Live Talk Transcript: Last Minute Getaways

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Jason Cochran answers your questions

The Web has transformed the way we travel. Need proof? You're using it right now to get vacation advice.

According to a 2002 study by the Travel Industry Association of America, 64 percent of leisure travelers planned trips within just two weeks of departure. The same study also found that one in five travelers used the Internet to book. Last-minute travel isn't just a trend. It's the way many Americans vacation now.

In fact, it's the Internet, and the technology that fuels it, that made the last-minute boom happen so quickly. A generation ago, last-minute deals were so hard to find they were virtually nonexistent except to a select group of insiders. Today, the biggest bargains in travel crop up on the Internet daily. Think fast and pack faster-you could discover the markdown of your life.

But to find the deals, you must be in the know. Where to book, when to book, and what to expect.

What are the tricks of last-minute travel? Post your questions-and your tips!-and we'll spend an hour comparing notes and revealing the secrets that will get you the best last-minute deals.

Have a question about last-minute travel? Jason answered your questions Tuesday, February 3, at noon EST.

Jason Cochran is Senior Editor of Budget Travel magazine. In addition to writing for publications such as Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, and Arena, he wrote questions for the first season of ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. He recently spent two years backpacking around the world, visiting six continents and over 40 countries. A current resident of New York City, he has also lived in Chicago, Atlanta, Key West, and Cape Town, South Africa.
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Jason Cochran: The hour has come! It's time to begin. We're talking last-minute bargain hunting here-with a few general travel questions tossed in for variety. Fire away!

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Lumberton, NC: With so many discount cruise agencies, how does one really know that they are getting the best deal available on a specific cruise?

Jason Cochran: That used to be a quandary. Until recently, you just had to run around to every site you could think of until you declared a winner. But a new site called CruiseCompete.com has emerged. It works like this: You go to that site and plug in what kind of cruise you want (length, where-even the specific ship), and then, lots of different cruise companies receive your request for information. For the next few hours, You'll receive e-mailed bids (don't worry-the cruise lines will have no way to contact you twice if you don't like their offers). Take the lowest one. It's one-stop shopping. Not every cruise company is on that site, of course, but plenty are. There's a service on CruiseMates.com that is kindasorta the same-between the two sites and the dozens of bids they'll show you, you'll feel confident in your final price.

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Great Neck, NY: I am looking for a vacation of GUARANTEED sun at a beach. What do you suggest?

Jason Cochran: The only sands with guaranteed sun would probably be on Mars. Unless you have your own rover, though, you'll have to head for a place with PROBABLE sun, and for that, I submit Aruba, Bonaire, or Curacao. In the deep Caribbean, they lie outside the Hurricane Belt, which means they're more or less insulated from the weather patterns that hamper tourism in other parts of the Caribbean Sea. Keep in mind that places with minimal rainfall are going to be light on vegetation and won't feel as lush as you might want. Otherwise, for guaranteed sun, head to a place that's more or less a desert. Namibia comes to mind, though the Atlantic is cold in those parts. Morocco is another consideration. But I suspect you were thinking closer to home, right?

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Tampa, FL: How I find good deals on hotels in London and the UK at the last minute?

Jason Cochran: There's a snazzy site called LateRooms (http://www.laterooms.com/), operated out of Manchester, UK, that provides exactly what its name suggests. I also like CheapNights (now called http://www.cheapaccommodation.com/--as if that's easier to spell!), an offshoot of a popular British flight search engine called CheapFlights. I just checked CheapAccommodation a moment ago, and I found rates as low as £43 at a 3-star property in Bayswater, a popular tourist-hotel district north of Hyde Park. That price is about as good as you can get for central London accommodations. Lastly, try Octopus Travel (http://www.octopustravel.com/), which sells successful air-hotel packages but also deals in hotel-only sales; it has a wide inventory.

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New York, NY: How "last minute" can you really be during the holidays? Are there deals to be gotten during those times?

Jason Cochran: You can be as last-minute as at any time of year, but expect fewer options. With many planes and hotels filling up, you may find your choices restricted to places you never thought you'd be on Spring Break, such as Des Moines or Columbus. Consider it an opportunity to immerse yourself in an area you would otherwise have known nothing about. But it brings up the first rule of last-minute travel: Be flexible! Don't expect to find breathtaking sales to places everyone wants to visit on a holiday. When you begin your last-minute shopping with the following prayer: "Lord, I need to get away this weekend. Please help me accept the list of discount options that you're about to present me with, help me understand that Monte Carlo or St. Bart's is probably not one of them, and help me to embrace the drastically reduced opportunities for travel that are about to present themselves." Part of the magic of last-minute deals is that they're about seizing unexpected opportunity.

