How to Find Last Minute Travel Deals

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If you've been on a commercial airliner lately, chances are it was a pretty full flight. The airlines are operating at their highest capacity in a long time. And with the holidays right around the corner, things look set to get more hectic and overbooked than ever.

According to American Express Travel's consumer booking data from September, holiday travel is up 11 percent for domestic flights and 16 percent for international flights over the same period last year. Additional data from the company shows that some 40 percent of consumers plan to travel this holiday season (during Thanksgiving and Christmas season), with 88 percent of them staying within the U.S.

Still thinking about booking a flight somewhere or planning a last-minute hotel stay or cruise? The good and somewhat amazing news, considering the circumstances, is that with a little insider knowledge and foresight, there are still deals to be had -- even over the crazy holiday travel period.

Being as flexible as possible with your travel dates, says Jaime Samuels, publisher of Travelzoo's Weekly Top 20 and Newsflash, is key to getting the best airfare over the holidays. She recommends looking for fares on metasearch engines (which send requests to numerous search engines) like, where you can use a calendar function to view various travel date options to find the lowest possible fare.

"You're seeing what the final out-the-door roundtrip pricing will be as well as unadvertised fares," says Samuels of's format. "These are going to be the lower fares on the market."

But Samuels does not advise waiting until the last minute to book holiday travel. "I'm not seeing any reason to expect that at the last minute prices will drop," she says.

For the best fares leading up to Thanksgiving, she says the best days to travel are the Monday and Tuesday before the holiday and the best day to return is Thanksgiving itself or the Friday and Saturday after. "Everyone is going to be flying home that Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving," she says, "The stress of the airport is reason enough to wait."

Samuels advises that for the best prices on Christmas travel, travelers should plan to travel the Tuesday and Wednesday before Christmas, or even Christmas day itself. "For the return, Tuesday or Wednesday after Christmas is where you'll find the lower fares," she says.

Charles Leocha, Director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, an advocacy group in Washington that works on consumer issues, agrees that waiting until the last minute to book holiday airfare is not a good idea. "The airlines have really cut back on capacity and planes are now flying at higher load factors than probably any other time in airline history," says Leocha, "This means the airlines have control of their pricing. The advice I give is to make sure you reserve your tickets as soon as you can; don't wait till the last minute. There just aren't going to be deals at the last minute."

And in a move that might seem counter-intuitive, Leocha advises travelers that the low-cost carriers might not always have the lowest fares for holiday travel, so it's important to check all your options.

"A lot of the low cost carriers with point-to-point service are actually selling tickets at a higher price than legacy carriers since they offer nonstop service to destinations where the legacy carriers have to funnel flights through a hub," he says. "Even the low cost carriers are fairly confident they are going to fill their planes for the holiday season, so they aren't starting out at low prices. They are starting at moderate prices because people are willing to pay extra money to go nonstop."

If flying nonstop isn't a priority for you, says John DiScala of, there are often substantial savings to be had -- even during the busy holiday travel dates. A recent search DiScala made on travel with Delta Airlines for a Christmas Eve flight from Los Angeles to New York was nearly $60 cheaper with a stopover as opposed to going nonstop.

Another tip that DiScala has for finding cheaper fares over the holidays is to consider flying on New Year's Eve. "To me, New Year's Eve is overrated," he says, "I'd rather save my money and fly that day and spend my money on travel.

"Fly New Year's Eve on a redeye cross-country or across the Atlantic or Pacific," he says. "No one wants to fly on New Year's Eve, so those tickets will be cheap."

Travel writer Kristin Luna found that to be true when she and her husband were booking return flights from Tennessee to San Francisco on American Airlines after the holidays. "Scott and I were going to fly back to San Francisco from Memphis after the holidays on December 29 or 30 and had just about booked our tickets, but then he had the epiphany to check airfare for New Year's Eve," she says.

"A 6 p.m. flight that gets us in at 11 p.m. was over $100 cheaper than the days before. We're not the type to go out big on New Year's Eve anyway, so why not save money? Plus, that gives us a little more time back home with the family."

Luna also advises looking at all airport options when searching for the cheapest holiday airfares. "We had planned to drive four hours back to Nashville from Memphis to catch a flight, as we assumed it would be cheaper given that it's a much bigger airport," she says. "But surprisingly the better deal came from Memphis, so from now on I'll be checking flights from smaller, nearby airports before I book."

Great Hotel Deals

While snagging the cheapest possible airfare over the holidays definitely involves some finagling and research, for people looking for cheap hotel stays over Thanksgiving and Christmas the news is more encouraging -- even if you've waited until now to think about where to go.

"Everyone wants to go to the resorts for Christmas, but if you look at the business hotels they will have deals," says DiScala. "Places in financial districts, downtown areas..."

Samuels from Travelzoo agrees: "On the hotel side of this, major cities in the U.S. are majorly discounted over the holidays. Getting a really great deal in New York in the fall or in between the holidays can be really hard to find. But over Thanksgiving Day and Christmas week we're seeing really great deals at hotels in New York, Chicago, San Francisco; even Orlando has some great deals over Thanksgiving."

Among the deals listed on Travelzoo's Thanksgiving site are: $119 per night at the oceanfront Crowne Plaza Hollywood Beach in Florida over Thanksgiving weekend and other dates; $220 per night over Thanksgiving at the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge (regularly $409 per night) and $89 per night at the AAA 4-Diamond Fairmont Dallas on dates that include Thanksgiving and Christmas.

While Samuels says Thanksgiving and the month of November in general show the best deals for escaping to warm weather destinations, the good deals should continue through mid-December. "If you're trying to decide which holiday to get away, Thanksgiving is really the better option for hotel deals," she says. "I've seen really good deals to Jamaica, Cancun, the Riviera Maya...and Thanksgiving has not been blocked out, so it's a good option."

Cruise bargains can also still be found for holiday travel. Travelzoo's Thanksgiving deals site posted a special on seven-night cruises to the Eastern Caribbean over Thanksgiving from $524 per person, with kids sailing for free. And American Express's cruise site shows a five night Western Caribbean cruise over Thanksgiving on Celebrity Cruises from $329.

Charles White, an American Express Travel Consultant, urges that flexibility in all things -- from flights to hotels stays and cruises -- is key to getting a deal over the holidays. "If you're cruising, be open to different cabin types," he says. "This is also true for hotels -- be open to booking a different room category than you typically would."

American Express offers a Last Minute Deals website with travel options offered from three weeks to three hours before departure.

Involving a travel agent in your plans will go a long way in helping you get a last minute deal, says White. "Travel agents often have access to airfare deals that aren't available on the internet," he says. "Travel agents also have first notice when seats become available on a full flight. However, deals can be hard to come by because limited availability typically means higher pricing."

Paying with points accrued on your credit cards can also help offset costs associated with last-minute travel, says White.

Leocha, the consumer advocate, agrees that involving a travel agent is a good thing to think about if you hope to land a last minute travel deal this holiday season. "You never know until the time comes. But if you're going to find any deals, it would be from people who are booking airlines and hotels together," says Leocha,. "When it comes to putting together a dynamic package like that, the online travel agencies and mom-and-pop agencies have more leeway in terms of price than when you're dealing with only the airlines."

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