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Saturday 20 September 2014

Autumn is one of the best times to snap up a bargain holiday

Jill Kerby

Published 31/08/2014 | 02:30

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TAKE THE ROAD TO MARRAKECH: Fancy an endless summer and getting all Bedouined-up in Morocco? Go for it

The end of the summer holiday is a blessing for those of us no longer held hostage by school timetables and the high-season prices of the travel industry.

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Confident that no self-respecting 20-year-old has any interest in sitting on a beach or wandering through a village market with their ageing parents, we gleefully scan the scores of travel bargains in the travel agents' windows and on the web that are rolled out at this time of year.

Welcome to September and the holiday breaks you used to take, all those years ago, when your down time was your own.

As every self-respecting over-50 will tell you, the joys of travelling to the sun immediately after the start of a new school year is that nothing has changed, except the size of the crowds and age profile.

The sun still shines - though thankfully, not as intensely as a few weeks earlier - but you can swim in the pool, you have your pick of the beach loungers and the bars and restaurants are mainly full of other adults.

Best of all, the price of your annual holiday is probably at least 25pc less expensive than a week earlier in the same resort - a point endlessly noted, if I recall, by rueful parents in the bar the night before the flight home.

Off-season bargains are attractive, but not quite what they once were, says the CEO of the Irish Travel Agents Association, Pat Dawson.

"There are now a million fewer charter flights out of Ireland than there were 10 years ago, because Aer Lingus and Ryanair have replaced so much of the old charter flight capacity.

"The world of mass travel and technology has changed our industry, and the people who have the best ability to offer last minute bargains are tour operators, because they have the access to seats and accommodation that haven't sold."

The last weekend of August is one of the two or three bargain travel dates that happen like clockwork every year. "As night follows day, the last weekend in August and the two weekends around the 6th and 13th of December trigger the keenest-priced one- or two-week package holidays," said Dawson.

Anyone willing to spend a little extra per night, he says, can also bag "a big jump in comfort and luxury" and is more likely to get concessionary upgrades.

But the best flight-only prices, he says, are always offered for early week departures rather than over weekends, when not only do most sun package flights depart but so do the short visit city packages.

Early and mid-week city breaks are always good value, says Dawson.

Flicking through Irish travel agents' offerings, it is hard to resist the lure of inclusive four- and five-star accommodation and flights to Lanzarote next month for under €100 a night, or Taormina, in Sicily, for only another €30 a night.

Dawson Travel is advertising an all-in self catering week on the Costa del Sol for the over-50s starting at less than €300, while a week's golf at a four-star Algarve resort can be had for as little as €459 a week, including flights and transfers from John Galligan Travel.

Orient Travel can bring you to Marrakech for four nights for the same price. (It helps that older travellers now account for up to 40pc of the global leisure travel market, driving off-season rates.)

The bargain flight window will start to close by early November, when airlines post their new winter season rates. By mid-December the Christmas/New Year high season gets under way, says Dawson.

In the domestic holiday market, which has grown by over 8pc this year, late season hotel bargains are also being widely advertised, with similar 20pc to 30pc discounts and special deals for the over-50s. As winter draws in, weekend specials become the big bargain attraction until Christmas and the resumption of high-season rates.

So what is the best way to access the thousands of bargains from Irish and UK providers? Do you go directly to the tour operators? Take the DIY route and scan the web yourself, keying in your destinations, hotel, catering, car hire and price parameters?

The DIY option has been made easier by the likes of Expedia and Trivago, two of the best know on-line agencies, and LowCostHolidays.ie that filters hundreds of airline, hotel and travel websites.

The choice are vast - maybe too vast for the undecided - and you need to keep your wits about you when making a booking.

There are now hundreds of smart phone and tablet apps for every traveller, including bargain seekers.

Middle-aged hill-walkers and Camino-goers of my acquaintance further leverage their age-related and off-season bargains by using the likes of Hostelworld.com app that instantly lists and links them to over 30,000 budget hotels and hostels. The flexible traveller certainly doesn't want to be without Skyscanner, a search tool app that graphs the cheapest flight-price days of the week and monitors the price of the flight you want to take.

Another option for bagging last minute deals are the popular 'deal-a-day' websites, like Groupon, Living Social and GrabOneEscapes that can discount very limited numbers of holiday packages or hotels by up to 80 pc at this time of year.

The DIY holiday phenomena is often cited as the reason for the collapse in numbers of travel agents worldwide, but the reality is that travel agents - like financial brokers - use the internet too.

Advanced software packages designed for the industry let them not only access the most keenly priced holiday packages or flights on any particular day, but also build what the agents call "dynamic packaging" - pulling together all those preferences you have and then finding the airline, hotel, car hire company, cruise operator and even tour operator that will happily take your money.

With such an autumn chill in the air here in Dublin, I rather fancy that four-day special in sunny Morocco . . .

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