The post-holiday, early-winter doldrums provide an ideal time to start daydreaming about summer vacation. Whether that means a camping trip in a national park, some serious beach time, or a European jaunt, timing is everything when it comes to finding the best deals and availability.
But is booking early always the right approach? Here’s the rundown on when and why to book summer cruises, vacation rentals, and trips to Europe and national parks.
Fans of cruising often talk about how easy travel is aboard a ship. You only have to unpack once, but you see many different places. Food and entertainment are never more than a short stroll away. It works whether you’re going solo or traveling with a crowd. And with so many different itineraries, there’s always more to see.
Booking a summer cruise presents a unique set of challenges. Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor-in-Chief at our sister site Cruise Critic, says that when to buy depends on what you want out of a cruise. While the most popular summer cruise regions are the Mediterranean, Alaska, and the Caribbean, deciding when to book will depend as much on you as it does on where you’re going. Spencer Brown says, “If you have specific requirements in terms of dates and accommodations style, the ‘best’ time to book is sooner rather than later.” However, she notes, “If you are really flexible, the ‘best’ time is going to be closer in, when you can nab bargains.”
In general, “wave season,” the cruise industry term for the January to March booking period, is a good time to book summer sailings. Spencer Brown advises: “Definitely keep an eye on wave season deals, which are more oriented toward offering value than the deepest discounts. You may pay more for a cabin than you would at the veritable last minute, but you might also get free air thrown in, which sort of mitigates the issue.”
Vacation rentals tend to offer great value, especially for larger groups looking for a kitchen for cooking and extra space to spread out. Best of all, they come in all shapes and prices, providing hundreds of ways to build a dream vacation within budget whether you’re headed for a mountain lodge, an oceanfront cottage, or an urban condo.
In popular destinations, you’re better off starting your rental search at least six months in advance, according to TJ Mahony, CEO and co-founder of SmarterTravel’s sister site FlipKey. Being the early bird ensures the best selection and the best homes. So, for instance, if you’re eyeing a summer escape to Cape Cod, booking early is key, since the summer season is short and demand is high.
However, the rules change if you’re headed to a destination that is less popular in summer. Mahony offers the example of mountain regions, which tend to be busy in winter and quieter during summer, saying, “there, typical vacation rentals are running at about 30 percent occupancy for the whole season, so you can often find availability up to two weeks in advance and more flexible pricing.”
To get the best combination of affordability and amenities, Mahony recommends zeroing in on the three to five properties you’re most interested in, trying for a mix of homes overseen by management companies and owners. Management companies might be able to offer more amenities, while owners can sometimes provide slightly better prices. By contacting both, you can find the right balance for you.
If your number one priority is to save money, summer is the wrong time to visit Europe. It’s the most expensive season for airfare, and hotels are in higher demand. However, if your goal is more modest, say not to overspend, you should find success.
First, you’ll need to adjust your expectations on the airfare front. Not only are the current sale prices to Europe unseasonably high, but they only cover winter and spring trips, not summer flights. As summer creeps closer, don’t expect a huge influx of sales either: Summer airfare sales to Europe aren’t common, since demand tends to be high enough that airlines don’t have to entice fliers with discounts.
So what can you do? Start benchmarking prices early in the year so you’ll know when prices for your departure and arrival cities drop. And when you do eventually see a price that looks relatively good, grab it. As a rule of thumb, look to book up to six months in advance for destinations in Eastern Europe, and to book two to three months in advance (or if you’re a risk taker, wait until the last minute and see if you can score yourself a deal) for Western Europe.
However, throw all that biding your time stuff out the window if you’re planning on booking award seats using frequent flyer miles. Since seats are available for booking 330 days before the flight date, it’s already too late to be first in line for summer award travel to Europe. But all is not lost if you haven’t booked yet. SmarterTravel’s Tim Winship suggests booking ASAP, and checking back with the airline if your dates aren’t available, as availability can change at any time. He also suggests being flexible in your search: “Departing mid-week will increase the odds, and if flights to London and Rome are booked solid, perhaps there are seats available on flights to Manchester or Amsterdam.” When all else fails, he says, “call and speak to a reservations agent. Sometimes they have access to seats that aren’t shown on the airlines’ online booking applications. Other times they can create an itinerary that bypasses availability bottlenecks. Or they may be able to authorize booking a seat that was being blocked for future sale. And if they’re unsuccessful, you won’t be charged a booking fee, so there’s little risk.”
For hotel bookings, your strategy should be sooner rather than later. By booking early, you’ll find more availability, and are more likely to be able to get the room type you want. And if you’ve got your heart set on a particular room or view, booking early is essential.
Summer is high season at national and state parks with good reason. The weather is perfect for camping, hiking, and just generally enjoying the splendor of nature. And this summer, big birthdays offer even more reasons to visit. Glacier National Park in Montana turns 100 this year, and the Blue Ridge Parkway celebrates its 75th anniversary, as does Big Bend National Park in Texas.
For most summer trips to national parks, the time to book is now. Jeffrey Olsen at the National Parks Service (NPS) says, “It’s always best to book summer trips sooner rather than later. If you’ve decided on a destination, book it.” If you haven’t yet narrowed down your options, you can browse park listings and check out the “Plan your Visit” portal for details about where to stay and what to do. For the best prices, check for member (auto and travel clubs) discounts, and if you’re over 62, consider getting an America the Beautiful Senior Pass, as it is also good for discounts. When you’re searching, don’t forget that many towns near national parks have hotels, resorts, and campgrounds.
The big exception to the book early rule is that some campgrounds operate on a first-come, first-served basis. And if summer comes around and you find yourself outside a park lodge at 6 p.m. without a reservation, Olsen recommends asking at the front desk to see if there have been any cancellations. You just might get lucky.
According to an informal NPS survey, most Americans are within a half-day drive of a national park. That means that fun for any budget is within reach this summer, because as Olsen says, “National parks are always a good value, and summer 2010 won’t be an exception.”
Do you have your next summer vacation picked out yet? What destinations are in your future? Share your ideas or ask questions in the comments section below!
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