Martin Lewis: Don’t let winter travel lust burn a significant hole in your wallet

Getting away from it: Use price comparison sites to find the best value-for-money air fares.
Getting away from it: Use price comparison sites to find the best value-for-money air fares.
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These cold dark days of winter leave many dreaming of summer. Yet don’t let travel lust destroy your wallet. Most people book holidays in the early months of the year, so if you’re jet set on tripping abroad this year, here’s my top tips on how to use the web to pay less to get more.

Slash flight costs using the RIGHT comparison. Unlike package holidays with scheduled flights, leaving it until the last minute means prices rocket. So make sure you’re booking in advance and use the right site for the job.

Cheapest price on normal flights: Here, just use a flight comparison site. I like www.kayak.co.uk (for gizmos), www.skyscanner.net (for ease), and www.travelsupermarket.com (for breadth).

Check cheap charter flights comparisons too: If you’re flying to a traditional package holiday destination, like Majorca, you should also check for spare capacity being sold on tour operators’ own flights. The comparisons that include these ‘charter flights’ are www.travelsupermarket.com, www.avro.co.uk and www.flightsdirect.com.

Find the perfect time to book: Use the Flight Insight tab on comparison site www.momondo.co.uk, e.g. on average 59 days ahead is the perfect time to book, but it varies by destination, so worth a check.

Flight booking – the clever stuff to cut costs. Once you’ve found the cheapest price via a comparison, if you want to 
push harder, you need to get clever.

Book the wrong date trick: Easyjet’s Flexifares let you switch dates by a few weeks without paying more. So bag cheap term-time flights, then swap for your chosen school holiday dates. One of my users saved £700 on her family’s break, yet there are pros and cons. Full step-by-step in www.mse.me/easyjet.

The codeshare trick. Sometimes two or more airlines sell the same flights and booking via one partner is cheaper, e.g. a United flight from Birmingham to New York can be cheaper via Lufthansa.

Ethnic travel agents trick: If you’re going somewhere with a big UK ethnic or immigrant community, check out niche travel agents catering to them. E.g. London’s Shepherd’s Bush has some Caribbean specialists, or the Jewish Chronicle advertises cheap flights to Israel.

The credit card flight freebie trick. You can get a ‘free’ Flybe flight anywhere or a BA European flight (you pay taxes) just by signing up to a fee-free credit card, and doing normal spending on it. For a full list of freebies see www.mse.me/ccfreebies.

Cut the price for your hotel room. Forget the star system. There’s no world standard and it’s often about facilities, not quality. To find the hotel you want to stay at read reviews on the ubiquitous www.tripadvisor.co.uk, but always ignore the best and worst 10 per cent. Check comparison sites, both www.trivago.co.uk and www.travelsupermarket.com allow you to see who’s selling your hotel room for less.

Then also be aware there are commonly promo codes available for the big hotel booking sites which can cut your costs by a further 15 per cent for a full list of current ones see www.mse.me/hotelsales.

Tricks to uncover 5-star hotels at 3-star prices. If you’ve time to play and want the really big discounts, then there are two naughty (but legal) routes.

Uncover secret hotels. www.lastminute.com sells secret hotels at big discounts, where you know the star rating, description and rough location, but aren’t told the name till you’ve paid. Yet by cutting and pasting key words into google then matching up the ‘ratings’ you can uncover them before you book – full step by step in www.mse.me/secrethotels.

Huge discounts with the Priceline bidding loophole. www.priceline.com is a huge US booking site (it works for some European cities too). The trick is fiddly, but devastatingly lucrative as forumite 5*dealhunter found: “Got the 5* Renaissance Barcelona Hotel for £59 a night for 3 nights instead of £310 – a saving of 81 per cent.” If you’ve got 30 minutes to try it see my instructions at www.mse.me/priceline.

Package holidays can undercut DIY web bookings... especially for seven, 10 or 14 days in a traditional resort like Majorca, Mykonos or Malia (and some that don’t start with an M).

In brief...When to book? Massive savings are possible in the late market, where deals are done within eight weeks of travel, yet of course there’s restricted choice and you may need to be flexible. So if you need special facilities (e.g. for families) you need to book now and try to cut prices down.

How to cut prices? Remember tour operators make holidays, travel agents sell them. So one operator’s holiday may be on sale at many travel agents – the aim is to find who’ll sell it cheapest. Either scan for discounts, or often more lucratively, but more time consuming, is to haggle.

To do this first find the trip you want, then write down all details, then take it to the travel agents who advertise on places like www.teletext.co.uk to see if they will sell you the same holiday for less. Go to a few to find the best price, but to be fair if one has spent a lot of time helping you, always give them the last chance to match it.

How to get package holiday protection. Package holidays have long been protected under the ATOL scheme, so if something goes wrong you get your money back (or help coming home).

Yet book a flight plus separate hotel or car hire together (or within 24 hours) from the same travel (not airline) website, and since 2012 you’ve also got ATOL protection, just like with a package. So check if it’s not much more expensive compared to booking the cheapest flight and hotel separately. Also bear in mind www.expedia.co.uk, www.travelocity.co.uk, www.ebookers.com and www.lastminute.com often give extra discounts for flights and hotels booked together.

Fifty travel tips including travel insurance, currency and car bookings are in my www.mse.me/traveltips guide.

Martin Lewis is the Founder & Editor in Chief of Money Saving Expert. To join the 10 million people who get his Martin’s 
Money Tips weekly email, go to www.moneysavingexpert.com/latesttip or watch The Martin Lewis Money Show on ITV, Fridays at 8pm.