There is some good news and some not quite such good news for anyone planning a sunshine break this year. First the good news: there are plenty of astonishing bargains around. During May, for example, you can find seven-night all-inclusive packages to the Red Sea resort of Hurghada from as little as £400 per person.
The less good news is that finding cut-price deals – like most things to do with booking a holiday these days – is down to you doing the research yourself.
If finding a bargain is your priority, there’s not much point in visiting a high street travel agency: these days they prefer to cater to the more affluent market – cash-rich retirees looking to dip their toes in the Caribbean.
Stairway to heaven: Wooden steps leading to golden sands at Praia do Camilo on the Algarve
Are your priorities sunshine, a decent beach and keeping costs down? If you are travelling in July or August, then it has to be Europe and the Med. Going to long-haul hotspots such as the Caribbean or Florida will cost a family of four at lest £2000 extra.
1. TURKEY: The country is very much back on the holiday radar after security fears in the past couple of years. Leading travel companies have expanded their programmes to the country’s resorts massively for this summer, so there are plenty of deals. The Turkish lira has also weakened significantly against the pound compared to a year ago – Marmaris is the second cheapest European resort for day-to-day costs, according to the Post Office’s latest holiday costs survey. Seven nights self-catering at the Ekinci Palace in Dalaman, departing on May 1, costs from £161pp, including flights from Gatwick
2. BULGARIA: The cheapest resort? Based on the Post Office’s analysis (and my first-hand experience), it’s the big and very brash Sunny Beach on the Black Sea coast, where a three-course meal for two, with wine, can be yours for around £26. Seven nights all-inclusive at Imperial Hotel in Sunny Beach, departing on May 3, costs from £254pp (teletext.co.uk)
3. THE ALGARVE: If you want somewhere more salubrious but still affordable, consider the Algarve, which has the lowest day-to-day costs of any resort area in the Eurozone, according to the Post Office survey. Seven nights all-inclusive at the Yellow Alvor Garden, departing May 3, costs from £307pp (firstchoice.co.uk).
4. HURGHADA: The Red Sea resort is crying out for business, so deals galore can be found – for a week-long all-inclusive package at a four-star hotel in mid-May, you’re looking at under £400pp, including flights. Seven nights at the Pharaoh Azure Resort, departing May 1, costs from £322pp (tui.co.uk).
Price correct at time of writing.
Once upon a time, Thomas Cook made his living from organising tours; now you have to Thomas Cook it on your own.
Even organising a simple package to Majorca is a masterpiece of micro-management involving not just flights and accommodation but also transfers, insurance, airport parking and foreign currency. It’s a game of snakes and ladders.
Find a cheap flight and you shoot up a ladder; accidentally spell a family name wrong or mess up the dates and you’ll go tumbling down a ladder.
In the process there are also decisions to be made about security and safety. Holidays to Hurghada are a bargain because there have been security issues in this region of Egypt (for the same reason expect to find handsome discounts on holidays to Tunisia and Turkey).
Terrorism is a factor wherever you travel, but it is worth bearing in mind that the worst hazards you face abroad are being involved in a road accident or suffering some kind of calamity while swimming.
If you’re looking to travel in May or June (a good choice as these are less affected by school holiday price spikes), book now. If you’re thinking about September and October (also very good times), it may be worth hanging on.
CONSIDER A PACKAGE BREAK
For a mainstream sun-and-sand summer holiday, there are very good arguments for buying a tour operator’s package. Booking flights, accommodation and transfers in one go is less hassle, and likely to work out cheaper than making the same arrangements independently. You’ll also get financial protection if things go wrong, plus there is often a rep on the ground.
The big three holiday companies are Tui (tui.co.uk), formerly Thomson; Thomas Cook (thomascook.com); and Jet2holidays (jet2holidays.com). Flight options with budget airline Jet2.com have expanded this year from the North and Midlands to Stansted.
It is also worth checking out deals with Travelzoo (travelzoo.com) and online travel agents such as loveholidays (loveholidays.com).
Sea world: Scuba-diving in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada
Use fares-comparison website Skyscanner (skyscanner.net) to find the cheapest flights on your route, and to identify when it is cheapest to fly (search by the whole month). If you are restricted to travelling during the school summer holidays, as a rule prices tend to be lowest in late August.
But before deciding which airline to fly with, calculate any extra charges, especially for checking in bags, as these can double basic fares on short-haul flights.
If you are flying long haul, British Airways (ba.com) and Virgin (virginatlantic.com) have just introduced significantly cheaper fares on many routes that do not include checked-in bags (though they do still include meals and in-flight entertainment).
Under BA’s new ‘Basic’ fares, you cannot select your seats or check in baggage, but the price is up to £60 less than standard return fares. A return flight from London to Miami with British Airways during May costs from £527.
The airlines are responding to competition from Norwegian (norwegian.com), which has been leading the way with fewer-frills options on transatlantic routes. Compare what’s included carefully, as there are important variations between the airlines. Norwegian has return fares from London to Fort Lauderdale, near Miami, from £422.
