When last minute travel sites were first launched they were expected to revolutionize the package tour market, for travelers. And vacationers were quick to catch on. Singles, couples, seniors and even families delayed booking in the hope of finding the goose that laid the golden egg, a significantly reduced trip.
It didn't take long for tour operators and travel companies to wizen up. To avoid a shift to last minute bookings, they quickly introduced discounts on early bookings. Today, travelers showing up at the airport with two bags packed, one for a warm and one for a cold weather destination, in the hope of departing on a heavily discounted last second vacation are more often than not paying more or returning home without going anywhere.
So why are there so many last minute travel sites? Booking a luxury vacation at bargain basement prices is every holidaymakers dream. And while true deals may be far and few between there are deals to be found. Finding them requires nothing more than flexibility and consistency. Here are a few rules of thumb:
Local websites tend to have a more comprehensive list of available last minute trips - be it hotels, tours or travel packages - than global sites, even those websites with local subsites such as Expedia and lastminute.com.
Even local sites don't have access to all last minute deals. Check availability on more than one site. Visit or phone your neighborhood travel agent, in some markets, opportunities are solicited to agents first.
Do-it-yourself or package tours
Low cost airlines discount their already low fares at various times throughout the year. Promotions are solicited to newsletter subscribers first. Sign-up! Airfares on major carriers work differently. They tend to rise as the date of travel approaches and discounted unsold inventory is bundled with accommodation, rental cars or both to obscure the actual fare. Tour operators sell what's left, seats on charter flights, accommodation and packages.
Hotels work differently
It is difficult to book last second accommodation online, roll up your sleeves and work the phone. In many travel destinations, the local tourism office is the best first call. If all else fails contact - telephone or email - the hotels directly.
Quantify the savings
Just because you found the trip on a website that bills itself as last minute doesn't mean it is discounted. In addition to hawking last minute deals many last minute travel sites function as consolidators and sell airfare, hotel bookings and package tours at the going rate. To quantify your savings you need to know the original price. A hotel website will provide you with their rack rate, the rate a walk-in customer pays. A travel brochure may be the only way to find the published rate for a package tour.
Don't base your assumptions on last year
Opportunities vary from season to season and year to year as travel patterns change or offerings adapt. U.S. families traveled in record numbers last Christmas season and most booked early, a compete turnaround from the previous year. Two years ago there were a plethora of few last minute deals from Italy in the peak summer season. Last year there were none.
Beggars can't be choosers
Flexibility is the key to booking a last minute trip at a discounted rate. And while families may find a deal or two - last summer I saved €150 per person on flights to Kenya booked 2 days prior to departure - you need to flexible and, if you plan to depart in any case, be prepared to pay more. For many families the best deal may be booking early.