The UK Government’s decision to fine parents for taking their children out of school during term time is controversial to say the least. Whilst head teachers previously had discretion to authorise absences, that is now gone leaving families at the mercy of holiday operators who hike their prices to astronomical levels during the peak school holidays.
This has left many families angry and there have been numerous facebook campaigns and petitions demanding a reversal of the decision. For many families, it is cheaper to pay a fine for an unauthorised absence than it is to holiday outside of term times.
I have to say, I think it is a very short sighted position for the Government to take. There is no denying the importance of education, but there is only so much that you can be taught in a classroom. To travel is to learn a whole new set of skills, such as navigating airports and public transport abroad, experiencing different cultures and interacting with people who may not speak the same language.
Even if there is no foreign travel, you can still learn a lot on a “staycation” just by breaking the familiar routines and experiencing something different. I personally also think that there is value to having to catch up on schoolwork on your return – it encourages children to take responsibility for their own learning, and is a taste of adult life – I never work harder then when about to go on or coming back from annual leave.
But the school holiday price hike doesn’t just affect people travelling with school age children. It also affects teachers and anyone travelling with them. Jim is a teacher, and so my travels all take place during school holidays.
So is budget travel possible during the school holidays?
The short answer to that question is yes. If it was not possible to travel on a limited budget in the school holidays then I would either be travelling solo or not at all. It certainly requires a bit more effort than planning travels at any other time of the year, but it can be done. Here are my top tips for planning travels on a limited budget during peak times:-
1. Plan early
The majority of the people who travel during school holidays are not actually teachers, and so must arrange annual leave for the school holidays. This is not always easy, but if travelling during school holidays, the when is just as important as the where. I always make a note of Jim’s holiday dates at the end of each year, so than when my next annual leave period begins, I can request holidays early.
2. Book either really early or really late
If you see a good deal for a trip during the school holidays, don’t hesitate. Even the next day, it might be gone. Cheap deals are best found months in advance, or immediately before travel. For example, Jim and I spent 2 weeks in Crete in 2009. We booked the holiday about a week before travelling and it cost us just £280.00 each.
3. Be flexible with your destination
If you have a fixed budget and a fixed time period for travel, then there has to be a compromise somewhere and the easiest thing to compromise on is destination. Be prepared to travel anywhere that suits the budget and travel dates. Using a website such as Skyscanner is really useful for this as you can search for flights to any destination from your chosen airport on a particular day/month.
4. Compare, compare, compare
The internet makes this so easy to do. Don’t just accept the price for a flight or a hotel or holiday from one website or travel brochure – shop around. It is often possible to find cheaper deals by doing a little bit of legwork. Even if it is only a couple of pounds, that is better spent on enjoying a holiday than in the pockets of an airline or hotel.
For flights, I always start with Skyscanner, but then as a minimum I check the prices with Kayak, Expedia and the airline direct. For hotels, I start with Booking.com, then check with Expedia, Trivago, Travel Supermarket, Trip Advisor and the hotel direct. Once I have picked a destination, I also check Expedia and Travel Supermarket to see if there are any discounts for booking a flight and hotel combo. Besides possible discounts, the benefit of booking flights and hotels through the same organisation is that they will be ATOL protected, meaning that you will be protected in the event that the travel operator goes bust whilst you are abroad.
Finally, look out for discounts on offer. I find Expedia is excellent for this, with regular 10% off discounts for hotel bookings made via their mobile app. This means that you can either save 10% on the hotel you intended to book, or stay in a slightly more expensive hotel (though of course that does not necessarily mean better) for the same price.
5. Beware added extras
Airlines in particular will try to suck you in with a headline grabbing rock bottom price, but this will not include travelling with cabin baggage, or the administration fee, or debit/credit card charges etc. etc. They are now supposed to make clear what the added extras are going to be, and I do find that this information is readily available before getting too far into the booking process. However, you can feel committed once you have made a decision and started the booking process, so it comes as a bitter pill to find a 3% credit card fee will be applied on the next page.
These hidden costs can significantly add to the cost of a “budget” flight, so I always compare it against the cost of one of the bigger airlines (e.g. British Airways) where there are not a heap of extras added. Budget flights have forced prices down across the board as established airlines have to compete, so don’t assume that the budget airlines will automatically be the cheapest.
6. Consider where to travel from
If you are prepared to do a little travelling before leaving for your destination then this can significantly lower costs. For example, even taking into account return travel to London and a night in a hotel, it was much cheaper for me to take the Eurostar to Brussels last year than it was to fly from Newcastle.
I considered doing the same for Paris this year, as the Eurostar would have been about £100.00 less than flights. However, taking into account the cost of return travel to London and the time frame involved, on this occasion the saving would not have been enough to justify the extra time and hassle.
I always double check flight prices from alternative UK airports before making any bookings. Newcastle Airport is fantastic to have on my doorstep, but it will not always be flying to the destination I want to go to at a price I can afford. Within easy reach using public transport I could also fly from Edinburgh, Manchester or London, and so I always check the prices from these airports. This year, I will be flying out to Lisbon from Liverpool. I then factor in time and cost to travel to those airports and assess the saving to see whether it is worth it. Remember that the flights into our out of these alternative airports can be part of the holiday too.
7. Consider where to stay
This is one that always catches me out. When I travel, I always look for hotels that are in the thick of it, in the centre of wherever I am going to stay. In the centre equals expensive, and often there are much cheaper options available for just a little bit of travelling.
