At SmarterTravel.com, we’re big fans of booking early. Travelers who plan in advance typically get the best deals on airfare and enjoy a greater choice of accommodations. This is particularly true for summer, the peak travel season for many popular destinations.
If you’ve only just started thinking about your summer vacation, don’t stress—it’s not too late to put together a great trip.
Perhaps this is the year you’ve decided to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Or maybe you’re choosing between Yellowstone and Yosemite. Acadia also holds a strong appeal. Visiting a national park in summer is often a great time to go, as the weather is pleasant, park rangers increase their available programs, and activities abound. Whichever park you choose, a few preliminary plans can make all the difference.
“Make plans early and you’ll minimize drawbacks,” says Jeffrey Olson, spokesman for the National Park Service. He cites the four parks above, as well as the Grand Canyon, Olympic, Rocky Mountain, Zion, Cuyahoga Valley, and Grand Teton national parks as the top 10 most visited in the country. If you’re going to one of these hotspots, Olson recommends outlining your vacation structure before you go. “Make a list: How many days do we have? Are we flying? Are we driving? How many miles do we want to put into one day?” Putting together a structured trip in advance will go far in minimizing frustration.
“When calling or booking reservations online, have a few sets of vacation dates in mind,” says Kenny Karst, PR manager for the DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite. “That way if your first choice is not available, you may book alternative dates right on the spot without having to call back. Midweek bookings are sometimes more readily available than weekends.”
For summer travel, Olson suggests advance reservations rather than looking for vacancies at the last minute—or once you get there. “More planning time is better and the best lodge rooms get reserved by people planning their trips months in advance, like during the winter.” Yosemite, for example, takes lodging reservations 366 days in advance at select properties.
If you do find sold-out lodges and campsites, visiting in other seasons can be equally enjoyable. “Don’t forget the shoulder season … before Memorial Day and after Labor Day,” says Olson. “Spring and fall are great times to see national parks. And those desert parks—How about December, January, and February?”
A vacation rental is an ideal choice for summer vacations. You’ll get more room for the family, can take advantage of amenities such as full kitchens, and will often enjoy prime locations with beach or mountain scenery.
Brian Sharples, CEO of HomeAway.com, advocates starting your vacation search early. “The traffic for booking summer rentals on our site starts to go up in January [and] remains very strong typically throughout April … People tend to plan earlier and earlier these days.” The site’s most popular destinations include Cape Cod, Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, Destin (Florida), and Key West.
Anne Woodyard, co-owner of Music and Markets Tours, a tour operator offering cultural trips to Europe, owns a vacation home in France. For European rentals, “villas with a pool in a desirable location are snapped up quickly,” she says. “I’d suggest booking those five to six months ahead. [The] minimum for summer vacation rentals of any type would be three to four months ahead.”
Many travelers wouldn’t anticipate finding deals on vacation rentals, but there can be promotions and sales available if you do some legwork. “Have some flexibility in terms of when you can travel,” says Sharples. “People who have great homes in great locations have no trouble filling up spring break, Christmas, and August. The average [owner] rents out [their vacation home] 20 weeks if they’re doing a good job. In those other 32 weeks, owners are very willing to cut deals and their prices.”
He also suggests looking for a [% 1251060 | | last-minute %] rental. “Go to our sites and look for next week or two weeks [out],” says Sharples. “If time is available, the owner has already conceded that they might not rent that week out. [You] can call and ask if they’ll give you a deal, and they’re often flexible at the last minute.”
And don’t discount off-peak areas for summer. “Florida represents one-third of all vacation rentals in the U.S.,” Sharples says. “There’s been an amazing amount of development and a lot of inventory. Some of the demand had dropped from hurricanes. Florida is a fairly competitive market right now; [there are] some good deals to be had.”
“The beauty of a theme park vacation is you can craft it to meet your timetable,” says family travel expert Emily Kaufman, also known as The Travel Mom. “You can be spontaneous and visit at the last minute or plan a more detailed itinerary.”
Tailor your vacation based on which parks you want to visit. “If you are planning on visiting a regional amusement park, such as Six Flags or Cedar Point, you don’t need to plan in advance,” says Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider. For a major theme park such as Walt Disney World, however, he recommends booking at least three months prior to your trip.
“The most important thing you can do is buy your tickets in advance,” says Niles. “Parks offer a wide variety of deals, and consumers can often find discounts through AAA, schools, credit unions, and work HR departments. At the very least, having your tickets in advance will save you precious time first thing in the morning, since you won’t have to wait on a ticket line. That’s time you could spend on rides instead.”
The type of ticket you choose can also impact your visit, and again, advance planners will benefit. “Take advantage of front-of-line access whenever possible,” says Kaufman. “Disney Parks offer a free Fast Pass that lets guests return to an attraction at a designated time, when the wait is significantly shorter. Universal Studios also sells a package with this type of access. Six Flags recently introduced the VIP Experience, which includes front-of-line access, food and beverages, midway games, and preferred seating at shows.”
Lastly, be smart about your schedule once you get there. “The key to any successful theme park vacation is to pace yourself and be realistic,” says Kaufman. “You are not going to tackle every ride in one day. Stay at a hotel with easy access to and from the park, so you can rest midday and return in the evening to enjoy nighttime festivities.”
“If you are an early riser, you can beat [heat and crowds with an early visit], then take a break or nap away from the park in the middle of the day when the weather is at its hottest,” says Niles. “Come back and hit more rides as the temperature cools and the crowds start to head home.”
Europe always gets an influx of American tourists over the summer months. “The main advantage [of visiting in summer] is it suits families’ schedules because school is out,” says J.M. Pasquesi, author of the forthcoming Rome with Kids guide. She also cites the continent’s good weather, particularly in early June, as the second main draw, which carries the additional bonus of having to pack and carry less clothing. “You can usually obtain direct flights during high season, [whereas] many airlines cut back off-season, forcing you to take two flights to connect to your desired destination.”
Pasquesi typically plans a summer European vacation four to six months in advance, the earlier the better to secure her first-choice travel dates on her preferred airline. In addition, by planning early, “if you are applying for any airfare upgrades, you stand a better chance of taking the limited amount available on any given flight,” says Pasquesi. The same goes for accommodations. “The earlier you book, the better luck you’ll have,” she says. “Large cities like Rome see the most desirable locations booked far in advance.”
“Before we started Music and Markets Tours, we would plan our summer trips in March, roughly four months ahead of time,” says Anne Woodyard. “If we’re traveling from one place in Europe to another, I always check WhichBudget for cheap airfares. For car rental, I rely on Auto Europe, and often use their beat-rate offer if I find a lower rate elsewhere. I’ve found it’s easier to use a U.S.-based auto rental company in case there’s any reason to follow-up on the rental.”
Whether you want to be part of a tour group, visit a specific museum, or see a popular historic site, book in advance to avoid disappointment. According to Pasquesi, “If you are in a popular city at peak vacation days, you can save lots of time by calling ahead and booking entrance—even if that means the day before you decide to visit, then you can avoid waiting in line.”
Whether you’re hoping for a beachfront vacation rental, a top-notch tour of Rome’s Colosseum, or a few days on thrilling roller coasters, start planning now to ensure you get the vacation you’ve been dreaming about.