If you are feeling robust in the face of constantly changing restrictions and you fancy booking a holiday, how do you best avoid the risks of cancellations, local lockdowns and sudden changes to quarantine rules?
One of the best bets is to book a last-minute city break to Italy. It is one of the few countries in Europe which seems, for the time being at least, to be suppressing a second wave. Numbers are rising slowly, but it is still well below this country. (In fact, the biggest risk as I write is not that the UK government adds it to the quarantine list, but that Italy takes action itself – possibly requiring visitors from Britain to have proof of a recent negative Covid-19 test, or to take a test on arrival, as it does for visitors from France and Spain.)
And on the positive side, you will enjoy a (hopefully) unique opportunity to see what are normally some of the world’s most overcrowded destinations without the usual tourist crush. And you will be there at one of the most beautiful times of year.
But how late should you book, what is availability like and how much will you have to pay for a few days away?
This week I did some experimenting, researching a last-minute short break to three destinations: Venice, Rome and Florence. I tested two time horizons: a very late booking, made last Wednesday for outbound travel two days ahead, staying three nights and returning on Monday; and the same trip booked nine days in advance, departing on October 2 with a return on October 5.
My research was based on taking the flight direct with the airline and reserving a hotel with a free cancellation policy through booking.com. Normally I would recommend using a tour operator in these difficult circumstances – it gives you much more financial protection and more rights when it comes to cancellation and refunds. But if you are arranging a short trip at the very last moment, and the cost is low, then the flexibility offered by independent arrangements makes it – in my view – a risk worth taking.
It is also possible to book with an operator offering flexibility – British Airways Holidays, for example, is promising that if you book before September 30 for travel anytime up to August 31 2021 you can “amend your holiday for free or cancel it and exchange for a voucher that can be used up until April 30 2022.”
I’ve given detailed findings below, but overall the message is clear: there is plenty of availability, and prices are exceptionally low. Booking late to any of these destinations, you can find good quality self-catering accommodation for three nights for less than £250 a head, including flights, and you could book into a five star hotel for less than £500 per person, also including flights. Low accommodation prices are behind this good value. Airfares were only slightly lower than I might have expected generally at this time of year, though there were some surprising differences between them, with BA from Heathrow often pipping Ryanair from Stansted. So it’s worth checking all the options before you book (try a comparison website such as skyscanner.net).
All airfares quoted below are returns, I have quoted the lowest available without checked baggage or other “extras”. Accommodation prices given are the total for two people staying three nights amd were gleaned from booking.com. I selected them from well reviewed properties with a free cancellation policy (up until 11.59pm two days before arrival, unless stated otherwise).
Booking at two days’ notice I could have got flights from Heathrow to Venice with BA from £122. EasyJet’s Gatwick flights were much more expensive, starting at £247, while Ryanair was £312 from Stansted. From Manchester, Jet2 was offering £165.
There was a wide choice of well reviewed one-bedroom apartments available from £239, and I could have booked one of the more modest modern doubles in the five-star Bauer Palazzo in San Marco for £874 (including breakfast).
For next weekend BA’s Heathrow flights were slightly more expensive at £160, Ryanair was charing £180 from Stansted, EasyJet £205 from Gatwick and, from Manchester, Jet2’s fare was £165. Apartment prices and availability were similar to above: from about £257. The Bauer Palazzo again looked the best value five-star option and was £10 a night cheaper at £845 (including breakfast).
Booking two days ahead I could have had my three-night holiday in an apartment for about £245 a head, including BA flights. The same trip staying in a five-star hotel would have been £559 per person, an exceptional price with breakfast thrown in. Booking nine days in advance would have made little difference to the overall price.
There are two ways of getting to Florence by air. The biggest choice and usually the cheapest flights go to Pisa from where you have to catch the train (about an hour). Flying direct to Florence’s city airport is quicker, but usually more expensive.
The cheapest flight to Pisa was with BA at £141 from Heathrow, EasyJet’s Gatwick flights were £149, Ryanair was most expensive at £175 from Stansted. BA’s service from London City to Florence cost £239. To fly from Manchester you’d have to travel from Saturday to Tuesday, but EasyJet had an excellent value £83 fare on these dates.
Apartment prices were significantly cheaper than in Venice. There were plenty of high quality examples at less than £200 for three nights including one discounted to £142. It was harder to find a central, top-end hotel with free cancellation, but the Hotel Montebello Splendid on the western edge of the centre was a remarkably good deal at £586.
To Pisa, Ryanair’s Stansted flight was £127 while BA from Heathrow looked expensive at £272. EasyJet stops its flights for the season at the end of September but from Gatwick, Vueling’s service into Florence airport looked best value overall, at £155.
Prices and availability of apartments was very similar to above, with the same option still available at £142. The Montebello Splendid was £180 more expensive than this weekend, however, and the best value five star was the Golden Tower hotel at £609.
Once again, there was no advantage in booking more than a couple of days in advance and prices were extremely good value. I could have picked up my long weekend in an apartment in the crucible of western visual culture for £212 a head including BA flights, or stayed in five-star comfort for £434.
Rome has two airports: Fiumicino to the east which has a convenient half-hour rail link into the centre, and Ciampino to the south (a 45-minute bus journey).
Booked just two days ahead, airfares were relatively expensive. To Fuimicino, EasyJet was charging £186 from Gatwick and Alitalia £224 from Heathrow. Ryanair’s service from Stansted to Ciampino was £244, or £163 from Manchester.
Accommodation prices were similar to Venice, with lots of apartments below £250, and one good looking option for £205. The NH Collection Roma Fori Imperiali, near the Forum was the best value five star at £704, though its free cancellation deal (valid until 11.59pm three days ahead) had expired by Wednesday afternoon when I would have booked.
Flights were much better value this weekend: Vueling’s Gatwick to Fiumicino fare was £95, while BA’s Heathrow to Fiumicino offer was £105. By contrast, Ryanair was offering £348 from Stansted to Ciampino and £55 return from Manchester. There were several five-star options below £700, but again, I thought the NH Collection Roma Fori Imperialii at £690 looked the best value. Apartment prices were about 20 per cent cheaper than the previous weekend with lots below £200 and one good option at £150.
Unlike Venice and Florence, it would have paid to book nine days ahead, when airfares were about half the price of the previous weekend, and accommodation also generally cheaper. Travelling from London I could have had a long weekend for £170 a head booking nine days in advance compared with £261 two days ahead (£440-£538 per person in a five star hotel). Flying from Manchester, on October 2, proved the cheapest all all the holidays I looked at: just £130pp.