There’s no doubt the last few years have been tough. The pandemic saw holidays banned, or made painfully complicated, and now the cost of living crisis has put a massive strain on household budgets – it’s enough to make anyone need a break.
But scouring travel websites can result in a sinking feeling. Flight prices have gone up (2022 saw the biggest ticket price hike for more than 30 years, according to some reports); car hire rates have too.
A Which? analysis earlier this year found that Easter holidays were 72 per cent costlier, on average, while Ryanair has warned of surging fares for summer flights.
Despite all this, a holiday remains a reason to be cheerful which explains why the British are reluctant to let go of theirs. Bookings are almost back to pre-Covid levels and demand is high.
To that end, our experts have come up with 50 money-saving ideas worth celebrating. There are myriad ways to trim the costs of a trip without losing any of the feel-good factor, whether they involve shaving a star off your hotel’s rating, eschewing the boring breakfast buffet in favour of coffee and a croissant in a local cafe, or swapping the south of France for less well-trodden territory.
Do this and you might even add a dollop of unexpected adventure to your sojourn. Read on to find out how to save on everything from coffees to cruises, museums to mountain retreats.
Eurostar fares tend to go up sharply the later you book. We did a spot check: 10 days in advance, the cheapest Friday-Sunday afternoon fare from London to Paris was £318 return. Booked three months ahead it was £138.
Most of us prefer trains, but you will normally pay much less to travel by coach. We found returns from London to Paris with flixbus.co.uk for £61, for example. Mind you, the journey does take nine hours compared with just over two on Eurostar.
Air and train fares are normally much lower on a Sunday morning than at any other time over a weekend – and it will also be cheaper to return on a weekday. What’s more, city hotels also charge their cheapest rates on a Sunday night because demand is low.
If you are booking a hotel at the last minute, bigger properties, though sometimes lacking in character, are more likely to have plenty of spare rooms and so offer more late discounts than their smaller boutique rivals. Look on sites like Booking.com for deals.
Save: £25 a day
Many hotels now don’t include breakfast in their overnight rate – and then charge you through the nose when you head downstairs in the morning. In Amsterdam, for example, you might have to pay up to £35 a head in a top hotel. Pop out to a local cafe and have a coffee and a croissant for a fraction of the price.
Some museums which normally charge hefty entrance fees offer free admission on one or two days a month. The Musée d’Orsay on the first Sunday of the month and the Vatican Museums on the last Sunday are good examples. They will be busy though and you still need to book.
A commercially-run coach tour from central Paris to Versailles costs about €80 (£71), including admission to the palace. Take the RER train (€7.30) and book your admission online (€21.50, chateauversailles.fr) and the total bill is €28.80 (£25.50).
Many smaller cities and even some of the popular bigger ones such as Paris, Vienna, Venice, Amsterdam and Rome have relatively compact centres. Plan your sightseeing carefully and you can save on all those bus and tube fares.
Food and drink in a Continental European café is always much cheaper if you stand at, or lean on, the counter, rather than taking a seat at a table. An espresso in Rome, for example, might be €1.50 at the bar but €4 seated.
Restaurants and cafés near the big sights invariably charge a tourist premium. A cappuccino in Venice at Caffè Florian in St Mark’s Square costs €15, but you can buy one in a café in the Castello district for €4.
Four soggy sandwiches, two weak coffees and a couple of juice cartons will easily top the £20 mark inside departures. Not a celebratory start to the holiday. So, take a packed lunch instead (swerving the soup course – no liquids allowed).
A private pool is the ultimate family holiday accessory – but comes with a hefty price tag. For example, in Sardinia, we found one James Villa property with a pool that would cost a family of four £4,000 for a week in August, and a very similar pool-free option on its books for £2,500. It constitutes a mammoth saving, especially when both are only a short distance from the same sandy beach.
Nothing takes the sheen off your holiday cheer like being fleeced at the car-hire concession for the privilege of putting your toddler in a car seat. The major players routinely charge north of £50 for a week’s use. Instead, invest in Trunki’s BoostApak, a travel car seat that doubles as a backpack. It costs £54.99, meaning it will pay for itself after two trips.
American children return to school earlier, so there are good deals to be had at Disney World if you travel at the end of August. The cheapest seven-night stay currently available for a family of four at the park’s Coronado Springs Resort is £2,409 at the start of August. Book at the end of the month and family-sized rooms are available for £1,194.
Most families are itching for sunshine as soon as the school gates shut, meaning prices drop rapidly at the end of August and into the early days of September. Travel then.
Many Scottish schools go back on August 16 this year, meaning summer flights are significantly cheaper from that date. It may well be worth a drive across the border.
First Choice, Jet2 and Tui all have a “free child place finder” on their website. Enter your children’s ages and the month you want to travel, and all the resorts where they will go free are magically revealed.
Every time you use your UK debit card abroad, you will likely be charged a fee of nearly 3 per cent. And when you’re being hounded, hourly, for ice creams and inflatables, that adds up. Order a Currensea card, use it in exactly the same way, and – under its free plan – you’ll pay 0.5 per cent.
Every year, the Post Office’s combs through the costs of common spends at European family-holiday destinations, identifying the best value for everything from buckets and spades to sun cream. This year’s best bets? The sandy Black Sea beaches of Bulgaria, Turkey’s Turquoise Coast and our old ally Portugal.
If you are sharing a room with the children in order to save cash, you will find that a balcony is your best friend. Somewhere to talk above a whisper once they are in bed, and a VIP bar for two (just stick a supermarket bottle in the mini-fridge).
Hotels find it harder to sell Sunday nights, so look out for deals. Four-star Kilworth House, in Leicestershire, for example, offers “3 for 2 Weekend Breaks”, including complimentary Sunday B&B (worth at least £215), subject to guests dining in the hotel.
