Your life-saving holiday guide

There's never been a better time to take a last-minute break, says Simon Calder. Here, the travel team pick out the best late deals

The end of the Med as we know it? If you believe some of the headlines, the British love affair with Marbella, Mallorca and all sunloungers to Mykonos is over. Certainly, it is a miserable summer to be a supplier of mainstream package holidays. And customers who dutifully booked six months or more ago are likely to be feeling miffed about possibly paying over the odds. On the eve of the peak summer season, millions of package holidays remain unsold. When Frances Tuke, the well-respected spokeswoman for the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) talks of "a tough trading market at the moment", a fair translation is "an unholy mess".

The end of the Med as we know it? If you believe some of the headlines, the British love affair with Marbella, Mallorca and all sunloungers to Mykonos is over. Certainly, it is a miserable summer to be a supplier of mainstream package holidays. And customers who dutifully booked six months or more ago are likely to be feeling miffed about possibly paying over the odds. On the eve of the peak summer season, millions of package holidays remain unsold. When Frances Tuke, the well-respected spokeswoman for the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) talks of "a tough trading market at the moment", a fair translation is "an unholy mess".

Britain's tour operators committed 18 months ago to flight seats and hotel beds for this summer. They did so in the reasonable expectation that they would be able to sell the vast majority of the holidays at a healthy profit. Most summers, parents of school-age children complain about the inflated prices charged outside term-time. But the whole house of cards that comprises the mainstream travel industry depends on high earnings in the school holidays to underwrite losses sustained during the rest of the year.

You will look in vain this year for signs of profiteering at the big five tour operators to the Mediterranean: Thomson, MyTravel, First Choice, Thomas Cook and Cosmos. Their core business is sending Brits to Spain, the favourite destination for "fly and flop" beach holidays. One in five of their anticipated customers has simply failed to show up. Portugal, too, has experienced a downturn of 20 per cent.

In a normal summer, there is a kind of see-saw effect: a fall in bookings to the Iberian peninsula is usually offset by a rise in sales to the eastern Mediterranean. This should be the best summer yet for the Greek travel industry, with numbers swelled by visitors to the Olympics. But Greece is suffering an 18 per cent drop in bookings. Even Italy has seen a decline among its relatively small but loyal clientele.

For tour operators, the consequences are unpalatable. Aircraft seats and hotel beds are alarmingly perishable. Selling them at almost any price is preferable to letting them go empty. But besides the financial pain of selling a £400 holiday for £250, price-cutting sends out an unwelcome message to anyone looking ahead to next year: you would be daft to book early, since the real bargains evidently come to those who wait. This inference may be flawed, according to Terry Williamson, managing director of Cosmos: "There are a number of hotels in all destinations which are sold out for high season - so if you wanted specific properties, on specific dates, with a specific offer such as 'free kids' you have got a better deal by booking early."

The travel industry's portfolio of excuses to explain poor sales to shareholders is already in place. The euro is too strong; summer 2003 was so sunny in Britain that people are waiting to choose between Bognor and Benidorm; the Euro 2004 football tournament hit sales; prospective visitors to Greece are fretting about security and high prices.

The reasons for the shift away from mainstream packages go much deeper. As travellers, we have become promiscuous about how we travel, where we go and how we buy. Empowered by the internet, we can convince ourselves that we are all travel agents now - able to tailor a combination of flight seats, beds and car rental for almost any destination, independently of the middlemen. The High Street travel agent has ceased to be the gatekeeper to the secret world of the travel industry, and the pre-packaged offerings of the tour operators are no longer the only affordable options.

Despondency in the travel industry usually spells delight among travellers, at least in the short term. The last truly awful/wonderful summer was 1995, when peak-season holidays to the Greek islands cost as little as £99. The following summer, capacity fell and prices rose sharply. But in those days easyJet was an infant airline flying only between England and Scotland. Now, the no-frills airlines fly thousands of travellers to Spain every day - and their traditional rivals are piling on the capacity, too. This summer, BA flies seven time a day from London to Malaga. Some reports suggest that Spain has fallen out of favour among the British; but we are actually going in greater numbers than ever, taking advantage of cheap deals on airlines such as Bmibaby, FlyBE and Jet2. Six per cent more passengers used Spanish airports last month compared with June 2003, with much of the growth arising from low-cost flights from Britain.