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Washington, DC: Hi, I'm an African-American male who's never been to Jamaica partly because I'm fearful of all-inclusive packages. I'm not the sun, sea & sand type either. I want to meet Jamaicans -- not tourists locked in some resort. Am I the only one here?

Jason Cochran: No, you are most certainly not. So what's keeping you? Flights on Air Jamaica are easy to come by, as are cheap seats on charter flights from companies like Apple Vacations (http://www.applevacations.com/). If you sign up for last-minute airfare alerts from the airlines (American Airlines is especially strong in the Caribbean), you can find some terrific deals. Then you simply get a hotel on your own. Budget Travel recently ran a fascinating article about Jamaica's South Coast, where a vacation is spent roaming from authentic village to village instead of rolling around on a beach of some resort (which are mostly in the north). Or grab a guide book written for independent travelers, such as a Rough Guide or a Lonely Planet. It's as easy as that. Go! You'll come back a changed person.

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Durham, NC: When planning international travel, what is the latest for booking reasonable airfare? We are planning a trip to Australia from the US, vacation approved, etc., but we're not sure whether the fares will dip any lower. What are the risks of waiting?

Jason Cochran: Stock answer: I wouldn't wait any longer than a week before you want to go. There are visa considerations, and in some cases, because of screening demands by the TSA, you can't even buy a ticket within a day or so. Longer reasoning: When are you going to go? Right now, we're in Australia's summer, its high season, so airfare rate aren't likely to plummet in the next month or so. If you were going in June, though, I should think you could wait, because I know that Australia's airfare deals crop up in late April or May. Now, let's say you found an international airfare deal leaving in five days that you just couldn't pass up. If you did that, pay with a credit card and never with cash-it speeds the security process.

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Indianapolis, IN: I'm so frustrated! I want to go to Baton Rouge, LA from Feb. 23-25 for a short vacation. Even through Expedia, the best fare I can find is $297. I thought about Priceline (I have used it for hotels before and was happy), but I can't risk a Monday evening flight or Wednesday morning one, which will cut me to maybe just one full day. Should I just give in and book it now, or wait a little longer? Do you think the package deals with hotel included are a good idea? Thanks for your thoughts on this.

Jason Cochran: Right away, I tell you that your chances of finding your dream deal have gotten a little slimmer. Why? Because your situation doesn't allow you to be flexible: You are locked into a destination and you're locked into days. When it comes to finding the best last-minute deals, you have to be flexible, otherwise you're truly gambling that what you want will be available a price you like. That said, I do agree that you should wait a week or so. Today is February 3, and you want to travel in three weeks. As we sit here, the airlines are praying to fill up their planes in time. In another week or two, they'll know where they stand, and if there are any seats to be had, the carriers usually mark them down the week before. It's a risk, of course-they could fill up, and then you'll wish you had snagged that $297 fare. I would caution against relying on last-minute sales to get to a destination that you must to reach on a set of fixed dates. The nature of last-minute travel is that you're getting deals on unsold merchandise, and if everyone else has the same idea as you, you may get shut out. Be prepared for that outcome and decide accordingly whether that $297 is really a killer. When it comes to sales, there are never guarantees.

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Brevard, NC: If I could get a REALLY good deal, I would be interested in booking at the REALLY last minute--like a week or less before departure. Which websites or travel agencies should I check out for these deals?

Jason Cochran: Grab your pencils! King among them is Site59.com (http://www.site59.com/), which sells air-hotel, air-car, and air-restaurant deals between 14 days and 3 days before departure. It really does provide some good deals and packages that supply transportation and a bed, and it's heavily used for weekenders. Another popular site is http://www.lastminutetravel.com/. For airfare alone (like, if you're going to book your own hotel or stay with friends), look to http://www.hotwire.com/, www.digitalcity.com/travel, and http://www.smarterliving.com/. The latter two sites merely collect announcements of marked-down airfare, which is handy for knowing what your options are without going through a time-consuming search process. (In Canada, I also suggest http://www.travelcuts.com/). When you're talking about buying a week or so before departure, you should also consider a beach vacation--a number of companies sell flights and rooms at swanky resorts for peanuts once they realize the slots are going unsold. Get the deals out of the ads in your paper's weekend travel section, or try one of these companies, which operate in different cities across America: http://www.applevacations.com/, http://www.vacationexpress.com/, http://www.pleasant.net/, http://www.funjet.com/. (Canada: http://www.signaturevacations.com/). For hotel rooms only, use http://www.hotels.com/, http://www.laterooms.com/, and http://www.quikbook.com/. Whew!

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Fair Oaks Ranch, TX.: I would like to take an Alaskan cruise this summer. Should I book now to get the early bird discount or wait and try my luck booking last minute for a bigger discount?

