smart spending

Finding great, last-minute getaways

Airplane ascending into blue sky, with palm trees visible
Highlights
  • Use resources if you don't have an exact place in mind.
  • Check the airline website itself for last-minute deals.
  • If you are spontaeous, sign up to get weekend travel alerts.

Burned up, burned out or just plain brain dead?

When you just can't wait any longer for that planned vacation still months away, last-minute vacation getaways are easy and fun to find on the Internet.

Even if you're not sure where you'd like to go, several travel sites are ready and willing to help you plan your weekend getaway from start to finish.

“Airlines are evolving online travel to the next level of relevance for the consumer.”

A good place to start? Lastminute.com. The site is designed especially for last-minute travel packages. "You can find the best last-second deals." says Giovanna Garlati public relations and communications manager at lastminute.com U.S. "The choice of destinations is really wide so it's ideal for people with busy agenda."

Last-minute packages

If you don't already have a destination in mind, Lastminute.com will help you decide what kind of getaway you're looking for whether it's skiing in Colorado or sunbathing in the Caribbean. Its "idea box" feature allows you to choose from different types of vacations, including sun and beach, romance, casinos or offbeat trips. The only downside to the site is that you can't book just a flight independently; you must combine a flight with either accommodations or car rental. You can, however, book just a car and hotel if you plan to book a flight on your own.

Lastminute.com's technology and content also power the last-minute and getaway sections of Travelocity, AOL Travel, Cheap Tickets, Yahoo! Travel, American Airlines Vacations and Delta Air Lines Vacations. It's owned by Sabre Holdings, the same company that owns the European version of LastMinute.com. So, don't be surprised if the same flight options and hotels keep popping up throughout your search.

Alternatives to Lastminute.com include Orbitz, which has a "Deal Detector" page that offers a deal of the week, and Expedia, which offers a last-minute travel deals section, as well as a tip box for finding last-minute fares. "Occasionally these third-party sites will pick up on last-minute fares offered by different airlines but they won't get them all," says Elissa Richard, airlines editor at Sherman's Travel magazine and associate editor at Sherman's Travel, a company that compiles deals and offers from airlines, vacation package providers, cruise lines, hotels and more.

Airlines' e-fares

Richard also suggests visiting the airlines directly to get a more holistic view of the deals that are out there. The carrier sites offer other perks, too -- they allow you to book last-minute flights independently, in case you don't want to buy a package -- and their deals include both domestic and international travel. Most of the airlines also offer weekly e-letters, which you have to sign up for. These e-letters conveniently arrive in your inbox on a Monday or Tuesday, just in time for you to sort out your weekend plans. If you'd rather not receive e-mails from the airlines, you can visit their sites directly as they often post their e-fares.

Some airlines are making it even easier to access their deals. Henry Harteveldt, vice president and principal analyst with Forrester Research who follows travel trends, recommends checking out Southwest Airlines' downloadable "Ding" tool which brings live, updated offers directly to your desktop with a chime, allowing you to get a jump on the latest fares. Currently, no third-party site offers fares from Southwest, so you must book it directly from the airline's site. "This feature is a perfect example of how airlines are evolving online travel to the next level of relevance for the consumer," says Harteveldt.

Deal screeners

If you'd rather have the deals come to you in a comprehensive, neatly packaged way, check out Sherman's Travel, Smarter Travel and Concierge, all of which specialize in screening the best last-minute deals on the Web and consolidating them for you in an e-letter.

If price is the most important factor in your travel decisions, you may want to check out Hotwire and Priceline. Neither site will let you see flight times or airline carriers until your credit card has been accepted. But Hotwire lets you see the price before you buy the ticket, whereas priceline.com doesn't show you the price until after you've placed a bid. Hotwire also reveals if your flight is a red-eye.

"These sites tend to offer less expensive tickets, but they do come with many trade-offs," says Bill McGee, a consultant for Consumer Reports WebWatch, a project of Consumers Union. "For the regimented traveler, saving a few bucks may not be worth it."

Alana Klein is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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