Booking windows: How and when to get the luxury trip you want


Resorts are in demand on Italy's Amalfi Coast 

Whether it's sailing though China or Alaska, Judith Works puts a comfortable cabin at the top of her priorities for getting the most out of a cruise. 

"We like to get the room we want, and the category we want.'' That means working with her travel advisor, Sharon Whiting of Cruise Specialists in Seattle, to plan ahead and book early, says Works, who with her husband, Glenn, has taken more than 20 cruises. 

For a June trip through Alaska's Inside Passage, they booked with Regent Seven Seas in January, selecting a port side veranda suite on a forward upper deck for the best views of scenery, sea life and bald eagles as the ship traveled south.  

 "We had our choice at the time," says Works. "To me, that's very important."

Cruise lines, resort hotels and tour operators often offer incentives to book early -  price discounts, resort or shipboard credits and pre-paid gratuities are common - but as the economy recovers, seasoned travelers are finding the No. 1 reasons to plan ahead are choice and availability. 

"We're not in a recession anymore," emphasizes Jack Ezon, president of New York-based Ovation Vacations. "This is not 2008. Space is tight, and people are starting to realize that.''

How far out should you book a luxury cruise, resort or tour you know you're going to take in the future? I explore this topic in the July-August of Virtuoso Life magazine. Optimal booking windows vary with the season, type of vacation and destination, but some general guidelines apply:

CRUISES

Demand for European river cruises is so strong, travel advisors are suggesting booking a year in advance for April though September sailings.

 "Some dates were completely sold out,'' by this year's January-February wave season, normally a prime time for booking cruises, says Patty Perry of Maryland-based Cruise Vacations International. 

 Alaska cruise-tours, summer-season vacations that combine seven-night cruises with land packages, should be booked at least six to nine months out, Perry, advises, because of a limited supply of hotel rooms Booking windows for Caribbean cruises can be shorter (three to six months out) due to a greater number of ships and sailings. 

In general, when it comes to cabin choice, she advises, "to get the prime suites, you've got to plan ahead, even on the large ships, because they sell out first,"

Cruise lines tend to offer the best prices nine months to a year ahead of sailing dates. If last-minute deals do surface, most will honor the  difference up until final payment is due. Check with your advisor on refund and cancellation policies, and discuss what type of travel insurance might be right for you. 

TOURS

"You really need to be making plans a year in advance,'' when it comes to popular seasonal destinations, says Virtuoso advisor Susan Dischner of Four Seasons Travel in Savannah, Georgia. 

"If people are just not going to plan and want to do spur-of-the-moment, then they have to be somewhat flexible."

For example, the best time to tour the Grand Canyon is April and May, meaning anyone thinking of going next year should book now. Dischner recalls checking availability last winter for a client looking for a spring tour. "They were sold out through mid-June...Sure, you could go, but who wants to be in the Grand Canyon when it's 100 degrees?"

She recommends booking a year out for tours in Southern Africa (best for travel in our spring, summer and fall) and East Africa (best in our summer, fall and early winter).

"In Europe, the most popular destination is Italy,'' where Dischner says some Abercrombie & Kent luxury tours sold out early on a number of dates this year. 
Niche tours that cater to small groups, such as trips focused on biking or wine, should also be booked as far ahead as possible. 

HOTELS/RESORTS

"It's not about deals anymore; it's about space,'' says Ovation Vacations' Jack Ezon. Space at warm-weather luxury resorts during this year's Spring Break season was difficult to find as the cold weather across the United States caused a spike in last-minute bookings.

 "Clearly the message is resonating that the economy has bounced back, and snagging a room in St Tropez, Ibiza or Capri will be harder than ever,'' Ezon noted in a report on luxury vacation trends for 2014.



Italy's Island of Capri 

Some hotels in Sardinia and Italy's Amalfi Coast closed their wait lists for certain weeks this year. His advice: Book resorts in January for summer vacations, and at least two to three months out for Spring Break. 

Last-minute requests are still a trend, especially among younger travelers and those living on the East Coast, Ezon says.  He recalls getting a call from client last winter, saying he had just bought tickets to Nice, and was leaving that night. 

"Set us up. Right now,'' the man requested. Ezon worked his connections and found his client rooms, but "right now'' is not a time frame he recommends.  

 "Book early, please. If you want your choice and not leftovers, book early. When you book later, you might find great values, but it's a crap shoot.''

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