes a hotel or rental car with your flights. Airlines discount unbooked seats by bundling them into packages so they don't have to list the deeply reduced fare separately.Not long ago, for example, American Airlines offered a round-trip flight between St. Louis and San Francisco for $880 with three day's notice. At the same time, Site59.com--a Web site that specializes in selling last-minute weekend packages--offered a package that included a seat on the same flight plus a rental car for the weekend for $456. And you didn't have to use the car to get the deal.
A hotel may lower its rate at the last minute if it is not fully booked. You can capitalize on the hotel's bad luck with a two-step plan: First, reserve a room at a chain hotel that permits cancellation up to the day you arrive. Next, a day or two before you arrive, call the hotel you would prefer to stay at and ask for the lowest rate. If you score a great rate at your preferred hotel, cancel the first reservation. An alternate strategy is to check the hotel's Web site for special deals, such as a free third night. Hotels are offering free nights more often because they're under pressure to keep guests for longer stays without starting a price war by lowering daily rates, according to Nancy Dunnan, editor of the TravelSmart newsletter.Another last-minute strategy is to try an inn or a bed-and-breakfast instead of a hotel. These operations are often more flexible about discounting to fill vacancies than national hotel chains are. To find 11th-hour bed-and-breakfast getaways, sign up for weekly e-mails from Bedandbreakfast.com. One recent offering: On three days' notice you could have booked a weekend stay at the Bayberry Inn, in Newport, R.I., for $125 a night--a sweet deal compared with the regular rate of $215.
LOW-COST RENTAL CARS
Rental-car companies put unreserved cars on fire sale at the last minute. To avoid advertising giveaway rates, they offer deals via blind-booking Web sites, such as Hotwire.com and Priceline.com. What kind of savings are possible? When Alamo's Web site was recently offering a three-day rental for $112, after taxes and fees, Priceline.com accepted a bid of $14 a day for the same size of car. When taxes and fees were added in, the cost for the three-day rental was just $57.Priceline.com brokers cars from big-name companies: Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz and National. The auction service lets you specify dates, type of car, pickup location and the price you're willing to pay. Priceline also lets you pick a rental-car provider and pay the listed rate, but its name-your-own-price deals usually save you more money. At Hotwire.com, you specify dates, car type and pick-up location. The site then fetches rates, and you pick what you're willing to pay. Hotwire rents cars from Avis, Budget and Hertz, but, as with Priceline, you won't know which company is offering your nonrefundable rate until you've paid.
Sometimes, early birds who book a year in advance cancel at the last minute, making bargain-priced cruise cabins available. SkyAuction.com offers such deals. One of the better ones we've seen lately was for an inside cabin for a seven-day cruise on the Queen Mary 2 from New York to London, with a return flight. The winning bid of $966 per person, double occupancy, was announced nine days before the voyage. Taxes and service charges added $323 per person. Early-bird prices for a comparable package were 46% higher.
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