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Last-minute getaways as summer slips away

Summer as is much a feeling as it is a season, so if you want to grab hold of it before it's gone, plan a trip with a summer vibe, not just a summer time frame.
/ Source: Independent Traveler

If you haven't had a proper vacation this year and are despairing that the summer has slipped away, there's only one way to be thinking at this point: it ain't over till it's over.

Travel companies know it too, and many are scrambling to bring in a few precious extra dollars before it's all over again for another year. Add to this the latest economic slump, which is spurring travel companies to offer considerable last-minute discounts, and you have a good shot at salvaging a little bit of summer before it's gone.

Rx for rescuing your summer
There are as many ways to approach a last-minute, late summer vacation as there are places you might visit. So we won't tell you where to go, but instead suggest how to figure out where to go.

Do something "summery." Summer as is much a feeling as it is a season, so if you want to grab hold of it before it's gone, plan a trip with a summer vibe, not just a summer time frame. Depending on how your pleasures tend, this could mean a wine tasting tour, sitting on a beach, staying in a cabin in the woods in Maine, sleeping in a tent in the Olympic mountains, riding a motorcycle or taking a balloon ride. Just go where "there's things to do not because you gotta," as the sage Jonathan Richman sang.

Don't settle for time off and time away; do something that reminds you of summer, without exception. For me, it is going to be a dawn patrol surf, tomorrow morning as it turns out. If you need some inspiration, check out our Summer vacation ideas.

Go with the sure thing
This past winter, our family ended up with a single weekend to try to get some time away together, so we cobbled together a trip to a place that would thrill our 4-year-old but also let his parents go on autopilot for a couple of days. We chose an unusually "conventional" destination (for our younger selves, anyway) — Disney World — and it was a blow-out success. Some destinations are simply a sure thing, and when you are trying to rescue an entire summer from going down the tubes, going with the sure thing makes a lot of sense. Travel to places like Disney, Las Vegas and New York City (and if the airlines cooperate Paris and London), where end-of-summer deals mean there are heaps of hotels with corridors of empty rooms, lots of flights and things to do for almost everyone. You almost cannot fail.

Get on a boat
A last-minute summer cruise can offer a perfect combination of activities, destination trainspotting (thanks to multiple ports of call) and laziness. Check out the last-minute cruise deals from our sister site, Cruise Critic; most of these deals are for September at this point, but I took a close look and found a few for next weekend as well.

Let the travel winds take you where they will. The notion of surrendering control of your travels to the simple fact of what is cheap and readily available has "care-free summer" etched all over it.

See below for ways to find the best late summer travel bargains, and then go wherever they might take you. In the past, this approach took me to offbeat regions of Guatemala and Venezuela, a couple of the most memorable trips I have ever taken.

Go home again
The end of summer comes wrapped in a feeling of nostalgia rivaled only perhaps by the winter holiday season — there is nothing quite like spending the last days of summer in your old home town.

Go south
If you find yourself past Labor Day without having taken a summer vacation, remember that summer lasts longer to the south. In places like Florida and southern California, you will find the sensations of summer rushing back well into September and even October. Sitting on a beach in the first week of October feels almost decadent, but most folks can hack it for a couple of days.

Very late summer and early fall can also be a beautiful time of year in places that were almost uninhabitable a couple weeks ago (or will be a few weeks hence); in the Southwest, for example, a mid-September desert vacation can be so climatologically and visually pleasant that you might want to live there year-round (until you check the average temps for July, that is). The same can be true for a lake in Montana, which will be fantastically mellow and temperate next weekend, but snow-ringed in October.

Go places no one talks about
End-of-summer deals are flooding the market in second- and third-tier tourist destinations; think Myrtle Beach, S.C., instead of Miami Beach, Santa Cruz, Calif., instead of Carmel, Calif. You won't be missing much; if your goal is to sit on the beach, read books, take naps and regroup in general, all you need is an affordable hotel near the beach with a decent place to eat or two — nothing more.

Do an economic crisis tour
If you are hoping to see Europe in late summer, it turns out that the places that are most troubled economically are also the most interested in accepting your travel dollars. The Icelandic krona is about two for one against the dollar these days, and while they still use the euro, prices have crashed in Portugal and Greece. Your money goes further in these places than it does anywhere else in Europe. The same applies to some extent to destinations like the Gulf region of the United States, where New Orleans and towns like Panama City, Fla., are still reeling from weather and oil-spill events, and hotels are hurting for visitors.

Making it happen
When you are trying to book the kind of trip we are discussing here, sometimes you have to look beyond the usual booking engines and travel outlets — or at least beyond the straightforward, above-the-fold airfare searches on those sites.

When I was starting out my days as an "independent traveler" while living in New York City, the best place to find cheap travel was on the back of the Village Voice, where so-called "bucket shops," or consolidators, advertised almost ridiculously low-priced junkets, often to admittedly marginal destinations. Some of the most memorable trips of my youth were purchased at these dingy joints, but these days you don't need to suffer subway rides to strange offices, or carry around paper tickets that you hope are real — you can just go to a last-minute travel Web site. Check out Best bets for booking a last-minute trip for our favorite sites, as well as Airline consolidators.

The Sunday paper
Finding a great travel deal can take as much time and effort as can the actual trip itself. While your go-to starting place should remain sites like our Travel deals section, one thing your old-fashioned local Sunday paper can offer is a filter for deals that don't apply to you at all, and a gathering of very local offers in one place — the ads are usually targeted to your nearest departure airport or cruise port, so you don't have to wade through tons of deals out of LAX while all you want is to get to a beach from your home in Cincinnati. Many consolidators advertise in the paper as well.

Clubs or credit cards
AAA, the travel branch of your credit card company, the AARP and travel discount clubs (see How private sale travel sites could save you money) can be solid resources for unusually good deals to excellent destinations, particularly those still giving off the summer vibe.

E-mail newsletters
Over the past 10 days or so, nearly every travel service to whom I have ever given my e-mail address has sent me information hawking one last-minute summer deal or another, and some of them are pretty darn good. Sign up for a batch of newsletters from your favorite sites, sit back and let the deals come to you.

Vacation packages on the 'usual' booking and airline Web sites
Most booking sites and airline sites branched out into full-service travel packaging a long time ago. In the same way these sites can be extremely convenient ways to purchase straightforward airfares, they can also be among the easiest ways to scoop up the best deals on travel packages for all types of people. When you visit these sites, go straight to the "Vacation packages" links on most of their home pages.

Online travel deal listings
Online aggregators of the best travel deals are still the best place to start; check out our Travel deals section to get underway. In particular, scroll down a bit on sites like this to the vacation package and hotel deals; a lot of us think of travel as "flying" and check mainly for airfare deals, but that's not where the best ideas — and savings — are to be found at this time of year.

Read the fine print
When you are booking travel away from the usual suspects, such as with last-minute aggregators, consolidators or vacation clubs, you will want to read the fine print and do your research much more closely than usual. There can be perfectly legal "gotcha" clauses in there, and a search on reviews of the travel company or hotel will let you know what you are really getting into and what you can reasonably expect.

The sun is setting on summer; don't let it slip away or it may, as Richman sang, "haunt you one day in your life."

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