Last-Minute Holiday Travel Tips

The days leading up to a vacation are often filled with excitement. As you pack your bags and think about the great times ahead, it's easy to get lost in the anticipation. Often, holidaymakers will plan their getaway weeks or months in advance, but this isn't always practical, and sometimes it's beneficial to wait until the last minute. Solidifying last-minute holiday arrangements can be a little stressful. Still, some of the best bargains and most rewarding travel often come through last-minute deals and a plan dominated by a rapid turnaround between booking and travel.

Organizing a last-minute holiday gives you access to unused flights and hotel rooms that would otherwise sit empty. The result is an increasing urgency for providers to sell these spots, even at a steep discount, to earn something for them. Not all last-minute bargains are created equal, though, and planning a trip like this includes more than just finding a great deal on travel and accommodation reservations. Whether considering a stay at a fantastic beach resort or heading home to see family for the holidays, last-minute planning can be incredibly rewarding.

Try to remain flexible with your destination, if possible

The first thing you'll want to consider when planning a last-minute holiday is flexibility. This comes in a few different formats, but one of the best ways to score a great bargain is by being open-minded about your destination. Of course, this won't play to your strengths if you're planning a trip to see family or friends. But considering alternative airports might improve things in this regard, too. For instance, if you're flying to New York City, checking on prices for travel to Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia will give you a few options that might save a few bucks.

Alternatively, for travelers thinking of a beach holiday, for example, trips to Miami, Cancun, San Diego, and Marbella will all yield similar results. This is also true for individual beach spots along a stretch of sandy coastline — Cancun, Cozumel, and Tulum will offer relatively similar experiences, all things considered. Keeping your eyes open for the best bargain often means loosening restrictions on the exact location of the destination.

Scour booking sites for the best combination of deals

Booking sites offer a great wealth of comparison information when planning any trip. However, the ability to quickly and comprehensively compare flights, hotels, car rentals, and other essential features of a holiday becomes all the more important when making these reservations at the last minute. If you're on the hunt for a fantastic deal on a last-minute getaway, using multiple booking sites is essential.

There's, fortunately, a wealth of booking aggregators that are all in competition with one another, and last-minute markdowns can and often do vary substantially between them. Checking sites like Expedia,, Trivago, and Kayak can net you great bargains on just about everything that might need to be arranged to pull off the holiday. Remember, however, that hotels and airlines also offer discounts, so don't rule out a direct reservation. The more research, the better; it's impossible to know where the best prices will be found without looking.

Evaluate the entire trip before booking anything

In addition to significant research across booking platforms, it's crucial to explore as much of the holiday destination as possible before confirming any reservation. You might find rock-bottom pricing on a flight or car rentals, but hotels in the selected destination may be astronomically high as a result of some event or by sheer bad luck. In this case, thinking through the overall expense of a different, similar destination is a great change of pace. 

For those who don't have flexibility in their destination, a high price on one aspect of the travel plans may act as a reason to go with a cheaper option elsewhere. For instance, if the area hotels aren't providing any leeway in the budget, booking the one-stop flight (as opposed to a more expensive direct route) or skipping the seat selection process can shave some dollars off the total cost elsewhere.

To take advantage of these cost-reduction strategies, however, travelers will need to have a clear picture of the entire holiday plan. This can only be done with fully realized planning.

Travel mid-week if you can

If you're flying, booking travel in the middle of the week is often the best way to ensure a steep discount on the overall cost. For domestic flights, the cheapest days of the week to travel, on average, are Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This is likely because business travel often occurs at the beginning of the week, and flights revolving around leisure typically happen toward the end. These facets of the air travel marketplace mean that demand is often highest at the beginning and end of every week.

Traveling on midweek flights will net the greatest average discount on airfare, leaving more room in the budget for other aspects of the holiday. This can be a great way to round out a fantastic trip. Of course, it's easier said than done when scheduling time off and organizing all the other moving pieces of a vacation that begins midway through the week. Still, if you can start your break on a Tuesday, the savings can add up to nearly $100 per ticket, on average.

The same type of planning goes for international travel, but the days are shifted back by one. The lowest flight prices for international air travel are found, in aggregate, on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Similarly, wherever the destination might be, weekday prices for attractions (like theater tickets or baseball games) are often lower than weekend rates. Take advantage of the midweek discounts wherever you can for a great reduction in your last-minute holiday travel.

Embrace layovers as hidden opportunities

A last-minute holiday might not come with the best possible travel itinerary. That's just a part of the picture when considering a getaway that takes advantage of unused reservation spots. However, a flight plan that sees you staying through the afternoon or even overnight in a new and interesting city offers its own adventure. Some of America's best airports to get stuck in during a long layover provide their own draws, and the cities they serve are often equally iconic destinations for travelers. For instance, a day in Seattle or Phoenix can add a little spark of magic to make your holiday even more memorable.

A layover doesn't have to be just a waiting game between flights. Embracing the hidden opportunity that comes with a few (or a few too many) hours in a new city can enrich your travel in unexpected and exhilarating ways. If you can leave the airport for a while, check out the local eats or visit a museum in the city. These are great ways to take in the local culture and add something to your travel that would have otherwise simply been flown over — literally.

Last minute bargains are often found during a destination's low season

No matter where you plan a vacation, low-season pricing is more affordable than peak tourist months, and last-minute deals are more enticing when booked away from the rush. It's good practice to visit high-value tourist destinations during the low season anyway. Getting to the best beach destinations in the world or exploring the East Coast's most picturesque towns can be a tricky proposition if done during the high season. So consider the winter months for tropical destinations like Cancun and autumn for northern sightseeing.

