When to book a (decent) last-minute bargain holiday

When to book a holiday
Last-minute holidaymakers, yesterday
"You can have your last-minute pick of destinations, provided you get your timing right"
  • | by Rachel England

The festive period has been and gone, so what now?

Seemingly endless grey days lamenting our expanded waistlines, lumbering miserably through the daily commute until the first signs of spring appear and we all start nearly hitting our vitamin D quota? How depressing. Stave off the bleak mid-winter by thinking about your 2013 holiday instead. Hmm. Sunshine.

When it comes to holiday booking, it’s true that the early bird catches the worm, but not all of us are organised early birds, or even know what we’re doing one day to the next.

The good news is that you can still bag a brilliant travel bargain at the last minute if you’re ready for opportunity to come knocking. And we know just when that will be.

Whatever you do, don't forget to sort out your travel insurance in your mad last minute dash to snare a bargain getaway - the last thing you want is an expensive-to-fix medical malady to strike when you're far away from the good old NHS...

Flights

An airline will charge between five and 15 different prices for the same seat over the course of its shelf-life. Obviously advance prices will be lower, and as the flight fills up prices will increase.

However, as the departure date looms airlines are likely to drop their prices dramatically in order to fill space – some money is better than no money, after all.

There’s a legend that exactly 21 days prior to departure is the best time to book for the cheapest deals, as it’s at this point airlines will take stock of their empty seats and lower prices accordingly (and once one company does, others usually follow suit in the spirit of competition).

It’s also mid-week that airlines look at shifting remaining seats for upcoming flights, so wait until a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon before booking.

Tuesdays and Wednesdays are also usually the cheapest days to fly – avoid Fridays and Sundays if possible.

For the best deals on flights, though, sign up to airline newsletters. Great deals and last-minute bargains are usually advertised here first.

If you've booked your flight and have decided to drive beforehand, compare airport parking to see if you can leave your car somewhere cheaper than the airport's own facilities, which are usually extortionately expensive.

When it comes to cruising, prices tend to come down between 60 and 90 days before this ship sails. Final deposits are usually due around this time, as some passengers pull out unexpectedly.

Hotels

According to a report by travel website Away.com, the cheapest time to book a hotel room is the day before you arrive, for which you’ll clearly need nerves of steel, or lady luck on your side as many sought-after resorts and hotels will have much-reduced availability by then.

However, if you’re travelling off-peak, or arriving on a Tuesday or Wednesday (again, the cheapest, least-in-demand days), it’s well worth a punt.

If you simply must travel at the weekend, consider a more business-focused hotel. Their usual market will be out-of-town and they’ll be keener to shift rooms.

Whenever you book, go for the cheapest room available (that you’d still be happy staying in, mind) and in the ‘special requirements’ box ask – nicely – for an upgrade, or spin a touching yarn about a birthday or anniversary. If there’s availability, they’re likely to upgrade you.

Also, if you’re really freestyling it and planning on arriving within two or three days, call the hotel directly and see what they can offer you. Many ultra-last-minute deals aren’t synced to comparison websites.

Destinations

It’s often assumed that getting a truly spectacular last-minute deal involves shuffling up to a travel agent or airline and asking what’s going, then settling for the least offensive option (cockroach-infested 2* in Marbella, anyone?). Wrong. You can still have your last-minute pick of destinations, provided you get your timing right.

January

If you can drag yourself out of your cocoon of January misery, this is often the best month to bag yourself a last-minute deal to almost anywhere.

City breaks, hotels and ski holidays are in low demand, meaning they’re often going at great rates.

Winter sun deals are very attractive, too, as consumers generally find themselves skint at this time of year and less likely to splash out on an exotic holiday.

February

Sucker for a ski holiday? This is your time to shine.

Ski resorts tend to offer better rates for breaks at the beginning of this month, so hang fire until then before booking.

Prices will likely rocket after this though, due to Valentine’s Day and half-term school holidays.

March

It goes without saying that the Easter interlude should be avoided if possible, but outside of this period expect good deals on spring sunshine breaks in the Med – Cyprus, the Costa del Sol, etc.

The ‘season’ won’t have fully kicked off yet, so resorts will be keen to get punters in to move things along.

April

Again, the Med is a good bet for early sun-seekers, and if you’re willing to stretch the purse strings a bit farther, the Caribbean will see good deals on breaks reduced after the Easter school holidays.

May

Many big Mediterranean beach club resorts open at the beginning of May, offering cheap last-minute deals up until May 25. This year’s May bank holiday falls on the 27 and most schools will break for half term during that week – prices will skyrocket accordingly. 

June

‘Staycationers’ rejoice, now’s the time to book a great deal on breaks in the UK. The holiday season is slowly grinding into gear, and with the kids still at school this is the time to take advantage of late booking offers.

July

The best late bargains will be thinning out now, as the early birds will have their metaphorical towels all over the sun loungers.

However, a jaunt to France by ferry crossing is likely to be relatively inexpensive if booked late.

August

Most families will have their holidays done and dusted come the end of the August, so late package deals for the bank holiday week (from Monday 26) are likely to be cheaper (and quieter) than elsewhere in the month.

September

Book late for departures towards the end of the month, as the tail-end of summer holidays continues into the middle of September.

City breaks and Mediterranean holidays are usually in high-demand during the first two weeks, so wait if you can.

October

Holidays in the first couple of weeks of October are usually cheaper than the rest of the month, when schools break up for half term and prices rise. Off-the-beaten-track breaks in Europe, particularly France, Italy and Spain, offer good value booked at the last minute.

November

In the run-up to Christmas, November until mid-December will give excellent value on late-deals to almost everywhere, since holiday demand in general is at its lowest at this time of year.

Winter sun deals are particularly attractive, so think exotic, tropical destinations to banish the winter blues.

December

Again, demand for winter sun breaks is low as folk are busy getting into the Christmas spirit.

Also, consider an ultra-last-minute break to a European Christmas market town, especially during the weekend before Christmas, when people are frantically running around shopping centres instead of kicking back on holiday.