We’re always on the lookout for our next holiday, regardless of the time of year. For a few days, we are able to forget all the commitments of everyday life and escape.
While tech can definitely be used to our advantage to guarantee the best price, the amount of choice can be overwhelming. Even once you’ve decided between a package holiday and sorting it all yourself, there are still hundreds of sites claiming to offer unforgettable experiences. Where do you start?
In an attempt to simplify this decision, we’ve rounded up all the information you need to know into this handy guide. It covers some general advice, as well as where to go if you’re looking for a specific type of holiday or accommodation. There’s also some great apps out there which can help you navigate this new and unfamiliar part of the world.
We also have a guide specifically on booking a cheap holiday online, and for a bit of vacation tech, check out our round up of the best travel gadgets.
Before we dive into booking a holiday, it’s important to touch on ATOL, which stands for Air Travel Organiser’s Licence. ATOL, introduced in 1973, is a law in the UK that offers financial protection for packaged holidays. It applies to most flights sold by travel businesses based in the UK, along with flight bookings where you don’t receive your tickets upfront.
Keep in mind, in doesn’t cover flights booked directly from a scheduled airline or airline ticket agent.
If you’ve booked a flight with a company that has an ATOL and that company shuts down, the law ensures travellers can return to the UK without losing any money. If the business shuts down before your travel, the ATOL program will provide a refund or replacement holiday.
To check if your travel is covered by ATOL, look for the logo (above) in the travel company’s brochures, ads and sites. You can also contact the company if you’re not sure. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) also has a checking tool where you can search by company name.
Learn more about ATOL protection on the CAA site.
Package holidays: Booking flights with accommodation
If you don’t want the hassle of booking all the individual parts to your holiday, many websites offer package deals, sometimes at excellent prices. It’s particularly a money-saver for short city breaks, as airports are close by and there is a wealth of hotels to choose from.
Websites such as Teletext Holidays are a good place to start if you’re traveling from the UK and Northern Ireland. You can search by destination, departure airport, dates and length of holiday.
There’s also a handy feature that you can switch on that finds dates three days either side of your preferred dates to find you the best possible deal.
Short trips to European cities such as Rome, Paris and Amsterdam can be found in abundance here, and some hotels allow you to add on things like breakfast for a lump sum.
Another well known, proven site for holidays is Lastminute.com. Its name derives from the claim that you can get excellent prices just before you travel, but in reality it’s just a solid holiday search engine. The site does also let you book well ahead of time if you want to be prepared, and prices are pretty comparable to many other sites.
Icelolly is a useful site for comparing package holidays. All the major providers are here, so you can ensure you’re getting the best deal. There’s a nice range of options to filter results to what you’re looking for, including all inclusive, full board or half board. Of course, results will be sorted by what the site recommends by default, but there’s still plenty of more affordable options if price is your main factor.
It also allows you to pick the holiday type at the first port of call from Sun, City, Ski, Cruise or UK to get you started. The simplification helps massively at this stage, and allows you to pick more granular options as you hone your holiday-building search.
Other sites to check for flights, hotel and car hire deals are First Choice and Tui, both of which are protected by ATOL. Thomas Cook always used to be a good option, but the company was liquidated in September 2019.
DIY holidays: Booking flights and accommodation separately
If you’d rather shop around for flights and accommodation separately online, there are a few ways of doing so, and it will by no means cost you more than getting a package deal.
A great combination is booking flights with easyJet or RyanAir and then searching for accommodation via a trusted site with a good range of prices. These airlines are cheap, and offer flexible prices and times for short haul flights to Europe.
You could also check flights on the popular website Skyscanner. It’s a great search tool to compare times and prices for flights, and searches over 1,200 airline and travel sites to find you the perfect deal. As well as flights, it can also search hotels and car hires. A great way to help piece together the different parts of your holiday, it comes highly recommended.
Cheapoair (or Cheapoair US) is another option to compare flights, hotels and car hire deals. Under the ‘More’ section on the site’s menu, you can choose from last minute deals as well as deals within price brackets as low as £39.
If you’re unsure whether you can trust the site you’re buying through, it’s worth looking up their rating on Trustpilot. Feefo is another good alternative, which has some more in-depth options if you’re willing to pay.
However, do take these reviews with a pinch of salt, as people are often more likely to post about negative experiences than positive ones.
For your accommodation, Airbnb has become an obvious option in recent years. This is not a hotel site, but rather a community of people around the world who advertise their own properties for rental. The website is easy to use, though we’d recommend using it on a big computer screen rather than on a smaller smartphone screen, simply because all the options are easier to see.
Once you’ve entered your destination and dates and number of guests, you can pick whether you’d like an entire home, shared room or private room from all the listings, and then dive deeper into pricing and amenity options. We’ve used it ourselves to stay in cities such as New York, Edinburgh and Berlin and had nothing but good experiences with our hosts.
Make sure that the place you choose has lots of positive guest reviews, as this is a great way of ensuring the place is top notch – don’t just rely on the say-so of the owner of the property. Often, unlike with some hotels, you have to pay upfront. If you can find a Superhost then even better, but don’t ignore those who are new to the site unless the listing looks a bit shady.
Booking hotels individually online is very easy via Booking.com. Again, being online lends itself to a plethora of menus and options. This can be overwhelming at first, especially when you can pick whether or not the room has a patio or if other people think it’s ‘pleasant’! However, persevere and you’ll find hotels you never would have though to search for on Google in excellent locations for the price to suit your budget.
Booking a hostel
Booking.com is also an excellent choice if you want to book a long haul hostel break, for instance to somewhere like India or Thailand. This is a good option as plans on holidays where you’re living out a backpack can often change when you least expect – many hostels will not charge you until you’re there, so if your plans change you can cancel the booking.
However, we would always recommend checking details such as this with the individual hotel or hostel, as the same rules don’t apply for all, even though you can book thousands of rooms via Booking.com. You can check under ‘Hotel Policies’ on the individual hotel or hostel’s Booking.com page.
Hostelworld is another excellent option, which collates accommodation options specifically for hostels. For the discerning hosteller, there’s a decent ‘compare’ option if you’re planning a city trip and want to see several options, and the clean-looking website is easy to navigate. Given the social nature of hostels, it has also collected hundreds of thousands of reviews, which helps no end picking out that rough gem you’ve been looking for.
Best travel and holiday apps
We have an entire article dedicated to the best holiday and travel apps, but for a quick overview of the essentials, we suggest the ones below.
The main player here is undoubtedly TripAdvisor. Originally a reviews platform, it has now joined all other platforms mentioned here in allowing you to book holidays. However, given its longevity, it is an excellent research tool when faced with thousands of hotel choices before you leave thanks to the worldwide library of reviews.
Additionally, if you download the app (and have a reasonable data roaming deal with your operator!) then it can be a useful tool when actually on your holiday too – worth it when you’re wondering if the restaurant nearby will give you a meal to remember or salmonella.
Other apps worth using while away are things like Citymapper (for Android or iOS), which can be an absolute life saver when you find yourself on the opposite side of Paris to your hotel at 3am – it plots your route from your location to your destination via public transport with detailed step by step instructions. You can also user the web version to plan in advance, of course.
For times when you need a translator, Google is here to help. Its excellent Google Translate app has a handy feature where you can hold up your smartphone’s camera to text, and it translates it for you instantly. Witchcraft it may be, but it’s unbelievably handy in a confusing foreign metro or menu situation. Get it for Android or iOS.
Hopefully some of this advice will come in useful when you’re looking to book your next holiday.