16 Trips You Need to Plan in Advance
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We love ourselves a last-minute trip, but some of the most rewarding travel experiences require a bit more time to plan. If you have one of the following trips on your mind for 2024 (or even 2025), we recommend you start planning now.
Intimate tours with limited space, or trips likely to sell out
Some trips are designed to be shared with as few folks as possible, allowing for less wear on fragile spaces and easier maneuvering within small vessels and vehicles. By nature, their diminutive size makes them a scarce commodity; rather than miss these boats, tours and adventures, you’ll want to get ahead of the (big) game.
Gorilla trekking tours
Rwanda, Uganda and the Republic of Congo generally allow only eight visitors per gorilla trek in their countries. Such small groups enable the gorillas to relax and just about forget you’re there; put less stress on delicate mountain and lowland flora; and lower the risk of passing along our human diseases to these amazing primates, with whom we share 98% of our DNA. Small groups, though, equal big demand.
Small boat cruises
Both a Nile dahabiya tour (on an elegant Egyptian sailboat) and a Kerala backwater journey on a kettuvallam (a South Indian houseboat) offer amazing, often remote scenery – from uninhabited islands near Egypt’s Aswan to the palm-fringed canals and lagoons of India’s Alleppey region – at a leisurely pace. Intimate vessels like these have precious few beds per sailing, though, so if you want to travel slowly upon them, you’ll have to move fast.
Outfitted dry season African safaris
During Southern and East Africa’s dry seasons, wildlife-viewing conditions are in their prime, offering minimal mud, cooler temperatures and low grass cover. The dry season in Botswana’s Okavango Delta and South Africa’s Great Kruger area lasts May through October, while in Tanzania’s Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, it’s July through September. The most sought-after safari camps here operate within protected wildlife preserves, offering small-plane transport, well-trained guides and a limited number of beds – so be sure to plan accordingly.
How far in advance you should plan: To ensure your spot on these limited-space adventures, be prepared to book nine months to one year ahead, if not more.
US trips that include a lottery or application to attend
Some special places in the U.S. inspire so much interest that controlling their visitor flow becomes vital to their existence. Enter the need for lotteries and applications, many of which are handled by Recreation.gov, a one-stop-shop for locking down access to America’s natural spaces. Sign up for a free account on the site and get to entering, applying and hoping for the best.
Hikes in state and national parks
The roughly 15-mile, 4,200-foot trip to the summit of Yosemite’s epic Half Dome requires permits for day hikers seven days a week when its 400 feet of assistance cables are up, which is normally the Friday before Memorial Day through the second Tuesday in October. 225 day hikers are allowed each day, and the preseason lottery runs from March 1-31, on east coast time; if you’re chosen, you’ll be notified via email in mid-April.
You’ll also need a permit to hike all of Kauai’s magnificent 22-mile Kalalau Trail, which begins in Hāʻena State Park and provides the only land access to the lush Nā Pali Coast. Hawaii issues only 60 permits a day that allow you to camp (with aloha) for up to five days along this out-and-back journey, and you’ll need to apply for yours through the state’s reservation system.
Undulating five round-trip miles through Arizona’s Paria Canyon–Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, the magical red-sandstone canyon known as The Wave requires a permit to visit. Of the 64 daily permits allowed, 48 are posted to an online lottery each day, four months in advance of their visiting date; e.g., if you want to visit during the month of June, you’ll want to enter the lottery during the month of February. You’ll be notified of your permit status by email on the first day of the month after you entered the lottery.
Within another red-rock canyon in Arizona, the stunning 50-foot Havasu Falls tumble from limestone cliffs into gleaming teal pools. This natural attraction is on land administered by the Havasupai Tribe, who don’t allow visitors to day-hike the 10-mile one-way trail or book a commercial tour, but instead require a permit to stay overnight in their on-site campground. To reserve your camping permit, you’ll have to take your best shot online on February 1, when that year’s reservations will be gone within hours.
National Park lodges
These are some of America’s most sought-after stays, and competition for rooms in popular parks like Yellowstone, Glacier and Acadia can be fierce. On a smaller scale, the 16-room Brooks Lodge is Alaska’s Katmai National Park only indoor lodging near the Brooks Falls bear viewing action during the salmon spawn, and is only open from June 1 to mid-September each year. To enter the Brooks Lodge lottery, apply online between December 1-31 of the prior year.
On the floor of the Grand Canyon, Phantom Ranch’s nine updated 1920s cabins (each with two bunk beds) are made available only by lottery. Apply online 14 months in advance of your desired visit, and note that each applicant can only book up to four consecutive nights for up to nine guests. About 10 miles below the canyon rim, Phantom Ranch is reachable only by foot, mule ride or river raft; the latter requires a river permit via another lottery, posted February 1.
How far in advance you should plan: Permits for most of these all-American attractions require reservations four months to a year in advance.
Trips around a major event
When an experience can only be had once a year – or even more rarely – it’s bound to make a lot of bucket lists. And because the dates for events like those listed below are publicized far in advance, only the most organized early birds will score the best flights, hotel locations and more.
