Water lapping against the shoreline… Birds singing and the wind gently rustling the trees… Whiling away the hours fishing and swimming in the lake… Roasting marshmallows with new found friends… It’s not surprising that many of our favourite summer memories take place at a cottage. With the wide variety of rental options on the market, many people can experience the cottage life — even for a week or weekend.

And there’s good news for budget-conscious cottagers: last minute travel isn’t just for cruises and Caribbean getaways. Cottage owners and properties want to be fully booked too — and they’re willing discount rates to fill vacancies. The discounts can be attractive: often 20 per cent or more off the regular rate seasonal rate depending on the time, place and owner.

Here’s what you need to know to score a deal:

Assess your needs and wants

Is a last minute rental a good option? Remember, you’re usually looking at the “leftovers” — so expect some limits to the selection. The more flexible you are about location, your schedule, and the amenities and services you want, the more money-saving opportunities you’ll find.

It pays to give some serious thought to your needs and “nice to haves” before you decide to play the waiting game. If you have your heart set on a particular destination or you must have certain features — like a pet-friendly property or boat rental — don’t court disappointment by waiting too long. If your time off is limited, you may want to have a back-up plan.

Remember, any last minute travel has a trade off: you’re giving up selection to save money. You may not get a deal on the rate if you book well in advance, but you may get a better experience.

Learn how things are done

Savvy shoppers know to do their product research first, then watch for the sales. Start thinking about where you’d like to go, and scope out what’s available using an online search or getting a directory from your local tourism board. Bear in mind there’s going to be lots of competition for openings, and you may miss out if you don’t know how providers advertise their last minute offerings. For example:

- What is “last minute”? Due to the short season, cottages operate on shorter notice than cruises or flights. While discounts usually get better the closer it gets to the date, some postings won’t go up more than two weeks in advance.

- Look for any policies or web pages dedicated to last minute bookings. When and where are new postings listed? Are the listings updated one a week, once a day or as they become available? Are cottages rented on a “first come, first serve” basis, or is there a waiting list? Take note of the policies, bookmark the website and make a reminder to call or check back.

Note: many sites don’t list last minute rentals under a special section — if they offer special last minute rates at all. It may be up to you to keep tabs on availability, and to negotiate the price closer to the date.

- How do you contact the company or owner to make a reservation? Can you book online, and how are deposits handled? Many websites post offerings and don’t include a booking engine — you have to book directly with the owner or property.

Also, don’t exclude vacation rental directories from your search — especially if you’re heading abroad. Cottages often fall under this broad category. (See Save with vacation rentals.)

Not sure how things work? Ask — the information isn’t top secret. Many providers have an email, phone number or online chat service to answer your questions.

Time it right

Summer may be peak season, but that doesn’t mean all weeks are equal. Supply and demand dictates last minute opportunities, and some weeks have more availability than others.

For instance, you may be out of luck if you’re hoping for those mid-summer weeks (the last week of July and the first week of August), warn staff at RentCottage.com. It’s prime time for cottage rentals, so expect properties to be fully booked.

However, the last week of August is one of the quietest weeks of the season. Most of the summer traffic has come and gone, and families are home getting ready to for back to school and back to work. Not surprisingly, it’s the week when places like RentCottage.com have the highest number of last minute openings.

What about spring and fall? There may be a chill in the air, but there are also seasonal deals to be had at properties that are open longer than the summer season. The price may already be lower thanks to off-season rates, but special packages and discounts may be available too. Besides, it never hurts to ask for a deal — and less-busy times mean more wiggle room to negotiate price and amenities.

Get the details

Don’t let the term “last minute” fool you: don’t feel you have to rush through the details and say yes right away. Get the best value by taking your time to find out about the property, including:

- What is the location like? Is it close to local sites, activities and a grocery store? How much privacy is there? Sometimes, you can check up on rentals through online review websites like TripAdvisor.com

- What services and amenities are offered? Are phones available — or boat rentals, children’s activities, barbeques and laundry? Are you expected to clean the cottage before you leave?

- Who owns the cottage, and where do you go for help if there are any problems?

- What’s included in the price, and what taxes, fees, services and amenities are extra? Is there a charge for visitors or extra people? How much is the security deposit — and how long will it be held after you leave?

- What rules and regulations should you be aware of? Are pets allowed, or extra guests?

- Is the rental legitimate? Sadly, rental scams are always a possibility. Make sure to dodge all the hallmarks of a travel scam, like too-good-to-be-true offers. (Check out Vacation scams: What you need to know for more warning signs of fraud.)

As with any other travel deal, get written confirmation of the details so both you and the property owner will know what has been promised. This step can help avoid misunderstandings later on — and give you proof if you need it.

For more advice on finding the right place, see Cottage rentals: Don’t get stuck with a dud.

Places to start

Not sure where to begin your search? Here are some sources to try:

RentCottage.com (Ontario)
CottageLink.com (Ontario)
Cottages on the Web (Canada and U.S.)
CottagePortal.com (Canada)

Admittedly, last minute travel isn’t for everyone, but it can be a great way to save some cash if you have the flexibility. Keep your eyes open for deals as the season progresses, and be ready to yes when the opportunity arises.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Andrew Penner

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Copyright 2014 ZoomerMedia Limited

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by:
Elizabeth Rogers