Tips for Planning a Vacation at the Last Minute
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Planning a perfect trip requires putting in some time to research your best options, from flights to hotels and local activities. While planning ahead is always preferable, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr is here to show you that cobbling together a great itinerary at the last minute is still possible.
Finding out at the last minute that you have time for a trip is both exciting and perhaps a little daunting. Maybe, like most people, you worry about sky-high airfare and lack of availability for award hotel nights or flights, not to mention the last-minute coordination of logistics. I'm here to tell you that spontaneous trips can be the most exciting, and dare I say easiest, kind of vacation to plan. Today, I'll move on from planning vacations in the long- and medium-term timeframes and discuss the necessities for putting together a vacation when your departure date is less than four weeks away.
Let's look at planning your vacation in three stages: last-minute plane tickets (both award and revenue), last-minute accommodations and last-minute logistics coordination.
LAST-MINUTE PLANE TICKETS
There's more good news than bad when it comes to award travel at the zero hour. Why? Mainly because availability is what it is — meaning you don't need to continuously check, set seat alerts or do tedious segment-by-segment searching to unlock hidden seats. You just have to book what you find and hope for a last-minute schedule change that could let you make your itinerary more convenient.
Many times when I book a last-minute trip, I'll let the availability dictate where my family goes. The spontaneity adds to the excitement of the vacation. You may be surprised at the number of seats that open due to an empty load or the inevitable last-minute passenger changes or cancellations. Don't give up hope — I've had award seats open a few hours before departure!
Some airlines have predictable award availability that opens only in the very short timeframe before the flight is scheduled to depart. Lufthansa releases first-class award space to partner airlines only 14 days before departure; Japan Airlines typically releases additional first- and business-class award space to partners a week from departure; and historically, your best chance at scoring Cathay Pacific first class is at the last minute (in addition to right when the schedule is loaded 330 days out). Becoming familiar with these patterns of award availability proves to be incredibly helpful, especially if you're looking to book award travel in the nick of time.
There is some bad news with last-minute award tickets, though, which is close-in ticketing fees. This is an arbitrary charge of up to $75 per person that some carriers impose — in my opinion — just because they can. Ancillary fees are now huge revenue for the airlines, and many apply them when you're booking less than 21 days in advance. To avoid them, stick to carriers that don't impose the fee, such as Alaska Airlines, British Airways, Delta, JetBlue and Southwest. You can also avoid the fee when you have elite status or when you use credit cards with travel fee reimbursements like the Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card, Citi Prestige Card or if you redeem Arrival points from the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard.
You won't find as many gems when it comes to last-minute paid fares, but that doesn't mean all hope is lost. Here are some strategies to keep in mind when looking to pay for a last-minute ticket:
- One-way tickets at the last minute are usually substantially more expensive than round-trips. Even if you only require a one-way ticket, search round-trip instead and only take the return flight if needed.
- If you're not in a time-sensitive situation, book as full a flight as possible and be the first to volunteer for a bump if the flight is oversold. The airline certificate given as compensation can help recoup some of the cost (or more!) of a last-minute ticket.
- Bereavement fares are generally no longer offered at a discount, but they may add the flexibility you require in such a situation. Call the airline and ask what it offers. To take advantage, you'll have to provide documentation about your loss.
- Hidden-city ticketing is something to explore on sites like Skiplagged and Tripdelta.
- Hipmunk.com is always my go-to revenue flight-booking site because of its unique "Agony'" search results.
As with last-minute award tickets, booking last-minute hotels can actually be low stress because your options are already limited by what's available. I believe the key to last-minute award nights is making sure hotels are following their own rules for award availability. I've personally seen around a dozen times when hotels should be available for award booking but show that there's nothing open. Remember also that certificate availability does not always match point availability. If you're trying to use a Hyatt, Hilton, Club Carlson or Marriott free night certificate, call customer service and have them either look at or contact the property for you.
If you see nothing available for points, it never hurts to call customer service or the property and see if someone can help you out. Last Christmas I needed a last-minute room close to the Atlanta Airport for a just-booked 5:50am departure the next morning. At the time I only had 3,000 points in my Hyatt account and hoped The Hyatt Place Atlanta Airport-South would be available for points + cash or 2,500 points and $50. Online showed that there was no standard award nights for 5,000 points, which is the usual indication points + cash is open, so I called Hyatt Gold Passport. The nice agent said indeed there was no points + cash available, but offered to put 2,000 points in my account and book a free night for me! That's probably a 1 in 10,000 occurrence, but it reaffirmed that you should always call just to be sure.
There are now a plethora of websites and apps dedicated to last-minute hotel bookings. Some offer distinct value when compared with the official hotel site prices. My favorites include Last Minute Travel Club, Hotel Tonight (use code BKELLY99 to get $25 off your first booking) and HotelQuickly. The downside here is that you will most likely not earn hotel points and elite night credit. I also use VRBO and Airbnb with a lot of success for last-minute bookings.
My other strategies for affordable last-minute hotels include Best Rate Guarantees, Priceline's Name Your Own Price Hotels and my last resort, Hotwire's mystery hotels. I usually have the best luck with Hotwire in a location like Vegas, where you can pick the district of your hotel and pretty much narrow down which property is the mystery hotel. With all of these options, finding an affordable bed for the night is much easier than you may have previously thought.
Bonus: My wife and I absolutely love going on cruises and regularly use VacationsToGo and its 90-day ticker for incredible deals on last-minute cruises. In 2010, we sailed the Caribbean for seven nights on the Costa Atlantica in a balcony cabin for $365 per person!
Once you have a flight and a place to sleep, you may think your work is done. If you maintain your affairs in a constant ready state, this is the case. However, not all of us are as on top of things as we would like to be. Don't forget about the following hurdles, which could trip up your time away:
- Passports — Hopefully, you've renewed yours at the six-month mark prior to the original expiration date. Most countries require six months remaining to enter their border. If you head from booking your trip on the computer to the bedroom to pack and either notice your passport is about to expire or can't find it at all, don't scream just yet. There are agencies that can now get a new one in five business days — for added fees, of course.
- Weather — As you're booking close to the travel date, you can probably look at accurate forecasts for your destination. Make sure you pack appropriately.
- Ground transportation — Have this arranged on both ends of your flight. There's nothing worse than getting caught in a taxi scam or being overcharged because you didn't plan ahead.
- Medication — Do you have enough pills for the trip and are you allowed to enter your destination with your medication?
If you use the above strategies, there's no reason that a spontaneous getaway has to be expensive or overwhelming to plan. My lifestyle in the military is not conducive to planning far in advance. The flexibility that points and miles give us in such situations is a key reason I'm in this hobby! Some of my most memorable and enjoyable vacations have been planned only a few weeks before departure.
What strategies do you use when planning a last-minute trip?