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Should you book your holiday with a travel agent?


Holiday villa (Stock photo)

Holiday villa (Stock photo)

Holiday villa (Stock photo)

A chilly winter always makes us think of sunnier climes so it's no surprise that the first few months of the year are the busiest for summer holiday bookings. It's always a dilemma whether to book well in advance or at the last minute in the hopes of bagging a bargain.

Holidays are the one area where the internet excels. Not only can you DIY it without needing a third party, but you can check out the accommodation in advance (both the stylised 'official' version and the 'real' one thanks to sites like Tripadvisor, which posts tourists' own pictures too). You can click for your insurance, surf for your car hire and even download a currency app to keep your spending on track. Who needs real people, eh?

While many of us are used to booking trips ourselves online via hotel sites and separately, airlines, it's worth remembering that travel agents offer a sense of security to travel, and most have excellent online sites themselves. There are different consumer laws attaching to holidays, depending on how you book, with far more protection doing so via a bonded travel agent than simply doing your own booking. It is a myth that agents are always more expensive (see table) - as long as you avoid the travel insurance they'll attempt to flog you!

A 'package holiday' is one that has been prearranged and sold at an inclusive price and covers at least 24 hours with an overnight stay made up of transport and accommodation. If something goes wrong, like getting stranded abroad, or the hotel going bust, you are covered under the Commission for Aviation Regulation bonds which tour operators comply with. This is not the case if you yourself book the different elements.

However, trawler sites like Hotels.com, Expedia.com and Venere.com can offer great value for bookings, but they have limited bed capacity, so if you don't see what you want on one, do try others.

When it comes to accommodation, it's sometimes worth taking the chance of booking the most basic (no view, ground-floor) apartment and doing a deal for an upgrade when you get there. Obviously, it's a risk if you're travelling peak season or with children, but if not, you can often secure a better deal face to face than the sea-view top floor online.

When filtering for hotels, even if you think you can only afford three-star, include four-star in your selection criteria. The small extra cost for many will surprise you. This is because the 'star' rating differs by country and it can be worth paying a little extra to get a lot better.

Always book flights first as they'll be gone before accommodation options are exhausted. Be flexible on location if it's last minute and go with capacity. That means Spain, our favourite destination by a long shot. There were 1.3 million visits to the country by Irish tourists in 2014 with 32pc going to the Canaries.

Don't limit yourself to Ryanair and Aer Lingus. Consider flying from Belfast, for instance, where you have the option of Flybe, EasyJet or Jet2 if you don't mind the drive. Flying to regional airports rather than main hubs can be cheaper. Flying midweek on the first or last flight of the day can keep costs down and you can sleep on the plane! Also, don't assume a return flight is the cheapest - it can be better to book the outbound leg with one carrier and the inbound with another.

It can ruin a holiday to rock up to the airport and find your luggage is overweight. Ryanair charges €10 per extra kilo; Aer Lingus is €9. Always weigh before flying. Home Store & More (homestoreandmore.ie) has a luggage scale for €2.99.

The internet makes shopping a global market, so don't restrict yourself to Irish booking websites. Booking a holiday or car hire through a British or American site can be cheaper, as long as you factor in the currency exchange costs. Competition is much heftier there and prices reflect that.

Never, ever leave without holiday insurance and the internet is way cheaper than buying via an insurance company or travel agent. Buy annual, multi-trip policies because they really are cheaper. You'll be able to cover a family of four for around €70 if you surf carefully. I like www.multitrip.com and www.insureandgo.com for value.

Websites & Apps

The Commission for Aviation Regulation aviationreg.ie has a great website to check your rights if you run into problems.

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Ryanair.com has a new app on Android or iPhone, which lets you check in for a free allocated seat, avoiding printing out your boarding card.

Skyscanner.net trawls for flights from the whole island.

comparetravelinsurance.com is a good trawler site for insurance needs.

xe.com is a great currency app for iPhone and Android which instantly converts foreign prices into euro.

www.flightrights.ie for information on getting redress if your flight is delayed/cancelled.

FlightTrack is the trainspotter app for airline nerds. It advises on gates, departures, delays, maps and anything you could possibly want to know about your flights.

The Sunscreen app detects the UV status of your location, alerting you to slap on the next bout of sunscreen to avoid the fetching lobster look. Free.

TravelSafePro provides you with emergency numbers at your location - from police to embassies.

WifiFinder detects any of the 320,000 publicly registered wifi hotspots in Europe, both free and paid.

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Carmel McCarthy