How to Make Your Last-Minute Summer Vacation a Reality

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Although August is a popular month for travel, it's not too late to snag an affordable last-minute summer vacation at the destination of your choice — if you know where to look. With many schools and colleges starting back the second week in August, experts say deals will start popping up soon.

Regardless of where you're planning to go, the way you buy your accommodations and when you book your travel make a big difference in how much you'll pay. If you're ready to book a late summer getaway, check out our list of the most important things to know for booking quickly and affordably.

What kind of destination should I search for?

You'll be hard-pressed to get a classic American seaside or lakeside vacation at this point, but you'll get great off-season deals, fewer crowds and gorgeous beaches in the Caribbean and Mexico, says Arabella Bowen, executive editorial director at Fodor's Travel.

Travelers should also consider "hot" summer cities such as Miami and New Orleans or cities that are popular business travel destinations, such as Chicago and Toronto, which have frequent daily flights and a lot of weekend hotel rooms to fill.

TheSuitest.com, a luxury hotel room search engine, reports that some of the cheapest destinations for hotels over Labor Day weekend are San Francisco, Orange County, Calif., Houston and Dallas, Orlando and Hawaii.

California is also a great choice this time of year, says Sarah Gavin, director of PR and social media at Expedia , and anyone looking to go on a cruise from a nearby port is in luck.

"San Diego is trending lower cost than usual, and it's a great destination for people who want to do Disney but don't want to stay near Disney," she says. "For folks who live near a cruise port, you'll find some amazing last-minute cruise deals out of Seattle, New Orleans and more."

What's the best time to book between now and Labor Day?

If you have specific destinations in mind, book as soon as possible, says Bowen, adding that fares typically increase three weeks out and long-weekend travel is very popular.

Things get very busy closer to departure dates, says Bob Diener, co-founder of Getaroom.com. Many hotels offer 14-day "advance purchase rates" and if you book at least two weeks out from your expected arrival date, you can take advantage of that.

"Book in advance," Diener says, "and try to be a little flexible, because the days of the week make a difference."

For example, according to Getaroom.com, accommodation rates in Las Vegas are much lower Sunday through Thursday than on weekends, whereas in Washington, D.C., weekend rates are the most affordable. It's important to do some price research on the destination you're booking.

Travelzoo Senior Editor Gabe Saglie says it's common that financial hubs such as New York City will see the best availability and deals on weekends, when business travel slows. Meanwhile, leisure hot spots such as Southern California will feature better bargains during the week because visitors flock during the weekends.

When it comes to getting there, Saglie says that holiday weekends aside, flying on Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday tends to be cheaper.

Because airfare is often the most significant single expense of a vacation, Marty Seslow, vice president of sales and marketing for the Gate 1 Travel international travel company, advises clients to book early for lowest fares and greater selection of schedule.

"Early bookers will usually have access to both the lowest fares and they will also have a greater choice of flight schedule," Seslow says. "But if they're set on traveling at the last minute, flexibility will be my best advice."

Last-minute travelers must understand that the exact tour, package or cruise itinerary they want may either be unavailable or cost prohibitive, Seslow says, but if they're willing to be flexible they can almost always find something to suit their budget and expectations.

How much should I prepare to spend, and where are the best bargains?

For hotels in smaller cities, Diener says that prices under $100 a night are a good deal. For bigger cities, $100 a night for first class rooms is a steal, and under $200 for a deluxe room is a bargain.

"Never pay extra for kids," he advises.

If you're looking to travel to a city during its off season, be on the lookout for off-season prices, Diener says. For example, August is the off-season in New Orleans because there aren't as many festivals or conventions. Start your search with the knowledge that there are very good deals to be found.

"This time of year in New Orleans you can find many 3 and 4 star hotels for under $100 a night," he says.

Sometimes the best deals on accommodation can be found via "flash sales" that companies offer via their website or via their Facebook fan page, says Diener.

"With flash sales, hotels lower their rates by 10% to 60% for a very short period of time. These sales could last two hours or they could last 24 hours, so if you want to make a purchase, you need to do it quickly," he explains.

With flash sales, you can typically book your stay for most any travel date, but you must book during the sale window.

If you prefer to go mobile for your search, Gavin says that travel apps often offer deals that traditional websites don't. She recommends the Expedia.com app as well as HotelsTonight.

"Hotels often feed out their best deals to mobile," Gavin says. "They don't want to publicize their best deal on the Web, because then everyone would want it. They can feed their best price to you through a small mobile channel, while still keeping their full price on their site."

Travelers should be aware that mobile bookings are best suited to the last-minute traveler, and finding the best deal may mean waiting to purchase until you arrive in your destination city.

"More than 70% of mobile bookings are last minute," Gavin says. "While the room you book isn't one the hotel wants to give away, it's going to make 50% or 40% of what it would have made instead of nothing. If you're standing there, ready to book, you will find the best prices."

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