It happened again. You meant to plan a summer vacation. But it seemed like you had plenty of time, and there was always something else to do. Now, somehow, you're staring down July. No worries: We've gathered tactics for pulling it off, on the double!
You may assume that you'll have to be totally open on the dates to be able to take a trip before Labor Day. But it's actually more important to have wiggle room with the place. Sure, your heart may be set on an iconic dream destination, but a lot of other people's hearts are, too. "I'll hear 'I want to go to Hawaii' at the last minute," says Jennifer Gaines, a contributing editor at Travelocity, "but that's not the best idea." Pick a date range, define the type of vacation you're hankering for--say, beach, hiking, or city wandering--and then hunt through that wider lens. Even then, keep an open mind. Saudia Nagamootoo, a mom of two in Coral Springs, FL, often finds out when her husband can take time off only a week in advance. They always go somewhere, even if it's a road trip nearby.
Go to extremes
Focus your search on under-the-radar places or where everybody goes. "For the very last minute, I like what I call the 'central coast' of California, Carmel through Santa Barbara," says Amie O'Shaughnessy, editor of Ciaobambino.com, a travel site that rates family-friendly properties. She says the relatively unknown beach towns can be a little kitschy and there's a summer fog pattern that rolls in ("There's always a trade-off"), but in places like Avila Beach, you open your condo door to a quiet beach and a playground. Yes, please! Or flip this script completely by taking a chance on a mega-popular family destination like Orlando, FL, or San Diego. Due to the sheer number of guests they expect in the summer, last-minute cancellations can be scavenged. Places you probably won't have any luck? Well-loved but small-scale spots, such as Cape Cod, MA, and Lake Tahoe, CA.
Tie it up in a package
An obstacle that procrastinating travelers face is finding one component of their trip but not the other: snagging cheap air but coming up empty on rooms that suit the crew, or vice versa. Check sites like Lastminute.com and Travelzoo.com, which collect the leftovers from car-rental companies, airlines, and hotels, then package them for you. Amber Hanford, a mom in Van Horne, IA, has bid on package deals on Priceline.com, with impressive results: "We got a round-trip flight from Chicago to Houston for $185 and rooms in mid-tier national chains for less than $50."
Elevate your mind (and your family) at a ski resort
"Winter" resorts, like Breckenridge, CO (Breckenridge.com), and Stowe, VT (Go stowe.com), make for refreshing summer escapes: They're cooler than a sweltering amusement park, full of adventure sports like mountain biking and kayaking, and relatively uncrowded. Jeanenne Tornatore, a spokesperson for Orbitz.com, also recommends them because they host plenty of activities, festivals, and concerts geared to families in order to attract more visitors during their downtime. That kind of no-plan-required fun works for us.
Resorts in Mexico (Visitloscabos.travel) and Puerto Rico (Gotopuertorico.com) are busiest during the colder months, so you'll find bargains and openings now. "Mexico is coming back from a tough year," says Gaines. "So everything will be in deep discount through the summer." Also, keep hurricane season in mind (June 1 to November 30, but most storms hit from late August to mid-October) and take advantage of the low rates during this time. A week in advance, you can get a pretty clear picture of the weather, then zero in on super-cheap places.
Land a short-notice cruise
Cruise lines get desperate to fill their beds about a month before setting sail. How desperate? A rate of $100 a night per person is not uncommon. "I'm also noticing a lot of on-board promotions," says Gaines, like $200 credits. Check out Cruises.jetblue.com or Cruisedirect.com.