Research, research, research
How do I research the resort?
You really can’t do enough research. Think about what you want from your holiday and make sure that the country and resort you have chosen offers it. For instance, you might fancy Egypt. If sunbathing on the beach is high on your agenda, Cairo or Luxor would be a bad choice. Equally if culture and history is what you’re after, Sharm El Sheik isn’t for you. For a bit of everything it might be worth considering a twin centre holiday, a few days in Cairo followed by a Nile cruise and ending with a few days relaxing by the sea in Sharm. Look on line, ask your friends and watch the travel programs to make sure you are on the right track.
You may get a cheap deal out of season but sometimes it isn’t the bargain you think. Out of season the weather may be too hot, too cold or to wet for you to enjoy your holiday and some countries have monsoons or hurricane seasons. Some attractions may be closed out of season and staff numbers in hotels may be lower. The resort will be quieter over all, which could be good or bad depending on what you want from your holiday. If you want the beach to yourself it might be a good thing but if you want to dance the night away in a crowded disco you could be disappointed.
Check the average weather for your chosen destination. For instance, July in Morocco or Egypt may be far too hot, unless you are a real sun worshipper; December to March in Rhodes may be too cold and is likely to be rainy. You can find lots of information on line and in brochures about average weather conditions but please note no one can predict the weather accurately, remember the weather man said 2009 would be the best summer ever in the UK!
If a particular attraction is important to you make sure it will be open and, if you can, book in advance through your travel agent, tour operator or hotel before you travel to avoid disappointment.
How do I research hotels?
Outside of Europe, Australia and the USA book the best hotel you can afford, at least a 4 star. Star ratings differ country by country and what is a 5 star in the UK is not the same as a 5 star in Tunisia for example.
A good travel agent or Tour Operator can point you in the right direction but it is always worth doing some research of your own. Having said that beware – Trip Advisor and other similar sites. Anyone can write a review on these sites, the hoteliers themselves, their rivals, someone with an axe to grind. To be fair the sites do try their best to stop malicious listings, but some will slip through the net. Obviously if the hotel or resort is totally slated by everyone who reviews it steer clear but one bad review or a couple of negative comments don’t make a bad resort or a bad hotel. Some people are never satisfied and one man’s bad food is another mans gourmet meal.
I think I know what I want so what do I do next?
Once you think you know where you want to go and have an idea of the hotels that might suit you go to see your friendly local travel agent and ask for their advice. Most importantly, listen to what they have to say, they have years of training so they really do know what they are talking about!
What is the best way to book?
What is the difference between a travel agent and a tour operator?
Put simply, a tour operator picks hotels and resorts, packages up the holiday and produces a brochure, a travel agent sells these packages to the general public. Having said that some travel agents will package up a holiday for you and some even produce mini brochures. Tour operators also sell directly to the public but they sell more through travel agents. To confuse matters some tour operators, like Thomas Cook also have their own travel agencies.
If you book through an ABTA bonded travel agent or tour operator they are obliged to help you if something goes wrong. They can move you to another hotel, arrange new flights and accommodation and get you home if something bad happens. On Boxing Day 2004, travel agents and tour operators left their families and went to work to look after their clients caught up in the Indian Ocean Tsumani. Who was looking after the people who booked online? You will also be covered by their bonding if the hotel, airline, agent or operator goes bust and will be helped to get your money back.
If you really must book yourself, on line or otherwise, then at least pay using a credit card. This does give you some protection through your card company should something go wrong. The protection in question is more about getting your money back than doing things like changing your hotel but its better than nothing.
What is ABTA bonding?
Bonding can seem quite complicated to the uninitiated but it is really pretty simple. A bond is like an insurance policy but you don’t pay the premiums, the travel agent or tour operator you book through does. They pay to belong to the scheme and, if something goes wrong with your holiday, it is covered by it. The most well known bonding scheme is ABTA, the Association of British Tour Operators. They regulate the agents/operators and make all sorts of rules to make sure they trade fairly, they not only cover you if things go wrong but can arbitrate if any complaints you have are not resolved. Accommodation/flight only bookings may not be covered so check when you book. ATOL, the Air Travel Organiser’s Licence will get your money back or fly you home if the operator/agent goes out of business once you have paid/travelled. Holidays not including flights are not protected. AiTO, the Association of Independent Tour Operators offers 100% protection for all holidays. Global Travel Group, Worldchoice and TTA (Travel Trust Association) are large travel consortia that also offer bonding schemes. In these cases the agent pays a fee to become a member of the consortia and is then covered by their bonding. For more information see
Why book through a travel agent or tour operator?
