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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rachel Dixon

Massive discounts and midweek mini-breaks: 20 ways to book a fantastic, more affordable holiday

Illustration of a man in swimming costume peering out from behind two cardboard palm trees
Don't be fooled by fakes! Illustration: Ryan Gillett/The Guardian

The summer holidays are almost upon us, which, for an increasing number of Britons, means only one thing: being scammed out of thousands of hard-earned pounds. Action Fraud, the national reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime, revealed in May that it had received 6,457 reports of holiday fraud in the last financial year, an increase of 41% on the previous year. The average loss was £2,372 per person, with 44% of victims in their 20s and 40s – dispelling the myth that only older people fall prey to fraudsters.

Even without the scams, holidays can be a huge expense in a cost of living crisis – and Which? reported that getaways this summer could cost up to 70% more than last year. But before you resign yourself to another summer at home, try these booking tips to outsmart the scammers and bag a great deal.

Beware clones and fakes

One of the biggest threats comes from cloned comparison, airline and holiday websites. These look like the real deal but have a small change to the url, from to .org, for example. They may even send fake confirmation emails or booking references – Anna Bowles, the head of consumer policy and enforcement at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, says: “Some victims only realise they have fallen victim to fraud when they are at the airport to check in for their flight, only to be told that their booking does not exist.” Check the url carefully and Google the site to find the official one.

Fake sites, as opposed to clones, can often be spotted by spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and low-quality pictures. Valid businesses should have a phone number and registered address and, ideally, accreditation from a travel body such as Abta or Atol. Worryingly, Bowles says an emerging trend is fake Atol protect numbers, so cross-check on the Atol website. Sites such as Trustpilot can verify the company is genuine.

Don’t trust companies whose only online presence is on social media and don’t click on links in social media posts or emails. Never respond to unsolicited emails, calls or texts.

Don’t be fooled by the pictures

Fake listings steal images of gorgeous villas/luxury hotels/fancy apartments and pass them off as their own. Do a reverse image search (right-click on the picture and select “search image with Google”) to see where else the image appears online. If the same picture is illustrating multiple different properties, it’s a scam.

At the less extreme end of the spectrum, keep an eye out for fish-eye lenses that make rooms look bigger than they are; overly staged images and closeups of objects (designed to distract you from, say, a grotty bathroom); and signs of digital manipulation – stretched or blurred edges, odd shadows and unrealistic colours.

Illustration of a cursor arrow puncturing a beach ball
Check travel websites’ claims with Google Maps and Street View. Illustration: Ryan Gillett/The Guardian

Use a map

Some hotels and holiday homes may stretch the truth about the location – “a stone’s throw from the beach” could require a very strong arm. Put the address into Google Maps to check, and consider using Street View (although bear in mind it might not be up to date if the property has been recently refurbished). Make sure the location suits you as well as the property itself: has it got good transport links and nearby shops/restaurants, for example? Claire Wills, the director of the holiday rental site Coolstays, says: “We hear lots of stories about guests who try to get to very rural places without a car or any supplies and expect Deliveroo to reach them.”

Read online reviews …

Check out the reviews on the business’s own website and on sites such as TripAdvisor or FeeFo. If there are no first-person reviews, only edited (or invented) testimonials, that could be a red flag. Ditto very old reviews, suspiciously similar reviews, a sudden flood of rave reviews and one-off reviews from users who have never posted before. It can also be useful to read the responses from the owners/managers – are they polite, friendly, open to constructive criticism?

… but don’t let one or two bad reviews put you off

Reviews are subjective, after all – and some unscrupulous reviewers may be working for a rival business or trying to wangle an undeserved refund.

Don’t forget word of mouth

A personal recommendation from someone you know and trust is worth more than the opinions of 100 anonymous keyboard warriors. Wills says it is often the best way to find hidden gems.

Consider a travel agent

Believe it or not, high-street travel agents still exist, and those that have survived are likely to offer a great service. They will help to find the best deals and support you if anything goes wrong.

Go direct for a discount

Rory Boland, the editor of Which? Travel, says if you want a good hotel deal, just phone up and ask. “Hoteliers and B&B owners are often stuck in contracts with online booking websites that prevent them from offering you a better price on their own websites. But on the phone, they can do any deal they want, and they usually will,” he says. “When I have phoned directly, they’ve usually been able to beat the online price, or at least match it and throw in a room upgrade or meal voucher. Plus, more of the money is going to the owner rather than a middleman.”

Look out for hidden fees

The headline price might be appealing, but make sure you read the small print to see what is included. Paying for extras such as service fees, baggage allowance, transfers and breakfast can add up quickly.

Double-check important details

Identify your holiday priorities and check your booking really does fit the bill. For example, Wills says: “Some ‘dog-friendly’ places ask you to confine your beloved pooch to one area of the house.”