Jason Cochran: If you're not sweet on a specific cruise line, you could stand to wait. The last-minute deals are almost always better than the early-bird discounts-you just have to have the nerve to hold out until April, when many of the deals start rolling out. Remember that in the cruise industry, "last-minute" doesn't mean the week before. It means four to six weeks before sailing-plenty of time for you to catch a plane to Seattle or Vancouver, or wherever the cruise port will be.

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Atlanta, GA: Are all of "The Players" listed in the last-minute article credible? Do you recommend them or is it just a list?

Jason Cochran: As with everything we cover, we do our best to pass along information that is credible and reliable. Budget Travel magazine even has a team of fact-checkers that verifies everything that's published. We consider it a service to provide our readers with a wealth of information and options, but as impartial journalists we have no obligations or ties to these companies, and we have no qualms removing them from our list of recommendations if we encounter repeated or unresolved problems. So, you can use our list of companies the same way you would use a list handed to you by a friend. If you encounter trouble with any of them, we want to know about it. I hope this answers your question.

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Elmhurst, IL: Is there any way to get a deal on a last minute Disney Cruise during the high season?

Jason Cochran: If there is, I would love to hear about it. Disney Cruise Line is already one of the stingiest discounters on the seas-there are only two ships, and demand keeps them so full that last-minute bargains never come up-and you'd be spectacularly lucky to see a Disney cruise discounted even in the doldrums of low season. Some Disney-sold park-and-cruise packages combine a short trip with visits to the theme parks, and you might save a few bucks off regular prices that way, but you'll still be paying way more than you have to for a cruise.

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Scottsdale, AZ: Hi Jason. Do you know of any last minute travel site that does not severely penalize a person financially for being single? Good-looking last minute travel deals don't look so good after pressing the button for one person. Thanks.

Jason Cochran: I know what you're talking about; I have to travel single all the time. Because the entire travel industry works in terms of double occupancy, there's no way to get around it entirely. Last-minute sellers are just as beholden to this archaic mode of calculation as everyone else is. Air-hotel packages, especially, hit solo travelers for extra fees--most of these are passed on by the hotel. What I do to assuage this somewhat is book a la carte. Airfare never costs more if you buy it alone. Neither do cars. The one sticky spot is hotels. In Europe, some hotels have single rooms, so book one of them. If you choose your hotel wisely, you can save a little. I personally think it's a colossal waste for hotels to adhere to double-occupancy rules even in the face of letting that room go unrented. If they're about to stand empty anyway, they should mark them down for single occupancy. But so far, hoteliers haven't figured out a way to accomplish this, even considering the great strides in computerized booking. They also can't figure out how to make their TV easy to turn on, either, but that's just one more technological hurdle we must wait to conquer.

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Secaucus, NJ: When is the best day of the week for lowest published airfares?

Jason Cochran: Do you mean published or last-minute? Published fares are essentially the retail, off-the-rack rates before discounting. The whole idea is to avoid paying those. Last-minute deals, of course, are the deals you want. Fortunately, for most destinations, the answer is the same for both types of fares: midweek. That's Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. That's because business people and vacationers tend to fill up planes for weekend trips (meaning Friday, Monday, and Sunday are likely to be the most expensive). Because fewer people travel on Saturday, it can also be a bonanza day for deals. But it also depends on what's going on at your destination; last Saturday in Houston, before the Super Bowl, you can bet the flights were jammed.

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Salina, KS: I have never been to the Caribbean and am considering going to the US Virgin Islands. Is this considered a nice area to vacation for 4 or 5 days versus Cancun?

Jason Cochran: For my money, the Virgin Islands win hands down. Most of the island of St. John, a 20-minute ferry ride away from Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, is mostly comprised of a National Park. So for unspoiled sugary beaches, tropical hikes, and the charm of the West Indian people, you really can't beat the VIs, and I know Americans who feel safer on those islands than anywhere else they have been in the Caribbean. Cancun is more about giant resorts, family frolic, and shopping-mall development. Cancun is deep-fried Mexico, but the VIs are fresh-air Caribbean. There are lots of people who will disagree, of course, but in the end, it depends on what experience you want to have. The VIs are more "Caribbean."

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Honolulu, HI: Do you know of any low-cost hotels or motels that are not run-down in New York City? I'm a single guy and I don't mind sharing a room but I'm not going with any family or friends. I'll be arriving on May 11, 2004 and leaving on May 17th. The Westside YMCA offers a room with a shared bath for $67 per night. Do you know of anything lower? Thank you.

