For years, I’ve persuaded my family that it’s my very important job that causes me to put off booking trips. But the real problem is twofold: I’m often convinced that if I plan too far ahead, something better will come along; and I’m as addicted as an online gambler to last-minute offers. Even my wedding was an impromptu affair (though my loved ones, who were not invited on the trip, will remind me that the official term for this is elopement).
Research suggests that I’m on the extreme end of a growing trend. According to the Travel Industry Association, 64 percent of leisure travelers plan at least one of their yearly trips within two weeks of departure, and 26 percent plan all of their vacations at the last minute.
Being spontaneous doesn’t mean forgoing smart thinking, however. You can boost your chances of getting that fantasy trip by seasonal strategizing. Here’s a booking calendar to help increase your odds of finding affordable deals to popular destinations at the eleventh hour.
Best Time to Book Ski Getaways
With Easter falling on March 23 this year, April and May are the optimal months to find late-season ski trips, but make sure to check snow conditions beforehand. Many resorts out West, such as Timberline in Oregon and Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, stay open until July 4th weekend (hotel prices can decrease 50 percent after June 15). Resort operators often set up discount clubs online to attract skiers unwilling to commit in advance to spring conditions. Lodges around Vail Valley post lower-priced packages you can book within a 21-day window at VailOnSale.com. And don’t forget to check traditional online booking agents such as Expedia (expedia.com/ski), which has a last-minute ski-package page. Sign up for the New England Inns and Resorts Association’s Inn Crowd (newenglandinnsandresorts.com), a free last-minute deals e-mail newsletter. Every other Tuesday you’ll get information on hotel specials and packages with discounts of up to 70 percent.
Also Book Now for Mexico, the Caribbean, South America, and European Cities
It’s shoulder season in Mexico and the Caribbean, so prices may not be as low as late summer, but you’ll dodge hurricane season. Fares to Central and South America often drop now—though be sure to avoid such holidays as Carnival. Airfares to Europe will still be on the low side until the weather warms up. And city hotels are more affordable now than in the summer months. Doubles at the Hôtel San Régis in Paris, for example, are discounted more than $100 per night before April 30.
Best Time to Book the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and the Bahamas
As long as you factor in the risk of hurricanes, you can get nearly half off Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico vacations during the summer. Keep in mind that June, July, and August are the top months to go to resorts that might be prohibitively expensive in the winter. At Hôtel Guanahani in St. Bart’s, summer rates, which are nearly 50 percent lower than in peak season, take effect on April 15.
Also Book Now for Alaska Cruises
The most popular staterooms on most Alaska cruises sell out early, but they can now be found at the last minute, according to Anne Morgan Scully, president of McCabe World Travel. (The theory: there are eight new ships sailing in North America this year, and while Alaska continues to be one of the most sought-after destinations for cruisers, many are choosing to explore newer, undiscovered routes.) Look for August and September sailings now; some of the lowest prices can be found on CruiseMates.com. If you’re intent on getting a great stateroom, call an agent who specializes in cruises; he or she will have relationships with the lines and will often be the first to know when there’s been a cancellation.
Best Time to Book Hawaii Trips
Hotels in Hawaii take up to 20 percent off room rates from mid-September to mid-December. The ideal time to find the lowest airfares, says T+L A-List agent Darlene Mulkewich, is between Labor Day and December 15. Hawaiian carriers slash fares at this time too. Aloha Airlines spokesman Stu Glauberman says, “We’ve gone as low as $99 one-way from the West Coast to Hawaii.” Sign up for e-mail alerts from Web sites such as AlohaAirlines.com and AirfareWatchdog.com.
Also Book Now for Hotels and European flights
To find the top European hotel and airfare bargains, A-List agent Judy Nussbaum suggests avoiding the end of May through mid-October. In southern France, you’ll find great rates off-season. At La Mirande, in Avignon, the rate in mid-June for a deluxe queen room is $562 per night, but drops to $436 if you go in mid-November.
Best Time to Book U.S. and European City Breaks
Consider city escapes during the colder months. Charleston, S.C., may be cold in the winter, but it’s warmer than up north, and hotels such as Charleston Place discount rooms by nearly 50 percent. And popular winter events like the city’s Lowcountry Oyster Festival tend to attract mostly day-trippers.
For Europe, A-List agent Tammi Van Volkinburgh suggests London in February, when the average rainfall is the lowest of any month. Make sure to look for hotels offering fixed dollar rates. The Stafford, for example, has a fixed exchange rate of $1.80 per pound—a discount of nearly 10 percent.
Also Book Now for U.S. National Park Trips and Skiing
Winter is the most spectacular time in some of the Western national parks—if you don’t mind the cold. According to Chance Jorgensen, general manager of Yosemite’s Ahwahnee Hotel, it’s significantly easier to find deals in winter than in summer, even for the best rooms (doubles start at $426). Also, you can still get last-minute ski trips if you plan right. Trade Vail and Aspen for Breckenridge, for instance; packages can be booked within seven days of arrival at GoBreckNow.com.
We priced out a last-minute itinerary for a January getaway to the Dominican Republic three days in advance. The package included round-trip airfare for two on American Airlines and a stay at the Meliá Santo Domingo (standard queen bedroom). Here’s how they stacked up, from most to least expensive (prices include taxes and fees):
Airfare on American Airlines from Washington Dulles to Santo Domingo, returning on Continental (overall travel time: 14 hrs., 35 min.); five nights at the Meliá Santo Domingo.
Total package price: $2,255.71, double.
Airfare on American Airlines from Washington Dulles to Santo Domingo (overall travel time: 20 hrs., 20 min.); six nights at the Meliá Santo Domingo.
Total package price: $1,915.89, double.
Airfare on American Airlines from Washington Dulles to Santo Domingo, returning to Baltimore (overall travel time: 14 hrs., 30 min.); six nights at the Meliá Santo Domingo.
Total package price: $1,633.77, double.
Priced À La Carte
Airfare on American Airlines from Washington Dulles to Santo Domingo, priced at AA.com (overall travel time: 13 hrs., 50 min.): $929.20 Six nights at the Meliá Santo Domingo: $650.16.
Total package price: $1,579.36, double.