With the schools about to break up, millions of British families will be dusting off the flip-flops and stocking up the sun cream. But the annual summer getaway, a highlight of the year, can turn sour if you are ripped off on your car hire, phone downloads, booking a hotel or exchanging your cash. However, there are ways both to avoid being fleeced and keep a lid on costs generally, so the summer break doesn’t break the bank.
DIY vs package
When you’re looking for the perfect getaway, think about your destination and compare the cost of a package holiday with buying flights and accommodation separately.
“The most popular and best-value destinations this year are Spain and Portugal’s Algarve, where prices are down around 20 per cent and 15 per cent respectively,” says travel expert Oonagh Shiel of Cheapflights.co.uk. “Outside the eurozone, Turkey continues to be good value, as are Morocco and Tunisia. Closer to home, but also outside the eurozone, Bulgaria is keenly priced, although make sure you research your resort carefully to avoid building works.”
If you’re putting together your own trip, you won’t have the Atol protection that comes with booking an all-inclusive package. So make sure your travel insurance includes “end supplier failure”, as this will cover you should your airline or hotel go bust.
For cheap flights, choose a Tuesday or Wednesday and browse on Ebookers.com. or Skyscanner.net for the best deal. If you pick a budget airline, take all the add-on charges – for baggage and paying by card – into account when comparing costs against the bigger airlines. Also, print off your own boarding passes; it can cost up to £70 in the case of one airline to do this at the airport.
Play your cards right
Using debit and credit cards overseas is convenient but you may be stung by charges. Most credit card issuers add a foreign usage fee to purchase transactions, which can be as high as 2.99 per cent. There are a few exceptions, though: the Halifax Clarity card and Saga’s card for the over-50s don’t charge foreign-exchange fees.
Don’t take out cash on your credit card unless it’s an emergency; in most cases, there will be ATM charges to pay, as well as a much higher interest rate than normal.
It’s a similar story with debit cards. Most, though not all, charge a foreign usage fee of 2.75 per cent on all transactions, plus additional purchase and ATM fees.
The best cards to take abroad are those that come with current accounts, from either Norwich & Peterborough building society or Metro Bank. Neither charge extra for foreign spending or withdrawals.
Whichever card you take, watch out for retailers giving you a choice between paying in sterling or the local currency. Known as dynamic currency conversion, the sterling option is much more expensive as the retailer, not the bank, sets the exchange rate and it’s normally pretty high. Always opt to pay in the local currency.
Find the best exchange rate
The golden rule is never change money at the airport. A recent report by the consumer group Which? found that airport bureaux de change offer persistently low rates, worse than high street outlets and much less than you can get by ordering your currency online.
For £500, Which? researchers were quoted €540.52 by International Currency Exchange (ICE) at Heathrow airport, compared with online rates of €569.82 from the foreign-exchange specialist Moneycorp.
Visit TravelMoneyMax.com to find the best rates on the currency you need. Most foreign-exchange providers will deliver currency to your home or work or arrange for you to pick it up at the airport (at online rates).
Another option is to use a prepaid currency card. FairFX and CaxtonFX offer euro, US dollar or multi-currency prepaid cards. Neither company charges usage fees for purchases. ATM withdrawals are free with Caxton, while the FairFX euro card charges a flat fee of €1.50 per withdrawal. You can load prepaid cards with money before you go, or while you’re away, and exchange rates are locked in from the time of loading.
Be on your guard the minute you are out of the airport at your destination as opportunists hang around in some countries touting themselves as taxi drivers. “The likelihood is that most will be driving unmetered cars and happy to charge massively inflated prices,” says Matthijs Boon of Moneycorp. “To avoid getting scammed by a bogus cab driver, go to the official taxi rank outside the airport and check the driver has an ID and a meter before getting in the cab.”.
If you’re going into the city centre, taxi ranks should have set fares, and the taxi inspector at the rank should give you these upfront so that you know exactly how much you’re paying before you leave the airport.
If you’re taking your car with you, check that you’re covered by your insurance policy and whether your insurer automatically downgrades the policy to provide only the minimum level of cover while abroad. If you go overseas regularly with your car, take out a breakdown policy that includes cover for Europe.
If you’re planning to hire a vehicle instead, take out car-hire excess insurance in advance and never do so from the car hire firm itself, as they will charge over the odds.
“Not many people realise this even exists until they are offered it – usually at a very high cost – when they pick up their hire cars,” says Stephen Ebbett, director of specialist insurer Protect yourbubble.com. “Excesses can be up to £2,000 with some car-rental companies, so it makes sense to get cover. But, contrary to belief, you don’t need to buy it from the car-hire firm.”
Standalone policies typically include cover for damage to windscreens and tyres, which many car-hire companies don’t include in their excess cover.
As of this week, travellers are protected from excessive mobile roaming charges within the European Union after regulators imposed a cap of €0.24 per minute on making calls, €0.07 per minute on receiving calls and €0.08 for sending a standard text message. Data charges for using the internet are also set to be capped at €0.45 per megabyte, or a maximum of €50 per day.
These limits will drop further in 2014, but if you’re travelling outside the EU – which, many people forget, includes Croatia, Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Turkey – you could get burnt.
Savvy travellers should keep their phone’s data roaming switched off and use free local wifi instead. Look into money-saving roaming bundles and apps such as BT SmartTalk, which enables you to make calls through your BT landline at your standard rate on your smartphone, via an internet connection. Alternatively, buy a local SIM card and top it up to keep costs down.
“Holidaymakers need to add ‘check roaming charges’ to their pre-holiday to-do lists,” says Ernest Doku, technology expert at uSwitch.com.
“Talking to your network before you jet off will very likely spare you a nasty post-holiday bill shock, as they may be able to advise on a bundle, or at the very least let you know the costs involved with using your phone abroad,” he adds.