Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer, capping another blockbuster season for travel. But according to some industry experts, it’s not too early to start thinking about – and perhaps even booking – next year’s trip.
Tour operators, travel advisers and other tourism insiders say they’ve seen a noticeable shift in the booking window among leisure travelers in light of the unprecedented demand of past seasons. It’s yet another way the Covid-19 pandemic continues to reverberate in the industry and affect consumers’ spending behavior.
“And so that’s been pushed back now because of the supply issues and the huge demand. So inevitably, something has to give, and that means clients have to book at least six to 12 months in advance to get what they want at the right price.”
Like many operators specializing in Italy, Triantafillou says his company, which plans luxury trips and is part of Global Travel Collection UK, had its busiest season ever this summer. In early June, the company decided to stop taking any additional bookings for the remainder of the month.
As a result, clients have seen firsthand what happens if they wait too late to book, say, their favorite Tuscan villa.
“We are seeing client mindset shift, and they understand more and more that they must book in advance to guarantee the dates and experiences desired,” Triantafillou says.
‘Making up for lost time’
“We’re continuing to see the effects of pent-up travel demand and the concept of making up for lost time with family reunions abroad,” Cabutti says.
“Travelers however have also learned from the last two seasons, and realized that choosing to book last-minute or during peak holiday dates can lead to unexpected surprises from high flight costs, a lack of hotel availability, to longer queues at key attractions and busy crowds.”
Across the Atlantic, some US-based tourism businesses also have noticed a significant uptick in travelers booking way in advance.
Stephanie Bias, co-owner of Camp Aramoni, an upscale camping-style property on the site of a former historic brickyard in Tonica, Illinois, says many guests are booking between one and two years out – and sometimes even further for milestone events.
“I even had a bachelorette party reach out 2.5 years ahead of time, which shocked me,” says Bias, who also is communications director. “Those who wait until the last minute will find very few, if any, options. Weekends sell out quickly, and weekdays are being booked at a pace we’ve never seen before. The early bird truly does get the worm.”
‘Not the earliest bird’
Even as the booking window is stretching into a longer-term outlook, travelers trying to get a major jump-start on their vacation planning should keep in mind that not all advance bookings are created equal.
According to Scott Keyes, founder of travel site Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights), points- or miles-based bookings for flights are most important to make as far in advance as possible to get not only a good deal, but more importantly, simply the chance to book with points or miles.
This aspect of the airline booking system is dependent on what’s known as award availability: the inventory, or number of seats, that are bookable with miles or points on any given flight.
Each airline determines the award availability on its flights, and award availability varies between each cabin class (for example, airlines limit the number of first- or business-class seats).
“Many airlines make a handful of seats available – even coveted lie-flat business class seats – right when the 12-month booking window opens up,” Keyes says, adding that one of Going’s recent deals was roundtrip business-class fare from the United States to Madrid in June 2024 for as low as 54,000 points.
For flights not based on points, the formula gets a little trickier on how far exactly to book to get the best deal, depending on demand and destination. But Keyes generally advises travelers not to necessarily hit that purchase button as soon as an airline opens up a flight for booking.
“While it’s relatively common knowledge that last-minute fares are expensive, what’s far less known is that it’s also possible to book flights too early,” he says. “Airfare is available on most airlines up to 12 months out, but the cheapest fares are most likely to pop up during what we call a ‘Goldilocks Window’ – not too early, not too late, just right in the middle. In other words, the early bird gets the worm, but not the earliest bird.”
According to Keyes, that critical booking window for the best deals on peak summer international flights usually falls between four and 10 months out – which means if you already have your heart set on sipping Aperol spritzes in Santorini next June, it’s not a bad idea to start keeping an eye on flights in the preceding fall to snag the best price possible.
A simple way to tackle the task: Sign up for a flight monitoring alert, which is a free feature most major booking and flight tracking platforms offer. This is especially helpful in popular destinations where flights are especially expensive, including Europe and Asia. According to figures from Hopper’s recently released Q3 Consumer Travel Index, Asia fares remain a whopping 59% higher on average than pre-pandemic prices – about $525 more per ticket.
Sally French, a travel rewards expert and spokesperson with NerdWallet, notes that booking a flight or hotel room far in advance is a smart way to fulfill an introductory offer on a travel credit card. “Planning ahead gives you enough time to meet that card’s minimum spending requirement and actually receive the points or miles in your account,” French says.
Finally, keep in mind that if you do decide to book that flight way ahead of time and the price drops, you can still snag those savings. As Keyes notes, “With most airlines now allowing penalty-free changes and cancellations, you can rebook the same flight if the price drops after booking and get the difference back in travel credit.”
Other intangibles of planning early
In addition to helping ensure you’re able to book the destination, flight and accommodations you want, planning next year’s trip now also has some other hidden benefits, such as allowing a big cushion for organizing and obtaining necessary documents and medical requirements.
Perhaps most importantly if you’re headed out of the country: Make sure your passport is still valid, especially if you haven’t dusted it off since before the pandemic. As French explains, this is especially critical as the US State Department currently estimates that routine passport renewal processing will take from 10 to 13 weeks. And remember that while adult passports are valid for 10 years, that number drops to five for children younger than 18.
Planning a trip far in advance also means you’ll have plenty of wiggle room for other time-consuming preparations, such as getting necessary vaccinations, depending on your destination.
For travelers headed on safari in sub-Saharan Africa, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends being up-to-date on several key vaccinations, which involves the time-consuming task of wrangling health records and scheduling appointments. In addition, some vaccinations require multiple doses with a required minimum between visits.
From the hospitality industry perspective, advance booking can help hoteliers and other businesses adjust staffing, pricing and other factors to offer a better experience. While Cabutti of JW Marriott Venice Resort & Spa acknowledges that “the early booking trend results in higher room rates,” it also enables businesses to better meet guests’ needs.
“We can better forecast our occupancy rates, allowing us to make informed decisions regarding staffing, inventory management and service offerings,” he said. “Additionally, the increase in advanced bookings during slower months has led us to extend our season well into late fall, welcoming more guests who look forward to enjoying Venice without the summer crowds.”
And as Keyes notes, travelers can also benefit from the feel-good intangible at play when a vacation many months down the road is already at the forefront of your thoughts.
“Researchers have found that you get more joy from trips booked further out,” he says. “That’s because people tend to derive more happiness from the anticipation of a trip rather than the trip itself. When you book far out, you give yourself something to look forward to for months.”