The main reason everything has gone so horribly wrong/splendidly right is precisely because of those flights. Messrs BA, easyJet, Ryanair and the rest have transformed lifestyles in a manner that strikes at the heart of the traditional package holiday. Forget annual vacation that the travel industry dictates must be a fixed fortnight: thanks to the easy availability of cheap flights, the rational solution is to buy a place in the Spanish sun, or in the hills of south-west France. This solves the holiday problem not just for the buyer but for his or her friends and family, too. They no longer need package holidays - merely a cheap flight. The summer stars for the travel industry are Bulgaria (up 72 per cent), Croatia (100 per cent) and the US (20 per cent). These disparate destinations share two things in common: no low-cost airline links from the UK, and few British property owners.

Very late in the day, the travel industry has woken up to this profound shift in attitudes and behaviour. Companies such as Cosmos are allowing flexibility in the length of a package holiday, rather than insisting on strict multiples of one week. The market leaders, Thomson and MyTravel, have launched their own in-house no-frills airlines, but both are tiny compared with easyJet and Ryanair.

After a summer as dismal as a half-built hotel, the tour operators will cut back drastically next summer. Indeed, come January, the usual warning that people who book late will end up paying more for less will contain a grain of truth. But meanwhile, get packing for the best summer yet.

ACTIVITY HOLIDAYS

DESTINATION: Alpi Apuane, Tuscany.

ACTIVITIES: Two-week hiking holiday, based at a converted farmhouse in the Apennines.

THE DEAL: From 1 to 15 August, a "moderate/strenuous" walking holiday at £650, including accommodation and most meals but not flights; the cheapest deals are on Ryanair from Stansted to Pisa, for £224.

OUR VIEW: Get fit and well fed in a fabulous region of Italy.

CONTACT: Exodus (020-8675 5550; www.exodus.co.uk).

DESTINATION: Haute Provence, France.

ACTIVITIES: Eight-day guided hiking holiday following a trail from St-André-les-Alpes to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie.

THE DEAL: For the week 29 August-5 September, £525 including Heathrow-Nice flight, hotels with breakfast, two dinners and five lunches.

OUR VIEW: An excellent price for a long walk through France's unspoilt south.

CONTACT: Explore Worldwide (01252 760 000; www.exploreworldwide.co.uk).

DESTINATION: The French Alps. Alpe d'Huez Club Active, Vallée Blanche.

ACTIVITIES: Paragliding, rafting, canyoning, tennis, horse-riding, mountain-biking.

THE DEAL: Available for the week of 4-10 August, a multi-activity holiday at £547 per person. Includes Gatwick-Geneva flights, transfers, B&B, packed lunches and evening meals with wine.

OUR VIEW: The Alps can be just as thrilling, and much cheaper, without a blanket of snow.

CONTACT: Crystal Holidays (0870 888 0266; www.crystalholidays.co.uk).

DESTINATION: Poitou Charentes, France.

ACTIVITIES: Seven-day "Fruits of the Forest" walking holiday based at a 17th-century watermill, now an atmospheric auberge.

THE DEAL: For departures until 22 August, the price of £776 per person includes full board and flights from Heathrow to Paris plus onward travel by rail or hire car.

OUR VIEW: The terrain is unchallenging, but this region boasts plenty of chateaux, churches and even a crooked Roman Road.

CONTACT: Headwater (01606 720 033, www.headwater.com).

DESTINATION: Turkey. Bitez on the Bodrum Peninsula

ACTIVITIES: windsurfing, biking, sailing plus vibrant nightlife.

THE DEAL: For the week 23-29 August, a Neilson holiday at £554 per person including flights from Gatwick or Manchester to Bodrum (above); transfers; B&B accommodation at the Yali Han hotel, and surf and cycle activities and tuition.

OUR VIEW: A good brochure price; as a rule Neilson avoids discounting, and if it does discount will pass the saving on to clients who bought the same holiday earlier in the season.

CONTACT: Neilson (0870 333 3356; www.neilson.co.uk).

THE MEDITERRANEAN

DESTINATION: Mallorca

RESORT: Cala Vinas

FLIGHT: from Norwich to Palma on 27 July, with daytime flights in both directions.

THE DEAL: £389 for 14 nights' self-catering at the three-star Barcelo Cala Vinas, close to the beach, a couple of miles from the larger resort of Magaluf.

