|Path less trodden … great savings are achievable by timing your booking. Photograph: Getty Images|
Travel experts reveal how to track down the best-value flights and accommodation, and where to look for the best online deals
• Savvy travellers know to delete their browser history because prices can increase based on the number of times you re-enter a particular website, says Phil Bloomfield, spokesperson at Cheapflights.co.uk. The company’s data shows that the cheapest days to book are Tuesdays, generally about 50 days ahead of departure, he adds. “Another hack is to travel between 6pm and midnight when flights are typically cheaper than those early in the morning. Air fares tend to be at their most expensive three days before travel and Friday is consistently the most expensive day to fly, so if possible, try to avoid those if you can.”
• Flight systems are loaded first thing every morning so flights that were on hold overnight (usually from business customers) will be released. This happens at around 1am, so you can often get better prices the earlier in the day you book, says Matthew Crummack, deputy CEO of Lastminute.com. And starting your long-haul holiday from another European city can save you lots of money. For example, take a low-cost flight to Sofia, Bulgaria, and you could bag a return flight to Dubai for under £150 with Wizz Air. The best days to fly anywhere are Tuesday to Thursday so you avoid the Monday morning rush of business travellers and also the weekend escapers.
• According to Anna Watt at Travelbag.co.uk, passengers on a budget should avoid direct flights. She says: “Have a stopover when flying long-haul. Indirect flights are often considerably cheaper, so consider having a day or more at your stopover destination.” She adds that it’s worth keeping an eye on social media for special offers.
• Zoe Cornwall at Islands of Greece advises us to keep an eye on travel news and airline launches, as new flight routes will have discounts. Booking outbound and return flights with different airlines sometimes works out cheaper, she says.
Cheap hotel rooms
• Denise Bartlett at Trivago.com says her company’s research indicates that booking hotel rooms one month in advance is the optimum time. Booking further in advance does not yield cheaper prices, with hotel rooms at their most expensive two to three months in advance. She says that although prices do increase closer to the travel date, they rarely reach the same rate as two to three months before, making last-minute booking a viable option. “We also looked at discrepancies between countries,” she adds. “In general, hotels in Spain should be booked the furthest in advance (up to seven weeks before the travel date), followed by Italy, the UK, Germany and finally France, where hotels can be booked just two weeks in advance for the best prices.”
• Book a weekend break in a city’s business district, says Matthew Crummack atLastminute.com. Cities that are popular for business travellers, such as London, Brussels and Zurich, have fantastic room rates at the weekend once the suits have left. You can sometimes find rooms at five-star hotels for under £100 a night. Sunday nights are usually the cheapest night of the week to stay in a city hotel. You’re also more likely to bag an upgrade to a suite when the hotel is quieter on a Sunday, he adds. Christmas and New Year is a particularly quiet period for corporate hotels. The last two weeks in December (excluding New Year’s Eve) and first two weeks in January are usually the least busy.
Check in as late as possible – there is more chance that the hotel will have run out of standard rooms and will give you a higher room category.
• Bob Atkinson of Travelsupermarket.com says hotels often have non-refundable early-booking deals, often via comparison and booking websites, which can save a lot of money, especially in the USA.
• New hotels will book rooms for up to 50% cheaper than they will for following years, says Zoe Cornwall of Islands of Greece.
• For the best deals on accommodation, book direct, advises Malcolm Bell, chief executive of Visit Cornwall: “Many hotels, B&Bs and cottages offer guests an incentive to book direct rather than through a booking engine or agency. You could be rewarded with a discount, room upgrade or complimentary extra. For example, those who book direct with the Fistral Beach Hotel and Spa in Newquay, are offered a free cocktail.”
• Maymie White and Victoria Hooberman, co-founders of accommodation provider Scott Williams, say holidaymakers should always ask for under-occupancy deals when making a villa booking outside of the school holidays. Often villa owners and operators will be happy to offer larger properties at discounted rates if the party is much smaller than capacity. White adds: “This sometimes means that for not much more than you could hire a smaller property, you can indulge in a much bigger, lavish, party pad.”
• Yvonne Bonanati from HomeAway.co.uk says: “Our data, taken over the past few years, has identified that the first Monday in January, this year the 4th, has consistently been the busiest day for UK travellers to book their next holiday. We are predicting the same pattern this year, and expect that thousands of UK travellers will be going online to secure their next getaway that day.”
Package and family holidays
• Sign up to email newsletters from your favourite travel brands, saysTravelsupermarket.com’s Bob Atkinson, because these will let you know when there are special offers, additional discounts, seat sales and other offers. Late or early summer packages are cheapest, often 50% of school holiday prices. He warns: “Don’t travel in the first weeks of the school summer holidays – they are the busiest and most expensive.”
