Tips and Strategies for Last-Minute Travel Planning Online

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Illustration: Harry Campbell
I'm not the world's most organized person, but I always thought it paid off to plan travel well in advance. After a recent European trip booked on short notice, however, I've come to appreciate the virtues of last-minute planning. Among other things, I got the best deal of my life for air travel: a short-hop flight within Spain for $18.24.

I also found airfares to and from San Francisco--purchased less than three weeks before I left--lower than any I'd researched months earlier. And on only three days' notice my traveling companion, Contributing Editor Grace Aquino, located great accommodations in a tourist destination (Barcelona) that was packed for a tech-industry trade show.

The sub-$20 fare (found on Orbitz, for a Spanair flight from Malaga to Madrid) resulted from a database glitch, an Orbitz official said. But more and more people are making their travel plans later and later. Clem Bason, a travel expert at Hotwire--a site that specializes in last-minute travel deals--says the average hotel stay used to be booked about 20 days in advance; now, that figure has dropped to 14 days, and hotels attempt to offer their cheapest rates when most people are booking. Airlines no longer reward advance planners with the best fares, either: "They try to start filling that airplane as you get closer and closer to that trip," Bason explains.

Be a Flexible Flyer

My trip taught me a few things about eleventh-hour planning. First and foremost, traveling during the off-season helped--probably a lot. Most of the flights were far from full. Similarly, you're more likely to find deals if you're willing to travel Monday through Thursday instead of during the popular weekend days.

Try all the angles. Travel-aggregation sites such as Farecast and Kayak, which search multiple booking flights (such as from the airlines, Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity), make viewing all your options easy. We originally investigated a multi-city fare for our flights from Barcelona to Malaga and from Malaga to Madrid, but did better when we searched for separate one-way fares.

Hotwire, Priceline, and other sites can find deals if you are willing to book based on generic attributes as opposed to specific brands (a flight route but not a preferred carrier, for example). These sites allow airlines and hotels to offer big discounts without making it obvious that they aren't at full capacity, Bason says.

Consider a rental apartment, even if you'll be there for only a few days. Grace found us a modern furnished apartment in a fashionable part of town through Craigslist's Barcelona site. Not only did we save money, but we also had separate bedrooms, free DSL, and a kitchen.

Craigslist has sites (in English) for all major European cities. Check vacation rental listings, many of which have photos, for nightly and weekly rates. Don't be shy about asking questions (does the building have an elevator, for instance).

I still believe in planning ahead when there's reason to believe that plane tickets or lodgings may be in short supply. But in the future I'll be a lot more willing to plan late: I'm pretty sure I won't see an $18.24 plane ticket to anywhere if I buy six months in advance.

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