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Determining the best time to book a vacation is a tricky business. Should you lock in flights and hotels early for peace of mind or hold out for last-minute deals? What if you put down deposits months ahead and then get cold feet? While the answers depend on the destination, some places don’t lend themselves well to winging it. You might value the fun of spontaneity, but try to book a safari in Botswana or a summer stay on the Amalfi Coast late in the game, and you’re likely to be disappointed.
Essentially, the need to book far in advance comes down to two factors: availability and logistics. Spots that are wildly popular or that restrict visitor numbers fill up in a blink, especially during high season. In our vacation planning service, we see this play out year after year with sought-after urban hotels, agriturismos, beach resorts and beyond — families who wait too long to act are shut out of their preferred accommodations and activities. And if your itinerary includes developing countries with sparse infrastructure, multiple international flights and ground transfers, or destinations that require visas and special permits, coordinating the different pieces can be time-intensive. Here are 10 trips to book a full year — and sometimes even longer — before you plan to travel.
The White Continent is simply incredible, unlike any other earthscape you will ever see. Although there has been an uptick in cruise companies adding Antarctica to their itineraries, the choices are still limited, and ships tend to be small (some have less than 50 cabins). Before you even set foot on board, you’ll need to get to the usual departure point of Ushuaia, Argentina, which takes time and effort. Temperamental polar weather means that itineraries must stay flexible, so the experts on the ship are responsible for adjusting the daily schedule at a moment’s notice and keeping everyone engaged — meaning, choose your cruise company with care. Our Family Travel Advisors are connected with vetted Antarctica travel partners who put together unforgettable expeditions that will leave you awestruck in every regard.
TIP: Travel insurance is always a good idea, but especially for trips booked this far ahead. As we’ve seen in the past few months, the unexpected does occur, and it’s wise to protect your vacation investment as thoroughly as you can.
We love New Zealand with kids! For those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s one of the most exciting places to spend the winter holidays — dreary December and January at home are warm and beautiful Down Under. Availability at New Zealand’s luxury lodges can be tight, so book as soon as possible if you want dibs on the very best. With two weeks, it makes sense to divide your time between the North Island (milder and more tropical with beautiful beaches) and the South Island (home to dramatic mountain peaks and glacial fjords) for a full taste of each. Adrenaline seekers can get their fix by jet-boating, whitewater rafting, off-roading, canyoning and more, while geothermal pools and kayak excursions await those who like their adventures a little more relaxed. This is one reason we usually recommend New Zealand for families with older kids; it’s the ultimate outdoor playground with tweens and teens.
Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands are one of the last truly unspoiled, pristine places on the planet and a lesson in conservation that will stay with young travelers for a lifetime. The mindblowing array of wildlife includes giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, manta rays, sea lions, Galápagos sharks, flamingoes and iguanas. Because there’s virtually no human intrusion, the animals have little fear of people and kids can observe them at close range. Whether you reach the islands by small-ship cruise (our preferred approach) or fly in from mainland Ecuador, there are firm rules about the number of visitors per day and the activities that can take place at any given time. You’ll also need to be accompanied by a specialist guide. The Galápagos’ two peak seasons — June through September and December through January — align with typical school breaks in the U.S. and elsewhere, so get a jump on planning to ensure you don’t miss out entirely.
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Dreaming of cherry blossom season in Japan? You’re in good company. The ruffled pink flowers, called sakura, mark the beginning of spring, and visitors from all over the globe descend on places like Mt. Yoshino, Lake Kawaguchiko and Kyoto to witness the brief but delightful spectacle. The cherry trees’ usual late March/early April bloom period (perfect timing for spring break) is celebrated around the country with festivals, special foods and more; take a cue from the Japanese and practice the art of hanami, or admiring those frilly petals as you enjoy a leisurely picnic beneath the branches. Although it’s best to keep your day-to-day plans flexible so you can beat a path to the blossoms right as they reach their sweet spot, secure hotels and guides at least a year out and plan for massive crowds on public transportation and at top attractions.
