We all love a deal. Whether we're buying half a dozen eggs or a four-bedroom house, it seems that humans are hard-wired to hunt for bargains. Knowing that the original price of an item has been cut by 10% or 20% seems guaranteed to get the seratonin flowing.
So it is with holidays. Discounting has been an important selling tool for the travel industry for the past 30 years or more and consumers have come to expect bargains. In fact, many tour operators now complain that travellers assume they will get some money off, even in high season, whether they are spending £199 on a budget break or £5,000 on a luxury honeymoon.
The result is a plethora of different types of deals and discounts, not all of which are as good as they might appear at first sight. Here's a guide to the various offers and how to get the most out of them.
Early booking discounts
Tour operators plan their programmes more than a year in advance, negotiating allocations of hotel rooms and seats on flights. Cash flow is vital in the travel industry so companies rely on some clients booking early. In order to encourage these bookings they might offer modest discounts of 5-10% or offers such as free child places. One of the best ways to access these deals is to get on the mailing list of a relevant tour operator. Here's an example of some early booking deals for family holidays in 2014.
Last minute deals
While travel companies are desperate for customers to book early, many people have learned that if they wait until the last minute, prices sometimes come crashing down. This is when tour operators have "distressed stock" - empty rooms and spare seats on flights - that they are prepared to sell at a discount, and sometimes even at a loss. Traditionally, these were the deals that appeared on postcards in travel agent windows. Nowadays you are more likely to find them on deal websites such as Travelzoo, which claims to have 26million email subscribers worldwide. Other companies that send travel deals by email include Amazon Local, Groupon and Time Out. My own site, 101 Holidays, also has a weekly deals newsletter.
The travel industry would love to stop the culture of last-minute bargain hunting, and every year tour operators claim that there will be fewer late deals. However, every year the deals appear, because no company wants to fly with empty seats. Although you may struggle to find great deals during peak season, if you are flexible on dates and destinations it's often possible to pick up discounts of up to 50%.
You might assume that you can get a better deal if you go the DIY route and book your hotel, flight and car hire separately. However, often that's not true, and you'll suffer the added risk of not having your holiday protected by law should anything go wrong.
Some of the best package deals are "inclusive tour" rates where an airline heavily discounts an airfare, but only on the condition that it's packaged up with a hotel stay or car hire. That's usually because the airline doesn't want other passengers to know the extent of the discount.
IT rates are sold through agents such as Trailfinders and they are not always immediately obvious as great bargains because there is no "before" and "after" price, so it's worth talking to a consultant to find what's on offer. It's not uncommon to find an IT fare - particularly to the US or the Far East - that costs no more than the regular airfare. So your hotel or car hire is actually thrown in free.
If you're paying more than a few hundred pounds for your holiday, it's likely that you aren't buying an off-the-shelf package, but dealing with a bespoke tour operator. That is, a company that will individually design an itinerary for you, whether that's a complex tour or just a flight and a hotel.
One of the biggest challenges faced by these companies is price matching - where customers shop around by asking rival companies to match or undercut the prices they have been quoted.
Let's say you ask company A to quote for a safari in Africa which comes to £3,000 per person. You might then phone company B, stating the exact same dates and accommodation, saying you want to pay less. Knowing that it has the opportunity to steal a customer from its rival, company B might offer to do the same holiday for £2,800.
A word of caution: tour operators don't like customers who shop around, and if you do it too much, or lie about the prices you've been quoted, you could be blacklisted.
We're all familiar with haggling when it comes to buying a house or a car, but you can also do it when booking a luxury hotel. Many top-end hotels are flexible on price if they have spare rooms, particularly if you are booking very late and especially at a time of the week when they are not so busy. Sunday nights, for example.
This is very hush-hush, so the best way to get the deals is by phone. Call the reservations department, speak confidently and make them an offer. You'll often get a discounted rate, a free room upgrade or breakfast thrown in.
Another great way to find last-minute hotel bargains is using a smartphone app such as Hotel Tonight which has "impulse deals" in dozens of major cities, mostly in the US but spreading fast across Europe. This a great app to keep on your phone in case you're stuck in a city or airport unexpectedly and need somewhere to stay. If you were to walk up to the desk you'd be charged the full "rack rate", but with Hotel Tonight I found a room at Jury's Inn Heathrow for just £46, reduced from £56. Other hotel deal apps include Travelocity, Priceline and Trivago
What to look for
Some deals look great at first, until you dig a little deeper. A tour operator might advertise savings "per couple" but quote prices "per person", so you clearly need to diving the saving by two to see how generous it is. You should always check the board basis of a holiday - a £200 saving on a "room only" package doesn't look so attractive if breakfast at the hotel costs £10 per person per day.
Some hotels publish unrealistically high rack rates in the full knowledge that very few guests will ever pay them. If a hotel room has been reduced from £300 to £200, do a bit of research to see what other rooms you can get for £200 in the same destination. You might find it's not such a great deal, after all.