Package holidays back in favour with Britons

Tour operators Thomas Cook and Tui have upped the game with well-designed hotels, healthy food and interesting excursions

LONDON • You may think that package holidays are no longer a passport to making money for tour operators.

So it may come as a surprise, then, to learn that such outings are not just surviving this year, but are thriving once more - at least in Britain.

Data shows 51 per cent of Britons took a package trip last year, lured by the fact that such holidays have changed. The modern version is a far cry from the packages in the past, when tour agents upsold dismal day trips and all the food came with chips.

Britain's two biggest tour operators, Tui (formerly Thomson) and Thomas Cook, have branched out into boutique packages, with well-designed hotels, healthy food and interesting excursions.

In June, Thomas Cook launched Cook's Club, a more affordable version of its upmarket Casa Cook brand, but still with a design focus.

The package holiday, as Britons know it, can be traced back to 1950, when Horizon Holidays took 11 people to the French island of Corsica.

However, after five decades of growth, the advent of budget airlines and the Internet seemed to sound their death knell. The era of D-I-Y travel beckoned.

In 2003, independent travel overtook packages for the first time, with 53 per cent of holiday-makers organising their own trips abroad.

By 2008, just 37 per cent of Britons went on a package holiday.

So why, when D-I-Y trips are easier and cheaper than ever, are people returning to ready-made holidays?

First, convenience: The Association of British Travel Agents reports that 75 per cent of people choose a package because "everything is taken care of".

Second, cost - 58 per cent book because they see packages as the "best-value option for price".

Third, peace of mind: People want to know they will be looked after in the event of a terrorist attack or other major incident.

Packages are particularly popular with older people, but they have been re-embraced by all age groups, especially young families and 18-to-24-year-olds.

But surely another reason for the resurgence is that package holidays have seriously upped their game.

Take the first Cook's Club hotel in Hersonissos on Greek island Crete, that is aimed at young, design-savvy, price-conscious customers.

The 148 rooms are described as "luxe-minimalist". It is mostly millennials lounging around the pool while the all-day DJs play chillout tunes, but not everyone is under 30.

The Cantina dishes up local food such as octopus salad and lamb stew, plus "global street food" and the poolside bar serves spritzers and barrel-aged cocktails.

There are still excursions on offer, but not a coach trip in sight.

Thomas Cook has partnered a Cretan company, Hellenic Zeus, whose guides have expertise.

You can go horse-riding along the beach and into the mountains; sail to the dragon-shaped island of Dia; and explore historic sites such as Spinalonga, an island off the north-east coast with a long history, from Venetian fort to 20th-century leper colony, accompanied by a Greek archaeologist.

When Casa Cook was launched in Rhodes in Greece in 2016, it was originally aimed at younger people, but ended up pricing them out and attracting older people instead.

The company realised there was a market for a cheaper brand with fewer frills and Cook's Club was born. "We are moving away from one size fits all," said Mr Peter Fankhauser, Thomas Cook's chief executive, who plans to open 10 to 15 Cook's Club hotels by next summer.

He noted that good design is still a priority for those on a tighter budget. "Our research has shown that an Instagrammable hotel is more and more important," he added.

Thomas Cook's rival Tui is also reinventing the package holiday.

The Tui Blue brand was rolled out in 2016 with three new hotels opening this year, taking the total to seven and many more are planned.

As with Cook's Club, Tui Blue strives for decor inspired by traditional architecture, regional food and local guides.

Locations include Mallorca in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Turkey.

Tui Blue Jadran is sited in Tucepi, a small resort on the Makarska Riviera, with a 3km pebbly beach.

While the town in Croatia is low-key, the hotel's beachside setting is sensational, with the islands of Hvar and Brac in front and the Biokovo nature park behind.

There is a focus on wellness at Tui Blue, with daily fitness classes included in the price.

Again, the excursions are impressive. You can take an army jeep safari into the Biokovo mountains and go ziplining. Other options include boat trips to Hvar and Brac, with a visit to the winery on Brac, where the hotel's wine is produced.

The hotel also serves its own olive oil and beef, has an onsite bakery and offers lots of vegetarian and vegan dishes.

The cost? From £383 (S$670) a person for seven nights' B&B (bed and breakfast) at Cook's Club Hersonissos, including flights from Britain, and from £670 a person for seven nights' half-board at Tui Blue Jadran, including flights from Britain.

GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 19, 2018, with the headline 'Package holidays back in favour with Britons'. Print Edition | Subscribe