Spotting majestic zebras, gazelles, giraffes and other wildlife on safari is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that deserves to be planned with time and attention to detail. Your biggest decision at the outset is where to go: Kenya? Botswana? Tanzania? Our CB! Africa experts can help you choose the safari that best suits your family’s needs, whether seeing the Big Five (lions, leopards, rhinoceros, elephants, and Cape buffalo) is a must or you prefer a specialized experience like gorilla trekking. Wherever you decide, it will most likely require long flights with connections that can be a challenge to coordinate. Another main reason to book well ahead of time: Safari camps, especially at the luxury end of the spectrum, tend to be small and intimate with very high occupancy rates; some fill up as long as two years in advance. And before you travel, you might need to see a doctor for vaccinations like yellow fever, typhoid and hepatitis, which are given at varying intervals and sometimes involve multiple doses.
With breathtaking sea vistas and sunwashed villages nestled into steep cliffs, Italy’s Amalfi Coast draws masses of people craving la dolce vita during their summer vacation. Unlike cities and other destinations that stay busy year-round, there is a defined season here, and demand far exceeds availability in that Easter-through-September window. Which of the local towns you choose as a home base depends on what you plan to do and the ages of your children; Positano, Priano and Amalfi are three of the easiest to navigate with kids in tow. Given the region’s vertical orientation, we usually advise staying in a hotel closer to the water to avoid a long climb, especially if you have little ones. We also like to prioritize accommodations with both a view and a swimming pool, as the beaches are small and rocky — Hotel Santa Caterina in Amalfi is a time-tested CB! favorite.
Lush rainforests, adventure activities galore, cute creatures like tree frogs and toucans, volcano treks, stretches of golden sand … Costa Rica has it all, and it has been one of our most requested family destinations for years. The traditional 10-day itinerary for first-timers includes the Arenal Volcano region, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and beach time in Manuel Antonio National Park. Costa Rica’s dry season runs from December until April, so the holidays and spring break are by far the top periods for families. Hotel prices rise to match demand and inventory runs out fast; you’ll have the best odds of scoring your ideal room configuration and early booking incentives if you reserve a full 12 months ahead. Work with a kid-friendly tour company for ease of transport in this rugged country and access to naturalist guide services that will make your vacation extra-memorable.
For ski enthusiasts, schussing down the slopes at a marquee resort like Whistler Blackcomb, Zermatt or Telluride is the pinnacle of winter bliss. The caveat? Expect to share it with thousands of others in pursuit of downhill thrills. If you’re intent on a particular mountain and/or you plan to travel over peak dates like Christmas, New Year’s or Presidents’ Day weekend, reserving well in advance gives you first pick of ski-in/ski-out accommodations and lesson times. Early birds can also save money on ski vacation packages (a surprising number of trips are booked mere weeks in advance at premium pricing, when people have a clearer idea of snow conditions). Note: Some ski areas, like Deer Valley, Utah, set daily caps on lift tickets to keep the powder fresh and the experience pleasant, making it even more important to book ahead.
America’s spectacular National Parks are perennial favorites for traveling families, and with a renewed focus on domestic vacations right now, we expect them to be more in demand than ever for the foreseeable future. Want to visit one of the most famous, like California’s Yosemite, Yellowstone in Wyoming or Acadia in Maine? Act early — lodging in and near the parks can be very limited. Yosemite campgrounds have been known to book up less than half an hour after reservations for the next six months are released. Even the smaller, more obscure parks such as Florida’s Dry Tortugas and Isle Royale in Michigan will see increased visitor traffic over the coming year, so it’s smart to map out your trip and reserve accommodations as far in advance as you can.
A fall or winter getaway to watch the aurora borealis flare across the night sky is worth a spot on any family bucket list. No matter which iconic Northern Lights destination appeals to you — possibilities include Norway, Sweden, Canada, Iceland and Alaska — limited inventory in polar towns and villages means you’ll need to move fast to secure kid-friendly accommodations. If you have your heart set on surprising the kids with a special experience like Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland, lock in your spot in advance, as hotels and premium activities can book up quickly. The logistics for a vacation in these remote regions are complex, so we strongly recommend working with a family-oriented tour operator to ensure that your trip is as smooth as possible. Our team can help pair you with the right fit.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Virtuoso except where noted.
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