Tips for Last-Minute Luxury Travel Deals

LOS ANGELES (TheStreet) — Whether you're looking to score last-minute bargains or make up for procrastinating, the year-end travel season is a bargainer's feast for those willing to go the extra mile for prime deals. Here are our top 10 tips for saving a bundle on holiday travel.

10. Last-minute with miles: Airlines like United (Stock Quote: UAUA) and American (Stock Quote: AMR) offer online award systems that allow members to book travel up to 331 days in advance. While you tried to score that round-trip business class fare to Paris last April without much success, you may be surprised to see it's just become available. In fact, airlines usually free up a number of seats for award travel to keep planes as full and profitable as possible. For the best chance to score a last-minute award seat, try booking mid-week or for Saturday travel and be sure to check for elusive first-class tickets that sometimes require an additional search request. We were able to find an early December L.A./London ticket on United Airlines for a mere 55,000 miles or in a first suite over Christmas week for 135,000 miles.

9. Save skiing for spring: Nothing says holiday getaway like sleigh bells and skis. But despite all the hotel deals and discounts around, you'll likely be paying just as much for that holiday ski room as you did in previous years. Even in a recession, people are willing to pay at the major ski retreats. Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch and Park Hyatt Beaver Creek are requiring the same minimum night stays and room rates, upwards of $1,000 a night for Christmas to New Year's week, as in previous non-recession years. If you forgo the ski holiday until Martin Luther King or President's Day weekend, rates drop by up to 40%, with more availability and even better snow conditions.

8. Beware of big cities: You dreamed of it all your life, spending New Year's or Christmas in Paris, London or Rome walking the streets with hot chocolate and a bag of chestnuts in hand. But booking that too-good-to-be-true rate in Europe during the holidays has its costs. In reality, holidays in most European cities mean closed businesses from Dec. 24 to 26, with random closings till New Year's Day and sometimes even beyond. You will be walking the streets of a European capital hungry, contemplating breakfast at McDonald's (Stock Quote: MCD), wishing something besides an overpriced hotel could offer you a meal or even just a coffee to go.

7. VRBO-it: Thinking of St. Bart's or Punta del Este for the holidays but weary of the exorbitant rates charged by the luxury hotels? Consider booking a private home through VRBO, a villa renter's secret weapon for affordable family travel. Many last-minute homeowners have decided to forgo their holiday pilgrimages to pricey second-home destinations due to market conditions in favor of generating additional income. The result is a deluge of fresh listings popping up in key vacation markets for surprisingly affordable prices. In Punta del Este, we were able to book a four-bedroom home three blocks from the beach for a mere $3,000 a week versus $975 a night for an entry-level room at nearby Mantra Resort.

6. Don't shy away from chains: While uppity travelers often avoid national chains, the best deals this holiday season are coming from the mega-conglomerates that can afford to give away their rooms at rock-bottom prices. In San Francisco, we were able to book a room at the storied Intercontinental Mark Hopkins on Nob Hill, a short uphill walk from the shopping of Union Square, for $99 a night. Nearby Westin St. Francis was $149, and the Chinatown-adjacent Ritz Carlton was under $200. If you're looking for a boutique experience, forgo newer hotels cashing in on the hype factor and gravitate to the older names that are looking to fill rooms.

5. Do you really need a car? So you managed to snag an award ticket and great hotel deal in that much-coveted holiday timeslot. Now you go to book the car and, alas, you've been duped. A total of $1,250 a week for a sub-compact car with manual transmission, which you don't even know how to use? It's not uncommon for rental-car companies to ratchet up their last-minute holiday fares, especially franchised agencies in South America and the Bahamas. If traveling to a contained area like a ski town or tropical island, consider ditching the car in lieu of public transportation and taxis.

4. Get connected: To connect with the Twitter universe, travel companies are taking to the Web to talk about much more than where they are and what they're doing. Companies like JetBlue (Stock Quote: JBLU) and Virgin America offer special fares and last-minute deals shared only with their Twitter followers. Those looking for package vacations can follow Pleasant Holidays or even SF's Joie de Vivre Hotels for deeply discounted rooms as low as $59 a night. Jetsetters will want to log in to Gilt Groupe's new JetSetter booking service for consolidator specials at some of the world's glitziest destinations.

3. Seize thy currency arbitrage: Think of it as Paris priced in pesos, Argentine pesos. It's one of the best travel bargains for long-haul-loving Americans searching for one of the final frontiers where the U.S. dollar is still strong. With a summer season that stretches from early November through April, Buenos Aires offers a temperate climate and a cosmopolitan infrastructure of boutique hotels, designer shops and starry eateries that make it one of the best travel deals around.

2. Cruising for a deal: For food lovers and incompatible families, it's the best way to travel. Cruises also offer one of the most affordable getaways for larger groups looking to avoid the expense of multiple-room bookings, rows of airlines seats and the inevitable rift of too much together-time. NCL offers last-minute seven-day cruises through the western Caribbean for as low as $299 on mid-November sailings and $749 for peak-holiday dates (per person with double occupancy). Web sites like CruiseDeals.com sometimes offer even cheaper fares with Carnival (Stock Quote: CCL) and Royal Caribbean (Stock Quote: RCL) cruises starting as low as $309 for a seven-to-14-day Mexican Pacific Riviera.

1. Consider a house swap: It's the cheapest way to score a Swiss chalet or Moroccan riad -- a swap that enables homeowners to trade digs with another family domestically or abroad for days or weeks at a time. Specialty companies like HomeLink or Home Exchange offer a comprehensive vetting process that all but guarantees a successful exchange. The service is better for international swaps than domestic, with London and Paris the best matches for U.S. swaps. Users simply load images of their own home to solicit interest via an email-based matching service.

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