Last minute travel deals: Are they always the cheapest option?

Sarah Coles
Last minute travel deals: how to get the best
Last minute travel deals: how to get the best

Are you looking for a holiday deal? An entire industry has been built on the idea that leaving your holiday booking to the last minute will save you a fortune, because the travel companies will slash the prices in order to fill their flight, hotels and cruise ships. But while this may be true in many cases, the last minute isn't always the best time to book - and in some instances it can mean you pay way over the odds for your break.

The idea that last-minute breaks will be cheaper is based on the fact that the travel company will vary the price of the holiday quite dramatically between the moment the travel agent buys them in bulk from the hotels and airlines to the moment the plane takes off - depending on how many they have left to sell - and how long they have to shift them.

Around a month before departure, if they have lots of stock still to sell, they will be keen to clear them and will start cutting prices. As the date of the holiday approaches, the discounts get deeper, until the day before the break they are practically giving them away. Travellers know that the later they leave the booking, the cheaper the holiday will be. Your choices will be limited, but if you can be flexible you will pick up a heavily discounted break in the weeks before you travel.

There are times when this is exactly how things work, but there are seven situations in which it's not true at all.

1. If you're travelling in the school holidays

The availability of last-minute deals relies on holiday companies trying to clear unwanted holidays that haven't sold, but in the school holidays and at peak times, there's a much higher likelihood that they sell out - leaving nothing left to discount.

It means that the last-minute traveller will have far less choice, and may not be able to find something that fits the bill on the days they are available to travel. This is particularly the case with destinations that are popular with families, and at hotels that cater specifically for children, so if they want a hotel with a kids' club, they may be out of luck.

Anyone who is still keen to chance their arm at peak times will need to be as flexible as possible, and start looking six weeks before the holiday rather than three or four - to get slightly ahead of the last-minute rush for bargains.

2. If you want something specific

If you leave booking until the last minute, it is impossible to guarantee that you will be able to travel to the destination of your choice, on your favoured day - flying out at a time that suits you best, and staying in your first choice of hotel.

It means that if you have your heart set on something specific, you need to book as far in advance as possible to make sure you get what you want. If you leave booking to the last minute, you need to accept that without any wiggle room, there may simply be nothing available at a reduced price.

3. If travel agents are feeling cautious

The days of there being lots of packages left at the last minute are gone, as travel agents are more modest in their estimations and are better at assessing how many holidays they are likely to sell. It means that by the time travellers get close to the departure date, there may be very slim pickings.

There's an argument that agents will be a little more ambitious this year, as economic indicators seem to be pointing to growth. However, while wages remain stunted, there's a risk that people are not going to have enormous sums left over at the end of the month to put towards an expensive holiday. So until the UK can confidently consider itself to be in the middle of a boom period for jobs and wages, you can expect travel agents to remain fairly cautious, and not over-order from travel companies.

4. If you book flights and hotels separately

Airlines are often unwilling to offer deep discounts at the last minute, because it's not good for their brand: they're far happier including it as part of a package where the size of the flight discount is hidden. It means that while packages get cheaper, flights tend to get more expensive.

Airlines price seats in tranches. The very first seats are a real bargain, and as the departure date approaches, the price goes up through the tranches. If you book at the last minute, in many cases you can expect to pay through the nose. This is often because those people flying at the last minute don't tend to have a choice, so will pay whatever they have to in order to get there.

Kayak has crunched the numbers. It looked at all flights to European destinations and found that the average price for a return flight is around £160 a month before, whilst the day before is £250 which is 66% more expensive. To North America, meanwhile, the average price for a return flight is £600 two weeks before, whilst the day before is £700 which is 17% more expensive. And for flights to Asia, the average price for a return flight is £610 seven months before, whilst the day before is £690 which is 13% more expensive.

Of course, there are some exceptions. Some airlines will start discounting seats two weeks before you travel - especially in quiet periods if they have sold far fewer seats than they had predicted - but you cannot rely on this.

5. If you can be first instead

If you are signed up to newsletters and social media from your chosen airlines, and receive news of the exact moment your flights are going on sale, then you will never get a better offer than this - especially if you fly with a budget airline. The very first flights on the plane will be the cheapest ones sold for that flight, so snap them up as quickly as you can - every second counts at this stage.

6. If you're going to Turkey or the Middle East

Research from Skyscanner found that the best time to book a flight on average was five weeks before departure. But while some destinations offered better deals for really late bookings - such as Greece which is cheapest three weeks before your departure date, others rewarded a bit more planning - like Turkey which was cheapest 13 weeks before travel.

A separate study from Kayak discovered that the cheapest time to book for the Middle East and South America was actually five months before travel. However, the experts disagree over North America, because Skyscanner says it is cheaper 21 weeks in advance, while Kayak says it's cheapest a fortnight before your departure date.

7. If they have an early booking discount

It's worth checking what's on offer eight months or more before you plan to travel. The discount you get for booking late may not be much higher than the offers available for booking early. Some companies offer 30% or more off for early bird bookings, or will give free nights, or free children's tickets with every adult one booked. If you are booking for the summer, these kinds of offers will be around in December to encourage people to book before the new-year booking season.

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