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Clare Francis : If like me you've yet to book your summer holiday this year you may be wondering where the best deals are to be had. With the pound so weak against the euro and the dollar, an increasing number of people are shunning the States and continental Europe in favour of other destinations, and a lot of families are choosing to stay here at home in Britain instead of going abroad at all.
So Bob Atkinson, who is a travel expert at travelsupermarket.com, is with me to talk about what's happening in the market and where the best deals are to be had.
Q1: So Bob are you seeing people opting for destinations that are outside the Euro zone and the US because of the sterling?
Bob Atkinson: Definitely. There has been a real swing this year towards the Eastern Mediterranean destinations. The press have been talking, and all the holiday programmes on TV, about places like Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, those kinds of places that sit firmly outside of the euro. And one of the real benefits of those places when you go away is that your pound - when you translate into local currency - goes a hell of a long way!
So from that point of view they're very, very price sensitive destinations, you get a lot for your money, and the actual cost of the holiday with your holiday company - because of those exchange rates when they work back flights and accommodation - works out as a really good deal in comparison to our favourites: the places like Spain, Greece etc.
Q2: But is that still the case? I'm thinking if demand is strong for Turkey for example, is that not pushing up the cost of the holiday versus maybe Spain or Portugal if there are fewer people opting to go there - could you not have a bargain despite the weakness of the pound against the euro?
BA: Yes, definitely, and it's a good point to make. At the beginning of a holiday year, effectively late summer last year when Summer '09 holidays first go on sale, all the tour operators and the airlines look at their capacity and they look where they've maybe not had a good time in 2008, and they take aircraft out, they don't contract as many hotels in destinations. So with everybody knowing that this year was going to be a tough year they'd already cut overall capacity down anyway because we knew that people weren't going to travel as much.
What they then did secondary was to move aircraft into areas that they thought would grow, hence Turkey, Egypt, those kinds of destinations where there is more capacity this year than at previous years, and less capacity in say places like your Western Mediterranean (like Spain).
Now what that has meant in the 'earlies' market - up until kind of January, February, March this year - you could get a very good deal booking places like Turkey and Egypt very early, because all the special offers were there, great discounts were there. Now we're starting to head into the 'lates' period where we go into the summertime, and yes availability is beginning to get tighter on those. So prices are firming, they're holding up - however there's still plenty of bargains to have on accommodation outside of the main school holidays seasons, there's still some good flight prices outside of the main school holiday time, but if you want a real bargain probably this summer or for maybe the May bank holiday then you've really got to be heading probably Western Mediterranean, places like the Canary Islands, where demand is not as high as normal.
Q3: And of course the weathers always great there as well?
BA: Well at this time of the year weather is generally pretty good! You know you can go to Spain at that time of year, Portugal, Greece, and get pretty good weather all the way through from May all the way through to September time, maybe October if you can't afford to go away until later because your time doesn't allow you. October can be a bit iffy when you start to go to those destinations but certainly for the core months it doesn't matter when you're going to go Eastern Med. or Western Med., you are pretty much guaranteed great weather.
The real key this year is to search, and to search and to search. Use the price comparison services such as travelsupermarket.com offers, both in terms of looking at package holidays, but also looking at doing the same trip and doing it as an individually created break like a flight and a hotel to look at the deals that are out there, because certainly there is some great flight prices, certainly some great accommodation prices, especially if you travel midweek.
Q4: Historically it's often been the cheapest option hasn't it, to do it yourself and book your accommodation and flights separately, but with more people doing that now recently I've heard that the packages look really good value. Is it still cheaper to do it yourself or is that not necessarily the case?
BA: Well there are two issues really in what we're really talking about here. One is about the overall price, and the second thing is about protection, so if I could take them separately and just explain those.
Certainly from a price perspective if you take the time and trouble to look for both a flight and your accommodation separately, you can often find some really, really great deals - potentially saving hundreds of pounds on a family holiday - so it's always wise to look at the two options. However, the downside is if you book it all separately you don't necessarily have the protection, the assistance and the help that you would get from a tour operator who does the whole thing for you.
