Whether you are hoping to hurtle down the piste, collapse on a beach or tramp around city shops and sights this winter, you will get the cheapest deals, the widest choice and the best weather by choosing carefully both the time you book and the time you travel. Here is how to make the best of the season.
Ski The slopes at Tignes open today and by mid to late November there is usually enough snow in the highest and most snow-sure resorts, such as Val Thorens, Oburgurgl and St Anton, to get a decent amount of skiing. It’s certainly not worth booking, though, until a week or two before departure, when you are sure that there is enough to make it worthwhile. Most tour operators will not be offering packages yet, so you will probably need to book flights, transfers and accommodation independently.
Sun A bargain month for virtually all winter-sun destinations. As the risk of hurricanes in the Caribbean is coming to a close and the season is just getting under way, the hotels and tour operators offer some of the lowest prices of the year, with the certainty of late-booking offers as flights and accommodation virtually never sell out.
Cities Generally you will get some of the cheapest rates of the year for a city break this month. Most tourist hotels drop their prices from November 1 (usually until the end of February), sights are less crowded and the no-frills airlines in particular try to fill seats with a series of sales. (It’s worth subscribing to the email offers that airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair send out to highlight these promotions, which often have to be booked quickly.) Note too that you won’t necessarily have to pack your winter clothing: some of the southernmost European cities can still be quite warm in November: Seville (average daily maximum, 68F/20C), Palermo (64F/18C), Athens (18C), Rome (63F/17C) and Naples (17C) are all good bets, especially in the earlier part of the month. And this is a good time to head for Marrakesh (72F/22C), and Egypt, where Cairo is still hot at 77F (25C) and Luxor nearly always reaches the mid 20sC.
Ski Depending on conditions, European resorts all plan to be fully open from Saturday December 19, although many of the bigger ones should be operating a good number of lifts the week before – a low-cost week which is popular with students. The way the weekend falls this year means that most departures for Christmas week will happen on December 19 and 20, and returns on December 26 and 27. This week has become much less popular than New Year and brochure prices are lower than for the last week in December.
Sun The low prices and quieter beaches of November continue until the middle of December, but if you want to spend Christmas or New Year in a smart resort hotel in a popular region such as the Caribbean, you should book now. It will be expensive, but you should still get a choice of flights and rooms. Leave it too long and it will probably sell out. On the other hand, flights departing on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve are often excellent value, if you don’t mind curtailing your seasonal celebrations.
Cities Cold-weather destinations in central Europe – Prague, Salzburg, Vienna, for example – are extremely atmospheric at this time of year and great places to enjoy the indoor life of the big museums, concert halls and cafés, or to wrap up warm and explore the Christmas markets.
Ski An excellent time for good snow and good deals – although it is also the coldest month of the year, so not so great if you enjoy lounging in the sun. A few unexpected factors affect prices – Courchevel is extremely popular with Russians until mid-January, for example – but generally you are safe to book late.
Sun The good times are back again for late bookers as tour operators and hotels struggle to tempt customers who have exhausted their bank accounts over Christmas or who are thinking ahead to Easter or the summer. The Canaries are particularly good value, although the weather isn’t always settled – the Red Sea, or destinations farther afield are a safer bet.
Cities Sales aren’t what they used to be, but shoppers can still find plenty of bargains in most European and North American cities in early January. Air fares to most destinations remain low throughout the month and unless you have to travel on specific dates, it’s worth playing a waiting game and looking out for bargains.
Ski Book now if you really want to ski in February, but avoid the month if you possibly can. The snow may be good, but school half-term holidays all over Europe ensure that the slopes are crowded and the prices at their highest from February 6 until the end of the month.
Sun The half-term price blip also affects winter-sun holidays and the effect is felt most intensely for the last two weeks of the month. If you have school-age children, book now, if not travel in the first half of February, or wait until March. You can also try egypt holidays, they are amazing.
Cities February is still a bargain month for city breaks – though not if you want to enjoy the Lenten festivities. You need to book now, and pay higher prices, to be sure of finding somewhere to stay for two of the best: the carnivals in Nice (February 12-28) and Venice (February 6-16).
Ski Another good month for last-minute bargains – wait to see where the snow is good and book late. Schools break up around March 26, so there are at least five weeks after half term that operators have to work hard to fill.
Sun Easter falls on Sunday April 4 – peak time in the Caribbean, and most long-haul destinations will be very expensive. If you are stuck with school holidays, be patient and travel instead during the May half term.
Cities Room rates in many cities rise sharply from their winter nadir, around Palm Sunday. But Easter can be worth the higher prices. Holy Week (which begins on March 28) brings spectacular celebrations in many cities, especially in Spain, particularly Seville. Book now for these. Rome, too, is busy as pilgrims converge for the Easter Day address by the Pope.