Last minute travel bargains are as outdated as Teletext holidays and if you’re hoping to jet off on the trip of a lifetime at the drop of a hat then you might well want to read on to avoid disappointment. For certain destinations and activities, booking well in advance is often the best way to not only bag a bargain but also to secure a place, as from limited space to seasonal trekking permits, the earlier you book the more chances you have of getting exactly what you want for the best price.
Here are just some of the reasons why booking early should always be best practice and if you’ve got plans to take the family into Europe over the school holidays or go on a tiger safari in the wilds of India then don’t leave it to the last minute – that’s so 1980s.
If you've ever wanted to spot gorillas in the mist or hunt for the lost city of the Incas then you're definitely not alone. This sort of venture takes a fair bit of planning and not just deciding upon what to pack. The upside is that restricted numbers of permits results in less stress to the gorillas, less damage to the ancient stones of the Inca Trail – and fewer other visitors once you’re out there.
It's no surprise that the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is seriously popular, and, thankfully for those who want to gaze upon its greatness without the company of a million other people, trekking permits are limited to 500 per day. Though 500 may sound like a lot, it's not; those permits cover around 200 guides and porters as well as trekkers, so if you want to explore this Peruvian powerhouse, book now. This is especially true if you’re planning to trek in the most popular, drier months of July through to September, which also coincide with school holidays; permits sell out a good six months in advance for this period.
Although gorillas are to be found all year round in the forests of Rwanda and Uganda, there are limited permits and demand always exceeds supply during peak holiday months. As gorillas should have limited exposure to humans to avoid causing them stress, each of the habituated groups in are limited to one hour-long visit a day – with a maximum of eight people per trekking group. Consequently, gaining a permit is something you need to do in advance, particularly during the peak holiday months, when demand always exceeds supply. The system of tightly controlled numbers of visitors is considered a great success on the world map of wildlife tourism – so this is actually something we should be celebrating. Just book in advance to avoid commiserating.
Cuba is one such destination that actually does feel like you're stepping back in time. Communist, Caribbean, Latin and African, Cuba is an island of steamy salsa, crumbling colonial gems and endlessly repaired classic Chevys. But perhaps its biggest draw is what it doesn't have: advertising, Starbucks and hordes of college students on spring break. Until now. The thawing of diplomatic relations with the US is paving the way for things that have been banished from Cuba for over half a century – including tourists from the US. Since the rules restricting their visits have been relaxed, they have rushed to the island – along with European and Canadian tourist who are trying to get there “before it changes”. There are only so many hotels and casas particulares in Cuba, and only so many trained guides – the authorities and local entrepreneurs are rushing to catch up but, trips are booking up fast. So make sure you grab a seat on the time machine, before it's too late.
By the very nature of their brilliance and convenience, family-friendly destinations in Europe get booked up fast during the school holidays, with everywhere from the French Alps to the Amalfi Coast selling out quicker than freshly baked croissants. Recent events in formerly popular destinations such as Egypt and Turkey have caused a surge in summer holiday bookings for places like Spain and Portugal, meaning that planning ahead for school holidays is more essential than ever.
However, there are still plenty of awesome European countries that are slightly off the traditional tourist radar. Montenegro, for example, is a natural paradise; you can hike to remote caves and pristine beaches, plunge into waterfalls, or kayak past carpets of water lilies. Or how about Croatia – where you and the kids can try kayaking, white water rafting, mountain biking and canyoning, all against a backdrop of cliffs and river rapids. Alternatively, stay in the UK for a home-from-home self-catering holiday; pretty Pembrokeshire in Wales is fantastic for sea kayaking – who knew?
Wildlife watching in small groups
Small groups should mean exactly that. Small. Not masses of photo hungry tourists hanging off the edge of a boat or out the window of an air-conditioned coach. Wildlife watching trips, especially, respond significantly better to smaller groups with fewer numbers increasing chances of seeing animals in their natural habitat and giving travellers the chance to observe and learn in peace rather than fighting for space in a zoo-like environment.
If you've always longed to watch whales as part of a small group then you also need to be in the right place at the right time to spot them, so book well ahead for these short windows of whale-sized opportunities. Whales like to hang out around Sri Lanka from late November to mid April and the mighty blue whale is most likely to be seen in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean from late February to mid-March. Head to Baja, California in the short calving season of February and March too, these friendly whales are known for nudging their days-old babies up to the boats! Then there's the Azores, one of the most popular whale watching destinations. You'll spot numerous species here - including blue whales - from June to early October - but small group trips get booked up fast in July and August.
Tiger safaris in India are also reliant on the elements with many tiger reserves, such as Tadoba and Ranthambore, closing during the monsoon season from July through to mid-October. This leaves the colder months from November through to March as potentially perfect for tiger watching before temperatures increase and the rains begin to fall. It's these sorts of weather conditions that lessen the chances of getting a space on a small group tiger safari so make sure you book as soon as possible to gain your stripes within the best possible environment.
Another key destination for small group tours is the Galapagos, where fearless and friendly wildlife lures animal lovers to this isolated archipelago, nearly 1,000km out into the Pacific Ocean. Unlike most other wildlife destinations, the animals here can be seen all year round, so you can pretty much take your pick. However, for many travellers this will mean the standard holiday months of July-August and December-January. As most tours of the Galapagos are done by boats, which have limited passenger numbers, peak times get booked up quickly. So to ensure you get to waddle alongside penguins and dive with seal pups, book well ahead.
Some of the greatest shows on earth take place for just a short period of time every year. And we're not talking Cirque du Soleil. The Northern Lights in Iceland and the Great Migration in East Africa are two such natural events that can only be seen at certain times in the year which is why booking tours well in advance is the only way to ensure you have the best seat in the house.
The Great Migration reaches its dramatic climax as over two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle cross the Mara River from Tanzania's Serengeti plains to Kenya's Masai Mara from June to mid October – with the biggest crowds thronging into the compact Mara Reserve to witness the river crossing in July and August. Watching thousands of wildebeest dodging hungry crocs in the river is one of life's most sought-after wildlife experiences – if you book too late you'll miss it.
Wildebeest migration (Photo by Gopal Vijayaraghavan
Last minute deals to escape the queues and looped strains of Jingle Bells just aren't as good as they used to be with budget airlines filling up faster than Santa's sack and spare accommodation in winter activity centres, cosy cabins and Christmas market venues just as rare as spotting Charmander, Dragonite or Snorlax towing a sleigh. Gone are the days of last-minute flight deals; the only way these prices are going is up.
Even today, with all our scientific knowledge, the Northern Lights still retain certain mysteries, but it's this unpredictability that makes this inimitable light show all the more wonderful. This unpredictability, however, also means booking a trip to see the Northern Lights is something that should be done well in advance – in theory, they appear from late August to mid April, but you are much more likely to see them from late September to late March, when there is less light, with peak light shows around the equinoxes. This is a pretty small window for such a big trip, so book early and rest assured you've given yourself the greatest chance to catch them at their bright and beautiful best. This is even truer in Iceland – where tourists outnumber residents by more than ten to one, and forward planning will mean you avoid being left in the dark.