• Derek Moore, chairman of the Association of Independent Tour Operators, says: “Take full advantage of early booking offers – the ones that say ‘Book by 29 February’, for example. You may save a couple of hundred pounds by so doing – and all you need to commit to is the deposit, with final balances due usually only 10-12 weeks before you travel.”
Costs in destination, exchange rates and money
• The cost of eating out, shopping and activities make a big difference to how much you spend on a holiday overall, so consider exchange rates and the cost of key items such as food and drink. Bob Atkinson at TravelSupermarket says the best mainstream destinations for low costs are Spain, Portugal and Bulgaria for beach holidays, and the former eastern bloc for city breaks, such as Krakow, Prague and Budapest.
Right now, Eurozone winter sun resorts Cyprus and Lanzarote offer the best value, says Post Office Travel Money’s Andrew Brown. Further afield, Cancún and Orlando are the cheapest long-haul beach resorts. He adds: “The strength of sterling against currencies for long-haul destinations such as Mexico, Malaysia and Mauritius makes them appealing.”
• In the past 12 months, the pound has strengthened most against the Argentina peso (by 44.2%), the Brazilian real (37.7%), Colmbian peso (26.5%), South African rand (25.9%), Russian rouble (23.5%), Turkish lira (19.1%) and Canadian dollar (14.2%), said Simon Philips of No. 1 Currency, an exchange service. It was also up against the New Zealand and Australian dollars, the euro (5.6%) and the Thai baht, but down against the dollar (4.8%).
• Jeff Paterson, co-founder of Fourex, says the average UK household has £110.45 in unused foreign currency lying around at home, so have a rummage and use it!
• Change your pounds in a bank in the country you are visiting, as you could get a better exchange rate, says Lastminute.com’s Matthew Crummack. Also, consider using your debit card to pay for things abroad because you’ll get the exact currency rates of the day (not a rate that has fees and commission on top). But do check for any fees your bank might charge for this, to make sure it is cost effective.
• “Look for single supplement offers – many package companies offer reduced-price or zero-cost single supplements outside of peak travel season,” says TravelSupermarket’s Bob Atkinson. “Or try specialist companies for solo travellers (Solos Holidays, Just You) which omit singles’ supplements.”
Tour companies such as Exodus and Explore offer adventure-style trips specifically aimed at single travellers, so you don’t feel like the gooseberry on a couples’ road trip. This also means you can opt to share a room and cut the cost of your holiday.
Be wary of booking a single room – it is often a false economy. You’ll often get a small room with a single bed and no view. If your hotel is important to you, pay for a double room and have a better stay.
• Oliver Bailey, managing director of Chalet Finder, says: “Staying in a catered chalet may be more cost-effective than eating out, depending on the resort. Research average menu prices online. Unless there’s a large group of you, a shared chalet (with strangers) will be cheaper. You’re not just sharing a chalet, you’re also sharing the costs for the operator, which will give you a better price over sole occupancy. Book lift passes through your chalet operator, as it will have more flexibility over prices, and will sometimes throw them into the package. Otherwise, try to book through the resort’s tourist office ahead of the season; there are usually pre-season offers to take advantage of.
“Share transfers. Book with a transfer operator that looks to fill its vehicles; this is much cheaper than a private transfer. Or if there are four of you, hiring a car may be cheaper.”
Best websites for low cost trips
• For flights, shop around, be flexible on dates and times, and book early. An absolute must is using comparison sites such as Kayak, Skyscanner and Hipmunk. The TripAdvisor Flight Finder scours hundreds of sites to find the best deals and also shows how you can save money by choosing alternative dates and nearby airports. Setting up an Air Watch alert ensures you’ll be messaged when flights you’ve got your eye on go down in price. It also lists cheapest last-minute flights.Flycheapo.com lists most budget airlines that fly between all European airports.
For hotel deals, Hotels.com,Booking.com and Hoteltonight.com (an app), are good for last-minute breaks. For lower-cost boutiques, tryDorisanddicky.com andMrandmrssmith.com/budget-boutique-hotels are good choices.
• Other room/home borrowing accommodation websites in the vein ofAirbnb include Nightswapping.com(you trade a bed in your own home for “nights” that you can use in others’ homes, only paying a £9.90 reservation fee); Wimdu.com; Vrbo.com;Roomorama.com; uk.travelmob.com (for Asia); and for London, Paris, LA and NYC, try Onefinestay.com.
• See our long list of home-sharing and swapping websites atgu.com/p/4ehgd/stw.
• There’s sure to be a package deal to suit on Icelolly.com orTeletextholidays.co.uk. Put together your own package atTravelrepublic.co.uk/v2, Onthebeach.co.uk or Lowcostholidays.com, which has 50% off in January.
• For cheaper ski trips, try package operators such as Ski Total, Esprit, Crystal and Inghams, and check out Igluski.com.
By Gemma Bowes and Rachel Dixon
By Gemma Bowes and Rachel Dixon