OUR VIEW: Excellent deal if the main purpose of your holiday is to lie in the sun and take an occasional dip in the pool, with some robust nightlife to follow.

CONTACT: Sunstart (0870 850 3928; www.firstchoice.co.uk).

DESTINATION: Greece

RESORT: Tsilivi on the Ionian island of Zante

FLIGHT: from Nottingham (East Midlands) at 1am on 25 July, returning 9am on 1 August.

THE DEAL: £376 for seven nights' self-catering accommodation at the three-star Tsivili Admirals. Inflight meals and transfers are included in this price; you could save £30 by declining them.

OUR VIEW: Zante is not exactly an idyllic Greek island, but this good-value package could appeal to families.

Contact: Thomas Cook (0870 750 5711; www.thomascook.com)

DESTINATION: Costa Blanca

RESORT: allocated on arrival

FLIGHT: from Bristol to Alicante on 24 July; daytime flight.

THE DEAL: £343 for a week's self-catering accommodation, at least two-star, somewhere on the Costa Blanca. Experience suggests this is almost certain to be Benidorm.

OUR VIEW: On allocated-on-arrival holidays, you could get lucky: some people end up in four-star accommodation.

CONTACT: Airtours (0870 238 7777; www.uk.mytravel.com).

DESTINATION: Northern Cyprus

RESORT: Kyrenia

FLIGHT: on 30 July from Stansted to Ercan at 10.40am; the return flight leaves at 5.40am. The flights touches down in Izmir en route.

THE DEAL: £549 for 14 nights' half-board accommodation in a deluxe bungalow at the four-star Acapulco Beach Club in Kyrenia.

OUR VIEW: If you are prepared to put up with a long flight this is an excellent deal. The resort is on one of the best beaches in the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The beautiful port of Kyrenia, five miles away, is easy to reach by bus.

CONTACT: Anatolian Sky (08708 504040; www.anatolian-sky.com).

DESTINATION: Turkey

RESORT: Dalyan

FLIGHT: from Gatwick on 30 August; Manchester flights cost £25 more.

THE DEAL: £540 for 14 nights' bed and breakfast at the three/four-star Hotel Aydos. Dalyan is on the now-silted-up river, but a fine sandy beach is a few miles away.

OUR VIEW: If you can take your summer holiday as late as this, this deal - two weeks for the price of one - is worth considering, but bear in mind there will be more specials on offer towards the end of August.

CONTACT: Simply Travel (020-8541 2204; www.simplytravel.co.uk).

DESTINATION: Sicily

RESORT: Cefalu

FLIGHT: daytime Monarch charter from Manchester to Catania on 28 August.

THE DEAL: £329 for a week's half board at a hotel to be allocated on arrival in Cefalu.

OUR VIEW: Cefalu, on Sicily's north coast, is well placed for exploring Italy's largest island - including Palermo, Mount Etna and the lovely hilltop town of Taormina (above).

CONTACT: lastminute.com (0871 222 5969)

LONG HAUL

DESTINATION: Florida

RESORT: Lake Buena Vista

FLIGHT: from Manchester to Sanford, north of Orlando, at 9.40am on Thursday 29 July, returning at 4.45am on Friday 6 August.

THE DEAL: £668 for seven nights' room-only accommodation, based on four sharing, at the Springhill Suites at Lake Buena Vista; this is close to the Disney complex, which you can reach by shuttle. Car hire: £154 extra.

OUR VIEW: If you think you can stand the intense summer heat, grab it: availability to Florida is severely limited as British travellers capitalise on the weak dollar. And this is as good a base as any for visiting theme parks.

CONTACT: Thomson Holidays (0870 165 0079; www.thomson-holidays.com).

DESTINATION: Egypt

RESORT: Sharm El Sheikh

FLIGHT: on 29 July from Gatwick (or, for an extra £20, Manchester) on daytime flights direct to Sharm El Sheikh

THE DEAL: £424 for seven nights' bed and breakfast accommodation at the three-star Sharm Inn Amarein.

OUR VIEW: This is a pleasant hotel with a nice pool, but you may regret being a couple of miles from the beach, and a drive away from both Sharm and the neighbouring Naama Bay.

CONTACT: Thomas Cook (0870 750 5711, www.thomascook.com).

