Season vs. Off Season
Usually ‘in season’ is the best time to go – and it can also be the worst time to go: it’s more crowded; prices are inflated; flights are crowded; accommodation is hard to find; it’s when unions tend to mount strikes and blockades…
Not that everything is sweetness and light if you travel off season.
Places like the Venice can be deserted (and St Mark’s Square flooded). You stand out from the crowd (because there isn’t one), which means an increased chance of you becoming a victim of crime (less targets for criminals to choose from). However, there are advantages – like spending less time queuing up to see attractions. Also, with less people around you may be able to take ‘better’ holiday snaps (depending on your preferences). Plus, people are more attentive / willing to bargain as there’s less trade.
Remember: holiday prices are a good guide – if you see a marked difference in price at certain times then there is usually a reason why.
Usually, holidays are more expensive during the school summer break when families go away; when there’s a bank holiday and working people try to make their limited leave go further, or around Christmas and New Year when people attend family gatherings (remember Chinese, Hindu and Buddhist celebrate their New Year on different dates). However, there can be other reasons – like a festival or special event (solar eclipse). Prices may be cheaper because it’s the local rainy season, there’s an election coming up (which can be a time for civil unrest in certain countries), or it is Ramadan – the fasting period in Islamic countries.
Forget the brochure pictures – check the weather.
Climate change and more extreme weather events means past weather patterns are no longer as an accurate guide as they used to be. However, they do offer some indication of what kind of weather (and temperatures / humidity) to expect.
It may be summer in the UK but it could be the start of the hurricane season somewhere else (particularly relevant if you're planning on going to the Caribbean, Mexico or visiting the southern United States – like New Orleans or the state of Florida). You also don’t want to book a beach holiday during the monsoon season – it’s cloudy, wet, seas can be rough and shifting sandbanks can lead to dangerous riptides and currents.
Depends on a number of factors – like what you're interested in, whether you're travelling by yourself or with companions (and how many), what you can afford, how long you've got, how much you've got to spend, and what you want to get out of your holiday.
If you just want a relaxing break – simple food, sun, sand and surf – then there's usually plenty of inexpensive options: Spain, Portugal, Greek islands, Turkey and the Mediterranean. Destinations in North Africa – Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt – usually offer year round sunshine. Middle Eastern destinations, like Dubai, are another alternative. However, they can turn quite chilly at night in winter months.
Remember: not everyone subscribes to the view that being on holiday is just one long drinking session. Some Muslim countries are fairly relaxed in tourist areas but have little tolerance for loutish behaviour or vandalism (or alcohol outside these areas – while rural areas tend to be more conservative in outlook). Others have zero tolerance of alcohol and it's best to avoid it altogether (it can affect you much quicker in hot climates or if you're drinking something that you are not used to). A trip through their criminal justice systems and prisons is best avoided.
Sometimes, after a week by the pool, it can become a lot less appealing than when you were in Britain dreaming about it. So it's a good idea to have some inkling as to what excursions and activities may also be available (it will also help your budgeting).
If you fancy something more than a laze by the pool, then there are a variety of cycling, touring and activity holidays. And companies that specialise in these areas. There are also specialist interest holidays – like battlefield tours, mountaineering, cooking, romantic, and photography trips.
Touring holidays can often give you a taster of a country. And you do get to cover a lot of ground. On the downside you may not get as much time to spend in a location as you would have liked. Also, a more strenuous holiday can leave you feeling more tired and exhausted than when you first left.
Or you could opt for a two centre break / two part holiday with an active sightseeing part followed by a laze by the pool. For example, a week's Nile cruise followed by a week on the Red Sea coast.
If you're going for a backpack round-the-world trip (or just like to do your own thing) with no fixed plans except being back in the UK sometime within the next 365-days, then a lot of it will be making it up as you go along with the freedom to change your plans to suit you (and your travel partner, if you're going with one or just picked one up on the way).
If you're joining a group holiday (as a solo traveller or as part of a group) then you're going to have to follow the group travel plans and dates. Especially, if the airline ticketing was part of the package.
Some companies allow you to buy what is called Land Only ie. you only pay for the tour, transport and accommodation in your destination country (and you arrange your own flights and transport to the start point of the tour, and your own way back home at the end).
The advantage of going with the combined travel and accommodation package is that it often includes transport from the airport to the hotel which is the tour start point, and back to the airport at the end. Also, if there is any delay to the flight to the destination country, they are less likely to start without you (and the others using their arrangements).
Plus, the tour operator will look after things like reconfirming your return tickets, if required.
Many people travel alone but that doesn't mean you have to stay alone. Particularly, if you're joining a group holiday. Also, you tend to meet people and make friends along the way.
Actually, going along on touring holidays is a good way of meeting people. And there are dedicated tours for people looking for a romantic holiday. Then there's the party destinations for those into toga parties and that sort of thing.
