Have your thoughts turned to booking a holiday over the last few weeks? You’re not alone.

Despite the cost-of-living crisis, the holiday sector is in rude health as sun and fun starved Brits dig round the back of the metaphorical sofa to find enough cash for a well-earned break.

I hate to kill the mood, but it makes sense to pause and reflect before rushing to book a holiday. An awful lot can go wrong with trips abroad or at home. From scammers hiding in plain sight, to the heavy hand of bureaucracy, a few careless mistakes or missed checks can ruin your experience.

So here’s my guide to some of the holiday horrors that you might not be aware of, so you can get away without a care in the world.

Sneaky airline charges

Let’s start with an obvious one. We all know that airlines add on additional costs for, well, everything. But if you’ve not booked a flight for a while, you might be in for a shock.

For one, many airlines have started charging for cabin bags now. And those charges aren’t cheap. There have been hefty price hikes for other essential components of your flight too, from hold baggage to choosing seats (essential if you’re traveling with family). Watch out for food charges too. I spotted one airline claiming that it’s duty-free goods and food and drinks were all reduced by 20%. Great… if the airline hadn’t increased prices by 40% a few months earlier.

To compound things, a number of airlines have started ‘bundling’ these add-on charges in to packages, but these are often unclear and overly complicated, so it’s hard to know if they are value for money. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) publish comparison tables of airline charges, but the airlines seem to have got creative with how they charge too. I recently booked a flight where the minimum seat price was £6 and cabin baggage was £26, not the £0.99 or £6.99 listed by the airline on the CAA table).

You can pre-empt these cheeky charges in a few ways though. When you look at flight prices, assume that you’ll have to add on a few essentials. Using some not very scientific averages, I’d say (very roughly) that you’ll need a hold bag (£30 each way), cabin bag (£25 each way) and an allocated seat (£7). That’s £62 to add on to each flight or £124 for a return. Have those figures in mind and you’ll have realistic expectations. And with some airlines that don’t overcharge, you’ll be pleasantly surprised!  I’d also buy food and drink before you board. Airlines never have the good stuff when they get to your seat anyway.

Apartment traps and questionable locations

Using online travel marketplaces and apartment rental websites can be a great way to find a truly epic place to stay for your big holiday. I use these sites all the time. But you do have to be a bit cautious about what’s on offer and you’ll need to check to see if the places you like are as good as they seem.

You may already be aware of the warnings about ‘tickers’ – those on-screen alerts that say there are only two rooms left in the hotel, or things are ‘booking fast’. Despite numerous warnings and fines, the industry is still finding sneaky ways to panic us in to buying without checking things thoroughly.

But there are other things to watch out for. Many websites offer hotels and aparthotels alongside private lets. There’s nothing wrong with a private let in theory, but with a hotel, you can complain to the reception if things aren’t as advertised, whereas a private let might limit your options if the host is a bit rubbish. Check photos thoroughly to see if the advertised facilities are all there, ask questions before booking and look at the reviews – focus on recent ones. Watch out for things like extra bedrooms that turn out to be a sofa bed in the living room. I always look for details on the handover and return of keys too as this is a guide to how good your host is.

The latest thing to watch out for is the location of the property. Many sites list properties as being ‘500 metres from the centre’. Yet, some of the sites I checked don’t specify which centre. You may find that you’re not 500 meters from the centre of Barcelona, but 500 meters from the centre of a suburb nearby. Check out a map online so you know where the main tourist areas are for your destination and cross reference with the details on the booking website.

Scams

Every year, people renting apartments through private lets get caught out by a common scam that’s simple to run but has devastating consequences.

Fraudsters advertise an enticing property on a legitimate site, often using fake reviews and great pictures. These holiday lets usually exist, but aren’t owned by the scammer – though on occasion they turn out to be privately owned homes. If you make an enquiry or try to reserve, the scammer will offer you a discount if you transfer money from your bank account direct rather than going through the host website, usually on the grounds that ‘they’ll pass the cost savings from the website on to you’ for doing so. Alternatively they may suggest a legitimate payment method like PayPal but will ask you to use the cheaper ‘friends and family’ option.

When you transfer money from you bank account, or use the friends and family option on PayPal, the money is exceptionally hard to recall. So when you’ve sent it, it’s gone. And if it’s a scam, then you won’t see it again.

I’ve encountered far too many horror stories from readers who have turned up on holiday only to find their let doesn’t exist, or is a private residence. So beat the scammers by only paying through the official holiday company website. Check the T&Cs to find out your rights if there’s a problem with the booking. And look for a consistent series of reviews from genuine holidaymakers.

