6 trips you should book at least a year in advance
If your spring break travel plans have been completely derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, you may find yourself with quite a lot of extra time on hand. Perhaps you're spending it on hold with an airline trying to hunt down a refund for a canceled flight. Maybe you're watching a wanderlust-worthy travel film or racking up points on shopping portals.
For travelers starting to research (or at least daydream about) future trips, now is a great time to plan a seriously ambitious adventure. You can finally plan a trip that includes everyone from grandkids to great aunts and uncles. Maybe you can finally put the hours in to select your dream around-the-world cruise.
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"Travel itineraries with more moving parts than the typical Point A to Point B trip need to be planned further in advance," said Misty Belles, the managing director of global public relations at Virtuoso — a network of luxury travel advisors. "These include extended stays; itineraries with multiple destinations; multigenerational travel or trips that span varying age ranges or geographical origin; or travel to more exotic locales."
Belles added that certain trips that "involve products with limited capacity" may also require extensive preplanning. That's why safaris and remote expedition cruises are often booked up to two years in advance.
Even trips to certain destinations are best booked a year in advance or more.
"In general, more remote locations need advanced planning," Belles told TPG. "Limited infrastructure often means travel may be restricted to certain days. We see this for island destinations and safaris, or places where the weather is a factor, like Antarctica. There are also [trips] like Machu Picchu, the Galápagos and gorilla trekking -- where there are limitations on the number of visitors -- that require some forethought, especially when permits and visas are involved."
And, contrary to popular belief, waiting until the last minute doesn't always mean scoring a deal.
"Planning in advance increases the likelihood of getting the exact experience you want and at a better price," Belles said. "Rates and fares can increase 25% to 40% or even more by planning too close to your actual travel dates."
Janie Bullard, of Distinctive Journeys — a Virtuoso agency based in Atlanta, Georgia — told TPG that, in many cases, travelers who hold out for last-minute deals or promotions will likely pay more.
"Planning for [certain] destinations is important," Bullard said. "Pricing is almost always better, as popular destinations [that sell out far in advance] have the best pricing for early bookings."
Jumping on a flight deal or airfare sale is a great way to book a spontaneous trip — but not so great if you have your heart set on a specific point on the map, a specific experience or are trying to coordinate with several other people.
Bullard recommends planning these trips 12 to 18 months in advance.
Both Belles and Bullard urged travelers planning this far out to get travel insurance and even consider a "cancel for any reason" policy — no matter what's going on in the world. "Travelers need to think carefully before they decline (that coverage)," Bullard said. "It would be similar to purchasing an expensive Tesla and driving it off the lot without being insured. Should the unfortunate occur — and it does — they have lost their investment."
From safaris to big family adventures and lengthy expeditions, here are six trips you should book at least one year in advance.
An island getaway to French Polynesia
Long-range planning is a must if you want to visit French Polynesia — at least if you want to fly there using miles and points. Not many airlines fly to Papeete, Tahiti (PPT), the gateway to French Polynesia, so award seats are in demand. That’s especially true if you have your heart set on flying in business class.
Sometimes jokingly referred to as “The Golden Ticket” (think: "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") it takes patience, hard work and some sheer luck to find award flights to Papeete. TPG senior editor Nick Ewen documented the success rates by class for snagging award seats to Tahiti. Of course, that research was done prior to the coronavirus outbreak, so the landscape has changed a bit. If you can plan a visit to French Poly a year from now, you may be rewarded with flight redemptions that are easier to find and lock in.If the airlines maintain their service as it stands now, you can pick between flights on:
- Air France from LAX: Use Flying Blue miles, Delta SkyMiles or miles from any SkyTeam partner.
- Air Tahiti Nui from LAX: Use American Airlines AAdvantage miles.
- United from SFO: Use United miles or miles from any Star Alliance partner.
- Hawaiian Airlines from HNL: Use Hawaiian miles or transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to Hawaiian.
- French Bee from SFO: You can't use standard miles, but you could book through Amex Travel or through the Chase travel portal using your respective Membership Rewards or Ultimate Rewards points.
Checking Air Tahiti Nui award availability via American Airlines' search engine, we found plenty of economy class awards available in January 2021 (from 80,000 miles round-trip plus $55.05). Business-class availability is more scattered, but it's possible to get seats on a variety of flights (from 160,000 miles round-trip).
Related: Planning a Bora Bora vacation on points for a family
An African safari
For most travelers, booking that dream safari in Africa means coordinating multiple long-haul flights; reserving a stay at a remote tented camp or lodge; and arranging visas, vaccinations and complicated transfers. It's the kind of trip you take when you've accumulated at least two weeks of paid time off and stockpiled enough miles to offset the reliably expensive airfare and accommodations.