I try to remind myself of Newcastle when I am looking at hotels. There are a number of very nice hotels right by the main station in Newcastle which are only a stone’s throw away from the heart of the city. However, if I was travelling to Newcastle, I would not stay there. I would stay in Jesmond, which is packed full of hotels, has two metro stations for access to the city centre in 10 minutes, or is only a 20 minutes on foot. Or even better, I would stay in Tynemouth which is a gorgeous coastal village only 30 minutes away from Newcastle by metro, or a 5 mile drive. It might seem like a lot on paper, but in reality it is nothing, and would not interfere with any plans to explore the city and the region.
Budget forced us away from the centre in Paris, and I am really glad of it. I really liked seeing a grittier and less touristy side of Paris in the 12th arrondissement, and the area around the Bastille had a real energy to it which I did not experience in the central, touristy areas of Paris.
8. Consider both travelling independently and package holidays
I’m not a fan of package holidays. I like to use my holiday to explore as much of a country as I can, whereas package holidays are very much focused on meeting all your needs in one resort. They are definitely convenient – one booking will sort out flights, accommodation and transfers, and the holiday operator will try their hardest in resort to make sure that they sort out all of your excursions as well. I prefer the freedom of making my own arrangements, and on the whole I find independent travel is a cheaper way to do it. However, I will always check the cost of package holidays as there are some amazing deals to be had, and provided the destination is well served by public transport, I will still be able to get out and about under my own steam.
The package holiday issue is a bit of a divisive one – people tend to either be 100% package holiday travellers, or 100% independent travellers. To maximise budget, look into both options for a destination and go with the cheapest. The majority of my travel has been independent, but the few package holidays I have had I have really enjoyed.
9. Don’t forget the budget in destination
It is much easier to focus on budget whilst planning a trip at home in the UK. With a little bit of sunshine and relaxation, it is very easy to throw the budget out of the window – nothing seems to matter as much on holiday. However, to avoid the headache that awaits you back home when the budget is blown, try not to forget about it.
Having a budget does not have to spoil travelling. Eating picnics is a much cheaper way to eat out abroad then to have 2 or 3 meals a day in a restaurant, and it is also a chance to see behind the tourist veil by seeing local people going about their daily lives. For example, by shopping for picnic items in supermarkets, I have discovered that the UK is the King of the pre-packed sandwich – they are much harder to come by abroad. Why? In the UK, we are always in a rush. The whole point of the pre-packed sandwich is to be quick – lunchtime is not something to be savoured, but is an unwelcome interruption in the working day.
Besides eating out, I always prioritise what I want to do, and value for money. Yes, that castle looks interesting, but am I interested enough to pay a €12 entry fee? Do what you are interested in and work out the budget accordingly – you do not have to do anything just because it is popular with other people, or because it is there.
Finally, my favourite way to get around a destination is to walk, walk, walk. It costs nothing, and it is a great way to see more of the places I am visiting.
10. Look out for deals on attractions
So you have worked out what you wanted to do, now you need to work out how to do it in the cheapest possible way. Is there any discount for pre-booking tickets online? Are there any free days (e.g. across much of Europe, museums will open their doors for free once a month)? Are there any offers available (e.g. discounts or 2 for 1)? Does the time of day, or day of the week affect the entry price? What are the free attractions or activities in your destination?
11. Don’t buy gifts
I always used to do this, but it takes up time, it costs a lot of money and most of the time you end up bringing home tat for people that they don’t need or want. I know it is a nice way to show that you are thinking about the people that you care for at home, but there are other ways to do this without spending a lot of money. My family know that I won’t be bringing anything back from my travels for them, and that I will not normally be in touch with them unless I am away for an extended time. If I was going to do anything, it would be to send a postcard – that is much cheaper then bringing back a present.
By the same token, I don’t usually buy any souvenirs. I take a lot of pictures, and I write this blog. They are all the souvenirs I need. If I bring something back with me, it will be something that I really want, and something that I will use. There is no point in spending money on something that will just gather dust and will have no real memories attached to it.
My favourite ever souvenir from travelling is a fan that I bought from a pair of old ladies on the Great Wall of China. They latched themselves to us early on in our walk, and at some points half dragged us along the wall (it is really hard work), took us on a very dubious short cut, and looked as if they were about to cry at the end when we were willing to walk away without buying anything from them. I loved the fan, and though I think we did overpay, we haggled with them (my first ever haggling!) and I got it for a price that I was happy with. But that fan has so many memories attached of our wonderful Mongolian hangers on (who were absolute legends for the way they could nimbly work their way along the wall whilst we were half-dying), and of the sense of achievement at conquering the wall, so it was worth every penny. Buying a t-shirt or a keyring or a bottle opener from a tourist shop just isn’t worth it for me.
So what’s the solution?
For me, it makes very little difference whether the Government change their policy or not – for as long as I travel with Jim, I will be travelling in the school holidays and applying the above tips to travel on a budget.
However, I do think it is very unfair on families. Until I went to High School, my family would holiday during term time. I don’t think my academic education suffered for it at all, and I learnt a lot of about how to travel which gave me the confidence to plan my own adventures as an adult.
There are various suggestions about having staggered school holidays (which I think would just extend the peak period for holiday operators) or capping the amount by which holiday operators can increase their prices by during school holidays (which I think would just lead to an increase in prices throughout the whole year to balance it out).
My solution would be to just reverse the decision, recognise the importance of travel and family time, and allow headteachers to grant leave. There can be limits on it (e.g. maximum of one school week in any one academic year), but a blanket ban and fining parents is unfair, and will no doubt only serve to push prices higher during peak holiday times.
What do you think? Do you have any budget tips for school holiday travel?