I have several trips or possibilities that are in the works – trips to Central America, France, Greece and Japan. Although some are still just ideas, they will require more advanced planning. How early should a traveler start planning? How far in advance can flights or lodging be booked? There are several factors that will help answer these questions.
How Early Do I Start?
Obviously, the dreaming stage can begin at any time. The more you think and dream about your upcoming trip, the more you firm up where you want to go. Research can be done long in advance of the trip, although there is a possibility that something might change – hotels being remodeled, restaurants closing, or changes in political climate – so you should always double check research that has been done.
Planning For a Special Event
It is especially important to plan ahead if you hope to attend a specific event. If you are invited to a destination wedding, hope that the bride and groom have given enough time to plan book your travel. Hotel rooms are often set aside for guests for the day before or after the wedding, but any extended travel will have to be organized on your own.
If you are a sports fan and want to travel for a particular game, your hotel should be booked as soon as the schedule has been released. Hotel rooms in prime locations will fill up quickly.
One of my upcoming trips will include watching parts of the Tour de France bike race with my daughter and son-in-law. We have been doing some preliminary planning, but since the route of the race changes each year, we cannot complete our plans until the official route has been confirmed. Some announcements have been made, so we have a pretty good idea of our schedule and we have been able to book a few (cancel-able) lodging possibilities.
How Early Can I Book?
Airlines, hotels, B&Bs, and restaurants have different rules for when these items can be booked. However, even though booking is available, it might not be wise to book everything far in advance.
If you are concerned about spaces filling up – in a plane, hotel, or restaurant – try to book a with a reservation that can be cancelled if your plans change. Another option is to purchase trip insurance. If you or your traveling companions become ill, you can cancel your trip without penalty. Some insurance policies allow you to cancel for any reason. Be sure to read the policy carefully so you understand what is or is not covered.
Major airlines in the US allow booking 331 days in advance (on United Airlines it’s 330 days). However, booking that far ahead is not recommended because the best price may not be available. Most airlines charge huge change fees, so if you decide to leave a day later, it could cost you $200 per ticket or more. The current recommendation is to purchase airline tickets two to three months in advance. Recently, there have been many flash sales, so if you have a trip planned, pay attention to prices and buy when you see a deal.
Southwest Airlines, my favorite for domestic flights, runs their business differently. They release seats in groups – at this writing, tickets are available through June of next year. Next month they will release seats through August, 2018. Southwest is also different in that they don’t charge a change fee. If you book a ticket and later need to change it, you will pay the difference but no extra fees. If your new ticket is less expensive, you will get credit (no cash refunds) for a future flight. This all means that if you plan to fly Southwest, you could book your flight well in advance.
Hotels can usually be booked a year in advance. Rooms maybe available further out by calling the front desk instead of the national call center. If you are using points, your points program rules will state how early a room can be booked – also usually around a year – however, calling the desk for an early award booking probably won’t help. (Choice Hotels award booking have a much smaller window). Coupons and other specials often have their own timeline.
Just like with airline tickets, the best prices are often available two to three months in advance. However, if you are booking a hotel for a conference or specific event, it’s best to book early. Some hotels sell out just days after the event date is announced.
Unlike airline tickets, hotels do not charge change fees. They do, however, sell rooms that cannot be cancelled or come with a cancellation fee. Some rooms may be cancelled without a fee until 4 pm the day of the reservation, while others must be cancelled 24 to 48 hours in advance. Cancellation fees, when applicable, may equal the cost of one night, or the entire booked stay. Read the terms and conditions carefully. If you do need to cancel, a stay booked through the hotel directly – instead of through a third party booking site – will be easier to cancel or change.
Airbnb and Other Options
Although Airbnb does not have a set policy about availability, most hosts do not list rooms more than 12 months in advance. Airbnb hosts can cancel, so it is imperative to read the reviews and to purchase some type of trip insurance. My family and I have had good luck with Airbnb stays in the past. We are dreaming – and starting to plan – to return to Tokyo in 2020, in part to watch an Olympic event or two. It is too early to book anything, but hotel prices will probably be high at this time, and since there will be a group of us, an apartment would be a good choice.
Other apartments, B&Bs, and hostels have booking policies similar to hotels and Airbnb. If you plan to attend a special event that will draw hundreds or thousands of people, rooms will be harder to find so planning ahead is necessary.
Events and Restaurants
Dates for ticketed events such as sporting events or concerts are usually made public long before the tickets go on sale. In addition, the date these tickets will be available is also announced well in advance. If the event is a high priority for you, be ready by your computer or phone to purchase the tickets at the set time.
Most restaurants take reservations a month or two in advance, but for a few select ones or for special holidays, you may need to plan long before that. If you have been thinking about a eating at a certain place, contact them now to find out what their policies are. They may start booking for New Year’s Eve on New Year’s Day. If you miss it this year, at least you can plan ahead for next year.
It is always good to plan ahead, even if you cannot book ahead. Some parts of your trip should be booked as soon as possible, while other parts can wait. Each trip and event is different, so there aren’t exact rules for when to book. If you plan carefully, you will know when you need to book.
When you do book, be sure you pay attention to whether or not the reservation can be cancelled and if there are change or cancellation fees.
If you plan ahead, book in a timely manner, and are aware of terms and fees, you can depart for your long-awaited trip with no worries. You can enjoy your vacation and return refreshed.