DESTINATION: Dominican Republic

RESORT: Sosua

FLIGHT: Departing on 25 July from Gatwick to Puerto Plata. The outward flight is during the day, returning overnight.

THE DEAL: £819 for an all-inclusive week at the three-star Casa Marina Beach. You must pay extra for scuba diving or motorised sports.

OUR VIEW: Sosua is a lively resort on a pleasant beach; a great destination for diving.

CONTACT: Thomson Holidays (0870 165 0079; www.thomson-holidays.com).

DESTINATION: Caribbean

RESORT: Reduit Beach, St Lucia (above)

FLIGHT: Virgin Atlantic departure from Gatwick at 10.30am, arriving in St Lucia early afternoon; return overnight.

THE DEAL: £1,074 for seven nights' all-inclusive accommodation at the three-star-plus Rex Papillon St Lucia, departing between 18 July and 20 August.

OUR VIEW: This is the rainy season, so it's not the ideal time to visit the Caribbean. But the discount on this is a hefty one, and the all-inclusive deal makes the budgeting easier.

CONTACT: Virgin Holidays (0870 220 2468; www.virginholidays.co.uk).

EDGE OF EUROPE

DESTINATION: Algarve.

RESORT: Alvor

FLIGHT: 6am on 29 July from Birmingham to Faro for a week.

THE DEAL: £404 self-catering in the three-star-plus Alvomar, a well-equipped complex in the centre of the resort, half a mile from the beach. If four share, the price falls by £30.

OUR VIEW: A good location midway along the Algarve coast. The only cheaper deals are likely to be with rooms allocated on arrival.

CONTACT: Cosmos (0870 443 1823, www.cosmos-holidays.co.uk).

DESTINATION: Madeira.

RESORT: Funchal.

FLIGHT: From various UK airports, with departures throughout August; pick an airport, and Castaways will say which day you can fly.

THE DEAL: £758 for a week's stay, including breakfast, at the five-star Quinta das Vistas Palace Gardens on the edge of Funchal.

OUR VIEW: A good-value deal at a luxurious hotel, with a spa, beautiful gardens and a bus service down the hill into Funchal town.

CONTACT: Castaways (01737 812255, www.castaways.co.uk).

DESTINATION: Bulgarian Black Sea coast.

RESORT: Allocated on arrival.

FLIGHT: Daytime flight from Aberdeen on 21 August, returning 4 September.

THE DEAL: £379 for 14 nights' B&B in three-star accommodation, near Bourgas.

OUR VIEW: Exceptional value, and the low cost of living should compensate for the uncertainty about where you will be staying.

CONTACT: Balkan Holidays (0845 130 1114, www.balkanholidays.co.uk).

FERRY HOLIDAYS

DESTINATION: Brittany. Camping holiday for two adults plus two children at the Chateau des Ormes campsite, Dol de Bretagne, half an hour's drive from St Malo.

HOW TO GET THERE: Self-drive holiday with Channel crossings between Dover and Le Havre, about 150km from the campsite.

THE DEAL: £391 including use of a large, pre-erected tent and return P&O ferry crossing for one car and four passengers for the week 30 August-6 September.

OUR VIEW: An excellent late-summer bargain, although the timing is awkward if school term begins on Monday 6 September, or the previous Friday. A Brittany Ferries crossing to St Malo is more convenient, but this would increase the cost substantially.

CONTACT: Canvas Holidays (01383 629 000, www.canvasholidays.co.uk).

DESTINATION: Coastal Belgium. Two-bedroom holiday house close to the wide sands of Nieuwpoort and Oostduinkerke

HOW TO GET THERE: Self-drive holiday with SeaFrance crossing from Dover to Calais.

THE DEAL: For the week of 6-13 August, £925 for a family of four, or £231 per person.

OUR VIEW: The coast of Flanders is often overlooked, even though it has the advantages of a short drive from the Channel ports, superb beaches, excellent food - plus easily accessible history and culture.

CONTACT: Hoseasons (01502 502588, www.hoseasons.co.uk).

DESTINATION: Mountains of Mourne, Northern Ireland. Two-bedroom house in Lecale cottage complex.

HOW TO GET THERE: Self-drive holiday with Stena Line, using Stranraer-Belfast crossings,

THE DEAL: For the week 24-31 July, £771 for accommodation for a family of four (on the basis of two children being under 12) and Stranraer-Belfast crossings.

