Booking travel can be confusing, and it seems like the prices are always changing. How can you get the best deal?
With summer vacation right around the corner, all signs point to booking now, especially if you plan on traveling internationally. You can get personalized advice and trip planning by scheduling an appointment with one of our travel advisors here.
European river cruises and cities are among the most popular destinations for summer 2023, according to AAA Northeast travel booking data. From flights to rental cars to hotels, reservations are filling up fast and prices are up across the board.
“It is going to be another busy domestic summer season. With that, we are seeing Europe taking the top spot week after week. River cruises are filling up fast, and top tours to the hottest destinations are nearly sold out for some of our partners … Ireland, Italy, Spain and Portugal are topping the list,” said Chuck Nardozza, AAA Northeast’s managing director of travel sales. “Don’t get me wrong, there are still some deals to be had, but they are going to be far and few between. That’s why working with a trusted travel advisor is our best advice. In some cases it is cheaper to cross the Atlantic than it is to go across the country! I can’t say it enough, book ASAP, don’t miss out!”
Here are more top tips from AAA Travel experts for finding the best time to book your next flight, hotel room, cruise or tour.
When Is the Best Time to Book a Flight?
Ray Hourani, director of travel air operations at AAA Northeast, shares pointers on how to best fly the friendly skies.
What do travelers need to know about the current price of air travel?
Hourani has seen air rates for both Europe and domestic flights steadily increase since early January. In addition to inflation and other economic factors, price hikes can be attributed to continued staffing shortages.
“Airlines are struggling to get back to staffing levels that they were back in 2019 especially for pilots,” Hourani said. And as pilots negotiate higher contracts, air fares will rise to meet them. The Federal Aviation Administration is also having trouble hiring air traffic controllers, asking airlines to cut summer capacity as a result, especially in the New York City area. Naturally, less capacity equals higher cost.
Those looking to travel to Asia, however, can still find savings. “Asian countries were late in reopening [during the pandemic], so there are still some lower air rates available to Japan and Southeast Asia,” Hourani said.
In general, does the time you book a flight matter?
Yes and no. “There are certain times when prices do drop,” said Hourani. There’s usually a fair dip in prices between the end of January through the first week of March, so you may want to use this time to take advantage of international summer flights.
“The days of the week when you’re traveling matter also,” Hourani said. “There could be a surcharge of $50 to $80 for round-trip flights on weekends. If you’re traveling on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, it’s going to be a lot cheaper.” The fares tend to be lower than on a Friday or Sunday, which are peak travel days, especially for international flights. Still, Hourani noted that there is often less choice and availability of flights when searching for the best deal.
Flight prices can also fluctuate around holidays – especially big holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas.
“If you’re traveling on that Wednesday and coming back on that Sunday, you’re going to be charged a relatively high price for that airfare,” Hourani said of the Thanksgiving holiday. “If you travel on Monday and come back the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the fares will be a little cheaper.”
When is the best time to book a flight if you want something specific?
Let’s say you need to get out on a certain day, certain time of day or even just want your choice of seating. What do you do?
“If you want specific flight dates, times and seats, book early,” said Hourani. “That’s a rule of thumb. Sometimes airlines charge more for choice seats, but there will still be more availability during an earlier timeframe. The choice seats and choice times won’t get you the best fares, but from a peace-of-mind standpoint it could be worth it.”
What happens when you book a flight closer to the day you’re leaving?
For live events like concerts, last-minute tickets are usually cheaper, since ticket sellers are trying to get them off their hands. But that’s not so for airlines.
“Years ago, that used to be the case,” Hourani said. “There were a lot of empty seats, there were empty 747s flying across the Atlantic and transcontinental. But the airlines have become very sophisticated in managing their inventory.” Modern-day airlines now set their prices using airline revenue management systems to determine demand. This leads to dynamic price changes in real time, which can often be confusing for passengers trying to snag deals.
Almost all the flights now are full, so if you’re trying to fly last minute, that’s actually when they’re going to charge you the most. Hourani recommends booking airfare at least 120 days before departure.
Any other tips for booking flights?
Hourani suggests prospective flyers keep an eye on fluctuating ticket prices before committing to a purchase.
“Watch the flights you want. If you’re not in a rush, look at it every other day to check the pricing and availability. An airline can change their pricing a good 150 times a day depending on the demand, so you want to keep an eye on it. When you see the fare isn’t really fluctuating any more, it isn’t going up or going down, then you can book.”
