Today I’m going to share a secret of travel planning with you. Perhaps I shouldn’t give away the tricks of my trade, but I consider this a public service announcement, too, to help those of you who do your own travel planning. Brace yourself, because this secret goes against everything you read and hear about travel planning, and it’s this:
Buying your plane ticket is NOT the first thing you should do when you’re planning a trip.
Don’t feel bad if you do this. We’ve been trained to believe that’s the first logical step. In some ways, it’s the airlines’ fault: their fluctuating, unpredictable fares and flash sales (called that because they appear and disappear in a flash) create a sense of urgency around buying tickets as quickly as possible. And how many travel articles have you read that started with some variety of this: “We read about [insert destination here] and immediately knew that’s where we wanted to go. We bought our plane tickets the next day!” Somehow I suspect those travel writers didn’t actually buy their tickets “the next day” and wrote that just for the sake of their narrative flow, but either way, it definitely gives travelers the wrong impression.
There’s also a bit of psychology at play: buying a nonrefundable plane ticket locks you in to the trip; there’s no more wavering or waffling about whether and when you’re going to go. That kind of commitment is satisfying. But you can – and should – find another way to make yourself commit to a trip before you pull the trigger on a plane ticket.
If you’re not convinced that early plane-ticket-commitment is a problem, consider this tale of woe: I had a client ask me to book international plane tickets for them. They were specific about the cities and dates, and they didn’t want my help with any other pieces of the trip, which led me (reasonably) to believe that they already had their entire itinerary planned. But after the plane tickets were booked, it came out that they hadn’t planned the rest of the trip at all, and they subsequently changed their minds multiple times about where they were going. The end result was that they had to take an extra, completely unnecessary flight just to accommodate the original plane tickets. Being the itinerary perfectionist that I am, this kind of avoidable hassle causes me almost physical pain.
So when should you buy your plane tickets? The first step is figuring out your itinerary: where you want to go and for how long. Then you book hotels. You could find, for example, that certain hotels (or even entire cities) are completely full when you were planning to be there, and as a result, you have to shift your dates. Then you consider logistics: if your last stop is X, where is the closest airport and how long will it take you to get there? And then – when you know you’re not going to change your mind again about your itinerary – then you book your plane tickets.
If waiting to buy the tickets gives you price anxiety, try to relax. Prices change, but usually not dramatically over a short period of time. Instead, use that sense of urgency as motivation to sort out the rest of your travel planning as soon as possible.
Buying plane tickets too early in the planning process will box you in with your options and can end up costing you money and (more importantly) precious time. And an awkward itinerary – one that requires you to backtrack, for example – will only detract from your travel experience. Think about how much happier you’ll be with an itinerary that flows smoothly and a return flight at exactly the right time and place. I believe that’s what MasterCard would call “Priceless.”