What's your idea of the perfect holiday? If it involves something you've seen advertised on TV or in a brochure, beware. You could be heading for package-holiday pits.
Dazzling special offers in magazines and on TV can make even the most unattractive holiday destination seem romantic, a bargain, relaxing and the place to be.
Keep the things below in mind before you phone that 24-hour toll-free number on the pamphlet.
Crowd crisis. Have you ever noticed that on advertisements for package holidays, there are never any signs of crowds? Why would there only be two people on the beach? The answer is unfortunately that there aren't. Either the beach was cleared forcibly by those making the ad, or it was shot on a sunny day in the first week of August. Notice the goose bumps on the models. Cheap holidays attract the crowds and there will be queues everywhere. Even at the public toilets and the ice cream sellers. Be prepared for the throngs.
Flights from hell. On paper it looked good. You can save half the airfare by flying on the no-frills airline that stops over for a mere 12 hours in Dubai en route. After all, Dubai is the shopping mecca of the world, so what's the problem? The problem is that you're hungry, the plane from Tonga is packed out, has only two elderly flight attendants on board and is making strange noises. What's more, Dubai is 42 degrees Celsius, 12 hours is a long time to hang around for, and if you had the money to shop in Dubai, you wouldn't be on a cut-price flight in the first place. And you just don't know it, but a refuelling disaster is about to hold you up for another 12 hours. Heard enough?
Heartbreak hotel. Ever saw the Carry–On movies? OK, they were over-the-top, but the disastrous hotels featured in some of them were based on the truth. I've been in one or two of them. Cardboard walls, dripping taps, sagging beds, animal life in the mattresses, shared bathrooms, unspeakable food, dirty linen, stained carpets, windows that don't open, and a manager that only speaks Croatian or Portuguese. Cheap is not always cheerful. On the contrary. Sometimes one can be lucky, but if a hotel offers to put you and your family up for the holiday just because you paid for an air ticket from Hop-A-Long Airways, be suspicious, be very suspicious. There is a reason why they can't fill it with other holidaymakers at the height of the tourist season. It usually has something to do with word of mouth, or because the others have seen the place, or they are just demonstrating that old saying of "Once bitten, twice shy". Literally.
Bus blues in Europe. Nine countries in twelve days. This reminds one of the movie called 'If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium'. Problem is, that Europe is bigger than you think. What the brochure doesn't tell you is that you have to be up at the crack of dawn every day to get on the bus. With 22 retired Americans. And with rare exceptions, you'll be spending your days on the bus. Every now and then you'll get off to spend ten minutes at a tourist attraction, or to have lunch in a place that offered special rates to your travelling company. And then it's back to the bus, because you're due at the El Cheapo Hotel in Luxembourg by suppertime. And tomorrow morning you're doing the south of France. Exhausting thought, isn't it?
Hidden costs. Seven days' worth of free hotel accommodation included in the price of the air ticket, sounds like a real bargain. But if meals are not included, this could turn out to be the most expensive holiday of your life. Remember, you don't have a kitchen in which to cook. Imagine having to pay for restaurant meals for a family of four, three times a day for seven days. Also, if you're renting a cottage, check what the cleaning fees are. Or how far away you are from the places you want to see. A centimeter on a map could translate into 80 kilometres in real life. Rental car companies are also notorious for charging endless faintly-plausible sounding, but hugely expensive fees. Be practical when you plan your holiday, and be prepared that it could easily cost you a third more than what you were bargaining on.
Read the small print. If the owners of the resort reserve the right to put additional guests in the empty bedroom in your unit, watch out. You could be sharing quarters with someone whose idea of a good holiday is seeing how much he can drink before he falls down. At 2.a.m. Or the resort provides no linen and towels. Or they close their doors at 10 p.m., which means there will be no late-night escapades for you on this holiday. Or your parking spot could be 400 metres from your bungalow. Or there are no refunds if you cancel less than 6 months in advance. The possibilities are endless. Point is, you need to read the small print before you make a reservation. Don't just sign on the dotted line. Package holidays may be packed with all sorts of things you never expected.
