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Tips on Last-Minute Getaways

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Finding last-minute flight and hotel deals can be tricky, but with some flexibility, creativity and maybe even a bit of gambling, you can find what you need. Just do a little Web surfing and follow these tips:

-- Flexible flying, part one: destination. If you just want to get away and don't particularly care where you go, look for sales from your local airport. FareCompare.com's "Cheap GetAway Deals" shows a map of places with sale-price flights originating from your home airport. Follow FareCompare on Twitter to get updates on sales from your home city (http://www.farecompare.com/twitter). A new site, Voyij.com, lets you search for flights, hotels and packages anywhere and anytime from your home airport. Also, airlines' Web sites often display where the deals are for last-minute getaways.

-- Flexible flying, part two: timing. If you can take off on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, you're more likely to get good airfares. The cheapest flights also tend to be first thing in the morning or late at night, though keep in mind that those times may rule out using public transportation to get to or from the airport.

-- Hotel location is key (no pun intended). When researching hotels, use a map to locate what you want to see and investigate nearby public transportation or driving routes and parking. Staying out of the hot spots helps, too. In a city like New York, where entertainment hubs such as Times Square usually have high prices, Priceline.com spokesman Brian Eks suggests, "Think of locations just outside the city." He suggests staying in Jersey City or Hoboken for rates of about 70 percent lower than in Manhattan.

-- Time your stay. Eks says that the price you'll get on a room "depends on the dates and depends on the time frame, whether it's peak season or not." In a city such as Las Vegas, which caters to weekend leisure travelers, he says, going midweek is "significantly cheaper" than going on the weekend. On the other hand, "a lot of the major cities are cheaper on the weekends, especially the ones that do a lot of business with business travelers." As for airport hotels, Eks says that those are generally good deals on weekends.

-- Consider the alternatives. Read hotel reviews in guidebooks, newspaper archives and Web sites, and decide the level of comfort you'd like. (Do you need a fitness center and premium movie channels, or are you happy with a bare-bones room and few amenities?) You might also want to explore other options, such as hostels, university dorms and rental properties. (See rental tips, Page F8.) Sometimes bed-and-breakfasts can offer better value than hotels, especially if you factor in the cost of breakfast, snacks and wireless Internet, which most smaller inns and B&Bs offer at no extra cost (http://www.bedandbreakfast.com or http://www.bbonline.com).

-- Bundle up. Online travel sites offer a variety of flight and hotel deals, but sometimes you can save more by buying last-minute packages that combine flights, hotels, car rentals, cruises or activities. Here are some Web sites to try: http://www.expedia.com, http://www.orbitz.com, http://www.travelocity.com, http://www.priceline.com, http://www.hotwire.com, http://www.lastminutetravel.com and http://www.lastminute.com.

-- Bid on it. Some sites offer auctions for flights, hotels, rental cars and more. Before you consider this option, make sure to read all the rules. For instance, Priceline doesn't let you choose your flight times, so you're guaranteed a flight only between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. on the date you choose.

Eks says that, in general, "flights are even more susceptible to last-minute changes" than hotels or other sectors of the travel industry. If a flight hasn't sold as well as expected, the airline may offer seats to Priceline customers for as much as 60 percent off. To get an idea of how much to bid for a flight, check Priceline's tip sheet, "Inside Track" (http://travela.priceline.com/insideTrack/flights/), which lists winning bids for different city combinations.

Hotels, Eks says, "have complete flexibility to add or remove rooms from our availability. . . . At the very last minute, a hotel may be sitting there with a bunch of rooms that it doesn't think it can sell," and bingo, those rooms are available on Priceline's auction. As for prices, Eks says, "We are seeing now customers being successful with bids that are 50 percent less than prices that are being published online." However, he says, "You might go to, say, 40 percent [below published rates] if you're going into a market that's already going to see high retail demand," especially around holidays. Priceline lists "winning bids" for different cities on its hotels page (http://www.priceline.com/promo/nyop_hotels.asp).

For more tips on bidding -- for hotels, airfare, car rentals and vacations -- read the FAQs and browse winning bids at http://www.biddingfortravel.com and http://www.betterbidding.com.

-- C.T.

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