Upfront disclaimer — By Christmas I mean to include the entire “Festive Season,” as one tour operator calls it, including Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, etc. More or less, the last two weeks in December and the first few days of January.
Americans these days are conditioned to expect bargains. As any travel agent will tell you, no call is more dreaded this time of year than the one where someone wants that last-minute “somewhere warm” holiday deal.
Now, if getting away is an absolute, a good agent can still find something. Some cruises and hotels still have space, and while flights can be scarce, there are still seats, even to places like Hawaii and Mexico, albeit not many of them. But, these last-minute options are not inexpensive.
Many travelers understand the problem — the last week in December is probably the most popular vacation time of the year; both schools and many corporations are closed.
Other potential travelers are shocked. They find it hard to believe that finding their potential getaway might be difficult. Travel agents hear, “What, you mean other people have thought of this?” Or, they declare they are “flexible.” However, flexible may mean they can fly the Saturday or Sunday before Christmas, or they might take a single, easy connecting flight.
Then there’s the question, “What about cancellations?” We get these calls every year. People seem convinced that other travelers will change their plans, and inexpensive space will miraculously open up.
Here’s the deal with cancellations around the holidays — they happen. But, many hotels have wait lists, and those that don’t are still fielding queries about space. If someone cancels that $700 hotel room in Maui, someone else will be happy to pay it.
As far as that “little place no one knows about,” even if such places existed once upon a time, the internet took care of that. Not only have the undiscovered bargains been discovered and often booked early, but also — unless they’re so far away from civilization that it takes two days (and crazy airfares plus land transportation) — to get there, the owners have learned to raise the rates.
Some tour operators, in fact, are posting lists of open space, including recent cancellations. In general, those prices are as high as or higher than they were earlier in the year. Even if the space doesn’t disappear immediately, hotel and resort operators know they’ll find takers.
On peak days, the same goes for flights. Really low fares are blacked out. Flying on Christmas or New Year’s might be lower, but it doesn’t help with land costs. (How about $100-a-day-and-up car rentals anyone? That’s the going rate in South Florida and Hawaii.)
For anyone who really still wants a warm weather deal at the holidays, the word is “compromise.” Southern California, Arizona and Central Florida, while higher-priced than other times of year, are all less expensive options. Of course, they are not usually as warm as the prime destinations.
In addition, a cruise will often cost less than an equivalent land vacation, assuming you can get to the port for a reasonable airfare or even be close enough to a port to drive. (This may leave out South Florida ports for many Americans.)
Even so, none of these destinations will have prices anywhere near as low as in low-season — the two weeks after Thanksgiving, or the second and third weeks in January.
My best bet for the easiest way to get a warm bargain for the holidays — check into a nice city hotel and shop for a coat.