Package holidays vs independent travel

Package holiday deal or do it yourself? Understanding the pros and cons of both booking methods can help you make up your mind…

By Saga team

Published 4 May 2024

Aerial view of Viareggio coastline, Tuscany, Italy

Package holidays once meant a fortnight in Benidorm being herded around by a loudmouthed clipboard-wielding rep. But over the last decade, they’ve evolved to offer boutique hotel stays in upscale destinations, and today a package holiday could be exactly what you're looking for. Reduce the stress and the budget, and up the relaxation and enjoyment...

What is a package holiday?

Package holidays are usually all-in-one holiday deals with flights, transfers, accommodation and sometimes food included. During the 1970s package holidays enabled millions of Britons to holiday abroad, but the advent of no-frills flights and holiday comparison websites saw their popularity wane in the early 21st-century.

However, in recent years package holidays have seen a resurgence, largely thanks to travellers seeking greater financial security (package holidays are generally protected by Atol) after the collapse of several high-profile holiday companies. There’s also the penchant of budget airlines to slap hidden costs such as baggage fees on to fares, which can end up making what seems to be a great deal on a flight suddenly much less cost effective.

Package resorts usually have a tour operator representative on the ground dealing with requests, excursions or emergencies. Some companies allow you to customise your own package, giving customers the option to dispense with frills such as all-inclusive bars and full-board meals if that’s not what you want to focus on.

Package holidays don’t just cater to the sunlounger crowd either – there are options for music festivals, backpackers or specialist activities such as cycling.

Package holiday benefits

Cost: because many operators have struck deals with airlines and hoteliers, package holidays tend to be cheaper than arranging a similar booking yourself. As flights, accommodation and potentially meals and transport are paid upfront, prices are more transparent from the outset, allowing people to budget more effectively during their trip.

For skiing and other wintersports holidays, package deals are usually better value because tour operators often run their own accommodation in the mountains, and may have negotiated special rates for lift passes and equipment hire.

Better protection: by law, package holidays sold through UK travel companies are required to be protected underneath the government-backed Atol scheme. This means that if the travel company you’ve booked with goes bust or the airline your flights are with fails, you will be refunded if you are yet to travel, and entitled to hotel costs or flights home if you are already abroad. Always ask before you book whether a holiday is Atol-protected – when Lowcostholidays went into administration in July 2016, 140,000 holidaymakers found they had negligible protection because it was registered in Spain (and therefore exempt from Atol requirements).

Lack of stress: package holidays remove much of the burden and irritation that comes with planning a holiday and trawling through hundreds of price comparison websites.

Better for families: package holiday deals are often better for those travelling with children, with many tour operators organising kids’ activities.

Better for solo travellers: booking a package deal may be advantageous as a solo traveller as many companies offer a reduced price or omit singles’ supplements.

Any downsides?

Less flexibility: package holidays can mean settling for aspects you’d rather not. Although you may be happy with the hotel and destination, you may not appreciate the full-board meal plan that's factored in a meal in the hotel restaurant every night rather than exploring the local culinary options.

Package holidays are best suited for breaks of standard length (usually a week or a fortnight). If you want to go away for a more irregular period of time, such as nine or 17 days, tour operators may not be able to help you.

Check flight times too; if take-off is at 4am, you may have to stay near the airport overnight, negating any saving.

Independent holiday booking

The rigidity of package holidays has the potential to dampen much of the spontaneity that makes travel so much fun. If you like more control over your travels, going the DIY route might serve you better.

What is an independently booked holiday?

The boom in budget airlines and last-minute websites in the early 21st century meant package holidays fell out of fashion, with holidaymakers giving travel agents the cold-shoulder by booking their own breaks.

Many travellers prefer the freedom of planning their own trips abroad, but does it always pay to cut out the middleman? And do DIY bookings offer the same security as package holidays?

Pros of booking a holiday independently

Freedom: do-it-yourself holidays allow travellers to stay in whatever hotel they want, dine in whatever restaurant they choose, plus give a better choice of flight times. If you intend to go away for an extended trip or unusual period that doesn’t neatly dovetail into the fortnight/week duration of many package breaks, you’re better off booking independently. They also work better for city breaks and multi-stop holidays or if you’re planning on journeying to a less well-trodden destination.

Lower commission: independent travellers don’t have to pay the tour operator’s stipend. They can also save money by booking directly through hotel or airline websites rather than through a booking engine or agency, whose commissions can result in you overpaying. In comparision, by booking direct through hotel or airline websites, you could see incentives such as signing up for customer loyalty schemes, room upgrades, complimentary spa treatments, free breakfasts, air miles or hotel chain loyalty points.

Only pay for the aspects you want: some package deals include add-ons such as chauffeured transfers, airport parking or all-inclusive bars, which you might not need and are always cheaper if booked independently.

Employ some clever tricks: booking holidays yourself means can take advantage of money-saving travel hacks, such as snagging cheaper flights by enabling private browsing (travel sites often track visits and can increase prices based on search history) and taking advantage of last-minute hotel deals.

Any downsides?

Unexpected costs: having forked out for restaurant meals, taxis and excursions during their fortnight in the sun, holidaymakers are often crestfallen by the size of their credit card bill when they get home.

Many booking sites offer you the chance to reserve a hotel room, but payment is only taken when you check into the accommodation. This can be problematic as rates fluctuate and could even increase by the time you take your holiday.

Lack of protection: if you book your journey directly with the airline, or your accommodation through a villa company, you won’t be protected underneath the Atol scheme. This could leave you stranded abroad if the airline or accommodation goes bust. However, if you book your flight and hotel or car hire together (or within 24 hours) from the same travel website, it should be Atol-protected, just like traditional package holidays.

Regardless of your booking methods, make sure your insurance includes airline and end-supplier failure cover, which should protect you if your airline or hotel company goes out of business.

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