Do your research and be flexible and you can score a fabulous last-minute vacation.
Do your research and be flexible and you can score a fabulous last-minute vacation. Alan Powdrill/Getty Images

If you are willing to, well OK, fly by the seat of your pants, there are plenty of great last-minute vacation bargains to be had. Below are a few strategies to help you get the best deal on a fabulous vacation booked at the last minute.

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1. Being Flexible is Better

Last-minute deals arise when airlines and hotels need to fill seats and rooms. Period. So it's much easier to find bargains if you have no particular travel agenda. This might mean traveling on weekdays, flying very early or late in the day or on indirect flights, visiting a destination in the off-season, or even heading to a city that you never before considered.

2. Start With Last-Minute Vacation Websites

One-stop sites like LastMinute.com can save you up to 70 percent on airfare, hotel rooms, activities and even entire packages. Travelzoo.com carefully screens thousands of website and e-newsletter deals. VacationstoGo.com is great for last-minute cruises.

Unfortunately, many offers won't matter to you. A deal for Boston to Ireland won't help if you're trying to get to Cancun. In such cases, check sites like AirfareWatchdog.com, which analyzes seasons and trends for the best prices. Just plug in departure and arrival airports for a list of cheap flights. Fly.com, a TravelZoo sister site, lets you do the same — by date and for flights, hotels and rental cars.

3. Hotels Have Deals Aplenty

Most hotels have some deal or another going. Often these run for weeks or even an entire season, so you needn't book until you've found the cheapest airfare. Depending on the terms and conditions of the hotel offer, you might save additional money through memberships in loyalty programs or organizations like AAA or AARP. With larger hotel chains, check for deals on both the main and local property sites. And don't be afraid to call the hotel for an unadvertised special or a manager willing to make a last-minute deal to fill an empty room.

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4. Plan Ahead

Sound like a contradiction? It's not really. Many savvy travelers stick to last-minute vacations. They stay on top of deals by signing up for special-offer e-newsletters and email blasts from travel planning sites, airlines, hotels and credit card companies. They also do a little old-fashioned research to avoid planning trips during peak seasons or major events, when prices skyrocket.

5. Move Fast, But Pay Attention

Book incredible deals as soon as you see them. On some sites, they can be snapped up in minutes. That said, be sure you've read the small print and understand fully what you're getting for the money and what you're not.