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Whatever happened to cheap holidays?

by Staff

In the first ever edition, published in 1974, Which? Travel reported that a summer flight to Alicante, Spain, was listed as £50 – around £452 at today’s prices. 

In summer 1975 you could get to Malaga on the Costa del Sol for £64 (around £474).

Since then we’ve regularly recorded prices, and both flights and packages got  progressively cheaper in the 80s and 90s. For a long time, the pound was strong and hotels in Mediterranean countries were cheap, while the arrival of budget airlines increased competition and lowered prices further. 

However, although fares and holidays are still much cheaper than the 70s, our research found that they aren’t as cheap as they were in the 90s and 00s. And prices may keep rising. 

High airfares – and how they fell

In 1974, it was still illegal for airlines to set their own fares. National governments fixed what you’d pay, usually just rubber-stamping whatever was decided by IATA – the International Air Transport Association.

The £64 flight to the Costa del Sol above represented about a week-and-a-half’s wages for a male manual worker, according to government figures (and more than two weeks’ wages for a female manual worker).

In 1978, Which? pointed out that there was little difference between most airlines, as they were selling a ‘standard product at a standard price’. We added: ‘They spend a lot of money trying to convince you that marginal differences between airlines matter.’

This changed after first US legislation, later that same year, and then European and UK legislation liberalised airspace.

Ryanair launched its budget airline business model in 1990 and it was followed in 1995 by easyJet. Their strategy was copied by other airlines – and prices fell.

Airfares then and now

1975 prices from 1974’s Holiday Which? magazine. 2023 prices provided by Skyscanner. Past prices adjusted for inflation using the Bank of England inflation calculator.

 The best and worst airlines

Airfares rise – and airlines charge more for extras

Since the pandemic, average fares have increased. 

In the summer of 2010, the average return flight to Europe cost £123, or about £181 at today’s prices according to the ONS (Office for National Statistics). Compare that to summer 2023, when the average price had risen to £322. 

And that’s just the airfare. If you’re flying with a budget airline, you’ll probably have to add £45-£50 to put a cabin bag in the overhead locker. Checking a larger suitcase into the hold could cost between £50 and £75 return.

You might also buy food and drink, which would have been included in the 70s and 80s.

It’s a long way from the golden era of budget travel in the 2000s and 2010s. 

How to save money on flights.

Package holiday costs rise

In the 70s and 80s the basic cost of a flight might have been expensive – but the rest of your holiday was often very cheap.

In 1986, we reported that a week’s package holiday on the Costa Blanca would cost up to £456 at today’s prices. But we also warned that the accommodation provided might be minimal – potentially just a bunk in a dorm. Most people would have booked a hotel on top of that.

By 1991 a package, including two weeks half-board at an average hotel, cost £986pp at today’s prices in Spain, £1,417 in Portugal and only slightly more – £1,485 – in Florida. 

In summer 2024 you’ll pay an average of £955 for just one week, half-board, in Spain. This is mostly because hotel prices on the Med are much more expensive now than they were back then. At other destinations, such as Portugal, Greece and Italy, prices are even higher.

Package holidays

1991 package prices are per person for two weeks at a midrange (usually 3-star) seaside hotel based on two people sharing, staying half-board in the peak summer season. The 2024 price is an average based on holidays in summer 2024, also per person, for a half-board stay in a double or twin room for one week, inclusive of all hotel types. Prices found on Tui and Jet 2 in January 2024.

The best and worst package holiday providers

Days out that cost more

The biggest increase in prices has been in the UK – where days out are vastly more expensive now than in the 70s. In 1974 you could visit the Tower of London for 10p (5p for children). If the adult price had gone up in line with inflation it would be around 90p now. Instead it’s £34.80 – 37 times more.

It’s the same story at other attractions. Madame Tussauds was 75p (£7) in 1974. It’s now £33, and that’s off-peak. St Paul’s Cathedral was free, and is now £25. 

One way to save money is to travel by train. Many sights, including the Tower of London, offer a two-for-one deal for rail users – making entrance prices a bit more reasonable. 

 Days out in London


The best days out in the UK

Ferries and Trains

In 1974, a family of four in a standard car travelling from Dover to Calais (return) paid £12 – around £108 at today’s prices.

In 1994 the Channel Tunnel opened, creating more competition, but prices don’t seem to have fallen. For summer 2024 the cheapest price, by ferry, was £187 – and that was a special offer.

A return train from Edinburgh to London was also £12 in 1974. After allowing for inflation that’s around £108 – comparable with the best advance price you’ll get today. But, if you leave your booking until the last minute, you will pay a lot more.

You would get there quicker now, though – just under four and a half hours, rather than six hours in the 70s. 

How to get cheap ferry tickets.

Car hire

If you wanted to hire a car for a week in Spain in 1978, we said you would pay the equivalent of £438 at today’s prices. That’s more than the lowest providers now – but similar to some of the better ones in our survey for summer 2023.

Car hire prices soared after the pandemic, but anybody booking this year should pay less for this summer.

The best and worst car hire companies

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