This has been the best year yet for people prepared to take a chance on finding a last-minute holiday bargain, and one of the worst for the mass-market travel industry. One in three of package holidays from the UK were booked late and at a discount.
Since the disastrous (for them) and delightful (for us) month of August, when tour operators were almost paying people to take peak-season holidays, there have been warnings from the trade about a cut in capacity, to teach us consumers a lesson. With fewer holidays on sale, the theory goes, prices will rise and there will be no need for large-scale discounting. Ninety- nine pound holidays which many of us enjoyed, were to become as extinct as Intasun.
Yet as the big holiday sell has gained momentum this week, what should pop up on Wednesday but a wide selection of pounds 99 holidays courtesy of Airtours. Charles Newbold, managing director of Britain's biggest tour operator, counters with the promise of "Thomson holidays at last-minute prices without waiting until the last minute." Travel agents are going into a frenzy of discounting to match the sale fever elsewhere in the High Street. To me, your summer holiday does not look much like a commodity in short supply.
The travel industry is clinging to the hope that every operator will reduce capacity as promised, which should cut the number of package holidays by a million. Yet even in the unlikely event that the industry sticks to its guns, this does not mean that a million people will suddenly discover in August that there is nowhere to go.
Package tour operators may have been too busy dreaming up marketing schemes to notice that a fares war of stupendous proportions is about to break out on the Channel. After the Tunnel doubled capacity on the short-sea routes, the ferry companies have done the exact opposite of what any rational observer would expect: they have increased capacity still further. If there are not enough air holidays to go around, then the surface operators can be relied upon to come up with alternatives - and, no doubt, those of us who decide late will get discounts.
So how can we be persuaded to book early? Britain's biggest travel agency chain, Lunn Poly, believes it has an answer (funded, like most agency discounts, by overpriced insurance). You book your holiday in January and take it in August, but don't have to pay until the following year. I am all in favour of marketing innovations that benefit the consumer, but I fear Lunn Poly could be biting off quite a lot with this new trick. For a start, its sales potential could rebound in a year's time. Just as all the advertising to persuade you to book a new holiday starts, the bill comes in from the previous one.
Worse still, our files are full of holiday atrocity stories, where things have not turned out as sunnily as the brochure promised. The theme common to most grumbles is, "I want my money back." If no money has changed hands, the dissatisfied customer can see an obvious remedy. Judging by the vitriol of some complainants, I would not want to be the one asking for cash.
Yet for all the doom-laden prophecies, Britain's travel industry looks in fair shape to continue to provide the best-value holidays of any country in the world. Happy new horizons.
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