After six years of practice, we think we’ve just about nailed this planning a holiday malarkey. So here are our top 10 travel planning tips… because sitting down with a laptop and a few guidebooks to get planning is almost as exciting as the trip itself.
1. Get the right credit/debit card
Let’s get the most boring-but-practical of all travel planning tips out of the way first. At the time of writing, the Clarity card by Halifax is the best card we’ve found to use abroad. Check regularly on Money Saving Expert to make sure it still is, though. It has the best rates. You don’t get charged interest when you use it abroad to pay for things as long as you pay it off by the date on the statement. You can also withdraw cash abroad from an ATM without charge, and at the best exchange rate possible. They do charge interest on this (less than 1%). But it will still be cheaper when you take into account the poor exchange rate on other cards and the outrageous commission charges.
There are also some current accounts that don’t charge you anything to get cash out abroad. One of these is Metro Bank (branches only in London), and another is Nationwide’s Flex Plus. The latter does have a £10 a month fee, but it includes travel insurance and mobile phone insurance – so depending on your circumstances, this can be a really good deal.
2. Don’t take too much cash
We’re all obsessed with taking wads of cash on holiday for some reason, but it’s more expensive and risky. Withdrawing it when you’re there means that you don’t have to hope that your hotel room has one of those little safes for you to forget the code for. And you don’t have to stuff it in your suitcase lining, where no thief would ever think to look (they deffo would: see our non-existent blog on ‘7 days in Faliraki, 2001’). The exchange rates you get using tip #1 are way better than any you’ll get here in the UK.
By all means take 50€, or even 100€ for taxis from the airport and stuff.
But if I see you with a bundle of 50€ notes in a bloody Thomas Cook Exchange bag, I will not be held responsible for my actions.
3. Make tactical use of flight search engines
Bear with me, this is not the easiest to explain.
Everyone uses Kayak and Momondo these days but just in case you’ve been living under a rock, they’re search tools that track and analyse flight price trends over time and scan different travel websites – the airlines’ own and agencies that sell flights (Kayak also has its own deals). They both show different results with different prices, even for the same airlines.
As a general rule, try to book directly on the airline’s website rather than going through a travel agency. Agency prices can seem too good to be true. But they often have hidden costs – and not always just booking fees. Agencies that operate on a brokerage basis can take your money without actually having a flight to sell you. If they don’t manage to broker a flight at that price, they’ll refund you – at their leisure. In the meantime, you’re penniless as well as flightless. Which is nice, isn’t it?
For any search tools, avoid using their apps. Instead, try going ‘incognito’ on your browser and turn off the option for letting your browser use your location. Companies use your cookies and location against you. They may track that you’re checking flights and assess your wealth based on location. They can then start displaying higher prices to try to urge you into buying. Yes, it has come to this.
4. Pay for privileges on low-cost airlines
Now, I’m not one for buying your way to success – but there is one exception. On low-cost airlines (FlyBe, Ryanair, Jet2 and the like) I think it really pays to book their ‘speedy boarding’ and ‘priority’ class fees.
You don’t need to queue up in quite the same way to drop your hold luggage off. This really is a god-send at 5.30am in some airport in the middle of nowhere with one check-in desk for 10 flights. Budget airlines have fairly recently only been guaranteeing a certain number of bags will fit into the overhead lockers. So as you might expect, the sooner you’re on board, the better chance you have of getting your cabin baggage in there instead of where your feet go – or worse, put in the hold. Also, priority class means that you can usually carry your handbag on as well as your cabin bag. Otherwise, you risk being asked to stuff it inside. Even though you’re going to take it out as soon as you’re on the plane anyway.
One of the best things about it is you’re almost always seated near the front of the plane – meaning you can make a hasty exit before all the pensioners and screaming children start forming a disorderly queue.
So overall, it can make the Wipe-clean Ryanair Experience™ somewhat more bearable. A bit like having local anaesthetic to have a wart removed, rather than just the liquid nitrogen.
5. Keep checking hotels after you’ve booked one
Don’t put all your hotel eggs in one basket. Reserve a hotel, B&B or apartment that offers free cancellation – and make sure you book it through Quidco if possible. Then check back as your travel date approaches to see if there’s anything better on offer – a few weeks before, a few days before. You can sometimes get incredible deals this way. Even check the same hotel because they do change prices.
Of course it’s an independent hotel, a B&B or a little old lady’s apartment, there is an ethical element to how ruthless you want to be. If it’s a faceless chain, go for it.
Bonus hotel-booking tip: Read reviews from the same time of year as you’ll be going. Plenty of hotels may have glowing reviews in winter, but scroll back a bit and check people aren’t gasping for air con in summer.