Illustration of a woman lying on a beach towel spread on a giant pound sign.
Save money by travelling out of season. Illustration: Ryan Gillett/The Guardian

Be flexible with dates

Do you have school-age children or work in education? If not, don’t travel in the school summer holidays. The weather can be lovely in spring and autumn, and prices are far lower. If you are going very early or late in the season, though, do check that the hotel isn’t doing any maintenance work and that everything is open: pool, restaurants, attractions etc. If you are tied to the school holidays, Karen Williams, a travel expert at Eurocamp, says the May half-term or the last week of the summer holidays in September tend to be cheaper than July and August. Midweek breaks are cheaper than weekends. Williams says: “Don’t restrict yourself to traditional holiday durations, such as one week, 10 days or a fortnight. Play around with the length of your trip by a few nights either way to get the best prices.”

Flying is not the only option …

… and it’s obviously not the greenest option. If you must fly, Tuesday tends to be the cheapest day. Boland has plenty of other money-saving flight tips: “If you are flexible on your destination, set up price alerts on flight comparison websites, such as Skyscanner, for multiple countries. These will alert you to price drops on the route.” He also suggests keeping an eye out for new airlines. “There have been cheap deals to New York and Boston in 2023 because new budget airlines, such as Norse and Play, launched flights and other carriers dropped their prices to compete.” Finally, he says it’s not worth paying for seat selection. “Our research suggests that you have a strong chance of being seated with your travel companions even if you don’t pay – Ryanair is really the only exception to this rule.”

Otherwise, consider taking the train or a ferry, booking as far in advance as possible for the best prices. Interrailing around Europe can be good value for families – two children under 12 travel free with every adult. Companies such as Eurocamp often have free ferry offers when you book accommodation through them.

Go with a group

Teaming up with friends or family can be a good way to save money. Big holiday homes tend to work out much cheaper per head than those that sleep two to six, and more than 100 YHA hostels in England and Wales are available for exclusive hire from as little as £7 a night per person. There is also a recent trend for whole campsite bookings, which can work out at less than a tenner a night per person.

Book (way) in advance

The bad news is that the best deals for this summer have long gone, although there are still bargains to be had from mid-autumn onwards. The good news is that now is a great time to book for next summer. If you’re worried about paying out so far in advance in case the company goes bust, Angus Kinloch, the managing director of Ski Line, a specialist travel agent, suggests snooping on Companies House. “This site allows users to view the latest company accounts to see if it is profitable and likely to still be in business when you take your holiday. A business showing negative shareholders’ funds or accumulated losses isn’t likely to be trading for very long.”

Don’t bank on a last-minute bargain

Dan Fox, the managing director of the tour operator Ski Weekends, says: “Late deals do still exist with the major package operators because they have already paid for the flight and accommodation and need to sell it.” However, he adds: “The overcapacity that used to exist has all but disappeared, so these deals are few and far between; don’t bank on finding one.” Maximise your chances by signing up for email alerts on last-minute offers from operators, hotels and spas, or gamble on an impromptu UK minibreak – boutique hotels often discount massively on the day if they aren’t fully booked.

Beware huge discounts

Having said that, early-bird or last-minute offers are one thing, but unrealistically big discounts or very time-sensitive deals (“Act now!”) may well be a scam. Even if the company is genuine, Mark Nathan, the owner of Chalets1066 in Les Gets, France, says: “It is easy to be attracted by offers such as 50% off, but this often means that the list price is inflated enormously. You have to ask the question: do you trust a company that inflates the list price and tries to make huge profits, and only discounts when a week is not selling?”

Follow payment guidelines

Kinloch says: “Scammers play on people’s greed, asking clients to pay for their holiday away from the website where the listing is so they can avoid paying commission. Always follow the payment guidelines when booking on sites such as Airbnb.” Legitimate websites with secure payment systems have an SSL certificate, indicated by “https” rather than “http” in the url, and a padlock symbol. They will also have a privacy policy explaining how they store your data. Never give out personal or financial information over the phone, and avoid paying by bank transfer. “Using a credit card will offer you extra protection under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act,” says Boland. PayPal’s Buyer Protection programme is another good option.

Buy travel insurance

If travelling in Europe, apply for a global health insurance card (Ghic), which entitles you to limited emergency healthcare. But you still need travel insurance – annual multi-trip cover is often the best value if you are going away more than once a year. “Always take out travel insurance at the same time you book your holiday. This ensures you are protected if you can’t travel, which is especially useful if you or one of your party becomes unwell, says Boland. “Read your policy document carefully so you understand what is covered. For example, last year we found that four in 10 policies won’t cover you in the event of strikes by airline or airport staff.”

Price isn’t everything

For many, the cheapest option is the only option. But if you can afford it, consider paying a little more to support independent businesses with sound environmental policies. You may even be able to help someone else have a holiday – some retreat venues and festivals operate on a “pay what you can” basis, with better-off customers subsidising others. The Greenbelt festival in Northamptonshire, for example, is £190 for a standard ticket or £230 for a supporter ticket; the latter helps cover the cost of free and discounted places for people on benefits or in financial difficulties.

And finally …

“If it sounds too good to be true, it most definitely is,” says Pauline Smith, the head of Action Fraud, and pretty much every other travel expert. You have been warned.

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