Some parents of children at independent schools like to calculate the cost per day of their offspring's private education – usually upwards of £60. For the benefit of all parents, I can now reveal the cost per day of the school holidays: £70, or even more.
I have researched a range of one-week holiday options for departure on 15 February, the first day of half-term for most British children. Then I checked identical trips leaving one week earlier. Thomas Cook to Egypt? A week in Sharm el-Sheikh, including flights from Manchester, almost doubles, from £533 to £1,044 per person. That's an extra £73 a day, or, if you prefer, £3 an hour – awake or not.
For less ambitious trips, the proportionate cost can be even higher. Gatwick to Malaga on British Airways rises from £200 to £500 return. Birmingham to Bergamo, for the Italian Alps, almost trebles with Ryanair. And the gold standard for skiers, a Gatwick-Geneva return on easyJet, rises by 320 per cent.
The results help to explain the outrage that many parents feel about the way that travel prices rise as soon as schools break up.
"Stop Holiday companies charging extra in school holidays," demands the e-petition (bit.ly/HolCap) that, by teatime yesterday, had attracted more than 140,000 signatures.
The petition has attracted renewed attention following a Facebook post by a disgruntled father, Paul Cookson, that went viral.
Mr Cookson had only 250 friends on Facebook when he posted his ‘SCHOOL HOLIDAY RANT’ next to a picture illustrating how Centerparcs had raised its price of a £699 villa by £300 during the school holidays. Since then, his 100 words of outrage have been shared around 150,000 times and the e-petition attracted more than 140,000 signatures.
"Why should your children be denied a family holiday because of capitalism?" asks Cheryl Stretton in another Facebook post.
Because for all its faults, capitalism provides British travellers with the best-value holidays on the planet. And in the extremely unlikely event that the highly popular petition should result in a price cap on flights and holidays, the effect would be dramatically to diminish our travel options, and push up the cost of those that remain.
To understand why, consider that easyJet Gatwick-Geneva hop. A return flight to Switzerland for £84, which is the price for flying out on 8 February and coming back a week later, is being sold at well below cost. Similar fares are available throughout the season, so long as you book a couple of weeks ahead – except for that precious week, starting 15 February, when the cheapest you will find is £352 return. Certainly, easyJet will make a handsome profit on that super Saturday – but not enough to erase all the losses the airline will sustain during the rest of the winter season.
Over the course of a year, easyJet makes profits that are healthy, but by no means excessive. Just about every penny of those profits will be earned during the school holidays. Sure, anyone who is not constrained by the education calendar is effectively subsidised by families. The market works very well in maintaining a fairly constant supply of seats, with prices decided according to the highly variable demand.
The airline, understandably, wants to squeeze as much cash as it can extract from every seat, and deploys sophisticated revenue-management tools that nudge up prices as each plane fills up. While it might look as though easyJet is setting fares, in fact it all tracks back to passenger demand.
The crucial issue that all the petitioners and Facebook folk seem to have overlooked is: it's not compulsory to buy high-priced airline tickets and holidays. For the Calder family ski trip, I certainly didn't fancy paying the Gatwick-Geneva fares – so I booked a much cheaper flight to Basel, half a day's journey from the peaks.
If you crave sunshine, forget the £500 trip to Malaga and instead go for a £185 return to Madrid and continue by train or rental car. Or simply take advantage of the cheap ferry deals, pack the family into the car and drive south until it gets warm enough, computing your savings as you go.