Flexibility key to winning in last-minute travel game

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Let's face it: If you're going to book a trip at the last minute, you're going to get leftovers.

As anyone who's been late for Thanksgiving dinner knows, if you dawdle, the choice bits are going to be gone by the time you get there.

That doesn't mean there aren't bargains just days before departure, discounts on indulging your spontaneity. But the sorts of great deals that emerged in 2000 and 2001 are getting harder to find -- and many of those that remain have to be booked 10 days or so in advance instead of just a few days.

Don't be surprised if your choices are limited to inconvenient flights, long layovers, hotels far from the center of action -- and higher prices.

Over the past six months, I booked three last-minute trips four to 10 days in advance. I understood that booking a trip at the last minute was a gamble. I was betting that by buying a plane seat and a hotel room that were days away from staying empty, I could get a great discount on a weekend adventure.

As part of the deal, I had to be flexible. If Memphis, Tenn., had the cheapest fares and hotel rooms, I'd be happy to spend a few days eating barbecue and prowling Beale Street. If Boston had the best deal, I'd love to walk the Freedom Trail. And if Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic was a bargain, I'd always wanted to try an all-inclusive.

But each time, as I scanned "deals" to a dozen or more cities, I repeatedly found that the trips were more expensive than if I'd made my reservations earlier. Seats on nonstop flights had filled up, and the flights were likely to leave before dawn or arrive at my weekend getaway past dinnertime.

That doesn't surprise Pauline Frommer, travel guide author and former travel editor for msnbc.com, who says the heyday of last-minute bargains is in the past.

"I wish I could tell everybody that last-minute travel is the greatest thing since sliced bread. That's what I used to tell people three years ago," Frommer said. "But that's not true anymore."

Today it's a lot easier to find early-bird deals than last-minute discounts, said Aaron Brown, a travel-deal expert at Travelzoo, which compiles listings of bargains -- last-minute and otherwise.

"If you have to travel last minute, you're typically going to have to pay higher prices," he said.

That wasn't the case as we entered the new millennium.

The advent of the Internet changed the way people booked travel, Frommer said. Consumers who used to rely on travel agents -- who pushed booking in advance -- became comfortable buying plane tickets and reserving hotels on the Internet and making those purchases much closer to their departure date.

Fearing that airplane seats and hotel rooms would go empty, hotels and airlines offered discounts for spur-of-the-moment getaways.

Last-minute travel became an industry, spawning online travel agencies such as site59.com and last-minute.com, while Travelocity, Orbitz and Expedia added last-minute components to their Web sites.

Then about 2003, hotels and airlines adjusted to the public's new travel habits and learned to manage their inventory better, Frommer said, and those last-minute super deals became less common.

In early spring, I looked at prices for three-night getaways in May and set my budget: $400 per person (I'd be traveling with my husband) for hotel and airfare for domestic trips, $500 for travel to the Caribbean or Mexico. I didn't want to spend entire days flying, so trips to the West Coast and Europe were out. In the spirit of adventure, I'd try to go to places I'd never been before.

I quickly learned that Frommer is right: Last-minute deals aren't what they used to be.

In May, the cost of a trip to Louisville, Ky., in mid-July started at $320 per person, including airfare and three nights' lodgings. A week before the trip, it was up to $454 per person and our flight wouldn't arrive until 10 p.m. A trip to Boston went from $343 to $594. A September trip to Asheville, N.C., started at $386 in July; by the week I planned to travel it was up to $677.

Last-minute deals may not be as deeply discounted as they were a few years ago, but bargains can still be found, said Jeff Varhol, general manager of site59.com, a Travelocity subsidiary that deals exclusively in weekend travel packages offered up to two weeks before departure. One piece of evidence: Site59.com started in 2000 with only 100 airlines, hotels, car rental agencies and other suppliers. Today it works with 4,000 suppliers who sell what amounts to distressed inventory at a discount.

Lesson one Booking last-minute won't break the bank, but it's not as cheap as booking in advance. I readjusted my budget: $500 domestic, $600 Caribbean and Mexico.

Frustrated with air and hotel packages whose costs seemed to go up as fast as I could type in a destination, I eventually booked a four-night cruise on Royal Caribbean via cruise.com. The price was $10-$40 less than the published fare, according to a Royal Caribbean spokeswoman, who told me the best deals went to those who made their reservations early.

There were inconveniences, sure. The few remaining rooms were at the ends of the ship, far from the elevators. My preferred dinner seating was full and so were about half the shore excursions.

Two months later, I encountered similar snags when I booked a last-minute package to Cleveland -- including air, hotel and rental car -- on site59.com. The cost was higher than it had been six weeks earlier. The convenient flights had filled, so I had a four-hour layover in Detroit going both ways.

Lesson two The widest choices go to those who book early.

Not quite so last-minute: Surprisingly, I got my best deals on my last trip by booking each element separately. Niagara Falls, N.Y., was on my list of must-see places, but getting to Buffalo involved a change of planes and the flights weren't convenient. So when American Airlines had a "last-minute" sale on a nonstop flight from Miami to Toronto about 10 days before departure, I snapped it up. I found a great deal at Marriott's Niagara Falls hotel, which I bought at Marriott's Web site. I booked my Toronto hotel on hotwire.com and my rental car at priceline.com.

Lesson three Last-minute isn't quite as last-minute as it used to be. Although you can book some trips up to a few hours before departure, site59.com posts its weekend packages two weeks in advance; a few airline deals are released 10 days out. Even then, the best are snapped up right away. TIPS FOR LAST-MINUTE TRAVEL

Book as early as you can, especially if your heart is set on a particular destination.

Even a week will make a difference. American Airlines posts deals Tuesdays for departure two Saturdays later. Site59.com begins posting packages two weeks out. The best deals get snapped up within hours.

Be flexible about where you'll travel.

If you're looking for a beach weekend, don't limit yourself to the Caribbean. Try Mexico, San Diego, Calif., or South Padre Island, Texas. Leave yourself open to a mountain getaway or a weekend of theater-going in a big city if that's where the best prices are.

Look for seasonal deals.

You'll find the best prices in the Carib- bean in late summer and early fall; for Europe, late fall and winter; for New York, the first part of the year; for Caribbean cruises, September and October. It's hardest to find bargains in the summer and around the holidays, when families are traveling and planes are full.

Be flexible about airports.

If you always fly out of Miami, try Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; if Fort Lauderdale is your usual airport, try Palm Beach. Look for alternate airports at your destination too - Midway instead of Chicago O'Hare, Burbank or Ontario instead of Los Angeles International.

Check Web deals, then call the hotel directly.

Don't call the chain's 800 number. You may be able to negotiate with the manager of the hotel for a better price. A number of chains will match rates you find elsewhere.

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