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How to get a great deal on a last-minute trip

At this time of year we all start to get that travelling itch, and whether your dream destination involves white sand or white powder, chances are you'd love to get there on a dime. These tips can help you score a last-minute booking.

Be realistic

The first thing to assess is how hung up you are on the various details of your getaway. If you are, say, hell bent on travelling to a certain locale on a certain day at a certain time, then it's probably best to admit defeat and start planning for 2013's dream vacation. (That or be prepared to cough up some serious cash – this is peak season, after all). Since travel is a supply-and-demand industry, the best deals are accordingly found in the least popular slots: Leaving mid-week, for example (Friday and Monday are the most popular travel days), and taking flights that depart either very early or very late. Other factors worth assessing include the size and age of your party (flying by the seat of one's pants works best either solo or in a party of two), as well as your general risk aversion. "I tell my clients that if they enjoy playing the odds in Vegas, they probably won't have a problem with last-minute booking," says Expedia Canada director Sean Shannon. If you're the kind of person who gets stressed without a set-in-stone itinerary, stay home and retile the bathroom instead.

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Streamline your search

Working the various airline, hotel and discount travel websites like Kayak, Orbitz, Expedia and Hotwire can feel like a full-time job. For the time-strapped, try following a few travel and hotel sites on a dedicated Twitter list. This will provide an overall sense of trends and (for smartphone users) free you from the confines of your computer. Many companies will alert you to various time-sensitive deals and other special offers via tweets. Some even have Twitter-only as well as Facebook-only offers, which could lead to big savings or major upgrades for loyal customers (read: followers). In terms of who to follow, Alan Henry of Lifehacker says the smaller airlines and independent hotels tend to provide more personalized and useful Tweets, probably because (unlike the bigger airlines and chains) there is an actual human writing them.

Summon your inner adventurer

It's okay to have some idea of what kind of holiday you're looking for (basically hot or cold), but keep in mind that the more open you are to alternate destinations, the more likely you will be to save big: "I'll get people who want to go to a popular Disney property in Orlando and wonder what kind of deal they can get. That's probably not going to happen," says Mr. Shannon, who advises determining what qualities of a certain locale are important to you and then seeking out some alternatives. Dying to sink your toes in the hot sand? Instead of uber-popular places like Mexico or Jamaica, consider somewhere in Central America like Belize or Guatemala, where hotels as well as the overall bang-for-your-buck factor are going to be far more budget-friendly. In terms of the uncertainty of an unfamiliar destination, take advantage of the user reviews that are almost always available. "The crowd is always right," says Mr. Shannon.

Check secondary starting points

While it may be a little less convenient, taking off from an alternate airport is a great way to shave hundreds off your overall travel budget, depending on the destination and the size of your group. Many travel websites have a function that allows you to automatically check other nearby airports. If not, simply determine your starting point options and do the search yourself. Travellers leaving southern Ontario, for example, should check the rates going out of Buffalo's airport. "You might save $150 or $200 on each flight, and if you're a family of four that's getting into some significant savings," says Mr. Shannon. Regional airports are also worth looking into. Sure, this will likely mean a layover-free flight plan is out of the question, but the road to deal-dom is rarely direct.

Consider a cruise

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Penny pinchers would do well to cast off their land legs, as boat travel is probably the best way to score huge discounts. At this time of year, you could be looking at savings between 40 and 60 per cent for a few reasons. "A lot of people travel to see other people, which means a cruise isn't an option for them," says Mr. Henry. Also, unlike a hotel, there comes a point when a cruise boat has to lay it all on the line: "When that boat leaves port, no one else can check in. The cruise-line companies know this, and they'd rather have you there at a big discount than leave a room empty." Mr. Henry says he's found great deals with lines like Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean, where the standard supply-and-demand rules apply: "Most people want to go somewhere hot, so if you're willing to do a North Atlantic or an Alaskan cruise, you could be looking at a tiny fraction of the original cost."

Don't do this: Forget to check the all-in price. Many discounted tickets are advertised at $99, but factor in taxes and add-ons and it's more like $399.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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