When the holiday price isn't right

Next year's brochures list both prices and discounts. It's the economics of the casino, says an infuriated Adrian Goldberg
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The Independent Travel

A round one-third of the population of Britain has just returned from a foreign beach, but the travel industry never takes a break. They are already trying to sell us next year's holidays.

A round one-third of the population of Britain has just returned from a foreign beach, but the travel industry never takes a break. They are already trying to sell us next year's holidays.

Flick open the newly-minted brochures, and it's like gulping a couple of huge lungfuls of salty sea air. You can almost feel the golden grains of the blue-flag beach between your toes as you stride towards the crystal-clear waters of the Med. And wow! Look at that tan. But beware. Browsing with your rose-tinted Ray-Bans could cost you an awful lot of money, because what you see often isn't what you get.

It's not that the tasteful hotel will be half-finished when you arrive. These days the accommodation is usually ready and designed to a decent standard. Now it's the prices that are jerry-built. And they are liable to collapse at any moment.

That's potentially good news if you're looking for fun in the sun at a bargain price. The problems come when you try to guess exactly how much you should spend, and when exactly you should spend it.

The travel industry takes the innocent who wants to go abroad on a cruise round the Isle of Bamboozle via the Straits of Uncertainty to the Kingdom of Obfuscation. Many of next year's brochures, for example, list prices and price cuts on the same page. First Choice is offering 20 per cent discounts if you book by phone; Cosmos is offering cuts of up to 25 per cent. But best of all is Airtours, who boldly say on the cover of their brochure that you can save 20 per cent on the prices inside.

All of which prompts the question – why not simply print the brochures with the lower prices in the first place? The operators claim that the reductions are a sensible incentive for early booking. But as the brochures are hot off the presses, it's a fine point whether you can "reduce" something you haven't yet charged the full price for.

In any case, the small print gives the game away. It warns that all the prices in the brochure are subject to change at any time. In other words, a "cut price" holiday booked in August could be more expensive than one you buy in November. This is not the behaviour of a mature and respectable industry, it's the pricing policy of the Moroccan souk.

In April, the market leader Thomson tried to bring some order. The company vowed there would be no headline-grabbing reductions on next year's packages; the price in the brochure would be the price paid. Six weeks later, it changed its mind. Embarrassingly for a company dealing in summer holidays, it caught a cold as its cut-price rivals scooped up the early bookings.

If nothing else, the success of Thomson's competitors is proof that many customers fear that if they don't buy early, they'll end up paying more. Possibly they will. Perhaps they won't. When the peak buying season of January comes around, there are usually even cheaper holidays available, with reductions of up to 50 per cent off the brochure price.

So should the smart bargain-hunter cash in after Christmas, when competition is at it fiercest? Probably not. Despite the travel industry's attempts to prise open your wallet months in advance, if all you want is a bucket-and-spade holiday in a country where 10 hours of sunshine a day is more or less guaranteed, the chances are that if you leave it until the few weeks before departure, you'll still get a good deal. As usual this year, the travel trade had warned that there would be no late availability at the most popular destinations, but even during August it was possible to pick up bargains, especially in Britain's number one package holiday destination, Spain.

The Balearics, of course, had been blighted by the bus drivers' strike, and that was followed by the threat of industrial action by refuse workers in Ibiza. Many holidaymakers reasoned that they didn't want to sit on a plane for four hours, only to end up in a country with dreadful public transport and litter piled in the streets. They can get all that at home. Then ETA bombed the resort of Salou and Malaga airport.

Now operators are adopting new tactics to deter late buying. You can imagine just how galling it must be for their customers who have paid a premium price to discover that the family on the next sunbed is enjoying the same holiday for a fraction of the cost. So now they've slapped on a series of late-booking penalties. There's a charge for collecting your tickets at the airport, even if there's ample time to send them in the post. You might also have to pay for your in-flight meal and resort transfer.

Yet the disincentives for booking early are even greater, and are due entirely to the operators' unpredictable and frankly misleading pricing policies. Let me stress, I'm not opposed to price cuts for holidays. Quite the opposite. But what raises my temperature and makes me sizzle like a Sumo on a sunlounger is the uncertainty of it all.

Why not just have a giant roulette wheel at the travel agent, which you would spin to get the cost of your holiday? It would bring a whole new sense of fun and excitement to the business of booking. And let's face it, when it comes to working out how much you've got to pay, it would be much more straightforward and accurate than the brochure.

Adrian Goldberg is a presenter of 'Watchdog', which returns to BBC1 next Thursday at 7pm

Beware the hidden extras in a last-minute deal

An Independent reader stumbles into a transfer-charge trap

My wife and I decided to take a last-minute break to Majorca. We found a nice cheap deal with JMC to Cala D'Or, but then discovered that a transfer fee of £15 a head was added to the advertised price. Thinking that £30 could be better spent on car hire, I suggested we would forgo the pleasures of a coach ride for a few hours and make our own way. But I was told the transfer fee is not negotiable.

Why has this hidden extra cropped up? Is it punishment
for those cheapskates who wait for a last-minute deal? Why is it not an add-on option so those who want their own transport anyway can avoid the damnable coach journey?

Why ­ if it's compulsory ­ is it not added to the advertised
cost of the holiday? Could it be that a full coach of 50 people drags in an extra £750 for the company? Or does it go to the coach drivers who went on strike over low wages?

Bob Pitman, Southampton

Patrick Barrow, JMC's head of communications, responds:

There is no compulsion to take the coach transfer and, if that has been suggested, the people involved have been misinformed.

JMC is well aware that hidden extras on lates are a cause of considerable annoyance, and these holidaymakers should have been talked through what was available as bolt-ons and the costs involved should they choose to take them.

Unlike competitors, we make very few charges on late packages. Some even charge for meals. The transfer charge is a relatively recent development but, in introducing it, we were well aware that people require choice and flexibility and, with that in mind, did not consider any element of compulsion.

The Independent Traveller is keen to hear from other holidaymakers who have been charged for "hidden extras" after buying late-availability packages; please e-mail travel@independent.co.uk