Now many of us will remember last year the news items in September when XL holidays.com went bust and that left thousands of people stranded at UK airports, overseas etc. Now the vast bulk of those people were on ATOL - protected holidays - they got looked through the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) etc., and whilst there are still some cases still to be paid out the vast majority of people have had their monies back.
Now if you book it all separately, either your airline or your accommodation and something happens to that, you don't necessarily have that cover through the CAA -
CF: So you might get your flight back but you will have to pay for accommodation?
BA: Yes, if your flight company went under you would maybe get your flight back but you wouldn't necessarily get your accommodation because that's still there, and now you can't get there that's not the hotelier's problem. So if you're going to look at DIYing your holiday, effectively putting it together, we always recommend you pay by credit card or a VISA debit card so that you get protection under the Consumer Credit Act.
Wherever possible, look to see if the items are covered from the tour operator or the airline under the Atol scheme so you've got that protection. But don't think that just by not having something that's not Atol covered you're not going to get a good bargain - the bargains are there to be had, and if you're prepared to take that risk, certainly on a late booking and you pay by credit card, you can still have a fantastic holiday at a great value price.
Q5: What's the advice at the moment for Mexico and the worries about the flu epidemic, what's the news on that?
BA: Well as we record this item it's still very early days as far as the outbreak is concerned. Basically it's a pretty standard rule that we apply whenever there's any kind of health risk and that would be to consult the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice for foreign travel which always will have something on there around travelling to any destination that is affected with any kind of health outbreak.
The current advice is basically to take care, to follow advice, and if you show any symptoms such as flu-like symptoms you report to a doctor really as soon as possible. There's a lot of stuff in the press about keeping a kind of physical distance from people - I think there's some suggestions to keep six foot away from people...
CF: Are we far enough away!
BA: I'm not sure we are far enough away, but I'm sure you don't have any kind of communicable disease from Mexico today Clare! However, being quite serious about this, if you are travelling to anywhere like that it's always best you take the advice and if you think there's anything wrong at any time you consult a doctor.
As important, ensure that you have a travel insurance [policy] that covers you for medical reasons and as I say, consult the FCO advice. If a tour operator you're planning to go away with or an airline you're planning to go away with, if the situation changes and travel to Mexico becomes something that is not advisable then airlines and tour operators will start to curtail those services - in which case you should then be offered refunds or a change to another date and another time. But we're not in that situation as we record now [as of 28/04/09].
Q6: So people don't necessarily need to panic?
BA: No. At this stage you should be able to continue as normal but you need to obviously take the normal precautions that you would do travelling anywhere.
Q7: Just finally, if you are looking to go away say June, July time, where are you seeing the really good deals out there at the moment?
BA: At the moment when you talk about June - other than the first week of June which is still holidays for a lot of people around the UK with maybe their children off school - the second, third and fourth week of June there are bargains pretty much everywhere, even to places like Turkey as we were discussing before that have sold well.
There's plenty of offers, so really get looking now because there's plenty of great offers out there and it doesn't matter whether you want to stay within the UK, whether you want to travel within the Euro zone, outside of the Euro zone or even to places like the States where there's some incredible deals on flight prices over to the States. Hoteliers are slashing prices when you're over there, and whilst the dollar rate may still only be around $1.50 to the £1, the value you get in the States is phenomenal compared to here, so America is still a great buy. So really - anywhere in those few weeks.
Once you get to July it starts to change, because then we're going into school holiday season. Scottish school holidays kick off right at the beginning of the month as do some odd regions in the UK, so the further you go into July the less availability there's starting to be and the more we're starting to see the polarisation where places like Turkey are getting very, very busy, and the Eastern Med. is busy and then the competitors like Spain, Portugal, the Canaries, there is more availability and slightly more offers. But, the closer we get the more it will book up, especially July.
CF: Brilliant, good advice Bob, thank you.
BA: Thank you!