It’s never too early (or too late) to book your next vacation. But there is a sweet spot when it comes to finding the best rates and options on cruises, car rentals and even hotels.
We asked other travel experts about the best time to book a vacation; here’s what they had to say.
The Best Time to Start Planning
Most experts agree: the best time to plan your vacation is as early as possible.
“Planning a vacation is a lot like planning a family. Parents should start at least nine months in advance,” says Sally Black, founder of VacationKids, a family-focused travel agency. “While it’s a bit cheesy, parents remember the nine-month analogy.”
The Best Time to Book a Flight
There are so many theories around the best time to book a flight, and none of them are right or wrong. “A really cheap fare can pop up at any time with zero notice,” says Tracy Stewart, content editor at Airfarewatchdog.com. “That said, there are certain times of the year when your odds of snagging a deal are much higher. Airlines crank out the really low fares in off seasons when people tend to stay at home.”
But prices will always vary. “In the world of airfare, the early bird doesn’t always get the worm. Fares booked a year in advance aren’t necessarily going to be any cheaper than those booked a few months before departure,” says Stewart. “In fact, they are often much more expensive. The sweet spot can be anywhere from four months to three weeks in advance of your trip. But again, nothing is set in stone.”
That’s why it’s important to sign up for airfare alerts. “If you have your heart set on a trip to a specific destination, it’s a good idea to set up a fare alert. Monitor fare fluctuations on your preferred route to get a sense of cost, and strike when the price is somewhere between cheap and reasonable,” Stewart advises.
The Best Time to Book a Hotel
The later, the better? Sometimes. While it’s best to book your hotel early—especially if you’re a large family in need of specific accommodations—SmarterTravel’s Ed Perkins suggests making a reservation with a “pay when you arrive option,” then keeping an eye out on hotel booking sites. If a better deal arises, you can cancel your first reservation without losing money.
The Best Time to Book a Vacation Rental
It’s always best to book your vacation rental early, especially if you have your sights set on a destination where vacation rentals are the most popular—or primary—type of accommodations. According to new data from Vrbo, the best time to book your summer vacation home in 2020 is no later than April 30. “If you book before this date, you’ll have the best selection to ensure you find a home that fits your family’s needs,” says Taylor Granham, public relations specialist at Vrbo.
If your family typically goes to the same destination and likes to stay in the same rental annually, the best time to book is right after you return from vacation.
The Best Time to Book a Cruise
The experts at Cruise Critic say the best time to book a cruise is when itineraries first go on sale. “While you won’t find slashed, bottom-of-the-barrel fares by booking early, you can usually take advantage of value-add deals offered by the lines to incentivize early booking. Things like complimentary drinks packages, Wi-Fi, pre-paid gratuities and onboard credit—all savings that can go a long way in lowering the final cost of your cruise,” says Erica Silverstein, senior editor at Cruise Critic. “In addition, if the price of your cabin drops before final payment, most cruise lines will adjust your fare or give the difference in onboard credit. Check whether your initial deposit is refundable; if so, you can always cancel before final payment if you find a better deal on a different line after booking.”
Booking early also gives families more options. “For families—especially ones looking for connecting cabins, family-specific cabins or rooms that can sleep four or five—the best way to ensure your top priorities are met, is by booking early. Specifically, as close to when a sailing goes on sale as possible—usually around a year or so out from a sail date,” Silverstein advises. “By booking right at the start, you’ll have a much better chance of scoring your top cabin choice, and have wide availability for things like dining, show times and shore excursion offerings. This is especially important if you’re sailing during popular family travel times, such as summer, winter or spring break.”
The Best Time to Book Attraction Tickets
According to recent findings by TourScanner, on average, travelers book tours and activities 18 days before the date of the activities, but over 50 percent of the bookings happen just eight days before or less. But waiting to book comes with risks. “There are two risks connected with waiting until the last minute to make a booking: the attraction (or the tour/day trip) can be sold out, especially in the summer, and the price for the last spots left in peak season is much higher than the normal rate,” says Simone Semprini, founder and CEO of TourScanner.
Semprini suggests booking two to four months in advance, especially for attractions and activities that are subject to strict availability—think Alcatraz Island in San Francisco or the Louvre in Paris. You’ll also want to book two to four months in advance for day or multi-day tours. “You get free cancellation most of the time, so there’s not much risk,” says Semprini.
Considering a walking, biking or food tour? Because these type of tours often have open spots, it’s easier to book last-minute.
The Best Time to Book a Car Rental
“If you plan on renting a car for your summer vacation, it’s always best to get it locked down three to six months before your trip,” says Jake McKenzie, content manager at Auto Accessories Garage. “This is when you’ll find the most competitive prices amongst most major car renters.”
If you try to book a car rental outside of that time frame, things get tricky. “Once you’re closer than three months out, car rental prices will start to rise. And interestingly, you’ll also see higher prices if you try to book more than six months in advance.”
When doing your research, compare prices on several sites to ensure you’re getting the best rates. Budget-friendly car rental sites include Dollar, Enterprise, Thrifty (a subsidiary of Hertz), and of course, Budget.