Plan too far ahead in some cities, and you could find yourself paying significantly more than if you would have procrastinated. In other places, waiting until the last minute may backfire spectacularly—especially now that vacations once derailed by the pandemic are finally becoming a reality again across the United States.
"If you're headed to a vacation getaway destination, those hotel rooms start to get very expensive last-minute," says Adit Damodaran, an in-house economist at Hopper.com, a predictive flight and hotel pricing app.
Meanwhile, big cities such as New York and San Francisco often have more rooms than they do visitors, making it possible to score a deal even as you drive into town. This is especially true nowadays, with conventions and major events yet to return to full capacity, Damodaran advises.
Where You'll Want to Wait
"There's a much larger supply of hotel rooms," Damodaran explains. "If they're not filled by the weekend, hotels will try to offer last-minute deals."
For example, in Chicago, you can expect to pay an average of $150 a night if you book 40 days out. Wait until the week before a trip, and that figure drops to around $125 a night. In Boston, booking six months early can mean paying more than $250 a night. Book a week ahead of travel, and expect to face a more reasonable $150-per-night bill. In New York, early birds booking six months early can expect to pay almost $100 a night more than their procrastinating counterparts who wait until the days leading up to a trip.
Where You'll Want to Book Early
This summer, many Americans are choosing domestic vacations, crowding everything from roads to beaches to national parks to, you guessed it, hotels.
Miami has been among the most popular destinations in the U.S., so much so that Hopper recommends travelers book Miami hotel rooms two to three months in advance. If you're heading to Miami before then, Damodaran suggests looking for options further from the beach. "You'll find better availability and better prices inland," he said.
Still, even a last-minute hotel room in Miami—a city with a large volume and variety of hotels—will set you back less than a last-minute booking in Sedona, Ariz.
"It's such a popular leisure destination with a very limited supply," Damodaran says of the gorgeous desert town. "Those hotel rooms get booked up really quickly because of low inventory, so prices are much higher for last-minute bookings." Travelers booking a room within a week of their arrival in Sedona should expect to spend about $400 a night, based on Hopper's data. That's more than the approximately $300 a night average price for a last-minute hotel booking in Miami.
For travelers struggling to commit to a room months ahead of a trip, Hopper recently introduced a price freeze service that allows travelers to pay a fee to guarantee specific rates for future bookings.
Where to Look if You're a Last-Minute Traveler
While the pandemic has made spontaneous travel more complicated, it's not impossible, especially for travelers dreaming of the happiest place on earth or of gambling the night away. Damodaran recommends travelers looking for last-minute trip ideas and hotel deals keep Orlando and Las Vegas in mind, as timely deals surface regularly in both destinations. Even at the very last minute, the average nightly hotel rate in Las Vegas is under $150, according to Hopper's data. In Orlando, you can expect to spend about $100 a night for a last-minute hotel booking.