If there’s one thing I do well and do often, it’s procrastinate. Okay, so that’s not always a desirable skill, but it’s not all bad. A few years ago I worked this trait to my advantage to score the best family vacation we’ve ever had. I had an idea in mind of where we would like to visit, a few different days my husband could quickly take off work, and the only hardline item in my plan: a strict budget. It took a lot of late-night research, but in the end I booked a resort on Thursday, and we left on Sunday. We stayed three nights in a 4-star beachfront condo for $80/night! I would have been satisfied to just sit on the beach the whole time, but our resort had an awesome water park on site, and once there, we Googled local attractions to keep it interesting.
There was no plan; just a few days of rest and pure fun.
I was hooked. Last year, with two day’s notice, I booked a 5-star historic hotel in Manhattan for $130. And this year I am watching several different Orlando resorts for our family’s vacation. Hotels are trying to make money, and empty rooms don’t make money. When they get down to the wire, they’ll sell great rooms for dirt cheap just to put bodies in the beds. For some people, waiting until the last minute can be stressful, but if you’re like me, it’s so freeing to relax and be ready to book whatever I can find.
Full disclosure: this method is not for Type A personalities that like to have all the details just so. But if you like to roll with the punches, then with a little patience and a lot of flexibility, you can score the low-cost, last-minute vacation of your dreams.
Location, Location, Location (sort of)
When you’re deciding where to take your last minute vacation, you need to have an idea in mind of where you want to go, but leave a bit of wiggle room. For our beach vacation, I knew we wanted to go to the beach in South Carolina, but I had about a 100-mile radius I was searching. The more flexible you are on the exact location, the more specific you can be on amenities — we wanted a full kitchen, beach access in walking distance, and a kid-friendly hotel pool. If a very specific area is more important — like when we went to New York and my husband was in an orthopedic boot, so we needed a hotel very close to our activities — then you will need to be more flexible on the amenities.
Dates TBD (sort of)
My husband has a pretty flexible job, so it’s not super difficult for him to up and go for a couple days, but I know that’s not for everyone. If you can, have a couple of dates in mind to watch for vacation deals so you can be ready to snag the best one. If that’s not for you though, see if you can be more flexible on the check in/check out dates. The key to finding the best rates on hotels is to choose dates not likely to get booked by someone else. I have found the best day to check in to a hotel is Sunday, since that’s when most people are leaving after the weekend. Many hotels provide special rates for Monday through Wednesday, so if you can be flexible on when to check in and out, you’re more likely to score that good deal. And really, is a 6-day vacation really that much more relaxing than four days? With small kids, by day four we are ready to get home anyway. You can still take the whole week off work; just take those first or last couple of days to enjoy all the fun things to do in your hometown!
Another idea someone suggested to me, but I have never tried, is to try to book your hotel room in separate transactions. If you get a lower rate for Monday through Wednesday, call the hotel to ask about getting that lower rate, then booking the same room for the regular price on Thursday and Friday. You can’t be sneaky about this one; you’ll have to call the hotel to make sure they can keep you in the same room. Of course, if you don’t mind packing up your stuff and moving down the hall for the weekend, then I suppose you don’t have to do that, but that’s your call. 🙂
Stick to the Plan (sort of)
The one and only solid guideline I have when I look for a hotel or resort is the budget, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be flexible there too. I have a maximum amount I want to spend, but don’t sell yourself short by quitting the search too soon! Keep an Excel sheet or pen and paper or however you keep lists, and keep searching to see if you can’t find a lower price. That beach trip I paid $80 a night for? My max was $129, but you better believe I snatched up that low price when I found it! For the New York trip, $130 was my max, and that’s what I ended up paying, but it was truly the best deal I found. The goal here is to find a great vacation on the cheap, so resist the temptation to settle for overpriced lodging if it means you won’t have enough money to enjoy the trip when you get there.
Don’t be afraid to call the hotel you’re considering and ask questions. I use a hotel finding site like Kayak or Expedia, but those services charge a fee. Call the hotel and ask if they will match the rate you found online if you book over the phone. Find out about any service fees, parking charges, or amenities fees that you might miss when looking online. Remember that hotels are open 24/7, so you can usually call and ask these same questions at midnight — which is when I’m usually doing my searches — and not lose precious time and brain power during the day. If you have a special resort or hotel you just love, ask if they have any special rates during slow periods that you could work around, or if they have partner hotels in the area that can offer a better rate. A really wise person once said, “You have not because you ask not,” so why not just ask?
Don’t Tell the Kids
Last but not least, don’t promise this vacation to anyone, including yourself, but especially the kids. If the right place at the right place doesn’t come up at the right time, you have to be willing to walk away and try it again another time. Flexibility is key! Kids don’t do well with disappointment, and neither do mamas sometimes, so give yourself some grace and promise yourself it will happen eventually, even if you have to wait for the right deal.