Four things to watch out for if you’re booking a holiday over Christmas

christmas dinner table family
christmas dinner table family

It’s Christmas afternoon, or the early evening perhaps. You are feeling stuffed, groggy, hungover – and maybe slightly weary of your extended family. You are looking for ways of cheering yourself up. You turn to the internet. What better time to splash out thousands of pounds on the biggest purchase of the year? Or is it?

One of the strange psychological effects of Christmas is that, in the December run-up, it dominates our lives, leaving no time for anything else. And then suddenly it is over. Apart from a brief knees-up over New Year, we are faced with the bleak reality of midwinter with perhaps little to look forward to until Easter, which is still three months away.

That might be an overly negative characterisation of the post-Christmas blues, but it certainly seems to be part of the motivation behind what has always been the busiest period in the travel industry: the post-Christmas booking boom. We get over our seasonal hangover by cheering ourselves up with thoughts of summer. The travel industry is only too aware of this. Its Christmas bonus is the money we pay out to secure our bookings six or seven months before we even travel.

And it is quite remarkable how suddenly our mindset changes. According to Neil Swanson, chief marketing officer of Tui, the company website sees a sharp surge on Christmas Day, when visits and bookings tick up by 20 per cent compared with the week before Christmas.

Then, on Boxing Day, traffic soars by 200 per cent and bookings by 700 per cent. In other words, not only has the number of people visiting the site virtually doubled overnight, but people are three and a half times more likely to book. And things keep increasing from there until the first weekend in January, by which time searches are up 600 per cent and bookings an astonishing 1,400 per cent. In short, Tui goes from its quietest point in the year to its busiest in just two short weeks.

It’s the same story across the industry. Ed Pyke, operations director at villa specialist Simpson Travel, said that it traditionally sees a sharp rise in traffic to the website on Boxing Day: “In 2022 this surge came even earlier, peaking late afternoon on Christmas Day. Once this surge comes it stays with us into the New Year, when festive research begins to convert into a marked uplift in enquiries and sales which continues well into the spring.”

Luxury operator Elegant Resorts said that last year traffic to its website increased 72 per cent on Boxing Day compared with the previous week. Meanwhile Trailfinders, which sells mostly on the phone (or in its shops), told me its call numbers climb steadily after Christmas. Last year, compared with December 23, it saw an 80 per cent rise by December 30 and calls had tripled by early January.

Woman Christmas shopping online
The post-Christmas period can be a good time to do research and planning, but treat 'deals' with caution - Isabel Pavia/Moment RF

You can also see the story playing out more generally on the internet. For example, according to Google Trends, which rates search levels for specific phrases on a 100-point scale, last year, the rating for people looking for “Travel Deals” went from zero on Christmas Eve to 90 by Boxing Day. There were similar results for terms like “Summer Holidays” and “Holidays in Greece”. Search for family holidays tripled between Christmas Day and December 27; more specifically, “Majorca Villas” went from zero to 100 between Christmas Day and January 2.

Operators are well prepared for this rush. All the big sun and sand specialists launch a raft of offers and incentives to try to convert the traffic into bookings. Tui’s campaign begins on Boxing Day, for example, when it reopens its telephone contact centres as well as taking online bookings, and Kuoni will also launch its New Year incentives on the same day.

But, is it a good idea to be tempted now? Do these deals represent good value, or is it better to wait to see if prices fall again in January, or even later in the year? The short answer is that you need to tread carefully. Christmas week is certainly excellent research and planning time, at least for those of us with time off work. But it isn’t necessarily the best time to book.

The exceptions are: if you have the peak summer season – especially for departures on one of the first two or three weeks of the school holidays in July and August – and even more so if you want to fly from regional airports with a limited choice of departures. Prices for those dates are only likely to increase (especially for flights) and you will certainly have a bigger choice of accommodation and departure options.

You do want to watch for some pitfalls, however. Here are four reasons to be cautious:

1. Discounts

Trying to work out if a discount is “real” can be hard because package holiday prices are not normally fixed and vary according to demand. A “discount” may represent a cheaper price than the week before, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be even cheaper next week. So ignore the hype and check the bottom line price – what matters is that you can afford it and it looks reasonable value.

2. Low deposits

Low or “zero” deposits are often offered as an incentive at this time of year. You may think they are a good way of locking down an option on your summer holiday with the reassurance that you could always cancel later if you can’t afford to go ahead with the holiday or have to change your plans. But as a recent Which? report pointed out that, in nearly all cases, the small print means you are simply signing an agreement to pay the rest of the deposit at a later date – and you will be legally liable for that much bigger amount if you do decide to cancel. So while low deposits can be good news if you want to secure your holiday but delay your payments, they can’t normally be used as a low-risk way of booking a good deal.

3. Price-match guarantees

Some agents and operators try to win your confidence by promising to refund the difference if you find the same holiday cheaper elsewhere. Take such guarantees with a huge pinch of salt. They sound reassuring, but they are an easy promise to make and of doubtful value to consumers. The terms and conditions are normally also extremely limiting and, in any case, very few people carry on looking for a holiday after they have just bought one.

4. “Free” child places

This is another area where it is easy to get distracted by the marketing hype. The first thing to be aware of is that it is normally only the flight and meals which may be “free”; the child will have to share your room or apartment in order to qualify. And while they can be good value, the only way to be sure is to look online, check the holiday price as though only two adults were booking and then run the booking again to see the cost of adding one or more children. Then you will know if it really is free or not.