How do you go from wanting to take a last-minute vacation to booking something that’s not going to break the bank?
Let’s say you’ve got some time off work coming up in a few weeks. What tips, tricks, and advice will help you find the absolute best last-minute deals?
Over the past few years, I’ve traveled to around 30 different countries. Almost all those trips were booked last minute, and each cost far less than the “average” vacation.
In this article, I’ll show you some of the tips I’ve picked up along the way. And none of them involve hanging around the airport praying for an empty seat on the next flight out.
Stalk Some Airlines
Visit the website of any airports you can easily fly from. You will be able to find a list of airlines that operate from each of those airports. If you can’t see an obvious link on their site, search Google for “[airport name] flight operators”.
Look at some of the destinations they fly to. They are all potential destinations for your future last-minute trips. How do the Maldives sound?
Sign up to the email newsletters of any airlines that interest you, and follow them on social media. If you use Twitter, add the airlines to a Twitter list so their updates don’t clog up your main feed.
Now all you have to do is keep an eye on your email and social feeds (as if you don’t already). You’ll see alerts of any upcoming offers and flash sales from those airlines. If you act fast, you can land some amazing deals. A few minutes after I once checked my emails, I’d booked a return flight from the U.K. to Morocco for $20, all in.
Be Flexible With Your Dates
When it comes to trying to save money on a last-minute deal, flexibility with your dates is extremely important:
- Choosing to fly off-season will save you a small fortune.
- Flights on Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays tend to be cheaper than flights on other days.
- A seven-day vacation can sometimes be cheaper than a four-day vacation.
- A vacation in September is usually far cheaper than one in August.
When it comes to booking hotels, flexible dates can involve a lot of individual searches to find the best option. But when booking flights, it’s a lot easier.
On Skyscanner you can search an entire month for the cheapest flight. Above, for instance, I see all flight prices for return flights from Manchester to Paris for an entire month. Within a few seconds, I can find the cheapest date options for me.
Google Flights also allows you to easily find the cheapest dates to fly over relatively flexible periods (along with some other cool features). Though I’ve noticed Skyscanner tends to find better deals.
Be Flexible With Your Destination
If a destination recently had some bad press (e.g. Egypt or Turkey), it naturally sees a drop in bookings. Less bookings mean cheaper prices. Similarly, the less visited a place is (e.g. Slovakia or Vietnam), the better chance you have of finding a great deal.
The more adventurous you are, the better.
On Skyscanner, you can search for a flight from “New York to Everywhere“. You’ll be given a long list of destinations ranked from cheapest to most expensive. Do a bit of Googling to see which ones take your fancy. Who knows where you might end up! This is often how I choose where to visit next.
Warning: If you’re worried about the safety of a destination, check to see if your government deems the location safe. U.S. visitors should check this travel advice site. U.K. visitors should check this foreign travel site.
Always Check What’s Included
While reading descriptions of vacation after vacation, it’s easy to overlook some important information. So before making any bookings, double and triple check what’s included.
Are you getting breakfast? Are airport transfers included? What about in-flight meals? Is the package half-board or all-inclusive? Heck, some holiday deals don’t even include flights!
If you agree anything on the phone with a travel agent, get the agreement in writing. You don’t want any nasty surprises when you arrive.
Use Comparison Sites
Most of us don’t have the time to endlessly scour tons of individual travel sites. That’s where comparison and deal aggregator sites step in. These sites search a ton of operators (and other booking sites) to find the best deals for you.
- For flights, hotels, or car hire, Skyscanner and Kayak are arguably the best in the business. Solely for flights, Kiwi is also fantastic (more on this one later).
- For hotels, Trivago is my go-to site. It’s particularly great for finding last minute deals on hotels in expensive cities. The site searches other major booking sites like Hotels.com and Expedia, and displays which has the best offer (see above).
- And for package holidays, Holiday Pirates has some incredible last-minute deals. TravelSupermarket (U.K.), IceLolly, and LastMinute.com are also worth a visit.
Search Dedicated Travel Sites
While some comparison sites (like Trivago) will search for deals on other travel sites, it’s good to double check some dedicated booking sites to see what last minute deals you can find yourself. There are a ton of these booking sites to choose between.
- LastMinuteTravel lets you search not just for package holidays, but also last-minute flights accommodation, car rental, and cruises.
