Why January is the best time to book travel

Industry trends make the start of the new year a good time for new travel reservations.

Learn what makes "wave season" one of the best occasions to book, which kinds of travel see the biggest benefits, and the ways you can take advantage.

1. The holidays end & 'wave season' begins

The hectic holiday travel season usually occupies travelers' attention and budgets at the end of the year. Once January comes around, people have more time and money to plan and a better sense of when they'll be free. Plus, many people enjoy having a vacation to look forward to in the new year.

This phenomenon is known in the travel industry as "wave season." Though wave season stretches from January to March, it's generally best to book earlier in the season because there's more availability. Wave season is a particularly strong phenomenon in cruise travel, but it's also present in other industries like hotels, air travel, and land-based guided tours. 

2. Travel companies want to stand out in the 'wave'

With so many people planning and booking, travel companies know they need to price aggressively to get shoppers’ attention. Travelers have lots of options this early—including the option to not book at all—so companies offer perks and savings to stand out from the competition and to encourage buying now versus later.

The biggest reason for this is the close connection between supply and price. As with any market, the more travel inventory is available, the less sellers can charge, and inventory is highest in January.

Internally, travel companies also want to lock in a substantial amount of business. A booking now is a sure thing; inventory may go for more later, but it could also go unsold. And just as travelers don’t want to miss out on availability that might not be there later in the year, companies don’t want to miss out on the many travelers who might already be booked and no longer shopping by then.

3. It has good availability for peak seasons

If you're planning to travel during a busy travel season, such as the summer or the year-end holidays, January is an especially good time to book. Prices tend to go up as inventory for the most popular periods runs out. That could leave you choosing from fewer and/or more expensive options later when last-minute bookers show up. In a worst-case scenario, a hotel or tour that you had your heart set on could book up fully.

If you're looking at a trip at another time of the year, availability likely won't be as much of an issue, but booking early in January can still get you a better deal. 

For some destinations, things are a little different. Visitors to Costa Rica, for example, are usually advised to visit in the dry season that runs from December to April. In that case, you could get a good deal in January booking for the following year, but you wouldn’t want to wait until the January just a few months before. 

It's a good time to book for groups and events, too

If you’re planning to travel with a group, such as for a wedding, bachelorette party, family reunion, or other occasion, January is also the best time to get the availability you’ll need. The more rooms, cruise ship cabins, and airplane seats you want to get as a block, the harder a time you’re likely to have booking everyone together later in the year. 

4. Airlines make flights available through year's end

One might ask, "If booking in January is good because it's early, why not book earlier?" That can also bring savings, but booking a whole itinerary can be difficult. In November and December, many airlines haven't yet begun selling tickets for the following fall and winter. Depending on the carrier and how early you try to book, they may not even be selling late summer flights yet.

By January, most airlines have finalized their schedules for the end of the year, making it much easier to book a final itinerary.


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5. Cruise lines usually offer their best perks

The trends above are especially powerful in the cruise industry, where the concept of “wave season” got its start (and its nautical name). A big share of the year’s bookings take place in wave season, so cruise lines must compete aggressively for travelers’ dollars. In fact, AAA has historically seen about 50% of its cruise itineraries booked in this period.

Cruise lines compete with perks like discounts for booking early, free stateroom upgrades, beverage and dinner packages, onboard spending credit, free internet and Wi-Fi, complimentary entertainment, and even savings on land-side expenses like airfare and hotels.

Availability is also a bigger concern in cruising. With about half the inventory sold by the end of wave season, that’s half the year’s inventory that’s not available the rest of the year, and any given cruise ship only has a certain number of each type of cabin. If you really want a particular ocean-view suite on a specific ship, booking early means you’re less likely to find them all spoken for.

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