The staff of both tour operators and travel agents go on educational trips to the resorts they sell. They get shown around different hotels and sample various excursions. So they have the expert knowledge to advise on your choice of resort and hotel, steering you away from those that they know cause problems or are not really what you are looking for. They know, or can easily find out, if the facilities that are important to you are available.
Tour operators send their contractors to each hotel to check it out before they agree to put it in their brochure, many also belong to a scheme that provides health and safety checks to ensure hotels comply with UK regulations.
Don’t be embarassed to ask for a discount, especially if you have booked with the travel agent or tour operator before (make sure you mention it if you have). You’ll be surprised how often the answer is yes and, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
How do I find a good travel agent or tour operator?
First and foremost make sure they are bonded. Ask your friends to recommend someone they have used. Check out their web sites and see what they offer. A big name like Thomas Cook may be a good bet, but the smaller independent travel agents often offer a more personal, customer focused service (they have to go that extra mile to compete with the ‘big boys’).
The agents below are ones I would personally recommend. I know that they are all ethical, hardworking and do their very best for each and every one of their customers.
Madison Travel – www.madisontravel.co.uk
Based in Hove this ABTA bonded agent specialise in providing holidays to the Gay and Lesbian community and their friends. They do a great deal of on-line and telephone bookings so even if you don’t live nearby they will be happy to help you. Ian, the owner is very knowledgeable and friendly as are his staff and they really know which destinations and resorts will suit you best.
Cadogan Travel – www.cadogantravel.com
Cadogan Travel are a luxury travel agent based in Belgarvia. Established for over 60 years they specialise in tailor made holidays to each clients specific requirements. Bert Hyett, the manager and his staff are all very knowledgeable and cheery people who will make sure you get exectly what you want, including all those little extras that make an important holiday special.
What if I want to book directly on the internet?
Booking directly with the hotel and airline can save you money BUT and it is a very big but, if anything goes wrong or if you are not happy with what you get, YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN. Booking on line will probably save you a few percent but with that saving comes a BIG risk. You won’t have all that good advice (unless you go to the travel agent first, which is pretty unethical).
You might save 5 or 10 percent BUT hotels may allocate the best rooms to the agents and operators that work with them so you may get an inferior room. You won’t have a rep in resort to give you help and advice. You will have to arrange your own transfers or car hire and, if it doesn’t turn up, you will have to find an alternative yourself. If your hotel turns out to be in the middle of a building site, you hate your room or the child facilities you were expecting aren’t available you will have to confront the hotel staff yourself, make yourself understood and hope they will help.
If some disaster happens you will have to find the nearest British Embassy and hope that they can help. If you miss your flight, it is cancelled or delayed or your luggage ends up at a different airport to you you will have to deal with the airline, arrange an alternative, sort out accommodation, compensation etc yourself. Never underestimate the comfort of a familiar, friendly voice at the end of the phone when things go wrong.
If you’re a seasoned traveller, you’ve done your research, you have good travel insurance, you’re happy to take a gamble and you don’t mind a confrontation in resort if you have a problem, go ahead, book direct. If you do, research is even more important. Always pay by credit card, although there will be a charge your your credit card company can help you get your money back if the worst happens.
Personally I think the little bit extra you may have to pay (and remember you don’t always save by booking direct) is well worth the reassurance you get. Why risk ruining the holiday of a lifetime for a the sake of a few pounds?
Do I need travel insurance?
No matter how you book (even if it is through a bonded travel agent or tour operator) travel insurance is essential. Good insurance will cover things such as lost luggage, cancellations, hotel problems, illness, accident and hospital treatment abroad. The cost of being repatriated if you become seriously ill or have an accident can run into tens of thousands of pounds, you really cannot afford to be uninsured.
