In a recent post Fernand made a comment about advance booking. In particular, he mentioned the savings associated with booking rail travel in Europe. That’s a great tip where it makes sense to book your rail journey as soon as your dates are fixed or as soon as the advance purchase discount fares become available. Although these are typically non-refundable, the savings are so significant that it’s worth the risk. But the larger question on when is a good time to book a trip is not so simple. I’ll attempt to go through some of the factors involved.
Are your travel dates firm? If you must plan travel around the school calendar then you’re much more likely to be in the camp that books trips well in advance. Any great deal that comes along will likely be snapped up by someone else in a similar position if you don’t grab it first. As soon as the trip changes from a daydream to a reality you must start monitoring fares and researching accommodation and itinerary. Are you hoping to use Aeroplan or Air Miles for the flight? If so, then you definitely should be on top of your planning well in advance.
If you’ve got lots of flexibility in dates or destination then you can relax a bit when it comes to trip planning. Or if you decide that the trip will only happen if a super deal presents itself, you can even wait till you’re in last-minute territory. However, if you’ve got some flexibility you should do some research on when to avoid a particular destination. If some event is happening, in which you have no interest, and hotel rooms are scarce with rates in the stratosphere, you will wish you chose your dates more carefully. Conversely, do some research and see if some event of interest is happening in your destination that you’d like to plan your trip around. It can be awfully disappointing to discover that you’ll be leaving town just a few days before an event that would’ve been right up your alley. If you’re going to a popular tourist destination, find out if there are some sweet spots in the calendar when the crowds won’t be so bad.
Low airfares are a moving target and I don’t think there’s any hard evidence as to when is the best time to book or how long a good fare will last. I’ve said many times, “it’s the best deal ever – it’s not going to last!” or “I can’t believe there’s availability on miles – it’s going to disappear momentarily!” only for it to last several days. Of course, sometimes that new fare you think might be around a while vaporizes in the final second before you click the “book” button.
As soon as you’ve got a destination in mind you should start monitoring airfares. Do some internet research or ask some fellow travellers what range of airfare is typical for that flight. If you can book at a price you’re pleased with (and resist the temptation to keep looking after you’ve booked), then a big step in your planning is complete and you can move onto other things. You also have the added benefit of a long time to enjoy the anticipation of the trip.
Regarding last minute fares, you may score a great deal if you have relatively wide flexibility. However, putting all the pieces together for a budget trip on short notice can be more challenging. Less complicated trips are better suited to last-minute bookings. It might seem a bit odd, but doing lots of travel research in advance is a great way to make a successful last-minute trip because you already know how to get things organized in a hurry. There is also a bit of excitement involved in booking a last minute trip.
The type of accommodation you choose is a big factor in terms of advance booking. If you want to book a popular vacation rental you must be prepared to commit early. Similarly, if you’re planning to spend a few nights in a village with only 3 B&B’s, you better get that booking in place. Regular chain hotels are a different story. Most have fully refundable rates so you can lock in a reservation and cancel it later if something better comes along. The same typically goes for points bookings. You’re safer to get that points reservation made even if it’s only tentative. Just be sure to read the cancellation terms carefully to avoid any unusual date-specific policy.
I find it quite surprising how much fluctuation occurs in hotel rates leading up to one’s stay. I have cancelled and rebooked stays multiple times in the weeks leading up to a trip. That makes choosing the non-refundable rate quite unappealing although it might offer a nice discount at the time. Still, sometimes the advance purchase rate is just too good to pass up, especially when the trip is fast approaching.
Another nice aspect of refundable hotel reservations is the chance to move your stay to a different hotel based on a great new loyalty program promotion. Once you get into the points and miles game, you find yourself planning the next trip based on how many points or free nights you can earn on this one.
For Europe trips, it used to be that you bought your plane ticket and got a Eurail pass and you were good to go. Generally speaking, those days are gone. There actually is no rail company that spans the continent – each country has its own rail companies. Many now offer heavily discounted tickets when you book in advance for journeys on high speed long-distance trains. Here are a few examples of tickets purchased for travel tomorrow compared to travel at the furthest available discounted date:
Frankfurt – Munich
Tomorrow: 89 Euro; November 5: 29 Euro
Paris – Amsterdam
Tomorrow: 135 Euro; November 18: 35 Euro
London – Paris
Tomorrow: 146 GPB; January 2: 45 GPB
There is no way to tell how quickly the cheap advance fares will sell out. On one trip I was at the computer to book tickets Paris to Basel at the moment they became available and later that day the fare was gone. On other routes the low price stuck around until a couple of weeks before the trip. One advantage of booking in advance is getting good seat selections. If you’re traveling in a group of 3 or 4 it’s nice to have seats around a table.
There are still circumstances when a region or country-specific rail pass may be a good idea. It allows for greater flexibility in your itinerary. You can change plans or break your journey to see a place of interest en route. One must just make sure to read the terms carefully.
Another alternative in some countries is to make use of the cheaper regional trains which typically don’t offer advance purchase tickets. Sometimes they offer day passes such as the Länder-ticket in Germany good for up to 5 people.
Check out this comprehensive rail information site for tips.
Itinerary planning takes research. The more time you have to do it, the better prepared you’ll likely be. You’ll know what days the museums are closed, where’s the best deal on a nice dinner, which activities require advance booking and what attractions are not worth the price. Not to toot my own horn but my family once stayed at a B&B in Lucerne, Switzerland and the proprietor told us our plans for our time there were the best of any guests yet. Our activities included a bus ride to a nearby village to see the annual festival of the cows coming down from the mountain pastures (parading right through town!), a trip up Mt. Pilatus by cogwheel train and down by cable car, a boat cruise on Lake Lucerne and a Swiss folklore gala concert at the large fancy concert hall where we were clearly the most underdressed in the audience. But the show was wonderful and we have great memories.
I’m not sure I believe in “pre-planning”. I don’t really understand what that means. I do, however, like to do lots of planning, but not necessarily booking in advance unless it’s an important component of the trip and it’s available at a great price. I think everyone’s comfort level is a bit different when it comes to booking travel arrangements and he or she should do whatever makes the whole experience a positive one.