When it comes to travel, it’s never too soon to start dreaming about your next trip. But what about actually planning it? When should the dreaming turn to booking to ensure you have the best trip ever? “I’d say a lead time of...around six to eight months is probably average,” said Jessica Silber, director of global sales at GeoEx. That said, she noted the trip planning time can be significantly more than that (like one to two years) or significantly shorter (a couple weeks), based on several factors.
So, how do you know what timeframe is right for you? Read on to figure out not only how long you should leave for your overall planning process, but also what aspects of your trip to plan when.
Identify your trip purpose and goals
Silber said she typically has a long lead time when planning a trip that involves a very specific property or experience request; while the quick turnaround trips are “often because the guests have found some sort of unexpected time in their calendar for a vacation.” The takeaway? “It’s important to identify what is driving this dream trip for you,” Silber said. “Is it booking a specific ship in the Galapagos, traveling with an elite guide, obtaining permits for remote areas or wildlife viewing? Or do you simply have air miles to redeem on certain eligible dates, and want to go anywhere with them?”
The answers to those questions will help determine if you need to leave several months or can squeeze the planning into a few weeks — and they’ll also dictate what you can do with the trip. As Silber noted, those quickly put together trips are more likely to occur in destinations closer to home. And if you’re not super picky about where you go or stay, or what you do (for example, you just want to stay at a cute hotel on a beach somewhere tropical), you won’t need as much time to book it because you’ll have more options.
“As soon as you have a vision for a trip in mind, it pays off to begin thinking about what you value most in that destination,” Silber said. “If a certain hotel or concept is inspiring this trip and you’d be devastated to miss it, identify that early and the lead time you need may reveal itself.”
Consider unique circumstances
Some trips are fairly straightforward: You’ll need a flight and a place to stay, and you may book a couple excursions in advance. Others require more planning, whether that’s in terms of ground transportation between cities, pre-planned tours or bureaucratic procedures — and all of that will add to the amount of time you need for planning. “Consider...if you need a visa to get where you want to go, and how long it takes to fulfill all of those entry requirements, and build that into your planning time,” Silber said. “A couple of months may be necessary for countries with strict visa requirements.”
Prioritize certain aspects of the trip
“Almost always, the land-based portion of the trip — the accommodation, transportation and experiences — are the most important thing to lock in first, so you have security that an itinerary is ready for you when you arrive,” Silber said. After that, she added, you can move on to flights.
There are, however, some instances when the flight booking may come first, such as “if using miles or taking a specific flight is of superior importance, and we don’t foresee major challenges with booking the land arrangements around the flights,” she said.
In terms of when to book your flight, there are various schools of thought on the best timeframe (you’ve likely heard Tuesdays are ideal; though Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights previously told Mic that’s no longer the case). But last year, CheapAir.com did share insight based on its own analysis, which found booking 21 to 121 days in advance is the sweet spot (airline fares tend to be within 5% of the lowest price during that window.) Booking with less time than that will likely cost you significantly more; but per CheapAir.com’s findings, booking further in advance tends to result in a smaller price increase of about $20 to $50.
Silber noted that sites like Kayak also share their fare predictions (advising you to buy now or wait). “But personally, I prefer to book my airfare as soon as I know I’m heading somewhere, so I have the peace of mind that it’s settled and can account for it in my budget,” she said. As for hotels, she said they “often...have early-bird booking promotions or rates, and in rarer cases, there may be last-minute deals, too — but I wouldn’t risk losing space just on the off-chance that one of these deals might surface!
As for what Silber referred to as “the fine-tuning” — such as restaurant reservations, shops you want to check out, and the like — those can wait until closer to the trip or even once you’re at your destination, depending on personal preference.
The entire planning process will go more smoothly — and perhaps even more quickly — if you stay organized throughout. One way to do that is to work with trip planner or designer like those at GeoEx. Beyond that, Silber recommended taking a few key measures to stay on top of everything. “Have an itinerary that displays at-a-glance daily trip flow,” she said. “Save everything in one place and set deadlines for booking things in your calendar. If you have a travel app, load everything in there.”