The pandemic-era trend toward close-in booking is one that many travel advisors and suppliers wish had not persisted as long as it has.
And while some companies are still seeing strength in last-minute demand, and are even adding capacity to cater to it, many say that the booking curve is finally bouncing back to historical levels.
G Adventures said that travelers are booking further out, with more bookings coming in about five months ahead of departure, nearly in line with the six-month lead time the company typically saw prepandemic.
EF Go Ahead Tours is also seeing its booking window lengthen. “Bookings two to four months prior to departures through May were up 23% compared to last year, and 7% compared to 2019,” said Jessica Trammell, vice president of marketing for EF Go Ahead Tours.
Collette’s booking curve is back at prepandemic levels of more than 200 days prior to departure, said Jeff Roy, the company’s executive vice president of revenue management.
“Our booking activity has returned to historically normal patterns,” he said, adding that since most departures run with some remaining availability, it can accommodate close-in bookings when travelers are flexible with their dates.
Meeting last-minute requests
Intrepid Travel is among the travel suppliers that are not only still seeing a high number of last-minute bookers, but that are trying to accommodate them, sometimes at great difficulty.
“This is a very hot topic with us at the moment,” said Matt Berna, Intrepid’s president and managing director, Americas. “Our European team is being inundated with late requests, which require a lot of manual work.”
In late May, Intrepid added more than 300 new departures for its most sought-after destinations around the world, citing data showing that 85% of Americans intend to travel this summer. These “high-capacity destinations,” which include Italy, Greece, Portugal, Iceland, Morocco and Japan, are places where Intrepid said supply hadn’t caught up to the exceptional 2023 summer travel demand.
To support the added departures, Intrepid said it was working to ensure there are enough hotel rooms, staff and tour guides available to properly execute the trips.
“We have staff in our DMCs in those key countries that are working tirelessly to contact hoteliers and staff to open up more capacity,” Berna said. “We’ve also been contacting our hoteliers to see if we can extend our allocations closer to departure, so we can hold onto last-minute rooms up to two weeks before departure.”
Even as G Adventures’ booking curve returns to prepandemic levels, it still sees close-in demand. A page on its website is dedicated to last-minute trips and travel deals that depart within the next 60 days, and as of July 5 had 151 tours on it. The page is “super popular,” said Steve Lima, the company’s vice president of growth for the U.S. and Latin America, “and one that loads of agents and clients check out daily.”
Uniworld said its booking curve has not bounced back to normal and that there has been an increased demand for cruises within 90 days of departure compared with historical norms.
The river cruise line is offering up to $3,000 in savings for guests who bundle cruise and air on nearly all 2023 itineraries for trips booked by July 31, a promotion CEO Ellen Bettridge said “is perfect for travelers looking to score last-minute savings on trips for this year.”
Lower satisfaction for last-minute bookings
While some companies cater to last-minute bookers, there is a downside to the shorter booking curve for both advisors and their clients.
“We still have a fair amount of people who think they can go to Europe in four weeks on a mainstream budget asking to ‘avoid crowds,’ which is next to impossible,” said Angela Hughes, owner of Trips and Ships Luxury Travel in Winter Garden, Fla.
Lack of availability, from staffing to lodging, and higher prices, such as for airfare, are some of the main challenges Hughes said she encounters when trying to fulfill last-minute travel requests.
There’s also a higher rate of client disappointment, she said, for those willing to spend top dollar to get on a last-minute trip but find their efforts futile when logistical hurdles like staffing can’t be overcome.
“Even on the high end, we don’t have the private drivers or the tour guides available,” Hughes said. “The labor market has not returned, and we have less drivers and guides to choose from.”
Suppliers say that securing the additional inventory and adequate staffing levels to facilitate more tours this summer has helped ease the burdens typically associated with last-minute booking.
But suppliers and advisors also are trying to ease some of that demand during peak travel times by promoting shoulder-season travel.
“Stifling airfares and anticipated crowds surrounding the Italy summer rush are driving travelers to rethink squeezing in travel for this summer season and look ahead to the shoulder season in September and onward,” said Melissa Da Silva, president of Trafalgar, North America.
“Already, October bookings are up 22% for Trafalgar European tours,” she added. “And with mild weather, lesser crowds, more favorable prices and the same delectable cafes and family-run cooking classes — this is definitely the move to get the full experience.”
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