Kate Simon: Winter's here. Time to book a summer holiday

Travel View

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The Independent Travel

Where are you going on your holiday next summer? What do you mean, you haven't even thought about it? You'd better get a wriggle on, the summer holiday sales are just around the corner.

The way we travel may have been revolutionised over the past 20 years, with the advent of the internet and no-frills airlines. We've become deft at putting together our holidays ourselves, matching flights to accommodation and other services. Yet many of us still prefer to buy a package, and we're happy to put our money where our mouth is during the prime booking period of January and February.

According to the Civil Aviation Authority, 16.5m of us took a foreign package holiday for the period covering winter 2010 and summer 2011 – 44 per cent of total air holidays. The downturn and the ash cloud is encouraging a return to buying packages, with more of us wanting the extra level of protection that they offer through Atol bonding if something goes wrong.

And many packages are snapped up with the turkey sandwiches from Boxing Day onwards. Gillian Edwards, a spokesperson for the travel industry body Abta, says: "Traditionally, right after Christmas, people look to book holidays for the coming summer – we want something to look forward to. There's a push from the travel companies, too. They offer a lot of deals at this time of year."

They certainly do. Early bookings are an intravenous drip for the travel industry, which wants bums on seats and money in the bank as soon as possible. In fact, I suspect that's the clincher in terms of how our habit of booking so early has been formed. The travails of Thomas Cook in the past week – Europe's second-largest tour operator – shows just how vulnerable the tourism industry is to economic downturns and civil strife.

The deals on offer at this time of the year are certainly tempting, with discounts of up to 40 per cent on brochure prices, and persuasive extras such as free child places. Yet, 2011 took a nasty turn for the travel industry because many of us decided to wait for a late deal.

Ms Edwards is hedging her bets about whether there will be a repeat of this brinkmanship in 2012. "People are always on the look-out for good deals and there's financial pressure on families at the moment. But, at the same time, we like to book in advance and know when and where we are going so we can plan."

When's best to book is down to individual circumstances. If you know where, when, and how you want to go on your holiday, early booking will provide the best chance of securing the holiday you really want. If you book late, you might get a bargain, but you will have to choose from where there are still vacancies.

And, if you put together your own flights and accommodation, beware; even if you've discovered a cheap place to stay, you risk paying through the nose for the flights because prices increase the closer you get to departure.

One good tip for late bookers is to look for bargains in July, just before the schools break up, when the travel companies are desperate to sell off their stock. Hold your nerve and book then and you could save more than half the price shown in the brochure.

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