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The Last Minute Traveler

The travel industry has experienced many new trends in the last decade or so, as travelers' desires have changed and the baby-boomer generation has made its preferences known. Last minute travel, with bookings occurring closer and closer to departure day, is one such trend. Savvy travelers looking to quickly discover the hottest new destinations, find great bargains or enjoy a spontaneous getaway are shopping for travel opportunities with very little advance planning or time until departure.

For last minute travel, the key is to be prepared, and to understand the opportunities—and challenges—of waiting until the last minute.

Keep your passport up to date, and remember that many countries require the book to have at least six months of validity remaining after your return date. Also, make sure you have enough blank pages left for any entry and exit stamps you may need. That may mean you would have to renew your current passport even though the expiration date is months off.

Do your homework. Know the peak, shoulder, and off-season times for destinations of interest. Often, the very beginning and very end of a season (or off season) allow for special travel features or promotions.

Subscribe to e-newsletters for travel companies and tour operators whose programs you are interested in. If special promotions are offered, they are typically sent via email alerts. Also, make sure to "Like" companies' Facebook pages so you can stay current with their messages and limited-time promotions.

Be willing to swim against the current—and travel to destinations that others may hesitate to visit, or opt to travel during less popular times. Going to the most popular place during peak season means you may be part of a crowd (and paying more), rather than going to an off-beat location that has not been "discovered" yet.

Prepare your resources—know what you would do with pet care, mail handling, and other logistical challenges if you have the opportunity to travel on short notice.

Research your airline options ahead of time, as flights may be the biggest hurdle. With many international flights filling quickly, you may need to be willing to choose multi-segment flights, fly off-peak or take a red-eye.

Understand how travel is priced, and where deals are—and are not. Large ship cruise lines do not want to sail with empty beds, since major elements of their revenue (i.e. alcohol, shore excursions, and other onboard extras) are made after the ship sails, so last-minute discounts can often be found.

Smaller ships, river ships, and land programs are typically not priced to allow for discounts, so special promotions (if any) may be for special added features, and not price reductions.

Be prepared to deal with limited selection for rooms, ship cabins, and excursion options, as deadlines to sign up may have already passed. Also, if you book after final payment deadlines for group programs, you will need to pay in full and may not be eligible for any refunds should you change your mind. Read all the materials and ask questions to completely understand the rules for any program you are booking.

Look for the best combination of features and price that fits your lifestyle and budget. After all, it's not a good deal if you have a lousy time on a trip that's not right for you.

Last minute travel can be spontaneous and fun, and with a little preparation, a great way to travel.