The best times to find cheap flights, according to Google data
Seriously? Yes, says Jay Jaishankar, CEO of Visitor Insurance Services, a travel insurance company. “Ideally, plan six months to a year in advance to get the best deals,” he says.
That’s the kind of year 2023 is shaping up to be, even with inflation and other economic worries. Everyone wants to go somewhere. And it’s not just airfares that require booking far in advance. Hotels, tours and vacation rentals are more expensive and less available than they’ve been in years, experts say.
The outlook for travel prices
- Flights: The cost of airline tickets is taking off. By May, the average domestic ticket will cost $348, up about 7 percent from April, according to data provided by the airfare app Hopper. That’s about 10 percent higher than the same period in 2019.
- Rental cars: Nationwide, prices for rental cars are about the same as last year, according to Hopper. But in some cities, they are significantly higher. For example, rates average $76 a day in Indianapolis, up 57 percent from 2022. In Philadelphia, they’re up 30 percent, to $57 a day. “We’re seeing pretty big increases in prices, especially in California and Florida,” says Mark Mannell, CEO of CarRentalSavers.com.
- Hotels: Room rates are trending higher. According to an American Express projection, hotel rates will rise this year in many major markets. Domestically, rates will increase by more than 8 percent in New York and more than 7 percent in San Francisco. Internationally, American Express projects that hotel rates will climb by 10 percent in Paris and 9 percent in Stockholm. Some markets won’t be as pricey. In Melbourne, Australia, and Hong Kong, rates will remain essentially unchanged.
- Vacation rentals: Short-term rentals are in high demand. Many vacation homes in top summer beach locales, such as North Carolina’s Outer Banks, as well as the Jersey Shore destinations of Cape May and Ocean City, are already booked up for the summer, according to Vrbo. July is particularly busy, with availability below 40 percent in these busy markets.
Should I lock in a fare now or wait for a sale?
Experts say it may be tempting to hold out for a fare sale, especially if the economy cools or inflation heats up. But as of now, it doesn’t look like either of those is going to happen.
Cindy Salik, a travel adviser with Embark Beyond, says many of her clients have been surprised by the lack of availability in popular summer destinations. Some resorts in Italy, France and Greece are almost fully booked. If you’re interested in one of the top-tier summer destinations in Europe, “you have to plan now and book,” she says.
Pattie Haubner, a retired communications professional and frequent air traveler from Manchester Center, Vt., wishes she’d done that. In January, she was looking for airfares to Milan late this spring and saw a reasonable fare: just $600 round-trip on Emirates. But she hesitated. A few weeks later, the price had risen by $200 per ticket.
“I expect I’m also going to pay more for late booking of accommodations and transportation,” Haubner says. “I should have purchased the airline tickets in early January.”
My hotel changed my rate after booking. Can it do that?
How is this summer different from past seasons?
The upcoming late spring and summer travel seasons will differ from the past in several ways, travel professionals say. It will be the most expensive in years — and maybe ever.
“Everything will cost more, from air to hotels to dining out,” says Lauren Doyle, president of the Travel Mechanic. “For most people, they will need to make decisions. It may mean traveling to a less popular destination or cutting down the number of days they travel.”
Everything is happening at the last minute. Kaleigh Kirkpatrick, who runs the travel planning site the Shameless Tourist, has received more last-minute requests for summer trips than ever.
“It seems as though travelers are totally okay planning a last-minute trip to Paris with less than six weeks’ notice or so,” she says. But she says that’s a terrible idea. In fact, she just had a client who decided to cancel a spring break vacation because prices were too high. And she says summer is shaping up to be even worse.
It’s not a repeat of last summer (even though it looks that way). One key difference: The car rental shortage appears to be over.
“There’s slightly more hotel availability due to fewer rollover bookings from the previous year,” says Sarah-Leigh Shenton, director of marketing at Red Savannah. “But airports seem far better prepared for the season ahead, as do staff across the various travel sectors, including hotels and restaurants.”
There’s still a lot of economic uncertainty, despite surging demand. So experts say anything could happen in the next few months.
“Airlines continue to struggle to meet the demands and expectations of travelers,” says Angela Borden, a product strategist at travel insurance company Seven Corners. Another meltdown just as the summer travel season is getting started could deflate demand and spur a midsummer fare sale, for example.
What are the best strategies for booking ahead?
For international vacations, time is short. Much of the hotel and vacation rental inventory is depleted at the most popular destinations.
Even if you miss the window, you can still find a reasonably priced hotel by visiting a “second city.” For example, if you’re interested in Switzerland, you can head to Basel instead of Zurich. If you’re interested in Croatia, you can spend a week in Split instead of Dubrovnik. In France, swap out Paris for Nice. But if you decide to stay in the United States, you have time.
Take vacation rentals, for example. True, many of the top-rated rentals are already booked. But Jamie Lane, vice president of research at AirDNA, a rental analytics firm, says the optimal window for savings is just two to four weeks before your trip.
“On average, guests saved about 9 percent by booking two weeks in advance instead of more than six months in advance,” Lane says. That’s because hosts typically lower their prices as the date gets closer to make their homes more attractive to last-minute guests.
If you’re flying domestically, you may be rewarded for waiting until a month before departure before booking your trip. Hopper projects that fares within the United States will peak in May but start to ease, dropping by 2 percent in June and 7 percent in July. If you can find a flight a few weeks before your vacation, you might be able to save some money — although the savings will be negligible.
But for international travel, this isn’t the year to hesitate. You might have a little time for your domestic vacation, but Michael Holtz, CEO of SmartFlyer, advises against taking chances: “Don’t wait to book.”