Oh no! It's less than four weeks to Christmas, and you've completely forgotten to book an exotic holiday! Don't panic, says David Orkin – with a little inside knowledge you can still look forward to enjoying your turkey on the beach
Why is short-notice flight availability a problem?

Most of the time it isn't, but Christmas and New Year are the most popular times for long-haul travel. Flights from Britain to North America, Africa, Asia and Australasia are very busy from mid-December to mid-January. And it's even worse coming back. While many of those going away for the festive season will depart any time from mid-December to Christmas Eve, almost everyone wants to come back around the first weekend in January, in time for work the following Monday.

Why is short-notice flight availability a problem?

Most of the time it isn't, but Christmas and New Year are the most popular times for long-haul travel. Flights from Britain to North America, Africa, Asia and Australasia are very busy from mid-December to mid-January. And it's even worse coming back. While many of those going away for the festive season will depart any time from mid-December to Christmas Eve, almost everyone wants to come back around the first weekend in January, in time for work the following Monday.

But I thought airlines were suffering and planes were almost empty

There have been dramatic changes in the airline industry since September 11. Many airlines offer fewer flights to fewer places, and the result is a lot less capacity. Though some airlines have recently begun slowly to increase their capacity, they have been caught a bit unawares by the surge in desire to travel over the Christmas holidays.

Should I try to book direct with the airline?

Not if your priority is the lowest fare. Two exceptions: the rare case when the airline is offering an internet special unobtainable elsewhere, or when you are truly desperate – airlines cannot magic up seats out of nowhere, but their staff may be more au fait with their own flights and fares.

Usually, though, by cutting in the middle man, in the form of a specialist discount agent, you are likely to save cash – and benefit from the fact that they can search for space on perhaps a dozen airlines for your destination. But don't expect last-minute bargains at this time of year.

I've seen lots of adverts for cheap long-haul flights

Yes, but if you're hoping to fly at peak times take it with a pinch of salt – unless the advert specifically says "we have seats for Christmas and New Year", which is most unlikely. Advertising guidelines say an advertised fare must be available for some departures within the next six weeks, unless specific dates are shown (which may be in very small print). So don't expect advertised fares to be for departures over the Christmas holiday period. Even if, theoretically, a low fare does apply, it is most unlikely there will be seats available.

What about flights to less Popular destinations?

It may be easier to find availability to the less obvious holiday destinations, such as the Philippines or Pakistan, though bear in mind that many ethnic groups may go home at Christmas. Unless the flights to these destinations are direct (or perhaps via a European city) chances are that availability will still be scarce. Bottlenecks form: travellers from the UK to dozens of destinations in South-East Asia, the Far East and Australasia on (say) Singapore Airlines must all fly to Singapore to get anywhere else. Consequently the London or Manchester to Singapore flights are very busy. And even though there may be empty seats on onward flights, that's academic if you can't get to Singapore in the first place.

Don't some agents buy up lots of seats for flights over christmas?

Some agencies may have organised allocations of blocks of seats for the holiday period but will by now have had to supply the airlines in question with names of passengers or release unsold seats back into the system. Over the years some agencies have tried different tricks to ensure that they have seats to sell to desperate customers willing to pay over the odds to travel at busy times: for example some used to reserve seats for fictional passengers and then either name-change these or cancel the seats and try to immediately rebook them in the name of the real passengers. Airline technology and tighter ticketing deadlines have pretty much put an end to these practices.

What about standby fares?

Cheap long-haul standby fares are a thing of the past. Fares do not reduce as the departure date approaches – in fact the opposite is more often true. Airlines allocate a certain number of seats to be sold at each different fare price: the cheapest are the first to go, so if you delay at busy times you are likely to have to pay more to get on the same flight.

Aren't there waiting lists?

Yes, but the most popular flights might already have dozens of people on waiting lists. If you want to try this avenue this is one occasion when you're better off contacting the airlines directly as their reservations staff can see how busy flights are much better than an agent can. Agents rarely like putting you on a waitlist, particularly if they can't find a confirmed back-up (a contingency flight that you will catch if your first choice does not come up). They consider it creates extra work for little (if any) extra reward.

