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When-to-book secrets for popular vacations

Through smart planning, you can ensure you get the trip you want months before you pack your suitcase. Book at the right time, and you’ll get your first-choice flights, accommodations, and prices. Book late, and you may have to compromise on the details of your getaway. Knowing the best time to book can save you from a less-than-ideal experience.

If you don’t believe me, listen to the hard lesson I learned about booking early. This year, I needed to buy two summer flights from San Francisco to Boston. For my Labor Day weekend trip, I booked my round-trip fare in early May for $292 (including a red-eye). I got this great price by planning months in advance. However, I didn’t realize flights for all summer weekends were equally in demand, so I put off booking the second trip, which was to occur in late July or early August. When I finally went online in late June, I was shocked to find fares started at over $500 apiece.

It’s ludicrous that I’m paying more to fly on a random weekend in August than I am for a holiday weekend. But that’s my punishment for misreading the peak travel times and not booking early enough. Many travelers make my mistake, confident they can book their flights, hotel, or vacation package just a few weeks ahead of time. But popular travel periods sell out faster than we think.

In just one article, I can’t tell you the best time to book every possible trip, but I can give some guidance on select itineraries. Here’s the lowdown on the ideal times to book seven popular vacations. You might be surprised how early you really need to start planning.

Fall foliage

When the air turns nippy and trees start to swap their summer greens for brighter hues, many Americans jump in their cars to get a good look. The foliage season lasts only a few weeks in September and October, which means that hotels will be booked solid during peak times.

Early booking is essential for leaf-peeping trips during the first two weeks in October, when the confluence of the Columbus Day holiday and the brightest fall colors lead to crowds. To get the best rates and availability, book six months in advance for this peak period, suggests Erica Houskeeper of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing. For other weekends, you should be fine reserving a room two to three months in advance. Procrastinators should consider bonding with nature during the week rather than weekends—in Vermont, you can get away with booking two to four weeks in advance for midweek stays.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of the year’s biggest travel times, which means you have lots of competition for airline seats. If you need to fly from Wednesday to Sunday, don’t pin your hopes on a fare sale. Instead, book your trip as early as possible and leave wiggle room in your itinerary for delays and bumps.

For the most choices, book your Thanksgiving flight 45 to 90 days in advance, recommends Erin Krause, one of Expedia’s travel experts. Book later and flights will be expensive and have limited availability. Book earlier, and you may find your original flight times changed as the airlines juggle their inventory.

Winter break

The winter holiday travel period may be longer than the Thanksgiving one, but it’s still just as crazy. Roughly the same advice holds for flights—book as early as possible, at least 60 to 90 days in advance.

If your winter plans include a ski vacation, Molly Cuffe of Colorado Ski Country USA says the trend is to book in August, but you’ll find good availability through early October. Not only will you get your pick of the best accommodations, but you can save money with package deals. If you dawdle, you’ll still be able to book a ski trip, but you’ll be staying farther from the slopes and many of the promotional rates will have disappeared. Spontaneous travelers should consider lesser-known ski areas, trading Vail or Aspen for one of the Colorado Gems.

Spring break

When I was a student, I didn’t think about spring break until after winter break. But students who want the best trip at the most affordable rates should book no later than Thanksgiving.

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).

National parks

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 cruises

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 [%1578414 | | 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.)

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