Car hire cons

The car hire industry has one of the worst reputations when it comes to mis-selling, rip-off costs and terrible service. I’m sorry to report that my inbox is straining with complaints from aggrieved readers who’ve been caught out by some of the more egregious situations during trips abroad lately.

Bear in mind that car hire companies know you’re often likely to be tired and faintly annoyed when you arrive at your holiday destination and just want to get on your way. This means they’re likely to ‘upsell’ things you don’t want or need or rush you through the process without spelling out key contract terms.

However, having an insurance policy to cover ‘excess fees’ is essential. Car hire contracts have large excess charges on the policy, which can mean you could be charged £1,000 or more for minor damage to a vehicle. These policies cover that excess charge. But the ones sold at the car hire desk can be expensive, whereas you can pick up a good policy in the UK for around £30.

I’ve heard loads of reports that car hire firms are claiming you have to buy their own brand policies. Rubbish. In the UK, businesses are banned from limiting you to their own insurance and most European rules are similar. Tell them in writing you are taking out your own insurance when you book.

Sneakily, some firms change the make and model of the car when you arrive. My Japanese friends were recently given a manual drive vehicle in France despite specifically requesting an automatic. That’s dangerous, so stand your ground if a firm tries to switch vehicles. If there’s no choice, call your insurer to make the changes to the policy. Oh and it’s vital to photo the car from every angle before driving off, to avoid pricy problems later.

One last thing. Brexit means there are a few new rules around driving in the EU. Make sure you’ve read the Government guidance in full before traveling:

Don’t get caught out by the passport rules

Speaking of Brexit, thousands of people are still being refused boarding at UK airports due to not realising the rules around passports have changed subtly (but significantly).

If your EU passport is approaching the last year or so of its life, then it’s time to think about applying for your new, blue, British passport (made in Poland). When we were in the EU, if you still had some time left on your existing passport it was tagged on to the new one. So if you had six months to go when you renewed, then your passport would show 10 years and six months on the expiry date. In a post-Brexit world, you’ll simply get a standard passport with 10 years to run.

However, the post-Brexit rules apply to your existing passport. If you are travelling to the EU/Schengen area, your entry in to the country is based on your passport’s issue date, not it’s expiry date.  So if you are traveling on 01 March 2024 and your passport expiry date is 01 April 2014 you might think you are okay. But if your passport issue date is 01 February 2014, then you’ll be turned away because your passport is over ten years old.

Not only that, the passport issue date must also have least three months extra to run on it from the date you leave the EU. So if you leave Spain on 31 March 2024, your passport must have an issue date after 01 July 2014.

Got all of that?! It’s dead complicated so in summary:

  • Check your passport issue date.
  • If you’re traveling and your holiday falls over ten years after the issue date, your passport will not be accepted.
  • You need to have an extra three months before that ten years is up from the point you leave the country too.

These rules apply the EU/Schengen area only. Other countries have a six-month period of validity on your passport, though not many of the main non-EU destinations which often allow you to travel right up to the expiry date. If in doubt check the Foreign Office website – and don’t forget you might need a visa for some countries too.

Paying for things without paying a hefty price

Be exceptionally wary of using your debit card to buy things or withdraw cash when abroad.

According to research from Currensea, the average family pays £212 in fees and currency conversion alonefrom using high street bank debit cards and £188 for using pre-paid currency cards. That’s equivalent to a night in a posh hotel!

Many high street banks charge excessive fees for every transaction you make (always pay in the local currency btw if you are using plastic cards, it’s almost always cheaper). Some of the challenger banks have much better currency conversion deals, but check before you travel.

There are so many things to be aware of when spending abroad, so here are my top tips.

  • Never buy cash at the airport. The rates are usually astoundingly bad. The same goes for converting your currency back to pounds too.
  • Never withdraw cash on your credit card. Not only are the rates rubbish, but you may find this can affect your credit score as this is a big no no to lenders.
  • I’d save the emergency contact numbers for your bank, credit card and travel insurance providers on your phone, just in case.
  • Have a few different wallets, purses and secured spaces and split currency and your plastic cards between them. If you get robbed or lose one you won’t lose all access to all your sources of money.
  • Never leave cash or your valuables in your suitcase unattended – and that includes at the hotel while waiting to check in or after you’ve checked out. I’ve seen many an insurance claims rejected on this basis.
  • Most places in Europe and the main tourist destinations accept cards these days, so no need to wander round with a big wodge of cash. Check online first, by maybe have a card/cash proportion of 70/30 for your spending.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

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