5 tips for scooping up a last-minute holiday getaway

Stock Photo by Sean Locke

Stock Photo by Sean Locke  (iStock)

Been too busy to make holiday travel plans? You’re in good company. Yesterday a Condé Nast Traveler colleague knocked on my office door in just such a predicament. She needs a trip between Christmas and New Year’s for her family of six and was stymied trying to find affordable airline tickets and resorts with availability. Here’s the advice I gave her:

1. Check out sites that compile last-minute holiday deals.
I showed my colleague Travelzoo’s holiday deals page.

2. Try to fly on December 24 or 25 and return on December 31, January 3, or later.
These dates will likely have the lowest fares. Got a bit of wiggle room in your schedule? When searching for airfares during a peak holiday week, call up a grid that shows fares on all your possible departure and return dates. 

On Kayak, for instance, if you click on “My dates are flexible,” you can select “+/- 3 days” and get a grid showing the lowest fares available on 7 possible departure dates and 7 possible return dates. You can thus find the range of least expensive flights that might suit your schedule.

3. Use hotel chain Web sites to find resorts that still have availability.
When resorts are packed or nearly so, you’re better off phoning a property’s on-site reservations desk than looking for availability via an online travel agency, since the property itself will have the most up-to-date info. But you can waste a lot of hours stabbing in the dark, phoning resort after resort, asking whether it happens to have any rooms available. Instead check the hotel company’s Web site, where you can see, at a glance, all its resorts that have availability. 

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Go first, of course, to the chain whose loyalty program you belong to or whose credit card you hold. Because my Condé Nast Traveler colleague belongs to Starwood Preferred Guest, I showed her how to use Starwood’s site to suss out which resorts still have availability during her travel window. (At, under “Quick Links,” click on “Hotel Explorer,” then click on the region and activities you want—e.g., Beach or Romance.) As of this morning, Starwood still had 20 North American warm-weather beach properties with availability for travelers arriving on December 24 and leaving on December 31.

4. Forget flying and find a resort you can drive to.
For those of us who live in the Northeast, the biggest advantage of driving to your vacation may be that you’re not risking winter snowstorms canceling your flight and, given the difficulty of rebooking, cutting precious days off your getaway. Most appealing resorts within driving distance were sold out weeks or months ago, of course, so your best bet may be to try to scoop up rooms that suddenly become available when someone cancels. 

Phone several resorts that interest you and ask them to put you on their wait list. If there’s no wait list—or even if there is—ask when cancellation penalties set in for the date when you’d want to arrive. Say you’d want to arrive on December 27 and cancellation penalties set in on December 13: Call on the morning of the 13th to see whether someone has cancelled and a room has opened up.

5. Forget resorts and go for a fun, festive big-city break.
Take the money you saved on airfare and a beach resort and instead spend it on restaurants, museums, theater, and spa treatments in a city that loses its business travelers during the Christmas-New Year’s window. 

Urban hotels that normally cater to business travelers must often lower rates to lure vacationers during holiday weeks. You might get some ideas from Quikbook. You could even use a city hotel as your affordable base for a ski vacation. Salt Lake City, for instance, has affordable airfares and hotels over the holidays and puts you within a 30-minute drive of several ski resorts, so you can carve up a new mountain every day.

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