Last-Minute: The Best Deal?

The fact is that very few of us are jetsetters. Here, with The Package, we tell you every week what's really going on in the world of travel: the stuff to buy, the offers to snap up, the most interesting events. But first, Mark Rowe tackles the myth of the last-minute deal...
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The Independent Travel

The prospect of booking a break at the last minute can resemble the experience of buying a souvenir in a Middle Eastern bazaar: is it a buyer's or a seller's market? Does the travel agent, hotel or airline need your money more than you need a holiday? And, as is so often the case in the souks of Istanbul or Tehran, you may walk away with what you think is a bargain but the nagging thought remains that you might have done better elsewhere.

But where to start as you enter the world of last-minute supply and demand? Type "last-minute bookings" into an internet search engine and around 2,600,000 results turn up. Many are "middle-men" providing special offers and deals from selected companies. But even though lastminute.com says it offers 70 per cent discounts on late travel deals, it is unclear whether such companies are always cheaper. It can be difficult to square this approach with the business model of the no-frills airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet: buy early to get the cheaper flights. If you wait until the last minute you run the real risk of paying £300 to sit next to a person who has paid £20 for their seat.

Where companies such as lastminute.com appear to provide customers with a genuine chance of a bargain is in the fact that they use a real-time reservation database, the same used by travel agents worldwide which lists actual prices and availability. As airlines and tour operators fill flights or change fares, the database reflects those changes.

"There's no single time when you are going to be guaranteed a good deal," said Frances Tuke, a spokeswoman for Abta. "If you look and book early you tend to do quite well. Later on, if things aren't filling well you can still get a cheap deal. If you're travelling at peak times, the chances are the prices will stay firm. The Ryanair model applies to many operators and even companies like lastminute.com do a lot of sales that are not what you would call 'last minute'."

Random tests can be inconclusive. Take a flight from London to Rome, flying out last Friday and back this Monday. Last Thursday evening, lastminute. com was offering a fare of £235 including taxes. This flight was via Paris and took four hours 15 minutes. The cheapest direct flight - two hours and 30 minutes - offered by lastminute.com was with an unspecified airline for £255, though by the time the booking page had been called up this had risen to £285. The cheapest direct flight with British Airways was £376. At the same time, the airline's www.ba.com website was offering a fare of £369.80.

It can be difficult to compare like with like: to get a true picture you need to know whether deals include all taxes and surcharges, and in the case of flights, whether you are flying to Oslo's main Gardemoen airport, just 20 minutes from the city, or Oslo Torp, which is 55 miles and 70 minutes away.

But remember another law of the bazaar - the seller's need to make a sale before the setting of the sun. Travel companies can change tack, offering hugely discounted deals at the last minute to fill spaces on aircraft or hotels. Better a bed filled cheaply than an empty one: if they blink first, that bargain is yours. Ms Tuke is not so sure such bargains apply to the hotel industry: "In my experience there's a single price for the hotel and you take it or leave it. But I suppose you can only try."

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