Ah, the summer holidays. The time when thousands of us flee our fair isle in search of somewhere else. Somewhere hotter, somewhere prettier, somewhere – fingers crossed – where it won’t rain.
We’ll get a little browner, a little fatter and feel a little more relaxed. And my goodness won’t we need it?
Never mind Overworked Britain. Never mind needing a break from the office. By the time you set out for your spell in the sun, you’re just as likely to crave a break from something else: the process of booking your holiday. These days, it’s enough to leave anyone needing a rest.
Once upon a time, there were two ways to plan your trip abroad. You could go to the bookshop, head to the travel department and peruse the aisles. Selecting a guidebook, you would flick to the accommodation pages, looking for somewhere to stay.
The professional travel writer was, according to this view, God. The other totem was the travel agent. Dotted about on every high street, staffed by men and women in uniforms, their big glossy brochures made even the longest of longhauls look like an effortless hop.
There was no checking reviews or cross-referencing write-ups or juggling air fares. No Google Street View, no distance- calculating apps. Just a straightforward star rating system and a simple yes or no. Then everything changed. It was 1992 when European deregulation propelled Ryanair from a fringe regional carrier to the go-to company for no-frills travel. Three years later, Stelios Haji- Ioannou founded easyJet, cutting out the travel agent to make flying “as affordable as a pair of jeans”.
In 1998, Martha Lane Fox and Brent Hoberman launched lastminute.com, specialising in cut-price package holidays that we could book ourselves online. Finally, at the turn of the millennium, TripAdvisor allowed us all to become hotel reviewers and DIY took on a whole new dimension. No longer was it just a matter of finding the flights and the hotel. Suddenly, you could make sure you were doing it in the best way possible – or trying to, at least.
Following in these companies’ footsteps, a whole raft of travel websites have sprung up. The quest to find the best (cheapest, most convenient, most comfortable) flight can involve a juggling act between price comparison sites, airline homepages and your calendar as you frantically date-hop for the best deal. Reviews aren’t just posted on the website TripAdvisor. Google a hotel, a resort, even a town, and a wealth of opinions spring up: Booking.com, Hotels.com, Yelp – they all have their tuppence to add.
In theory, this should make things easier. After all, the more you know about a dodgy hotel, the less likely you are to stay there. Yet, somehow, it doesn’t. Armed with a bit of insider information, new dilemmas present themselves. When, for instance, most reviewers rave about a place, but one complains of dirt and noise, do these naysayers count as deal breakers? Who can you trust, and who is bearing a grudge?
If the volume of information is intimidating, the endless choice it brings is even more so. Think you’ve found the perfect place? What about the (almost) infinite array of possibilities still left to explore? All it takes is one suggestion, a few minutes on Google Images, and before you know it you’re starting all over again, researching a different destination entirely. “The web is a very big world,” agrees Sarah Miller, editor of Condé Nast Traveller. She frequently books her holidays online, though still finds herself tempted by less cutting edge methods: “I use a combination, and often the telephone. I still find speaking to someone very reassuring.”
She’s not alone. For many web-weary travellers, a more traditional approach can be a welcome relief. “We see a lot of customers who have done some research online, but decide to come into a store after finding it confusing or time consuming,” says Helen Deegan, the commerce and trading director at Thomson Holidays. “They want to ask advice from an expert. We have independent sources we can consult for feedback on hotels and so on, and we can offer a onestop shop for all the extras like travel insurance.”
Of course, the complications of booking a holiday online – the extra effort, the research, the information overload – are a serious drawback, but the internet holiday is not without its advantages. Chiefly, financial. All that work you’re doing to choose the perfect destination has to be done by someone – and they usually charge for it.
Naturally, going the DIY route is easier if you’re in the know. Crucial to this is avoiding the trap of trawling the same old websites as everyone else. Recently, the travel search engine Kayak.com has been gaining plaudits for its nifty world map, which aggregates the best deals to be had around the globe.
Miller, meanwhile, recommends taking a look at The Man in Seat Sixty-One (seat61.com) for advice on train travel, eDreams.co.uk for f l i ghts, and mrandmrssmith.com for accommodation. “It’s worth going to three or four really good recommendations – websites that have been tried and tested,” says Miller. All being well, your holiday will only be a few clicks away. If not, there’s always the travel agent.