Related: Best ways to redeem points and miles for safaris
Things get still more complicated if you want to see specific types of animals or witness a natural phenomenon like the Great Migration. Every year, more than 2 million wildebeest are joined by hundreds of thousands of zebras and gazelles as they migrate to Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve from the Serengeti. For this kind of safari experience, you'll need to position yourself along the migration path between June and October, with August and September the absolute best months for witnessing the Great Migration.
One of the best luxury brands on the continent is andBeyond, which has lodges all over Africa, Asia and now South America. In Tanzania, the andBeyond Serengeti Under Canvas is a mobile campsite that tracks the migration around the Serengeti National Park. The collection of moveable, Bedouin-style tents can only accommodate 16 travelers at a time.
In Kenya, travelers can stay at the andBeyond Bateleur Camp in the Mara plains, which reopened in 2018 after an extensive renovation. The Cliff, a new tented camp in Lake Nakuru, also opened in 2018 for safari-goers seeking exclusive experiences.
Kenya Airways’ ambitious nonstop daily flight from New York-JFK to Nairobi (NBO) made getting to East Africa much faster when it debuted at the end of 2018. And, thanks to a close partnership with Delta Air Lines, you can easily earn and spend SkyMiles on this particular adventure.
Depending on what safari destination you have in mind, you may also need to leave extra time to secure yellow fever vaccinations and antimalarial medications; apply for entry visas; or secure special permits for trips to see gorillas in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.
A multigenerational vacation
Multigenerational vacations are becoming more and more popular as families -- grandparents, parents, children and even grandchildren -- want to spend quality time with each other. From booking a dozen cabins on a cruise ship to reserving rooms at an all-inclusive resort or booking a sprawling vacation villa, families that want to vacation together need to have a serious plan of attack.
If you've ever tried to get the family together for a simple family dinner, you've probably run into scheduling headaches. Now, magnify that for a weeklong vacation where multiple adults need to clear their schedules and kids need to be free from school and other activities.
When you want to pull off a multigenerational vacation, start with a poll to gauge availability. Make sure everyone takes these sorts of things into account: busy seasons at work, school vacations and holidays, and other family obligations such as weddings. When there's a consensus, agree on the travel dates. If you're planning a year or more advance, not everyone will be able to give you a definitive "yes" — but as long as the majority of the group agrees, stick to those dates and start planning.
Once you know your dates, think about the demographics of your group. Are the older family members generally in good health and mobile, or will you need a destination and lodging that accommodates people using mobility aids like canes, walkers, electric scooters or wheelchairs? What are the ages of the kids who will travel with you? Will you need baby accessories like cribs and highchairs? What about the working adults who will vacation with you? Will they need an office space with a computer and printer so they can work during the vacation? All of these elements will inform the type of destination and accommodations you need to book.
Finally, focus on the accommodations themselves. Shared rental houses or villas can be perfect home bases for a multigenerational vacation since you'll usually have access to multiple bedrooms plus communal space for group hangouts in the kitchen, a living room, outdoor spaces and sometimes even a movie or game room.
There are so many places around the globe that are ideal for family reunions that you're sure to find something that works for you. Popular choices are Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, the Great Smoky Mountains, ski country and any of the Hawaiian or Caribbean islands.
Related: How to use points to plan multigenerational trips
A winter holiday
If you've ever booked — or tried to book — a family vacation during the month of December, you know you're going to want to have time on your side.
Since many children are off from school and college, especially toward the end of the month, it's a popular time for family trips. But the hotels and airlines expect this, and typically raise prices so they can maximize revenue during this period.
Add on the fact that you're likely competing with tons of families around the world for the same tickets and hotel rooms, and you've got yourself quite a bit of a headache before your vacation even begins.
Some destinations are notoriously expensive and hard to book during the winter holidays, particularly the Caribbean, popular ski resort towns (such as Aspen) and European cities famous for their Christmas markets, including Vienna, Munich and Berlin.
For example, the W Aspen has rooms that start around $250 to $350 per night in the low season (April through May and October to early November). However, during the peak ski season, rooms can start closer to $1,000 per night and go up from there.
If you pay for your stay with Marriott points, off-peak rates are 50,000 Marriott points, standard rates are 60,000 points per night, and peak season (read: ski season weekends and holidays) cost 70,000 points per night.
Even if you're heading to warmer climates, such as the Caribbean, it's a similar story. At the Marriott Stellaris in Aruba, a popular vacation hotspot during the winter months, off-season rates start around just $300 per night but spike to $900 as it gets closer to the end of December. With points, off-peak rates start at 50,000 but go up to 70,000 points per night during peak dates, such as the holidays.