They may suggest that you contact the airline once you're away if you want to change your onward or return dates. Stay in contact with the airline if you do go on a waitlist – if the waitlisted flight becomes available some airlines will see you have an existing booking on another flight and erase your waitlisted (now confirmed) reservation, putting you back to square one.

I guess things only get worse as christmas approaches

Actually, no. The pattern every year is that by mid-November there are virtually no bargain seats to be found to long-haul destinations. The situation usually stays the same way until early December, when a few seats start to pop up. These may appear as a result of cancellations, release of unwanted group seats, or airlines cancelling unticketed reservations.

What are the alternatives?

Package holidays may have availability on some flights even when the airline computer shows it to be full. Many tour operators either charter their own flights or block-book seats on scheduled flights to fit the brochure departure dates.

So where do I go from here?

Be flexible: define your parameters and stretch them as far as possible. Decide the maximum you are prepared to spend. Be prepared to be inconvenienced – to change planes (perhaps more than once) rather than flying direct, or to break your journey in one or both directions.

Which is the best agency to call?

A good one – for which you may need some luck, or recommendations from fellow travellers. I don't find it terribly inspiring when a travel agent's initial response is to laugh and say everything's full. With enough application, seats can almost always be found: it's a question of which seats and how much they'll cost.

Good agents learn to differentiate between customers who are thinking "I'll go if I can find something for £500", and "I have to go so what's the best you can do?". Who actually answers your initial phone call can still be pot luck even at the most professional specialist agency. If you're lucky, creative, experienced agents are your best bet: rather than being "order takers", they are adept and imaginative at combining fares and airlines (instead of just trotting out standard returns). They look beyond the first screen of their airline computer availability systems. They should think laterally: if your chosen destination is not available they should try somewhere nearby and then arrange connections on from there.

If they can get you to or from a hub in South-East Asia they will know that there are more possibilities to get from there to your destination. Staff in better agencies share availability information with each other: if seams of seats are found they tell their colleagues. Some airlines contact their top agents with lists of flights on which seats are available; however by the time the agency receives the information and distributes it to staff, it will be far from accurate.

Though most of the time agents use only consolidated (sometimes called "nett") fares, a better source of availability may be "published fares", i.e. the higher prices at which the airline sells direct. These are sometimes in a segment of economy class where seats are still available.

The best agent, though, will be a creative individual. Though the odd seat or two on normal discounted fares may pop up in the coming weeks, there is more likelihood that you'll be offered more expensive economy seats, business class (or premium economy on those airlines that offer it) or mixed classes (e.g. business class out, economy back). Agents may use two one-way fares on different airlines to create a return. Fares that are offered by airline alliances – notably oneworld and Star – may be of use because they allow the mixing and matching of flights operated by a number of alliance-member airlines. There may be more chance of finding seats on flights departing on the festive days: Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, and 31 December or New Year's Day.

Be warned that at this time of year, agents who would normally hold options for a few days (or more) may only hold an option for a few hours, if at all; this may be partly their own practice or because airlines are much stricter with ticketing deadlines at this busy time of year.

Any other bad news?

Some companies will levy extra charges for posting tickets for last-minute bookings. When you get there, hotels in popular destinations may be full up. You may need to have to obtain visas and organise immunisations in a hurry. You'll also need funds to pay for everything at once.

Any bright ideas?

Get a West African charter to the Gambia through Gambia Experience (023 8073 0888, www.gambia.co.uk); find a seat to Canada through the specialist Globespan (0870 556 1522, www.globespan.com). For holidays to destinations including Mexico, the Seychelles and Kenya, try Kuoni (01306 747008, www.kuoni.co.uk). Virgin Holidays (0871 222 1900, www.virgin.com/holidays) usually has good availability for holidays to destinations served by Virgin Atlantic such as the USA, the Caribbean and Hong Kong. And, if all else fails, look at www.lastminute.com

What is available now?

Here's a sample of direct flights that were still available on Thursday this week, departing on December 18 and returning on 3 January: economy class to New York on Continental (0800 776464, www.continental.com) for £631; economy to Hong Kong with Virgin Atlantic (01293 450150, www.virgin-atlantic.com), £1,275; business class to Singapore with British Airways (0845 7733377, www.britishairways.com), £3,821; and business class to Sydney on BA for £5,070.