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Do procrastinators get better deals?

Here's when you should make a reservation months ahead of time -- and when last-minute bargains are likely. 

By SmartMoney

Any shopping addict will tell you that it's long-term planners and last-minute lollygaggers who typically find the best deals.

If you know exactly what you want and won't settle for anything less, it's best to book well in advance. Not picky? With a little flexibility, you'll find last-minute booking deals for just about everything.

But the best bargain hunters know to look for that sweet spot of good selection and low prices. SmartMoney talked to experts and found the best time to make reservations for moving companies, summer camps and lots in between.

Building and remodeling contractors

When to book: summer, at least three months before you want the work to begin.

Why: Contractors are busy year-round, but the real flood of calls for bids on jobs occurs in spring, says Vince Butler, a past chairman of the National Association of Home Builders' Remodelers Council.

"Someone calling in the middle of the summer is going to get a lot more of the contractor's time," he says. With emptier schedules during the fall, contractors face increased competition and thus have more incentive to negotiate.

Car rentals

When to book: eight or so days before your trip.

Why: Not every location offers last-minute rental deals, cautions Phil Reed, the consumer-advice editor for Edmunds.com. Most car-rental agencies increase their prices seven days out from a given rental date. Book before that for low prices and decent selection.

Cruises

When to book: in spring, about a year before your trip.

Why: That's when the cruise lines release their schedules and begin booking for the next year, says cruise broker Stewart Chiron, also known as The Cruise Guy. You'll find the cheapest prices for those routes with the widest availability.

"The trend for the past several years is that prices go up dramatically as the cruise date approaches," Chiron says. "As cruise companies see demand go up and supply go down, they increase prices. Prices just go off the charts."

Hotel rooms

When to book: early and often.

Why: Hotel rates fluctuate based on demand, says Robert Mandelbaum, the director of research for PKF consulting, a hotel-industry research firm. Generally, prices get lower closer to your check-in date as hotels look to fill empty rooms, he says. To get the best rate at the hotel you want, book as far in advance as you can and then check in every week or so.

"Most hotels will let you cancel, penalty-free, until 24 hours in advance of your stay," Mandelbaum says. "If you spot a lower rate, cancel your old reservation and then immediately rebook it."

One caveat: Check that the rate is refundable before you try this book-and-rebook trick. Thanks to online price competition, more hotels are adding low-cost restricted rates to their rosters, says Mandelbaum. Canceling these will cost you at least one night's stay, if the rate is refundable at all.

Moving companies

When to book: Six weeks before your move.

Why: Even the biggest moving companies have limited local resources, and dates fill up fast, says David Sparkman, a spokesman for the American Moving and Storage Association. A six-week window gives you plenty of time to get accurate in-home estimates from several movers, compare and negotiate for the best rate.

Reward travel

When to book: 330 days before your flight leaves.

Why: "Give or take a couple of days, that's when airlines release their reward seats," says Anne Banas, the executive editor for SmarterTravel.com. "There are very limited reward seats -- usually just one or two at the cheapest reward level."

Wait even a few more days, and you may need to spend double or even triple the usual 25,000 miles to snag a seat, if there are any left at all.

Summer camps

When to book: July or August for the following summer.

Why: Camps save on marketing by filling their beds for next year while this year's camp is still in session, says Christopher Thurber, the author of "The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success," a DVD resource for new camper families. Parents, in turn, get the biggest discounts for booking early. Expect to save 10% off a summer-long camp stay or at least $100 off a two-week session, he says.

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If you can talk Junior's best friend or little brother into attending, too, you may be able to save an additional 5% to 10% with a multiple-camper discount.

Wedding vendors

When to book: between Oct. 1 and Dec. 25, about six to 12 months out from your wedding date.

Why: "Wedding vendors do need to pay their mortgages year-round, but they're kind of lonely business-wise during the last part of the year," says Alan Fields, a co-author of "Bridal Bargains."

As a result, they're more willing to negotiate if it results in you handing over a deposit check. Just be sure to lock in rates before Christmas, Fields cautions. By that time, vendors have increased their prices for the coming year, partly in anticipation of a post-holiday rush of calls from newly engaged couples.

If you've set a date during the wedding high season, June through August, you'll need at least 12 months' leeway -- 15 is better -- to snag the caterer, the photographer and other vendors of choice. "They can only be in one place at a time," Fields says.

Tying the knot in the off-season, November through February, buys you a little more time, Fields says. Look to book about six months out, at the latest.

This article was reported and written by Kelli B. Grant for SmartMoney.

Published June 11, 2007

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