Not so long ago, jetting off at a moment's notice was the prerogative of high rollers. Airlines, hotels, and cruise ships charged a stiff premium for spaces sold at the last minute. But now you can make up your mind about taking a trip on the day of departure and often pay less than you would have if you had booked ahead. In fact, a spur-of-the-moment booking—ranging anywhere from one month in advance to the actual day of departure—can cost 20 to 60 percent less than those made months in advance.
Why have these prices plummeted? The Internet. It has revolutionized the ability of travel suppliers to sell their wares at the eleventh hour (and, incidentally, has fueled a trend of impulse vacationing). The advent of email newsletters and the growth of online shopping have given suppliers effective channels for selling—often at deeply discounted prices—perishable inventory that they would otherwise have been stuck with. As a result, a flock of Web sites dedicated exclusively to impromptu travel—with sales on car rentals, cruises, flights, lodging, even add-on tours—have been born. People are responding enthusiastically: According to the Travel Industry Association of America, 64 percent of travelers booked within two weeks of departing in 2002.
Technology alone could not have created this trend. Societal forces—fear of terrorism after the 9/11 attacks, economic uncertainty, and a desire for instant gratification—are also essential ingredients in making spontaneous trips "the fastest-growing segment in the travel industry," according to Gayle MacIntyre, director of marketing for the Last Minute Travel Web site.
But as the economy stabilized early in 2004, AAA travel agents began to report a noticeable resurgence in the number of customers booking trips well before departure. Sherry Westernoff, the manager of product development for AAA Travel in San Francisco, says, "People are feeling safer, and as a result they're starting to book farther out." Nevertheless, if you still want to travel with little advance notice, Westernoff says AAA has options you should check out (see story below for details).
Even if more people are starting to book ahead as the economy improves, don't expect last-minute travel services to disappear. The phenomenon is here to stay no matter what happens in the world at large, says Siobhan Foley, vice president of merchandising and communications for Site 59. "We've become an on-demand culture," she says. "The idea that one has to book in advance has become a tough concept for consumers. Now, you don't have to."
A few pointers on impromptu travel
BE FLEXIBLE If you're open to a variety of destinations or aren't set on specific travel dates, you're far more likely to find a great deal.
THINK CAREFULLY, ACT QUICKLY Tickets bought just before departure are typically nonrefundable, so be certain you know what you're getting before you commit. That said, if you see a great offer on a reputable site, grab it: What you see now may be gone in a few hours.
FIND A FLIGHT BEFORE CRUISING Cruise lines are jumping aboard the eleventh-hour-sales trend and slashing prices for bookings close to departure dates. But before you book your dreamboat vacation for tomorrow, make sure you can also get a reasonably priced, well-timed flight to your point of embarkation.
Photo Illustration by William Duke
This article was first published in July 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Eight great Web sites for click-and-go travelers
You can score excellent last-minute deals by calling a travel agency. The AAA Travel Agency continually receives exclusive offers from suppliers that are available only to members. But if you'd like to do some searching—and Web surfing—on your own, check one of these sites for down-to-the-wire deals.
AAA.COM Visit Hot Deals in the site's Travel section and you'll find land and cruise packages to popular destinations such as Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
WWW.CRUISECRITIC.COM Sign up for the free weekly e-letter Last Minute Cruise Sails featuring great bargains on sailings departing within 60 days.
WWW.HOTWIRE.COM Deep discounts on last-minute inventory from major suppliers. Requires a fairly high degree of flexibility in terms of selecting dates and times for travel.
WWW.LASTMINUTETRAVEL.COM Search for trips by activity, from skiing to golfing, and book directly with your preferred airline or hotel chain.
WWW.PRICELINE.COM Bid on flights, car rentals, cruises, hotels, and packages; name your own price and see if a supplier accepts the offer.
WWW.SITE59.COM Browse hundreds of already assembled packages on this site dedicated entirely to spontaneous travel. This is the best option for day-of-flight departures.
WWW.SMARTERLIVING.COM Subscribe to the free weekly e-letter describing Internet travel deals customized to your departure city.
WWW.TRAVELZOO.COM Visit the last-minute travel section and sign up for the free Top 20 Deals e-letter customized to your departure city.