Travel: go from “uh oh” to "ahhh"
Next year’s favorite vacation spots booked up already? Deep breaths. You can still have a grand old time. . .
Catherine D. felt like she was trapped in The Matrix. Hours on hold with the airline, trying to find seats for her family in business for their vacation; and then, the shock of discovering that she could not book their favorite room in their favorite hotel one year in advance. How was this possible? She was trying to go to Costa Rica, not Antarctica. As she continued calling around, she found that the handful of places she and her family loved were a no-go.
“Wait, have I missed my summer vacation spot next year because it’s already May 2023 and I haven’t planned yet for May 2024? This is the plaintive cry of high-end travelers everywhere right now. Before the pandemic, even the most sought-after hotels wouldn’t dream of booking guests two years out. But with travel plans disrupted multiple times in the past few years, there’s a hunger for travel so great that getting exactly the hotel you want in the destination you want is harder than snagging tickets to a Taylor Swift concert.
Hyper-advanced planning has become a necessity, notes Sunil Metcalfe, sales director at Black Tomato. Lead time for clients booking trips has expanded from around eight to 12 weeks, to between 12 and 20. It’s particularly dicey if you’re trying to plan a vacation around your child’s school breaks, when everyone has the same schedule.
It’s also a matter of hotels being short-staffed, says Kelly Grumbach, senior vice president of Quintessentially, a luxury lifestyle and travel management company. Grumbach finds that many hotels might have rooms, but they only reserve rooms that they are able to service. Then, too, the fact that the pandemic made cancellation easy has created a stampede now: let’s use last year’s points/reservations (just in case there’s some new disaster soon.)
And if you had planned one of those major family getaways that are so popular… Just try to book one of those major safaris or Galapagos islands trips a few months in advance. Alas, the giant tortoises will have to wait. (Though it’s comforting to know they’ll still be there, possibly in the same spot.)
So what’s a jittery traveler to do? For those who have yet to plan summer or fall there are still solutions—if you are willing to go with the flow a little.
“Be flexible on dates, but also room categories and moving within a property,” says Grumbach. She recommends using a travel advisor for luxury travel, not only to avoid issues of unavailability but also to receive extra perks and waitlist access.
“Travel advisors have direct personal relationships with these hotels, whether it’s the owner, managing director, or general manager,” she says. “We have insider knowledge of what is actually available.” As a regular traveler looking to make a reservation on your own, you might see online that a hotel is booked up, but there may be some nuance here. “Are there actually no rooms available, or is there an event that’s showing the entire hotel as booked up? There are certain situations where a client’s dates aren’t flexible, but they are flexible with accommodations and are willing to change rooms. This is where we really become valuable, because a client booking themselves may not see that and the reservations team might not offer that.”
Travel advisors can also save you time by researching several destinations at once. Metcalfe has pivoted several of his clients from France to Spain this year, to trips that have equally as much culture, gastronomy, and activities but aren’t as headline heavy or popular as more mainstream destinations.
“If people are well-traveled, they’re open to more curveballs,” Metcalfe says. “Look at Marbella, for example. It’s not as well known to Americans as it is to Europeans, but you have much nicer beaches than the Amalfi Coast at half the price with less people.”
Grumbach is confident that “normal” booking windows will resume—as will booking a trip last minute—but she suggests getting ahead of planning now for 2024. She also says that city destinations and resort destinations, like Cabo San Lucas or Punta Mita, are easier because of the quantity of luxury hotels. Destinations that people haven’t returned to as much, like Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, are also widely available, she adds.
“Be resourceful and willing to pivot,” says Grumbach, “and you’ll have a better chance of getting something great.”
Hero photo: Twenty47studio via Getty Images