Holidaymakers who book their cruise or package holiday a year or more in advance could see the price drop later on – or be heavily penalised if they’re forced to cancel.
Which? Travel tracked 10 deals advertised in weekend newspapers during summer 2017, checking the prices on the travel agents’ own websites in March and April 2018 to see if promotions were genuine.
Four out of 10 deals we checked were the same price – or even cheaper – eight months after the initial promotion ran. A further two were only deals at a generous stretch of the imagination.
Find out who Which? members rated as the best and worst travel agents in our survey.
Canadian Affair: Early-booking offer £161 pricier
Many cruise and package holiday suppliers offer sale fares and free upgrades if you’re willing to part with your cash months before travel. In theory it’s win-win; you get a bargain and the agent gets an early payday.
Specialist tour operator Canadian Affair offered an early bird deal on its 16-day Alaskan cruise for £2,836 per person if you reserved more than a year in advance. But, seven months later, the price hadn’t gone up as expected – in fact it had fallen by £161pp. That means couples who rushed to book the early-bird offer ended up paying £322 more.
It’s an especially poor deal for people considering that the further in advance they book, the bigger the risk they’ll have to cancel.
If you’re forced to abandon your plans more than three months before departure, Canadian Affair will pocket your 20% deposit – more than £1,100 in this instance. After that, the fee rises to 80% of the cost of the holiday.
When we contacted Canadian Affair, it claimed that the two prices we recorded related to different departure months. This wasn’t made clear on the website when we checked and is therefore impossible for us to verify. A spokesperson agreed this was a ‘limitation’ and told us plans were underway to display live pricing.
‘Free’ drinks packages that cost you more
Other packages offered extra incentives which, on closer inspection, weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Emerald Waterways (which ranked bottom in our recent river cruise survey) promised savings and unlimited free drinks if you booked your 2018 holiday a year in advance.
Sure enough the bonus drinks package had expired when we checked in March 2018. So had latecomers really missed out on a bargain?
Not exactly. The Classic Rhine ‘sale’ price of £1,570 had dropped by £175pp, while Emerald Waterways already offers complimentary wine and beer with lunch and dinner as standard. So couples who’d snapped up the original offer would have to drink £350 worth of premium spirits in eight days, and outside of meals times, just to break even.
Emerald Waterways told us it aimed to ‘offer a genuine saving (or added value)’ no matter when booked. A spokesperson added: ‘The price we quote is the best we are able to provide at that point in time.’
Hefty cancellation fees
It’s in holiday companies’ interests to fill hotel rooms and cabins early. But according to consulting firm Mercer, an 80-year-old couple has a one in five chance of cancelling as a result of one of them falling ill when they book a holiday 18 months in advance. For couples in their 70s, this figure is 8%.
That’s a windfall for agents; they can pocket the cancellation fee and still have time to re-sell the holiday to somebody else.
Noble Caledonia urged holidaymakers to ‘book early and save £300 per person’ on its Caribbean cruise – yet the price hadn’t changed when we checked eight months later.
Cancel a year before travel and the cruise line will retain 10% of the total cost of the holiday – in this instance, more than £1,500 per couple. Once you hit the 90-day mark, that charge jumps to 40%.
That’s why we recommend having the right travel insurance from the moment you book, rather than day one of your holiday. The right policy will ensure you are covered in the event you are forced to cancel.
Read our reviews of the best and worst travel insurance to find out which policies offer the best value and most comprehensive cover.
When is the best time to book?
Booking early won’t necessarily save you money, but a previous Which? investigation found that time-limited offers – which urge holidaymakers to ‘hurry, book now’ – could be just as dubious.
So should holidaymakers book early or wait until the last minute to get the best deal? The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) and comparison site TravelSupermarket told us that it all comes down to flexibility.
They advised booking ahead if you have specific dates in mind, or you’re restricted by school holidays. For those who are less rigid, they recommend waiting until within six weeks of departure when agents try to fill unsold cruise cabins or hotel rooms at discounted prices.