Is It Cheaper To Book Your Holiday Vacation in Advance or Last Minute?

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Experts from all over the travel industry are bracing for a hectic holiday season.

“Consumers are looking to make up for moments lost during the pandemic and travel more than ever before,” said Lauren Gumport, vice president of Faye, a company that provides travel insurance and more. “Especially this holiday season.”

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So, should travelers get busy booking now, while there’s still time, or should they wait as long as possible to snag last-minute deals? There are a lot of variables, but generally speaking, the early birds will soon be glad they planned ahead.

Waiting for Late-Season Steals Is a High-Risk Gamble

Savvy solo travelers with flexible schedules and off-the-beaten-path destinations can score rock-bottom deals by waiting until the 11th hour. The average family traveling to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving or Christmas, on the other hand, would be wise to get ahead of the crowds — especially in 2022.

“We are looking forward to an extremely busy holiday travel season,” said Veronica Hanson, owner of Nomad Veronica LLC. “Waiting to book your travel plans is a game of roulette. Some very specific travel destinations could potentially end up with great last-minute deals. However, the vast majority of holiday travelers don’t have the flexibility to go to those obscure destinations. Most holiday travelers need to go on specific dates and to exact locations. In the case of those travelers, they should absolutely be booking now. Air, land, hotel, and all transportation have supply-and-demand pricing as well as limited supply. Once that plane, train, hotel, or car rental agency is out of inventory, there is no price that can change that reality.”

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If Your Travel Involves the Tropics, Book Yesterday

You should feel an especially strong sense of urgency if you’re planning to ditch the cold in favor of an in-demand tropical destination.

“For Caribbean hotels, which so many of us love during the holiday season, book now,” said Lee Friedman, travel advisor and founder of Mango Tree Travel. “We are already seeing many, many hotels sold out over the holiday weeks. High-end hotels especially are booking up, even though prices are at record highs. So, if you find an affordable rate, grab it.”

It’s not just the Caribbean. The most exotic U.S. state is also filling up fast.

“If your upcoming plans for the holiday season include booking a trip to a popular destination such as Hawaii, you may already be too late,” said Kayla Laatz, founder of Mountain Mamas NZ. “On the island of Kauai, accommodation and car rentals often sell out up to six months in advance. Better to be safe than sorry — better to book sooner rather than later.”

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The Right Time To Book a Flight Depends on How Far You’re Flying

If you’re traveling by plane, plan based on the type of flight you’re taking.

“Let’s break this down to two categories,” said Gareth Davies from the family budget travel website CurlyExplorers.com. “Long haul and short haul. The latter can usually be booked at the last minute and can save money. There are so many flights nowadays that there are often multiple in a day running from one location to the other. Flights obviously become a bit tighter in peak time, but you should be able to get what you want by booking reasonably close to the time — within a week or so — and the prices shouldn’t vary too much. Long haul is a little different, and we’ve always found booking early by a month or more gets the cheapest prices.”

What About Car Rentals, Hotels and Train Travel?

While some experts said that last-minute bookers might be able to score deals on flights, there was little disagreement about when to book train travel.

“This is one where advanced booking does seem to make a bigger difference,” Davies said. “Long-distance public transport like trains is almost always cheaper if you book in advance.”

As with flights, the right time to book hotels has a lot to do with where you’re headed.

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“Hotel costs vary based on destination,” said Agnes Groonwald of Travel on the Reg. “Popular vacation destinations — e.g. tropical escapes in the Caribbean and warm-weather winter destinations — will likely get more expensive the longer you wait. Big cities with more inventory like New York City and Chicago may experience a price drop around the two-week mark before you travel.”

In terms of car rentals, the experts agreed that even though fleet inventory is in much better shape this year than last year, you should still expect high prices no matter when you book.

“Just as the rest of the United States is experiencing a hike in costs, it is no surprise the car rental companies are seeing the same increases,” said Julie Flores, VP of operations for car rental rate-management service Rate-Highway. “As a result, they are having to pass along the increases to their customers so many consumers are seeing a higher bill, due to increased surcharges and fees.”

As an alternative, consider P2P car-borrowing services like Turo.

Pro Tips To Take the Stress Out of Holiday Travel Planning

Whether you’re traveling by train, plane or renting a car, you’re not fully at the mercy of the airlines and hotel chains — follow these strategies for smooth sailing.

“No matter what sort of travel you’re planning, please purchase travel insurance,” said Lori Avirett-Mackenzie of the woman-focused travel site Dragon In Your Pocket Travel. “COVID is still with us, as is seasonal flu. My travel companion and I had to rebook a trip from Atlanta to Disneyland because she tested positive for COVID the morning of our flight — and some things were non-changeable.”

You can also protect yourself and streamline your trip by seeking professional help.

“Contact a travel consultant or agent,” Avirett-Mackenzie said. “It’s much easier to give the research and work to a professional who will look out for your interests than to try to think of all eventualities yourself.”

Avirett-Mackenzie expects prices to spike after mid-October. If you wait beyond that, the best bet is to build some wiggle room into your itinerary.

“Be flexible with dates and times of travel,” she said, citing examples like the willingness to travel on Thanksgiving and Christmas. “Consider driving to another airport as well as purchasing two one-way tickets. Think laterally and check multiple close-by airports, dates, and airlines.”

Another way you can control costs is to book the right day of the week.

“If possible, avoid the busiest days for travel,” said Mercedes Zach, travel expert at ASAP Tickets, which is part of Trevolution Group. “Normally it is the evening after the last working day, as well as the first and last days of the holidays.”

The time of day matters too.

“Take a morning flight wherever possible,” Gumport said. “Delays get worse as the day wears on.”

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About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.
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