For best results, keep an open mind and stay flexible -- the cardinal rules of traveling last-minute on the cheap. Check out these four Web sites when the travel bug bites.
LastMinute.com offers "last second deals" for travel over the upcoming week or two. Note that these deals target weekend travelers; departures are only available between Wednesday and Saturday.
Leaving our destination options open, we plugged in dates for the upcoming weekend (leaving Philadelphia on Friday and returning Sunday). One of the cheapest results was a "Wicked Smaahrt" package in Boston, starting at just $269 per person for airfare, hotel, tax recovery and service fees. A variety of other U.S. cities were also featured for less than $400 per person. The lowest-priced international options were Toronto ("Shiny, Happy People, Eh?") from $451 per person and Mexico City from $551.
The site also offers flight/car, hotel/car and flight/luxury hotel pairings. It's owned and operated by Travelocity.
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LastMinuteTravel.com covers every aspect of travel, including flights, hotels, car rentals, vacation packages, cruises and even activities. For travel next weekend, we saw a four-star hotel in the Central Park area of New York City from just $164 per night with taxes. (Tack on an "Everything Chocolate" tour for $49 per person.) Less luxurious hotels are offered from $72 per night with taxes.
A couple of caveats: In several searches, the actual price (particularly for hotels) was higher than the initial advertised offer -- it all depends on your travel dates. Also, a la Priceline, the site doesn't reveal the name of your hotel until after you book. You will be shown its neighborhood, star rating and amenities.
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Every week, American Airlines offers a variety of Net SAAver Weekend Getaway fares, including domestic fares for both this weekend and the next, and international fares for the next weekend. (From the airline's Web site, click on Travel Deals and then Sale Fares.) These deals are a good bet for travelers who simply want a last-minute airfare rather than a full-out package (perhaps you don't need to book lodging because you're staying with a friend, or you'd rather rent an apartment than stay in a hotel).
This week's deals include $67 fares from Chicago to New York, $119 fares from Miami to Houston and $129 fares from Nashville to Los Angeles -- all one way based on roundtrip purchase. Taxes are additional. International offerings for the following weekend start at $113 each way (Los Angeles to Los Cabos), and include destinations in Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America.
American isn't the only airline peddling last-minute fares; check your favorite carrier's Web site to see what's available.
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If you have a specific destination in mind, your best bet is often to focus on a Web site that deals with one region specifically. CheapCaribbean.com has a last-minute area on its Web site that offers low-cost packages set to expire quickly. However, though you can't hem and haw about whether or not to go, you will often have plenty of time to plan -- some packages can be booked for travel several months out.
As of this writing, a five-night package to the Riviera Maya that includes hotel and roundtrip airfare is available from $529 per person, good for travel anywhere between two and six months from now -- but it must be booked in the next three days. If you can't wait that long to get away, you can leave this week for a four-night Bahamas getaway from $579, including roundtrip air.
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-- written by Genevieve S. Brown; updated by Sarah Schlichter