Top holidays on a budget

Affordable holidays are out there if you know where to look. Bina Brown has compiled a handy guide to family fun.

School holidays can be challenging for many families as they juggle work, holidays and time together at what is traditionally a busy period.

It is also when many people get into debt chasing their dreams, or fulfilling others' dreams with gifts.

But with planning, the time people spend together can be more valuable than anything they buy in a shop - and much cheaper.

Few children would turn down a trip to a theme park or an outing to the zoo but many would be just as happy with a picnic in a park or a bike ride around a lake.

Show a child a tent and a campfire with marshmallows and they run at it just as hard as they would a five-star hotel with a pool.

The owner of the byokids.com.au online travel agency, Leah Squire, specialises in family holidays.

Her top tip for saving money during school holidays is to rethink any great spur-of-the-moment adventure if you want to save money on flights or family holidays at a resort.

The earlier you book, especially on airlines, the cheaper it will be.

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"Last-minute can be good for single people or couples who aren't as fussy about when they go but for families, it normally leads to disappointment," she says.

Almost everything good and on the coast is at a premium during school holidays and in the weeks covering Christmas through to Australia Day a near impossibility, unless you get in early.

They are also the most expensive times of the year to stay almost anywhere - especially if it is on the coast.

If you can get away at the start and the end of the holiday then those will generally be the cheaper periods.

A common trap is for places that advertise special last-minute promotions. While the price might look good, the availability is generally very limited, Squire says.

That is not to say you shouldn't try and there are plenty of online companies catering to last-minute travelling.

Squire says families would generally be better off looking for something that has a kitchen so they can prepare at least some of their meals to cut down on the added costs of eating out.

If you need to do some shopping for cooking or breakfast, venture to the local supermarket. Save the shop attached to the place you are staying for the bare essentials.

If you think you might enjoy a few drinks, save money by going to the local bottle shop rather than the in-house bar.

Squire is a fan of package holidays as a way to save money.

"Generally, package deals are better value for money," she says. "They may sound expensive but if you really did the sums and added in activities, food and drinks, it can work out to be good value and save a lot of stress."

Squire says packages generally mean wholesale air and land rates as well as airport transfers and breakfast.

It may be too late for this holiday but Squire's tip for planning the next one is to seek out resorts where kids can stay or eat for free.

"Some places have the cut off at 12 years old, others 16 years, so it is a matter of knowing who is offering what," she says.

"A kids-eat-free offer can make a huge difference if you have a couple of kids who are big eaters."

If you are planning a long drive these holidays, packing plenty of snacks and a picnic lunch will save having to open the wallet every time you stop for petrol.

Online

Fortunately, there are websites that specialise in last-minute bookings for hotels and other holiday accommodation options such as bed-and-breakfasts and apartments.

They include wotif.com.au, lastminute.com.au, laterate.com, Stay247.com, Holidayswithkids.com.au and Ubid4rooms.com.au, and have a growing number of options to choose from at prices that would suit most budgets.

The rates vary depending on a hotel's booking schedule for different dates and may or may not differ considerably from the actual "rack rate" but they are worth checking.

How it works is that accommodation suppliers would rather have a room occupied at a cheaper rate than an empty room, which enables these sites to sell their surplus rooms, which would otherwise be vacant, at discounted rates.

It is a win-win for hotels and travellers.

Ubid4rooms is slightly different. Here you can actually bid for a room at one of the 900 or so establishments on the site. The property owners have three hours to accept or decline the offer.

Three-quarters of first bids are accepted.

The founder, Gary Berman, says that while most of the really great deals over Christmas and for the New Year's celebrations may have already gone for places on the coast, there are plenty to be had in the capital cities and inland.

Don't be too shocked to find a booking fee on most of the online accommodation booking sites. It is the same deal with booking airline tickets online.

It is still cheaper to book with Qantas and Virgin online but the booking and credit card fees can start to add up.

While there are some cheap deals to be found online, any subsequent changes or cancellations can be expensive.

Qantas charges $50 to make changes, while a change to a wotif.com accommodation booking will incur a $25 charge. Using frequent flyer points to book flights or accommodation will also save opening the wallet.

Self-contained

Renting holiday houses generally works out as a cheaper option than many apartments and definitely most hotels - unless you strike a good package or long-stay deal through one of the last-minute sites.

It may even be possible to book something privately and save even more.

The great cost-saving advantage of a self-contained holiday is that you can cut down on the expense of eating out.

If you have anyone with special dietary requirements or a fussy eater in the party, then it is much easier to deal with in your "own" kitchen. The downside is, someone has to do the shopping, cooking and cleaning up.

