Vacation travel: the pros and cons of booking now

(NerdWallet) – For the thousands of travelers who intended to fly on Southwest Airlines over the Columbus Day / Indigenous Peoples Day weekend – but instead their flights were canceled – no advance planning could have been guarantee a smooth arrival. Instead, even the most proactive planners have had to scramble to book last minute flights on other airlines.

While you don’t necessarily have to wait until the last minute to book, the Southwest’s latest calamity is further proof that traveling in the COVID-19 era is extremely unpredictable.

Additionally, this is an example of a situation where – while advance vacation travel bookings were almost imperative before the pandemic – they are less essential now. In fact, booking a vacation trip too far in advance can be more of a constraint than liberating these days.

Here’s what to think about when considering the perfect time to plan your vacation.

Advantage: Airline tickets are almost always cheaper when booked early

A spring NerdWallet analysis of over 1,110 flights found that airline tickets were 24% more expensive on average when booked two weeks compared to six months. Sure, you’ve missed that six-month vacation window, but at least you’ve got more than two weeks if you act now.

Downside: Hotels (especially luxury resorts) aren’t always cheaper when booked early

While airline tickets are generally cheaper when booked early, another NerdWallet study of over 2,500 hotel room rates in 2019, 2020 and the first half of 2021 found it was 66% cheaper to book hotel rooms 15 days in advance compared to four months. This reaches even more 73% of the time when looking at 2021 data alone.

If your vacation trips involve an upscale resort, here’s an even bigger reason to wait: the cost at the most upscale hotels was on average 22% cheaper when booked 15 days before compared to four months.

Pro: you will beat procrastinators and have access to more favorable dates, routes and times

Even if you’re betting on a last-minute airfare deal that may or may not come to fruition, don’t overlook the opportunity cost of procrastination. Sure, the lavish five-star hotel can have tons of rooms to unload at a great price, but even five-star at half the price can be too expensive for your budget.

Meanwhile, delaying the reservation only increases the likelihood that the hotel in your budget will be full.

Downside: You might accidentally get locked into ever-changing or unfavorable policies

Many airlines now offer free changes or cancellations, although this is often done in the form of an airline credit. While this is a huge improvement over pre-pandemic unfavorable consumer policies, you could end up with difficult-to-use theft credit.

For example, during the recent Southwest debacle, the airline offered to change the booking of passengers – but only on other flights in the Southwest (which wasn’t really helpful, given that most other flights were not available anyway). While some airlines have reciprocal or interline agreements with other carriers where they will put you on one of their flights if yours is canceled, Southwest does not.

Or maybe you booked with a regional carrier. If you cancel your trip but no longer intend to travel to that region, you end up with worthless credits.

Airline credit is certainly better than nothing, but it’s still not as valuable as if you had never booked in the first place – and kept your money in the bank.

Pro: you have a plan (and you can now start creating your backup plan)

Locking down flights and hotel rooms now gives you at least some semblance of a plan. And once you have a plan, you’re free to take the second step: a backup plan.

Familiarize yourself with other nearby airports or hotels that you can book if you have a problem with your existing plans. Look not only at the rental cars, but also the prices of carpooling or alternative car rental companies. Because if there is one thing that we are sure of with 2021 vacation travel, it is that nothing is certain.

Downside: In the age of COVID, a lot can happen in two months

Remember when we were told it would only take two weeks to stop the spread? Then, we hoped that travel would resume by summer 2020, only to postpone this optimism until the winter holidays 2020?

Now is the 2021 winter break, and some areas are still experiencing challenges such as increasing cases, which could reduce your urge to travel.

On the other hand, a lot of things are coming back after more than 18 months of closures. As airlines add more flights, it may be better to wait so that you can book a cheaper route. As entertainment venues add show times and restaurants open more reservations, the wait means you could snag tickets to the show you really want to see or a table at the time you want.

The bottom line

You can choose not to travel as the crowds are growing. Additionally, more international travel is leading to an increase in reports of vaccinated Americans testing positive abroad and unable to return home. Travel still isn’t necessarily the stress relief you’re hoping for anyway, so delaying consolidating plans isn’t necessarily bad.

Again, conventional wisdom says don’t procrastinate what you can do today. Waiting can increase your chances of higher prices and fewer booking options. Add the fact that vaccinated international travelers can enter the United States from November 8, and competition to book is likely to only increase.

There are good reasons to book now, but there are good reasons to wait. And if you completely refuse to book – well, there is always a stay.

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Sally French writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @SAFmedia.

The article Vacation Travel: The Pros and Cons of Booking Now originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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