The Great British Escape: Where's full, where's not, and how to secure a trip

·11-min read
holidays in britain - Getty
holidays in britain - Getty

Last year, the loss of domestic tourism, due to lockdowns, and foreign tourists, thanks to border restrictions, cost the British economy a staggering £80 billion, according to Visit Britain.

After months of closures and lost visitors, it’s time for the British tourism industry to bounce back as restrictions are eased. “The confirmation from the Prime Minister that the reopening of tourism is on track is very encouraging news for England’s tourism industry and the millions of jobs and local economies that depend on it, especially in the run-up to the May half-term and the critical summer season,” said a spokesperson for the tourist board, whose most recent research reveals confidence in the future of UK trips is at a high. Over a third of people are now certain they’ll be able to holiday on home soil in June, and close to a fifth of people say they’ll take more short breaks in the UK this year than they previously would.

According to Visit Britain: “Tourism businesses and attractions have been working flat-out to welcome customers back safely, adapting and innovating to meet new ways of working and still providing a great visitor experience.” An industry standard scheme, ‘We’re Good To Go’, has been set up for businesses to sign up to, to demonstrate their compliance with Covid regulations.

And it’s good news for those businesses that have put in the hard work – staycations are “at the forefront of UK travellers’ minds” according to Ryan Pearson, Regional Manager at Booking.com. “Many are opting for a staycation in light of international travel looking to remain limited for this year. Our data can actually reveal that eight out of ten of the most searched for destinations are now based in the UK, which is twice as many as 2020,” he added.

But the industry isn’t out of deep water yet. Even with restrictions easing and the summer set to be busy across the country, Visit Britain is expecting just £61.7 billion will be spent on domestic breaks – a third less than pre-pandemic levels. And there are growing concerns that travellers are playing a game of “holiday roulette”, threatening last-minute bookings and cancellations depending on whether the Government gives the green light for foreign holidays on May 17.

As the nation dips its toe back into holidaying we ask the experts how things are really looking for this summer, whether destinations will be full to bursting and accommodation sold out, and whether there’s still hope for those of us still looking to secure a staycation.

Which destinations are proving the most popular?

“Our latest consumer sentiment research shows that the South West of England leads for overnight domestic trips for spring, followed by the South East, North West and Scotland,” said a Visit Britain spokesperson. During the summer months the South West, home to honeypots such as Cornwall and Devon, continues to be the most popular destination, followed by Scotland, the North West (home to the Lake District) and Yorkshire and Humber.

“Our research has also consistently shown a preference for coastal, countryside and rural destinations as restrictions lift – for both day trips and overnight trips – as well as outdoor activities and outdoor visitor attractions,” they added.

Booking.com’s latest data also hints towards a migration to the South West this summer – currently some of the top ten searched-for destinations are Bath, Newquay and St Ives. Coastal hotspots make up much of the rest of the top 10, including Blackpool, Bournemouth, Torquay, Inverness and Brighton.

Another go-to coastal spot is Great Yarmouth on the East coast. “As you’d expect bookings across the destination are looking very strong. Self-catering cottages are pretty much sold out for peak weeks,” said Asa Morrison of Visit Yarmouth.

The need for space and fresh air is a sentiment that’s shared across the border in Scotland, which is the second most popular destination for summer breaks, according to Visit Britain. “After spending so much time at home, demand is once again likely to be high for destinations and experiences that offer physical and mental well-being benefits… Surveys have found that the Highlands and the West Coast of Scotland are favoured destinations for staycationers with a focus on rural experiences,” a spokesperson from Visit Scotland said.

great yarmouth - Getty
great yarmouth - Getty

Where can I avoid the crowds?

Research suggests it's the UK’s metropolises and inland mountains that are likely to be left deserted this summer.

“Just five per cent say a city break is a priority,” said Pearson from Booking.com, who revealed that trips to coastal Cornwall, Devon, Bournemouth and Brighton have replaced international city style breaks this year.

Visit Britain’s research is only slightly more favourable – just 11 per cent of Britons plan to visit a large city in the spring. This inches up to 15 per cent during the summer but cities still rank low on desirable destinations.

This presents an opportunity for those looking to escape the usual crowds of the UK’s cities and add a slice of culture to their break. “With international tourists slower to return, this really is the year to rediscover the crown jewels of British tourism in our vibrant cities,” said a Visit Britain spokesperson.

Mountain destinations are also low on the radar of British staycationers this summer, with just 12 per cent considering a trip to a mountainous location this summer – good news for Britain’s intrepid travellers who could consider a trip to the Cairngorms in Scotland or the Cambrian Mountains of Powys in Wales.

belfast - Getty
belfast - Getty

In general though, at the lower end of Visit Britain’s popularity chart are Northern Ireland, the West Midlands and the North East – suggesting those in search of a crowd-free trip should consider the likes of Belfast or County Down, Northumberland and the Scottish Borders or Newcastle or the Shropshire Hills and Birmingham.

Is all accommodation booked up?

In short, the answer is no. It varies greatly on when you want to go away and where you want to visit – it pays to think outside the box, say the experts.

Original Cottages has a portfolio of over 5,500 properties across England and Wales. Martin Wickham, Sales Director, explains: “The bulk of demand is for the school holidays, as you’d expect, and for coastal hotspots such as Devon and Cornwall.” In fact, properties on their books are 95 per cent full during the school summer holidays in these destinations. But, “there are still destinations with availability for a great summer holiday getaway. Kent and Sussex, for example,” said Wickham, who confirms these locations still have around 40 per cent availability in properties, which sleep four or less, during the peak period.

