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Summer Escapes in the USA: Tips for Last Minute Trips

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There’s just something about summertime that always makes me want to pick up and go. Unfortunately, it seems like everyone and their mom feels the same way — which makes it hard to book a trip for a last-minute summer weekend getaway.

However, if you suddenly find yourself with an open weekend and the itch to get out of the city for a few days, below are tips for planning a great last-minute weekend trip this summer:

Accommodation: Broaden Your Search

Regardless of how last-minute a trip is, I’ll still do a quick search on my favorite accommodation platforms — Airbnb, Google search — before looking at alternatives. Sometimes, I’ll luck out and find something that’s in my price range, but I often won’t.

HipcampWhen that happens, try branching out to other search platforms:

  • VRBO is a great Airbnb alternative, as well as the “site that saved me. twice.” according to Fred Perrotta.
  • Homeaway, like VRBO, gives you even more Airbnb alternatives.
  • Hipcamp originally started as a database of campsites throughout the U.S. but recently branched out into land shares. I tested it out last February, over President’s Day weekend, and was not just able to find a last minute spot to sleep, but it was far quieter and more homey than your typical car campsite.
  • Bed & Breakfast will let you search B&Bs and smaller inns.
  • Regional tourism websites are great for finding somewhat obscure (and less technologically present) accommodations.

Call For Last-Minute Cancellations & Deals

For really good deals, call hotels in the area you want to visit for cancellations. They’re not always posted online and the receptionist at the desk is going to have access to the most updated information.

Flights + Accommodation: Last-Minute Deals & Apps

HopperIf that doesn’t score you anything, you can consult websites like HotelTonight, Expedia’s Last-Minute Deal, and Roomer, a website that lets travelers sell their hotel reservations (rather than cancel) to other travelers looking for a last-minute deal. I find that these work well in large cities, like New York or San Francisco, but less well in rural destinations — like Big Sur.

Hopper’s GTFO (Get the Flight Out) app will also help you find some great truly last-minute deals.

Accommodation: Look a Town Over

It’s helpful to be flexible when you’re booking last minute trips — especially in the peak summer season.

One tip is to look for hotels or rentals a town over from your desired destination. Often, if the town over isn’t as well-visited a destination, it’s likely to be cheaper as well.

Camping: Tips & Tricks

Camping
In California, camp sites are competitive. I, literally, rolled out of bed at 7am on January 1st to click a few buttons before going back to sleeping off my New Years Eve hangover so I could book a site at Steep Ravine Campgrounds for JULY. Talk about a system that’s not friendly to spontaneous travels.

That said, if you’re not dead set on a specific campground (in this case, I was), you can absolutely find last minute camping spots if you:

Go Back Country

Some state and national parks will allow you to camp backcountry without a prior reservation. Just make sure you check in with a ranger to get any necessary permits, or backcountry tips, before heading out.

Look at First Come, First Served Camp Sites

Some campsites don’t take reservations — which is great if you’re trying to snag a last minute spot. Hipcamp will label campsites by first come, first serve, so take a look at what’s in your area and go. Just try and leave early on a Friday if you’re doing a weekend getaway to increase your chances of getting a site.

Hike or Bike In

Even if a campground is reservation only (and fully booked), there’s usually a hiker-biker campsite that’s first come, first serve. Also, rangers don’t really turn away hikers, or bikers, so if you’re in a pinch, grab your panniers and do a bit of bike-camping.

Timing: Go Mid-Week

If you’re willing and able to travel in the middle of the week, you’re not only more likely to have more luck booking accommodation, flights, and tours, but they’ll often be cheaper.

Last summer, I struggled to find a romantic getaway for my partner and myself one weekend, but by opting to take a Monday off and spend Sunday night out of town, I was able to snag a cute glamping spot within my budget up by the Russian River. Win!

Flights + Destinations: Deals by Email & Social Media

I know most of us tend to ignore them, but there’s a lot of great stuff in the “promotions” tab of your inbox. Recently, I snagged a 2-for-1 deal on flights to Hawaii via Virgin America. Friends kept asking how I found it. “Simple,” I said, “I actually open their emails.”

Definitely sign up for newsletters from your favorite hotels, hotel chains, airlines as well as aggregators like Airfarewatchdog (just for airfare) and TravelZoo (great for hotels and travel packages). Both can customize their emails based on your home base.

On Twitter, be sure to follow FareCompare and their CEO Rick Seaney, United Airlines, and Virgin America.

Destinations: Be Flexible + Stay Close to Home

As I already mentioned, it helps to be flexible on where and what you do, and to let the deals or availabilities guide you. When I plan last-minute trips from my home in San Francisco, I usually check around to see where I can get a hotel, or campground first, and let the rest plan itself from there (typically, car rentals and activities bookings are the easiest to get last minute).

Staying close to home, on the other hand, will allow you to spend less time getting to your destination and more time enjoying it — which is especially important for those Thursday night through Sunday night quick summer getaways.

Activities: Most People Book Last Minute

According to the folks at Peek, activities and tours are most often booked within 24 hours of taking them. For a last minute trip, this is to your advantage: you actually don’t have to worry about not having snagged a spot 3 weeks ago.

Like hotels, though, if an activity, or tour, you want to go on is booked, there’s always likely to be a cancellation. Just call and ask!

Activities: Take Advantage of Free, Outdoor Things to Do

HikingIt is summer, after all! Go on a bike ride. Take a hike. Grab your rope and do some rock climbing. One of the best parts about outdoors activities is that, unlike a ticket to a popular band’s concert, you can do them at the drop of a hat.

Okay, okay, you won’t be hiking Half Dome without bidding for a permit months in advance, but a hike in the Adirondacks? Absolutely.

Also, REI rents equipment in several states if, say, you want to go kayaking and don’t own one.

Keep an Adventure Kit Packed

When I used to own a car, I’d always have an “adventure kit” packed and ready to go (especially in the summer) so I could easily leave from work, or a friend’s house for a spontaneous trip somewhere. It included:

  • Bathing suit
  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Basic toiletries
  • Sunscreen / bug spray
  • Sweater
  • 1 extra outfit

Why waste time driving home when you could just get in and go?

Bonus: Don’t Over-Plan & Play it by Ear

At the end of the day, the best tip I can give you to help you plan and enjoy a great last-minute summer getaway is to not plan — or, at least, not over plan.

Hop in your car and see where the road takes you. Let yourself stumble on a festival you didn’t even know existed, or chat up someone in the local saloon for their best restaurant recs and forget the month-long wait list at fancier spots. Choose your destination based on hotel availability or a great deal that came through in your inbox, rather than trying to mark highly specific items off your bucket list.

Grab your favorite person(s) — even if that person is just yourself — and go. After all, travel is made better by good company, and discovering new adventures is what it’s all about anyway!

TL;DR

If you’re trying to plan a last minute getaway in the USA this summer, it might feel like all the planning-types out there have snagged all the good spots. But, don’t fret! You can still plan a great trip by:

  • Taking advantage of last minute deals or cancellations
  • Traveling mid-week
  • Being flexible with your destination
  • Getting outdoors and camping at non-reservation only campsites
  • Keeping an “adventure kit” packed and being open to seeing where the road takes you

Oh… and don’t forget your sunscreen, kiddos!

Photo Credit: David Straight, Unsplash

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