Hidden ways to reduce holiday costs

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The UK’s improving economy means the pound’s on the up, as it’s predicted UK interest rates will rise sooner. The pound now buys $1.67, a four-year high, and €1.21, a good bounce up. 

Yet better rates still don’t mean a cheap holiday. If you’re going abroad now or this summer, firms hope you take a holiday from your money sense. Yet if you’re in the know, there’s a range of hidden ways to turn the table.

Secret hotel deals aren’t so secret if you play detective. www.lastminute.com sells discounted high-end secret hotel rooms, where you aren’t told the name till you’ve paid.

Yet it’s possible to uncover secret hotels’ identities before you pay, so you can see if you really want to stay there and check out how good the price is (often, it’s good). Just cut and paste the key part of the description into Google, and often the hotel itself will appear. Then just double-check the number of reviews matches the TripAdvisor number for the hotel, and you can see whether it really is a good bargain and somewhere you want to stay.

And that’s just for beginners. If you’ve time and patience, the devastatingly good but fiddly bargains come via hotel bidding site priceline.com. It takes time to do and is all about manipulating the site to give you more ‘free bids’, but it can really pay off.  As one of my site users found: “We bagged six nights at the Sheraton Manhattan Times Square for £336 – that’s £55 a night. To book direct with the hotel would’ve cost £1,230, or £205 per night.”

Full step-by-step help uncovering these bargains is at www.mse.me/hoteltricks

You can bag perfect exchange rates in every country. Forget bureaux de change, forget bank cards. Those in the know get unbeatable exchange rates every trip by pocketing specialist (no annual fee) credit cards that give you cheap spending overseas in the hope you’ll use them here too.

Yet if you just pocket one for when abroad, and repay it IN FULL each month to minimise interest, you win, as these cards are ‘load-free’ worldwide. Most cards add a three per cent load - spend £100 of euros and it costs £103. With these, £100 costs £100.

My top pick is wwww.halifax.co.uk, for its lower ATM fees. For poorer credit scorers, the www.capitalone.co.uk Classic Extra accepts some with older defaults or CCJs.  To find out which of these specialist cards you’re most likely to be accepted for (without hitting your credit file like applying does) use my free

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Again, let me remind you this is only worth it if you repay IN FULL. If not, Halifax is 12.9 per cent representative APR and Capital One a large 34.9 per cent rep APR.

Even if you do fully repay, the cards charge a month’s interest on ATM withdrawals (not spending). With Halifax, at the rep APR that’s just over £1 per £100 – still far cheaper than most bureaux de change. Yet Capital One charges a massive 34.9 per cent rep APR on top of a three per cent ATM fee, it gets costly, so avoid.

Hostels can have private rooms for £10/night including breakfast. Hostels may be dirt cheap, but they’re not necessarily dirty. Most are clean, have private rooms available and breakfast.

My site users’ top spots include Grinton Lodge, a 200-year-old shooting lodge in Yorkshire and Downhill Beachhouse, a Victorian villa in Northern Ireland. Use www.Hostelbookers.com and www.Hostelworld.com to find them.   

Don’t assume flight comparison sites search all airlines. Comparison sites speedily search a large number of flight prices. Yet they aren’t all the same, different comparison sites do different jobs.

- Cheapest price on scheduled flights: For most flights on big name airlines (eg, BA, Easyjet, Air India) I like www.skyscanner.net for ease and www.kayak.co.uk for gizmos.

- Check cheap charter flights too. If you’re flying to a traditional package holiday destination, such as Majorca, some charter flight operators sell off spare capacity. It’s worth checking for these on www.avro.co.uk and www.flightsdirect.com.

- Top one-stop-shop: For scheduled and charter flights, try www.travelsupermarket.com.

- Find exactly when to book: Use the Flight Insight tab on www.momondo.co.uk to find the cheapest time to book for each destination.

“Commission-free” is meaningless - especially at airports. If you want foreign cash from a bureau de change, ignore “commission-free” promises. They often just give a worse exchange rate. Instead just ask “how many dollars/euros/dong will you give me for my cash after all fees?”

My www.TravelMoneyMax.com comparison tool shows the winner from more than 40 online bureaux. If you’ve left it too late to do that and need to leave it until the airport, where rates are almost always horrid, at least order online in advance which usually gets you a far better deal.

For upmarket stays and downmarket prices, villas can smash hotels. If you can live without the ‘being waited on’ element, villas and apartments can be less than half the price of similar-quality hotels, especially if you’re a larger group.

Top rental sites to try include www.homeaway.co.uk, www.villarenters.com and www.tripadvisor.co.uk/rentals

As you book directly with an owner, there’s less protection. Pay on a credit card if possible and always speak to the owner by phone before handing over cash.

Wear your luggage to outwit budget airlines’ ‘extra’ charges. If you’re flying on a budget airline, expect added ‘extras’, such as charges to check in.

- Hold bags can be £150/rtn, but you can usually take 10kg of hand luggage free.

- Grab a big multi-pocketed jacket and stuff it full of books, pants, etc to carry up to 10kg extra free.

- Don’t forget to check in online, otherwise some airlines charge large. On Ryanair it’s £70/person per flight.

- Avoid £1.50 Twix bars, however polite the hostess is. Airport security only bans liquid, not food, so take your own.

- Baby on board? Budget airlines charge up to £60/rtn to take a tot under two on your lap, so factor these in when comparing.

The package holiday isn’t dead - they can beat DIY web bookings. If you want a trip to a sun-filled traditional resort overseas, especially if you’re booking for 7, 10 or 14 days away, check out packages and travel agents.

For prices skimpier than Rihanna’s bikini, book very late. Yet if you need special facilities, for example, a crèche, book sooner. And don’t think prices are fixed - you may be able to haggle them down.

Free two-month Family Railcard (and code for £10 off a year’s card). Get a free two-month Family and Friends Railcard when you register by Wed 21 May, plus you’ll get a code to get the annual card for £20 instead of £30. Full detail www.familyandfriends-railcard.co.uk/trialcard

Got a £50 note? Check it now
The Bank of England withdrew 63 million £50 notes featuring its first governor Sir John Houblon on 30 April. If you find one, don’t worry, you can swap it in most banks and building societies until the end of October 2014.