How much? Parents can pay over 16 times more by sticking to school holidays

Exclusive: Heathrow-Geneva for a family of four on 8 February: £184. On 15 February: £3,072

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Thursday 29 February 2024 09:06 GMT
Ski saver: Flights to Geneva, gateway for the French Alps, cost 16 times more on February half-term Saturday 2025 than the identical flights a week earlier
Ski saver: Flights to Geneva, gateway for the French Alps, cost 16 times more on February half-term Saturday 2025 than the identical flights a week earlier (Simon Calder)

As parents in England who take their children out of class without permission are warned of higher fines, The Independent has uncovered the astonishing scale of savings parents can make by travelling in term time.

A family of four flying with British Airways from London Heathrow to Geneva will pay over 16 times more for each one-way flight if they travel next February half-term, compared with an identical departure a week earlier.

Even taking into account new, higher fines, the family would save over £2,700 on the outbound flights alone.

The Department for Education says a fine must be considered if a pupil misses five days of school in an unauthorised absence.

Until now, fines have started at £60, rising to £120 if they are not paid within 21 days, but ministers say they will now start at £80, rising to £160. The higher fines are expected to take effect from September.

Of nearly 400,000 penalty notices issued to parents in England in 2022-23 for unauthorised pupil absences, nine in 10 (89.3 per cent) were for holidays as families booked cheaper breaks during term times, the government says.

The Independent calculates one in 25 children in England was taken out of school for an unauthorised holiday over the past year.

With school absences soaring, the evidence suggests that parents regard the fines as a necessary expense.

These are the key questions and answers on a contentious issue.

How much do holiday costs increase outside term-time?

Package holiday prices typically double when schools are out. A week before the late May half term, the cheapest Thomson holiday from East Midlands to Tenerife staying in a self-catering apartment at the Tamaimo Tropical costs £1,204 per person based on a family of four; the cheapest a week later, when many schools are on holiday, the price almost doubles to £2,384. That’s an increase of 98 per cent.

Increases in air fares tend to be much higher, with prices typically multiplying three-fold. An example for the summer holiday: from Newcastle to Faro in Portugal, the Ryanair flight on Saturday 22 June costs £140. Exactly the same flight four weeks later is £340. For a family of five that is £1,000 more just to get to the Algarve.

Even more extreme: ski flights in February half term. Next February, almost a year from now, the cheapest British Airways flight from London Heathrow to Geneva on Saturday 8 February is just £184 for a family of four. Go a week later and it is £3,072. That is over 16 times higher.

(All fares research direct with the airlines/holiday companies on Thursday 29 February)

Can’t the government make such profiteering illegal?

In 2017 a petition signed by more than 200,000 people asked the government to ban travel firms from increasing prices in line with demand: “It’s time to stop the holiday companies cashing in on school holidays and let parents have some guilt-free family time! Enforce action that caps the percentage increase on holiday prices in school holidays.”

But the consequence of any such law would be to reduce drastically the availability of travel, and there is no prospect of it happening.

Like any sensible business, a travel firm will seek to maximise its earnings for the benefit of shareholders and staff.

Why don’t travel firms just add more capacity during school holidays?

Travel isn’t like most industries. If an ice-cream maker detects high demand during a warm summer, it can produce more in response. But the supply of airline seats, hotel beds and rental cars, in the short term, is fixed.

The average holiday firm or leisure airline trades at a loss for most of the year, but more than makes up for the shortfall when the schools are out. Most schools have similar holiday dates, and so demand surges when the school term ends.

What can you do to reduce the cost?

Take the family on Monday-to-Friday holidays. It can be half the cost of a Saturday-to-Saturday trip (as well, obviously, as half as long).

Anyone living in northern England or southern Scotland can take advantage of the different school holiday dates on either side of the border. At the start of July, Scots can head south of the border to Newcastle or Manchester while northern England children are still at school. In the second half of August, the opposite applies: Scottish schools are back, creating space and bargain holidays from Glasgow, Prestwick and Edinburgh to the Mediterranean.

If you’re heading for the Spanish Costas, get a cheap flight to Madrid instead and carry on by train to Alicante, Valencia or Malaga. Air fares to the Spanish capital are much less seasonal than those to holiday airports, and ferocious competition on the high-speed railways makes the onward connection cheap.

Who do you side with: parents or teachers?

Teachers. Long ago and far away I used to be a maths teacher. I would not relish the prospect of explaining simultaneous equations to a class of teenagers, then teaching the same lesson again a fortnight later when their pals deign to return from Walt Disney World.

While I appreciate the benefits that travel can bring to a rounded education, I am not convinced of the educational benefit of visiting theme parks of Florida in November – when I often see lots of school-age British children even though it is term time.

I don’t detect they are studying the complex interaction of potential energy, momentum, angular velocity and gravity – they are enjoying cheap thrills on the rollercoasters.

For more travel news, views and advice from Simon, download his daily Independent Travel podcast.

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