IT’S peak booking time for summer holidays and hundreds of tour operators, airlines and travel agents are vying for your custom. Like all businesses, they know that the best way to get your attention is to promise incentives and discounts. They also hope that you won’t take the trouble to compare prices too carefully. But if you do, you may well find a better deal. Here are some points to watch for.
It’s so hard not to be taken in by a “discount” or a “special offer”: it always makes you feel better about the price you are paying. But a discount is worthy of the name only if it represents a true saving on the price that is normally charged. The trouble with travel is that such “fixed” prices are now quite rare. Airlines, ferry companies, hotels and tour operators charge whatever price they think they can get in the current market. And this month you will also find many travel agents promoting discounts and deals. Your best bet is to ignore all the marketing-speak and look at the bottom line once all the extras have been added. And then the only way you will know if that represents the best value is to get quotes from several sources.
2. Added extras
Five nights for the price of four, a free extra week, upgrades – all these booking incentives can be worth having. As with a discount, however, you will only know what the “extra” is worth if you compare the deal as a whole with what is being offered by competitors.
3. Low deposits
These are a clever “soft sell” designed to reduce the amount you have to pay upfront and so tempt you into committing to booking. Just after Christmas, when coffers are low, they can seem an attractive way of securing the holiday you want without having to pay a full deposit But you will still end up paying the balance a long time before departure. Look at the small print on the website of Thomas Cook, for example. Its low deposit, offered on packages booked more than 22 weeks ahead of the departure date, isn’t all that low – £100 per adult and payable even for “free” child places (the cost is adjusted with the final holiday balance). You then have to pay the rest of the deposit eight weeks later, and you can’t wriggle out because if you change your mind it “will be automatically deducted from the same credit/debit card used to pay the initial low deposit”. Finally, you have to pay the balance 14 weeks – that’s more than three months – before departure.
4. Free child places
These are normally offered by the big beach-holiday tour operators on family trips where a child will be sharing a hotel room. Since the two adults cover the cost of the room in any case, the only things “free” are meals included in the board basis, and the flight, but they can still represent a decent saving. On some holidays, however, especially in self-catering apartments, the value of a “free” place is seriously undermined, since the children concerned do not count towards the “occupancy” of the apartment or room, so the adults in the party have to pay an extra “under-occupancy” supplement that they would not have had to pay had the children not taken a “free” place.
Confused? You should be – it is one of the most long-standing and unfair techniques of holiday marketing and it’s time the industry changed its practices. In the meantime, check the total cost of the holiday before comparing prices.
5. Villa extras
Typical extras include bed linen, pool-heating, electricity use, and a hefty fee for cleaning at the end – watch out for them in the small print; they can all make a big difference to the final price.
6. Hire car charges
From a customer’s point of view, the hire car market is in a mess. The extremes to which hire companies and brokers have been going to try to make their prices look cheaper are getting ridiculous, and I hope to take a longer look at some of the problems in a few weeks’ time. Meanwhile, there are several issues to be aware of. Most importantly, do not assume that the lowest headline price you find will lead you to the cheapest car. It probably won’t. The additional costs of insurance, excess waivers and fuel (some companies insist that they sell you a full tank and you return it “empty”, so you are bound to lose out), to say nothing of the age and quality of the car you get and the service you receive at the local office, will all make a huge difference to the true value of the deal.
7. Insurance pitfalls
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, You shouldn’t be tempted by a low price unless you are sure it gives you the cover you need: a cheap premium usually reflects poor cover, and could be a false economy (telegraph.co.uk/nicktrend). But there are lots of ways to save money – including buying an annual multi-trip policy if you are planning to travel more than three or four times during the year.
And buy the insurance at the same time as you make a travel booking – then you will be insured if you are forced to cancel through illness or other eventualities covered by the policy.
8. Checked baggage
The difference that baggage charges can make to the cost of a flight has been well-publicised in recent years. But if you can’t get by without a suitcase weighing more than 10kg (the typical hand baggage limit), you will need to cost it into your price calculations – on some routes in peak season (that’s June 1-Sept 30 and over Christmas and New Year) Ryanair will charge you £80 return to check in a 20kg bag.
9. Credit card charge
This is another charge that can be added legitimately to an advertised price. It’s not just airlines that levy it; many tour operators are also adopting it, adding up to two per cent to the cost of your holiday if you choose to pay by credit card.
10. Price-match promises
I take a slightly cynical view of price-match and price-beating promises, simply because I don’t think many people bother to continue checking prices once they have booked a holiday – which is what you need to do in order to take advantage of the price promise. The chances of finding an identical holiday are also very limited.
Take the Virgin Holidays Price Match Guarantee, for example. It offers the option to cancel your holiday for a full refund “if, within 14 days of booking with us, you can supply a copy of a brochure, or a written quote from any other Abta tour operator holding an Atol licence, offering an identical holiday which is available at a lower price than you have paid us”. But the holiday really does have to be identical – down to the same dates, flights and extras such as car hire, car size and insurance. Virgin excludes a list of “special offers” that it doesn’t promise to match.
As a rule, don’t take a price match as a guarantee of low prices. You will do better to compare rates before you buy, and get the best deal that way.
Nick Trend, Telegraph.co.uk