How To Make A Quick Getaway

Say you unexpectedly get some time off, or you've been too busy to make vacation plans. A travel agency or club that makes last-minute bookings may have just the ticket.

Most such groups market vacation packages assembled by airlines, cruise lines, or tour companies. But when these don't sell, the packagers drop the price and offer them via discount travel agencies. They range from basic air and hotel to a Club Med-style trip covering food, drink, entertainment, and sports.

NO DIVES. Last Minute Travel Club in Boston whisks people from frigid winters in New England and Chicago to the sultry beaches of California, Florida, or the Caribbean for as much as 60% off full price. "You can leave any night of the week and be anywhere in the Caribbean for about $269 for three nights," says spokesman Greg Davis.

But at those prices, you can't always get what you want. "You sometimes give up the choice of where to go," says Davis, "but many islands are similar, and we can get you to one of them for a great price." Try four nights in Aruba for $487--airfare included. Don't expect a romantic guest house on the beach. Most packages book you into big American-style resorts. But you won't wind up in a dive either, says Davis.

Moment's Notice in New York also sells packages, but you pay $45 a year per family to join. Like most last-minute clubs, Moment's Notice has a 24-hour hotline that reels off the latest deals. A recent sample: Airfare and seven nights in a first-class hotel on the beach in St. Martin for $599 a person. "That package retails for $999 to $1,239," says Vice-President Naomi Kabak.

How close to the wire can you leave? Most people book a week to 10 days before departure. Another small bulge comes three days ahead of time, though fares are usually set by then, says Kabak. But she recently booked a client's trip to Mexico with only 12 hours' notice.

Last-minute means at least 30 days in advance at Vacations To Go in Houston, which specializes in worldwide cruise discounts. Cruise rates used to keep dropping as the sail date approached. That is not true anymore, says Henry Garza, the travel program manager. "Cruise lines start marketing their lowest discounts 45 to 90 days before the sail date," he says. And cruise contracts for blocks of airline seats expire if they're not filled 30 days before the sailing, so it's advisable to book before that.

If you like to gamble, buy the lowest fare. You could score a first-class berth--or a closet near the galley. Generally, you'll find out a week before you sail. Fear not, says Garza. You can always upgrade for a fee.

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