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August 27, 2003 -- Leaving your Labor Day plans for the last minute doesn't mean being stuck at home with the Law & Order marathon on TNT. Several major discounters are doing their best to get everyone in the air or onto the rails for the holiday weekend, advance planning or no.

59th Minute Discounts

Discounter Site59 (www.site59.com) comes into its own right before holiday weekends, when airfares shoot sky-high. While their packages don't cost pennies, their rates are much, much cheaper than you'd get by booking directly through the airlines with this little advance notice.

Two things to watch out for with Site59: sometimes their initially advertised prices aren't what you get at the end, and many of their cheapest hotels can be outside of the town you think you're staying in (Toronto is a good example of this.) But if you're aware of that, you can tease out some amazing discounts here. Some of the best we saw:

  • Dallas to Orlando, departing Friday and returning Tuesday: $287 per person, air and hotel. The airfare alone was $435 per person when we checked on Orbitz.
  • Phoenix to Portland (Oregon), departing Friday and returning Monday: $274 per person, air and hotel. The airfare on Orbitz was $438.
  • Indianapolis to Philadelphia, departing Friday and returning Monday: $372 per person, air and a central Philadelphia hotel. The airfare on Orbitz was $451.

If your Labor Day dreams involve flights -- especially the kinds of mid-range flights you don't often see in these columns -- Site59 will probably put you on a plane smiling.

Hotwire (www.hotwire.com) and Priceline (www.priceline.com) also offer discount last-minute packages. We couldn't get sample Labor Day fares for Priceline, but we were impressed by the vast range of Hotwire's Weekender packages (www.hotwire.com/weekender/index.jsp). When we compared the Site59 packages above to Hotwire's prices, Site59 came out cheaper, sometimes by hundreds of dollars. But Hotwire offered a higher class of hotel by default, and there were other packages on Hotwire that appealed to us such as:

  • Houston to San Francisco, departing Thursday and returning Monday, for $548;
  • New York to Chicago, departing Thursday and returning Monday, $391 if you're willing to stay in the suburbs.

Certainly, check all three discounters if you're looking for a cheap Labor Day getaway.

Rail Cheap Amtrak Fares

Yes, we've used that pun before. Amtrak's Rail Sale is in full effect over the holiday weekend, and certain routes are very, very cheap. These fares apply in either direction, and discounts apply to many intermediate points, as well:

  • Chicago to Washington, D.C.: $25.80 each way
  • Miami to Charleston, SC: $25 each way
  • Miami to Orlando: $12.80 each way
  • Charlotte to Raleigh: $6.80 each way

Even on trips where you might otherwise think of driving, Rail Sale fares are a great way to show your kids the fun of riding on a train. The Rail Sale fare for the four-hour ride from West Palm Beach to Orlando, for instance, is a mere $9.60 each way -- a great way to combine the fun of trains with a day and night of Disney. To book Rail Sale fares, see http://tickets.amtrak.com/Amtrak/railsale.