Posted April 23, 2014 by SmarterTravel.com
Booking travel is not an exact science, but we do know one thing: The early bird catches the best deals (especially in summer, which is peak season for many destinations). From flights to hotels, from vacation homes to cars, you'll find the best rates when time is on your side, leaving the scraps for the late arrivals.
But how early is too early? When should you book your airfare? How do you find the best deals? Not to worry. Here are 10 things you should know about booking early for summer travel.
Why Should I Book Early?
For summer travel, the best deals are generally found in advance, whether it's a hotel reservation or a car rental. This is because almost everyone travels somewhere in summer. In fact, in 2013, AAA estimated that a full two-thirds of the American population planned to take a trip between Memorial Day and Labor Day. With so many travelers battling for the same rooms, cars, and airplane seats, prices can be stratospheric. So the earlier you can book, the better, since you can lock in the lowest rates before they get scooped up.
Book Airfare Early
The general rule of thumb for booking airfare is two months in advance for domestic flights and three months in advance for international; however, for peak-season flyers, sticking closer to that 90-day mark may be best. For summer flights, experts say that early spring is prime time for researching and booking. During this period, airlines will be offering sales on summer routes and ticket prices will generally be at their lowest. Waiting too long to book your flight will mean paying a premium (at best) or finding no flights at all (at worst). So if you see an unusually low fare, grab it immediately; flight prices can change quickly, without warning.
But Don't Book Airfare Too Early
Yes, there is such a thing as booking airfare too early. Prices may be at their highest many months in advance, before airlines have a chance to offer sales. That doesn't mean you should wait until the last minute, hoping for a sudden price drop, though. Set up fare alerts with Airfarewatchdog or closely monitor prices on your own, frequently checking for trends. Never book a flight more than six months out, unless it's for a trip you need to be extra cautious about (say, your own wedding). Otherwise, wait until you're a bit closer to that two- to three-month mark, when ticket prices will likely be lower.
Search for Alternate Arrival and Departure Airports
In metropolitan areas with more than one airport, such as New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, London, and Paris, having multiple options often means lower, more competitive ticket prices. Whenever possible, check other area airports to see which departure point is cheapest. Just make sure in advance that you can get to and from the airport: You may save $100 by flying into Stansted instead of Heathrow, but you will also be 40 miles away—an hour-and-a-half drive on a good traffic day. Always take into account cab or car-rental fees if you choose an alternate airport, and know that you may have to leave extra early to make your flight.
Be Flexible with Dates
The more flexible you can be with the dates of your trip, the more money you are likely to save when it comes to booking. Hotel rates are often pricier on weekends, especially in well-trafficked tourist areas, so if possible, choose a Monday-through-Friday stay. Flights, too, are often more expensive on weekends; to avoid getting gouged, use multiday or flexible-date tools when searching for flights. Know that midweek is often the cheapest time to fly, and early-morning or late-night flights can be much more economical (plus airport-security lines will be shorter). If you can avoid the busiest weekends and holidays—Memorial Day, Labor Day, the Fourth of July—you'll likely find cheaper rates across the board.
Book Your Vacation Rental Way in Advance
For many popular summer-vacation destinations, such as Cape Cod, the Hamptons, and Orlando, if you haven't already booked your vacation rental, you're too late. In fact, many rentals book a full year in advance, and repeat customers often get first dibs on the same week or month each year. Vacation-rental rates aren't going to get any lower as the date draws near, so always book your rental home as early as possible. You may be able to find last-minute rentals, of course, but that can mean paying a premium for a subpar spot without many amenities or the right amount of bedrooms.
A good tip is to use a tool like BookingBuddy that compares multiple vacation-rental sites. After all, rental owners may use only one booking site for their property, which means that each site has vastly different inventory. You'll be able to compare multiple properties at a glance, uncovering the best possible deals.
Take Advantage of Early-Booking Hotel Deals
Being certain about your summer-vacation dates has its benefits. Hotels and resorts often include discounts for early booking, generally 10 to 25 percent off but sometimes much more. These advanced rates offer big savings; however, you may have to pay in full at the time of booking, leave a nonrefundable deposit to hold the reservation, or both. So these rates are best if you've already booked your transportation and know that canceling or changing dates is not an option. If you want to see the biggest possible savings, book through Tingo; every time the price drops for your hotel room, Tingo will automatically rebook you at the lower rate and refund the difference. This means that the earlier you book, the more likely you are to save.
Book Your Car Rental Early
Like every other facet of travel, car-rental prices tend to soar during the peak summer season, simply because there are more buyers for a limited inventory. To get the best possible deal on a rental car, book your vehicle early. Know that in popular destinations, car-rental companies may reposition their fleets to accommodate higher-demand locations—but not always. This means that if you've waited too long, you could very well find yourself without wheels. Advanced rates will be much cheaper, so lock in that rate now and cross "renting a car" off your pre-vacation to-do list.
Buy Entrance Tickets in Advance
Peak-season travel means big lines and long wait times at theme-park gates. To avoid the never-ending queues, buy your amusement-park tickets in advance. Not only will this save you time, but you can often catch early-bird or online-only deals on admission. For instance, at Six Flags theme parks, you can save up to $25 per ticket if you purchase and print your tickets online. You can often snag deals on parking, dining, and group sales as well.
The same rule applies to national parks. When possible, make advance reservations online, especially for popular spots like the Pearl Harbor Memorial or lodging at big parks like Yosemite. If you're a frequent visitor, consider sidestepping the process altogether by purchasing an annual park pass in the spring.
Use Last-Minute Deals
If all this talk of "Book early! Book now!" has frightened you, don't worry. You can still snag last-minute vacation deals, even during the long, sunny stretch of June, July, and August. Airlines will still offer eleventh-hour sales, and hotels (even big resorts in super-popular spots) won't sell every room every night, which means you'll still find surprising savings all summer long. Take advantage of tools like BookingBuddy's last-minute hotel and vacation deals, or download smartphone apps like Priceline (which has exclusive Tonight-Only Deals), Hotel Tonight, and Jetsetter. You'll need to be flexible with dates and destinations of choice, but your free-spirited self (and wallet) will thank you.
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