When is the best time to visit a destination? When is the best time to buy air tickets? What is the best way to arrange hotel accommodations? What’s the most reliable way to arrange a vacation rental? Although I cover a bunch of topics over the course of a year, these questions keep coming up over and over again. And although I’ll be covering them in various degrees of detail in the coming year, here’s a quick summary of the most important points.
When to visit
Obviously, the best time to visit any destination is in its off season, provided that basic climate factors aren’t overriding. That means visiting beach destinations in the fourth quarter of the year, visiting kid-oriented destinations, such as the Disney parks when schools are in session, and visiting Las Vegas when the temperatures aren’t in the 100s. But each destination is unique, and the best source of information on a bunch of specific cities is Hotwire’s “Trip Starter” database, at http://www.hotwire.com/tripstarter/index.jsp, which graphs a two-year history of hotel rates and airfares and lists best times to fly and best times to stay. As you might expect, those two time frames do not often overlap. If you don’t find your destination, you can check on another that is nearby.
When to buy.
The Hotwire Trip Planner shows you when airfares are lowest. But when to buy, in advance, is a different matter. Overall, once you’ve decided on a destination and time frame, the best time to buy your ticket is when tickets are on sale. That’s not just a “duh” answer; lots of online agencies and information resources publish sale alerts. Start with “Deal Alerts” from SmarterTravel, the site that posts my columns, at http://www.smartertravel.com/sub/join.html?email=) and check for others.
Also, for more general guidance, CheapAir, a large online travel agency, combed its database of ticket sales to recommend that the ideal time to buy an air ticket is seven weeks in advance of departure for domestic trips and 11 to 12 weeks for international trips. Earlier, airlines don’t know how the marketplace is behaving so they post high fares in the hope someone will bite; later, consumers start snapping up the cheap seats, leaving seats in only the higher price brackets. And for cruises, you can’t beat last-minute (within a month or so of sailing) deals.
If you can live with not knowing the name of a hotel before you make a nonrefundable commitment, you can’t beat the “opaque” prices on Hotwire or Priceline. You can specify the “star” rating and general location, such as “Times Square” for New York or “Fisherman’s Wharf” for San Francisco, but not the hotel. The main risks here are (1) paying too much for a hotel you might book in a traditional way and (2) getting no refund if you have to cancel. Members of AARP, AAA, and a few organizations can usually score discounts of 5 percent to 15 percent on hotels in large chains – but those minimum reductions are a fallback position, if you can’t do better some other way.
If you’re more interested in finding a hotel that’s just right for you, check your destination on TripAdvisor or in a good guidebook or guidebook website.
Although most vacation rentals apparently go as planned, many travelers are worried about risks. Basically, you have two choices:
• You’ll get the best prices if you rent through a “bulletin board” rental exchange, such as the giant vrbo.com or TripAdvisor’s flipkey.com, where your deal is with the property owner, and where you have little recourse if the rental turns out to be disappointing.
• You’ll enjoy the greatest confidence by renting through a “curated” online agency that handles only rentals its representatives have actually visited and verified, but you’ll pay more.
No travel is without risk of some kind. Don’t obsess about waiting for the very best possible deal – and possibly missing out – as long as you can lock in a really good deal and start enjoying your trip.