The Best Time to Purchase Airline Tickets and Hotel Rooms

Finding a great deal on a rental car, train ticket, or tour is a matter of timing.
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Best Time to Book Rental Car
Plan ahead and you can get rental cars, tours, and train tickets for less. (Photodisc)

When to Book a Rental Car
Rental-car rates fluctuate even less than rates for flights and hotels, but there is one make-no-mistake rule when it comes to booking: Do not simply show up at the airport rental counter. Car companies know that a walk-up customer is a captive audience, and rates can be considerably higher when booked in person.

When travelers know they will need a car, it often makes sense to book it at the same time as the hotel, flight, or both. Packages allow companies to offer rates lower than those published because consumers—and competitors—don't know the exact price when it's obscured in a package. When booked on common aggregator sites, package deals can save consumers up to 40 percent in comparison to booking services individually.

When to Book a Train Ticket
Once upon a time, the best European train fares were only available to residents, but that is changing as rail websites such as Italiarail.com offer cheaper fares to Americans. That means that it makes sense to book online for two reasons: You can snag fares of up to 30 percent off the rack rates when booking more than three weeks in advance, and you don't have to wait in interminable lines of irritated, espresso-amped Italians. Rail companies rarely discount rates at the last minute. Other European rail sites to consult include Nationalrail.co.uk (United Kingdom), Bahn.com (Germany), and SNCF.com (France), as well as Raileurope.com, an aggregator site of routes throughout the continent.

When to Book Guides, Tours, and Activities
"Generally, the more expensive the activity and the more seasonal it is, the better it is to book ahead to lock in big discounts," says author and budget-travel expert Tim Leffel. Ski resorts and popular organized tours are good examples of activities for which purchasing ahead and in bulk can yield discounts of more than 20 percent. Another reason to book ahead is to reserve a ticket for a sought-after show or museum.

"If it's a special touring exhibit or a big-name show, you are going to have to plan," says David Lytle, editorial director for Frommers.com. "Mornings are usually the best time because fewer people are ready first thing in the morning." Popular museums in destinations like Florence can be booked more than two months in advance during popular times of the year.

Generally, for short or common tours, showing up is just fine. And as a traveler, sometimes leaving a schedule wide open to accommodate that day's whim yields some of the most memorable experiences. And those, in the end, are something money can't always buy.


Published: 14 Mar 2011 | Last Updated: 8 May 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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