Another advantage of self-contained accommodation is that there will usually be a living area as well as two or more bedrooms.

So, depending on the number of people holidaying, people can retreat to their own spaces and there is room for the kids to bring a friend each.

Added value from self-contained style accommodation can come in the form of free entertainment such as the beach, bushwalking or a pool.

TakeABreak.com offers a range of cottage and holiday house or unit accommodation options.

Activities

Theme parks may look like an easy way to entertain kids but there are plenty of cheaper ways to fill in time during the holiday.

If you are a near a beach then make use of it.

If the budget can stretch to it, consider some of the surf lessons that are offered on most beach areas throughout the summer. Otherwise, practise your body surfing.

Imagine. No tickets or queuing and you can spend the whole day there for free.

If there is something this country is not short of it is wide open public space - even in the middle of our cities.

Family picnics can take on a sense of adventure of their own if you go somewhere new.

Most parks have playgrounds that will keep younger family members busy for hours. It is even more fun if you combine your efforts with another family or two.

The children entertain themselves while the adults enjoy a break as well.

Town or city councils are on the ball when it comes to holiday times and may organise activities for children at local libraries or shopping centres.

Many museums and art galleries have also started to recognise the benefits of offering free activities for kids.

Any adult who commutes to work on public transport may cringe at the thought of getting on a bus or train during their holidays but they shouldn't underestimate the thrill it can give to their youngsters.

As well as being a great way to fill in time, it is a great way to see a city.

And time at home doesn't have to be more of the same.

Try these ideas out - they may fly with family members:

* Write and perform a play. The children can write the script together, then take on different roles such as actors, director, stage design and costume maker.
* Cooking is always popular. Make a special pizza and let the kids choose the toppings.
* Decorate anything and everything - tie-dye a shirt or tablecloth; learn some magic tricks and put on a show.
* A game of charades is another favourite.

Memberships

Joining one or more of the many organisations that offer deals on travel can be a good way to save money.

Youth hostels are well known for having some accommodation in prime locations. They also offer a range of accommodation types and services.

While you don't have to be a member of Youth Hostels Australia to stay in one of their places, members get 10 per cent off accommodation. There are also discounts on certain bus and train travel. If you are under 26, membership starts at $32 for a year, while if 26 and over the cost is $42.

If you join as a family then you pay only for the adults; and children (under 18) are free.

The NRMA is another way to get a range of discounts, as long as you are a member.

The basic road service joining and annual fee is $150.60.

One of the benefits of NRMA membership is being able to pre-pay and get a discount on many of the big attractions such as Dreamworld, Movie World and Sea World in Queensland and Taronga Zoo, the Sydney Aquarium and Sydney Wildlife World.

The NRMA also owns five holiday parks within NSW and Queensland where members can get a 10 per cent discount.

For drive holidays, NRMA members can get touring maps for free.

Big4 Holiday Parks - which generally have a great assortment of kids' activities - also offer membership, which saves up to $40 per stay. New membership costs $50 for two years. Other benefits include a book-ahead service between holiday parks.

Membership of these organisations brings discounts at businesses partnered with them.

Tips for finding bargains online

Search on availability — so put the actual dates you are looking to go away into the search box.

Many areas of Queensland, WA and NT are not in peak season, so you are more likely to secure a booking and get a better price, as some do not have Christmas holiday surcharges.

Save money by looking for last-minute deals and bargains, if you are not set on a particular destination.

Weekly bookings are more cost-effective; often an extra night is included for free or cleaning/admin fees are waived.

Travel as a group and book a holiday house for better value for money.

Source: Occupancy.com


Case study

IN NEED of a break after the last school holidays, Pam Friedland went online to research and book somewhere for her family to stay for a weekend on the NSW central coast.

Having read about Ubid4rooms.com as another last-minute way to save money on the advertised rate of accommodation, she thought she would give it a go.

She put in a bid for two nights in a two-bedroom apartment that was about $100 less than what she had seen the place advertised for elsewhere.

"We went for an apartment so the kids could have a separate room and they tend to have more living space," Friedland says.

Properties listed on the site have up to three hours to either accept or reject any bids put to it.

"I was really impressed," she says. "My bid was accepted within an hour of making the offer and because I had already seen the rates offered elsewhere I accepted it.

"The saving was money in my pocket that I would rather spend going out while we are away."

Friedland has since used the site to book four rooms at a place in the Hunter Valley for a small work-related marketing conference.

"It is actually fun to use; waiting for the response and then finding out you have saved quite a bit of money," Friedland says.

These holidays will be spent at home with relatives, possibly followed by another weekend getaway in the new year.