For hotels, for ease and choice – and often due to the fact that you are able to cancel without penalty until a day or two before arrival – turn to online booking agencies. The biggest player is booking.com. Sort results by price or rating rather than its picks, which may be commission-driven. Trip Advisor not only shows reviews, but also acts as a price-comparison site across booking agencies.
For self-catering, key one-stop shops are Airbnb (airbnb.co.uk) and Home Away (homeaway.co.uk) – book via the platforms for security and minimising chances of being scammed.
Want the reassurance of going through a holiday company? Try James Villa Holidays (jamesvillas.co.uk), which has nearly 3,000 properties on its books. A search on booking.com, for example, for seven nights in May on the Costa del Sol lists two-bedroom apartments from £450.
James Villas is offering 40 per cent discounts in May and June: two-bedroom properties on an accommodation-only basis are available from £500 for seven nights.
The Turkish resort of Marmaris, which is the second cheapest European resort for day-to-day costs, according to the Post Office’s latest holiday costs survey.
MAKE YOUR CURRENCY GO FURTHER
If you are taking cash abroad, avoid buying your currency at an airport bureau de change – it will have the worst rates. Visit travelmoneymax.com to see the best deals on the high street.
Most card issuers charge annoying foreign-usage fees. The Halifax Clarity credit card (halifax.co.uk) is one honourable exception, so it’s ideal for making purchases. A pre-paid currency card from Caxton (caxtonfx.com) doesn’t incur charges for cash machine withdrawals abroad.
When using cards overseas, make sure the transaction is in the local currency.
It’s easy to be lured into settling in pounds, but the conversion exchange rate is likely to be poor.
Check moneysavingexpert.com for the best deals on currency.
CAR HIRE DO’S AND DON’TS
Car hire is a minefield, and the risk of being ripped off is very real.
The key problem area is the massive excess on insurance, leaving you liable to pay three- or four-figure sums if you prang or even scratch the vehicle. A Which? investigation has found car hire companies are often overcharging for repairs.
The car hire firms offer top-up insurance policies that reduce the excess to zero, but they are very expensive. You’ll save a small fortune buying an often more comprehensive stand-alone excess waiver policy – turn to moneymaxim.co.uk for options. Do book car hire as far ahead as possible, as for busy periods in popular locations, rates shoot up closer to the time.
Zest Car Rental (zestcarrental.co.uk) is a well regarded broker. And please bear in mind that the cheapest car hire deals will involve paying the entire rental charge in advance – the savings, however, are substantial.
Have travel insurance in place as soon as your holiday is booked: cancellation cover is a major benefit of most policies.
Add-on policies offered by airlines and holiday companies can be overpriced: check for cheaper deals on moneysupermarket.com.
If you’ve got a pre-existing medical condition, the best starting point for finding affordable cover is price-comparison website medicaltravelcompared.co.uk.
Check that your European Health Insurance Card (ehic.org.uk) is up to date. Although it is not the same as travel insurance, the EHIC entitles you to state medical treatment on the same basis as locals (often for free or at reduced cost) across the EU and a few other European countries.
Moneysavingexpert.com has a useful guide to the current best insurance buys.
Beach life: A mother and child enjoy a day at the seaside
Pre-book airport parking – the further ahead, the cheaper it’s likely to be.
Consider ‘meet and greet’ options, where you drop off the car near the terminal – it usually doesn’t cost that much extra these days. Park-and-stay deals are often good value too, costing little more than parking on its own.
Stick to using official airport parking arrangements (see options on airport websites), or turn to Holiday Extras (holidayextras.co.uk), the leading agent for airport bookings. The standard charge for a week’s parking at Gatwick’s South Terminal long-term car park is £145, but book in advance and the charge falls to £43.
MY TIPS FOR A PERFECT PLACE IN THE SUN…
Sense of adventure: TV star Laura Hamilton
Laura Hamilton has presented Channel 4’s A Place In The Sun since 2014, helping British couples buy a property in sunnier climes. Here are her top travel tips…
CHECK YOUR FLIGHT OPTIONS: The first thing I do is click on the fares comparison website Skyscanner to find out which airlines fly to that destination and see how the costs compare. It’s a competitive market now and the big airlines have to compete with the no-frills carriers. You’d be surprised at how often British Airways is cheaper than Ryanair.
SPREAD YOUR WINGS: My closest airport is Gatwick but I far prefer Southampton. I can jump on a train and get there very quickly. The real attraction is that Southampton airport is compact – there are no long walks to the gates or endless queues at passport control. The main airline is Flybe, which offers a good range of flights to European destinations.
JOIN THE CLUB: I have an easyJet Plus card, which costs £199 a year. It means I can book seats without a fee and it guarantees speedy boarding. On no-frills flights you need to board first to make sure your carry-on bag gets into the overhead lockers. Later boarders often have their bags put into the hold.
TRAVEL LIGHT: Avoid checking in suitcases, not only because checked bags add at least £50 per person to your return fare, but because they mean you have to wait for them at the carousel on arrival. Everybody packs too much. Lay out what you want to take and then cut it by half.
MONEY WELL SPENT: To help my son Rocco, four, and daughter Thalia, two, travel quickly through airports, my husband Alex and I bought them each a Flyte Scooter – a case which turns into a scooter.
