The Complete Guide To Package Holidays

The peak season starts today for tour operators. David Orkin and Simon Calder pack their bags to join the stampede


WHAT IS A PACKAGE HOLIDAY?

WHAT IS A PACKAGE HOLIDAY?

Traditionally, it consists of a charter flight and a week or fortnight's accommodation. It can be very cost-effective, with tour operators managing aircraft seats and hotel beds at maximum occupancy, aiming to keep the cost-per-head ratio to a minimum.

Legally, a holiday comprises at least one overnight stay and consists of a pre-arranged combination of elements - typically a flight plus accommodation or car rental - that is sold at an inclusive price. This definition is important, because it gives holiday-makers considerable legal protection, of which more later.

WHEN DID THEY START?

Thomas Cook took his first paying passengers abroad in 1851; his company became the world's leading travel organiser. After the First World War, something like mass package tourism developed for families wishing to see the battlefields on which their husbands and brothers had died. The first discernable holiday packages were sold by Harry Chandler, founder of the Travel Club of Upminster, who arranged trips to Portugal before the Second World War. But package holidays for the masses were pioneered in 1950 by Vladimir Raitz, the founder of Horizon.

The initial package holidays from Britain to the Med were from Gatwick, via Lyon, to Calvi in Corsica, where there is still a Club Horizon railway station on the coast. Horizon and others soon moved into Mallorca and the Costa Brava.

Many early package holiday-makers travelled by coach, but during the 1970s jet aircraft became the standard form of transport to the sun; second-hand Comets and Boeing 707s were pressed into service, along with brand-new BAC 1-11s and Boeing 737s.

Package holidays began to spread further afield. Greece became very popular, and before too long holidays were being offered to such exotic destinations as The Gambia.

Things continued relatively unchanged until recently, when the package industry was wrong-footed by the low-cost airlines boom. The imminent demise of the package holiday has been predicted for at least a decade. Until this year, the figures have always confounded the doom merchants: sales of Mediterranean packages stand at around 15 million annually. But package travel is indisputably declining relative to the rest of the market.

I'M NOT SURE I WANT TO JOIN THE BUCKET-AND- SPADE BRIGADE

Granted, beach package holidays may not suit everyone, but before you turn your nose up you should consider the many advantages of buying one. Firstly, convenience of booking. Not everyone has the time or inclination to trawl through guide books, flight timetables or the internet for the best deals.

Secondly, with your flights, accommodation, transfers and maybe even meals paid for upfront, the likely total cost of your holiday should be much more apparent from the outset.

Tour operators exercise a lot of financial buying power, especially in the big Mediterranean resorts. This means they have the pick of the hotels, and can offer very competitive prices - especially away from the peak late-July and August season.

Then there is the obligation for holiday companies to deliver what is promised. If the brochure boasts facilities like swimming pools, clubs for children and sports facilities, these must be delivered. Generally, those on package holidays can call on the services of a local representative who can help with excursions, car hire and sorting out problems. In theory, package holidays should be worry-free.

If the company goes bust, under the Atol scheme you will get your cash back - or, if you are already away, be flown home - probably after completing your holiday.

If you book components separately, you should always try to pay by credit card for anything costing over £100 (even if there's a surcharge), as you then have recourse via the credit-card company if the supplier of a component fails.

SO WHY THE TREND TO DIY HOLIDAYS?

The problem with traditional packages is their rigidity: the price, dates and hotel might suit, but the flight times and/or the departure airport might be inconvenient. The big tour operators are talking about introducing more flexible packages, but say that they've managed to keep costs down over the years because of set departures for fixed blocks of time, allowing them to maximise the occupancy of flight seats and hotel beds.

HOW DO I BOOK A TAILOR-MADE PACKAGE?

You can do this either by sourcing components (eg flights, accommodation, car hire, travel insurance, tours) separately, or by taking advantage of the websites that offer what is sometimes known as "dynamic packaging"; these allow the client to build their own package, but to book it all through one source. Expedia ( www.expedia.co.uk), Travelocity ( www.travelocity.co.uk) and Lastminute.com ( www.lastminute.com) are good places to start.

To choose a resort, you can read impartial user reviews of many properties at www.holidays-uncovered.co.uk and at www.virgin.net/travel/resortfinder.

