Booking a package holiday can slash the cost of going away, particularly if you're heading to a popular beach destination. And we're now in the summer 'lates' market, where there are serious discounts to be had on packages that tour operators are desperate to shift.
This guide explains when's best to book, where to go and how to weigh up if all-inclusive is worth it, plus gives haggling tips to help negotiate the cost down even further.
In this guide...
Package vs DIY holidays
The first thing to decide is whether a package holiday's right for you, or if you would get a better deal booking a DIY flight and hotel online.
A package holiday is an all-in-one, where the tour operator provides flights, connections and accommodation for one price. That means they're off-the-peg and best suited for standard breaks of standard length. So...
As a rough rule of thumb, packages are usually cheapest for seven, 10 or 14 days away in traditional holiday destinations.
If you're going away for a different trip length, to a less-visited spot, on a city break or multi-stop holiday, you'll tend to be better off with a DIY break. Read our Cheap Flights, Cheap Hotels and Cheap Holiday Rentals guides, as well as the Hotel Sales deals page, for more on those.
Package holidays are usually protected
Package holidays generally come with added ATOL or ABTA consumer protection. This means that if the travel company fulfilling your booking goes bust, you'll be refunded if you're yet to travel, or found alternative accommodation and flights home if you're abroad.
Always ask a broker before you book: "Is this holiday ATOL-protected?" and "What happens if my flight is cancelled?" Also, watch out for holidays booked through airline companies – not all are ATOL-protected.
The collapse of online travel agent Lowcostholidays this month shows the importance of ATOL protection. Almost 140,000 holidaymakers found they had little official protection after the firm went into administration, as it was registered in Spain and so didn't have ATOL protection.
You can check if you'll get ATOL protection via the Civil Aviation Authority's (CAA's) ATOL holder search. With all holidays, if you're covered, you'll get an 'ATOL certificate'.
Changes to the ATOL system in 2012 mean package holidays aren't the only way to get protection for your trip. If you book a flight plus separate hotel or car hire together (or within 24 hours) from the same travel website (not airline), you get ATOL protection, just as with a traditional package holiday.
It's worth comparing this with booking the cheapest flight and hotel separately to see how much this protection 'costs' you. Also, bear in mind Expedia*, Travelocity*, Ebookers* and Lastminute.com* often give extra discounts for flights and hotels booked together, though always check if you can get it cheaper separately – see Cheap Flights and Cheap Hotels for MoneySaving tips.
With DIY holidays that don't include this type of ATOL protection, if one of the components fails, you're unlikely to get your money back unless the transaction was over £100 and you paid by credit card (for more on this, read a full guide to Section 75 Refunds).
Package holiday need-to-knows
Here's what you need to know before you look for a cheap package holiday deal.
You can slash the price by checking comparison sites, tour operators and flash-sale sites
First, benchmark a decent price on the web. To get an idea of the type of price you should be paying, start by searching the major package holiday listing sites. All the sites below allow you to filter your options and, if you can be flexible, search for dates around the one you want to see if it's cheaper.
TravelSupermarket for speed and range. TravelSupermarket* covers all the big tour operators such as Thomas Cook and Thomson, plus sites including Expedia, Love Holidays and On the Beach, which allow you to be more flexible about picking your own flight and hotel. It also has an 'Anywhere' option if you're flexible and happy to be inspired by a cheap deal.
Ice Lolly for extra breadth. Ice Lolly* covers some of the travel firms that TravelSupermarket misses and allows you to search holidays from up to three airports at once. Plus all the providers it covers are ATOL-protected.
Traditional tour operators incl Thomas Cook, Thomson and Virgin Holidays. While some traditional tour operators' offers will be included in the comparison sites above, it's worth checking direct as well – the likes of Thomas Cook*, Thomson, First Choice*, Virgin Holidays and Olympic can often have last-minute deals you won't find elsewhere.
Remember, tour operators buy holidays in advance (usually around a year ahead) so they need to shift 'em. If you can be flexible and wait until the last minute, you could bag a real bargain. Plus tour operators' sites sometimes offer extra perks such as upgrades with certain hotels, or early booking discounts.
- Flash-sale sites for cheap short-lived deals. You'll need to be ready to pounce for this one, but flash-sale sites offer great deals which beat comparison sites for a short time only. Holiday Pirates is one which has stonking deals on holidays, flights and hotels – also check Travelzoo and Secret Escapes.
