Look at the leaves. You don't need a meteorologist to tell you that summer is on the way out, and we're in the throes of an early autumn. The probable upshot of a long, cold winter thereafter may excite winter-sports enthusiasts hoping for snow at close quarters, but for most of us the outlook at home is hardly heartening on the weather front. So the prospect of escaping for some winter sun elsewhere becomes all the more alluring. And booking right now will provide more than an emotional lift.
The usual rules apply. If you don't have to travel over Christmas and New Year, then don't. Half-terms (beginning 24 October and 13 February at most schools) are also worth avoiding, particularly for short-haul trips. Even outside the main holiday times, prices are rising above last year's levels.
"After a lousy summer in Britain, bookings into early next year are already looking strong," says Joanna Edmunds, managing director of luxury operator Kuoni. And the top demand at this high end of the market? The Maldives is the perennial favourite, says Ms Edmunds, with an increasing demand (and similarly robust prices) for Thailand and for all-inclusives in the Caribbean. Bookings to Dubai and Oman are also proving strong despite the recent uprisings elsewhere in the Middle East. On the other hand, Egypt is offering exceptional value as it carefully prices its way back from the tourist downturn after events earlier in the year.
Andy Washington, the UK managing director of online agency Expedia, said that currently Sharm el Sheikh is probably at its best: "Prices are low and tourists are receiving a particularly warm welcome."
When and where
Most winter sun destinations offer optimum conditions at different periods. Here's where to be, when.
Mauritius: the heat of the southern summer hasn't yet hit hard and this very green Indian Ocean island is at its driest. Expect temperatures of about 25C and about eight hours of sunshine a day.
Cape Verde: the main rains in this tropical archipelago in the Atlantic, formerly a Portuguese colony, usually peter out by the end of October, and November sees an average nine hours of sunshine a day, air temperatures of about 28C and sea temperatures of 24C.
Miami: December is the coolest month to be in this southern city. Not that temperatures are low – you're almost guaranteed daily highs of around 27C beneath clear, blue skies.
Thailand: "midwinter" here should mean clear skies. Januaryis the driest and least humid month of the year. While 28C may be chilly by Thai standards, you'll bask blissfully.
Antigua: this is when the sunniest of the Caribbean's Leeward islands is at its driest and calmest. Expect temperatures of about 27C, soothed by gentle westerly breezes.
Maldives: while temperatures remain a fairly consistent 28C throughout the year, precipitation varies dramatically: during periods in June, July and August, you may feel marooned on a rain-lashed island. March is the peak of the dry season with clear and calm seas.
The well-established winter-sun destinations within easy reach are principally sold by the big package operators, who, thanks to economies of scale, can offer the best prices. The Canary Islands, about a four-hour flight away, remain the UK's most popular winter sun spot even though the weather can be cool and wet in November and December. But the larger islands – Tenerife, Gran Canaria and Lanzarote – offer cultural options as well as a poolside experience.
Egypt's Red Sea coast is five hours away and provides anything from world-class snorkelling and diving to the chance to ride a quad bike through the desert.
The Gambia, six hours distant, is a more nuanced destination, with excellent beaches, a captivating capital – Banjul – and some fascinating wildlife.
Some of the best deals we found this week range from self-catering to affordable luxury and all-inclusive accommodation. One week in Gran Canaria for £254 per person (based on two sharing, as are all prices listed) for a departure on 24 November is offered by Direct Holidays (0844 879 8173; directholidays.co.uk), which is a brand of Thomas Cook. The price for this trip to the island more or less in the centre of the Canary Islands archipelago includes flights from Manchester and self-catering accommodation in the Babalu holiday apartments close to the beach at Puerto Rico. Monarch (0871 423 8568; monarch.co.uk), meanwhile, was offering one week B&B at the four-star Mexicana Sharm Resort at Sharm El Sheikh for £328 per person including flights from Gatwick on 27 November.
The increase in air links and an ever-expanding range of hotels have put Dubai and the other Emirates as well as Oman and Qatar firmly on the winter-sun tourist map. Given flight times of around seven hours from the UK, the region is increasingly seen as ideal short-break territory, particularly at the top end of the market.
If you've yearned to stay at one of the really ritzy Dubai hotels but have shuddered at the expense, now is a good time to go. Upscale operator Seasons (01244 202 082; seasons.co.uk), for example, is offering some special deals for travel before Christmas: you'll get five nights at the Ritz Carlton for the cost of four, so you pay £1,250 per person (including flights from Heathrow and accommodation with breakfast). Five nights at super-luxury Atlantis Dubai is only slightly pricier at £1,350.
In Oman, Kuoni (01306 747002; kuoni.co.uk) offers five very stylish nights at Six Senses Hideaway Zighy Bay for £1,636 per person for an early December departure (costs, by contrast, rise to £4,137 per person in late December). The price includes Emirates flights from Gatwick to Dubai, with car transfers to Oman, and accommodation with breakfast in a pool villa.
The 82-villa resort opened in 2008, and is tucked away on the spectacular Musandam Peninsula in the north of the country. This detached fragment of Oman juts into the Gulf and is notable for astonishing fjords, historic forts and sense of calm. Rain is almost unheard-of, and this is an ideal place to be in the depths of early December or late January, when prices are low and the temperature benign.
