I hate haggling. I’m the sort of person who would pay the full price for a pair of slippers in a Moroccan souk rather than ask for as much as a five dirhams discount – unlike Cheap Holiday Expert Chelsea Dickenson, who has made it her life’s work to get money off all things holiday-related.
“Many don’t realise that haggling down the price of your holiday is an option, but as the old saying goes, ‘shy bairns get nowt,’” she says. “It can be particularly fruitful when booking last minute and there’s still lots of availability, or if you’re looking to spend a good chunk of money, or stay a long amount of time”.
Armed with these words of encouragement (and mindful of the UK’s ever-increasing living costs), I decided to put my limited skills to the test and see whether there are bargain trips for those prepared to barter. Here’s what I found…
The package deal
Browsing on a wet and windy afternoon in London made a week-long break at a five-star all-inclusive hotel in Mexico’s Playa del Carmen seem particularly appealing. Especially since the holiday (staying at Essence at The Fives Beach Hotel and Residences with flights from Heathrow via the USA on January 15, as well as transfers) came in at £1,696pp with tour operator Best At Travel. Could this be beaten?
My first port of call was the comparison sites. Chris Weber, Head of Holidays and Deals at Ice Travel Group which owns TravelSupermarket and icelolly.com, told me that “using a holiday price comparison site ensures consumers are shown the best deals at the right price. In a climate that is increasingly cost sensitive, these platforms are instrumental in providing value for money, comparing prices from leading tour operators across many incredible destinations.”
Sure enough, a scan with TravelSupermarket unearthed a better price for the same hotel and time period and similar flights via the USA, booked direct through Tui (and coming in at £1,585pp). It was time to go back to Best At Travel and see what they could do.
For a non-haggler like me, the process was mortifying. Tour operators and travel agents don’t tend to make offers by email or live chat, forcing chancers to pick up the phone (the bonus is that you then have a real life contact for future communications).
“The key is to be cheerful, realistic and have the outcome you want in mind,” says Dickenson. “For instance, I may begin with sharing why I’m excited to be booking before stating that it’s over my budget. Then a simple ‘however, I’d really love to make this work – is there any room to come down on the price?’ opens up the conversation without sounding too demanding.”
With access to databases of hotel and flight prices, agents and operators have an insider’s view of available holidays and, even if they can’t beat a price, they can often come up with alternatives. Though the person I spoke to at Best At Travel wasn’t able to improve on the original online offer, she looked into other hotel and flight options with impressive tenacity to try and come up with something equally desirable.
The result? The offer of an upgrade to Premium Economy on the homebound USA-London leg of the trip for £154pp extra; or the chance to fly Premium Economy on all legs for £304pp extra. It was hard to refuse.
Why do prices differ among agents and operators? According to Melissa Tilling, CEO at Charitable Travel, some travel agents have a margin on their commission and can, in theory, lower it to give customers a better deal (though she no longer does this because her agency donates a percentage of the cost of each holiday to charity).
The variation can also be due to different tour operators forging strong relationships with different places to stay: sometimes hotels offer tactical prices to one operator in order to drive sales, which then creates a discrepancy in the final package cost.
If the package price seems wildly cheaper than what’s on offer elsewhere and nobody will match it, the figures could even be down to a mistake. If that’s the case, snap the trip up before somebody notices. “Loading hotel rates into the selling systems, whilst heavily automated, does have the potential for human error and sometimes rates just get loaded wrong,” says Tilling.
It took a few phone calls, but I was really pleased with my upgraded offer from Best At Travel. It’s definitely worth negotiating on a package – with the added bonus that your agent won’t mind (or will politely pretend not to).
The hotel room
As a rule, hotels are cheaper when you book them direct. Because properties pay commission to consolidators, they want to encourage customers to come straight to them, so reservations teams often have the authority to negotiate rates. Even better for reluctant hagglers like me, they’re happy to do it by email.