Self-catered accommodation, like the rentals offered by Wickham’s team, was the first to open in England (on April 12) and, according to Visit Britain, this is now the go-to choice for holidaymakers. This is followed by camping and hotels – with bed and breakfast and private homes proving less popular and therefore more likely to have availability.

But there’s a growing concern across the industry that the mood might change as foreign travel resumes.

“What we are seeing and hearing is a game of holiday roulette – last-minute bookings and cancellations depending on the much-anticipated traffic light system for overseas holidays,” says Liz Smailes, owner of Blue Otter Boats, a canal boat holiday company in Yorkshire.

Fiona, from fellow Yorkshire business the House at Haws, echoes this, despite bookings looking strong. Her B&B has just one two-night stay left available in May, June is fully booked, July is 95 per cent full and September, 80 per cent – occupancy for August is around half full, as people hedge their bets on a foreign break. “People are still wondering if they will be able to go overseas [this summer],” she says.

kent oast house - Getty
kent oast house - Getty

But this wait-and-see approach is damaging to the UK destinations. “We encourage people to book with real intent of travelling in the UK, and not to cancel at the last minute. Hospitality has suffered enough without any added uncertainty and unpredictability around business on the books,” said Smailes.

James Mason, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, has asked holidaymakers to be mindful when making their bookings. “Certainty is what tourism and hospitality providers are relying on in the weeks and months ahead, as it’s their businesses and livelihoods which need to grow and flourish, after the most turbulent of times for tourism,” he said.

When should I travel if I want the greatest choice?

Taking into consideration Visit Britain’s research it would be advisable to avoid the peak summer period (July to September), when over a third of people plan to travel, as well as October – unexpectedly, 37 per cent of those surveyed anticipate they’ll take an overnight stay in the UK in the autumn.

Therefore consider an early-summer break in May or June – from May 17 indoor hospitality will have hopefully reopened in England and from June 21 Boris Johnson plans to end all restrictions.

What about camping, is there still availability?

As always, popular sites and destinations are filling up fast – campsites in Cornwall, for example, are three quarters full for the final week in August. According to listing website PitchUp.com, mid- to late-August is proving the most popular time to book a break under canvas. That said, campers can rest easy that there will be availability throughout the summer across the UK – on average Cumbria and North Yorkshire in particular have the lowest booking rates so far. “There’s still plenty of availability across the outdoor sector, and with dozens of additional sites coming online every week, capacity continues to grow alongside bookings,” said founder Dan Yates.

This is thanks to a relaxation of planning rules, which allows landowners to offer temporary camping on their property for up to 56 days without requiring planning permission. PitchUp has experienced an “all time high for new pop-up listings.” The site expects around 800 pop-up sites to advertise availability in England this summer, with more in Wales too. “That means there’s an additional 100,000 bed spaces a night, equating to 3 million per month. It’s the only sector that can expand that rapidly so that everyone has somewhere to go this summer,” said Yates, who reveals, thanks to these relaxed rules Devon is set to overtake Cornwall as the most popular destination for campers, due to the number of pop-up sites.

Top tips for securing a staycation this summer

Adjust your search criteria

“In order to cast your net wider, rather than settling on a specific location or town, search for the amenities for the cottage to suit your needs,” advises Wickham from Original Cottages. “Search filters such as ‘watersports nearby’, ‘coastal views’ or ‘log burner/open fire’ mean you can find the right property and you might discover an exciting new location you’d never previously considered. There’s still plenty of amazing chances to enjoy a holiday across the UK and even more choice if you choose to book pre- or post-summer.”

Check the small print

While, for obvious reasons, hotels and B&Bs, which are yet to reopen in England, are eager for guests to “book as soon as you can,” Fiona from the House at Haws reminds guest to “make sure [your deposit] is flexible or returnable in the event of another government lockdown or closure.” Do expect to pay a deposit, but don’t expect any last-minute deals or bargain prices.

north yorkshire - Getty
north yorkshire - Getty

Want to go to the beach? Look inland

If you’re looking to camp, Yates from PitchUp has some top advice: “Look inland for greater choice away from the coast. There are plenty of sites within easy reach for a day at the beach, that are less likely to be booked up than those right on the beach. Remember that mid-week is generally quieter than weekends too. Newly-opened popups are well worth a look – not least for their weird and wonderful locations, but also as they haven’t yet established a repeat customer base.”

Think small

Major chains and big name hotels will be the go-to for many holidaymakers, who look for past reviews and strong reputations to boost their confidence to book. But Liz Smailes suggests those looking for an authentic and local experience should research smaller outfits, who may be calling out for your business. “Anywhere that is new on the market this year is proving to have some availability for this summer,” she said. “These businesses are keen to make their mark and leave a good impression, so as long as they have the ‘We’re Good to Go’ kitemark from VisitBritain then visitors are in safe hands.”

Head to the city

If camping isn’t your thing and you’re not the biggest fan of sand, the nation’s metropolises are calling out for your support this summer. Visit Britain reveals: “We’ll be launching a campaign ‘Escape the Everyday’ in late-spring, with a focus on our cities and city visitor attractions as well as regional gateways, which have been particularly hard hit by the lack of international visitors and that rely on overseas visitors and their spending. With international tourists slower to return, this really is the year to rediscover the crown jewels of British tourism in our vibrant cities.”

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