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How to Plan a Last-Minute Vacation

Everyone's had their vacation planned for months ... everyone but you, that is. Fortunately, you can still have your adventure in paradise, if you're willing to put in just a little time and effort.

Take the road less traveled

The first step in planning a last-minute getaway is finding a great spot to vacation. When time is short, flexibility is key. Here are some tips.

  • Consider "off-peak" destinations. For example, summer may be a good time to visit major U.S. cities that typically host conventions during the fall, or a resort town that is popular with tourists during the winter. Hotels want to fill empty rooms and may offer extra perks, lower rates, or package deals. During the off-season, it may also be easier to get a restaurant reservation and avoid long lines at attractions.
  • If you're flying, search for flights at more than one airport. If you're willing to depart from any airport near you or arrive at any airport relatively close to your destination, you'll have more options and a better chance of snagging a lower-cost flight. Also consider flying during off-peak hours or taking nondirect flights.
  • Check hotel websites. Many list their rate calendars on their reservations page so you can see for yourself when rooms are available (and at what price). Even top hotels occasionally have empty rooms in-season for a night or two or have last minute cancellations--it doesn't hurt to call.
  • Shop around. There's a lot more available than you think, and last-minute deals on airfares, rental cars, cruises, and hotel rooms exist. Once you've decided where to go, experiment with different travel dates (if you have some flexibility) to find the best deals.

Ask the experts

Getting advice is invaluable, and who better to ask than people who have been where you're going?

  • Visit travel websites and forums where you can view ratings for attractions, hotel and restaurant reviews, and even suggested itineraries posted by local residents and tourists. You can also purchase or download travel guides.
  • Consider working with a travel agent who has access to last-minute package deals or special airfares, and in-depth knowledge of vacation spots.
  • Once you arrive at your destination, ask questions. Most major vacation destinations have a visitor's bureau staffed with knowledgeable people just waiting to give you free advice, maps, and even help finding accommodations (sometimes at special discounts). Front-desk staff or hotel concierges are also able to recommend restaurants and sight-seeing options.

Sweat the small stuff

Saving time is a top priority when planning a last-minute vacation--here are a few suggestions that can help you get on the road quickly.

  • Make a packing list, and pack most of your items ahead of time. Make sure you have address tags on your luggage before you get to the airport.
  • Pick a spot to keep essential (but easy to forget) items such as your wallet or purse, keys, airline tickets, passports, cell phone (and charger), and prescription drugs so that they will be in one place in case you're in a hurry the day you depart.
  • If you're flying, confirm your reservations, and if possible, select your seats and complete the check-in process from home. If you're driving to the airport, make sure your gas tank is full so you won't need to stop on the way.

Enjoy the ride

Remember, a vacation is about relaxation--not perfection. The little planning you've had time for will help smooth the way, but inevitably there will be bumps in the road. Take them in stride, and you'll be well on your way to an enjoyable last-minute vacation.