Reasoning that discounts would have the most impact on pricey celebratory trips (such as big birthday breaks or honeymoons), I got in contact with La Mamounia, the renowned Marrakech hotel loved by Winston Churchill, the Reagans and Joan Collins among others.
On its website, a two-night stay on January 15 and 16 was showing as 9,000 Moroccan dirhams (£708) per night in a superior Hivernage room. But it only took a quick email for the reservations team to offer me a discounted rate of 8100 dirhams (or £636), a saving just shy of 10 per cent.
It was the easiest haggle of all the ones I tried – but you don’t even have to attempt to barter if you book through some hotel chains. Accor, for example, offers a price-match guarantee and will discount room prices on selected hotels by 25 per cent if you find them cheaper elsewhere within 24 hours. Other chains significantly lower prices if you join free loyalty schemes. It’s also worth signing up to newsletters to keep an eye on future discounts.
It’s always worth asking for a discount directly from the hotel. But, if even that feels too embarrassing, a thorough web search should reveal some bargains too.
Cruises often have a three-tier booking system similar to airlines, with a basic price, a deluxe price and an in-between option offering mid-range benefits. On a 14-night P&O Cruises trip around Spain and Portugal for example, paying an extra £300pp on top of the cheapest fare gets you a range of benefits including a choice of cabin, free parking and £320 onboard spending money. I thought it would be a good idea to ask if I could get these perks thrown in for free with the basic price.
It was a resounding “no” from the phone operative at P&O Cruises, despite my chosen cruise leaving in less than a week. A spokesperson for the brand told me “a huge amount is included on a P&O Cruises holiday, from accommodation, full-board meals, pools, entertainment (theatre shows, live bands, comedy, films, complimentary children’s clubs) and tips”.
When I rang Princess Cruises to try out a similar blag, the answer was the same. “We only offer free upgrades to different packages during limited-time promotional offers,” a spokesperson told me.
There are bargains to be had though. Ditch the phone and instead trawl consolidator and agent sites such as Cruise Direct, which sometimes have discounted fares: I found a 14-night Princess Cruise to Spain, France and Portugal, setting off from Southampton on April 1 2023, for £1,207pp at Cruise Direct (a saving of £42pp on the official price).
Don’t waste your time haggling with cruise operators on the phone. It’s better to shop around via consolidators and agents.
The holiday rental
Not much beats a cosy British getaway just before Christmas, so I decided to find out if there were bargains to be had. Having found a beautifully decorated, two-bedroom apartment on the beachfront in the pretty seaside town of Deal, Kent advertised through Deal Holiday Lets, I contacted the company and asked if there was wiggle room on the price (£551 for a three-night break between December 16 and 19). I was told that the per night rate might be lowered if I was able to extend my stay, ideally to seven nights.
“We’ve lowered our prices because of what’s going on economically,” Deal Holiday Lets’ Director Ashley O’Leary told me later. “In theory, our rates are as low as they can be.” However, she did offer pointers about when she might agree to a discount – on the day of travel, for instance, when owners with empty properties will be keen to get them filled.
She doesn’t mind people trying their luck, although it doesn’t happen very often. “Occasionally people will ask for a very hefty discount – 40 or 50 per cent – and I’ll definitely say no. You know it’s a bargaining thing.”
Armed with this knowledge, I approached Keepers Cottages about a discount on a last-minute, seven-night stay at a little seaside cottage in Whitstable. An initial, very friendly email pointed out that the quote already included a seasonal discount. However, it only took a quick reply to garner an offer to talk with the cottage owner to see if they might be able to take more money off.
Marketing Director Phoebe Shipton told me: “We can always be flexible on last-minute stays and longer stays over seven nights and we can also offer reduced occupancy rates on larger houses.”
If you’re considering booking a property at the last-minute, there might be flexibility on price – especially if you’re staying for longer than the weekend. The added bonus? You can negotiate via email and hide behind the keyboard.