Even if I do say so myself, I am a bit of a pro when it comes to booking holidays. Once I’ve decided where I want to go (which takes a looooong time), I see it as a challenge to get the best deal. This, however, doesn’t necessarily mean finding the cheapest option. On the contrary, it can entail paying a little more to get the benefits of holiday protection, local representation or the ability to pay a deposit. So, on the back of years of experience and, in all honesty, a bit too much energy expended in pursuit of my ‘kill’, here are my top five tips for booking family holidays.
1. Book early
I am a big advocate of booking early – and even more so now we have to travel in school holidays. To secure the accommodation I want, I commit early, particularly for half term weeks when there really isn’t any flex at all (at least in summer you have 6 weeks to choose from). Plus, as flight prices only seem to go one way the closer you leave it to departure dates, it’s good to lock them down and remove any uncertainty about the final cost of the holiday. What I don’t like doing, however, is paying the full amount up front so far in advance. Things change and you really don’t know whether something might stop you travelling 6 months down the line. Accordingly, I always look for ways of minimising my exposure by paying a deposit.
If you book with a travel agent or tour operator, putting down a deposit is almost always possible (provided you book a couple of months or more ahead). British Airways have also started offering deposits provided you book a ‘package’ with them – be it a flight and car hire, or a flight and hotel. I took advantage of this recently when booking flights to Rome for our half term holiday in May. By adding car hire, I was able to secure everything for £300 and can pay the balance at the end of March. I could have got the car hire cheaper by booking separately with an agent like holidayautos.com, but I was happy to pay a bit of a premium to delay full payment.
It’s worth noting that Trailfinders don’t even require you to book a package to get this benefit; you can put a deposit down on many flight bookings and pay the balance 8-10 weeks before departure. This is a major selling point for me over the online agents like opodo.com and expedia, which require you to pay the entire amount upfront.
2. Book a package
Since I’ve had children, my attitude to risk when travelling has changed. Whereas before I was happy to forgo ATOL/ABTA bonding, and quite happily booked every element of my holiday with the cheapest provider, now I actively seek to ‘package’ elements of my holiday in order to get protection should an airline go bust or an Icelandic Volcano explode. What’s more, having a representative on the ground when you’re abroad could be helpful should something unexpected happen (such as a child come down with chicken pox…). Packaging doesn’t mean you are condemned to two weeks in Mallorca with Thomson either. It just means combining two elements of your travel – such as flight and hotel, or flight and car hire – with one agent or operator, as I did with our forthcoming trip to Rome with BA. You actually only need to package one night’s accommodation or a day’s car hire to get the benefit – you don’t have to commit your whole holiday.
3. Never pay by credit card
If at all possible, don’t pay by credit card. Most travel firms will charge you at least 2% of the cost of your holiday for paying on credit and this can soon add up (a £4k holiday will set you back £80 in credit card fees). Alternatively, choose an agent that doesn’t charge credit card booking fees. They are sadly few and far between, but trusty Trailfinders refuses to pass the cost on to the customer (another reason why I love them).
4. Don’t be afraid to haggle
All travel agents work on commission margins. Depending on the sort of holiday you are booking, there can be more or less scope for discounting. A basic flight+hotel Mediterranean package holiday won’t often leave much room for manoeuvre – the agent will likely already be advertising their lowest price. However, ‘tailormade’ long-haul holidays can work on margins of up to 20 per cent, meaning the agent will have a bit more flex to secure the reservation. It may just be the end of the month and they need your booking to hit their targets – so why not see how low they will go? When I was looking to book our Christmas holiday to Barbados, I was given a quote by Best At Travel which, although cheaper than any other agent I had rung, was still more than wanted to pay. I pushed the agent on a discount and she said no. So I left my phone number and said I’d ‘think about it’. Minutes later, she called back and, having spoken to the ‘manager’, offered me a further £200 off my holiday. I happily accepted and booked.
5. Monitor prices, but don’t leave it too long
It’s crazy how much prices of holidays can fluctuate on a day-to-day basis. Booking a holiday on a Monday instead of a Tuesday can sometimes save you – or cost you – hundreds of pounds. If you have a particular holiday in mind that sold by an agent like Virgin Holidays, it’s worth visiting their site over the course of a few weeks and re-checking the price of the holiday to see if it’s gone down. Sometimes, they have short promotional bursts where there is a standard 10 per cent off all holidays, which can make a big difference on a trip to the Caribbean or Florida costing thousands of pounds.
It’s worth also getting familiar with the sales timelines of the major airlines. British Airways, for example, invariably has a major sale at Christmas/New Year and another one in the early Autumn – so they are good times to be snapping up seats.