KEEP IT SIMPLE: Travelling with small children doesn’t have to be difficult. With an iPad or tablet they can watch films or play games – it keeps them occupied. Both of mine have travelled since they were three weeks old – in the first 11 months of her life, Thalia had been on 21 flights.
Things will change from September when Rocco starts school, which means we will be restricted to school holidays. But their trips so far have given them a sense of adventure which will stay with them all their lives.
Travel is an education in itself – last week we were in Corfu, where the Greek woman looking after them taught them some Greek words and they had a chance to try different foods – they now adore olives!
MY TOP DESTINATIONS: I really like Majorca – it is family-friendly and flights from the UK take only a couple of hours. Fares are very reasonable because there is so much competition between the airlines. I like Illetas, just outside the capital Palma.
There are cheap flights from Southampton to Bergerac in France, but it’s also an easy drive from the Channel ports.
The Dordogne is full of good campsites: my children are desperate to go camping. It’s what I did growing up and I loved it.
I also adore the Algarve – the beaches are superb.
If you’re going long haul, I’d recommend Florida – the children have been to Orlando twice and had a fabulous time.
Seat 61 (seat61.com) has tips on European journeys and best deals, including information on rail passes for young and senior travellers.
DRIVING THROUGH EUROPE
The AA (theaa.com) has a comprehensive online guide to taking your car on the continent.
You will also need to check if you require extra insurance.
Decide whether you need to get to your destination as fast as possible or whether you would prefer a more pleasurable journey – and avoid paying expensive tolls – by staying off the motorway.
MONEY-SAVING TIPS FROM THE STARS…
JOHN NICHOL: Never ever change your holiday money at the airport. Look for the best deal online before travelling. In the worst case scenario, even if you are already at the airport, use your phone to order the money online for collection, then walk to the kiosk and collect it – you’ll get a better deal.
Penny Smith (above)
PENNY SMITH: It’s so easy now to check whether there is a local bus, train or tram from the airport to your destination that you can save a fortune. I was seriously chuffed at my cheap deal on the bus from Barcelona airport into the city recently. It cost €5.90 compared with about €30 for a taxi.
MARIELLA FROSTRUP: I tend to favour villas over hotel, so cooking at home is one of my favourite holiday occupations. There’s no better way to get familiar with a place than through the produce in the shops and markets. It may sound odd, but visiting supermarkets is always my highlight, and eating at least one meal a day at home saves a fortune. I adore markets too. In Paxos, I go to a fruit and veg shop in Loggos early, just as the produce arrives. On the Amalfi Coast, I once found an amazing bakery in a private house. It only sold one kind of load but it was perfect.
Dom Jolly (above, far left)
HUNTER DAVIES: Buy your presents at home before you leave. I always do this with my grandchildren. All the stuff they like is made in China anyway, and it is cheaper to buy it in Britain. And it saves carrying it all home.
DOM JOLLY: It’s all about breakfast. Paying for a hotel breakfast, if it’s not already included in the price of your stay, is a huge drain on your wallet. I send our youngest to have the junior breakfast and to craftily fill a bag with pastries for the rest of us to enjoy in the sun.
Benedict Allen (above)
BENEDICT ALLEN: Take your own car booster seats for the kids – the major car hire companies charge up to £10 a day for them. If you’re taking two young children with you, that’s a £200 bill for a ten-day break. If you enjoy spirits, buy a bottle from duty-free on your way out to your holiday rather than before coming home, so you can enjoy a tipple without forking out in a local bar.
SIAN LLOYD: Because I love staying in high-end hotels and love my coffee, I always pack a carton of one-cup coffee filters – it saves on the ferociously expensive room service, as well as giving you that instant hit when you sleep in after a late night and wake up craving caffeine. As far as I can, I pack non-crease clothing to save on any hotel laundry bills. They are also lighter, so don’t incur any extra baggage charges.
Lisa Snowdon (above)
LISA SNOWDON: Buy all water and snacks from the supermarket. Water is ridiculously expensive in hotels, and I drink a lot of it too, so I always stock up locally.
SIMON REEVE: Put cash in your sock as an alternative money-belt, wear a cheap watch and buy a second-hand rucksack, so that you’re not carrying around something flash. It’s also a good idea to buy a postcard of the hotel when you check in so that, if necessary, you can show it to taxi drivers to take you back there late at night – you could even ask the staff to write ‘Please take me to this hotel’ in the local language on the back. And don’t forget, wherever you are in the world, beer is one of the safest things you can drink.
CHRIS PACKHAM: Buy a 4G pay-as-you-go local SIM card for your mobile phone. Although roaming charges in Europe have been scrapped, you can still get scammed when you pick up your phone in other parts of the world. I find that it’s easier to pick up a local SIM – that way you know you are paying local rates. It is so simple and saves you a fortune. Very often you can buy them at the airport.
WENDY HOLDEN: We often take picnics when we go out to save a bit of money, and then splurge on drinks in posh bars. We also walk as much as possible or take public transport. Taking the train to your holiday destination and flying home is a good money-saving tip.