There are good deals on offer in Thailand, which is heavily dependent on the British market. Hayes & Jarvis (0844 855 4488; hayesandjarvis.com), for example, is offering a £710 trip to Pattaya with accommodation at the generously comfortable Green Park Resort, for departures in early October. The price – little more than a plane ticket alone – includes Qatar Airways flights from Heathrow to Bangkok via Doha and transfers as well as 10 nights' room-only accommodation. Bear in mind, though, that Pattaya is unlikely to suit those seeking a calming escape. Lonely Planet's Thailand's Islands and Beaches guide describes it as "a testosterone-fuelled testament to holiday hedonism".
Richly diverse Malaysia, slightly further south, has seen the number of flights reduced, but its long beaches, lush interior landscapes and striking mix of cultures have perennial appeal. Travelbag (0871 703 4240; travelbag.co.uk) has a 10-night, £899 trip to the island of Penang for departures between October and March (avoiding peak times between the October half-term and 10 December to 7 January, 2012). The cost includes flights from Heathrow via Kuala Lumpur and accommodation at the beachside Golden Sands Resort by Shangri-La, a sleek four-star which is glorying in a recent revamp.
To get somewhat off the beaten track, head to the Philippines, which boasts some of the best beaches in the world and whose 7,000 islands are becoming more accessible thanks to improvements in internal transport.
Until 6 November, Trailfinders (0845 050 5892; trailfinders.com) is offering a one-week, £949, trip to the Boracay Regency Beach Resort set by powder-white sands at much-lauded Boracay island about 200 miles south of the capital. The cost covers Cathay Pacific flights from Heathrow to Manila via Hong Kong and onward air transport as well as accommodation with breakfast.
Expedia reports that the US has been proving an especially strong market this year. "The exchange rate has helped, coupled with some very good deals," said the online travel company's spokesman Andy Washington. Expedia claims to have sold 10 per cent more seats to California for November 2011 than it did for the same month last year.
For American winter sun head to Las Vegas or Phoenix, which claim golden status as two of the sunniest places on the planet. Or follow the "snowbirds" from the northern US states to Miami which, over the next few months, offers dazzingly blue skies and all-day sun at pleasant temperatures of around 27C.
Expedia (0330 123 1235; expedia.co.uk) can arrange a week at the luxury Angler's Boutique Resort near Ocean Drive at South Beach from £982 per person based on departures in March and including flights from Heathrow.
Beyond the beach scene, March is particularly lively, with the Miami International Film Festival running 2-11 March and Miami Beach Fashion Week 21-24 March.
Meanwhile, take a bow San Diego. Offering surfing, whale-watching, extensive retail therapy and much more, the Californian city has been restored to the BA route network. For sunshine and low humidity the optimum time to visit is between November and March.
Even though the British Airways Holidays (0844 493 0758; ba.com) autumn sale has now ended, prices have nudged up only slightly: a five-night holiday at the lush Mission Valley Resort costs only £541 per person for a 10 November departure, including flights as well as room-only accommodation; there are other departure dates in November and early December.
Spending Christmas or New Year in the sun is top of most people's wish list – which is why costs to the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean soar at this time. Even so, some options are considerably cheaper than others. At the moment there is still availability, so book soon.
Virgin Holidays (0844 573 0088; virginholidays.co.uk) offers a week's break in Antigua leaving Gatwick on Virgin Atlantic on 21 December and staying at waterside Halcyon Cove for £1,618 per person, on a room-only basis.
Alternatively, head to Havana on the same day with Virgin Holidays (again on Virgin Atlantic from Gatwick) and you'll pay £1,583 per person for a week-long stay (with breakfast included) at the iconic Hotel Nacional de Cuba. The price includes premium economy outbound (but the cheap seats home).
Over in the Indian Ocean, Kuoni (01306 747008; kuoni.co.uk) has an attractive offer for Christmas in the Maldives from £2,042 per person for one week at the five-star Kurumba. This was the first of the archipelago's private island resorts, and is still one of the finest. The price includes accommodation with breakfast, flights from Heathrow and transfers.
Sri Lanka, further east in the Indian Ocean, presents good value at the moment. Christmas here, arranged through Kuoni, costs £1,708 per person for eight all-inclusive nights at Club Bentota on the south west coast. The price includes SriLankan Airlines flights from Heathrow and is valid for departures before 22 December.
Action and adventure
Should the prospect of days lazing on the beach sound too indolent, East Africa and Central America present sunshine along with some good, if costly, "surf and turf" options – land-based activity combined with time beside the sea.
Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk), for instance, suggests a nine-night, tailor-made venture in Belize from £2,041 per person. Based at the lush Mountain Pine Ridge forest reserve and then on the island of Ambergris Caye, you hike, explore Mayan ruins, take mountain bike rides, dive, and go cave canoeing and snorkelling.
The price is valid from October to March 2012, with higher rates during the peak festive season. It includes Continental Airlines flights from Heathrow via Houston, all transfers, mid-range accommodation, most activities and some meals.
For more natural wonders make for Tanzania, where you can enjoy watching lion, giraffe, zebra, hippo and more in the Selous Game Reserve. Then hop on a propeller plane which will take you directly to the white-sand beaches and turquoise waters of Zanzibar.
Conditions are usually near-perfect between about November and February. Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; expertafrica.com) offers a four-night safari at Lake Manze Camp followed by five nights at castaway-stylish Mchanga Beach Lodge for £2,502 including non-stop BA flights from Heathrow to Dar es Salaam, transfers, safari trips, accommodation and all meals in the Selous Game Reserve.
This tailor-made package is available for departures between 1 November to 15 December, and again between 10 January and 29 February, excluding the peak Christmas period.Reuse content