Ever feel that urge to get out of town, like, now? Anyone who’s been bitten by the travel bug (or regularly craves a change of scenery) has felt the intense need to take a last-minute trip. But between choosing a destination, booking flights and hotels, and figuring out what you’ll do when you actually get there, it can sometimes take months to plan a vacation. Wondering how you can plan all of that in a day?
Stay calm—last-minute trips can be every bit as invigorating as vacations you’ve planned in advance, and they definitely don’t have to stress you out.
There’s a certain art to pulling together a last-minute trip, though. You’ve got to have a sense of which destinations work best for spontaneous adventures, what types of activities you can do spur-of-the-moment, and where to book affordable flights and hotels just days before you go. Once your bases are covered, all that’s left is figuring out what to bring. (But don’t worry, we’ve got a packing list that can help!)
Here are some tips on booking a last-minute trip, so you can embrace your spontaneity, sans stress.
Rethinking Your Approach to Vacation
Think about the last time you booked a major vacation. You probably came up with a specific experience in a specific destination (road-tripping the California coastline! wine-tasting throughout Burgundy! swimming with the pigs in the Bahamas!) and made it happen. Cheers to you for crossing those must-have experiences off your travel bucket list.
But for a last-minute trip, you’ll need to be a lot more flexible. Think more broadly about the type of experience you’d like to have, such as a tropical beach getaway, couple’s retreat in the mountains, or outdoor adventure with the entire family. Then, research a variety of potential destinations that offer those experiences to see which have the best bargains for a last-minute trip. Rarely is one type of experience confined to a specific destination (except maybe those swimming piggies).
“Most people that are planning last-minute trips just want to go somewhere, usually wherever’s the cheapest,” says Courtnie Nichols, a travel concierge and founder of TravelBash. “So I ask questions about what they might be looking for, like a health and wellness trip or a girlfriends’ getaway or romantic vacation, and offer them three ideas that fit that theme.”
You might be dying to jet off to Waikiki this weekend, but unless you score the right deal on flights and hotels, a last-minute trip to Hawaii might be out of the question for your budget.
Instead, think about why you wanted to go to Waikiki: Was it the glorious beaches? Luxe hotels? Animal attractions? Narrow down what drew you to that destination, then seek out places that offer a similar experience, such as the Caribbean.
That will allow you to have the kind of last-minute trip you crave without draining your travel fund. And who knows—you might find you like the alternative destination even more than the spot you had originally dreamed of.
Where to Find Cheap, Last-Minute Airline Tickets
So you’ve picked your destination, and you’re ready to work out the details. How do you find cheap last-minute flights?
You’ll need to be strategic…and a little bit lucky. First, learn which websites and apps tend to have the best last-minute flight deals. Kayak, SkyScanner, Google Flights, and Hopper are some of Nichols’ favorites to use for airline tickets. Then, find ways to outsmart the airlines.
“Enable private browsing [such as incognito mode on Google Chrome] when you’re looking for flights for last-minute trips. Websites can track when you’re searching and they might raise the prices. Be smarter than the airlines,” says Nichols.
The day and time you search for travel deals also matters when it comes to how much you’ll pay for a last-minute trip. Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays are the best time to book flights, says Nichols.
“Don’t even ask why I’m sometimes looking at flights at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m., but any time after midnight, you can get good deals,” she explains, with a laugh.
Another way to potentially find a bargain flight for a last-minute trip: Look for two one-way tickets as opposed to a round-trip booking. That trick doesn’t always work, but when it does, you can save big, says Nichols.
Sometimes, third-party websites and blogs can clue you into cheap flight options that might inspire you to take a last-minute trip. Check out The Flight Deal, which posts about flights that go on sale to destinations around the world. (Last December, that site posted about a flight deal to Mexico City that lead to a spur-of-the-moment getaway with one of my besties.)
If you’re on a tight budget for a last-minute trip, consider driving to a destination. It might be less expensive than booking flights for everyone in the family, and it’s always nice to have your own set of wheels when you’re on vacation.
Booking a Hotel Room for Last-Minute Travel
Now that you’ve figured out where you’re headed for your last-minute trip and how you’re getting there, it’s time to find a place to stay.
Waiting until the last minute to book your hotel rooms can work out in your favor, says Nichols.
“Everyone says book early, but what happens if you wait is that a lot of resorts and hotels look at their inventory, and if they have space, they send out last-minute hotel deals,” she says.
The best way to find out about cheap last-minute hotel rooms is to sign up for loyalty programs at the major hotel and resort brands, such as Sandals, Hilton, and Hyatt, Nichols adds. The companies will serve their best offers right into your inbox.
Most travelers rely exclusively on the internet to make their bookings, but picking up the phone can give you access to travel deals that aren’t being distributed online.