6. Don’t book one-trip travel insurance
Travel insurance is the most boring part of planning a holiday, but it’s got to be done. Sorting out annual insurance means you don’t have to go through the faff as often, and is also almost always cheaper. As mentioned in tip #1, you can get it as part of some current accounts (like Nationwide, which is what we use). Couples’ travel insurance usually works out cheaper, too, and it covers you when you’re away together or separately.
Shop around massively before buying. Even if you’ve got pre-existing medical conditions and your arm is falling off, you can get a good deal. Book through Quidco (see the next tip!) if possible – you can get back about 50% of your spend if you’re lucky. The same rules apply as when you’re booking flights: try different search engines, go incognito, be careful of hidden costs.
Bonus health-related tip: Don’t forget your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), on top of insurance. If you have an EHIC with you, you can get medical treatment abroad for free or for a reduced cost. For now (Brexit dependent…).
Apparently, over half of UK residents don’t have an EHIC, which means that they’ll be paying full price for their medical attention after I’ve found them at passport control and slapped them in the face.
7. Use Quidco for cashback (with care)
Quidco can get you a ridiculous amount of cashback on travel. It’s a website that lists lots of businesses and if you click through to their sites using the link provided by Quidco, it logs whatever you buy and gives you cashback – with no catch. Do proceed with a little caution though, because if you go through Quidco for some sites, you sometimes get shown slightly different rates. This is easily avoided by just checking their rates direct before clicking through Quidco and working out if any difference is worth it. Also, make sure your purchase has ‘tracked’. You’ll know what this means when you’ve set up your Quidco account.
At the time of writing (and this changes every day), you can get 10% back with Hotels.com, 12% with Expedia, and 14% with lastminute.com. When you’re spending several hundred on your hotel, that really packs a punch. It’s usually less for flights – today, it’s 1% for Flybe, 2% for British Airways, and 1.5% for Lufthansa.
Even with these lower %s, it can still be the cost of a beer, and who’d say no to that?
8. Do little things to make life easier
Like tip #4, this is a worthwhile luxury if you are not really stretching your budget. Experience has told that you should always go for the easiest option at either end of your flight. Even more so if it’s a long-haul flight. Paying a bit more to speed things up may be more expensive, but in terms of stress and time – it’s one of those ‘oh, just go for it’ things.
So, order that taxi to the airport if you’re worried the train will be cutting it too fine. Stay over in an atmospheric Premier Inn next door to the airport (complete with standard neighbouring Beefeater). Arrange that transfer service to your hotel at the other end.
You can even have one of those people at arrivals holding a sign with your name on if you’re going somewhere where you need to make sure you’re extra safe and aren’t ripped off by dodgy taxis with ‘broken’ meters. But do give them your actual name and not some kind of elaborate in-joke like ‘Curly-cherub-bumblebee-face’. After a 12-hour flight, it won’t seem as hilarious when you see your stony-faced driver holding it.
9. Get everything set up on your mobile phone
You don’t want to be messing around searching for stuff while you’re trying to enjoy your holiday. And nor do you want to end up in an overpriced restaurant because you couldn’t find the one you wanted to go to. So when you’re doing all your research ahead of the trip, make sure you collect a ‘bank’ of places to eat and drink in every area you’ll be in. Save them all on your phone’s map.
When you’ve just sweated up a 500-step spiral staircase to see views of the city, and you’ve come back down dying for sustenance, you can whip your phone out and you’ll already know what’s nearby. And given that there are always lots of tourist-trap restaurants and bars near big attractions, you won’t end up wandering into one out of desperation and getting ripped off.
Also, email or ring up to reserve tables before you go. You can always cancel when you get there if plans change. There’s nothing worse than going into a restaurant, finding it’s fully booked or randomly closed on a Monday, then spending hours trudging round looking for somewhere decent and getting hangry (that’s hungry-angry FYI). You end up getting sick of looking and just go into anywhere and it ends up being a rip off. Reserving is pretty much mandatory in some cities anyway. In uber-organised Munich, you’ll be cast out into the street to die if you’ve not booked. And possibly spat on.
10. Buy a (collapsible) water bottle and don’t buy water
Don’t throw money away on planet-killing, single-use plastic water bottles that cost £1+. For about the same price, you can get a reusable one that folds up when empty, so it won’t take up space in your bag once you’ve finished your drink. And it won’t take up space on the earth for the next million years.
Take advantage of free water to fill it up: tap water (if it’s safe), water fountains or bottled restaurant water that they’ll only throw away if you leave any.
Don’t take the piss, obviously. If there’s a communal cucumber-infused water dispenser in a hipster cafe, it might be a bit much to stand there decanting it. But if they give you a carafe for your table, it’s fair game. Drain that bitch.
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