“But I don’t know what I’m doing next week.” This is the plaintive refrain I’ve heard from friends and colleagues when I tell them how far in advance they should be booking holidays next year.
How far? “I would say, as a leisure traveller, six months ahead is acceptable,” aviation industry analyst Dr Chrystal Zhang of RMIT says.
What if you just received your invitation to a destination wedding in Mallorca next July? “If you are travelling in the European summer, i.e. June to August, you really need to be securing at least your flights now,” Karen Hislop, travel manager at Flight Centre Wynnum, warns.
And how about a casual, close-to-home family trip to Australia’s ski-fields next winter? You “should have already booked it,” Michael Johnson, CEO of Tourism Accommodation Australia, tells me, drily. “That’s how busy they’ll be. Especially if you’re looking for value for money.”
Oh, that far.
“We saw a lot of short-term bookings coming through while people were concerned about cancellations,” Johnson says. But now, “we’re learning to live with Covid, and people are prepared to book ahead.”
Even early birds are facing higher prices. “It’s fair to say that yes, it may seem to be a little expensive, even when you’re forward booking with plenty of notice,” Johnson says. “But it’ll be even more expensive if you wait.”
So how do you cope with planning a holiday nine months out, when you don’t know what you’ll be having for lunch today? “For some people it’ll probably never take,” says Prof Barbara Mullan, a researcher specialising in behavioural change at Curtin University. “Some people just want to be spontaneous.”
But, Mullan does have some suggestions. “One technique is called ‘anticipated regret’. Focus on what will happen if you don’t take an action. That you’ll pay double the amount; have to stay in a crappy hotel; or not go at all. This should help you focus on the future.”
“Another technique, which is similar, is called ‘consideration of future consequences’. Who will be pissed off with you if you were supposed to plan and didn’t?”
This technique is particularly salient for the parents of school-age children, because, Johnson says “you’re always going to get caught if you’ve got to travel in school holidays.”
For domestic trips during those peak times, he recommends booking accommodation a full nine months out. And if you’re craving spontaneity, “look forward to [it] when those kids grow up.”
Planning to plan
“Another thing that’s a bit counterintuitive is trying to make it part of your routine to plan,” Mullan says. Her research focuses mainly on public health. “We do this to help with changing health behaviours. Whether it’s meal planning, or taking snacks with you.”
“So in terms of travel, you could think about … setting time aside and thinking about your goals for travel, and then checking in weekly.”
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This works particularly well if your planning dates are “clipped to something”.
“If you want to get people to floss, you do it after you brush your teeth,” Mullan says. “So if you’ve got a favourite TV show that’s on each week, you could plan [your holiday] after that.”
Johnson employs this technique in his own life. His family book their beach holiday, “year to year”, while they’re on it. “It would ensure we got in, and had something to look forward to.”
A weekly planning date is also helpful for sorting out the boring, but essential, bits of travel: fine print and insurance.
“For anyone interested in travelling, monitor sales, discounts and promotions,” Zhang says. “Airlines are never shy about promotions.” But discounted flights come with a word of warning: “read those conditions of carriage and refund policies” – so you can be flexible if you have to be.
“Travel is not that straightforward,” Zhang says. “It involves multiple suppliers, airlines, hotels, destinations,” and if just one thing goes wrong, it can derail a whole trip.
Hislop agrees. “This is our new norm for now. Passengers need to be educated that flights may be cancelled at the last minute and rescheduled for another time. They need to have comprehensive travel insurance to cover themselves if flights are cancelled and no alternative is offered, or they have to spend extra days in a destination awaiting a new flight. It could take years for us to return to February 2020 traffic flow.”
“There’s a lot of focus on the world opening up and how expensive it is to travel,” Hislop says. But that’s not entirely true. “Not all destinations are fully accessible.”
Fortunately, flexible cancellation terms are available if you’re willing to look for them, Johnson says. “Hotels, and I believe airlines as well, are still fairly supportive of people’s situation, and less aggressive when it comes to cancellations.”
A high degree of uncertainty is now part of travel’s package deal, especially in Australia, where Zhang points out many difficulties are weather-related. Insurance, flexible bookings and other sensible measures such as bringing extra medication with you on trips, are all practical steps you can take to mitigate the great unknown, but how do you handle the emotional side?
With more planning, Mullan says. “We did some research last year looking at how people’s quality of life was affected by not being able to travel, and one of the things we found is that people who put an alternative in place, whether it’s another travel plan, a new kitchen, or lots of day trips, [coped better].”
“Having a contingency in place is really successful in helping people with lack of control.”
“There are some things we can’t control,” Mullan says. “But we can control some things.” So it’s worth putting in place a backup plan for what you’ll do if your first choice of holiday is out of reach, whether it’s due to circumstance, or finances.
“To be perfectly honest my Christmas plans were a contingency,” Mullan says. Facing high prices, she realised her family wasn’t going to leave town, so “we had to come up with something else instead.”
Although this technique does not work for everyone, visualising can be a “very powerful” motivator, Mullan says. “Visualising what will happen if they plan, trying to see, well here I am in Bali on the beach.”
Not sure what to picture? Well, there are some holiday headaches that will get better next year – so you can start by imagining those. Zhang says the days of arriving at the airport early, then queueing for hours may soon be behind us. Airports are rolling out new technology to ease common “choke points” such as check in and security. For instance, she says, changes to scanning technology have already resulted in the UK announcing an easing on liquid limits from 2024.
Zhang also predicts lost luggage will be less of an issue next year. “There are new tracking systems that are being tested and implemented, so there will be further improvements,” she says. “Lost luggage means … big costs for airlines,” so they have a big incentive to fix the problem fast.
On the domestic front, caravan-park goers can look forward to upgraded facilities next year, Johnson says, thanks to “a really nice grant” from the federal government.
Also worth imagining? Right now, Australian accommodation providers are facing labour shortages (and all the headaches for staff and customers that go with them). Johnson forecasts those will ease throughout next year, thanks to changes in skilled migration, and more working holiday visa holders arriving in Australia. So when you do go on holiday, hotels are more likely to be staffed up, and eager to please.
Although some might argue travel is its own reward, Mullan’s parting tip is to “set a goal around planning” and then when you meet it “reward yourself. Maybe allow yourself to stay in a nicer hotel than normal.”
“Give yourself a reward for being non-spontaneous.”