Five Ways to a Cheap Last-Minute Vacation

Procrastinator? No matter. You can pull off a fun and memorable summer getaway on a moment's notice — without breaking the bank.

A happy older couple rides their bikes on a path through a green field.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Still no plans for the summer? A last-minute vacation might be just the thing and it's not too late to make your getaway. But doesn't traveling at the last minute mean paying through the nose? Not so, if you choose the right vacation spot and know where to look for 11th-hour bargains. 

We outline five tips to help you plan a budget-friendly adventure on the fly.

1. Travel in the off-season

We're not suggesting you put your summer vacation dreams on hold. Rather, consider visiting locales where tourist traffic is highest in winter, spring or fall -- not summer. By traveling in the off-season, not only will you save money off peak-season rates, but also you will avoid the crowds and have a greater chance of finding accommodations at the last minute. For example, summer is a prime time to relax at a posh ski resort, cruise the Caribbean or unwind poolside in the Mexican Riviera for a fraction of winter prices.

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2. Book a package deal

Airlines typically raise fares a week or two before departure, reasoning that business travelers will pony up the cash to fly on short notice. But you can get around the sky-high prices with a vacation package that includes a hotel or rental car with your flights. 

Airlines often discount unbooked seats at the last minute by rolling them into packages, which don't list the fare reduction separately. You can find these bundled bargains on Travelocity (opens in new tab)'s last-minute deals page. We recently searched the site for a trip (with departure in a week) to Orlando from St. Louis. We found a package that included a four-night hotel stay plus non-stop round-trip airfare (budget airlines) for only $340 per person, based on double occupancy. You don't have to use all the elements of a package. So even if you didn't need a hotel, buying the package and using only the airfare will often still save you money compared with buying a plane ticket directly from the airline.

3. Vacation close to home

The steep cost of international airfare this summer is enough to eat up any vacation budget. However, data from travel company, Hopper (opens in new tab) shows that U.S. domestic flights are 19% cheaper than last summer.  Destinations with decent flight prices range from big cities like New York and Chicago to family favorites like Walt Disney World Orlando.

Instead of taking to the skies, you could also consider destinations to which you can drive. Even with high gas prices, you could save a bundle. Seek out day-trip possibilities and return home each night to forgo lodging expenses. Or you can look for destinations within a day's drive and book an affordable hotel using one of our favorite travel websites. For a trove of ideas and itineraries in dozens of places, check out the Day Trips series from Globe Pequot Press (opens in new tab).

If your budget is particularly tight, or if members of your family have scheduling conflicts, try being a tourist in your hometown. Perhaps you live in San Francisco and have never walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, taken the tour at Alcatraz or had dim sum in China Town. 

Check out a tour guide book for your city, grab your camera and go explore. Or you can use your modest vacation budget to live it up for a few days at home — go to a concert, eat at a ritzy restaurant or unwind at a local spa. After all, you've got a free place to stay. Just tell everyone you're on vacation. To minimize distractions and feel like you're actually getting away, put a hold on your email and don't answer your cell phone.

4. Consider camping or hostelling

It may not be the Ritz, but if you're up for an adventure, staying at a campsite or hostel can save you oodles of money. Plus, you may stand a better chance of finding last-minute accommodations. Most campsites take reservations, so hop online to check availability and secure your spot, even at a moment's notice. The websites (opens in new tab) and Reserve America (opens in new tab) provide information and reservations for camping, RV and cabins plus details of trails, permits and passes. You'll find camps that range from deep mountain settings to beach-front bliss.

If you prefer sleeping in a bed to sleeping under the stars, consider a budget-friendly hostel. Depending on where you go dorm rooms can cost from $20 a night. They are typically available for drop-in travelers, or you can book a reservation online through Hostel World (opens in new tab). And hostels aren't just for solo vacationers. Many offer private rooms for couples and families at a higher price that's still less than the rate at nearby hotels. And hostels provide more than just a place to sleep. Most come with communal kitchens and laundries, free WiFi and some even offer perks such as game rooms, TV rooms, hot tubs and organized activities for kids.

5. Get in touch with nature

Entertaining the family on a vacation doesn't have to break the bank. For budget family-friendly activities, you can count on Mother Nature. 

For starters, consider the offerings of national parks, forests and state parks. Miles of hiking trails, beautiful vistas, biking trails, fishing holes and rafting runs await — all without requiring advance notice. National park entrance fees typically cost around $35, and some local parks are free. If you plan to visit several national parks this summer, spring for the National Parks Pass (opens in new tab) ($80) which gets you and your party into any park for a year — note: kids aged 15 or under are automatically admitted free. 

Don't overlook our neighbor to the north, either. Canada offers a bevy of beautiful parks and outdoor adventures, too, often without the overcrowding that's become common at U.S. parks. You might find it easier to snag a campsite or a nearby hotel at a moment's notice without the crowds.

Vaishali Varu

Vaishali graduated in journalism from Leeds University, UK. She has worked for her local news outlet, the Leicester Mercury as well as writing personal finance stories for digital publications, The Money Edit, MoneyWeek and GoodToKnow. When she is not writing about money-saving, deals, finance hacks and other personal finance topics, Vaishali likes to travel and she's a foodie.

With contributions from