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The 10 Most Common Travel Booking Mistakes

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Woman at a coffee shop using a laptop (Photo: Index Open)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 10, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, airport, booking strategy, car rental, hotel, Sarah Pascarella, seasonality, taxes and fees, vacation package.

If you're a long-time reader of SmarterTravel, you may consider yourself an old pro when it comes to booking airfare, hotels, and rental cars. But even the savviest of travelers can always use a refresher course, especially in light of travel's new realities—fees aplenty, confusing regulations, and endless fine print. Read on to see the 10 most common travel booking mistakes, and how to avoid them.

1. Booking Too Soon

When it comes to making travel reservations, is there such a thing as booking too early? In the cases of peak seasonality and special events (such as festivals or big games), the answer is most likely no—high demand increases prices, and the earlier you book, the better. For standard vacations and weekend getaways, however, booking way in advance (e.g., three months or more) or before you've done your research may not get you the best price.

It's a good rule of thumb to start pricing vacations six to eight weeks before your travel dates to get the best sense of what you should expect to pay for your trip. With this cushion of time ahead of you, take a few days to track airfares and hotel rates (each day) to see fluctuations in price, as well as if any sales or promotions crop up. If you're not locked into specific travel dates, also consult flexible-search options to determine if some days offer better prices than others. After a few days of research, you should get a good sense of what flights and hotels will cost you. Then, when you see a price you like, you can book with confidence that you're getting a good deal for your budget.

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2. Booking Too Late

When I first started at SmarterTravel back in the early '00s, last-minute airfare deals were plentiful, with thousands of discounted routes available each week. Today, it's a different story: Capacity cuts and belt-tightening across the industry have greatly reduced last-minute pricing inventory (at least for airfares). As such, waiting until the last minute (e.g., within a week or a few days of your travel dates), may not get you a bargain fare.

Booking too late can also be risky strategy for hotels and rental cars, particularly if you're traveling during peak season in a given destination, around the holidays, or to places that are notoriously expensive (New York City, San Francisco, London, etc.). Holding out for a lower price may result in the exact opposite—reduced inventory leading to high prices and extremely limited availability.

Give yourself a decent cushion to research before making your travel plans (e.g., a month or two, as outlined above) to ensure you don't overpay for your vacation.

3. Not Comparison Shopping

This may be the single most important rule when booking travel, and one that will serve you well regardless of what you're looking to buy: Comparing prices across a variety of providers is the best way to ensure you're getting a good price for your trip.

There are multiple ways to compare prices: Use SmarterTravel's Flight Search Tool or TripAdvisor Flights, Kayak, or FareCompare. Be sure to check these listings against what's posted on the company's own site, as it may have special discounts that undercut all other third-party suppliers. Finally, you may also want to get in touch with a travel agent to see if his or her offerings can get you a better deal.

Once you've done your research, you'll know definitively (and specifically for your trip) what's a good deal and what's not.

4. Ignoring Seasonality

Have you ever attempted to get a last-minute summer hotel room in Cape Cod? Or maybe inquired in January about an Orlando family vacation over Presidents' Day week? If so, you probably were quickly schooled in the lessons of seasonality.

Simply put—a destination's peak travel period will result in the highest demand and prices. If you're planning to travel during this busy time, book well in advance for the best prices and availability. If you're not sure which time period is your destination's peak season, get in touch with the local convention and visitors' bureau to find out.

Conversely, knowing when the off-peak and shoulder seasons occur is just as important, particularly if you're planning a lot of outdoor activities. You won't want to head to San Francisco in cool, foggy summer in shorts and a T-shirt, just as you wouldn't bring ski gear to Vermont in May. If you're just starting to research a new (to you) destination, understanding the region's seasonal calendar can give you the best knowledge for planning both your activities and budget accordingly.

5. Not Reading Reviews

Consider the following scenario: You arrive in New York City and can't wait to unload your luggage at your great budget hotel before sightseeing. Instead, you find the reality is a much different story.

If you've ever stayed at a hotel that looked markedly different from its website or brochure, you know the importance of reading reviews, both from experts and fellow travelers. Thankfully, nowadays reviews are plentiful—you can find hotel reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor, Yahoo, and major OTAs (Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity). Before making a reservation, cross reference hotel ratings from your favorite guidebooks against online user reviews to get a good sense of what a property is really like.

