How to avoid holiday rip-offs in the sales – and how to spot a real bargain

January is traditionally the peak time for holiday bookings, and this year is no exception. Package holiday providers and airlines are holding sales in the hope to guarantee business for 2024 – and there are bargains to be found.

Research on behalf of financial protection scheme Atol shows that more than half of UK travellers plan to take more than one trip abroad in 2024, and 56 per cent are opting for an overseas break this summer. It could pay to book ahead, while there is still good availability.

But beware that the rush to secure a budget break can make holidaymakers vulnerable to fraudsters. The Civil Aviation Authority, which runs the Atol financial protection scheme, has warned travellers to exercise caution during one of the busiest times for holiday reservations. It urged consumers to check for Atol protection and to read the small print on bargain holiday deals.

Here’s what to consider before you book.

Know the warning signs of a scam

Travel is an attractive area for fraudsters, and they are most active during busy booking windows. Sean Tipton of Abta – The Travel Association, tells i that the common warning signs include: prices that are lower than anywhere else; unlimited availability at peak travel times; and an insistence that the payment must be made by bank transfer, often to an individual’s bank account.

“If you see those three things, it is almost certainty a fraudster and walk away,” says Mr Tipton.

Scams often focus on high-value products, such as villas, he adds.

Social networks have become a favourite medium of fraudsters, but fake deals might also be listed on professional-seeming websites. As credit cards are unlikely to be accepted, victims of a scam are likely to lose any money they have handed over.

Atol advises not to reply unsolicited emails, texts, social media or calls with holiday offers. It also notes that links or attachments in emails about travel deals may lead to malicious websites or download viruses.

Choose a protected package

Firstly, booking with a package holiday, rather than securing accommodation and flights separately, can offer you protection if something goes wrong.

Make sure the operator you book with is part of the Atol protection scheme or that is a member of a trade association, such as Abta.

Rory Boland, Editor of Which? Travel, says: “Companies can easily fake logos of schemes like Atol to make themselves appear legitimate – there’s an easy way to double check this via the CAA website.”

If you book a package that is covered by a protection scheme, and the holiday is not as described when you arrive, then you can seek compensation.

Work out a deal is worthwhile

The first two months of the year can offer some of the best deals for travel, according to Mr Tipton, and booking last-minute no longer offers the cost savings it once did.

“[At one point], it wasn’t a bad idea to leave it late in day to secure a holiday as companies would pre-book millions of rooms and sell them off late, cheaply. They don’t do that anymore,” he adds.

As a rule, holidays in peak travel times, including the Easter weekend, the school summer break and Christmas, are best booked as early as possible.

Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of The Advantage Travel Partnership, the UK’s largest network of independent travel agents, told i: “In January and February, many tour operators have lots of promotional offers, such as discounted rates and free child places, as well as a wider choice of options available from duration, airport, and hotels.

“Booking early can also help when budgeting for the holiday as you will know how much it will cost and can stagger payments.”

A free child’s place can represent a substantial saving for families, but it may require two paying adults on the booking.

If you know ahead of time that you plan to book a holiday during an annual sale, check the price of your preferred package a couple of weeks ahead of a sale. This will help you decide if a deal is worth it when discounts are applied.

Substantial savings can be made by travelling outside of peak travel times. If you don’t need to stick to school holidays, think about booking a holiday to destinations such as Spain or Greece in April, September or October – the period between peak and off-peak known as the “shoulder season”. In these months, temperatures are still appealing but prices should be lower.

Which? has found that January can offer savings, at least when it comes to air fares.

Mr Boland says: “Don’t worry about losing out, as in the past we’ve found many of these January offers don’t always add up. 

“We do know, from tracking flight prices across the year, that January is typically the cheapest time to book flights for the school summer holidays, especially if you have a set destination in mind.”

This is a picture of the Acropolis of Athens and the old town of Plaka. The square in the foreground is Monastiraki square. The whole area is famous with tourists and locals alike.
Book early for a great-value city break – such as to Athens (Photo: George Pachantouris/Getty/Moment RF)

Consider other costs

Unless you plan to stick to an all-inclusive, the prices in local restaurants and bars will affect your holiday budget. Factor in the exchange rates and day-to-day costs before you buy a package. Value-for-money rankings of destinations by Post Office Travel Money can be a useful indictor as can cost-of-living comparison websites, such as Numbeo.

Ms Lo Bue-Said adds: “We recommend contacting your local travel agent who will be able to use their expert knowledge and vast experience in searching for the best deals available to help book the perfect holiday for you.”

Check the small print

For package deals, this will help you to work out if you could be subject to extra charges, such as for luggage, airline seat selection or hotel fees.

If you choose to book accommodation separately, ensure you read the terms and conditions thoroughly before you pay. Plus, be aware of your passenger rights if your flight is cancelled or delayed.

Secure travel insurance

Buy insurance as soon as you book for added protection in case of any cancellations or complications before you travel.

Insurance can also cover missed transport and medical emergencies, as well as items that are lost or stolen on the trip. Check the terms and conditions carefully and be sure to keep your travel company informed if problems occur while you are away.