Under your own steam

Can your buying power beat the tour operators'? Martin Scudamore counts the costs
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The Independent Travel
One phone call or visit to the travel agent can take care of your entire holiday: flights, hotels, car hire. But does such convenience come at a price? You may feel you can do a better, cheaper job yourself.

We put this to the test. To find out if there is any advantage in a DIY holiday, we looked into the costs and options for a family of four sharing a hotel room and hiring a car for 14 days in Orlando in August.

With a typical package, the cost is slightly over pounds 2,000. For departures between 19 and 26 August, Eclipse Direct (part of First Choice) is asking pounds 543 per adult and pounds 485 per child; (although a third and fourth adult could go at child prices instead). This includes flights from Gatwick, tax, 14 nights at the three-star Quality Inn and a "free" basic rental car. That's pounds 2,056. Call the Quality Inn direct (number below), and you find there is no room until 25 August; thereafter family rooms are available at $46 - about pounds 30 - per night. So you need to save pounds 420 on flights to match the package price, even without car hire. In fact, most of the expense of car rental is incurred in the extras: trading up to a vehicle into which you can actually fit four people plus a fortnight's luggage, and insurance that really does insure you. The "free car hire" element of the package figure small in the calculations.

So, which are the best-value flights for the DIY holidaymakers? You might expect Virgin Atlantic to be good, but its fares are pounds 568 (adults) and pounds 429 (children up to 11 years old) plus pounds 25 tax per person, making pounds 2,094: too much.

Laker Vacations (yes! Sir Freddie is back with a vengeance this summer) is offering a much better deal: pounds 429 (adults), pounds 329 (first child) and pounds 369 (subsequent children), totalling pounds 1,556 for the family. That even includes basic car hire for the first seven days, so you're left with pounds 500 for the accommodation: that's pounds 36 or $56 per night. Laker can add a comparable hotel in nearby Kissimmee for pounds 27 per night, beating the package price by about pounds 126.

To save even more, you might want to leave booking your accommodation until you arrive. One traveller told us that prices were tumbling visibly as he drove past the row of hotels along International Drive in Orlando in August last year: competition was hot and the rates on their signs dropped towards $30 (pounds 19) per night. Such a price would leave our family of four with a saving of about pounds 230 on the holiday.

Much depends on timing, however. If you arrive at your destination at the height of a local festival, you may well find that prices are moving in exactly the opposite direction. Florida is selling extremely well for summer 1996. If our family waits until they arrive to sort out accommodation, they may be in danger of finding nowhere at all.

In the end it comes down to a compromise. How much of your own effort is it worth putting in to save a little money, and how close to the wind are you prepared to sail? How quickly will the family forgive you if their holiday is ruined? There are some points to consider that could mean the difference between making a saving and making a fool of yourself:

be sure you get the sums right. Watch out for flight supplements and variations in the age limits for children's fares

beware of uncomfortable departure times, or flights that stop en route

free car rental is usually only basic: necessary extras push it up enormously

hotels may have been block-booked long in advance - and you may find that a tour operator has already bought up your particular favourite

nearer the time you will have less choice over flights although you may strike a better deal. Bear in mind that last-minute flights are likely to be harder to find and more expensive this summer.

One final point. It has been said that only mad dogs and English tourists would go to Florida in August - it's far too hot for the Americans. Remember, there is usually a link between the price and availability of accommodation and the desirability of being there in the first place.

Eclipse Direct (0990 01 02 03).

Virgin Atlantic (01293 747 747).

Laker Vacations (01293 77 55 55).

Quality Inn, Orlando (001 407 351 1600).