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Travelling during school hols? How to vacation in style without going broke

9 minute read

Every summer, parents get frustrated with school holiday price hikes. Travel companies know they have a captive market of families with no choice but to go away during school holidays and half-term breaks. And the hikes can be horrendous.

“As my husband says, ‘When’s half-term? Don’t worry, I’ll check the Center Parcs website rather than the school,’” says mother-of-one, Claire Furnell-Williams.

With ‘3G’ holidays on the increase, where three generations holiday together, it’s often grandparents who foot the bill, and it can be hugely costly.

While plenty of parents pay school fines to avoid inflated airfares and accommodation prices, or tell the school the kids have come down with a “mysterious tummy bug” a few days before term ends, there are ways to make your holidays more affordable without bending the rules or inventing illnesses.

Going long haul is often better value

Nancy Kirk, the mother of a now-grown-up daughter, says she always found long-haul holidays to the Far East were often more relatively reasonably priced than European jaunts. Especially to destinations where you don’t haemorrhage spending money once you’ve landed.

“Two weeks in Bali or Singapore was often much cheaper than going to Portugal or Spain during school holidays,” Nancy recalls. “I would always book the flights on the day they became available.”

A bit closer to home, Nancy recommends Morocco as an affordable October half-term destination, as well as Alicante City, where the airport has a children's play area. “It’s spiffing value, the sea is still very warm, there are lots of museums, and you can still eat cheaply if you stick to local joints for their menu del dia.

If you don’t mind a ferry transfer after a flight, Nancy adds that choosing Greek islands which are accessible by water rather than air can be “more affordable – and you can stay away from other people’s kids!”

Staying local, and planning ahead make for easy wins

Seeking out holidays within the UK or travelling abroad by road, rail, or ferry can also work out cheaper, according to mother of two, Emma Harris.

“We’ve learned that it’s not necessarily feasible to book a two-week all-inclusive in the sun. UK breaks are embraced and booked early; I plan my hols as soon as I can,” says Emma. “For sunshine, we will often go to France by ferry or Eurotunnel – renting a gite or going to a Eurocamp-style holiday is great. We do one or two weeks in summer comfortably for a family of four for under £2,000, or often a lot less, including all our spends.

“I tend to bookend the holidays and try to do a week at the beginning and another week at the end of the summer holiday to break them up,” continues Emma. “We find a way of making it work and the boys have a lot of wonderful experiences under their belts. In all honesty, it just means looking to be more creative and possibly make a bit more effort, with maybe fewer lie-and-fry, cocktails-at-10am kinds of holidays!”

Get smart with the travel plans

Crossing the border within the UK can help save money on flights, according to Scotland-based mother-of-two, Heleen Kist. “The English and Scottish holidays do not always match up. For example, Scottish school terms end in late June versus mid-July in England.

“So I have, on occasion, chosen flights out of Newcastle or Manchester rather than Scotland to lower the total cost for the family.

“I once saved £600, which is very much worth it! Even after booking a local hotel for an early flight, parking and fuel,” says Heleen.

Families living in England can also save money like this, by going on holiday at the end of the summer break and looking into flights via Scottish airports that let you return home when kids have gone back to school north of the border.

Claire agrees with being flexible on airport locations, even if flying out of Scotland is not practical. “Shop around and look at different airports – it’s much cheaper to stay and park somewhere like East Midlands Airport, rather than Gatwick – and definitely see if you can choose better flight days.”

When researching a recent holiday to Rhodes, Claire spotted airfares that cost £1,500 to fly out on a Saturday, compared with £800 to travel on a Wednesday.

Justin Crabbe, CEO of private jet rental company, Jettly, is another advocate for pre-holiday research. While private jets might be out of reach for most families, Crabbe says significant savings can be made if you seek out destinations with a favourable exchange rate “where your pound yields a higher purchasing power.”

As well as the popular resorts, Justin says it can be worth thinking about alternative forms of accommodation, such as investigating house swap websites where you can “exchange houses for free with another family and get a fully furnished house at the location of your choice.”

Even if you’ve got no choice but to book a family holiday in peak season, he says parents shouldn’t be afraid to ask about family packages or special rates for kids and look out for special offers aimed at families with children, such as attractions that offer free admission or big discounts.

Do the research, and do the DIY

>Rethinking the way you book holidays can pay dividends, according to Hollie McKay, VP of communications for travel technology company HotelPlanner.

"Embrace short road trips and budget getaways and become a pro at finding deals on accommodation,” says Hollie. “Many hotels and booking sites offer discounts for booking in advance and look for packages that include meals or activities to potentially save money.”

Once you’ve reached your holiday destination, Hollow advises families to “discover the joy of free adventures”, such as national parks and museums with free admission, free walking tours, beaches, hiking trails, local festivals, picnics in scenic spots and visiting historical landmarks.

“Transform your visit into an exciting scavenger hunt – research the area you're visiting and create a list of interesting landmarks, historical markers or quirky statues, challenge the family to find them all and reward successes with small prizes,” says Hollie. “You can even create a nature scavenger hunt for hikes or park visits, looking for specific types of leaves, birds or interesting rock formations – this keeps kids engaged in their surroundings and makes exploring more interactive.”

Justin says to save on expensive meals, parents can instead pack meals and snacks whenever possible: “Meal expenses escalate when dining out daily, so bring a cooler, stock up on portable snacks, sandwiches and drinks from local grocery stores – this will save big on food costs.”

But perhaps Nancy has the best tip of all for saving money on summer family holidays: “My girl camped in our back garden from Easter holiday to October half-term – it killed the grass, but made my life a lot easier!”

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