“Hotels and campgrounds often have last-minute cancellations,” says Bill Widmer, who runs The Wandering RV. “It’s often easy to call them to see if they have any openings. You’ll typically get a good deal if they do.”
Conventional hotels aren’t the only places to stay, though. A number of alternative accommodations provide an array of choices (and price points!) for your home away from home, says Calvin Iverson, travel expert at TravelPirates.
“If you find that all of the cheaper hotel rooms are already booked for the week you’re planning to travel, expand your search to other options like Airbnb and HomeAway,” he explains. “Glamping is also becoming more and more popular on these platforms, and it’s no wonder—it’s the perfect compromise for those who love the outdoors but don’t want to skimp on convenience.”
You can also score deals on hotel rooms for a last-minute trip. But keep in mind: If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Check reviews on TripAdvisor before booking accommodations at rock-bottom rates. (There might be a reason that “4-star” hotel has tons of rooms available at bargain prices on a holiday weekend!)
When to Use a Travel Agent
Websites and apps have made it easier than ever to make your own travel arrangements. But there are still some pretty compelling reasons to work with a travel agent, especially when you’re in the mood for a last-minute trip. And surprisingly, it won’t cost you much (if anything!).
“A lot of travel agents don’t charge a fee—they make money on the back-end from the hotels they book for their clients,” says Nichols.
Travel agents are in the know about trends and can give you last-minute trip ideas that never would have crossed your mind. They also have access to special prices on hotels and travel packages that aren’t published elsewhere.
“I get travel deals in my inbox all the time that the public isn’t getting. When I see one that I think a client might like, I get in touch with them to see if they’re interested,” says Nichols.
Relationships with hotels and resorts are at the heart of a travel agent’s business. They leverage those partnerships to ensure that clients are treated like royalty during their stay, which increases the value (but not the price!) of a last-minute trip.
“Travel agents can get you extra perks and upgrades. Plus, they take the headache out of planning a last-minute trip,” adds Nichols.
With the right travel agent, you can jet off on the trip of your dreams in just a few short days—within budget and without the stress.
Ready to Travel—At Any Time
Want to be able to indulge your inner adventurer and jump on any amazing travel deal you come across? (Who doesn’t?) Then you better have all your ducks in a row long before you try to plan a last-minute trip. And by ducks, we mean travel documents and related materials.
“Your passport is the most important thing,” says Nichols. “I tell all clients, even if they’re cruising from a U.S. port and reentering in the U.S., that they better have a passport. You never know when the rules will change and politics will come into play.”
Before jetting off to a new country, make sure that your passport isn’t expiring anytime soon. Many destinations require that you have at least six months left before it expires. And double check that you have plenty of blank pages available for stamps and visas.
Anything can happen before or during a journey, especially on a last-minute trip. Travel insurance can help you troubleshoot major issues and reimburse some of your expenses, should you need to cancel reservations.
Going abroad? Check if your health insurance policy will cover you if you get sick or injured in another country. When in doubt, consider investing in travel medical insurance ahead of a last-minute trip.
Finally, a travel-focused credit card proves endlessly useful for people who love to be on the road. You’ll typically pay a hefty annual fee, but the card will give you access to helpful amenities, like rental car insurance, airport lounge passes, travel assistance, hotel room upgrades, money to reimburse you for expenses incurred during travel hiccups (like a lost bag), and tons more. Plus, travel credit cards generally allow you to make purchases around the world without paying foreign transaction fees (because why pay extra for those souvenirs?).
Making the Most of Your Last-Minute Trip
When it comes to last-minute trips, you might have only had time to book a flight and a hotel room before leaving town. How are you going to fill your days once you get to the destination?
“You can plan almost all the activities you want to do on a last-minute trip once you arrive,” says Nichols. “Depending on where you go, the hotel or resort will have a concierge or staff at the front desk who can give you a list of all the fun things to do.”
Whether you want to have a candlelit dinner with a view, an exhilarating ATV adventure, a day of guided sightseeing, or recommendations on the best neighborhoods for a stroll, you can get all the info (and make the arrangements) at the hotel.
On a last-minute trip, you might not be able to score tickets to the hottest show in town (sorry, Hamilton fans) or reservations at the best restaurant during peak dinner hours, but there will always be fun things to do. Don’t be afraid to ask locals and other travelers for recommendations, says Nichols.
“I was in Puerto Rico talking to locals, and they told me about an amazing jazz place. They can also tell you about activities and where the best bars are,” she adds.
A wide-open schedule is a beautiful thing on a last-minute trip. Relish in the things you love most, whether that’s adrenaline-fueled activities, deep-dives into foreign culture, or just lounging on the beach. And even if you don’t do everything on your list, there’s no need for FOMO—just start planning your next vacation!