Shop around and make sure you ask lots of questions to find out exactly what is covered and what is not. READ THE SMALL PRINT. If you’re a frequent traveller an annual policy might be your best option. Make sure the company has a hotline 24/7 and ask if it is a free number or will accept reverse charge calls. Check that any cameras, video equipment or expensive items will be covered and that any high risk activities you plan such as bungee jumping, diving, jet skiing etc will be covered. Even camel rides on the beach can be considered risky activities by some insurance companies, if you fall off and break your arm you could suddenly find you’re not covered and end up with a BIG hospital bill.
Always disclose any pre existing medical conditions. If you don’t and something happens you won’t be covered. Make sure you know exactly what you are covered for medically and if the policy includes emergency repatriation, air ambulances, hospital treatment, etc.
Make sure you get an E111 card before you travel. Forms for this are available from your post office and will provide basic medical cover in the EU. DON’T think you can use this instead of insurance though as it really is only BASIC medical treatment.
Most policies won’t offer cover for cancellation in the event of terrorist attack or forces of nature (they call it Force mejeure) such as earth quakes, hurricanes and cyclones but check what they offer if something like this happens when you are abroad.
I’ve booked, but what should I take with me?
Clothes for travel
The buzzword for travel clothes is comfort. Not only will you be hanging around at the airport, dragging around luggage and possibly running for your flight or connection, you will also be sitting for several hours in a plane. A plane is not the most comfortable place in the world, what with the air conditioning, the noise and the pressurisation the last thing you want is to be sitting in uncomfortable clothes too.
Wear loose fitting clothes. Your body will swell up during the flight so if your clothes are tight to start with you are bound to be uncomfortable. I always wear trousers not just for comfort but also for modesty. The thought of walking down the steps from the plane with my hands full of duty free and hand luggage with my skirt blowing up around my ears is not a pleasant one.
I always wear layers. The airport is usually stiflingly hot, the plane is usually cold and, in most cases, my destination is going to be hot. With layers I can take something off if I get hot and put more on when I feel cold. Normally I would wear a pair of loose fitting trousers a vest type t-shirt under a short or long sleeved t-shirt and carry a jacket or cardigan.
While high heels may make you feel good they are not a good idea for flying. For a start, there is all that walking at the airport. I’m not sure why but my gate always seems to be the furthest away, especially if I’m short of time. Then there is getting up or down airplane steps, which would be a nightmare in high heels. On the flight itself you want your feet to be comfortable. They will swell up and if your shoes are tight and high you are going to feel pretty miserable after a couple of hours. Flat ballet pump type shoes are my favourites because they are easy to slip off. Trainers or loafers would probably work just as well.
Some people swear by flight socks, the kind that are tight on your legs and are supposed to stop DVT. I have tried them but didn’t find them much good. You may feel differently. If you are worried about DVT you are probably better off getting up and walking around a bit or exercising your feet if you want to stay sitting down.
If you bring in goods on which tax has been paid in an EU country, you do not have to pay any tax or duty on them in the UK. However any alcohol or tobacco you bring in must be for your own use and transported by you.
Own use’ includes goods for your own consumption and gifts. If you bring in goods for resale, or for any payment, even payment in kind, they are regarded as being for a commercial purpose.
But there are special rules for cigarettes and some tobacco products from some EU countries.
The EU Countries are: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus*, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, The Irish Republic, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain (but not the Canary Islands), Sweden, The UK (but not the Channel Islands).
Though the whole of Cyprus is part of the EU, goods from any area of Cyprus not under effective control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus are treated as non-EU imports.
Although Gibraltar is part of the EU, it is outside the Community Customs territory. The Customs allowances for outside the EU therefore apply.
Alcohol or tobacco
If you are bringing in alcohol or tobacco goods and they have reason to suspect they may be for a commercial purpose, a Customs officer may ask you questions and make checks, for example about:
- the type and quantity of goods you have bought
- why you bought them
- how you paid for them
- whether all your goods are openly displayed or concealed
- how often you travel
- how much you normally smoke or drink or
- any other relevant circumstances.
You are particularly likely to be asked questions if you have more than:
3200 cigarettes, 200 cigars, 400 cigarillos, 3kg tobacco, 110 litres of beer, 90 litres of wine, 10 litres of spirits, 20 litres of fortified wine (such as port or sherry).
