When to book a year out
“When thinking about travel that should be booked a year in advance, there are a few factors at play, notably availability, access, and complexity of itinerary and experiences,” says Tom Marchant, the owner and co-founder of Black Tomato. Availability is often limited at destination hotels, like Giraffe Manor in Kenya, and some destinations, like the Galapagos and Faroe Islands, restrict access with visitor limits, he says. Start booking too late, and there’s nothing anybody can do to help.
Other factors, like the size of a group, can complicate things when planning a trip one year in advance. “Many places only have a few villas with more than two or three bedrooms, so those big group trips are something you always want to book in advance,” says Mary Jean Tully of Tully Luxury Travel. Groups traveling together are usually interested in the same seasons—summer months and holidays—making it doubly competitive.
Cruise experts, like Linda Allen-Spear of Cruises By Linda, say the same applies to highly sought-after sailing itineraries—and highly sought-after cabins. “For Alaska cruises, the tours generally sell out well before the cruises [themselves],” says Allen-Spear, who argues most cruises should be booked a year ahead. “And any [route] that has the possibility of rough waters should be reserved very far out, as the low midship location is the most stable and will sell first.”
Some specialists say they always recommend booking a year out—no matter the trip. “The best accommodation and people are in limited supply, and are rarely available unless secured well beforehand,” says Alice Daunt of Daunt Travel.
Here’s how to do it.
Twelve months out: Book the foundation of your trip
A year ahead, you’ll focus on the core elements of the trip. “Select the regions you want to visit, how many nights to allocate at each [stop], and book the hotels or private homes,” says Jonathan Epstein, a travel specialist at Celebrated Experiences. “If you are like our clients, for whom the hotel stay is a key part of enjoying a trip, you are more likely to get what you most want, such as that spectacular hotel stay at an Ashford Castle or a Ballyfin.”
Tully adds that there’s often low risk in doing so. “If you booked through a travel specialist, hotel cancellation penalties are usually only 24 to 48 hours ahead of time,” says Tully. “You’re better off putting a hotel room on hold, and you can always change your mind.” No matter how you book, though, all of the experts say it’s essential to go over cancellation policies with a fine-toothed comb, now more than ever.
If you’re booking a package trip like a safari, specialist Deborah Calmeyer of Roar Africa says to initiate conversations with your travel planner at this time, given that there are many moving parts. This also applies to cruise packages.
And if you were hoping to book your flight on points, this is the time to reserve them. “To purchase point airline tickets, the average time frame [for booking] is around 330 days in advance,” says Tully, who also suggests booking any flights over Christmas, New Year’s, and Thanksgiving a year ahead. “Grab them as soon as you know your dates.” Gary Leff, an aviation specialist, adds that point-based tickets are among the most flexible—so you can usually put the miles back into your account for a modest charge.
If there is one rare experience, famous guide, destination restaurant, or other key element to your trip that you wouldn’t be happy without, inquire about that now. This is the time to get your non-negotiables in place, before getting further into the process.
Six months out: Tackle the nuts and bolts
Half a year down the line, it’s time to tackle the many moving parts—and people—that will pull your trip together. This is when Epstein suggests reserving local guides, rental cars, and drivers.
It’s also the time to start tracking flights for any international trip. According to CheapAir.com, the best summer fares from the U.S. to Europe can be found five or six months ahead; flights to Africa are usually cheapest three to six months out; and flights to Asia are usually lowest four months in advance. If nothing else, eyeing airfares now means you’ll have plenty of options, for your main flights and local transfer, to choose from.
One to three months out: Button down everything else
The last three months is when you’ll fill out your itinerary. “The relatively easier restaurant reservations, museum and special entries, specific vehicles, etc., all follow,” says Daunt. After-hours entry to a historical building of significance may need to be booked months ahead, but even for the toughest restaurants, you usually only need to make reservations a month in advance. If you do work with a specialist like Daunt, they’ll be able to sort out the timeline for you. Otherwise, get to work at the three month mark, and know that some places may ask you to circle back closer to your travel dates.
If you did book anything earlier on that you might want to shift or cancel, keep an eye on those change cut-offs as well.
Coronavirus-era considerations to keep in mind
All of the experts are offering the same advice to travelers booking right now: Know every cancellation policy before putting down any money—just in case—and take comfort in the newfound flexibility in the travel space, even as we enter uncharted territory. Most importantly, only spend money with those you trust (or make sure a specialist, credit card company, or insurance policy has your back).
“Many travel operators offer free consultation and markedly flexible travel options,” says Marchant. “If you don’t enlist a travel specialist, book directly with hotel properties, airlines, both international and internal, and on the ground suppliers who are accredited and respected. Be wary of using third-party booking sites that can you exposed, as they are laced with hidden clauses, and conditions.”
And though many travelers are craving returns to old favorites, Epstein says to temper that nostalgia with needed reality checks as you book—but don’t let it deter you altogether. “Don’t judge a hotel or destination based on how it was a few years ago, and do your best to project how it will be next year based on everything that is happening in the world,” says Epstein. Destination news, and a specialist, can help with that. Despite it all, Epstein says his team is on pace to have more itineraries booked one year out than at any time in the company’s 30-year history, with one obvious, evergreen upside: Travelers get to spend the next year looking forward to a trip.