The search for low-cost holidays stepped up a gear in 2023. Going all-inclusive, travelling in the shoulder season and house swapping were among the tactics many Britons used to control their budgets.
This year is set to bring a similar focus on cheaper travel as living costs remain steep. On 1 January, the Energy Price Cap (which controls what most households pay for energy) increased by five per cent on average, rail fares will rise by 4.9 per cent in March and rents are predicted to climb.
Yet, despite the cost-of-living crisis, holidays remain a priority for many Britons. In the 12 months to August 2023, 84 per cent of people surveyed by the travel association Abta took a holiday at home or abroad. Almost two thirds expected to go on holiday overseas in the next 12 months.
And so, whether it’s cutting down on flight costs or making the most of varying school holiday dates across UK nations, here are my tips for watching what you spend – while still enjoying your travels – in 2024.
Whether it’s the dates of your trip, the time of day that you fly or your destination, being willing to tweak your holiday preferences can save you a lot of money. You may already know that Skyscanner lets you search for “everywhere” (to find the cheapest flights) rather than naming a destination, but did you realise that you don’t always have to specify your destination on accommodation booking websites? Google Hotels and Airbnb both let you search for entire continents, for example. I then use the filters to whittle down the results to exactly what I’m after.
Plan for spontaneity
Great deals can disappear fast, so I like to think about which countries I want to visit, the types of holidays I’d like to try and, most importantly, how much money I have to spend. Also crucial is deciding who you will travel with and finding out how easy it is for them to book annual leave – then choosing dates that work for everyone. Deal-finding companies such as Jack’s Flight Club and Secret Flying alert travellers to flight deals – and, if you already have your annual leave booked, you’ll be primed and ready to jump on them when they pop up.
Focus on daily costs
I love a cheap flight as much as the next person, but I think we often forget that it’s just a one-off price. Instead, when planning a holiday budget, it makes much more sense to focus on your day-to-day costs, including your accommodation, car hire and the price of food, drink and activities. To get a feel for everyday prices, I use Numbeo, which is a cost-of-living index with data for more than 11,000 cities across the world. It has the average prices for things such as beer, coffee and public transport.
Refuse to pay a penny more with low-cost airlines
If you want to secure a flight for £9.99, you must stand strong. The first tactic is to pack light (and avoid extra luggage fees). Opt for items you can wear several times, write a list of your outfits and try packing bags that are designed for rolled-up clothes, so you can squeeze more in your suitcase.
If it is important for you to sit with your travel companion(s), then it’s usually best to check in as early as possible. Most airlines won’t split you up and you’ll avoid a seat selection fee. Wizz Air and Ryanair are among the carriers that do split up travel parties, though, and so either accept you’ll be sat by a stranger or hold off checking in and keep refreshing the seat allocation page in the 24 hours before your flight. Of the airlines that split up parties, some appear to dole out their “worst” seats first in the hope that passengers will pay to change them or to sit by their travel partner.
However, many people check in earlier and accept the seat they are given. This means that upfront and extra legroom seats can be the only ones remaining when the stragglers finally check in for their flight. I’ve secured several extra leg room seats next to my boyfriend for no extra charge thanks to this hack. Although, bear in mind that, if you’re on an overbooked flight, you may run the small risk of missing out on a seat altogether. Of course, if this does happen, the airline still has a responsibility to get you to your destination.
Explore your backyard with the ‘UK’s interrail’
Many travellers will know of the interrail pass that allows you to roam Europe by train, but did you realise we have a version here in the UK? It is called a “Ranger and Rover” and offers unlimited travel within a particular area across a certain time window. There are 96 options to choose from.
I’ve used the “Explore South Wales”, which gave me four days of off-peak travel in an eight-day period on trains and buses in the area for just £48.15, when I booked using my Two Together Railcard (it’s £73 without the railcard). Next, I’d like to try the “Scottish Grand Tour” pass, which allows you to hop on and off a circular route through some of Scotland’s scenic landscapes.
Stay for free
Thanks to house sitting, I’ve stayed in a beautiful Parisian home and a swish house in Germany all for absolutely nothing. The first place required me to care for “Biscotte” the cat, and the latter just needed me to bring in the post. I’ve used Nomador in the past, but there are alternatives, including for UK-based properties. They typically come with an annual fee. However, if the home you are planning to stay in is overseas, check carefully that the country you’re visiting doesn’t class housesitting or petsitting as work – otherwise you may need a work visa to complete your stay (and could face penalties if you house, or pet, sit without one).
Double up on your next city break
Want to travel more in 2024, but need to keep costs down? Instead of doing multiple city breaks across a year, think about how you could turn your trip into a multi-city break instead by using public transport to take you from place to place. You will reduce flight costs compared with splitting city visits into several trips, and you’ll get to feel better about your carbon footprint. The European cities that are easily combined with a rail journey include Vienna and Bratislava, Zagreb and Ljubljana and Madrid and Valencia.
Or, if you are going long haul and spot that your flight has a change, you can often extend your layover without paying a higher air fare. To do this, you need to head to a flight booking site and instead of “Return” select “Multi-city”. You then enter all the segments of your trip. So, if your flight from London to Singapore stopped in Istanbul and you wanted to spend two days there before reaching your final destination, you’d enter London to Istanbul as the first leg, Istanbul to Singapore as the second leg, and then finally Singapore to London as the third leg. Then, it’s up to you which dates you want to fly on.
I tested this out on a flight leaving London on 24 Feb. I stopped in Istanbul for two days before flying to Singapore and returning to London on 6 March. The total flight cost was £555, while a return with no extended layover was £557.
Ask for a free upgrade
My favourite thing to do when staying at a nice hotel is to get in touch beforehand and tell them why I’m so excited to stay. Then, as I’m wrapping up my email, I drop in the all-important line: “if you happen to have availability on the day, we’d love to be considered for an upgrade”.
The key thing is to be polite and once the message has been sent, forget about it. After all, the hotel doesn’t owe you something you haven’t paid for. However, I receive messages every single week from people who’ve had luck with this trick, so it’s definitely worth a try.
Make the most of school holiday quirks
Families living close to a border in England, Wales and Scotland should make the most out of the fact that school holiday dates can differ between UK nations. You could fly from a neighbouring nation when children there are back, or still in, school, but yours are on a school break. This hack works for flight-only bookings, but, as package holiday costs often hinge on the fluctuating prices of flights, you could see savings there too.
Go with a group
Holidaying as part of a bigger group means pooling together your budgets. This can help you to secure accommodation that you wouldn’t be able to afford when travelling solo, in a couple or as part of a small family.
I spend far too much of my time daydreaming about the dwellings listed on sites such as Unique Homestays. However, if I travelled with a big group of friends, my fantasies could become reality. Northcott Beach House in Cornwall, for example, costs from £235pp for a week when there’s 14 people staying.
My advice is to book ahead as the best group options get snapped up quickly.
Search for a Disney alternative
I understand why a trip to Disney is on many families’ bucket list, but it can be expensive. Instead, why not try out an alternative theme park that offers a similar experience, sometimes at half the price. The second most popular theme park in Europe, after Disney, is Europa-Park in Germany with its nearby campsite offering cost-effective options even in the school holidays. Or head to Poland to try its biggest theme park, Energylandia, where standard adult tickets cost just £39 in the high season.
Chelsea Dickenson offers further travel advice at cheapholidayexpert.com