OUR VIEW: Stunning surroundings. A reasonably convenient journey from Stranraer make this a good choice from northern England and Scotland

CONTACT: Stena Line Holidays (08705 747474, www.stenaline.com)

DESTINATION: County Cork, Ireland. Two-bedroom apartment at the Carleton Holiday Village on the the edge of Youghal on the the south coast.

HOW TO GET THERE: Self-drive holiday with Pembroke-Rosslare Irish Ferries crossings

THE DEAL: For the week 24-31 July, £792 for seven night's self-catering accommodation and return ferry trip (with car) for a family of four (two children aged under 15)

OUR VIEW: A good deal for a youngish family. The purpose-built holiday village might lack character but it benefits from a fine setting

CONTACT: Irish Ferries (08705 171717, www.irishferries.com). Packages only available through telephone bookings

INDEPENDENT BREAKS

DESTINATION: Western Provence. A large house, sleeping six (plus two children) in extensive grounds, within walking distance of the village of Roussillon, near Apt.

HOW TO GET THERE: Coventry-Marseilles on Thomsonfly; rental car included in villa rental THE DEAL: For the week 31 July-6 August, the Individual Travellers Company has halved the price of this property: it is now £1,498. With flights at an amazingly low £93 per person return, a family of four would pay a total of £1,860 or £465 each.

OUR VIEW: It is remarkable that in spite of the classic appeal of Provence, there is still accommodation available - at half price - at this late stage. Add to this flights on the UK's newest airlinefrom the UK's newest airport, and you have a fine holiday for under £500.

CONTACT: Individual Travellers Company (0870 077 1771, www.indiv-travellers.com) for villa and car; for flights, Thomsonfly (0870 1900 737, www.thomsonfly.com).

DESTINATION: Mallorca. Two-bedroom apartment overlooking Porto Cari Marina

HOW TO GET THERE: Fly Luton-Palma on easyJet, rent a car when you get there

THE DEAL: For the week 31 July-6 August, for four people, Mallorca Farmhouses offers an apartment sleeping four for £750 (a late availability discount from £995). Cheapest easyJet flights: £156 return. Car hire through the easyJet website (linking to Europcar); £188 for the week, with unlimited mileage. Total cost; £1,562 or £391 per person.

OUR VIEW: A pretty neat price; however, the cheapest flights available are at fairly antisocial times - 7.35pm departure from Luton, arriving in Palma late in the evening; 11.55pm on the return (arriving 1.25am).

CONTACT: Mallorca Farmhouses (0118 947 3001; www.mfh.co.uk) for accommodation; flights and car hire through easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com).

DESTINATION: Minho region, northern Portugal. Casa do Castanheiro, a two-bedroomed annexe of an old stone house close to the fortress town of Caminha.

HOW TO GET THERE: Gatwick-Porto flights with GB Airways, flying on behalf of BA; rent a car to reach the property.

THE DEAL: For the week 30 August-6 September, accommodation €770 (£414). Flights £140 per person. Car hire with Holiday Autos, £91. Total £1,066 or £266 each.

OUR VIEW: Good value in a green, pleasant and increasingly popular part of Europe.

CONTACT: Portugal Villa (0871 871 6745; www.portugalvilla.com); British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com); Holiday Autos (0870 400 4468; www.holidayautos.co.uk).

DESTINATION: Villa Gorges du Loup, near Grasse, inland from Antibes on the French Riviera. A converted farmhouse with a couple of garden studios, sleeping eight, with a circular pool and views of hilltop villages.

HOW TO GET THERE: fly Nottingham-Nice on Bmibaby (0870 264 2229, www.bmibaby.com)

THE DEAL: For the week 7-14 August: €1,800 (£1,250) for the villa; flights £235 per person. If a family of six travels together, and books a people carrier through the bmibaby website (£509), the total is £3,169: £528 per person.

OUR VIEW: A fair price for a place in Provence, with easy access to the coast and Nice (above). Also available from 21 August, at lower rates.

CONTACT: 00 33 4 93 58 98 70.

Research by Harriet O'Brien, Cathy Packe and Rebecca Matthews. Prices based on two people sharing unless otherwise stated. All holidays were available at these prices on 15 July.

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