The officer will take into account all the factors of the situation and your explanation. If they are satisfied that the goods are for a commercial purpose they may seize them and any vehicle used to transport them, and may not return them to you. If you are caught selling alcohol or tobacco goods they may be seized, and for a serious offence you could get up to seven years in prison.
The country where you buy tobacco goods may have its own laws on how much you can buy or have in your possession, and what documents you need. If in doubt, check with that country’s authorities before you buy. If you let a coach, ferry or aircraft store your goods while travelling back to the UK you must make sure when you arrive in the UK that you collect the exact goods you bought.
From some EU countries there are limits on the amount of tobacco products you can bring back without paying UK duty.
From ESTONIA – 200 cigarettes or 250g of smoking tobacco
From BULGARIA, LITHUANIA or ROMANIA – 200 cigarettes*
*No limit on other tobacco products as long as they are for your own use.
If you have tobacco products over these limits you should speak to a Customs officer in the red channel or on the red point phone.
What kind of luggage should I choose?
Many people swear by hard-shelled luggage as it is less likely to get damaged and will protect your things. Personally I find it too heavy (even when empty) and you can’t stuff that little extra in. I use a soft case with an expandable compartment that unzips to help squeeze in the things I have bought on holiday. This is much cheaper than hard luggage and, if you don’t pack anything breakable or pack breakables carefully wrapped in soft clothing in the middle of the case, you should be OK. If you must buy black luggage (I like it too), make sure you have stickers or something that stands out to identify it on the carousel. I have a bright coloured ribbon tied tightly round the handle of mine.
How much luggage can I take?
Check luggage allowances with your airline. Different airlines have different allowances and some low cost carriers make you pay for all hold luggage. Once you have packed, weigh your luggage to make sure it is not over the allowance. If it seems close take something out, as your scales might not be as accurate as theirs. Excess baggage charges are horrendous. The last thing you want is to have to unpack at the airport and decide what you want to leave behind, then have to pay to store it while you are away.
Travel as light as you can bear. Regardless of baggage allowances, you will have to pull your suitcase around at the airport and get it off of carousels etc. Most people, me included don’t wear half of what they pack so be ruthless.
What should I pack?
Decant perfumes and aftershaves into an atomiser. These are cheap (I got my last one from John Lewis and it cost me £10) and most will hold enough to last you a week or more. This not only saves on weight and space but is less likely to break and, if it does, you haven’t lost as much. Commando once had a brand new bottle of expensive aftershave in his hand luggage. The flight was bumpy and it broke. His bag smelled lovely for months but he was not amused.
You can buy most cosmetics in small travel sizes (some companies like Clinique regularly have offers giving you free trial sized cosmetics when you buy two or more products). If you can’t get your favourite brand in a small size buy some little bottles (available in many good chemists) and decant what you need. A good travel toothbrush is an investment worth making. If you travel a lot buy the best you can afford and look after it. I always carry mine in my hand luggage.
One thing I always take, even though it takes up valuable space, is a small travel hairdryer. Even in 5 star hotels the hairdryers tend to be weak at best so I feel it’s worthwhile. If you are staying at a 4 star or more a travel iron is really a waste of space as you can usually ask to borrow an iron at reception. If in doubt check before you travel.
Don’t forget your phone charger or the correct plug adaptor for the country you are visiting. If you have a travel hairdryer and a phone charger make sure you have an adaptor for each item. There is nothing more annoying than needing to dry your hair when your phone is charging and having just one adaptor.
What size bag and how many bags can I take?
Hand baggage can be no larger than 56cm x 45cm x 25cm. This includes any handles, pockets and wheels. Some airlines’ maximums are even smaller so check before you travel. Usually paassengers are restricted to one bag per person, although you may be able to take a laptop as well as your one bag.
What can I take in my hand luggage?
You can take electrical items like hairdryers, iPods and mobile phones in your hand luggage but will have to remove them to be screened separately. Essential medical equipment is allowed but you must have documents from your hospital or doctor. Pushchairs, wheelchairs and walking aids are usually allowed but will have to be screened. Musical instruments may be allowed and can usually be carried in addition to your one item of hand luggage. If the instrument is a large one (bigger than the maximum hand luggage size) you may have to make special arrangements and could even be asked to buy an extra seat. Musical instruments will also have to be screened separately. If you are in any doubt about something you need to carry on the plane with you call the airline to check before you travel. If you happen to be a harpist you are going to have problems and may have to pay freight to get your harp to the resort!
