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Avoid These Money Mistakes When Planning a Last-Minute Vacation

Geoff Williams

If you've been putting off a trip to theme-park paradise, late August offers some nice discounts on hotel rates. Sure, it's hot down here in summer, and school is just a few weeks away, but paying less than $75 a night to stay near Universal Studios Florida, SeaWorld Orlando and Walt Disney World will take the sting out of some of the park admission, which can top $80 a day for adults.

(Photo: Disney/David Roark)

More photos of affordable last-minute vacation spots

Last-minute vacations get planned for a variety of reasons. Schedules don't gel until you realize they'd better gel or nobody's going anywhere. Sometimes the vacationer is mentally packed, but the budget isn't sure if it can withstand a week or more of airplanes, hotels and tacky souvenirs. Sometimes the person in charge of planning is simply a procrastinator. And sometimes the reasons are all of the above.

Whatever the reason, a last-minute vacation can destroy a budget, which is ironic and dispiriting if your budget is what kept you from long-range vacation planning in the first place. Why can last-minute planning be so harmful? As a general rule, airlines, hotels and cruises reward consumers for locking in a reservation early. For instance, by booking a vacation in Orlando three months out, you can save up to 13 percent, according to Maria Katime, a spokesperson for the travel search engine Kayak.com. If you book a vacation - at least on Kayak.com - four to five months before you go to Chicago, you're likely to save up to 29 percent.

There are other reasons a last-minute vacation can be pricey. For starters, if you're planning everything in a rush, you're more likely to make a hasty decision or forget something that may cost you later - like forgetting to tell the post office to hold your mail, then having an overstuffed box alert criminals that you're not home.

[See: 12 Money Mistakes Almost Everyone Makes.]

So if you're hoping to venture out before the summer ends, here are some tips from travel experts to help you minimize costs on your last-minute trip.

Once you can make a decision, stick with it. Sure, you've dragged your heels, but assuming you aren't at the airport, searching for nearby hotels on your tablet, "commit, commit, commit," urges Lisa Xia, an avid traveler and travel writer who works in corporate sustainability at Edelman, a worldwide public relations firm. "If you want to go," she urges, "pick the dates and don't look back."

Don't choose the first hotel or flight you see. Yes, you're in a hurry. Yes, if the cost is amazing, ignore this advice and grab it. But it's generally a good idea to comparison-shop. "People have become lazier in the digital age and expect that their first Google search, an outdated guidebook or what their friends tell them is what is available," Xia says. "Tour operators are not your friends; they're the people who are trying to make a buck off of you. Running operations and hiring people costs money, after all. Consult a frugal, well-traveled friend and read first-person testimonies to gauge how much things should actually cost. Then move onto purchase."

But once you do see a price you like and know is cheap, don't get greedy, Xia adds. "When you see a good fare, jump on it. It's not getting cheaper," she stresses.

If you're looking for airfare on a Monday, book now. Airfare can easily double overnight, and the most likely day for a radical change is from Monday to Tuesday, according to Gabe Saglie, senior editor for Travelzoo.com, a travel search engine. He also points out that business and leisure travelers are least likely to fly on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, so when you're mapping out your vacation, those days are your best bets for a reasonably priced ticket.

[See: 10 Ways to Avoid Airline Fees.]

Don't forget to specifically look for last-minute deals. Especially if you are flexible about where you're going, there are numerous websites that specialize in finding deals for last-minute vacation planners. Expedia and Orbitz both list such deals on their websites, and LastMinuteTravel.com and LastMinute.com are entirely devoted to procrastinating travelers. You may feel like a bit of a loser because you waited until the last minute to pack your toothbrush and reserve a plane, hotel or rental car, but don't. There's an entire industry built around people like you.

Notify your credit card company that you're traveling. That's a suggestion from Bennett Schwartz, TD Bank's foreign exchange managing director. He suggests calling to let your credit card company know you're hitting the road or skies to help prevent it from seeing those purchases as a possible identity theft.

This is an especially good idea if you are literally racing out the door, setting up a flight or a hotel. If you've been mapping out your vacation for a while, booking your airfare with your credit card in June, reserving a hotel room with the same card in July, then buying something with the same card at a souvenir shop in August, one would think the credit card fraud department will figure out what's going on. But you will look suspicious if one minute you're in Toledo and then, bam! Without any warning, Tuscany.

[Read: The Frugal Traveler's Guide to Cheap Lodging.]

A couple of other tips courtesy of Schwartz that you likely wouldn't consider if you're in a hurry: If you're traveling abroad, he suggests making sure your debit card PIN number has no more than four digits, to make it easier to use international ATMs. He also says you might have trouble accessing your savings account if you're in another country, so consider transferring some extra cash to your checking account.

And while you're at it, call the post office. Seriously, an overstuffed mailbox is a sure sign nobody is home. Don't forget that.

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