You don't have to book everything through one website. For flights, you may want to check out the low-cost airlines, or try Opodo ( www.opodo.co.uk) for scheduled flight deals. Don't overlook the huge number of charter-flight seats that are on sale this summer; these are particularly useful for departures from regional airports not served by the no-frills airlines. For charter flights, try www.justtheflight.co.uk or www.flightline.co.uk.

For accommodation, companies such as Alpha International (0114-268 7000; www.alpha-beds.com) and Med Hotels (0870 442 4201, www.medhotels.co.uk) are useful.

HOW REALISTIC ARE "FROM..." PRICES?

Until a year or two ago, it was quite easy to compare what was being offered by different tour operators: package-holiday prices included most - if not all - mainstream options at an inclusive price, and you could shop around to see who was offering the best deal. Then the big operators introduced what was basically a no-frills package holiday with so many extra charges for different options that there was no easy way to know how much your holiday would cost.

The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) - and the Office of Fair Trading - have said that any non-optional charges should be included in basic pricing rather than hidden in the small print.

If you're booking your own flights via the internet, you'll find that many no-frills airlines don't add taxes and charges until you are halfway through the booking process.

WHAT OTHER EXTRA CHARGES SHOULD I WATCH OUT FOR?

Many extras that were once included as standard may now have to be paid for separately: in-flight meals, transfers between airport and hotel, even drinking water on flights: on the airline Astraeus, passengers must pay £1 for a small bottle of H 2O.

Some companies have reduced the weight of baggage permitted free on aircraft from 20kg to 15kg; you can take more but you'll have to pay extra. There may be under-occupancy supplements if two people book into a room with a capacity of four. There have even been reports of charges for use of the hotel's own swimming pool.

When you pay, don't be surprised to be hit by credit-card surcharges (typically of two or three per cent). Extra charges on last-minute holidays have also been introduced - if you're booking within two weeks of departure, expect "ticket on departure" charges of at least £10 per person.

WHAT IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG?

As long as you have booked a "real" package holiday, you're in luck. The Package Travel, Package Holidays and Package Tours Regulations 1992 govern the conduct of travel companies operating in the UK who make up and sell package holidays. The regulations require, among other things, that clients' prepayments must be protected against the financial failure of the organiser and, where appropriate, that repatriation to the UK be guaranteed.

The tour operator is legally responsible for its suppliers. This means that you can pursue any complaints regarding elements booked as part of a traditional package directly with the tour operator. The tour operator's local rep is your first point of contact for problems that arise while you are away.

Things are a lot less clear if something goes wrong with an element of a DIY package. If you have paid for flights and accommodation separately, you have not bought a package and the rules don't apply. You'll probably have to argue it out with the local supplier (though if you paid by credit card you could try to enlist the credit-card company's help).

WHERE CAN YOU GO?

Spain remains by far the most popular location. Portugal, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus are also favourites, though France - where the package holiday began - has very few beach holidays on offer. Most of the short-haul growth is happening in eastern Europe, in countries such as Bulgaria, where the appalling rooms and terrible food under Communism have been superseded by excellent Spanish-run hotels.

Generally it can take several seasons for "new" destinations to become established and popular. Until that happens, sales to those destinations may be slow, even though prices are low.

Exotic destinations, such as the Maldives, Mexico and Cuba, continue to increase in popularity. Many first-time visitors to less mainstream destinations prefer the familiarity and perceived security of a traditional tour-operator package to the worry and stress they think might arise from trying to do things independently.

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO BOOK?

You could book today for travel in October 2005: for example, holidays in Thomson's main summer-sun 2005 brochure went on sale two days ago. For holiday companies, the "Very Early Booker" market is valuable - it gets confirmed bookings and deposits in, and helps them bolster market share. For buyers prepared to commit up to 16 months ahead, there is a range of discounts, such as free child places.

January remains the most popular month to book a holiday, and this is when the big guns offer all manner of enticements. But it is always hard to know whether you might get a better deal next week, or next month, or pick up the same holiday at a knock-down rate by booking late. As a rule, if you are flexible then buying late is usually a good strategy; but if you are constrained by school holidays and know exactly where you want to go, snapping up an early bargain could be the best plan.

WHEN ARE PRICES LOWEST?

As with most forms of travel, prices are lower for travel outside school holidays and you'll usually find good deals for late bookings for departures in May and June. Get a feel by browsing through the deals on Teletext Holidays ( www.teletextholidays.co.uk or on teletext) or Cheap Holidays ( www.cheapholidays.co.uk). Be prepared to fly at unsocial hours. Departing midweek (or on Thursday rather than Friday for a weekend break) will save you money on air fares.

