10 Tips for Finding Last-Minute Summer Travel Deals

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Scurrying to find deals on last-minute summer travel? As many bargain hunters can tell you, waiting until shortly before your intended departure can yield big savings. Here are 10 tips for landing an eleventh-hour bargain on summer travel.

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Some last-minute deals might be sitting right in your wallet. AAA and AARP members can take advantage of discounts on car and truck rentals, hotels and resorts, air and rail tickets, cruises and tours, theme parks, and vacation packages. Your rewards credit card may offer some cut-rate travel options, as well. For example, spend $4,000 within the first three months of using the Chase Sapphire Preferred card and earn $625 toward lodging or airfare when redeemed through the card's rewards program. Many credit card companies partner with airlines, hotels, resorts, and cruise lines to provide access to even more travel specials.

keyboard with keys to book flight, rental car, and hotel
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When there's no time to spare, land a flight, hotel, car rental — and even some activities — all at once. Online travel agencies such as Travelzoo, Priceline, or Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity (the three are owned by the same company) let you arrange package deals that cost less than the sum of individually booked parts. Cheap Caribbean and BookIt are popular websites for setting up all-inclusive Caribbean getaways that include flight, hotel, and all meals and drinks. And some all-inclusive resorts are so family friendly that kids may be welcome at no charge.

couple having fun laughing in funny pose on cruise ship boat
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Believe it or not, cruises are a real last-minute summer travel deal. Cruise lines cut fares about a month significantly before departure if beds are still empty. How low do prices go? It's not uncommon for nightly rates to plunge by up to 80 percent, though half off is more common. Scout for bargains at Cruise Direct, JetBlue Cruises, and Cruise Critic.

family out at a camping site with tent and car in background
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Visit a nearby national park for a relatively inexpensive summer vacation that appeals to all ages and can be arranged at the eleventh hour. There is always some new corner of the park to explore and tactics for making the visit even cheaper. For example, plan a trip for days when park entrance fees are waived; upcoming days in 2018 include Sept. 22 (National Public Lands Day), and Nov. 11 (Veterans Day Weekend). Moreover, a good many of the national parks — 300 out of 417 sites, which include monuments, recreation areas, and historic sites — don't normally charge entrance fees at all.

air tickets or boarding pass, passports, smartphone
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Free travel apps for mobile devices can help score last-minute lodging and transportation deals and save money on other travel-related expenses. Whatever you're looking for, there's an app for that. Book a last-minute room on Hotel Tonight; cut costs on a road trip with Gasbuddy; snag a last-minute flight with Kayak; and so on.

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If there's some fluidity in your schedule — i.e., on times, airports, and departure dates — there are plenty of travel sites that will display how much can be saved by booking a day ahead or behind, on an earlier or later flight, or by using a nearby airport. Many  travel sites offer discounts on flights, hotel stays, and resort packages when booked shortly before departure/arrival.

'Vacation Rental' sign in front of a yellow one story home on the beach
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Instead of a hotel, look for savings through sites such as Airbnb and Homeaway. A search on home rental sites may turn up lodging that's vacant for a desired check-in date that's just a few days away. Contact the owner and try to negotiate a better price than the posted rates. Owners may be willing to accept a lower price than to get no revenue at all.

mouse, airline boarding pass, credit cards, and passports on laptop
Photo credit: Oleksiy Mark/shutterstock

If you're not picky about hotel brands or location, consider booking through sites such as Priceline and Hotwire. At these sites, hotels with unreserved rooms appear without identifying information, and you search by star rating, area, and desired nightly rate. Priceline and Hotwire reveal the specific hotel after you've booked. The accommodations you wind up with depend partly on luck, but you'll rack up substantial savings, especially in major cities.

Woman looking across the sea in Greece
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If no friends or family can take off on short notice, consider traveling on your own. Whether it's backpacking across Europe or island hopping through Thailand, it's often cheaper and easier to book for one person than for a group. Moreover, you can dictate your own itinerary and stick to your frugal ways. Think hostels and couchsurfing, lots of street food, and the single ticket to an orchestra performance that someone outside the theater is eagerly hawking.

cheerful couple of tourists showing visitor's card
Photo credit: Goodluz/shutterstock

Major attractions in big cities cost big bucks, but all-inclusive passes such as Smart Destinations and CityPass can save some of those bucks for travelers with enough time and stamina. Smart Destinations is available in 16 major cities and covers hundreds of attractions. The all-inclusive pass offers up to 55 percent off gate prices at big-name sites. CityPass provides sightseeing savings of up to 50 percent in 13 cities, and lets you bypass the lines in some places. This pass is valid for up to nine days except in Southern California, where it's good for two weeks.

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