By Tim Johnson
A few years ago, Bruce Lacroix and his family decided to take a March break vacation. “We didn’t know where we were going, but we knew we were going somewhere. And it just happened that a package deal to Manzanillo, Mexico, popped up four or five days before we wanted to leave,” he says. Lacroix and his family — wife Wendy, and daughters Melanie, 18, and Angela, 9 — have traveled out of the country together 17 times, and most of those trips have been on last-minute bookings. He notes that they’ve never had a bad vacation, and their March break in Manzanillo was no exception. “The resort had the biggest swimming pool I’ve ever seen, and they had a great kids’ program, plus a section reserved for adults. Even the music was wonderful,” he remembers. “And we got a huge discount.”
Attracted by deep, deep discounts and the excitement that comes with a surprise destination, many families are choosing to book their trips just a couple of weeks — or even a few days — before departure time. Booking last-minute can mean a savings of 50 or even 75 percent off standard rates. While it’s a viable option for air-only travel and cruises, all-inclusive vacations are the most common choice. Sun destinations in the Caribbean, especially those with a high capacity such as Puerto Plata and the Mayan Riviera, are frequently available. As time ticks down to departure day, tour operators will slash prices on packages rather than let rooms sit empty. But you won’t necessarily get exactly what you want — you can probably have your desired destination or dates, but you often can’t have both. “If you say that you will only go to Cancun, then your date has to be flexible. But if you can only go on one specific week, then you have to be flexible on where you go,” advises Sharon Kaendo, director of Leisure Travel 2000 in Saskatoon.
Working through a travel agent provides a number of advantages, especially for novice travellers. Kaendo recommends finding a person with whom you’re comfortable and sticking with her, rather than shopping around. Building a relationship can be important: share with her your travel dates and what you’re hoping to get out of your trip, draw upon her experience and advice, then let her go to work — having a professional searching on your behalf for the perfect last-minute deal can be invaluable. And using an agent can provide peace of mind as well. “Travelling with a family of four, that’s a fair investment. So it’s nice to have the ease of knowing that you have someone to advise you — and to hold responsible if anything goes wrong,” says Kaendo.
The vast online world offers many options as well. You can start planning your trip by simply plugging destinations or dates into the search function on popular Canadian websites like belairtravel.com, selloffvacations.com and redtag.ca. Fixing your date and place of departure and choosing “all countries” for your destination will give you the full range of what’s available. Be careful to search and book through a reputable site. Only a handful of provinces regulate travel websites, but many of the major ones are based in Ontario, and you can search and see if a site is registered with the Travel Industry Council of Ontario at tico.on.ca. And some web vendors also provide a support network, including bricks-and-mortar agencies and toll-free phone numbers, which can be comforting. “It can be helpful for people to go over a few things with a certified travel agent, just to make sure that they understand everything,” says John Kirk, senior vice-president of BelAirTravel.com.
No matter how you book, it pays to do your homework and be prepared. If you have the luxury of a few months’ lead time, keep an eye online to become familiar with what’s out there. Start looking in earnest three or four weeks out. Kaendo recommends sitting down and deciding as a family what’s important. “Even if the price is right, people can still be very disappointed if they do not receive what they expected from the trip,” she says. Determine in advance what you consider to be essential. For example, if you have younger kids, a dependable babysitting service, a kids’ club, adjoining rooms and a reasonable, mid-day departure time may be on your list. And, advises Lacroix, when you lock in on a possible package, read the online customer reviews, which can be found at sites like tripadvisor.com and
debbiescaribbeanresortreviews.com. He notes that even if you only have a short time to make your decision, it’s still worth drawing on the experiences of former guests.
Lacroix, who lives in Nelson, B.C., says that he usually books one week out, and always gets a great discount. On one occasion, the Lacroix family actually waited until 24 hours before their departure. “I had been scanning, and I knew that there was a lot of availability, so we waited to see what popped up that gave us the best features for our money,” says Lacroix. “It was like, “We’re going away, kids. Pack up, get your passports — it’ll be hot, it’ll be tropical, it could be Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico, or the Dominican Republic. Are you ready to go?”
Kirk says to keep in mind the supply is more scarce at peak times like March break. If you’re not cut out for the wild ride of last-minute, or if you have your heart set on one resort or a list of required amenities, he advises that this style of travel may not be for you. “To avoid disappointment, just book early and then don’t watch the price later on,” says Kirk. But if your family is flexible, Lacroix says it’s a great option. “The guy across the aisle from you on the plane paid $1,500 and you paid $500, and you’re both going to the same place,” he says. His family is planning another March-break adventure this year. “We’ll leave here on the 14th — I have no idea where we’re going — and we’ll be back on the 31st. I won’t book until three or four days before, and we’re going to have a great time, no matter where we go.”
Contributing editor Tim Johnson once booked a trip to southern Europe and Morocco just five days before departure.