If you don’t have the time to refresh a webpage, you can find a few different apps and websites that specifically track changing airfare prices.
When Is the Best Time to Book a Hotel?
One of the most important parts of a vacation is booking your hotel. Your hotel room can be your home base, a luxurious retreat or just a place to crash at the end of a busy day.
But when is the best time to book a hotel? You don’t want to be caught out in the cold or be forced to pay exorbitant fees for a last-minute place to stay. The timing of when you book your hotel room can affect both the price of your room and the quality of the place you wind up staying.
Joanne Monahan, director of travel for AAA Northeast and a Certified Travel Industry Executive, offers some guidance.
How far in advance should you book your hotel room?
It depends on when you plan to travel. Monahan said demand for rooms is usually higher on the holidays and during school vacations.
“Even on long weekends, the demand is high,” Monahan said. “Usually, for those times, it’s best to book it weeks or months in advance to make sure you get the hotel you want. And if demand is high, the price is going to go up.”
When it comes to booking during other periods, though, things can change.
“Sometimes, if you’re not booking during a high-demand time, closer booking may save you money,” Monahan said. “But in other times, it’s really a gamble if you wait. It’s always good to have a backup in case you don’t get what you want.”
For domestic travel, try to book at least a month in advance. That’s usually when it is cheapest to book a hotel and will give you the most room choices. For international travel, Monahan recommends planning a bit further in advance. “A lot of times, hotel rooms – especially in Europe – are different than they are here in the states. For example, it can be hard to get rooms with an occupancy of three or four people, like for a family traveling together. It’s really important to schedule that as much in advance as you can, so you get what you need.”
How does hotel pricing work?
Hotel prices can also fluctuate depending on the day of the week. For example, Sunday-to-Sunday booking can usually turn out to be cheaper than making the first day of your stay a Friday or Saturday. Traveling during the area’s offseason may save you money as well. Summer hot spots can turn into ghost towns in the fall and winter – and the pricing of the hotel rooms reflects that.
“Pricing depends on their inventory,” Monahan said. “It’s a gamble, you know. There’s no guarantee. Sometimes, when rooms are getting close to being sold out, hotels may even raise their rates. But if they have a lot of inventory available, they may keep their rates lower so that they’ll sell more rooms.”
Monahan recommends keeping an eye on any important local festivities or events, as they can affect the price of hotel rooms as well.
“Those nearby hotels are going to sell out, and they’re going to go higher if more people want them around the time when there’s an activity going on.”
The law of supply and demand continues to be a good rule of thumb when it comes to predicting prices.
How do you get your money’s worth?
When it comes time to book your travel, booking through a third-party agency like AAA can help you save even more money by bundling the purchase of your flight and your hotel room. Sometimes, rates for AAA Members can be even cheaper than the hotel chain’s own member-only rates.
“It’s always good to contact AAA for your hotel reservations,” Monahan said. “We’ll get you the best deals out there, and make sure you get your member benefits for saving even more.”
When to Book a Cruise
Cruising is a great vacation for the whole family with itineraries and events for almost every type of traveler. Whether you’re headed to the Caribbean, the rivers of Europe or the icy waters of Alaska, you can find a cruise that fits you.
The time that you book a cruise and when your ship sets sail can affect how much your vacation is going to cost – big time. You don’t want to make the wrong move and get stuck with a pricey stay in the smallest cabin aboard. Knowing the best time to book a cruise will make sure you don’t miss out on any perks, like getting a room with a balcony. Nothing is worse than deciding to go on a trip only to be blocked out by other people who got there first.
“We always recommend booking with a trusted travel advisor,” Nardozza adds. We will help you find the right destination, the best ship for your needs, the best cabin type, ensure you are booked for the activities/excursions you want, and most importantly, you can take advantage of all the deals.”
When you book with AAA, you can stack your member benefits with other offers running in the marketplace and take advantage of any additional AAA promotions.
When should you book a cruise?
The best time to book a cruise is generally early. Cruises want to make sure they can fill up their ships far in advance, and they reward earlier bookings with special incentives.
While booking a cruise as soon as possible can often get you a better price, you can still find good rates if you wait. Occasionally, cruises won’t sell enough to fill up a full ship, and you might be able to find last-minute deals.
According to Marie Kwash, travel advisor and cruise enthusiast, location and the type of cruise you are looking for make a big difference. For example, river cruising has grown tremendously in popularity. Those ships can fill up a year in advance, so you’ll want to book early!
