At this time of year, we're usually busy planning our summer holiday, but, in these cash-strapped times, it might seem like a luxury we will have to forego.
owever, there is still a lot you can do to cut the cost of your annual week in the sun. It all depends on how flexible you can be.
I have divided travellers into three groups and tailored advice for each.
FREE AND EASY
You are happy to travel at short notice and are not tied to school holidays. You are the lucky ones.
You are perhaps retired, or have a flexible job; either way, you can avoid the high costs of peak-time travel and take advantage of late-availability discounts. These apply not only to cheap packages to the sun; you will find them on villa-booking sites and on those of smart hotels and good tour operators.
If you are flexible about where you go, you can make even bigger savings.
- Be bold: negotiate. Prices are not fixed in the travel industry any more and tour operators depend on sales. At quiet times, they will bend over backwards to close a deal, especially within weeks of departure.
- Make the most of May and June. They are the most attractive months in most parts of Europe, and prices for accommodation and travel can be half what you will pay in July and August. October can be lovely, too, but the weather is more unpredictable.
CHILD-FREE BUT TIED TO WORK
You are not constricted by school holidays, but need to plan your travel several weeks in advance. You are also among the lucky ones.
You can't take advantage of late-availability discounts, but you can still travel off-peak and enjoy sights and destinations at their best.
- Compare rates. It's standard advice, but prices for flights and accommodation often vary much more during the 'shoulder season' than they do at peak times.
Some careful research will pay dividends.
- Go in a group. Large properties -- châteaux in France, big seaside houses in Ireland and Britain -- are extremely expensive in the school holidays because they are booked by families. At other times, prices fall sharply and they offer exceptional value for money if you fill all the rooms. So get a group of friends or family together and you can book top-end accommodation at bargain rates.
- Travel midweek. Use your flexibility to book flights, ferries and trains at off-peak times. Fares will be lower and airports tend to be much quieter and more pleasant to use during the middle of the day midweek.
You have children and are tied to the school holidays. You, like me, have drawn the short straw.
Despite the faltering economy, demand at peak times still forces up prices. You will also need some kind of a break from home, however, just to survive two months with children out of school.
- Self-catering is clearly the cheapest type of overseas holiday for a family -- you get much more space for your money than in a hotel. For beach holidays, the best options are probably apartments in the main Spanish destinations and on the Algarve.
Camping in France is also a cheap option, but not in a pre-pitched tent booked through a tour operator. Buy your own tent and book sites independently.
- For beach holidays, the last week in August is normally 10 to 20pc cheaper than the other summer-holiday weeks.
STRATEGIES FOR ALL TRAVELLERS
- Book travel arrangements early. While you may be able to find last-minute offers on package holidays, villas or hotels outside peak season, if you are booking your travel and accommodation arrangements separately, you need to book your transport well in advance.
Fares for airlines, ferry companies and trains tend to rise rather than fall as the departure date approaches.
- Find the big savings. It's an obvious point, but not always made: the most important savings are the big ones. So, while accommodation and eating out in Turkey, for example, might be cheaper than in, say, Spain, other costs might swing the balance.
You could get a flight to Spain for €50 each and a hire car for €100 a week. Basic price: €200 for two.
Flights to Turkey might cost €200 each and a hire car €250. Basic price: €650 for two.
On the other hand, if you are going away for two or three weeks and don't want a hire car, Turkey might be a better option, especially with the new Aer Lingus route to Izmir now in service.
- Go by ferry. Despite the strong euro, eating out and accommodation is still cheaper in rural France than in rural Ireland.
Depending on how far north you live, taking your car across the Channel and booking a gîte or a country cottage can make for the most cost-effective holiday of all.
- Avoid the honeypots. Famous names command higher prices. Make 2011 the year to explore Le Marche rather than Tuscany; Milos rather than Mykonos; the Lot rather than the Dordogne; the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy; Dorset rather than Cornwall; Donegal rather than Cork.
- Swap homes. If you live in an area where other people might want to go on holiday, you could, by agreeing a home swap, cut your accommodation costs to virtually nothing. But do talk to a reputable agency, and make sure you understand all the implications.
Leading companies include: Home Base Holidays (homebase-hols.com), HomeLink (homelink.ie) and Intervac (intervac.ie).
- Use price-comparison websites. Even if you decide not to book through them, you can get an overview of the going rate for flights, hotels, travel insurance and car hire though price-comparison websites.
I particularly like Skyscanner.net for air fares -- it even shows how you can save money by travelling out and back on different airlines. Try also Kayak.com and Hotels.com.
- Protect your money. Most travel and accommodation has to be paid for in advance, so you risk losing that money if the operator, airline, agency or accommodation provider goes out of business. The safe bet is to book a bonded package holiday and make sure your travel insurance is up to date.