Package tour operators offer great incentives for spring breakers who reserve their trips before December 1, says Kristin Celko of STA Travel. Free meal plans or party passes can make a huge difference to travelers on a college budget. The prices will go up after December 1, but you'll still find decent availability through the end of January. Book your trip later than that and pickings will be slim.
Looking for some wiggle room? In terms of availability, Celko recommends booking a Europe or volunteer vacation the earliest, then a beach or package vacation. Students looking for some spring skiing can afford to wait the longest.
Summer vacation rentals
When SmarterTravel.com Associate Editor Sarah Pascarella decided to spend a week in Cape Cod with her family, she knew it was up to her to find a great rental at a great price. No problem—she just booked her vacation rental a year in advance for her first-choice week.
Eileen Reid-Buesing, director of public relations for HomeAway, would applaud Sarah's foresight. She recommends booking six months to a year in advance for a summer vacation rental. Traffic on HomeAway picks up around the first of the year, and availability starts to fall thereafter. You can still find a rental three to five months out, but Buesing recommends looking for less popular dates or off-the-beaten path properties (such as homes a short distance from the beach rather than waterfront rentals).
Yosemite's most coveted campsites lie on the valley floor, surrounded by granite cliffs just minutes from trailheads. When my friends and I planned a camping trip during the peak waterfall season, booking a campsite became a task equal to purchasing popular concert tickets. We had to be on the phone calling the National Park Service's reservations system the second the books opened.
The National Park Service allows campers to book sites six months in advance, and inventory becomes available each day. Yosemite is the exception—reservations are available five months in advance on the 15th of the month for the entire fifth month. If you want to camp in a particular site at a popular park like Yosemite, Glacier, or Acadia, it's wise to book the moment reservations become available.
If you'd prefer a little more luxury and want to stay in a lodge or cabin, you should book your accommodations six months to a year in advance, says Kevin Dillman, director of central reservations for Xanterra Parks & Resorts. His company begins taking reservations for properties in Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon, Crater Lake, and Death Valley 13 months in advance. The most coveted rooms, such as Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and the Western Cabins and El Tovar suites with rim views, will sell out within hours for the peak tourist seasons. If you don't care what room or lodge you get, you can book as late as three to six months in advance.
Summer and cruising seem to go hand in hand. The kids are out of school, Alaska and Europe itineraries are available for just a few months, and everyone is ready for a vacation. Therefore, if you want first dibs on cabin types and specific itineraries, you need to book nearly a year in advance.
The best time to book a summer sailing is in September or October. This short window is a critical period between the current year's summer season and Wave Season, a time of intense cruise booking between January and March. Most cabin categories will sell out during Wave Season, so book well before to ensure you get the cruise you want. Otherwise, you'll have to settle for lower-category cabins or less desirable dates.
Let us help
If this is too much information to keep in your head, don't worry. We'll rerun this story throughout the year at key booking periods. It'll be your reminder to start planning your next vacation, even if it seems a long way away. Not only will you get the best rates and your first-choice vacation, but you'll have something fun to look forward to for months. And that could be the best perk of all.
(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.)