However, booking your holiday to one of these types of destinations during the "shoulders" (the weeks or months on either end of the high season) or during the depths of the destination's low season will yield the slimmest crowds and best prices overall on everything from airfare to event tickets. A last-minute reservation offers the best of both worlds here, providing access to service providers looking to sell the few reservations off when most tourist visits have ceased for the season.

Consider breaking your itinerary into smaller pieces

Two one-way flights or even a series of individual flight segments can save a ton of money for travelers looking to keep costs low. This isn't a strategy travelers will typically employ because it's far easier to book an entire itinerary as a single transaction. Yet, breaking your itinerary into individual pieces can act as a magic bullet for getting the best deals, especially on last-minute travel. Pricing is tied to demand, leading to different cost analyses for each flight that might factor into a typical itinerary. Competing airlines will also advertise different prices for what amounts to essentially the same flight segment.

Getting the best deal on airfare often means shirking brand loyalty and booking with whatever airline offers the best price for each component. Of course, if you're checking bags, a layover will become a little more complicated with this approach. But there's little difference in the check-in process for outgoing and return flights when checking on baggage. It's also possible that traveling on two different airlines for each flight direction can net a better overall schedule for your vacation requirements. There's so much incentive to evaluate separate reservations, but droves of travelers overlook the practice!

Search for flights as single tickets before adding travel companions

In the same breath as booking individual segments, it's often a good idea to book individual flight tickets for each traveler. Airlines advertise prices based on a tiered system. This means that a certain number of tickets are available at dynamically set price points (an economy ticket might sell for $100 at one tier and $150 at the next, for instance). This is a common feature of train ticketing as well. However, when travelers go to book tickets for their group, they see the lowest price available for the block of tickets they are looking to purchase. If there are three tickets left at one price tier, but the reservation is being made for four travelers, all four will pay the higher price.

Before booking anything, the best way to ensure you're getting a great price for your group is to search for single tickets. Often, the airline will note how many tickets are left at the fare tier. However, even if this information isn't available, it will become obvious whether there's a pricing discrepancy when making a second search with your total number of travelers. Purchasing individual tickets for the first time will feel a little dangerous since it cuts against the grain of what most flyers are used to, but the resulting savings can be tremendous.

Be open to hopping between hotels

Hotel hopping is another big one when it comes to last-minute travel plans. Hotels will often build their pricing around weekend rates. The result is a hotel stay that might include various daily rates. This can be exacerbated when planning a last-minute trip because demand might differ for each day at your hotel of choice. You might receive a steep discount for one or more days that don't have many rooms filled, but other days in the reservation might not share that same level of desperation to fill the space.

Hopping between hotels can be a cost-saving measure to get the best rates in the area. This is also a good opportunity to experience different parts of the city you visit throughout the holiday. Whether a domestic or international destination, swapping rooms midway through the trip allows for variety in the vacation that's hard to come by in any other way.

Pack light, skip the checked bag

To facilitate the best possible rates and experience while on a last-minute vacation, one tip can't be overemphasized. Packing light will open up a wealth of possibilities when building a successfully executed last-minute trip. Skipping the checked bag is a must to get the best rates on flights, transfer between terminals to take advantage of multiple carriers, and even shift your stay from one hotel to the next.

Checked bags offer the only way to easily carry bulky liquids and other items while flying. Still, checking on luggage and then collecting it off the carousel at the arrival destination adds a lot of time and stress to travel. The truth is that packing light makes travel easier, period. Many points of friction that last-minute travelers will experience come from that large suitcase they're hauling around. Dragging the baggage from place to place is a task all of its own making, and checked baggage makes practices like skip-lagging more difficult to pull off successfully. Also, without the additional luggage, you can save on the flight and redirect those baggage fees to something more enriching once you're at your destination.

Turn your holiday into a road trip

A road trip is its own unique holiday experience. Often, getting there is half the fun. But air travelers completely miss out on this experience when boarding an airplane. While flying certainly provides a benefit, if you can drive to your destination, the decision to take the road can add a new dimension to the trip that can't be found with faster modes of travel. Driving can save money on the cost of the journey in some cases, especially for shorter trips that include non-hub cities. These kinds of airfares are often astronomically high in price.

Driving allows your travel party to entertain itself while on the road, and it makes for a great bonding experience that is distinctly lacking in other travel formats. A road trip is a special kind of experience that can make a holiday all the more special for you and your loved ones.

Don't forget to organize the essentials at home before you leave

Lastly, all the excitement surrounding a last-minute holiday plan can feel like a whirlwind. There are the bookings to take care of and the packing that often takes place in a bit of a hurry. Yet, any good travel checklist will include some key household chores. Setting the alarm, turning off automated timers (like the water heater or notices on any smart home devices scattered around your house), and organizing entry for or rescheduling visits from service providers that might frequent your property are all crucial.

Travelers will also want to consider placing a hold on the mail and considering where to park any remaining cars at the house. While burglaries aren't often a major concern across the country, the reality is that vacant entry is a crime of opportunity that happens when a home looks empty. An overflowing mailbox or a long-vacant driveway can tip off a thief to an easy house to burglarize. These last-minute tasks will ensure that your dwelling isn't openly broadcasting that no one's home. The result is a diminished likelihood of turmoil and tears upon your return from that excellent holiday getaway.