Sight unseen. Many people rent holiday accommodation they have not seen. Especially if it is in a faraway place to which they have not been and the accommodation is cheap, or part of a special offer. Often, doing this is inevitable, but these days with the Internet, viewing a rental property or a hotel has become easy. Descriptions can be way off the mark (lovely view could mean anything, as could sleeps 6, as could rustic and quiet – get the picture?), but actual photographs of the interior and the exterior can tell you all you want to know. If people show no photographs of their accommodation on their website, there's a reason for it. Read linoleum, peeling paint, sagging beds, dirty couches.
Weather wobble. Check what the weather usually does in the place you're planning to go. Is it hurricane season, malaria season, heat wave season, monsoon season, frostbite season? There's nothing that spoils a holiday quite as much as really bad weather that keeps you huddled inside your hotel room in front of the heater or the air conditioner. You might as well have stayed at home, then – at least it would have been cheaper. Italy in August is no fun, neither is the Caribbean in September, the Kruger Park in December or Dublin in January.
Holiday companions. Aye, there's the rub. It's better to spend a fortnight in the sticks with really nice people, than a month in paradise with people you would happily give up for medical experiments by the end of it all. That donkey laugh and the nasal twang and the constant moaning might have been tolerable up to about day three, but by day 23, you're ready to detonate. It's actually better and more relaxing to stay at home than to go on holiday with people who grate you. And if you're not used to small children, think twice before going on holiday with friends who have two-year-old twins. It could put you off parenthood for life and make you long for the relative calm and sanity of your office, classroom or shop floor.
Family feuds. A friend once said that family should be seen once a year and then on a photograph. A bit harsh, but fully understandable, after a festive season filled with simmering family feuds. Point is, going on holiday with your own relatives or in-laws is always tricky. You're with them 24 hours of the day and you have nowhere to escape to. Little things start to grate, or you don't like the way your partner behaves or is treated when surrounded by their family of origin. You are under the spotlight, as most in-laws secretly feel that their child could have done better than marrying you. And a holiday is as good a time as any to find evidence to support this point of view.
Cruise crisis. Visions of bikini-clad babes tanning on deck, attractive young men in evening wear on the dance floor, the sumptuous buffet, and top-notch entertainers on hand – anyway that's what the brochures would like to make you think. But think for a moment – who has the time and the money to go on endless cruises? Mostly retired Americans. And the bikini stakes are not too high there. Furthermore, unless you have a fortune to spend, your cabin is likely to be only fractionally larger than a broom cupboard. And who feels like dancing or eating when you're seasick, anyway? The crew has no control over the weather and all you need to ruin your entire cruise is a storm that lasts for days. Also, you're stuck on the boat and there may be no getting away from really grating fellow passengers, unless you're prepared to spend some quality time in your broom cupboard. And anyway, how much can you take of casinos, organised games on deck, and the same buffet every second day?
Health hazards. Malaria, cholera, a nasty flu and gastroenteritis are just some of the joys, which can befall you on holiday. This doesn't mean you have to stay at home for the rest of your life. Just be prepared, take the right medication with you, see your doctor before you go and know what the possible health hazards are in the area where you're heading. Take a basic small medicine kit with you – you'll be grateful when you get a nasty cut on your foot or you've been to the toilet six times in the last hour. There are few worse things than trying to explain a stomach ailment to a non-English speaking doctor using only hand gestures.
Housework hassles. Washing up, dust and laundry don't disappear just because you're on holiday. The baby still wants its bottle warmed to a certain temperature, and the family still needs to be fed three times a day. All well and fine if you're in a serviced hotel, or even in a well-equipped self-catering place, but try achieving this in a tent or caravan in the middle of nowhere and it may well snuff out your spirit of adventure for a decade or two. Unless everyone pitches in, there'll be someone for whom this is no holiday at all.
Tips when organising a holiday
Decide beforehand how much you can and want to spend.
Choose a destination that pleases most members of the family.
Be realistic about travelling times.
Have the car serviced before you go.
Try and avoid overnight flights with babies or toddlers.
Check the internet for pictures of your destination and avoid the surprise element.
Choose easy-going pleasant holiday companions.
Read the small print on all special offers.
See your doctor and get any medication you may need.
Take as little luggage as possible.
Take comfortable shoes, lots of underwear and clothes that suit the climate.
(Susan Erasmus, Health24, September 2008)