Deciding what to book ahead vs. planning as you go

Our goal here at Dose of Discovery is to inspire you to get out and explore – and with the wide variety of destinations available, there are no shortage of decisions to make when planning a trip. One of the most frequent questions we hear is whether it’s better to book in advance or plan as you go. While the amount you’ll need to plan ahead can vary significantly from trip to trip, there are some consistent themes to keep in mind.

Book ahead if…

Busy airport

You’re traveling on a tight timeline: If you’re squeezing in a vacation over a long weekend or a similar short trip, it’s best to book most things in advance. You can spend your time enjoying the trip instead of trying to decide where to stay and what to do each day.

It’s a critical part of the trip: If you’ve picked a destination because of an important sight or experience, it’s better to pay a bit extra to lock in that experience. Saving a few dollars isn’t worth the disappointment of finding that a sold-out attraction will keep you from realizing the goal of your travels.

Your trip is in a major city or developed country: Most developed countries and major destinations have mature tourism economies, which means that prices are relatively transparent and set in advance. The best way to find deals on accommodations or activities can be booking in advance using travel discount sites like Hotwire or Travelocity.

You like the certainty of having everything taken care of before you leave: If not knowing where you’ll stay or what you’ll do is stressful for you, it’s best to do your booking in advance. If you’re traveling with someone who is more ‘go with the flow’, make sure to talk with them before you start your trip and explain why it’s important to you that you have a good degree of certainty in your plans.

You’re traveling with a large group: If you have a large group of friends or family in tow, it may be hard to find options that can accommodate your entire group. On the flip side, your large group gives you great bargaining power for everything from your hotel to dinner plans. Make sure to plan the basics in advance so the whole group knows what to expect, and continue to think about ways to use the group’s size to your advantage when you’re traveling.

You’re traveling to a popular destination, during high season or another special event: Without question, if you’re traveling to a place known for tourism or having an influx of tourists for an event or season, you’ll want to book at least your basic accommodations in advance. Bethany even found that she saved some money in addition to skipping lines by booking some attractions in advance on her recent trip to Italy.

Plan as you go if…

Hiking Cocora Valley Colombia

You’re traveling in a developing country or an off-the-beaten-path destination: One of the biggest advantages of traveling to lesser known corners of the world are the tremendous bargains available to tourists. Developing countries have many services available for tourists, but they are often only locally advertised. Travel agents will take advantage of this lack of information, and set up English websites and offer these services at a considerable markup. For example, on our trip to Bolivia, we booked a tour to the salt flats at a 30% discount from those that booked in advance just for showing up the day of and negotiating for a few minutes.

You’re traveling in low season: Traveling off-peak or during low season can be an excellent way to save money and see famous cities or attractions with far fewer crowds. You can use the bargaining power of being one of a scarce number of tourists to comparison shop accommodations and attractions.

You are on an extended trip or have an open end date: If you’re slow traveling through a large part of the world or just don’t need to set a particular return date, planning as you go will allow you to take in as much or as little of a destination as you’d like before continuing with your travels.

You don’t have time to plan a trip in advance: If you need a getaway but don’t have time to plan a detailed itinerary in advance or find cheap flights for a last minute trip, planning as you go can be a great way to see a new place without the up-front work of destination research and planning. Some of our favorite vacations have been to places we’ve barely known anything about before arriving. If you show up to a new place with some spare time and a curiosity about your surroundings, locals are always willing to provide suggestions of things to see and do (many of which you won’t find in a guidebook).

Lost tourist billy in brazil - book ahead

Deciding what to book ahead and what can wait until you arrive is a one of the most important parts of trip planning. It’s critical to ensuring that you aren’t stressed leading up to or during your time away. Once you’ve decided what you need to book in advance, knowing the key attractions that most interest you can make it easier to plan the rest of your trip as you go. Consider using a google doc or simple trip planning tool to keep a running list of top attractions and traveler recommendations to refer to throughout your travels. Guidebooks are also an excellent way to get a lay of the land. Whether you choose to book most of your trip in advance or just plan as you go, keeping an open mind to what you will discover in your travels is a great way to ensure you enjoy your time!

3 thoughts on “Deciding what to book ahead vs. planning as you go

  1. I’ve actually found booking plane tickets close to last minute cheaper than booking 2 months in advance, even if it was supposed to be the “busy” season. It’s not always the case, but almost every week the three major american carriers would have some sort of “fare war” where they publishes cheap prices flying out of the competitor’s hub to a certain region. American and United had a fare war to Hong Kong this summer during the busiest season and you can easily position yourself to different parts of asia flying this cheap ticket to hong kong. However, I would never want to pay for hotels last minute if paid out of my own pocket though.

    • I think that’s definitely true if you can be flexible with your dates and/or destination! Did you take advantage of the deal? 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • I had a particular date to travel so I didn’t pick up the ticket. I did take advantage of a $500 roundtrip to France this thanksgiving though. It’s crazy to see how cheap it is nowadays to fly to europe! You can often find $1000 roundtrip business class to europe using special tricks as well.

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