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A common question that a lot of people have is whether they should book their flight or hotel first. It’s a good question and the question often comes down to which itinerary will cost more to change and the timing that deals appear for each. This article will take a look at this question and walk you through my reasoning for booking one before the other.
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Should you book your flight or hotel first?
Generally, I recommend booking airfare first but there are a lot of different factors that can affect that decision, such as the timing of your booking, cancellation/refund policies, and how you’re paying for your travel.
One of the first things to know is that the timing for the best hotel rates and flights differs based on factors like seasons, destinations, etc. Let’s take a look at the ideal times for booking airfare and hotels.
It seems like the “best time to book your airfare” changes every year with new reports. But recent reports have revealed that the best time to book your flights on average is about 70 days out but this changes based on the seasons.
Here’s a breakdown of what the report showed for the best times to book based on seasons:
- Summer: 47 days in advance
- Fall and winter: 69 days in advance
- Spring: 90 days in advance
Once you get to about two to three weeks prior to departure, those prices will start to rise and sometimes even skyrocket so you usually want to avoid booking within 3 weeks of departure if possible.
So with those timeframes in mind you might want to plan your hotel bookings around those time periods since airfare is usually much more expensive than the hotel and a better deal on airfare might mean more savings than a deal on a hotel.
Trivago recently published a report stating that it’s best to book your hotel one month in advance. So going by the dates above and this report, it would often make the sense to book your flights first and then wait about a month to book your hotel stay.
But there are other considerations to make.
If you’re traveling for the holidays then you’re going to want to book your hotels pretty far out since you might have to worry about the hotel selling out all rooms.
Also, if there are any major events or conventions going on near (or especially at your hotel) then you need to book up your rooms as soon as possible.
Some hotels offer very consistent pricing months in advance. If you notice that the prices don’t fluctuate that much then there’s no point in waiting until one month out from your trip.
Last minute deals
Sometimes you can find great deals on hotels last minute. If you’e not worried about a particular hotel selling out you could always use an app like Last Minute to find deals for hotels at the last minute.
Refundable hotel rooms
If you’re planning on booking a hotel on a fully refundable rate or using your points, you’ll be able to cancel your booking with no penalty so long as you do it before the cut-off time of that hotel. The specific cancellation policy depends on the hotel’s policy.
Generally you will be able to cancel 48 to 72 hours prior to check-in with many hotel programs. But note that different hotels have different cancellation policies even within the same program and some even have different cancellation policies within the same hotel, such as in the example below.
You should be able to view the hotel’s cancellation policy when viewing the rates for the rooms.
If you plan on booking a flexible rate then there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t book your stay as soon as you can, since there’s no penalty if you decide to cancel those nights.
If you’re worried about the rate dropping after you book it far out in advance then you can use a tool like Pruvo to get notifications about when the price drops for your itinerary. Then simply rebook your hotel and save yourself some cash.
Tip: Anytime I do a re-booking for a better price, I always try to make the re-booking first and then cancel the old booking just in case something happens and the inventory or deal disappears.
If you’re booking refundable airfare then the same logic applies. Book your flight when you think it’s the best time and then cancel or modify your ticket as needed. Also, if the price drops then I would think you would be able to cancel and rebook at the lower price.
However, be aware that refundable airfare tickets are very pricey. It’s not uncommon for a refundable economy ticket to cost more than a business class ticket in some cases. So if you plan on going this route then be sure to do some research so that you’re not surprised by the high prices when go to book.
Also, note that for airlines like United there is no fee to change or cancel a flight ticketed within 24 hours, as long as the reservation was made at least 7 days prior to the departure date. So if you wanted to jump on a deal and then try to sort out your hotel, you’d be able to try to find a hotel in 24 hours and if that failed, you could always cancel the airfare without a penalty.
Non-refundable airfare and hotel rates
When dealing with non-refundable rates, I’d book my flights first. While the change fees are still expensive for airlines, they can be cheaper than the hotel bill you’d be stuck with.
For example, United charges change fees of $200 for domestic flights and as much as $400+ for international itineraries. (I learned this the hard way years ago when I changed a flight coming back from Australia and had to shell out $300 just to change the date by two days.)
Marriott has the following policy for its advanced purchase rate:
Advance purchase rates reservations cannot be changed, are prepaid and non-refundable. If cancellation of or change to reservation takes place, guest will forfeit total room charge plus tax.
So for a domestic trip, it’s a matter of paying $200 to change a flight or potentially being stuck with the entire room charge plus tax which could end up being substantially more.
So I’d rather risk needing to change the airfare than the hotel.
Also, if your price drops for a non-refundable fare you can get some airlines like Alaska Airlines to offer you a credit for the difference in price. But for the legacy carriers like United, American, and Delta, you might not be able to get a credit unless it’s higher than the change fee.
If an advanced purchase rate for a hotel drops you might be SOL. So there’s another reason for booking the flight first.
I book about 90% of my travel with miles and points and so usually I’m thinking about this question from an award travel perspective.
This means that I highly prioritize the flights because flight award inventory is usually much more hit or miss and volatile than hotel award inventory. If I only have enough points to either book my flights first or hotels, I’m going to almost always go with my flights first because there’s a better chance of the hotels still being open later on than the flight awards being open.
The only time I would do the opposite is if I were trying to book a hotel that’s harder to book with points than the flights which is pretty rare but it could happen, depending on how I chose to book the flights there.
Also, some award flights consistently open up at the last minute so if I were planning to fly on one of those airlines then I would consider booking the hotel first.
This is one reason why I’m a huge fan of using cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve to take advantage of portals like the Chase Travel Portal. With those you can use your points to book flights and hotels with no blackout dates. You don’t get as much value from your points but you get the flexibility of being able to book any open flight and hotels.
Booking hotels and flights together
Many online travel agencies allow you to book hotels and flights at the same time. This doesn’t just make your booking process more convenient but in some instances you can save some cash doing this.
I personally will usually book airfare first since the deals arrive sooner, they can be cheaper to modify (when non-refundable), and it makes more sense for award travel. However, I would book the hotel first if I’m dealing with refundable rates.
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Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.