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The Last-Minute Traveler

One of the traits of true road warriors, i.e., those who have seen a ton of miles, is their ready acceptance of itinerary changes and last-minute trips. It doesn't faze them. On the other hand, such manifest changeability may alarm less-traveled acquaintances and family members, who often find deep reassurance in planning well in advance. In London, the tip-off may be a casual comment like, "I just can't say; I might have to be in Paris. Let's wait and see."

Another hallmark of what I call the Procrastinating Traveler is the resistance to attending to details which can be dealt with later. When pressed for a commitment about his or her whereabouts more than a month in advance, he or she may politely dismiss this type of inquiry. The fact is, they doesn't know; and probably won't figure that out until the travel date starts staring them in the face.

What they don't realize is that last-minute travel ("Can you be in Atlanta tomorrow?") really wears you down. Forget the fact that we all have life obligations, which, for many road warriors, have to take a backseat. But just getting around on such short notice is hard. It's also expensive, because travel providers know that if you need to get somewhere on short notice, you probably need to get there badly enough to remit handsomely for the privilege. They're not just taking advantage of the situation, however. Hotels, airlines, car rental companies, and so forth, base their businesses on the selling of reservations. Accurately forecasting demand and then sourcing staff, equipment, and time requirements efficiently is a daily logistical challenge for travel providers. In fact, it is the absolute core of the travel game.

So making a last-minute trip is tough for everyone involved. There can be a silver lining, however. Travel websites like Hotwire have carved out a niche by offering the equivalent of "distressed inventory" at a low price point—helping providers in the process. For example, a big pharmaceutical firm with a bunch of field reps plans a big regional meeting, but has to cancel it on two weeks' notice. This is a huge company with serious, hardcore procurement people—meaning they were able to negotiate out of paying a cancellation penalty. Unfortunately, the hotel they booked is out 280 room-nights just like that. That type of loss is hard for any hotel to stomach and can ruin an otherwise good month. So the smart manager acts fast to create a low rate for those cancelled rooms and publishes the rate through the hotel's sales channels, including a website like the aforementioned Hotwire. Priceline is another site surfers know to check for late deals. If the hotel is lucky, it will recoup some of its losses by booking drop-of-the-hat weekenders or savvy businesspeople who've done the two-minute drill and know how to snag a discounted room before the gun sounds.

[Editorial note: The world needs more spontaneous weekenders. Go find a cheap trip and do it. You'll be glad you saw someplace new.]

As one might imagine, this scenario is a bit harder to do with airfares, especially in recent days—but it still works. While this type of quick thinking to sell off distressed inventory works well in metropolises, it is not as likely to work for a far-flung hotel with fewer visitors. I would also point out that although it seems like this type of last-minute booking tactic is best done on travel websites, that's not always the case. Live agents have access to distressed inventory, plus they know all kinds of expert tricks to make a good deal fly at the last second. Where this really comes in handy is if you're talking about a long-haul flight or weird connections at the last minute. I've said it before—agents' expertise is worth paying for. And for those of you reading the news, the travel choices are getting weirder every day.

I keep reading that "the world is getting smaller" and "business is going global," If nothing else, I hope that means fewer people will be asking me if I'm free three months from now.

Because, I just can't say.

Road Warrior • Miami • Madrid • • Twitter: @tentofortysix