However, often for the real bargains it's about getting on the phone to late specialist travel agents to see what they can find. And remember tour operators make holidays, travel agents just sell them, so the same holiday can be different prices at different agents. See our holiday haggling tips below.
Book late for the best deals...
Booking late is the cheapest way to get a package. 'Late' means no more than 8-10 weeks before departure, when the bargains flood in.
The reason's simple. Tour operators have chartered the planes and reserved the rooms, and, if they don't shift 'em, they lose money. The later you leave it, the more desperate they are to flog empty rooms, so the price drops further.
Yet the later you wait, the more you need to be flexible about dates and destinations. So if creche facilities or a specific hotel are must-haves, be careful.
If you just want anywhere hot and cheap, leave it very late, ie, the week before you go, and you may get elegant trips for dirt-cheap prices.
... or book early for special offers and discounts – great if you need particular facilities
The other way to get discounts is to book early, as much as NINE MONTHS in advance, because many tour operators offer early booking discounts. These can include £100 per couple discounts or buy-one-get-one-free weeks.
Many places shout about special offers, but don't be drawn in without checking the final cost – you might find a cheaper deal elsewhere, without a specific sale or code.
All-inclusive can be better value
All-inclusive deals typically include all meals, snacks and drinks (though not always alcoholic ones), and sometimes transfers and luggage too – costs which can quickly add up.
According to the Post Office, a meal out for a family of four costs about £50 in Europe – that's about £350/week in evening meals alone. It varies by destination though – for example, a week's evening meals in Italy could cost around £630, whereas in the Algarve the average is just £245.
So if you don't mind eating in the hotel it's worth weighing up if you can save by going all-inclusive, factoring in local costs and exchange rates. Sometimes it's only a little more and you can make big savings overall – for example, we found a week's self-catering break in the Canary Islands for a family of four for £430pp, while a similar hotel on an all-inclusive basis was only £34pp more.
The last two weeks of summer are cheaper
Take a holiday when others can't, such as travelling before the school holidays in May and June to family destinations such as Florida, and you'll get a better price.
If that's not an option, prices for package holidays drop rapidly towards the end of August – this is likely to be because most people want to go as soon as they can, according to ABTA (the Association of British Travel Agents). And many people don't want to be away the week before schools go back, so if you can leave it to the very last minute you'll likely save.
Look for out-of-favour destinations
Heading to once-in-vogue holiday hotspots that are no longer so popular can be a holiday MoneySaver. Often if demand's off the boil, massive hotels can lie virtually empty.
For example, Turkey's recent problems mean it's cheap right now. The Independent travel editor Simon Calder said on This Morning: "I wouldn't hesitate... to get on an aircraft with my family and go to Turkey". Always check the latest Foreign Office guidance before booking though.
The same applies to destinations off the beaten track that aren't popular with the masses yet, though capacity at these may be more limited. Opting for Bulgaria rather than Greece, for example, can help save, while Sri Lanka used to be a cheap option for tropical package holidays (but it's now becoming more and more popular).
If you don't fancy a package, city breaks tend to cost less in summer, as cities are less obvious destinations.
A holiday is usually two weeks at most – don't spend all year paying for it
We all deserve a holiday now and then but do remember it's only two weeks a year for most – a holiday you spend the rest of the year worrying how to pay for isn't relaxing, nor helpful for long-term finances.
How to haggle down the cost of your package holiday
The most important thing to understand before haggling is:
Tour operators make holidays, travel agents sell 'em.
Admittedly, they're both often subsidiaries of the same company, yet the distinction is crucial. Just as a Kylie CD is available from different shops at different prices, many different travel agents will try to sell the same tour operator's holiday at different prices. The aim's to find the travel agent who'll sell it to you for the least.
The aim's to locate a suitable holiday and grab all the details. First benchmark a decent price online (using the sites listed above). Then, once you've found a holiday you want within your price range, ensure you write down as much info as you can, for example noting meals and transfers, plus the name of the tour operator.
Now you've picked a holiday, the aim's to get EXACTLY THE SAME holiday cheaper.
It's worth remembering to stay polite, charming and smiley throughout this, as travel agents don't like the tactic – or us – much.
You'll need to act quickly, as prices and availability change. To help, we've complied a list of specialist holiday companies and brokers to try.
