If we all bought cars with the skinflint attitude many people have to buying holidays, Britain's roads would be packed with Skodas and Protons.

But when we buy a car, we do not wander from showroom to showroom, obsessed with finding the cheapest model. We accept that there are more important considerations: reliability, style, performance and safety. Buying a cheap car is something we know might prove to be a false economy; what we want is value for money.

So, when we buy a holiday, why do many of us abandon this value-for-money philosophy? If you need evidence that packages are bought largely on price, consult the window of your local Lunn Poly or Going Places. Do you see signs saying, 'Buy our packages: we've chosen the hotels because they're really well run' or 'Travel with us, we provide holidays of the highest quality'?

No. What you see in travel agents' windows are big signs promising '11 per cent off' and ' pounds 250 discounts'. When it comes to mass-market holiday companies, never mind the quality, feel the price.

With the package holiday business largely in the thrall of three mega-operators - Thomson, Airtours and Owners Abroad - the public to a large extent wants what the public gets. And the operators have decided that the public is really interested only in paying bottom dollar.

But when you analyse the reasons for the success or failure of your annual holiday, the satisfaction of having paid as little as possible is not likely to be a factor - unless, of course, paying the low price makes the difference between going on holiday and having to stay at home.

What we remember about a good holiday is that the flight left on time, the hotel or self-catering accommodation was up to standard, and the representative responded quickly when we needed help.

If you spend your fortnight nursing a stack of grievances, the fact that you bought your holiday at an 11 per cent discount is unlikely to prove much of a consolation. And even if you receive a refund for a ruined holiday, no one can restore the two weeks you wasted.

For small specialist tour operators who can never hope to compete with the big companies on price, the only option

often is to compete on quality. At this end of the holiday business, the buzz-words are 'value added': extras built into the cost, which should provide a better holiday.

Sue Ockwell, chief executive of the Association of Independent Tour Operators, says its 140 member companies offer holidays that are not necessarily cheap, but are 'worth paying the extra for'.

For example, Kirker, a weekend break specialist, puts into its Barcelona clients' ticket wallets a 25-peseta coin that enables them to release a baggage trolley from the stack in the departures hall: a small but thoughtful touch that can considerably ease a passenger's journey. Customers of VFB holidays are treated to a complimentary bottle of wine and, during the winter, a free meal. The philosophy, explains Ms Ockwell, is to provide the customers with a little more than they were expecting, often in the form of 'invisible' added value.

'When Sunvil rents out a villa to six people, it will automatically arrange for them to have two hired cars.

'Greek Island Club tries to ensure its clients are well looked after by maintaining a high ratio of staff to clients: at all its locations it has one member of staff for six villas.

'All its customers get a free food hamper on arrival; and a cool box, an electric fan, an umbrella and car hire are included in the price. In fact, Greek Island Club subsidises car-hire rates in some destinations because it knows that having a car will make a difference to the customers' enjoyment of the holiday. AITO members also seek to book clients on day flights, using decent airlines with decent catering. They will use only known accommodation.

'Take VFB: if they have a contract with a hotel that has only 10 rooms, they may stipulate that their clients should be booked into rooms three and seven only, because these are the ones farthest from the kitchen, or have the most decent-sized bathrooms.'

The Independent has teamed up with selected members of the Association of Independent Tour Operators to offer readers some exclusive value-added benefits.

For example, Bladon Lines is offering readers who buy its Corsica holidays a three-day catamaran sailing course, or a three-day windsurfing course, worth pounds 48. Club Cantabrica is offering free bicycle hire for its holidays to Spain, France and Italy.

Laskarina Holidays is offering a free week's self-catering on a Greek island for anyone booking a week's caique cruising in the Dodecanese.

For further information about these and other special offers, readers need to collect eight consecutive tokens from the Independent and Independent on Sunday, and to send them to: Independent/AITO Travel Offer, PO Box 1939, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 1AJ.

(Photograph omitted)

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