"All things come round to him who will but wait," poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow told us. Or so many of us believe as we delay booking vacations, hoping to snag a last-minute opportunity.
Customers who used to arrange leisure trips two or three months before departing now book about a month ahead, says Steve Loucks, spokesman for Carlson Wagonlit Travel, a Minneapolis-based network of more than 1,000 travel agency offices. Their plea, he says: "Help me. Get me a deal."
Internet travel seller Site59, www.site59.com, which specializes in trips sold two weeks to three hours before departure, has seen its monthly sales grow from $100,000 in February 2001 to well into seven figures today. (President Michelle Peluso declines to give an exact figure, except to say sales are up 4,000% from last year.) A year ago, 77% of those who bought Site59's last-minute trips booked seven days out or less; now 87% do, according to data from Site59 and its more than 200 affiliates.
At Club Med, the worldwide chain that pioneered the all-inclusive resort, 21% of the customers who splashed, skied and sunbathed in December booked their trip the same month, compared with 11% the year before. "It's been a white-knuckle ride," says John Vanderslice, president and CEO of Club Med for North America. Like other travel company executives, he is puzzling over why travelers are booking so late.
"There is no question this has become a pronounced trend," says Peter Yesawich, president of Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown, a marketing, advertising and public relations firm specializing in travel and based in Orlando, Fla. His company's surveys show that between 1998 and 2000, the average number of days ahead that Americans plan vacations dropped from 30.5 to 25.5 for weekends and from 53.4 to 37.5 for extended trips. About a fifth of us are booking our travel just seven to 10 days ahead.
The reasons are myriad and not likely to change soon, according to Yesawich and Peluso. Two-career families find it harder to coordinate vacations in advance. The events of Sept. 11 coupled with the uncertain economy have made travelers "commitment-phobic," Peluso says. Change fees of up to $100 slapped on airline tickets are also making us reluctant to book before we're sure we can go.
The biggest influence, though, may be the Internet, both experts say. Savvy travelers learned several years ago that they could get good deals by booking late. Even more went online beginning last October, when major media trumpeted last-minute discounts on hotel rooms and airline seats vacated by skittish post-Sept. 11 travelers.
New technology has also driven the last-minute psychology. For instance, Site59, launched in May 2000, has software that scans computerized reservation systems for available hotel rooms, rental cars and airline seats, then matches them up in packages. Offers can be updated hourly, Peluso says.
These developments are good news for consumers, Yesawich says, breeding more and cheaper deals. The effects are evident in hotel rates. For the week ending April 6, rates were down nearly 5% from last year even though only about 1% fewer rooms were occupied, according to Smith Travel Research. In other words, hoteliers were filling up rooms by discounting them, often at the last minute.
But it's not a good idea to book all or even most travel late in the game. Choices as well as prices may dwindle as time passes.
And be sure to take a skeptical look at the merchandise.
Case in point: a "San Francisco" two-night weekend getaway that I priced on Site59 on April 10 for travel April 13. The total, less than $200 per person, double occupancy, for hotel and round-trip air from LAX, looked great. But the first hotel listed, which was the only one available without add-ons of $4.77 to $249.40 per night, was in Foster City, about 20 miles south of San Francisco.
I chose the centrally located Crowne Plaza Union Square, for $19.16 more per night, and still saved a bundle. When I called the Crowne Plaza, its "best available rate" was $175.56 per person total for the two nights, and American Airlines quoted me $308 for the same flights, for a total of $483.56 per person versus $184.94 for the package.
Packages let hotels and airlines hide how much they're discounting, so there's no way to tell what American or Crowne Plaza alone was charging for the San Francisco package. That can work to consumers' advantage.
"High-end hotels are conscious of their images," Peluso says. "They don't want to say they're selling rooms for $50, but they'll put it in a package." Because upscale hotels are hurting more, they may cut more. The industry's "dirty little secret," Peluso says, is that you may be able to stay at a boutique hotel downtown for less than a chain hotel near the airport.