Jason Cochran: Okay, this is off the topic of last-minute travel, but it happens to be one of the questions I'm asked the most as a travel writer. Here are some of my choices: In Midtown, there is a Red Roof Inn, a La Quinta, and a Super 8, all recently refurbished or built, with free in-room wi-fi access. Book those through http://www.applecorehotels.com/. For five nights, you might consider renting a studio apartment through an outfit like www.ahospitalitycompany.com. Prices start at $99/night, but you get the place to yourself and you save by cooking your own food. Chelsea Star Hotel, by Madison Square Garden, is a shake more welcoming than the Y: http://starhotelny.com/. There are many more, of course, but New York is a giant topic, and that will get you started. Visit http://www.quikbook.com/ for a few more.

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Bradenton, FL: My husband and want to take our first cruise during the week of March 21. I know this is a spring break time. What are our chances of getting a last-minute deal to the Western Caribbean during that week?

Jason Cochran: I think your chances are fairly good--Western Caribbean is hugely popular area and there are a gazillion cabins going. Because your ideal cruise would leave in about seven weeks, the first last-minute deals should start appearing shortly. Trawl some cruise consolidator sites (http://www.cruise411.com/, http://www.cruisedirect.com/, http://www.cruisesonly.com/, http://www.cruisebrothers.com/) or use the Cruise Compete site I discussed above, and see what they come up with. In another two to three weeks, the bulk of the deals should be ripe for picking.

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Ontario, Canada: Hi Jason, as an avid adventurer/traveler, I am totally jealous of you for being able to travel the world and get paid to write about it. How can I be just like you?

Jason Cochran: Well, garsh! Thanks! Actually, this is another question I get asked all the time. "How can I become a travel writer?" The answer is pretty easy: travel and write. It doesn't take much more than that, but you'd be surprised if you knew how many people wanted to try it but never did. And try to hone your observational skills--at least, that's what I try to do. As for the practical career-oriented end, read travel magazines and your local paper's travel section to know what sort of stuff gets published, and on your next trip, write something that fits the mold. Then try to sell what you have written. Or just get it published somewhere for free, such as on a Webzine or in a newsletter. And you're off.

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Dallas, TX: I am about to graduate from law school in May, and after I take the bar, I want to take a big trip with my boyfriend. But I don't know where I want to go. The trip would be in August and I would like to get out of the country. Ideally it would be for 2 weeks. And, of course, I would prefer to not spend a lot. I think backpacking would be fun. Australia sounds nice. Also, I recently found a special to Rio. Any suggestions?

Jason Cochran: If you're going in August and you want it cheap, stay away from Western Europe. Or maybe even Europe in general. Europeans vacation in all the good spots by the million in August--even Prague and Budapest and Poland are elbow-to-elbow these days. Instead, choose places where a) costs are low and b) it's also low season, since airfare will be down. Australia is a good option, since August is prime time for low airfare there, and its winter is milder than what most Americans could imagine. (Its currency is rebounding against the dollar, making it less of a bargain on the ground, but it's still reasonable.) New Zealand is another good choice, and two weeks is a good amount of time for a first-time visit there. South Africa is also a good choice. Rio is also less crowded than in the winter--go there if if grabs you. ...Did you notice what all these choices have in common? They're all in the Southern Hemisphere, when their low season is the perfect antidote to Europe's high season. Asia is also a good choice for that time of year.

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Darlington, SC: We are a retired couple and hear about last minute deals on cruises. Some of these are fantastic deals. I heard that you must call the cruise line direct. Is this true and how do we do this? Thanks.

Jason Cochran: That's not the case for all lines. Rather than confuse the issue by explaining which cruise lines refuse to be undersold anymore, let me give some blanket advice that should cover you in any situation: Even if you find a deal from a cruise consolidator that floats your boat, so to speak, you should still contact the cruise line directly to compare its price for the exact same ship and dates. Most of the time, it will be the same or higher. But it's always smart to ask, just in case it's lower. Then you will have covered your bases. (The same applies to airfare, too!) If the price turns out to be the same, ask if the cruise line can throw in any extra goodies (like airfare, a free cabin upgrade, or shore excursions) to earn your business over the equally priced consolidator. The best way to find a cruise line's phone number is to call toll-free directory assistance at 800/555-1212, or to find it on its official Web site, which you can find by going to http://www.google.com/ and searching for the name of the cruise line.

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Jason Cochran: Oh, no! It looks like I'm out of time. I had a terrific afternoon, though, and I thank you for your intelligent and provocative questions. I hope that by the next time we chat again, many of you have taken the last-minute plunge at least once-it's easy and it's fun, and when it comes down to it, you can often take two or three last-minute vacations for what you'd pay for one advance-purchase one. Don't forget that you can learn more about last-minute vacationing-including more sites and tricks to get you the best deals-by reading the cover story of the current issue of Budget Travel magazine. Happy travels! -Jason

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