For the uninitiated, choosing the right time to book travel can feel like one of life’s great mysteries. Indeed, prices are constantly moving up and down—and those changes can make or break your travel budget. Happily, for those inclined toward more impulsive last-minute trips, a little savvy can go a long way in not busting your budget.
Our best advice in a nutshell: Have a few potential destinations in mind and enroll in airfare alerts for those places because when it comes to flying, there is little to gain from procrastination. (And make sure your passport is up to date; if that dream trip to a faraway land pops up and you can’t take advantage of it, you’ll be sorry.)
Here’s our guide to getting the best deal on last-minute flights, cruises, and hotels—because even a spontaneous trip can benefit from a little planning.
How to find last-minute airfare
Airfare is typically the biggest single expense of most trips, and its associated price tag boils down to supply and demand. Pricing is determined by several factors, including timing (like the season, day of the week, and even what time of day you fly) and the destination itself. Many airlines put tickets up for sale as far as 11 months before the flight—but you’ll likely be paying a premium for them, because the window from six to 11 months out is typically an expensive time to buy. From 22 to 121 days out, fares are often significantly cheaper, when prices are usually near to their historical average lows; this is the sweet spot for fare deals.
In airline terms, “last minute” is the period less than three weeks before the flight. It’s not recommended to wait any longer than 21 days before your flight to book because prices are unlikely to drop so close to the departure depate. But if you find yourself booking a last-minute trip, your best bet is to compare fares online with an aggregator like CheapOair, Expedia, Kayak, or Travelocity. (Tip: Once you find a fare you like, be sure to check that airline’s own website to see if it’s offered any cheaper directly through the carrier.) Note that no one airline is always going to be the cheapest; even low-cost carriers can sometimes rack up higher rates than traditional legacy airlines.
Set up fare alerts to get notified when flight prices drop.
If possible, be flexible with your airport. Many large cities have at least two options. For example, you don’t have to fly to LAX to get to Los Angeles when nearby Orange County, Burbank, or Ontario could possibly be cheaper if you’re willing to drive a little further into the city.
If you don’t have to book immediately, set up a fare alert to get an email when an airline drops the fare on your chosen route. Good sites for automated fare alerts include Fare Compare, Airfare Watchdog, Skyscanner, and Google Flights. If you have a favorite airline, you can also set up email alerts from your home city on your frequent-flyer profile.
How to book a last-minute cruise
You can find cruise deals from about three months out to just days before the sailing date. Unlike airfare, cruise prices are known to drop as the sailing date approaches. While the best staterooms on ships tend to sell out early, and for full price, you can usually still find staterooms in almost any category closer to embarkation (although these deals might be for cabins in less desirable areas of the ship, such as ones that are far from the elevator banks). If you live within driving distance of the departure port, you’ll save a boatload of money, too, because you won’t have to purchase airfare.
Cruise lines often offer cheaper prices during shoulder season.Time your last-minute trip to coincide with a “shoulder season” destination when cheaper sailings can be found. The shoulder season in the Caribbean, for instance, includes September through November, when there’s a higher chance of hurricanes, and also the weeks in early December and January that frame the busy holiday season.
Look for discounted cruises on the websites of the cruise lines themselves, along with aggregators like Cruise.com, Cruises.com, Expedia, and even Costco.
How to get a last-minute hotel deal
Hotels can be inexpensive when you’re booking a night or two in advance, unless there’s a major event in the destination you plan to visit. Hotels.com is a great go-to for last-minute deals. (As a bonus, when you create a profile on the site, you get a free hotel night after your 10th-night stay.) Many hotels vow to publish their lowest rate directly on their own site, but it is helpful to be able to look at all of the options in one place. Room77 and Trivago search dozens of sites, displaying the lowest price, and a provide a direct link to make the booking.
One final tip: Make sure to “bundle up”
Most airline sites now allow you to book your full vacation package with them—something online travel agencies like Expedia and Travelocity have been doing for years. You may want to stick with your go-to airline site if you are looking to use points or stay with your preferred airline. You’ll often find significant savings if you’re able to book it all—flight, hotel, even rental car—at the same time, plus there’s the convenience of having your whole trip organized in one confirmation email. (Tip: If you do end up arranging your trip with a combination of confirmations, TripIt is a great resource for keeping everything organized.) Now get going—you’ve got a bag to pack and a plane to catch.