By Travel columnist
updated 8/10/2005 7:16:03 PM ET 2005-08-10T23:16:03

It seems that all the advice about getting great travel bargains starts off staying, “Plan ahead.”

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Well, I’m not much of a “plan ahead” kind of guy. I like taking off at the last minute. Seeing a great destination in a magazine, hearing that we’re due for some nasty weather, getting an invitation to a last-minute birthday bash — those are the kinds of things that motivate me to get up and go.

Call me spur-of-the-moment. Call me eleventh-hour, helter-skelter, pell-mell, out-of-the-blue — all would be correct. It hardly seems like a vacation if I have to plan ahead and work to have fun.

Fortunately, the Internet is the perfect travel agent for last-minute travelers like me.

Here’s a recent scenario: a surprise birthday party in New Orleans, eight days hence. Not a lot of time to plan ahead, so I go bargain hunting on the Internet for airline tickets and a hotel room.

I started my search for a last-minute package deal at Site59.com, which used to be the only game in town. By combining once-popular weekend airfares with excess hotel capacity, Site59 was able to offer excellent last-minute getaways. It still does. I found a $600 package. But it’s not the only game in town anymore. Not even the cheapest.

Take SideStep.com. SideStep is the first metasearch engine to look for package-travel deals (in fact, it is the only one doing package deals so far). Just plug in your departure date and your destination, and SideStep will give you a package of hotels and travel times that it has retrieved from several major tour operators.

When I used SideStep for my New Orleans trip, it came up with packages similar to those found on Site59, but its prices were significantly lower. SideStep currently lists only Orbitz packages in its New Orleans results. The savings may go even higher in the future as SideStep adds other packagers.

Next stop, three giants. Expedia.com churned away and came up with a price a bit lower than SideStep’s. So did Travelocity.com and Cheaptickets.com. Pretty much a dead heat here, except that Cheaptickets has a unique format that makes it a little easier to choose among several airlines.

Finally, Lodging.com offered similar prices for the same dates. It also offered some smaller, two-star hotels for consideration.

Verdict? In today’s online world, travel research is easy, and all the major travel sites can put together excellent last-minute air-and-hotel packages. The differences among the sites lie mainly in the hotel inventories they control and the side deals they can make with their partner airlines. My advice is to browse through at least three of the major online sites mentioned above before making your decision.

For those looking for even cheaper last-minute deals, Hostelworld.com is a good bet. Plugging in “New Orleans” and the desired dates gave me six hostels and budget hotels with per-person rates ranging from $17 to $30 a night. The least expensive lodgings were dorm rooms, while the higher-priced accommodations were budget hotels in the center of town. If you are nervous about staying in some of the offered places, pay attention to Hostelworld’s ratings, which evaluate each property on such qualities as location, security and cleanliness.

Daredevils should check out Priceline.com, where you can name your own price for available air and hotel space, then see if anyone bites. Priceline has been around for seven years and, despite increasing competition, its bidding system can still produce the lowest prices. To get the best bargains, I recommend using Priceline together with BiddingForTravel.com, a moderated message board that reports recent successful bids on Priceline for airline tickets, hotels, and rental cars in the United States.

BiddingForTravel showed me successful hotel bids in downtown New Orleans in the last 30 days — bids as low as half the rates found on Expedia. These are top hotels — Monaco, Marriott, Omni Royal, Wyndham and Hilton - for no more than $107 per room when successfully bid through Priceline.

Though the popularity of special weekend Internet airfares seems to have waned, you can get the lowdown on these and other bargain travel offers by subscribing to one of SmarterTravel.com’s e-mail newsletters (they’re free). The weekend specials normally require departure on a Saturday and a return the following Monday or Tuesday. The prices are right, and the unpredictability of the available destinations adds a bit of excitement. I’ve been tempted more than once with a SmarterTravel bargain that was too good to pass up. And away I flew.

So, by all means, plan ahead if you need to or want to. But know that flying by the seat of your pants can land you some great bargains, too.

Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Leocha's forum.

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