Maybe your spouse or partner needs a well-deserved break. Or perhaps the kids have said, "I'm bored!" a few times too often during their summer vacation.
If you, your partner or your family want -- or need -- to get out of town, how do you improvise a great last-minute trip without breaking the bank?
Start with a notion that's a bit counter-intuitive. To become an effective travel bargain hunter, planning is essential. In fact, embrace travel as a hobby, looking for tricks, techniques and current online resources to keep abreast of the best last-minute deals. Here's how to begin:
Adjust your expectations. Successful last-minute deals are there for eagle-eyed travelers willing to make compromises. You'll likely be traveling at off-peak hours (either the first flight out in the morning or the last one at night, usually on weekdays) and staying at hotels or venues off the beaten path. That might work well for solo or buddy travelers, but not so much for the family trying to score their dream trip to the most popular venues in the world. In short, if you are not a particularly independent or adaptive traveler, "last-minute" may simply not be for you.
Be ready to go. Traveling last-minute isn't for the indecisive. Dedicated travelers are minimalists: They know what to pack and how to organize their paperwork and payment options and have the mental preparation to deal with problems and challenges along the way. If there are particular locations or countries you like to visit frequently, keep packing lists specific to those locations on your computer, with links to local resources you build over time. Also realize that last-minute travel can mean risk and potentially other costs; for example, if you're planning a trip that requires travel insurance, you may not get your coverage approved in time.
Understand supply and demand. Last-minute travel deals are subject to the calendar and the whims of the economy. During the recent recession, many airlines slashed flight schedules and, with them, available seats for discounted standby tickets. A spike in fuel prices may mean higher ticket prices as well. Keeping a regular eye on travel industry stories and blogs helps track prevailing wisdom and signals the best days and times to make reservations.
Embrace online travel sites. The Internet has revolutionized most forms of purchasing goods and services, but for travel, it has offered unprecedented speed and customization. Leading travel sites have a track record and broad listings of various travel products, but new travel websites and apps launch every day. Using key phrases on search engines such as "last-minute fares" or "last-minute hotel reservations" on search engines might unearth real-time deals and long-term resources you might not otherwise find. Some airlines now offer their own last-minute fare sites; try to sign up for email alerts and social media feeds from a variety of carriers and other travel providers so you won't miss a deal. Also bookmark sites that offer favorable pricing for smaller airlines as well as the lesser expenses of any trip -- from destination-based restaurant and event sites to the best currency rates for overseas trips.
Compare different options on flights. When checking reservations, see how much you can save by taking a layover that doesn't involve the cost of a night's stay in a hotel. Airlines typically price layover flights a little cheaper. Also compare the price of two one-way tickets -- possibly from competing carriers -- against round-trip tickets at single carriers.
Test new lodging options. Bed and breakfasts have long been a traditional money-saving alternative to traditional hotels, but the online revolution in vacation and short-term property rental has created many new options for last-minute lodging. The new generation of apartment and spare-bedroom sharing sites and longtime online vacation home rental services offer last-minute and in some cases "day-of" lodging possibilities. However, keep in mind that online scammers have entered this territory, and all transactions should be verified. Also, hostels are not just for students and backpackers anymore. This lower-priced accommodation has expanded to a range of demographics, which you can check online for options in cities worldwide. Getting on the phone also works in the hotel industry; check online prices against what you can find by calling up the hotel's own booking number. Ask if there is a corporate rate or special for the period of your stay.
Consider ride share instead of renting a car. Depending on your location, itinerary and parking rates, you might want to check car-rental rates against leading ride-share companies available at the touch of a smartphone screen. Many ride-share companies allow you to get advance pricing estimates in advance for specific routes you may need to take by car, so if walking or taking public transportation aren't an option, do a ride share/rental comparison.
Evaluate every membership connection you have. From your membership card for your main professional networking group to your credit cards and even to the auto club that tows your car, do you have access to travel benefits you can leverage on a last-minute trip? If you've never checked those benefits, do so.
Bottom line: When you decide to take a trip with little notice, getting the best deal requires flexibility, online savvy and making smart connections through social media.
Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter, go to twitter.com/PracticalMoney.