The challenge of last-minute holiday travel

This is the season of magic and miracles. That’s good because you’re going to need a lot of help to nab a last-minute plane ticket to visit family or to secure a hotel room near Disney World during Christmas week.

Three-quarters of holiday airfares had been booked by Dec. 7, according to Jeanenne Tornatore, senior editor of Orbitz.com. “There are not a lot of seats available,” she said, adding that consumers shouldn’t expect any great bargains if they’re fortunate enough to unearth an available seat.

Flexibility is key when booking trips for last-minute holiday travel. Prepare to fly at 6 a.m. or on a red eye. On the bright side, at least you’ll have a good excuse to nap if holiday family time becomes overwhelming.

Consider secondary airports. Flights to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago may be nonexistent, so explore flying into Chicago Midway International Airport or General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee.

Try to fly on Dec. 23 when fares are at their least expensive and avoid travel on Dec. 27 when tickets are at their priciest, said Tornatore.

If you can be especially supple when buying airplane tickets, check out Priceline.com. Travelers can save up to 40 percent on airfares if they’re willing to set up general travel time parameters and accept the flight Priceline finds. The exact information becomes available only after your credit card is charged.

Priceline offers the same option for hotel rooms, and discounts can rise to up to 60 percent. The catch is that cost is nonrefundable.

“You have to be willing to accept the unknown,” said Karen Tepper, Priceline’s vice president of product and mobile. “People can be overwhelmed by choice. We eliminate choice but give discounts.”

Travelers who aren’t married to a particular destination and just want to go skiing or get some sand between their toes have more options. Check out Momondo.com, which lets users pick a travel month, destination and budget, and then spouts out available options.  

Procrastinators should download the HotelTonight app. It offers deep discounts on hotels, but reservations can be made only a week in advance.

Roomertravel.com is another place to search for bargains. It sells rooms at cut-rate prices that others have prepaid for and can’t use. Recently it listed a room at the Novotel Bangkok for $11, while lodging at The Inn at the Spanish Steps in Rome -- a great location -- was going for $117, almost half off the list price.

All-inclusive resorts and cruises can be affordable getaways, and at the very least you already know how much the bulk of the trip will cost. Check out lastminutecruises.com or cheapcaribbean.com for such vacations. Plus, all of the major travel sites like Orbitz, Priceline and Kayak have tools that let travelers find last-minute deals. 

Pack light and have fun.