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How to find great deals on last-minute travel The economic crisis has put a crimp in many people's travel plans. The result has been price drops in travel.
Illustration of a guy and girl looking at travel deals
Illustration by Isabelle Cardinal

In a normal year, it would be much too late to plan a summer vacation. But this isn't a normal year. The economic crisis had put a crimp in many people's travel plans even before swine flu hit. The result has been drops in airfares, hotel rates, and cruise prices.

Yet prices aren't being slashed across the board. The key to getting the best last-minute deal is to remain flexible. "Yes, there have been tremendous bargains but not to everywhere at once," says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, a Web site that compares online fares. For example, the H1N1 flu scare has generated unforeseen deals on dozens of routes—not just to Mexico, where the outbreak started—because domestic airlines lost connecting traffic to and from Mexican gateways. As for hotels, Smith Travel Research, a leading industry analyst, estimates the average daily room rate in the U.S. will fall 3.6 percent in 2009.

"There are some smoking deals," says Brian Ek, a spokesman and blogger for Priceline.com.

Tips for late bookers

Shop by regions

Rather than looking for rates for a specific locale, decide on a broad region and then search for a deal. For example, there have been great bargains to Germany, Ireland, and Spain lately, and once you're in Europe you can travel cheaply from city to city. Closer to home, cities such as Las Vegas, Miami, New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco are trying to make up for lost convention business. Use Airfarewatchdog to see where fares are dropping. In addition, Hotwire's Hotel Rate Report found that prices had declined in late spring by at least 30 percent since last year at hotels in San Antonio; Tampa, Fla.; and Vancouver, British Columbia. So cast a wide net.

Track rates

Many travel sites offer price-tracking tools. Bing Travel (www.bing.com/travel) provides simple advice ("Buy Now" or "Wait") on fares between 90 North American airports and hotel rates in 30 cities as well as e-mail alerts for specific destinations.

Price the packages

Online travel-booking sites are eager to bundle airfares, hotel stays, and car rentals. Before you book, shop for the components separately—sometimes they're cheaper ŕ la carte. On the other hand, real deals on packages do exist: Travelocity was recently touting last-minute air-and-hotel packages to Las Vegas starting at $199 per person.

Take advantage of empty rooms

Hotel chains have sweetened their deals by offering discounts, resort credits, upgrades, and even free breakfast. Many properties in Las Vegas and New York were recently offering the final night free on three- to five-night bookings. Even if you can't find such deals, the good news is that hotels and resorts seem willing to negotiate, so the time is ripe to contact a place directly and leverage the extras, such as meals, activities, and parking.

Set sail

Given the cruise industry's woes, there are low rates and more open berths. The best deals for late summer? Trips to Alaska, where prices have been slashed and demand has been weak. And due to extensive rerouting in the spring, Mexico will be on sale for some time to come. In fact, if you're considering a fall cruise, Mexico will be the hottest bargain.

Hit the road

As the summer began, AAA's Fuel Gauge Report showed the national average price of regular gas had declined by about $1.50 a gallon since the same period in 2008. With pump prices down and hotel occupancies falling, it might make sense to avoid the hassles of flying and take a road trip instead. According to Hotwire, San Diego and Philadelphia top this summer's road-trip destinations with the highest percentage of hotel stays by people who live nearby. AAA publishes up-to-date gas prices on a state-by-state basis at www.fuelgaugereport.com.

Consider Mexico

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention removed its recommendation against nonessential travel to Mexico in mid-May after the flu outbreak slowed. But hotels will probably feel the impact through the summer. Smith Travel Research reported occupancy rates down by 51 percent at the height of the crisis. As a result, hotel rates will stay low for some time. If you're considering a winter trip to Mexico, look for airfares now; some recent round-trip fares valid through next spring were $300 or less.

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