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Richard Drew  /  AP file
Have you ever thought quick weekend getaways for theater night in New York, a sunny weekend in the Bahamas or other excursions are simply the stuff of commercials for travel Web sites? Columnist Rob Lovitt says there are actually deals to be had.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/4/2008 10:04:01 AM ET 2008-03-04T15:04:01

Ah, last-minute travel. To hear the online travel sites describe it, it’s all about theater weekends in New York, romantic getaways in Napa and beach time in the Bahamas.

Yeah, right. If you’re like most people, the only time you travel at the last minute is when work or family matters demand it. Either way, you just know you’re going to pay through the nose for it.

At least that’s what I thought until last week when a family emergency required us to travel from Seattle to San Diego on short notice. As I happily discovered, you can save big bucks on short notice — if you know where to look.

Going soon without going broke
In our case, I started looking for airfare on Tuesday, planning to leave early Saturday morning and return late Monday night. I surfed the usual places — Expedia, Orbitz, Kayak, a few airline and rental car sites — but they all came back with similar numbers. Barring inconvenient timing or lousy connections (Seattle–San Diego, by way of Denver?), we were looking at about $800 for two plane tickets and a compact car.

That is, until I surfed over to lastminute.com, the Travelocity subsidiary that specializes in travel over the next two weekends. Entering our preferred plans, I was pleasantly surprised to find two Alaska Air tickets (non-stop going, a quick stop in Portland on the return) and a Hertz car for $580. It wasn’t the “up to 70 percent” discount that the Web site touts, but almost 30 percent off would do in a pinch.

The system, notes communications manager Giovanna Garlati, is pegged to the availability of distressed inventory, i.e., those airline seats, hotel rooms and rental cars that are in danger of going unsold by their original providers. “They usually release it two weeks beforehand,” she says, “when they see it’s not selling.” A steeply discounted seat (or room or rental car), after all, provides more revenue than an empty one.

Once the inventory is released, lastminute reassembles it (via software developed under the site’s predecessor, site59) and prices it for quick sale. Generally speaking, users can book travel from 14 days to three hours before departure. Says Garlati, “You can book right now and head to the airport straightaway.”

A hotel room is a terrible thing to waste
Finding last-minute hotel deals may be even easier. “If an average of seven out of 10 rooms are full, that means three are empty every night,” says Clem Bason, travel expert for Hotwire.com. And since most hotels can predict future occupancy levels through historical data, they’re often eager to unload potentially empty rooms through alternative channels.

At Hotwire, last-minute deals can be accessed in several ways. Click on the Deals button on the homepage and you’ll find hotels (as well as flights, cars and packages) pegged to this weekend and next weekend. “Hotels start releasing inventory as much as 30 days out,” says Bason. “As the [specific] date approaches, they may offer increasing discounts on a daily basis.”

More recently, the site added what Bason calls an “embedded deal engine,” which pegs the homepage to a user’s home city and highlights the best deals that other users have found. If a provider drops a price, he says, the results will be posted on the homepage within the hour, along with the percentage savings over retail: “Check back often and you can find stellar deals faster than ever.”

In fact, such real-time technology is making it increasingly easy to track down good deals for a variety of interests and destinations. Need a room in Europe or the UK? LateRooms.com has thousands of them, many available from tonight on. If you’re heading to Asia, LateStays.com offers rooms in Indonesia, Malaysia and a dozen other countries.

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Then again, maybe you’ve built up too much vacation time and the boss has told you to use it or lose it. As I was typing this, CheapTickets.com was offering a 9-night Southern Caribbean cruise from Miami for as low as $599 per person — although you have to be ready to go this Friday. (If you need a Thursday flight to Miami, check out the last-minute deals link under the site’s Flights tab.)

The key, of course, is being able to move fast because such deals come and go quickly. To improve your odds, subscribe to the free newsletters that many Web sites produce. Hotwire and lastminute, for example, send out weekly updates via e-mail on Mondays and Tuesdays, respectively. And earlier this month, CheapTickets revamped its Web site, posting new destination-based deals every Tuesday in a blog-style format.

Who knows, even if you can’t get away this weekend or next, one of deals you uncover this week might spark an idea for a future trip — you know, like when you have that next family emergency.

In the Bahamas.

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