Spontaneous or Scheduled?

Detailed trip preparation is important for travel, but there’s also fun and excitement when you’re open to adventures on the fly.

Male and female tourists smiling and pointing in Italy while referring to guidebook iStock

The idea of a fantastic vacation naturally elicits excitement. While some travelers begin trip planning before they even return home from their current journey, others start months or even years ahead of time. They conduct meticulous research to make every day of their vacation a choreographed mosaic of fun and leisure.

Then there are those who get inspired by a friend’s travel pics or an alluring Instagram post and take off at a moment’s notice, with little more trip preparation than a plane ticket and a bottle of sunscreen.

There’s no right or wrong way to plan your travel, and we’ve got expert travel tips to help you max out the fun, no matter how far in advance you like to plan.

Travel tips for any destination

The travel essentials you decide to pack require thought—as do trip logistics. For example, if you’re thinking about taking an Alaska cruise, a river cruise on the Rhine or Danube, or a guided vacation through Europe, it’s best to start planning six to 12 months ahead, according to AAA Travel product manager Julio Soto.

If you don’t have a sufficient lead time, you may find that the best cabins, lowest airfares and preferred itineraries have sold out.

On the other hand, the Caribbean, Mexico and the Florida Keys are all perfect for a quick getaway with a partner or group of friends. The same is true for popular destinations like Las Vegas, New Orleans and the western national parks.

And if you’d rather spend some time on the water, you can almost always find great last-minute deals on three- and four-night cruises to the Bahamas out of Miami.

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Planning a trip to a popular destination or major event

It’s also often necessary to plan well in advance for far-off and popular destinations as well as for specific seasonal events. Want to swim with the white sharks near Cancún in July, join in the fun at Mardi Gras in New Orleans or attend Oktoberfest in Munich? Book your flight and hotel well ahead of time.

“Airlines begin selling tickets up to 331 days in advance—and people are buying them!” says Christopher Wommer, global travel product manager for the Auto Club Group.

If you don’t want to get stuck paying a higher fare, Wommer advises booking flights well ahead of time, especially for holiday travel and even for travel next year to popular European destinations such as Italy, France or Spain. (More on AAA’s recommended time frames below.) And if you’re going somewhere more distant, such as Egypt, South Africa or Australia, you’ll also want to plan far in advance especially if you’re going in high season.

“In places like South Africa or Kenya, you might have a lodge that only holds 20 people, and it’s going to sell out,” says Wommer. “The same is true of small luxury and boutique hotels everywhere.”

Experts also recommend taking care of other details ahead of time, such as passport photos (available at your local AAA branch at low or cost to Members), passport applications and renewals, an international driving permit and travel insurance. 

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Benefits of early booking

Planning ahead may also come with financial and emotional benefits. For example, if you know you’re going to travel in the next three to 12 months, booking earlier can mean less-expensive airfare and greater flexibility.

To take advantage of the best prices, AAA recommends the following booking schedules:

  • Nonpeak season travel dates:
    • Domestic travel: one to three months before departure.
    •  International travel: two to eight months before departure.
  • Peak season travel dates:
    •  Domestic travel: three to six months before departure.
    •  International Travel: five to 11 months before departure.

There’s also the perk of having something in the near future to look forward to. In fact, research shows that the anticipation of taking a trip can evoke as many positive emotions as the trip itself.

Preparing for vacation with tried-and-true planning tips

As a professional travel writer, Jason Frye (AAA Member since 2005) has his trip preparation and planning buttoned down.

“If I’m traveling with my wife, I like to plan where we’re staying. We’ll plan out two or three big hikes and a museum day. And we always have one or two restaurant reservations made,” he says. “But I also leave space to talk to the bartender, to find out about the local taqueria or hidden spot. It leaves room for us to be surprised and get excited.”

Frye also uses social media to gather local information. “If I know I’m going to Denver or to Hawaii, I’ll start following a few hashtags out of that area—a few restaurants, chefs or local personalities. If there’s a good magazine around, I follow them, and the regional AAA club,” he says.

For short, last-minute jaunts, North Carolina-based Frye and his wife, Lauren, enjoy going to places like Charleston, South Carolina, or to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. “We’re within driving distance of several cruise ports, too,” says Frye. He says that if he sees an affordable deal and has the flexibility, “it’s easy for my wife and me to take three or four days off work and cruise to the Bahamas.”

However, on some of the more-involved journeys they’ve taken, such as a river cruise through Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia and a cruise vacation around Israel, Egypt and Turkey, Frye has put more time into the planning—often starting about six months out.

Leaving time for the unexpected

Susan Barnes (AAA Member since 2010) travels extensively as a writer for magazines and her blog, Florida Beyond. “I’m a Virgo, so I like everything planned out—hotels booked, car rentals booke —so I know what’s happening,” she says.

Yet, despite this inclination, she let go of the reins a little on a 2022 trip to England with her husband, Josh.

“We only planned out the first three days of our trip,” Barnes explains. “We had a rental car and decided, OK, let’s go here and check this out, and then let’s go to Liverpool for the night and do our own Beatles tour. It was fun not to be tied to a specific itinerary. We went to Abbey Road to see the Beatles’ studio. And walking back, we happened upon a little river with houseboats on it.”

Having that little bit of freedom is important. “Discovering something on your own is magical,” Barnes says. “It could be the best memory you take away from the trip—something you’d never even imagined.”

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