You may not be able to avoid the sky-high prices, but booking as far in advance as possible means you'll at least be able to score a room for your winter holiday. Whether you're heading to the Caribbean or Europe, be sure to do some research ahead of time. Narrow down your list of hotels, pick out your flights and have your points at the ready so you can press "confirm" the second availability opens up.
Related: Guide to visit Disney World at Christmas
An expedition cruise to Antarctica
Like an African safari, an expedition cruise to Antarctica is one of those once-in-a-lifetime adventures that takes a lot of planning.
For starters, there's the matter of snagging a cabin on a good ship, something you'll want to do as much as a year in advance. Sure, you sometimes can find last-minute availability on Antarctica voyages. But the most desirable cabins -- those toward the middle of vessels that will be the most stable in the rough seas around Antarctica -- sell out far in advance.
For some highly-in-demand ships, you might want to book even more than a year in advance. Most categories of cabins on luxury line Crystal Cruises' first-ever expedition voyage to Antarctica in early 2021, for instance, already are sold out. (It already was that way two months ago when we included the trip on our list of the most exciting new cruise itineraries).
Crystal's first Antarctica voyages will take place on the soon-to-debut Crystal Endeavor, which we recently named one of the most exciting new cruise vessels of the year.
Note that inventory on Antarctica cruises is very limited. Most expedition ships that go to the continent have just 50 to 100 cabins, and they only can fit in a few departures a year. The season for Antarctica trips is very short: it typically starts in November and lasts just four months.
Early planning also is critical if you want to fly to your Antarctica cruise using points and miles and assure yourself a great points-and-mile hotel while in transit to your cruise departure point. Many Antarctica voyages start in Ushuaia, on the very southern tip of Argentina. If you're starting in the U.S., you'll typically first take a long-haul overnight flight to Buenos Aires and then spend a night or two there (maybe at the gorgeous Palacio Duhau -- Park Hyatt Buenos Aires, which we recently reviewed) before continuing on with a flight to Ushuaia.
Some ships begin voyages to Antarctica out of New Zealand and Australia, which is an even longer flight from the U.S. If you're hoping to snag a business class seat on Air New Zealand's new Newark (EWR) to Auckland route or another super-long-haul route to the region, you'll want to start your search many months before you travel.
Related: Viking to add first expedition ships, voyages to Antarctica
A big trip to Disney World
You don't have to plan a trip to Disney World a year in advance for it to be magical, but for a big, special trip to Disney World, it certainly helps to start as far out as possible. To get the best restaurants, meals and activities, you'll want to book at least six months out -- but beginning to book closer to a year out is even better.
One of the easiest ways to save a bunch of money on your on-property Disney World stay is by renting Disney Vacation Club (DVC) points to stay in anything from a studio villa all the way up to a three-bedroom grand villa. You'll find these rooms and villas scattered throughout Disney World resorts such as the Polynesian Village Resort, Bay Lake Tower (walkable to the Magic Kingdom), Animal Kingdom Lodge, Wilderness Lodge, the brand-new Disney's Riviera Resort -- and even at Disney's Aulani Resort in Hawaii. It's entirely possible to knock 50% off the regular asking price for Disney resorts simply by renting DVC points.
The trick is that popular dates and accommodations fill up well in advance, so you need to plan ahead. The booking window with DVC points opens at 11 months out for those who own points at that resort (or those who are renting from someone who owns) and seven months out at resorts other than your home resort.
When it comes to snagging a reservation at a character meal at some of Disney World's best restaurants, the booking window opens 180 days from your check-in date. If you want to dine with princesses at Cinderella's Royal Table, watch the fireworks from 'Ohana, enjoy a dinner with the Evil Queen and Snow White at Artist Point, have a fun brunch with Mickey and friends at Chef Mickey's or indulge a very fancy meal at Victoria & Albert's, booking those high-demand meals (exactly) six months out is crucial unless you get lucky scooping up someone else's cancellation.
Related: These are the best times to visit Disney World
You don't need to book your FastPass+ rides and attractions until 60 days out from check-in, but time flies when you are piecing together a Disney World vacation, so secure your lodging and meals six to 11 months out, and then roughly two months before you leave for Orlando, it'll be time to try and snag FastPass+ reservations for big rides such as Slinky Dog Dash, Pandora: Flight of Passage, Mine Train, Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway and more.
Related: How much does a trip to Disney World cost?
Whether you want to book every element of your trip yourself or lean on a travel agent or advisor like the experts at Virtuoso, booking major trips a year in advance or more improves the odds of you getting, well, everything you want.
"Any travel with an added level of complexity really needs advanced planning to ensure it goes as smoothly as possible — and so that the traveler gets what they want and expect from the experience," Belles said.