Experts say the August weeks after schools and universities start up in many areas of the country but before Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer, are a sweet spot for vacationers seeking a last-minute getaway. From beach trips to city adventures, there are lots of options when planning on short notice.
When it comes to cruises, last-minute planning can work in your favor. “We routinely see terrific last-minute deals to places like the Caribbean, where there is a lot of inventory,” said Colleen McDaniel, Cruise Critic’s senior executive editor, in an email. “Many ships from many lines are in the Caribbean at the same time, so cruisers have plenty of choice."
There’s still time to catch a Caribbean cruise departing from Miami, New York, Tampa, Fla., or New Orleans. August is also high season for Alaska cruises departing from Seattle, Seward, Alaska, and Vancouver, British Columbia.
Cruise Critic has a Last Minute Deals feature that keeps track of price cuts within 90 days of a ship’s departure. “With just a short time before the sailing, lines will often cut fares to incentivize travelers to book,” McDaniel said. Rates can sometimes drop by more than 60 percent.
Before you book, make sure you know what your package does and doesn’t include. For instance, you may have to pay for airfare to a port city. McDaniel said it’s also important to keep in mind that last-minute travelers might not get their first choice of cabin or sail date. “But,” she said, “if you’re able to be flexible, you can still have an amazing escape taking advantage of a last-minute deal."
Consider a rental
Renting a property through a home-sharing site like HomeAway.com or VRBO is another option for last-minute planners. “Unlike hotels and airlines, vacation home owners tend to stick to a more structured rate schedule,” said Melanie Fish, HomeAway’s travel expert. That means that waiting until the last minute to book doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll pay more — you may even be able to get a discount.
Dreaming of a beach vacation? Fish says that seaside getaways can be ideal for last-minute summer travelers. Availability increases in the time after schools go back in session but before Labor Day travelers trickle in. Trending HomeAway destinations at the beach and beyond include Austin, Texas; Gulf Shores, Ala.; Seattle; Destin, Fla.; and Gatlinburg, Tenn.
To speed things up, look for properties that offer instant confirmation — no waiting around for the property owner to approve your request. And no matter what service you use, Fish says it’s important to book through reputable sites that offer customer support and other protections.
Travel by train
If you want to avoid airfare and driving, consider a train trip. National parks, the Colorado Rockies and the Grand Canyon are all popular summer destinations, and many routes still have availability.
Amtrak is offering discounts through the end of the month on select itineraries that include hotel accommodations and other perks, such as museum admission and sightseeing tours. Deals this month include six-day round-trip getaways between Los Angeles and Seattle; Orlando, Fla., and Washington, D.C.; and Chicago and Niagara Falls. The cost: About $1,000 each, or less than $200 a day.
If you have a specific date in mind, you can browse itineraries by departure date at Vacations By Rail. Similarly, Great Rail Journeys has a Late Availability page that shows trips accepting passengers at the last minute — like a coast-to-coast tour of the United States that will take you from the Statue of Liberty to the Golden Gate Bridge, departing Aug. 30.
Feeling spontaneous? Try One Night, which allows you to book same-night stays at a curated selection of luxe hotels in destinations including Boston, Dallas, Miami, and Palm Springs, Calif. Booking opens up at 3 p.m. daily, and low rates are guaranteed.
For more flexibility, HotelTonight lets you choose among thousands of hotels in more than 35 countries around the world. Depending on the city, you can book either a week or up to 100 days in advance — and there’s still plenty of availability.
This month, the average daily rates for London, Rome, Berlin and Paris all come in under $150. Closer to home, rates can dip under $100 for warm-weather destinations like Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Las Vegas. You don’t have to go far for a great time, either. Staycationers can plug in their current location to browse nearby hotels, some of which will display a special “Geo Rate” for those already in the area.
There are also benefits to booking the old-fashioned way. Call up a few hotels in your desired city and ask the front desk (not the reservations line) for up-to-the-minute vacancy and rate information. You might just score a great deal.