6 Tips on whether you should make your bookings early or late for a long trip

by Apr 14, 2016English, Travel

On a continental trip for longer than one month, I’ve found it tricky to know when is the best time to buy the onward flights for once I arrive. Book them in advance of the trip and the prices will generally be substantially lower or buy them once you arrive and benefit from greater flexibility with respect to your itinerary. The same goes for accommodation and other prices where there are changes according to demand, like trains in Western Europe.

I’ve experimented with both approaches on numerous trips around Europe and South America and have managed to benefit from super low prices but also had to ‘lose’ accommodation and flights that were pre-paid when my plans changed.

Moreover, I’ve also been hit with huge prices to attend events that I did not want to miss because I wanted too much flexibility in my travel plans. The following are the 6 tips I’ve learnt that will help you optimize the timing of your purchases.

1. Do your research thoroughly before leaving!

I always start planning my trips by looking at a map and the corresponding Wikipedia entries to figure out which places and routes I am likely to take. You can never do too much research for a trip. It’s important to look up important peak season holidays and major cultural events (that may differ from those in your home country) that will occur in the region you are planning to visit as this is likely to mean high prices or lack of availability for transport and accommodation, as well as, other inconveniences, e.g. that everything is closed on these days.

Festa Pomerana girls

Festa Pomerana is not well known outside of Santa Catarina – the importance of thorough research online!

2. Identify Must-See High Priority Events

If you know that you need to be in a certain city on a certain day then buy the tickets well in advance. For example, if you know that you want to be at carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil or the Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany then reserve your transport and accommodation well before leaving.

That way you’ll benefit from lower prices in a situation where the risk of your plans changing is low because:

a) the carnival is only for 5 days at that time of the year

b) it’s a high priority on your trip (unlikely something comes up that will make you alter your plans that drastically)

c) demand for transport and accommodation is likely to skyrocket closer to the event as other travelers finalize their plans.

View Mangueira samba school

View from inside the Mangueira samba school during the carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

3. Identify when you are going to need more flexibility with your itinerary

If your plan is to travel around a particular region with a rough estimate of the number of days without an exact itinerary then it is generally better to wait longer to make your purchases.

For example, if you plan to travel around Spain, France and Italy for 2 months but only have vague plans – perhaps you would love to visit Paris, Barcelona and Rome – then there is a high likelihood that your route will be variable, especially if you have not visited the region before. If you buy your a flight from Madrid to Paris before arriving (even if it is a lot cheaper) then there is a high risk that the flight will not fit your new travel desires the day you have to board the flight.

Result: you either get on a flight that you don’t want or you lose the money you paid in advance (or pay a penalty for changing the date). In such a situation, I would advise waiting as long as possible before buying any tickets or have flexible ticket.

Floripa boat lagoon

Build in some flexibility – it’s hard to foresee where you will find magical places! Lagoa da Conceição, Brazil

4. Consider when it may be good for you to buy a flexible ticket

Normally you will have the option of buying a more expensive reimbursable or changeable ticket for flights and trains. Depending on the difference in price with a non-flexible ticket, this could be an attractive option, especially if you know that you will travel from Madrid to Paris but are unsure as to the exact day that you will travel. The same goes for accommodation if the cancellation policy means that you will only be charged for part of the stay you booked. The key is to figure out how and how likely your plans are to change.

For example, if you think that there is a 1 in 5 chance that you will need flexibility on a €100 flight and a flexible ticket costs is €150 then I would recommend either buying the non-flexible one or waiting longer to confirm your plans. This is because the €50 premium you are paying has an expected return of €30 (€150/5). However, if it’s a 50/50 situation then the reimbursable ticket could be the better option as the €50 premium now has an expected return of €75.

5. Factor in a contingency for the vagaries of the trip itself

Often trips are altered for diverse reasons such as the weather (storms in a beach resort are likely to persuade to go elsewhere), romanic encounters, discovering new events or other cities (hence the importance of doing your research) and budget restrictions.

Porto de Galinhas beach umbrella

Be rationale, not emotional! I lost a flight to Colombia and bought a new one to Recife – Porto de Galinhas, Brazil

6. Be rationale not emotional about purchases you’ve already made

If you already have a non-reimbursable flight booked and are tempted by another destination then remember that the cost of that flight is a “sunk cost”, which means that the costs that should now be assigned to it in your decision-making process is zero.

Let me illustrate by example, say you book a non-reimbursable flight from Madrid to Rome for €100 but now you really want to go to a festival in Valencia (Las Falles perhaps) which will cost you €40. There’s a temptation to skip to your original plans because you’ve already spent €100 on the flights. However, this would be an emotional reaction not a rationale analysis of the costs and benefits.

The rationale way to decide is to say that it will cost me zero euros to go to Rome but will cost me €40 to go to Valencia. Therefore, is it worth spending the extra €40 (ceterius parabus)?

Let me illustrate how all this how worked in practice for me on a recent trip to Brazil:

I booked all my flights and accommodation 6-8 weeks in advance for the Brazilian carnival. That included domestic Brazilian flights (Florianópolis to Salvador de Bahia, Salvador to Recife, Recife to Rio de Janeiro), accommodation for 2 nights in each city and tickets for parties that I wanted to attend like Camarote Salvador and Mangueira samba school.

Before carnival, I knew that I wanted to go to the south of the country so booked a flight from São Paulo to Itajaí in advance (non-refundable) and gave myself 10 days of flexibility afterwards. Later on during the trip, I had a flight to Cartagena but wanted to continue on in Brazil to Recife and Salvador de Bahia. I analyzed the €300 return flight from São Paulo as a sunk cost and asked for a partial reimbursement of €100 and bought new flights for €150, i.e. the change in itinerary was worth the extra €150 to me at the time.

Foz do Igauçu waterfall

Foz do Igauçu waterfall in Brazil – a must-see landmark!

I am sure that you will find these tips helpful in making your travel decisions. Have you ever faced such dilemmas while traveling? Let me know your thoughts and personal experiences with making such purchasing decisions in the comments section below.

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