It all depends on how you prioritize your preferences. Availability is limited, so if you’re particular about your cabin or your placement aboard the ship, you should book further out. If you’re flexible, you can wait to book a little closer to the trip.
“Here in the Northeast we have three homeports (Boston, Bayonne, New Jersey, and New York City) that allow you to simply drive a couple of hours and get onboard,” Kwash said. “So, if you are looking for a quick getaway or reducing some of the travel expense, homeport cruising is for you!”
When should you sail?
Of course, the best time to book a cruise also depends on the time of year you plan to set sail. As with many other types of vacations, cruise prices are lowest when school is in session. You’ll get hit with the highest prices on holidays and school breaks (especially spring break).
Hurricane season can sometimes affect when you should book your cruise, though it’s pretty difficult to avoid since it stretches from June through November.
You can cruise any time of year. Wintertime is perfect for tropical escapes, but summer is great for heading north to Alaska or Europe. Depending on where you go, there will usually be specific travel seasons for that area.
Months that are more cost-effective are January and February, October and November and the sliver between Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. Early spring months like April and May can also have some more reasonably priced cruises.
What are repositioning cruises?
Those looking for the best time to book a cruise should take advantage of the unique characteristics of the cruising world. Whenever these huge ships have to travel, it benefits the cruise line to put passengers on them. A lesser-known cruising tip is to look at repositioning cruises, which are when a cruise line wants to move their ship to another region.
One-way repositioning cruises are a great way to use the cruising ecosystem to your advantage. Most cruise ships have special itineraries and events for repositioning cruises, meaning you’ll get to travel farther than you would have on a more common round-trip cruise, and they usually have special deals to boot.
To find the best deals on cruises, speak to a AAA travel advisor.
When to Book Guided Tours
There’s nothing quite like a guided tour vacation. When you travel on your own, you have to do mountains of research to make sure you see and do and eat everything you should. On a guided tour, someone else has already taken care of all that for you – that’s one of the reasons they are so popular!
When should you book guided tours?
If you’re traveling on your own, consider the popularity of the tour and your desired departure date. Sometimes, you can book a solo trip as close as a few weeks prior to departure, but that can be a bit of a gamble. Some tour operators cancel dates that don’t sell, or the tour could sell out before you get a chance to buy your ticket. If you definitely want to go on a tour, typically eight to 10 months prior is an ideal time to put down a deposit.
If you’re traveling with a group of people, like family and friends, booking can be a little different. Tour providers like Club Adventures by AAA can do private groups for as few as 10 people. If you want a private tour for your group, you should plan at least 10 months to a year prior to departure. With groups, you want to make sure that everyone gets a spot on the tour and that all of your pick-up and departure dates are in order. The gift of time makes that process a whole lot easier.
Travel advisor Judy Cedrone has been on multiple Club Adventures tours and lists some of the many perks. “The small group allows you to truly immerse yourself in the destination. You are able to get into places you may not have been able to experience as part of a large group,” she said. “With Club Adventures it is all about experiencing the destination like a local.”
Is there any benefit to booking closer to the tour date?
Does booking closer to the date of your tour mean there will be deals or discounts? Potentially. Some tour operators might offer discounts to fill up tours that haven’t booked up yet. Booking closer to the tour date can pay off, but it is risky. There’s not always a guarantee that there will be spots left. But if you’re willing to wing it, last-minute bookings can be a great way to travel cheap, or at least cheaper than usual.
Do some guided tours fill up more quickly than others?
Tour groups travel all over the world, and some guided tours are bound to be a little more popular than others. Different destinations attract people because they’re especially beautiful or historic, or because travelers want to retrace the steps of their ancestors. Places like Italy or Ireland are perennially popular. Other bestsellers include Iceland, Peru, Greece, Costa Rica and Morocco. If you want to travel to one of these destinations, it’s best to book your tour sooner rather than later.
Is there a time of year that’s best for guided tours?
When you’re traveling, it’s all about seasonality. You can save money when you go on a tour during a destination’s shoulder season or offseason. It will also be less crowded. Instead of going to Europe during the summer when it’s hot, expensive and crowded, try going in the spring or fall. You could even tour Europe during the winter, when you can go to things like their famous Christmas markets and visit the Alpine countries. If you want to save money, it pays to think outside of the box when it comes to choosing your tour dates.
For more information or to start planning a trip, visit AAA.com/Travel.
When do you make your travel plans? Do you have any tips for booking flights, hotels, cruises or tours? Let us know in the comments below.