Can I take liquids in my hand luggage?
Although there are restrictions on taking liquids in your hand luggage you can take some essential items (for me this means moisturiser, mascara and lip gloss, but it could be contact lense soloution, hair gel or your lighter). These must be in containers that hold no more then 100ml and all must fit into a transparent, re-sealable plastic bag no larger than 20 x 20 cm. Each passenger is limited to one bag of essential liquids and one lighter (lighters are NOT allowed in your hold luggage because they could explode due to the differences in pressure in the baggage hold). The bag must be taken out of your hand luggage to be inspected when you go through the security check. The only exceptions to these size restrictions are essential medicines (including inhalers and liquid dietary foodstuffs), which can be in larger containers but will need prior approval from the airline and a letter from your doctor or a supporting prescription.
You can also take liquids you buy at the airport after you have been through security and are ‘airside’. This includes cosmetics, alcohol and bottled water. I always take a bottle of water onto the plane as it helps stop me dehydrating. It is the first thing I buy once I am airside.
Other than the obvious things like drinks and perfumes liquids also include creams like moisturiser, foundation (even the powder types), mascara, lipstick, hair gel, shaving foam, sprays like hairspray, deodorants and toothpaste.
Can I take baby milk and food in my hand luggage?
You can take enough baby milk, baby food and sterilised water for the journey even though this may be over 100ml. You will have to show this when you show your plastic bag of liquids and you may be asked to taste them to confirm they really are what you say they are (yuck!).
What isn’t allowed in my hand luggage and my hold luggage?
Sharp items such as tweezers, corkscrews, darts, scissors, knives, forks, hypodermic syringes (unless required for medical reasons in which case you will need a doctors note), axes, arrows, crampons, ice skates, open razors and blades (safety razors are OK), ski poles, scalpels etc. Tools such as hammers, drill bits, crowbars, pliers, blow torches etc. Blunt instruments like baseball bats, cricket bats, golf clubs, hockey sticks, canoe paddles, skateboards, pool cues, fishing rods, martial arts equipment. Explosives of any kind.
You cannot take guns, firearms and weapons in either your hand or hold luggage. If you need to take these items (for instance you need these for a sports tournament) you will need to make arrangements with the airline in advance.
You cannot take explosives or flammable substances in your hand or hold luggage. These include fuses, grenades, gas containers, fireworks, petrol, lighter fluid, aerosol spray paint, paint thinner, alcohol over 140 percent proof.
Toxic and chemical substances cannot be taken in hand luggage or hold luggage. These include bleach, peroxides, acids and alkalis, vehicle batteries, pepper sprays, tear gas, radioactive material, poisons, infectious substances, bio hazardous materials, fire extinguishers and anything capable of spontaneous combustion or ignition.
Check the latest changes to hand luggage restrictions with your airline, travel agent or tour operator. These things are changing all the time and it’s not a good start to your holiday of your favourite bottle of perfume is confiscated at check-in. A colleague had a bottle of expensive champagne confiscated from his hand luggage at Mancheter Airport. What a waste!
If you are in any doubt about something you want to take consult the airline before you travel.
What if my luggage gets lost?
Pack with lost luggage in mind. It does happen. My case was once lost between Heathrow and Manchester. The fact that I got it back a week or so later didn’t mean much at the time. I had to attend a big Travel Awards event in a borrowed dress that was too big (and strapless!), flip-flops and no make up. Not a good evening. Now I always carry important items in my hand luggage. Typically I will have spare pants, spare glasses and contact lenses, basic make up (liquids like mascara, foundation and lip gloss in a clear plastic bag ready for check in), medicines and jewellery plus anything else I can’t bear the thought of losing. I use a big Ted Baker handbag that is big enough to double as a weekend bag (if I pack sparingly) but small enough to go through as hand luggage.
If the worst happens and your luggage is lost or damaged report this to the airline before you leave the airport. You will also have to present your luggage receipt so take good care of this when you check in. It is also a good idea to ask to fill in a Property Irregularity Report (PIR) as this will help with any compensation claim. You may receive some money for emergency purchases but this will vary from airline to airline.
