How to BEAT school holiday travel price hikes

How to BEAT school holiday travel price hikes

There's a collective 'GRRRRR' from parents about holiday price hikes when term ends – the cost of flights, hotels and package holidays always seems to rocket. Yet the law's plain. You can't take kids out of school for unauthorised vacations without being fined (see Term-time holidays for the full lowdown).

Fortunately, some simple tricks can help you fight back and turn the tables on sky-high prices for family trips abroad. Here are 11 to get you started:

Find hidden cheap booking dates

Every so often, your school's term dates may differ from everyone else's. This could be due to inset days or just because your council's chosen different dates. These hidden dates can mean huge savings.

For example, in 2023 most Leicestershire schools break up for summer on 12 July, while most others do so around 22 July. When we checked, we found a week's holiday in a three-star hotel in Majorca, including flights from Birmingham, for £384 per person leaving on 13 July. On 23 July, the same holiday jumped to £540 per person.

Most schools in Scotland break up earlier (this year it's around 28 June), so if that's you, consider going away sooner rather than later.

Also watch out for inset days – those one-off mid-term holiday days which vary by school and are usually for teacher training. These can be a boon for long weekends away. For example, some MoneySavers report nabbing cheap stays at Center Parcs through careful forward planning.

To spot hidden cheap booking dates:

  1. Use the Gov.uk school holiday dates tool to find out when schools in your area are off, and check directly with your school too, as inset days and term dates can vary.

  2. Then search Google for other schools' dates. The Day Out With The Kids site has a summary of the different 2023 dates in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

  3. Work out where your school differs from the norm. It might start a week early, finish a week late or have a tempting Friday or Monday inset day, which means you can make a long weekend of it. If your school's off and others aren't, chances are you'll find a bargain.

Booking a package holiday? The last two weeks of summer are usually cheaper

If you're looking for a sunny getaway in a traditional holiday resort, a good old-fashioned package may still smash DIY holidays – see our Cheap Package Holidays guide for tips on how to find them.

And if you're travelling with school-age kids and booking in advance, it's usually worth jetting off in the last two weeks of summer if you can. Travel body ABTA says prices drop rapidly at the end of August/early September – likely because most people want to go as soon as they can. For example, when we checked in January, we saw a week in Corfu for a family of four in a three-star self-catering apartment that was £816 per person leaving 1 August 2023 from London Gatwick, but just £503 per person leaving 21 August.

Being flexible is key though. Late deals can be cheaper, so if you're booking in, say, late June, July may be cheaper than the last two weeks of August. There's more on this in the Package Holidays guide.

Cheap villas can undercut hotels – price hikes are smaller and owners are more willing to haggle

Big family groups may need multiple hotel rooms. Instead, look at villas and apartments. For example, one October half-term, I bagged some cheap flights to Sicily and my family of four stayed in this lovely two-bed apartment for £335 – that's £84 per person (though sadly this year it's gone up to £620).

While villa prices rise in the summer, they don't always climb by quite as much as a package holiday and negotiation is often possible.

Direct booking sites let you quickly search for holiday rentals – see full help in our Cheap Holiday Rentals guide. Be careful though: if you book directly with an owner, there's less protection.

Here's how it worked for me (on another half-term trip to another Italian island):

We found a three-bedroom villa in Sardinia over one May half-term advertised for £880. I sent one message politely asking if there was any flexibility in the price and she immediately cut it to £570. This wasn't even last-minute.

BA Executive Club points can offer fab value over the school holidays

BA Executive points can be your golden ticket to cheap school holiday flights. Yes, the number of points you have to spend increases at peak times. But while you need slightly more Avios points (5-30%), it may be nothing compared to how normal flight prices can spiral.

As an example, a London to Nice return in the first week of August – peak time – costs 19,500 points (plus £1). In off-peak periods, it's 18,500 points (plus £1). That's a 5% increase in the number of points you need. Yet when we searched in January, the same BA flight was £73 in November (off-peak), and the same BA flight in the first week of August £277. That's a mega 280% increase.

Avios flights are limited and seats at peak times vanish quickly, so plan ahead. The ideal time to start checking is around a year before, when seats start to be released. See our full Avios Tricks guide for more.

It pays to check other countries' term dates – especially for Disney World

Resorts popular with locals can empty out once their kids head back to school, meaning falling prices. Term dates vary from country to country, so it's worth a quick check before picking which week to go.

US term dates vary by region and state, but many go back in early or mid-August – a boon for Florida-bound UK families. For example, a family room at Disney's All-Star Music Resort was £948 a week in late July, but £816 in mid-August. 

Similarly, France (like many European countries) does not have a May half term. We found a two-bedroom mobile home at a French holiday park (Yelloh! Saint Emilion) for £286 for seven nights over May half term 2023. In mid-August, the same break costs £831.

To check where other countries' term dates differ, visit the PublicHolidays website or just Google it.

Fly from Scotland in the last two weeks of August – even if you don't live there

Going away in the last two weeks of August? You may be able to save by flying your family out from Scotland – even if you live elsewhere in the UK.

Scottish children generally have an earlier summer break than the rest of the UK, with most returning around 16 August this year. Thus exactly the same package holiday flying from, say, Edinburgh can sometimes work out cheaper than one from, say, Manchester.

To prove this, when we searched, we found a week's three-star self-catering holiday in Majorca for a family of four, leaving on 16 August 2022. Flying from Manchester, the holiday cost £2,208. Flying from Glasgow, the trip was £1,511. That's the same hotel, same date and same room type – £697 less.