6. Not Reading the Fine Print

Many travelers have lived to rue the day that they booked a trip without first reading the fine print. From rental cars stipulations on mileage, insurance, and interstate travel to airfare ticket changes or cancellations, not knowing the transaction's regulations (both clear-cut and those less so) can cost a lot later.

If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Break out the magnifying glass and comb over the teeny-tiny text at the bottom of that seemingly great deal. From there, you can determine caveats, regulations, and the actual cost, including taxes, fees, and any "hidden" charges that can drive up the total price.

7. Not Understanding the Difference Between Direct and Non-Stop Flights

Not knowing the difference between these seemingly synonymous terms can result in an unpleasant surprise during your flight.

Non-stop flights get you from your departure city to your arrival city seamlessly, with no stops or breaks during service. A non-stop flight between Newark and Los Angeles, for example, leaves from Newark and goes straight to Los Angeles without interruption.

A direct flight may include a few stops along the way to drop off and pick up passengers. So, for example, a flight between Newark and Los Angeles may also land in Chicago and Denver to drop off and pick up passengers. If you have a ticket for the two end points, you would just stay on the plane for the duration of the trip.

A non-stop flight tends to cost a bit more for the convenience of the faster flight and the possibility of flying a less-than-full plane without the chance to pick up additional paying customers along the way. However, if you're traveling with children, have a tendency to get airsick, or simply are skittish during takeoffs and landings, you may want to pay the extra fare to get the non-stop (e.g., faster) trip.

8. Booking a Too-Tight Connection

A few years ago, I took a chance and booked a super-low fare despite a ridiculously tight connection of just 45 minutes between flights. We landed on time, and, to my dismay, waited a bit on the runway as our arrival gate wasn't quite ready. My friend and I then sprinted through the Munich airport, through two different terminals, two security checks, and finally to our gate—where we just made our flight by a matter of minutes. The lesson learned? While it may cost a bit more to avoid such a hassle, it may also be well worth it for peace of mind.

We recently asked our readers to share tips for making tight connections and lots of good suggestions came in. Common refrains included checking airport terminal maps in the in-flight magazine to familiarize the layout and get your directions in advance, choosing seats near the front of the aircraft (for quick disembarkation to get to your connecting flight), and asking for assistance from airport support staff, particularly motorized-cart drivers who can transport you quickly between terminals.

In sum, avoid booking connections that are less than an hour, particularly if you know your connecting airport is large and has terminals spread out, or if you're flying different legs on separate carriers that may not share gate areas and/or terminals.

9. Not Taking Fees Into Account

The proliferation of fees in recent years has made doing your pre-booking legwork more important than ever. Whether it's extra charges for checked baggage, overweight baggage, in-flight entertainment, flying with a pet, or even carry-on bags, fees today can greatly inflate the cost of your ticket, often by $50 or more.

Before you start researching airfares, familiarize yourself with SmarterTravel's Airline Fees: The Ultimate Guide, a handy resource that gives you an up-to-date breakdown of what each airline charges for services beyond the cost of your seat. Print out a copy before you start researching fares; that way, when you see a price that fits your budget, you can take the extra fees into account to determine the final total cost for your trip.

Additionally, you can also use a tool such as Trip Advisor Flights, which includes a fees estimator to quickly calculate the total cost of your trip, depending on your airline and travel habits.

10. Ignoring Follow-Up Emails/Alerts After Booking

Woe be to the traveler who books a trip and then ignores any follow-up emails from his travel provider. Many travel companies request your email address for a reason—to alert you of any flight schedule or itinerary changes, to reschedule your trip if there's been a cancellation, and other updates. The days of getting a phone call from your airline to notify you of changes or cancellations are long over; in many cases, email updates are the only form of communication. Ignore them at your peril.

Additionally, be sure to update your spam filters to ensure these messages don't end up in the trash folder. Once the email has been sent, the travel provider has met its obligation to you as a customer. Claiming you never got the email will garner little sympathy, recourse, or refunds.

Your Turn

Do you have any suggestions for avoiding travel booking mistakes? Share your expertise by submitting a comment below!

(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel.com is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)

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