Last-Minute Trips You Can Afford

Wizard of Oz Tarina Tarantino Albert Sanchez for Tarina Tarantino

Dana Points and the editors at SELF magazine have found the best ways to secure a great last-minute getaway and still have money left in your bank account:

BE OPEN ABOUT WHERE AND WHEN: According to Amy Ziff, Travelocity.com editor-at-large, "Last-minute travel is subject to availability, so it's best to have a concept in mind, not a place." This is a very important tip as you plan your vacation. For example, if you want tropical sea and sand, don't have your heart set on Mexico because the Caribbean might have better deals. Thursday through Saturday departures are also usually less expensive than peak flying times of Friday and Sunday nights. The day on which you make your reservation can also matter. Airlines post their first-come, first-served cheap seats on Tuesdays and Wednesdays - which can make a difference, depending on your location.

Also, many Web sites now offer fun, general category search options to match your travel personality like "Sun and Beach" and "Great Outdoors." According to Travelzoo, the bargain destinations are the following, mainly because it's considered "off" season for the weather:

  • Miami/Orlando - Cheap hotels all through August and incredible airfare deals because of strong competition among carriers like JetBlue, Song, Southwest and US Airways. Again, this is keeping your mind open about locale. It may be hot there, but it's still a great getaway, and with some fun hotels and great beaches.

  • Las Vegas - Great deals throughout August because it's very hot, but if you're staying mostly indoors in the casinos, then this is the place for you. For example, Southwest Airlines Vacations offers $69 packages for air/2 nights hotel.

  • Caribbean - Many of the major airlines, including American, Continental and US Airways, have dropped airfares. And August leads in to the start of hurricane season, so you can get amazing bargains and great package deals now.

  • San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Chicago - This is a great time to travel to these metropolitan cities because August is generally a softer season for business travel, so hotels are making up for it by offering really cheap rates through Labor Day.

  • Australia - We're seeing some of the best fares we have seen in a long time for the Land Down Under. Even though it's winter there, there is still no snow in Sydney.

    MAKE THE WEB WORK FOR YOU: Getting on an e-list can help you get cheap air tickets or accommodations. A few interesting sites we found were SmarterLiving.com and Travelzoo.com, which consolidate all airlines sales into a simple, easily digested weekly newsletter so you can take your pick of low fares. Also, at BookingBuddy.com, you can type in your parameters and find the lowest fare from 59 booking engines. These sites pare down all that info. It's far less annoying than getting e-mails from a gazillion airlines every week. These sites consolidate the information and present only the best deals.

    COMPARE DEALS WISELY: Once you have an idea of the going rate, it's time to snag a buy, according to SELF magazine. For a weekend getaway, plan to pay a minimum of $500 per person, which includes airfare, hotel and car rental. For a week-long trip, each traveler's average cost is about $700. Package deals can often be less expensive, and you can save thousands. Be sure to compare apples to apples. Each element - the airfare, hotel and car charges - might not be the best total price from one package to the next.

    TAKE THE PLUNGE: OK, don't obsess. Once you have checked out a couple of deals - make your decision. Do you like the flight times? What about your hotel location? Don't waste time and energy looking at 10 different deals. Choose the deals that make the most sense for your time, tastes, and especially your bank account. And just book it!

    Some additional wallet-friendly Web sites that can help you are:

  • Site59.com: Easy to use, and quick turnaround -- book as little as three hours in advance.

  • LastMinuteTravel.com: Weekly Top 10 Deals section has vacation packages as well as hotel only bargains.

  • 11thHourVacations.com: Great for longer trips and cruises. They offer promotional closeouts from tour companies, kind of the warehouse store of travel.
    • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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