A day pass to Alton Towers costs £36 per person when purchased in advance online, compared with the gate price of £68.
In the Lakes hotspot of Windermere, for example, we found a four-star cottage from £580 per week. Head to quieter but equally scenic Loweswater to find a similar but cheaper cottage from £475. Both available at holidaycottages.co.uk.
Manchester’s Imperial War Museum North and its sister museum in London (iwm.org.uk) are among the UK’s best free museums with lots of school-holiday family activities, whereas IWM Duxford charges £26.35 for adults and £13.15 for children aged 5-15.
Look for low-occupancy discounts at large properties. For example, a group of eight saves 40 per cent at The Vean, a Georgian country house on the Caerhays Estate near St Austell, in Cornwall, which sleeps 16, through Rural Retreats. Get three nights from £236 per person (reduced from £394).
Visiting York? Pack in the Jorvik Viking Centre, York Dungeon, Castle Museum, York Minster and Yorkshire Air Museum and take a sightseeing tour and you’ll save £22 on entry costs by buying a two-day Visit York Pass for £70. Other cities have similar schemes.
London’s daily fare cap for travelling by Tube in the central zones 1 and 2 is £7.70 (adult). Pick a base close enough to the sights you want to visit and go by foot to save on transport costs.
Opt for multi-day public-transport passes. North Norfolk’s bus service sells “Coast” tickets allowing unlimited travel at £10 per day. You can shave £9 off by buying a three-day ticket at £21.
Avoid school holidays when ships are busiest and prices are highest and opt for the quieter “shoulder seasons” of May and June or September to November.
The first two weeks of December can also be prime bargain time, as can cruises straddling the end of school holidays and the start of term time.
It’s not all about upmarket cruise lines and swanky new ships. The likes of Ambassador Cruise Line and Greek-owned Celestyal Cruises offer “value” cruises at lower prices on older classic-style ships. Even mainstream lines tend to charge less for older ships in their fleets.
If you can’t get a free drinks package thrown in when you book your cruise, be sure to go to the Captain’s cocktail party and art auctions, where tipples are gratis.
Limited soft drinks are nearly always available from machines in the buffet and, if you have to pay, look out for special-priced cocktails of the day and happy-hour offers.
Dedicated cruise travel agencies, with access to exclusive low prices that cruise lines slip out to them, build unique one-off packages that include flights and hotels at a cheaper price than customers can put together themselves.
Save: up to 60 per cent
Cruise company excursions can be eye-wateringly expensive, so look for independent companies that can be up to 60 per cent cheaper. Pick up a local tour at the port when you disembark or make your own arrangements.
If you want to avoid sky-high prices for an indulgent hot-stone massage or age-defying facial, then wait until the ship is in port and everyone goes ashore on excursions. To drum up business, ship spas invariably offer special deals.
More ships and boosted capacity are fuelling something of a price war between the big names on popular sailings to northern Europe and the western Mediterranean, resulting in stonking last-minute bargains as low as £50 per person per night from Southampton.
Save: up to 50 per cent
Don’t follow the crowds – opt for repositioning voyages instead. These are normally in spring and autumn when cruise ships move around the globe, notably across the Atlantic between the Americas and Europe.
Trip durations may be irregular and there may be more sea days, but the savings are worth it.
With so many ships offering UK departures from the likes of Southampton, Dover and Liverpool at competitive prices, sailing to the Mediterranean or further afield – especially for families – is easier, more enjoyable and can be far more cost-effective than flying.
Don’t rack up big bills by getting your smalls freshly laundered. Most larger ships have laundry rooms where guests can do their own wash and go.
Save: £1.50+ per warmer
In resort shops and supermarkets, a sachet of hand-warmers costs €2-3. Instead, buy a box of 40 from Amazon before you go for about £25. Or better still, buy reusable or rechargeable ones.
Book lift passes, ski hire and ski lessons online, well ahead of your arrival in resort, and you can save £100s.
Group discounts don’t just apply to big gangs of friends and organised groups. Family ski passes are usually discounted and some resorts even offer a reduction for two ski passes bought together, so check before you book independently.
Skiing early or late in the season often unlocks brilliant deals. Les Arcs, for example, offers a 15 per cent discount on ski passes in December and April; from mid-March to mid-April, Serre Chevalier offers free ski passes with certain accommodation.
Save: £40+ a day
Pockets full of chocolate save additional spending in the mountain café when you fancy a sugar hit – so buy a few multipacks at home or in the resort supermarket. Plus, with four hot chocolates costing about £20, you could save £120 a week on a family holiday by making your own in the mornings. Most resorts also offer free water fountains, so carry refillable water bottles.
Save: £50+ a day
A growing number of ski resorts have “lunch rooms” on the slopes equipped with microwaves, or even little barbecues. You could save at least £10 per head, per day, by using them. Back at the chalet, hot mulled wine is easy and cheap to make – just buy a box of sachets, a cheap bottle of red and a bag of sugar.
In many resorts, lift passes for younger children and seniors over 75 are free. Teens benefit from discounts, as do seniors over the age of 60, which could save hundreds.
Choose an Intersport gold package (about €12 a day) and change your equipment as often as you like – so, on bad-weather days when few lifts are open or the visibility is bad, grab some touring skis or cross-country kit and head out under your own steam.
Hire your ski kit instead of buying – you’ll be doing the right thing by the environment, too. A seven‑ day adult bundle of jacket, pants and gloves that would cost £550-£600 to buy costs £134.99 with EcoSki.
Airlines periodically offer free ski carriage deals – book during that period and save £70+ per person instantly.