Of course, you'll need to do the maths. Work out how much extra you'll spend in petrol or transport to see if it's worth trekking to Scotland – especially if you live in Wales or the south of England.

One MoneySaver, Wendy, who commented below on the first version of this blog, told us she had great success with this trick:

On 16 August our family went to Crete, staying half-board in a lovely hotel. Although we live within spitting distance of Heathrow, we saved thousands by flying out of Glasgow.

The same hotel, board and dates flying from Gatwick was over £2,000 more. Definitely worth the drive up the M6!

Use a nifty tool to plan your trip around the cheapest flights

Bagging a cheap trip away is all about flexibility. And if the school calendar locks you into specific dates, it pays to be flexible on destination. This is where a handy tool that lets you search for cheap flights by date comes in.

Simply tell Skyscanner* where you’re leaving from and enter dates, then opt for 'Everywhere' and it’ll find every flight that fits. This allows you to plan your trip purely around the cheapest flights over the school holidays.

A quick search on the tool for October half-term 2023 uncovered £47 return London to Dublin flights, £56 return London to Oslo and £67 return Milan. Once you’ve bagged a deal, sort out dirt-cheap digs using our Cheap Hotels and Cheap Holiday Rentals guides.

Use free child place finders to track down bargains

With the package holiday January sales in full swing, travel agents are offering free kids' places galore right now. It's usually one free child place with two full paying adults on selected getaways. But these freebies disappear quickly for school holiday dates.

To help track these gems down, First Choice, Jet2 and Tui have handy 'free child place finder' tools. Simply enter a few details, such as kids' ages, departure airport and destination, then pick a month to see a list of trips with free child spots.

For example, a quick search on Jet2 turned up a free child's place on a week's three-star half-board holiday to Bulgaria in late July. The total cost with the free place was £834 for a family of three. Leaving two days later without a free spot, the total cost without the free child's place was £1,275.

Do note though, it's the total holiday cost that counts. When kids go free, tour operators often try to recoup the cost somewhere else, and that somewhere's often in the adult price. While we found holidays with free child places were usually competitive, don't assume they're automatically cheapest. Always compare against nearby dates without free child places. More help in Cheap Package Holidays.

What counts as a child? How old kids need to be to bag a free place varies by operator and hotel. The easiest way to check is just to enter your child's age on the free child place finder tools – then they should only show holidays with free spots for that age.

Under-twos don't qualify with any of the three operators above (though they usually go free or for a small admin fee anyway). With Jet2, free places are available to kids aged up to 17 in some cases, though it depends on the hotel and we found more availability for kids aged 2-12. With Tui and First Choice, free places are available to kids aged up to 16 in some cases, though again we found more choice for those aged 2-12.

Across all three operators, we found free spaces for kids over 12 were more likely to be on self-catering holidays.

Ditch posh resorts for camping parks

Fancy a cheap holiday outdoors, but not ready to embrace pegs and canvas? Check out mobile home breaks in European parks. You've probably heard of Eurocamp, but Canvas Holidays, Yelloh!, Huttopia and others do a similar thing.

Expect entertainment, water slides and playgrounds full of potential pals. While most are still more expensive in school holiday periods, they generally work out cheaper than hotels, as the price was less in the first place.

For example, when we searched, a two-bedroom Eurocamp mobile home in a site in Austria was £553 a week for a family of four in mid-August. Two rooms in a similar quality, three-star hotel with a pool nearby cost £1,170. See our full 13 Eurocamp and Other Holiday Park Tricks for more pointers.

After something more rustic? Glamping brokers Hipcamp and Canopy & Stars feature everything from yurts to treehouses. For example, we found a week for four in a cabin in France for £469 in mid-August.

Have your 'summer' holiday at half-term

Another quick way to shave £100s off your holiday is to jet away over May or October half-term to grab shoulder-season prices. Some spots, such as Sicily or the south of Spain, may be more pleasant for little ones to visit in May before the summer heat kicks in anyway.

When we searched, we found a week's three-star self-catering holiday in the Costa Del Sol that was £347 per person in October half-term, compared with £519 per person in mid-August.

As another example, one October half term we went on a 10-day 5-star all-inclusive holiday to Greece for £530 per person. The same holiday was £2,934 per person in July the next year. That's a £9,616 saving for a family of four with the same room, same food and drink – just a little less sun.

Book with a school trip firm – and book late – for family adventure bargains

You may have heard of PGL from your kids' school trips – that's what the firm's best known for. But we've also seen a lot of buzz in family travel Facebook groups around the company's keenly-priced family adventure holidays at four centres in England – often in the school holidays. You can choose from over 40 activities, such as quad bikes, zip wires and abseiling (may vary depending on location).

The real trick though is to wait to book until six weeks in advance when prices plummet (though of course availability may be more limited). For example, in previous summers, it offered two adult places free with every child place on selected August holidays, one week beforehand. It also dropped August two-night break prices to £79 per person a week before.

Prices include food and accommodation, mostly en-suite family rooms in country houses. While TripAdvisor reviews say rooms are basic, feedback is still that it's a great way to bond as a family.

That's a few tips to get you started – but we want to hear from you. Please let us know how you save on school hols prices in the MSE Forum or via Twitter.

And remember, DON'T feel under pressure to spend on an all-out foreign holiday if you can't afford it. There's plenty of free (or very cheap) fun to be had in the UK, and what your kids really value is time with you.