Andrew Vine: Fairness needed over school holiday prices

IMAGINE for a moment your horror and astonishment at visiting a supermarket for the weekly shop, only to find that the price of everything has trebled.

Bread, milk, meat, and fruit have all shot up in price to such an extent that there will have to be a radical rethink on what is bought if the household budget is not to go haywire.

It would be like living through some hyper-inflation nightmare afflicting a corruption-riddled banana republic, not everyday life in stable Britain.

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But book even a modest holiday and the scenario of prices increasing by three-fold overnight is not a grim fantasy, but a painful reality for too many families.

The outrageous marking-up of holiday prices when the schools break up has long been a source of annoyance for parents, who rightly feel that they are being taken advantage of, and the unfairness of it is has been brought into sharp focus over the past few days by the experience of two groups of friends.

They live close by each other in West Yorkshire, but fall either side of a boundary between local authorities where there is a disparity over the timing of the Easter school break.

One group of children remains on holiday this week, while the other is back at school. And so yesterday one family set off for five days at a holiday camp on the Lincolnshire coast, which is costing them £250.

They are happy with the price, but were a little embarrassed when they told their friends.

That is because the previous week, they had paid £750 for five days at the same place, simply because it was classified by the holiday company as a peak Easter week.

Nobody quibbles with the desire – and necessity – of a company to make a healthy profit, and simple supply and demand dictates that certain weeks of the year offer the best opportunities to earn and need to be maximised.

But a trebling of prices? That strays over the line between making a decent return and cold-eyed profiteering.

The family that paid £750 won’t be returning to the camp they visited, even though they liked it and enjoyed their stay. It is a matter of principle for them. They feel they have been exploited, and the word is spreading amongst friends and fellow parents at their children’s school.

Such unfavourable word of mouth is bad news for any company, but the holiday industry has long had parents over a barrel, tied as they are to the weeks when the schools are shut.

We are all familiar with conversations with those grateful that they are no longer tied to the school holiday.

The so-called “grey getaway” of older holiday-makers in the week or two after the schools return in September has grown relentlessly in recent years as prices fall quite dramatically after the peak summer weeks.

It is little wonder that increasing numbers of families have opted to take their children out of school during term time in order to have an affordable break, even though doing so ultimately risks harming their educational progress.

The fines imposed on parents for doing this are entirely justified, but the fact that so many families shrug their shoulders and calculate that paying up will be outweighed by the savings further demonstrate a growing resentment at the mark-ups on peak weeks.

And there is growing acknowledgement of this issue. If re-elected, the Conservatives have pledged to make it easier for parents to take children out of school during term.

But school is where children belong during term time, and a better approach would be to put pressure on the holiday industry to be fairer in their pricing.

A trebling of prices is simply not on, and surely a code of conduct could be agreed over the degree to which costs go up during the two most in-demand periods – Easter and the long summer break.

Ultimately, it is in the best long-term interests of the holiday industry to play fair with families who largely have no option but to be ruled by the school holidays, and if they need proof of that, they should look to us here in Yorkshire.

Last summer, when there was a huge influx of visitors for the Grand Départ of the Tour de France, one of the most refreshing aspects of the way that all those people were treated is that they were not the victims of profiteering.

Prices for accommodation and food overwhelmingly stayed the same as during any other summer, and that was a significant factor in the massive goodwill towards Yorkshire and its people on the part of our visitors.

The same fairness will apply next month when the crowds come back for the Tour de Yorkshire.

There is a simple lesson holiday companies would do well to heed when setting prices for school holidays – play fair with your customers, and they will return.