Cancellation rates on winter holidays have shot up in the last few weeks as customers come under pressure from money worries and job insecurity.

Agents have reported customers returning to cancel their winter breaks, with many willing to lose their deposit to avoid shelling out the full price.

Advantage commercial director Julia Lo Bue-Said said the average cancellation rate had at least doubled from its usual average of 2%-4% in the last few weeks.

She said: “Advantage members are starting to get enquiries from customers about how much they would lose if they cancel. Those who have paid a low deposit won’t think twice and even people who have paid more are considering losing the money.”

Howard Travel travel consultant Gill Hartigan said customers were increasingly cautious about their spending. “We have had one or two cancelling for this year because they are not sure if their job is going to be secure.“

Some cruiselines are reponding by relaxing their cancellation policies. Crystal Cruises is letting customers cancel without penalty up to 45 days from sailing instead of 75 days for next autumn.

Luxury cruise operator SeaDream Yacht Club is also allowing customers to change or defer their plans up to 48 hours before departure.

The nervousness in the market is reflected by the number of agencies that have ceased trading in the last few months, with Flight Masters in Bolton and Canvey Travel Ltd in Essex the latest casualties.

A total of 20 ABTA members have ceased trading so far this year – more than the whole of last year, when 15 closed down.

Meanwhile, figures obtained by the TW Group revealed the total market share of visits to the top ten travel agency websites dropped 17% in the year to October 2008 and searches for “cheap holidays” dropped 30%.