If your baggage turns out to be lost rather than just delayed start by writing to the airline with details of what has happened, copies of any evidence (the PIR) and an inventory of what was in your case. If possible provide receipts as proof of purchase. The maximum you can claim is currently £850, but this is subject to change. It may be better to claim from your travel insurance, as you may get more money this way but check the small print before you do as there may be limits to what you can claim or an excess on the policy. For more information and the latest updates visit http://www.auc.org.uk/default.aspx?catid=306&pagetype=90&pageid=3316
I’m on my way, is there anything else I should know?
How do I get upgraded?
Airlines upgrade passengers because they overbook their flights to allow for cancellations and no shows. When all the passengers do turn up they need the space, usually in cattle class, and so they upgrade some lucky passengers to club class/business class/first class.
You are more likely to get upgraded if you are a member of the airlines frequent flyer programme. Joining is usually free and you may earn points for each mile you travel which can be used for discounts, free flights and other goodies. Even if you are not a member it is worth being nice to the person who checks you in. They probably don’t have the power to upgrade you but they will be able to put a word in for you. Ask them to put a note in their system that you would like to be considered for an upgrade if one becomes available. You are more likely to be upgraded if you are well dressed and polite.
Finally, remember that being upgraded may be a double-edged sword. Once you have turned left into club class it is much harder to turn right next time you fly!
How do I get a duty free bargain?
Don’t buy your duty-free at the airport. It will almost certainly be cheaper in resort leaving you more money to spend on holiday.
Check your allowances and don’t be temped to buy more or you could find all your cigarettes, alcohol or perfume being confiscated at customs in the UK.
Research the prices of the things you will want to buy before you travel or you may not be getting the bargain you think you are. Duty free perfume for instance is rarely cheaper than cheap retail outlets like The Perfume Shop or Superdrug and online outlets like http://www.cheapsmells.com/ will be even cheaper.
I’m not happy with my holiday, what do I do?
How do I complain in resort?
If you are unhappy with any aspect of your holiday don’t just put up with it, complain. Don’t wait until you get home always complain straight away. If you booked with a travel agent or tour operator you should have details of a representative in resort that you can contact. If you booked online it is a little more difficult but complain to the person providing the service, the hotelier, the staff at the airport etc. If you don’t complain at the time the people concerned will have no chance to put things right, your problem will spoil your holiday and you will be unlikely to get compensation when you get home.
How do I complain when I get home?
If, despite your complaints, the problem wasn’t put right, make sure you keep details of exactly what you did to try to resolve things. Note names and times, what action was taken and why you weren’t satisfied. Keep receipts and take photographs to back up your case. As soon as you get home write to the travel agent or tour operator (if you booked online you will have to deal directly with the hotel, airline etc which will be more difficult) with clear and concise details of your complaint. Send your evidence with your letter, but don’t send original documents or photos, always take photocopies so you have back up should they get lost in the post. Above all be polite. I have worked in customer services and a polite, pleasant letter always gets priority and is more likely to get compensation.
Under ABTA ruling you should get a response within 28 days. Most good travel agents or tour operators will also acknowledge your letter by return. If you are not happy with what has been offered, go back. Explain exactly why you are not happy and what you expect from them. Be realistic. If you were unhappy with your hotel or your flight, but everything else about your holiday was fine, you can only expect to be refunded for that part of your holiday. If your transfer didn’t turn up you can only expect to be refunded for the cost of that transfer, or possibly the cost of the taxi you used. A travel agent or tour operator may also offer you a little extra as a gesture of goodwill. Don’t expect refunds for things out of their control, such as bad weather or not enough/too many English people in the resort. Also appreciate that just because you didn’t like the food, or the entertainment it doesn’t make it bad. Unless lots of other people have complained you are unlikely to get a refund
If you are still unhappy after you have had a reply to your second letter and if you booked through an ABTA bonded travel agent or tour operator you can take your case to ABTA. There is an independent arbitration scheme to settle such disputes. Bear in mind though, if you go to arbitration you have to accept the outcome. If you are being unreasonable and what the travel agent or tour operator is offering you is generous, you could end up with less rather than more.