- Priceline has a huge selection of last minute deals. On the results page, sort these by price and rating to find the best choices.
- TravelZoo has a healthy choice of last minute deals, and (as I love to see) some useful, flexible search options. The site also has impressive deals on things like restaurant and theatre tickets, spa days, and more. It’s a great site for pre-booking some adventures before you take your flight.
- Conde Nast Traveller Secret Deals is a flash sale service to help you save up to 70% on luxury stays. Perfect for anyone looking for something a little more boutique.
Think Past Hotels
Instead of always booking a hotel by default, check out sites like AirBnB (or one of its many alternatives). Booking your own apartment (or even house) in different cities offers a completely fresh experience. Plus, you get a hell of a lot more for your money, especially last minute.
Often, you can rent an entire, high-quality apartment for the same price as a mediocre hotel room. Or to really save money, you can rent a spare room in someone else’s house for a more local experience. This can really cut costs in pricey cities like New York, Paris, and London, or if you’re spending an extended period away.
Use Skyscanner Price Alerts
This is one of my favorite Skyscanner features (no, I don’t work for the company). Let’s say you have a route you really want to take, but it’s just too expensive to book right now. On the page that tells you the prices from various airlines, click Get Price Alerts. Google Flights has a similar feature, but as I said, Skyscanner seems to find the better deals.
You’ll now regularly receive an email when the price for that route changes. If the price drops to something you can afford, head straight to the site to make the booking.
Use Your Frequent Flyer Miles
If you collect frequent flyer miles, check to see if you can trade these in for a last-minute trip. As a frequent flyer, an airline will usually treat you well, and will do what they can to help you book a last-minute seat. You are a loyal customer, after all.
Do look out for late fees, though. Some airlines charge a fee for bookings less than three weeks in advance. If so, do your calculations to make sure it’s worth spending your frequent flyer miles on this trip. The easiest way to find this out is to just give the airline a call.
All Inclusive Can Save You Money
If exploring local restaurants and bars is a major part of your trip, you should probably avoid all-inclusive. But if you don’t mind eating at the same restaurant, and drinking at the same bar each night, it could save you a lot of money.
Sit down and work out the true cost of your vacation. Include things like daily meals, drinks, and snacks. Add this on to the cost of any non-all-inclusive vacations you’re considering. This gives you a more accurate idea of what the trip will cost.
Make Some Calls
Sometimes, you can land a better deal on the phone than by searching the web. To do this, find a vacation that you’re pretty excited about online. Write down as much information as you can about it. The destination, flight dates and times, the hotel rating, name of the operator, meals included, etc. Then call a few travel agents to see if they can find something similar for a better price.
Some agents may be able to save you money on the exact same trip. This could be through a price guarantee, or simply by not whacking on so much profit. Otherwise, you could be offered something very similar for a lower price. It’s definitely worth a phone call or two.
Do Your Due Diligence
If you find an amazing deal from an operator or airline you’ve never heard of before, do your due diligence.
Search Google for reviews of the company, and be sure you’re comfortable before parting with your cash. A couple of years ago, I found a great deal on Wizz Air, an airline I’d never heard of before. Quickly Googling “Wizz Air reviews” immediately showed me they were a reputable company.
Remember, most reviews online are negative. Almost every company has some bad customer service reviews. Just use your common sense. If there are reports of some sites being scams, do your research and make an educated decision.
Take Advantage of Loopholes
Sites like Kiwi look for “loopholes” in the booking process to help you find flight deals you couldn’t find anywhere else. This is sometimes done by building layovers into your flights. Other times, Kiwi will suggest alternative departure airports that could save you cash. And if you’re lucky, you might get a 10-hour layover in an amazing city like Tokyo or Dubai (or, like in the route below, Dublin).
You won’t always find cheaper flights this way but sometimes the deals can be amazing. I recently saw a flight from Miami to London for $148.
If you want to learn even more about taking advantage of travel loopholes, read our introduction to travel hacking.
Where Will You Be Going?
Although there are a lot of resources mentioned here, you don’t need to constantly check them all. Play around with a few of them, and see which work for you.
Although I occasionally check all the sites above, I usually just use Skyscanner, Trivago, and AirBnB. Provided I’m flexible with both my dates and destination, I can usually find some pretty good deals no matter how last-minute I leave it to book.
What other tips do you have for people wanting to book a last-minute trip? And which tips have you used that have helped the most?