Last minute travel

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Are you ready to roll?

According to a 2002 study by the Travel Industry Association of America, 64 percent of leisure travelers planned at least one trip within just two weeks of departure. The same study also found that one in five travelers used the Web to book. At first blush, those two facts seem only loosely related.

But, in fact, it's the Internet that made the last-minute boom happen so quickly. A generation ago, 11th-hour deals were usually the by-product of a time-consuming series of phone and fax negotiations between travel agents, and there were few methods for getting the word out to vacationers. Even in the late '90s, as online reservations gathered steam, shoppers had to cobble together their last-minute getaways from a welter of sellers, plugging in dates and praying for decent prices.

Today, the most successful sellers employ technology that provides instant gratification. Airlines, for example, routinely scan for half-empty flights and instantaneously put the vacant seats on sale. Other companies are even more sophisticated: Site59 invented its own technology (using what it calls "intelligent algorithms") to contact various travel sellers across the world, cherry-pick their inventories, and put the results on sale--one-stop shopping, no more paperwork.

So what qualifies as last minute, anyway? Essentially, it's after that moment when a vendor decides to unload its unsold products in a fire sale. For cruise lines, that's 30 to 45 days before departure, while passengers still have time to reach port. Packagers of charter-flight vacations generally start dealing a month before departure. Airlines and hotels begin discounting two to three weeks ahead, and they step up entreaties as the clock ticks down--or they offer their vacancies to consolidators like Site59, which try to pass along their wares until the zero hour.

So, knowing the complexity of the marketplace, what tricks can consumers use to save cash? Here are our 10 indispensable rules for making the most out of procrastination.

1. Subscribe to the e-newsletters

Most airlines and packagers pump out free weekly dispatches announcing sales for the current week or the next (some even give discounts for signing up). Third-party sites, such as Smarter Living and Digital City, exist just to tell you about everyone's sales. If you don't want all that mail in your in-box, set up a free Hotmail or Yahoo account expressly for travel deals.

2. Make the big sites do the work for you

 Travelocity's Fare Watcher and Orbitz's DealDetector let you establish your favorite departure and arrival cities. You're alerted by e-mail when fares between the two drop below whatever price threshold you specify.

3. Avoid using airfare engines blindly

Yes, you can book late on, say, Orbitz or Expedia, but some of the best last-minute sales are only available at the airlines' individual sites. Tools like DealDetector notwithstanding, the best fares are usually booked via each airline's page of specials.

4. Underbid on Priceline

 If you have the patience, bid 20 percent less than the lowest airfare you have found. You'll be surprised at how quickly you'll get an answer--usually yes.

5. Target your destination's off-season. It's Travel 101: Drops in demand bring jumps in sales. Off-seasons include winter in Europe and Asia, summer and early fall in the Caribbean, and the Southern Hemisphere's winter. 

6. Schedule trips wisely

 Saturday and midweek flights are less crowded and, thus, more prone to last-minute discounting. Also, business hotels are apt to charge less on weekends.

7. Consult your newspaper's travel section

Despite the immediacy of the Internet, many companies, especially those hawking complicated packages for cruises and beach stays, still rely on good old-fashioned newsprint to get the word out there. Read it and reap.

8. Don't forget about vacation rentals

 Unlike hotels, houses and condos usually sell by the week, so an empty unit costs owners up to seven times as much as a vacant hotel room. Swoop in through local real estate agents, on laterooms.com/, or via the tourist office for your destination.

9. Trust cruise consolidators

With few exceptions (such as Carnival), liners don't fuss with handling last-minute sales. They dump cheap cabins with independent brokers (see sidebar).

10. Negotiate

It's amazing what a friendly attitude can buy in hard times. Hotel managers might throw in free parking or extend the weekend deal to Thursday nights. If rates go down after you reserve a car, most agencies can give a revised quote. It all depends on your demeanor and their desperation.

IN EUROPE, A WHOLE NEW WORLD OF BARGAINS

Europeans are better at vacationing than we are. First, they have plenty of time to do it. They also have tons of companies selling charter flights to heart-skipping destinations like Turkey, Tunisia, and Malta. But Americans shouldn't sulk. Rather, we should exploit their system for our own gain.

It's as simple as tapping into their network. London, with five major airports and many more a few hours' train ride away, is the best base. One of London's top sources for late-breaking charter airfare and packages is Cheapflights.co.uk, which match-makes sun-starved patrons with travel agents selling markdowns like $132 round trips to Faro, Portugal, and four nights air/hotel in Dubai for $650. One prolific agency is Lupus Travel (lupustravel.co.uk/), which posts charter airfare such as $82 to Alicante, Spain, and $149 to Antalya, on the Turkish coast. And because the deals leave anytime between tomorrow and next month, we can book them while we're still at home and have time to find cheap transatlantic tickets, or, if we're feeling gutsy, while we're already enjoying London. For extremely last-minute trips--leaving within seven days--there's Airtours Cancellations (airtourscancellations.co.uk/) for unbelievable prices such as $182 for a week in the Canary Islands, including air and hotel.

For user friendliness, Amsterdam is second to London; sources include Holidayspot.nl and Travelbrokers.nl--both in Dutch but easy to figure out. Stockholm and Frankfurt are also handy for English speakers, but no matter the city, you can simply duck into a travel agency--often near train stations or hostels--and ask what's going cheap. 

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