When it comes to holiday shopping it is all about the research; finding the best price, the best excursions, the best ways to travel. Over the years, I’ve organised some pretty epic holidays, mostly independently. Below I share my tips on getting the most out of your trips, sharing what I’ve learned through planning my own trips.
A good starting point is to have somewhere in mind you want to go
I have a bucket list of the places I want to visit and the activities I want to do. So, when it comes to picking a destination for the year, I’ve got it as a starting point. This is something I’d recommend you do too; consider the places you want to visit or once in a lifetime activities you want to do, e.g. swim with dolphins, and add them to a list you can continually refer to.
Research on your desired destination
Once you have a rough idea on where you might like to go, look at the popular attractions and excursions on what might interest you. For city breaks, all/most attractions are relatively easy to access because they’re in a central location. In a more distinct destination such as Sri Lanka, to visit the most popular attractions, staying in one resort isn’t really a viable option because some destinations can be a 5-6 hours drive away (and drivers can’t do a round trip in one day). Finding out sooner rather than later could save you time and money. I’d also look for best times to go both for special events and weather. Nothing like visiting a beach destination in storm season!
When picking a destination, see if there is anything else you can team it with
For example, when I was in New York I decided to fly to Chicago for a night to see the Chicago Bulls play. Internal flights in the US are reasonable, and is an easy way to travel. Once I’ve made that long haul flight, I may as well make the most of the trip and my visa.
Costing your holiday up
Once you’ve established the above, it’s time to move on to the cost research. For this aspect, there is one of two ways of doing this. You could either search for a rough price in advance and then follow it up by checking out the prices with your local travel agent or vice versa. I’d recommend you do your own research and visit an agent to ensure you get the best possible deal.
Visiting a travel agent
If this is totally new to you, as a starting point, I’d strongly recommend you visit a travel agent to get a further grasp of the destination and the expected costs. It gives you a benchmark and something to work with. There is also a chance they’ve been to the destination you’re looking at so can guide you further and make recommendations on what to do whilst there.
Benefits of using a travel agent:
- Benchmark for pricing.
- Destination recommendations.
- Plan all aspects of your travel from flight, hotel and transfers.
- You’re fully protected by their regulations, however, travel insurance is still essential.
- They’ve secured good deals for your favourite destinations in advance so some can be really competitive (see my breakdown below).
- You can pay a deposit to secure the break and then pay in installments/before you go. This helps to make a costly holiday more manageable and realistic.
In terms of the travel agents you’ll find on the high street, I’ve broken down my particular experience with them and where their specialties lie. I would recommend Thomas Cook and Virgin as the preferred agents of mine but depending on your destination and/or occasion (birthday, anniversary, honeymoon etc.) you may want to consider Kuoni as well.
Our experience of high street travel agents
First Choice– I found they had a vague knowledge of destinations and had a limited ability to offer recommendations. The agents are always super busy so to make the most of your visit, we’d recommend booking an appointment. However, they do have a broad range of destinations including Europe and International. As for prices, I find they vary between Thomas Cook and TUI.
Kuoni- They are luxury holiday specialists and are very knowledgeable on destinations as they send their agents around the world to best advise their customers. You pay a bit more but get more for your money.
Thomas Cook– I often find that they’re very busy so would recommend scheduling an appointment. Their holidays are usually quite reasonable and competitive, they offer a great selection of destinations and can/do offer great destination advice.
TUI– To be honest, I wouldn’t bother searching for a holiday with them. On each opportunity I’ve given them to price up a holiday, it has always been twice the price of where I can get it elsewhere (same flights and hotels!). They often use a 3rd party agent, like Hayes and Jarvis for their trips which is why it is so much more expensive.
Virgin Holidays– They offer excellent customer service, offer holidays for international destinations (USA, Caribbean, Mexico, Africa, Canada, Asia, Indian Ocean etc.), can make some travel recommendations or at least put you in touch with someone who can help further and actually can be quite reasonable. In fact, we booked a holiday a few years ago with them and even they couldn’t believe the price (incredibly reasonable).
Now you’re more equipped with information on your desired location and a ballpark of costs, it’s worth seeing it you can beat it by booking yourself.
Can you get the holiday cheaper by booking it yourself?
Start with flights
Skyscanner is one of my favourite sites to compare flight prices. Put in your preferred airport, your desired destination, and search around the month (rather than specific dates) of when you’d like to go. It then brings up a grid with a baseline of prices. Play around to see what good deals you can get. Something to note about Skyscanner is that it advertises flight offers with every airline and travel agent (even some obscure ones you’ll not have heard of) so when you’ve found something you like, do a search on the company and airline that you’ll be using and what protection you’ll be getting or look to the airline directly. Trustpilot is very helpful for reviews as is a generic Google search.
Google Flights is another favourite flight comparison site.
Look to the airline directly
You can find out who flies to your desired destination by either looking at your preferred airline’s site directly, or by looking at the destination airport and who flies into them. For long haul, I do like Virgin Atlantic for their customer service and comfy flights but if they fly to a destination frequently (e.g. New York they go there 4-5 times per day), they’ll be very reasonable compared to other airlines.
Be mindful of added extras
Another thing to note is the larger companies for long haul include taxes and fees within their pricing so there is nothing hidden. Relatively new to the long haul game is Norwegian Air who offer European prices for long haul trips. But bear in mind this will exclude meal and entertainment options that you do get built in to your price with the bigger airlines. Baggage now, across most airlines is an optional extra so be sure to check what the price covers when you make your booking.
For European flights easyJet is always a winner in my eyes. Their prices are competitive (though note they’ll add charges at the end- though not as bad as Ryanair) and actually the planes are not bad at all comfort wise. Although I’ve ribbed on Ryanair, if you really want to budget, you can’t go wrong. The planes are really nothing special, the service is just fine, but you really can get ridiculously cheap flights.
Searching for a hotel
booking.com– I like using this site becuase it is easy to use and filter my search (always search by 7+ review ratings) and it allows me to customise to my needs. Moreover, a lot of hotels offer free cancellation which is ideal in case plans change and/or you find a better deal elsewhere. I’ve also found them to be 9 times out of 10 cheaper than other providers.
Expedia– too offer free cancellation on most bookings, though you do pay slightly more for that security. Plus, they have a wide selection too. Additionally, you can also collect nectar points with your trips through Expedia.
Want to make a comparison? Take a look at TripAdvisor . Not only will they compare the sites like booking.com and Expedia but you can see some very honest reviews from people who’ve stayed there and their experiences.
You may even get cashback on your holidays
You can also get TopCashback with the providers mentioned so it is worth factoring any cashback into the hotel price against other agents.
Don’t forget: When booking your holiday yourself, you’ll need to do the following
- Transfers from airport to hotel and vice versa.
- Check if you need and apply for visas
- Airport parking
For transfers and airport parking we’d recommend that you take a look at the airport website and find out who has service in the local area. Don’t hesitate to comment below if you’ve a particular query either, we’ll do our best to answer or at least signpost you.
Looking for more guidance or inspiration when it comes to your next trip? Check out our other travel reads below.