If you haven't booked for 1998, you're already too late

Why buy a home in Tuscany, condemning your descendents to Italian holidays in perpetuity?
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The Independent Travel
If you are still thinking of booking a package summer holiday this year I am sorry to tell you that you are behind the times. The only season anybody in the tourist industry is thinking about now is next winter.

Odd though this may seem to the uninitiated, the big tour operators have just launched their brochures for winter 97/98. Yes that's right: the far-sighted people of this world are already busy booking for next Christmas and the early part of next year.

The seasonal launches of brochures are a curious ritual, with tour operators torn between the understandable desire to know what their rivals are doing first, and the even more understandable desire to sell a ton of holidays before anyone else does. What this leads to is ever earlier launches.

I am told by reliable sources that the main market for early bookings includes large groups - people who want to book 10 or 20 places together - and the elderly, many of whom cheerfully go to the same resort every year anyway.

This year in fact it transpires that large numbers of the newly-issued brochures have been flown down to Benidorm by the sales wing of Thomsons, in time for current winter holiday makers to sign up again for the same holiday next year, while they are still in their swimming costumes.

This strikes me as odd. I'm not at all sure that sunburned people with sand between their toes can be relied on to make rational judgements as to where they want to be one year in advance. I, for one, certainly wouldn't be. Whenever I'm in a hot place I ache to go to a cold place. When I'm in a jungle I ache to be in a desert (and vice versa). If this variety- is-the-spice-of-life approach applied generally, perhaps we could expect to see a sudden flood of Scotland bookings from former Benidorm regulars.

No doubt there is sense in booking early. Holidays over the frenetic Christmas period in particular need to be booked now, if you want to have anything at all affordable. And given that late-availability bargains will not be particularly plentiful this summer, shopping around early can mean picking up "fantastic discounts", in other words incentives to commit yourself. Potential customers are being offered "Savings of up to pounds 50 per person" (First Choice Holidays); "Up to 25 per cent off all winter holidays" (Thomas Cook); "Winter free child places" (Thomsons).

And, by the way, the bargains don't stop there. "Once all the free child places have been snapped up," declare Thomsons, "further highly competitive child prices are available starting at just pounds 1 for a week's self-catering in Majorca."

Which all sounds remarkable, but I wonder how early a brochure launch can get. This year's summer brochures were already available from July last year, and don't be surprised if the launch for 1998 comes a month earlier still. Considering the expected boom in celebratory travelling expected for the year 2000, brochures for the package holidays of an entire millenium should be hitting the travel agents' shelves before long.

The logical extension of early booking, ultimately, is to book all the holidays for the rest of your life in one fell swoop at the age of 30. In fact many people do this already by buying a timeshare option.

According to RCI, the timeshare exchange organisation, timeshare ownership jumped from about 5,000 UK residents in 1976 to nearly a million in 1996. The lesson in this seems to be that, for at least one holiday a year, people want to have somewhere comforting and secure to go to, with no possibility of anything remotely surprising happening to them or their budget.

Going further are those who buy holiday homes in Tuscany, condemning themselves - and their children and grandchildren - to Italian holidays in perpetuity.

I'm not pretending I don't know about this kind of thing. I often sneak into MacDonalds in foreign cities, which is exactly the same thing. I know what it is going to cost, I know what's on the menu, I know how crunchy the chips are going to be. I even know how long it will take to eat. That's why I do it.

But I doubt whether I'll manage to book a holiday in time for next Christmas.