This list below isn't exhaustive, but it's a good place to start. Note – we don't have specific feedback on how open these agents are to haggling – there's never any harm asking if they can beat a figure you've been quoted, but let us know how you get on in the Holiday haggling forum thread.
|Travel firm||Tel number|
|A1 Travel||020 8548 3048|
|AirTours Flights||01733 224901|
|Away Holidays||0800 408 6484|
|Balkan Holidays||020 7543 5555|
|Best At Travel||020 3733 4001|
|Blueseaholidays||020 3474 3075|
|Broadway Travel||020 3368 6221|
|Caribbean Classics||01793 841421|
|Club 18-30||01733 224808|
|Easyjet Holidays||020 3499 5232|
|Exclusive Dubai||01793 841423|
|First Choice||020 3451 2720|
|Holiday Genie Dubai||0118 334 7650|
|Jet 2 Holidays||0800 408 0778|
|Love Holidays||0161 3720 045|
|Luxury Indian Ocean||01793 841422|
|NetFlights||0843 178 6631|
|Olympic Holidays||020 8492 6868|
|Perfect Holidays||020 7725 7000|
|Southall Travel||020 8843 4444|
|Teletext Holidays||0151 344 3231|
|Thomson||020 3451 2688|
|Travel Republic||020 8974 7200|
|TravelSoon||0800 091 3702|
|Travel Trolley||020 8843 4400|
Try to negotiate in price per person, not total cost, as discounts will seem less to the travel agent.
Then continue the process with a few more, quoting the best price you got (maybe knocking a tenner off to speed things up) and see who can beat it.
Once you've hit the price floor, to be absolutely sure, call the tour operator's own direct booking arm and see if THEY can beat what you've been quoted. Thomas Cook*, First Choice* and Virgin all have them.
Step 4: Give the first broker the chance to match it
Finally, just to try to be fair, if a travel agent spent a lot of time with you to find the holiday in the first place, why not give them the chance to match – not beat – the price to regain your custom?
Here's how we got on when we gave it a go
Just to show we practise what we preach, we tried our own haggle on a two-week all-inclusive break to Cancun in Mexico staying in the five-star Hard Rock Hotel, based on two people sharing. The total cost booking direct with the tour operator was £2,166pp.
We started by checking comparison sites and found the same holiday for £2,045pp – a good start. From there, we called a few different agents all selling the same holiday and put our haggling skills to the test.
The first provider wouldn't budge, but the second offered a £20pp discount – not groundbreaking given the cost of the holiday, but a discount's a discount. So we're now down to £2,025pp.
We tried our luck at one more provider and the tour operator directly but sadly neither would go anywhere near what we were last offered. However, from initially seeing the holiday for £2,166pp, we did save £141pp by comparing then haggling the cost.
Be aware – travel agents don't like this very much
Martin's been showing us how to haggle with travel agents for years and a few years ago presented an ITV Tonight programme, taking a couple of families and showing how much they could save using this technique. While it may be a little old now, the method hasn't changed and it does still work.
Following the show, travel agents vented their spleen – letters were sent and their trade magazine devoted pages to it. Apparently showing people how to cut their costs is 'immoral'. Read their views and Martin's response and his later blog: 'Dear travel agents, I have nothing against you but I won't stay shtum to protect your profits'.
The aim seems to be to persuade us that travel agents have it tough. Yet that isn't enough of a reason for us to hide the fact that haggling with travel agents results in consumers paying less. This is a site for consumers, after all.
To be fair to travel agents, try to minimise the amount of their time you use when originally sourcing the holiday if you're going to buy it cheaper elsewhere anyway. It's one of the reasons we favour phone specialists, who deal with this all the time, over high street agencies.
Many people have tried our haggling technique with varying degrees of success. If you save 5%, you're doing well – though in some cases it's possible to cut costs by much more.
To inspire you, here are some quotes from the forum:
I wanted to travel to Southeast Asia. I booked a year before the holiday. I visited one firm who said it would be £4,000-£4,500pp. The next travel agent quoted £2,700pp, but I tried one more and got it for £2,200pp. Couldn't get it any less after that, so this is the one I booked the holiday with. - Cass61
Recently we booked a holiday for a family of four to Florida. Initial quotes were in the region of £5,000-£6,000 for chartered flights, accommodation and car hire. By employing the haggling technique, we managed to get the final price down to just over £2,000 all-in! - MoneySaver2
I just followed the tips on haggling down the price of our holiday and managed to save £460pp on our next cruise. It works, just give it a try! - Clutterbux
Add your success story and read others'. See Holiday haggling feedback.