Carnival in Rio
A week-long celebration held each year in February, Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival includes the glitzy, feathery Sambadrome Parade, which unfurls in a multi-day, dusk-to-dawn reverie. Where you stay in relation to the festivities can make or break your experience (e.g., in the heart of the action vs. quietly away from the fray), so don’t delay booking your ideal spot; and while you’re at it, reserve tables at those restaurants you’d hate to miss. Same goes for things like Mardi Gras in New Orleans and other similar events.
The Olympic Games
The granddaddy of sporting events plays out on a four year-cycle, with either alternating Summer and Winter Olympics held every two years in a different city. Cities and major competition venues are often announced a few years in advance, and as soon as that news goes public, the travel-booking clock starts ticking. Thinking about the World Cup instead? The same guidelines apply.
Cherry blossom season in Kyoto, Tokyo, or DC
Usually late March to early April, this petal-pink floral spectacle is one of the most popular attractions in both Japan and DC, with hotels anywhere near cherry trees booking up more than a year in advance.
Total eclipse of the sun
The sun, moon and Earth line up for a solar eclipse twice a year, either total or annular (aka the “ring of fire”). However, eclipses don’t always occur anywhere near the US—so when they do, they become a hot ticket. Campgrounds and high-rise hotels within the path of a future eclipse will have the best views, and reservations will go fast; if you blink, you might miss them. (Note that the eclipse on Monday, April 8, 2024 will be the last viewable from the continental US until 2044.)
How far in advance you should plan: For any of these events, aim to book your travel arrangements at least 18 months in advance.
Trips that are epically far and/or expensive
Whether you’ll need to make winging ‘round the world worth your while or simply save up a small fortune, there are some once-in-a-lifetime adventures that require a healthy lead time to get all your ducks (or blue-footed boobies) in a row. Here are just a few:
The Galapagos Islands
Launched throughout the year on ships that carry anywhere between 10 and 100 passengers, guided sailing trips to the remote Galapagos Islands tend to last seven to 16 nights and cost between $5,000 and $12,000 per person. Oh, and you’ll lose almost two days of travel time just getting to and from your port in Ecuador (either Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador). Booking your trip as far out as possible will help you get the outfitter, ship and cabin of your choice, likely at a discount, while also accruing the travel time you’ll need to meet the wildlife you’ll only see here.
The most common way to reach the Antarctic Peninsula is to first fly to the southern tip of South America, then brave a 48-hour small-ship sail along the notoriously choppy Drake Passage; to explore Antarctica for only five days, you’ll need to spend nine to 11 days traveling. Sure, you could just show up in the touristy port city of Ushuaia, Argentina and try your luck on a last-minute boat, but only if you can risk blowing extra days off work and extra cash on hotels. Just 50 small ships sail during Antarctica’s short travel season (November to March), and planned itineraries already average $9,000 per person, so putting down a deposit way ahead ensures you don’t exceed your budget or waste precious vacation time.
Luxury train journeys
Some of the most sought-after rail journeys are also the most expensive, costing upwards of $1,000 a night. There are always limited bookings aboard glamorous trains like Europe’s Venice-Simplon Orient Express, The Ghan, which travels 1,851 miles across Australia; and the Palace on Wheels, with its seven-day trip across India, including the pink palaces of Rajasthan, the tigers of Ranthambore, and the Taj Mahal. When considering a luxury rail trip, look way down the tracks so you don’t miss the train.
How far in advance you should plan: Plan to book expensive, far-flung guided itineraries, boats and/or trains at least a year ahead. Not only will you be (more) sure of getting a good seat or cabin, but you’ll give yourself time to save up cash
Trips you need a lot of physical preparation for
Adventures that require you to be in good shape are great ways to inspire a fitness plan – but a fitness plan takes time to yield results. And if you want to explore wild territory, you’ll likely need a roundup of shots. Give yourself plenty of headway for trips like those below that are physically demanding or otherwise risky to your health.
Dreaming of scaling a gargantuan peak like Everest or Kilimanjaro, or even an American fourteener like Denali? You’ll need to secure any necessary permits (remember those?), research conditions on your mountain of choice, gather the right gear and train five days a week, both for strength and endurance. Before booking your travel, book an appointment with your doctor and/or a trainer to determine your fitness baseline; this will give you a better idea of your planning timeline.
Walking the Camino de Santiago or any other long-distance walk
You’ll also want to check your fitness level before attempting a long (and we mean long) walk like the 96-mile West Highland Way in Scotland, the 2000-plus-mile Appalachian Trail, or the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, from the Basque region of France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. You’ll want to break in your boots, make reservations at hostels (to be assured of a bed each night), and likely request time off work far in advance. You can absolutely do shorter sections of any long-distance hike, but you’ll still want to walk, hike, and stretch (a lot) before you go.
Vacations that require vaccines
Before you book a trip out of the country, first check the Center for Disease Control’s list of destinations to see if you’ll need vaccines for anything from yellow fever to hepatitis and cholera in order to travel. If you do need vaccines, you’ll have to find a clinic, determine how many rounds of shots are required and how far in advance, then make sure you have the proper paperwork to present at airports. It pays to sort out these details before you even decide on travel dates, much less purchase the most expensive portions of your trip.
How far in advance you should plan: As soon as the idea of one of these trips pops in your head, check in with a health professional and get a sense of how long you’ll need to get strong and/or vaccinated—then allow yourself at least six months before you travel.
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Published October 27, 2023
Last updated December 21, 2023
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