Many of us are waiting until the last minute to book holidays amid coronavirus uncertainty.
In August, 37% of bookings were for trips departing in less than 14 days, according to data from Skyscanner.
This is likely so travellers can keep on top of changing travel restrictions and choose destinations exempt from quarantine.
But is it still possible to get a bargain at the 11th hour? Here we share our best tips for saving money on a last-minute break.
1. Be flexible
Right now it isn’t wise to set your heart on one destination. The government is constantly reviewing its list of travel corridors, so holiday plans could be disrupted at short notice. Check our interactive map to for destinations exempt from quarantine.
It pays to be flexible in other ways too. Starting a holiday in the middle of the week rather than a Friday is likely to be cheaper.
When we checked, we could save £30 per person on return flights to Venice with British Airways by switching our Friday departure to a Tuesday.
If you can, also consider swapping airports. Booking one week ahead, we saved £40 on a return fare to Greek island Kos when we swapped London Gatwick for London Stansted. This also meant changing airlines – from easyJet to Which? Recommended Provider Jet2, popular for its generous legroom.
2. Check comparison sites
If you’re flexible, Skyscanner’s ‘everywhere’ search function will find the cheapest destination for your dates. Alternatively, Kayak’s ‘explore’ button will filter results by budget. And sites such as Ice Lolly will help you compare prices for package holidays.
But be wary of the online travel agents these sites suggest; many have been leaving customers high and dry on refunds after disruptions due to coronavirus.
Instead, try booking direct with the airline or a reputable travel agent which has treated customers well during the pandemic.
Using Ice Lolly, we managed to save £100 on a seven-night holiday for two people to Dalaman, Turkey. Tui was offering the same hotel and identical flights for £461 per person, compared with On the Beach’s £512 – a provider which has failed to refund customers during the pandemic.
Find more unbiased advice on travel and the coronavirus, award-winning investigations and legal advice on holiday refunds and cancelled flights with Which? Travel
3. Book a package holiday
Not only will you have more protection under the Package Travel Regulations if government advice changes, you’re also likely to save money.
Tour operators are desperate to fill their empty planes and hotels last minute, and slash their prices accordingly.
Seven, 10 or 14-day trips at popular beach destinations typically offer the best value. Some package deals with airlines, such as BA Holidays and Virgin Holidays, can actually work out cheaper than buying flights alone.
We found a last-minute package deal to Dubai for £399 with BA Holidays. The exact same flights on their own cost £399, meaning two nights at the four-star Hilton Garden Inn were thrown in for free. Currently, UK travellers going to the UAE may be required to take a COVID-19 test and self-isolate on arrival. Check Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) advice before you book.
4. Keep on top of the best deals
Signing up to mailing lists or following airlines on social media will alert you to any last-minute deals.
Secret Flying and Jack’s Flight Club are free to join and send out bargain alerts to members. These include error fares, where technical blips cause flights to be flogged at rock-bottom prices. Jack’s Flight Club founder, Jack Sheldon, told us that roughly 60% of these are honoured by the airline – otherwise you’ll receive a full refund.
Alternatively, sites such as Travelzoo curate and publish a selection of the best deals. Click on the ‘quarantine-free’ tab to find offers for the next six weeks that won’t require you to self-isolate on your return. We found a bargain five-night break to Italy’s Ischia Island for just £279, valid for departures the following month. The package included flights, half-board at a four-star hotel and transfers.
5. Consider your meal options
Choose your accommodation basis carefully if you want value for money. Half and full-board options make the most sense in destinations such as Sorrento or Ibiza, where the cost of eating out is high. In fact, an all-inclusive holiday can actually work out cheaper than self-catering.
We found a seven-night all-inclusive holiday to Majorca, Spain for £393 with Tui, booking less than three weeks in advance. That’s a steal when you factor in the cost of eating out at local restaurants. According to the Post Office’s holiday costs barometer 2019, a three-course dinner with wine works out around £22 a head. Lunch is calculated at around half that, amounting to a weekly spend of more than £200. So it’s easy to see how you can save a packet when meals, snacks and drinks – including beers and spirits – are thrown in.
You’ve already used comparison sites to find the best price. Next try ringing a few agents to see if they can beat the best quote. It helps if the flights are identical, as many companies will price match if you find the same break cheaper elsewhere.
When you’ve got the lowest offer, try giving the first agent the chance to match it and regain your custom. Even if they can’t undercut it, they may throw in a room upgrade or a free transfer.
When we last used this technique, we saved almost £130 on a seven-night break to Majorca with Travel Republic. Not only did the agent drop the price after we saw the same holiday cheaper elsewhere, but it beat our best offer by £30.