Avoid getting stung - book your holidays in advance

Travelling with the kids is often pricey, says Rob Griffin, but there are deals

Millions of families paying inflated prices for taking their children away during the school holidays can actually save a fortune by doing their homework.

The cost of flights and package holidays rockets at Christmas and during the summer because there's huge demand from thosetaking a break. A comparison of online deals carried out this week by Save & Spend illustrates the point. A 10-day self-catering trip for a family of four at Candia Park Village in Agios Nikolaos, Crete, would cost £1,244 during the first week of May, according to the website of Thomson Holidays.

However, the exact same holiday more than doubled in price to £2,748 in the first week of August.

Prices charged depend on the destination chosen, the travel operator, the departure airport and flight times, explains Darren Cronin, editor of Travel-Rants.com. "Saying it's all about supply and demand is a cop out," he says. "They should be working with local authorities to make holidays more affordable."

While parents are entitled to ask their child's school for permission to take them out before the end of term, this request can be turned down. Defying this decision can lead to a fine or prosecution.

But Kayte Williams, Holidays Channel Manager at comparison website Travelsupermarket.com argues that shopping around and booking in advance can result in major savings.

You can not only find plenty of offers available - even during peak times - but also take advantage of paying a small deposit now and the balance a few weeks before departure.

"It's also worth considering all-inclusive holidays as this means you won't have much to pay when you get to the resort," she adds.

Lorna Cowan, editor of Holiday Which? magazine, recommends people take a close look at the small print of brochures to ensure they're not going to be stung by hidden costs.

Other tips that can save you cash include travelling at unsociable times, building your own holiday by booking flights and accommodation separately and just haggling with the tour operators to get the best possible deal.

Much of this research can be done online, points out Cronin from Travel-Rants.com. "Spending a few hours comparing prices can save you hundreds of pounds," he says. "It's also worth considering independent travel agencies as they concentrate more on the customer."

There are cheaper alternatives to package deals. Many families opt to load up their cars, book a cheap deal on a ferry and go on a driving holiday to France, rather than facing the costs and hassle of flying.

Gail and Ian Isted from Maidstone, Kent, certainly favour this type of holiday. The couple who have two children - Poppy, four, and one-year-old Penny - recently drove to their skiing holiday in La Clusaz and are planning to go by car again. "We like the flexibility and the freedom it gives you when you get to your destination, as well as the fact there aren't any luggage limits - the amount we took was unbelievable," says Gail.

It still pays to book in advance even if you're just planning a driving holiday, warns Brian Rees from P&O Ferries. "If you leave it to the last minute you'll find other people have beaten you to the best deals," he warns. A return trip from Dover to Calais for a car and up to nine passengers in August would cost you around £90 at the moment, he says, but if you book just before you depart, the price could be double."We use the model introduced by the low-cost airlines where prices start off very cheap and then increase as more bookings are made," he explains. "It means that with every day - and every booking received - the price can potentially start rising."

School's out

* Can I take my child away during term time?

Parents don't have an automatic right to simply remove their children from school for holidays, but they can apply for permission, according to the Department for Education and Skills.

* Under the Education (Pupil Registration) Regulations 1995, schools have the discretion to grant leave of absence for up to 10 days per school year for family holidays during term time.

* This leave of absence must be applied for and the decision to authorise absence for holidays rests entirely with the school which, in exceptional circumstances, can agree to grant more than 10 days.

'We're penalised for having children'

Carla and Phil Spencer are fighting back against the school-holiday price trap by scouring the internet.

The couple, who live in Elton, near Chester, have been facing major cost increases since son Ryan, five, started school.

But they are helping to offset the increases by using sites such as Travelsupermarket.com and Holidays-Uncovered.co.uk. "When we choose holidays it's on the back of weeks of research and reading online reviews," says Carla, 31, a mortgage consultant. "We also have a two-year-old girl, Yasmin, so we never book holidays without knowing exactly where we are going and what we're getting. It's nice to have the peace of mind that the hotel you've chosen isn't next to a bar pumping karaoke out until 4am!

Even with their research, the Spencers believe they must reduce the number of overseas holidays they take. Says Carla: "We can't afford to go twice a year any more because it's so much more expensive atpeak times."

This year the couple are planning to go to Greece to celebrate Ian's 40th birthday - but they are paying the price.

"It wasn't an option for us to take Ryan out of school," says Carla.

"We really don't want him to miss a couple of weeks. It's unfair people are being penalised for having children."

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