While you have freedom to do your own thing, or teaming up along the way, if you're backpacking, there are drawbacks. Particularly, for lone female travellers – not that being a bloke is a guarantee of safety.
Being alone in a strange land, where you don't know anyone and may not speak the language or know the customs makes you vulnerable.
Sadly, tourists are seen as walking cashpoints by criminals all over the world. And you're just as likely to be pick-pocketed, have your bag stolen, or your drink spiked in London as anywhere else.
Often these criminals hang around areas where they know they'll encounter tourists, like airports and important attractions. Criminals know tourists are likely to be carrying creditcards and substantial amounts of cash, and have valuables like cameras, camcorders and passports.
Tip: beware of people in period costumes – it may cost you a lot to take their photo. The 'Roman legionnaires' at the Colosseum have been known to have been menacing – in very modern times.
Sometimes it is hard to understand relatively levels of wealth – a standard backpack from a good manufacturer often costs more money than the average person will make in a year in many poorer countries. So while you may not consider yourself to be wealthy, relative to the average person on a foreign street, you could be a millionaire. Or put it another way: the average person on this planet does not enjoy the living conditions of a prisoner in a British jail ie. clean water, sanitation, regular meals and a roof over their head.
Sex sells – but you may get a totally different kind of thrill. Like being marched to a cashpoint and your account emptied. Or the lady delivers something totally different from what was promised – like a burly bouncer or mugger. In certain countries prostitution and / or sex clubs are legal. In others they are not and you will have no recourse to the police should you have given in to temptation.
Tip: if you're not an experienced traveller, it is probably best to join a group tour so that there's someone on the ground to steer you out of trouble – or come to your rescue if there is. Even a twisted ankle could mean you'll be unable to carry your backpack.
Another drawback of travelling by yourself is the cost. Most accommodation providers base their prices on two people sharing a room. Solo travellers are often charged extra – known in the trade as a Single Person Supplement or Single Supplement (which can be close to or equal to the two person rate).
Some holidays offer you the choice of sharing accommodation with an unknown person on the same tour. It could be the start of a lifelong friendship or the ruin of your trip. You could be forced to bear the company of your 'roomie' or there could be problems with who keeps the room key if you join separate dinner groups (the group dynamics on some of these trips can be a study in human nature in itself). And, if one of you snores or has some odd personal habits...
Tip: For individual travellers, some discount offers (like railcards and freedom passes) may need to be purchased in the UK before you leave.
If you're travelling with a friend or partner it makes things easier – in terms of costs and security.
If your group is larger then that has its share of advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages are that you may be able to get a cheaper rate if you book as a group. However, awkward numbers can pose problems. Although, some minibuses and vans do seat odd numbers, and some hotels may offer triple rooms.
If you're the person making the bookings for the group (and it's going on your creditcard or bill) best make sure you get any funds involved beforehand. Otherwise you could have a long wait to get paid (if ever) and have to pay the interest as well.
Also, while groups offer mutual protection and possible savings there can be awkward individuals who reduce careful plans into chaos (always late or keep forgetting things, like their passport, children...). However, they are a hazard even if you travel solo and join a group. Although should they get permanently lost it won't be your problem.
Using a reputed travel agent can make life a lot easier as they know the ropes, have the contacts and bulk buy so can offer competitive prices. Plus, they can usually also arrange things like visas (although some countries may require you to apply in person or attend an interview).
On the downside, you have to pay for the service, and there's always the possibility of them unexpectedly going out of business. And, with smaller agencies, there's also a danger of fraud – like a business just set up to take holiday bookings and disappear with the money before the first customer is due to fly out.
ABTA and ATOL membership offers customers some protection if their airline or travel agent suddenly goes out of business. Ideally, book with those companies that are members of both.
If you're dealing with an unknown company don’t just take their word or their use of the ABTA and / or ATOL logo, check and make sure that they really are members
ABTA – Association of British Travel Agents
(ABTA website or call 020 7637 2444).
ATOL – Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing
You can check if a company is a current member of ATOL on the Civil Aviation Authority website. Currently, ATOL protection only covers flights but the scheme is under review.
Please note: ABTA and ATOL protection is supplement to – not a replacement for – travel insurance.
Remember the old saying goods things no cheap, cheap things no good (or at least buyer beware).
You may be able to get cheaper flights or deals if you book directly with a hotel or airline (or sometimes even through ticket consolidators who buy seats in bulk and can offer a cheaper rate).
If you book direct then it probably is a good idea to pay by creditcard, if possible. However, you may have to pay a surcharge for using one.
Surcharges may not apply or are generally reduced if you use a debitcard but you may not get the same level of protection against a travel agent or operator going bust.
A downside of booking direct is that you may not have the same level of consumer protection than if you had gone through an agent (even if you had used a creditcard) – like ATOL protection.
When making any bookings always get the name of the person you spoke to, and make a note of the date and time of your call. Always ask for a reference number for any bookings as this will help if the person you originally made the booking with is not available.