In normal times, the week between Christmas and New Year sees a remarkable phenomenon on Google. There’s a huge surge in people searching for holidays. The hangover has kicked in, Christmas is over, winter is dragging on – we all want something to look forward to. And the best way to beat the January blues is to start researching our summer break.
Tour operators and airlines know this – it’s always the best month for bookings – and do their best to grab our attention with discounts, special offers and other incentives. British Airways (ba.com) has already launched a sale for 2022 which continues until Jan 25, the TUI (tui.co.uk) and Jet2 (jet2holidays.com) websites are full of promotions and Trailfinders (trailfinders.com) has several different airline sales.
But how should we react this year? Should we be tempted by this flurry of promotion? Is it crazy to be thinking about committing to a holiday when we are in the midst of the worst surge of Covid cases since the pandemic began? Or, taking the longer view, is this a moment to seize a bargain?
The answer depends on what sort of holiday you are hoping for and when you are thinking of travelling. For example, for those who are constrained by school holidays, it still seems wise to consider making a provisional booking. The same may also be true if you are after certain categories of holiday such as the most popular escorted tours or cruises. And, despite all the uncertainty, as long as you make sure your holiday is protected and can be changed without cost if necessary, you won’t be taking a risk with your money (see Bookers Beware, below).
Here is our case-by-case verdict on whether you should book now or wait and see. I’ve focused on Europe, which is where the majority of people travel in summer, though the same advice also applies to holidays in North America.
Nick’s advice: consider booking now
Despite all the uncertainties, if you are tied to school vacation week, my strong inclination would be to secure your holiday now and take advantage of the best prices you can find. Even if those prices drop later, you will have had the pick of the best hotels and villas – and of flights at the most civilised times from the most convenient airports. Frankly, there are some extraordinarily low prices available at the moment and I really wonder if they are likely to drop much further. For example, you can book Saturday to Saturday flights from London to Mallorca over the spring bank holiday at the moment for about £60 with Ryanair (ryanair.com), or £70 with easyJet (easyjet.com).
So, assuming the threat from the virus recedes, what is the prognosis for the main holiday weeks? Easter Sunday is late this year – April 17 – which means the southern Mediterranean, as well as the Canaries, is looking good for a sunny break. And while there is always a lot of pressure on the spring half-term week, that looks likely only to increase in 2022 because of the double bank holiday on June 2 and 3 celebrating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. This means people can enjoy nine days’ holiday but take only three days’ leave, so those airfares I have just mentioned look exceptional value. The main summer break starts on July 23 and prices are already starting to tick up on departures for this date. If you can’t find the price you want for that week, try looking at the middle or end of August, when demand and prices normally tail off a little.
If you are looking for holiday accommodation in Britain during peak periods, you need to get it sorted sooner rather than later. Before Christmas, National Trust holiday cottages (nationaltrust.org.uk/holidays) had already sold 80 per cent of its capacity for the Whitsun week and 60 per cent for the week from July 23.
Nick’s advice: book escorted tours for the spring now
Single travellers don’t just go on specialised solos’ holidays. In fact, escorted cultural tours (and cruises) are far more popular as a way of enjoying a sociable time. These holidays can quickly sell out, particularly to popular destinations such as Venice, Rome and Pompeii and especially if you are looking to secure a single room. So if you were hoping to travel in the spring, it’s worth looking at the options now. Remember too that spring and autumn – not July and August – are the peak seasons when demand is highest for cultural tours.
Nick’s advice: book preferred cabins now
After two years of disruption there is a huge amount of pent-up demand from regular cruisers. So you definitely need to monitor any departures you may have your eye on and book if you see a price that appeals to you or if your preferred type of cabin is starting to sell out. This is especially true of the more specialised small ship cruises and destinations with limited capacity, such as Antarctica and the Galapagos.
Remember that it isn’t just the cost and availability of the cruise that may affect your decision, but airfares as well. Experienced cruisers will probably know best how to work the system for the sort of ships or style of holiday they prefer, but when I checked the P&O website (pocruises.com) there were some good offers for cruises in the spring and summer.
Free and flexible
Nick’s advice: watch and wait for bargains
Whether you are in your 20s or your 70s or 80s, if you don’t have family ties that commit you to booking a long time in advance – and you are looking for a straightforward destination break in Europe in say May or June – then it will probably pay to keep your powder dry. Except for the half-term week, there is bound to be plenty of availability. Airfares are unlikely to go up much and – if you are happy to book what is available rather than set your heart on a certain property or destination – you will always be able to find a bargain when booking only a few weeks ahead. This is especially true if you can also be flexible on your departure date.
What about skiing?
Nick’s advice: watch and wait for window of opportunity
If you have booked a ski holiday for this season and it hasn’t already been cancelled, hold tight and remain optimistic. I know France has put the kibosh on British visitors for the time being – but it did a similar thing last year and soon lifted the ban, and tour operators have so far only cancelled packages to the French Alps up until early January. Remember, too, that Switzerland’s recent ban on British visitors lasted only a matter of days.
However, if you haven’t yet booked, you would probably do well to hold on until the picture is a little clearer. My advice would be to keep a close eye on the situation and strike as soon as a window of opportunity appears. Note that February is already heavily sold, but the late Easter means there is less pressure on March, which is currently looking like the best option.
So many of us book flights and accommodation separately nowadays that it may go against your instincts to think about a package holiday. But it will give you much more security if Covid continues to be a problem because the operator has a legal duty of care to its customers. If anything goes wrong before you leave or while you are out there – whether connected with Covid or not – you will have someone to help you resolve things. You will also have much more protection from a financial point of view – all tour operators must also be licensed, so you know your money is safe in the event of a financial collapse – see caa.co.uk/atol-protection.
When holiday shopping in January, it’s always worth keeping on your toes. Deals and incentives may not always be as good as they look at first glance. Here are some things to watch out for:
The vast majority of package holiday prices are not fixed and vary according to demand. There may be a notional price, but with traditional sun and sand holidays this may be set well above the expected selling price. So a “discount” simply becomes a way of seducing you into thinking that you are getting a better deal than you really are. The same is true of “free” added extras. So ignore the size of the claimed discount and look at the bottom line price – that is what tells you if you are getting a good deal or not.
2. Price match promises
Pledges to refund the difference if you find the same holiday cheaper within a set time after you have booked sound reassuring – as though the operator (or airline) really is confident that it is offering the lowest price. But it’s an easy promise to make, since the terms and conditions are normally also extremely limited, and very few people carry on looking for a holiday after they have just bought one. Again, don’t be distracted by marketing speak; check the bottom line.
3. Low or zero deposits
These are a subtle ploy to tempt the uncertain into booking a holiday, without feeling they have made too much of a commitment. But while they may help if cash is short in the aftermath of Christmas, they should not be seen as something that you could cancel later without taking too much of a loss. The small print on these offers almost always requires you to pay the full deposit a few weeks later – and the contract will stipulate that this extra money is payable even if you decide to cancel.
4. “Free” child places
These generally represent a saving on a child’s airfare and meals since, to qualify for the deal, children will be expected to share their parents’ room. They can be good value, but be very wary of holidays in self-catering apartments. Such “free” places do not count towards room occupancy. If a family of four books an apartment and opts for a free place for one of the children, the other three in the family will have to pay additional “under-occupancy” supplements. In some cases this can make your overall holiday price more expensive than if you were to pay an ordinary adult fare for the child. So check both pricing mechanisms before booking.