On many cheap deals, you book to stay at a particular resort and you find out which actual hotel you are staying in from the local rep who meets your flight at the destination airport. These "allocated on arrival" holidays are usually excellent value, just so long as you are not too fussy about the accommodation you end up in.

WHICH TOUR OPERATOR?

The biggest four companies are Thomson, MyTravel (formerly Airtours), First Choice and Thomas Cook. They own many smaller operators ( see box). Cosmos, which is privately owned, is also an important operator, specialising in the family market.

The big four own chains of travel agencies, which they use promote their own products - though they also sell rivals' holidays. Britain's largest independent travel retailer is Co-op Travel Care (0870 112 0085; www.co-op-travelcare.com).

Some smaller, specialist, independent operators offer expert knowledge, carefully select their accommodation and place a genuine emphasis on customer care. These include Tapestry Holidays (020-8235 7800; www.tapestryholidays.com) for Greece and Turkey, and Travel Club of Upminster (01708 225000; www.travelclub.org.uk) for Spain, Crete and Corfu. Both are members of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (Aito); call 0870 751 8080 to order a directory, or visit www.aito.co.uk.

WHAT ABOUT SINGLE-PARENT FAMILIES, SINGLES AND DISABLED TRAVELLERS?

Though some tour operators are coming to terms with the changing shape of society by offering free child places, on the whole singles and single-parent families don't get a great deal from the big companies. By and large, if a single parent shares a room with one child they will each end up paying the adult price. However, some organisations specialise in holidays for lone parents and their children. Small Families (01767 650312; www.smallfamilies.co.uk) offers holidays to destinations including Portugal, Tunisia and Cyprus. Or try One Parent Family Holidays (01465 821288; www.opfh.org.uk).

It's rare to find a package holiday for one that doesn't attract extra charges - usually in the form of a single supplement - but you can try Solo's Holidays (0870 072 0700; www.solosholidays.co.uk). Finally, disabled travellers can contact Enable Holidays (0871 222 4939; www.enableholidays.com).

WHO OWNS WHOM

TUI owns:

Thomson Holidays

Thomson Flights (formerly Britannia Airways)

Thomsonfly (low-cost airline)

Lunn Poly (travel agents)

Magic Travel (Magic of Spain, Italy, etc)

Skytours

Portland Direct

Crystal Holidays

Budget Holidays

Just Holidays

First Choice owns:

First Choice Airways (formerly Air 2000)

WorldChoice (travel agents)

Holiday Hypermarkets

Sovereign

Unijet

2wenties

Sunquest

Sunstart

Eclipse

Sovereign

Hayes & Jarvis

Sunsail

Waymark

Exodus

Crown Blue Line

Connoisseur

Trek America

Flexiski

Citalia

Stardust Platinum

MyTravel owns:

Airtours

Aspro

Panorama

Direct Holidays

Going Places (travel agents)

MyTravel Airways

MyTravelLite (airline)

Cresta

Bridge

Escapades

Thomas Cook owns:

Thomas Cook Airlines (formerly Air JMC)

Thomas Cook travel agencies

JMC

Time Off

Sunset

Blue Sky Holidays Direct

Neilson

Style

Sunworld

Late Availability

SPAIN

*Depart from Luton on 8 May with Cosmos for seven nights self-catering at the two diamond-rated Apartments Europa Centre in Benidorm priced at £119 per adult and £89 per child based on four sharing.

*For £169 per person First Choice is offering seven nights self-catering at the Four Sun Holiday Village Costa del Sol, departing Birmingham on 21 May.

CANARY ISLANDS

*Thomas Cook is offering seven nights self-catering at the three-star-plus Aparthotel Broncemar Beach in Caleta de Fuste from £189 per person, departing Gatwick on 15 May.

BALEARIC ISLANDS

*MyTravel/Airtours is offering seven nights at a 4A self-catering resort for £149 per person departing from Gatwick on 22 May.

PORTUGAL

*Thomson is offering seven nights B&B accommodation at the 4T Hotel Algarve Casino from £389 per person departing from Stansted on 13 May.

TURKEY

*JMC (Thomas Cook) is offering seven nights all-inclusive at the 4-star Tusan Beach Resort from £259 per person, departing Gatwick on 17 May.

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