Save your holiday cash for enjoying yourself

Yet to book, or already got your tickets, there's still time to save cash, says David Prosser
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The Independent Online

With less than a month to go before the end of the school year, millions of families are looking forward to their summer holidays. If you have yet to book a trip, there are big savings to be made on the cost of travel this year. But even if you already have the tickets, there are still all sorts of ways to bring down the cost of your holiday.

LOWER AIR FARES

If you're arranging accommodation and travel separately this summer, get the best possible deal on air fares. Martin Lewis, founder of the Moneysavingexpert. com website, says there are several tricks you can use.

The first is to book as early as possible. "Unlike package holidays, where the ultra-deals come with booking late, for flights it is usually best to book earlier," says Lewis. "Also, the web almost always comes out trumps for flights, though it rarely wins for a week in the sun."

One option for travellers who know when and where they want to fly is a "screen-scraper" service such as TravelSupermarket or Kelkoo. These internet sites automatically search the internet for people selling the flights you need and report back with details of the cheapest options.

This works particularly well in Europe, Lewis says, but for long-haul travel, it is also worth consulting an online broker - Travelocity, Expedia, Ebookers, Opodo and Lastminute.com are the best-known names. These services have commercial relationships with airlines and may be able to offer special deals.

Alternatively, Moneysavingexpert.com runs its own FlightChecker service, which you can use to find cheap flights if you can afford to be more flexible about when you travel.

Finally, check out Flights Direct, a website with details of spare capacity on charter flights. These are generally reserved for tour operators, but if there are seats left over they can be much better value than scheduled flights.

LESS PRICEY PACKAGES

For those booking a package holiday, Lewis advises booking very early or very late. "If you can hold off until eight to 10 weeks before departure, or later still, then the bargains flood in," he says. "But it means choice is limited, so it's only for those with flexibility about when and where they want to travel."

For everyone else, booking as early as possible - ideally at least nine months in advance - is the best way to get a discount.

Once you've identified the holiday you want, bear in mind that several tour operators may offer it. Using Teletext, the TV-based information service, to identify who's got what, you can play off different operators against each other. Don't be afraid to haggle - many companies will drop prices in order to get your business.

CHEAPER FOREIGN CURRENCY

The best deals on foreign exchange differ according to where you're going and when you're buying the cash.

Lisa Taylor, of financial analyst Moneyfacts, says: "Don't only think about commission charges - you also need to take into account exchange rates. To search the market, calculate the total cost of the foreign currency you want to buy, and bear in mind that the same deal may not be available the following day."

While no single provider is always cheapest, two companies regularly perform well in Moneyfacts' surveys. Marks & Spencer and the Post Office are invariably close to the top of best-buy tables, Taylor says.

Moneyfacts suggests avoiding the high street banks and tour operators when you're changing money. Specialist exchange services may be better value, especially in areas where several bureaux de change are competing for business.

SPENDING ONCE THERE

Many people no longer take currency with them on holiday, relying, instead, on credit and debit cards to withdraw cash from ATMs and to pay bills. Paying on plastic, you don't have to worry about exchange rates - everyone gets the wholesale rate charged by Visa or Mastercard, usually pretty good value - but there are other charges to watch out for carefully.

In particular, check your provider's loading fee, a charge of 2.75 per cent or more added on top of the exchange rate, which goes straight into its pocket. There may also be separate fees to pay for taking cash out of an ATM, or for paying for goods and services on a card.

Nationwide Building Society is the only UK current account provider not to make any of these charges wherever you use its debit card in the world. Its credit card is also excellent value for overseas spending, with no loading or transaction fees, though there is £1.50 fee for cash-machine withdrawals.

Nick White, head of personal finance at price comparison service uSwitch, warns that one extra trap that could trip travellers up is dynamic currency conversion. "Many overseas retailers will now allow you to pay a bill in sterling, or the currency of your choice," White explains. "But they are entitled to put their own loading charge on top of the exchange rate and this can often be as high as 4 per cent - check before you pay this way."

BETTER VALUE CAR HIRE

Captive audiences often end up paying through the nose, so don't leave it until you arrive at your destination to arrange car hire if you need a vehicle while you're on holiday. Equally, don't assume the car on offer from your holiday operator will be decent value.

Instead, book in advance after you've used a site such as Travelsupermarket. com, which has access to a wide range of car rental firms, to compare prices.

Chris Nixon, a manager at Travelsupermarket. com, says: "Booking in advance is by far the best way, not only to get the best rates, but also to give you a chance to read all the terms and conditions."

LOWER CALL CHARGES WHEN PHONING HOME

Most holidaymakers now take their mobile phones on vacation, if only so they can be contacted in case of emergency. But the cost of making and receiving mobile phone calls while abroad is often extortionate. So much so that the European Commission now plans to crack down on "roaming" charges, the fees you pay when your phone uses an overseas network.

Some networks are already cutting prices ahead of the EC action, but in the meantime, investigate other ways to save. Anthony Ball, managing director of price comparison site One Compare, says the cheapest way to save money on call charges is to buy a different Sim card before you travel - either a card specifically for the country to which you are headed, or a worldwide card.

"You will more than halve your bill this way," Ball says. "With a new Sim, you'll pay between 20p and 40p a minute to phone home - and less to receive a call - compared with up to £1 a minute on your usual network."

Inserting a new Sim card - available from sites such as www.sim4travel.com, www.0044.co.uk and www.gosim.com - will mean your phone number changes. So before you leave home, record a new answer phone message on your usual Sim, so that friends and family can get in touch.

The only exception to the rule that buying a new Sim is always the cheapest option, says Ball, is if you're travelling to the US and Canada, where high wholesale rates hit local networks too. "In North America, T-Mobile offers the cheapest deals on a pay-as-you-go basis," he says.

COMPENSATION IF IT ALL GOES WRONG

Finally, if anything goes wrong while you're on holiday this summer, don't be afraid to claim a refund from your travel company. The Association of British Travel Agents or the Association of Independent Tour Operators can give you information about how to complain about a holiday, while the Air Transport Users Council is the organisation to contact for information on how to claim compensation for a problem with a flight such as a lengthy delay. Your local Citizens Advice office can also offer help.

Also bear in mind that, thanks to a landmark ruling in the courts earlier this year, credit card lenders are now liable for losses you incur overseas - if they relate to something you paid for on your card, if you can't get a refund elsewhere and if you push hard for your rights.

Cut price travel insurance

Don't leave home without decent travel insurance. If you're travelling in the European Union (EU), start with an E111 certificate, available free of charge from your local post office - it entitles you to free healthcare treatment throughout the EU. On its own, however, this is not enough - you need insurance to be sure of adequate medical care both in the EU and further afield, and you need to protect your belongings.

Generally speaking, for anyone travelling abroad more than once a year, an annual policy is more economic than buying a separate policy for each trip taken. Peter Gerrard, of analyst Insuresupermarket.com, suggests avoiding tour operators and the High Street banks when you're buying cover.

The best value providers vary according to where you're travelling, whether you want to insure your entire family and how much cover you need. But Gerrard recommends getting quotes from five insurers that consistently offer good value annual and single-trip cover. These are TMSM (part of Columbus), Essential Travel Direct Travel Insurance, 24Dr and Flexicover.

"Look at the details in the policy and the cover limits that apply, especially to baggage and medical," Gerrard adds. "For example, the total baggage cover may be £2,000 but individual item limits may only be to £150 to £200 - expensive items such as digital cameras and iPods may exceed this limit."

It's worth checking your home contents insurance too. Some policies cover your possessions even if they are lost or stolen outside of the home.

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