UK travel firms are preparing for the busiest day of holiday bookings in years, as the traditional peak season arrives free of Covid restrictions and with demand fuelled by Britons hoping to escape strikes and constant crisis.
The travel industry’s “Sunshine Saturday”, the first day off after the new year return to work, used to be the most popular time to book a foreign holiday before coronavirus. But foreign travel was largely off limits this time in 2021 and 2022, while hundreds of thousands of bookings made in January 2020 were postponed or refunded when the pandemic hit.
This year, though, holiday travel appears relatively secure – and firms believe that, despite the cost of living crisis, people who can afford it will still prioritise a holiday over any other discretionary spending.
The travel industry trade body Abta is tipping a bumper day for early bookings this Saturday, on the high street and online. According to its research, around three in five people are planning to go abroad this year, with just over 30% of would-be holidaymakers planning to book earlier than usual in a hunt for the best price.
While more than a third will be trimming their holiday spending, that figure compares favourably with those who will forgo new clothes, eating out and other leisure activities before axing a foreign trip.
Mark Tanzer, Abta chief executive, said: “The start of the year usually brings lots of enthusiasm for booking holidays and we know many people will be really looking forward to getting away in 2023. People’s appetite for holiday taking has remained remarkably resilient despite the ongoing pressure on people’s finances, though there’s definitely a strong focus on securing great value for money.”
Holiday firms big and small have reported surging bookings, alleviating some of the anxiety in an industry that feared rising bills and economic strife would snuff out its post-Covid recovery.
“We’ve learned not to be too optimistic – but so far we’re delighted,” said Richard Singer, chief executive of Ice Travel Group, which runs the comparison sites IceLolly and TravelSupermarket. Despite the cost of living crisis, his firm “decided to be quite bullish”, running TV advertising campaigns, and online traffic in the period since Boxing Day is up 300% from a year ago, he said.
“Bookings are really strong, the feedback from our partners like OnTheBeach is that conversions are really high. All the trends suggest it will definitely be a big booking weekend – whether the biggest for years remains to be seen, but certainly since the pandemic.”
James Pieslak, a spokesperson for Jet2 Holidays, said: “There’s a lot of bookings coming in for this winter, and summer is also looking very popular. We’re looking ahead with a lot of confidence.”
EasyJet Holidays said it was filling a plane a minute at the peak of its sale launched after Christmas, with destinations such as Tunisia and Egypt returning to popularity, although the biggest draws remained the beaches of Spain and Greece. Ryanair this week raised its annual profits forecast by £200m after strong demand.
Some firms still detect reluctance to book early, among holidaymakers stung by the Covid-era border closures and long waits for refunds. The big holiday firm TUI last month forecast sales in 2023 would approach 2019 levels, but with more late bookings.
Travel agents say they are seeing more cautious consumers preferring a package holiday rather than trusting in airlines or building their own trips.
Tony Mann, the managing director of Idle Travel, a family-run Bradford-based agency, said 2022 had been its busiest for years and 2023 looked likely to beat it. “A lot of people have returned to travel agents, wanting them to guide them. As much as Covid was horrendous, it showed a good agent’s strengths, helping people where they needed it.”
Even the cost of living crisis, Mann said, did not appear to have dampened bookings: “People might do less nights or go to more value places – the all-inclusives, Turkey, even Bulgaria – but lots are still looking for their bucket list places, the Maldives and Thailand. They have still got the wanderlust, whatever their budget – people will forgo other things to get that time away.”
This week, Mann said, “phones were ringing off the hook, and we even had queues outside the shop – it was like back to the 1980s, when I had my mullet. It’s good to see.”
Abta’s Top 23 destinations for 2023 *
The United Arab Emirates
* Based on Abta consumer polling of where people said they planned to travel