They sound too good to be true: $10 flights, $93-a-night hotels in Miami (including a free night's stay), $9.99 a day weekend car rentals and half-off trips to Australia. Believe it or not, these were all recently available -- but only if you knew where to look.
If you haven't yet gotten involved with social media, now's the time to start. Savvy travelers have been looking to Facebook, Twitter, Loopt, Foursquare and other social media sites to find the latest available bargains from airlines, tour providers, cruise lines, hotels and restaurants. Even convention and visitors' bureaus have gotten in on the action, publicizing deals and promotions through their respective Facebook and Twitter feeds. Travel providers are using these sites to unload last-minute airfares, hotel rooms and other unsold inventory.
Virtually every major player in the travel industry has a presence on Facebook and Twitter. If you haven't set up accounts on these social media giants, do so. Once you're a member, search for your favorite travel companies' pages, and "like" (for Facebook) and follow (for Twitter). Similar to e-mail alerts, companies will now notify you through their Facebook and Twitter feeds about the latest company happenings, including new sales, ultra-limited-time offers, extra perks and more.
JetBlue, for example, is highly active on Twitter; AirTran often announces short-term sales exclusively on Facebook.
You may also want to follow key industry players. Columnist Eileen Ogintz tweets about family vacation deals and other family travel news; Rick Seaney covers the latest in air travel; and Pauline Frommer discusses all things travel.
If you have favorite travel columnists or publications, there's a high likelihood they're tweeting about their picks and pans within the industry. If you're wary about following a bunch of companies (e.g., don't want a ton of alerts in your daily feeds), keeping abreast of a few experts can be as close to one-stop shopping as you can get using social media.
Once you've been tracking your favorite providers for awhile, you may start to notice several patterns. For example, JetBlue releases its "Cheeps" fares (ultra-cheap, ultra-last-minute) on Tuesday mornings around 10 a.m. EST. Flights tend to start around $10 each way and are available for travel on select days within the coming week. With other providers, you may find no pattern at all; some deals are catch-as-catch-can, and it's best to monitor on a regular basis. AirTran, Frontier, United, and Virgin America, for example, offer unsold inventory at rock-bottom prices over Twitter, but with no set schedule, fares or amount of seats -- the deals truly are first-come, first-served, and once the low fares are sold, they're gone.
Even if you miss a sale deadline, though, sometimes you might still get lucky. We've occasionally found Cheeps in the evening, well after the sale has been removed from the JetBlue site. This may be the exception to the rule, however, and booking once you find a good price for your budget is still the best strategy.