The would-be traveller from Britain could be forgiven for looking quizzically at any holiday package marketed as a "best deal" in the present climate. The pound has been recording record daily lows against the euro, close to parity with the continent's dominant currency, and sterling has fallen from a high of almost $2 to around $1.50 to the pound in barely three months.
And yet "special offers" and "best deals" abound. Recently, Long Travel, a specialist for holidays to southern Italy, was promoting 10 per cent discounts on holidays in the Lazio countryside – as long as clients booked by March.
Long Travel is not alone in warning potential customers that mid-term or last-minute deals are about to become a thing of the past. The message is clear: book early or be prepared to pay the full price.
"Historically, by early June and July there was quite a lot of stock left and that led to last-minute bargains," said a spokeswoman for the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta). "But the package travel market is dominated by large companies which are PLCs, so there's been a shift from tight margins to a demand from investors for more profits. If you have a lot of stock left then that isn't good business sense."
Abta reports promotions in the ski industry – even within the euro zone – the cruise industry and camping and caravanning. Destinations outside the eurozone that still offer a safe haven for the pound include Egypt, Turkey and, after its own banking and currency collapse, Iceland. "But even the US is not quite as bad as people might think when they look at the exchange rate – the cost of living in the US is much cheaper than the UK," said the spokeswoman.
One place where it will be hard to secure deals that are not dictated by the tour operators is the UK market. Last summer was the fifth wettest on record – and 2007 was the second wettest – a back-to-back deluge that left domestic operators concerned that those who had elected to holiday in the UK would be so exasperated they would head overseas this year.
But the weak pound may have come to the rescue of British tourism. "The UK market looks very good because of the relative strength of the euro and dollar," said the Abta spokeswoman. "The currency issue is bound to have an impact, even if everybody was totally cheesed off by the weather. People will wait to see if their jobs are secure for the coming year."
There are also some good deals on ethical or more environmentally responsible holidays, as operators seek to address the perception that such trips can be more expensive than mainstream ones.
"It really is possible to take a good-value responsible holiday," said Krissy Roe, spokeswoman for responsibletravel.com. "The perception that responsible holidays are more expensive is a myth. It doesn't cost any more to eat in local restaurants, shop at local markets, or stay in locally run accommodation. In most cases, these things cost less."
Small group adventure holidays are likely to remain good value, according to Roe, particularly in countries with the euro. "Travelling on a small organised trip will now work out much cheaper in many cases than heading off independently, because prices for these would have been set prior to the pound's drop in value."
The safari market, which has been hit hard by the strengthening dollar, will also offer bargains – as long as customers are quick off the mark, according to Chris McIntrye of Expert Africa. "If clients talk to us and can be flexible with their plans then it will be possible to moderate the increases and even secure them a bargain."
Mr McIntrye reports that many lodge operators are offering free nights. "Some are at really top-end places and they are offering seven nights for the price of six and so on," he said. Early booking may also secure low-season rates for high-season holidays, such as Botswana in June, he says, although he warns customers to check that their tour operator will not apply currency surcharges to compensate for their losses from a weak pound.
Australia's tourism authorities are also offering initiatives to entice visitors – and the Australian dollar is one currency where the pound still, more or less, holds its own. Last October saw a two per cent decline, year on year, in the number of visitors to the country, amid signs that the economic crisis was making travellers hesitate. "Operators have been throwing in free nights for some months now," said Rod Harrex, general manager inEurope for Tourism Australia. "But they're also offering deals with touring options too."
Mr Harrex points to a range of offers among airlines that link the UK to Australia, including cut-price deals for two people travelling together, and increasing hotel upgrades on stopovers. "Airlines are getting very creative," he said. "They know shoppers are trained to look for a bargain."
The top 10 deals in Europe
Irish Ferries Holidays (08705 171717; irishferries.com) is knocking 10 per cent off hotel and self-catering breaks booked by 28 February. Between 18 July and 23 August, a family of four can spend seven nights in a self-catering Courtyard Lodge, in the grounds of the five-star Sheraton Fota Island Hotel & Spa, Co Cork, for just £934, including car ferry.
A family of four can also gain a free child place when sharing a one-bedroom holiday home at Les Ormes Lodges, St Brelade, Jersey, for seven nights. Price £1,435 including car ferry, or £1,341 with Gatwick flights, for travel on 26 July. Book through Channel Islands Direct (08444 937 888; channelislandsdirect.co.uk) by 28 February.
Take to the water with Le Boat (0844 463 3577; leboat.co.uk), which is offering £100 off and a £25 Naked Wines voucher for boating holidays booked in January. Self-drive cruisers sleep 2-12 and there are 200 routes throughout Europe.
Discover the Dalmatian Islands, Croatia, aboard a traditional motor cruiser on an active tour with Explore (0844 499 0901; explore.co.uk). Book on a first-come-first-served basis to save £106 on the usual price of £1,155 per person, for departures between 2 and 16 August, including seven nights' b&b, based on two sharing, Gatwick flights, transfers, seven meals, guides and activities. Minimum age six years.
Francophiles can save 10 to 20 per cent on 50 of the properties in the Brittany Travel portfolio (0845 230 1380; www.brittany.co.uk ) when booked by 31 January. Acacias, a traditional five-bedroom villa near the resort of Benodet, costs £668-£692 for the week commencing 15 August, saving up to £173.
The Adventure Company (0845 609 0890; www.adventurecompany.co.uk) is offering half-price child places on nine tours when booked on a land-only basis before 24 April (travel to be completed by 30 September). The eight-day 'Around the Bay of Naples' features visits to Vesuvius and Pompeii and pizza-making. Adults pay from £899, children half-price from £439.50, with school-holiday departures, on a b&b basis with three dinners.
Book by 31 January to get 20 per cent off a week in a two-bedroom apartment at Encosta do Lago in Quinta do Lago, Portugal, through Select Resorts (01202 786490; www.selectresorts.co.uk). Arrivals from 1 June to 5 September cost £1,040, saving £260, accommodation only.
Seasons in Style (01244 202 000; seasonsinstyle.com) offers discounts of up to £205 per person on breaks at the Abama Golf & Spa Resort, Tenerife. Book seven nights by 30 April and pay for six, costing £1,015 per person, with b&b in a double room, London flights and transfers. Depart 1 May-12 July and 31 August-30 September.
Solo travellers can get 14 nights for the price of seven when they book a holiday to Oludeniz, Turkey, with Friendship Travel (0871 200 2035; friendshiptravel.com) before 31 January. For arrivals on 11 May, 14 nights' full board, sole occupancy in a twin, with Gatwick flights, costs £700 including £95 payable to the hotel for the second week.
Olympic Holidays (0844 576 2386; olympicholidays.com) is offering free half-board on stays between 1 May and 31 October at the Intercontinental Aphrodite Hills Resort, Cyprus, when booked by 31 March. Save £398 per person, taking the price of seven nights' half-board in a twin share to £1,035 per person, including flights departing Gatwick on 11 July.