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Paying the price: Julia Buckley

You might want to think twice before snapping up a suspiciously good travel deal, or else you could get more than you bargained for

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“It’s half the price of a hotel,” I told my friend excitedly. On the cards: a night in Athens, en route to Kos. I’d stumbled on an apartment on Airbnb that cost just £80. Most hotels were nearer £150.

“It’s half the price of a hotel,” we reminded each other, as the third taxi driver refused to take us to what turned out to be a guesthouse on a semi-pedestrianised street, insisting that we scale the Acropolis hill with our suitcases instead.

“It’s half the price of a hotel,” I intoned, as the fourth group of drunk Americans stumbled past my internal window at 3am and the lamp in the corridor shone like a searchlight on my bed.

In the morning, there was no running water. The cabin — with shower — we upgraded to for our 10-hour ferry ride cost an extra €70. You do the maths.

When it comes to travel, I’m a sucker for false economies. Of course, I’m alert to the obvious — I know flying on budget airlines rarely works out cheaper if you’re checking a bag and want a seat that isn’t wedged between two stag weekenders by the toilet.

Yet, every time I spy a flight that’s £30 cheaper because it’s at a clearly masochistic time of day, I leap at it. It’ll be fine, I tell myself; but it never is, and it always ruins the trip. “I didn’t come to Palermo to turn in at 8pm,” said a friend on a weekend in Sicily, when, suffering the effects of a 4am start, I mooted a retreat to the hotel. We only made up in the hour-long passport control queue that takes up residence at Stansted every Sunday night.

Flights, apartments, hotels — there’s nothing I like more than a bargain that comes with inverted commas attached. Planning a night in Rome this month, I found the perfect hotel, right behind Piazza Navona. I’d fit in a museum on arrival, I decided, dinner in Trastevere, even an early-morning walk along the Tiber before racing to the airport after breakfast. But then I saw another costing £20 less on a flash sale site. It was well out of the centre — but I could always take the bus, I told myself. It didn’t include breakfast, but I could get a cappuccino and a croissant at the nearest bar. And it claimed to have been discounted by £50 — so, really, it was much better value than the more central one. Of course, in the end, I chose the taxi and the buffet. And I didn’t even get my morning walk.

Technically, I should blame laziness for wasting all this money. After all, I could grab a bargain if I stuck to the rules — if I skipped the breakfast buffet, for instance, or wore four pairs of knickers, stuffed three books in my coat pockets, and got up at 2am to catch that £5 Terravision bus to Luton.

But the false economies that make me really fume are the ones that don’t make any kind of sense, even if you play by the rules. I’m talking about that £15 set lunch menu of rubbery spaghetti and barely defrosted tiramisu, when all you really needed was a sandwich. Or the infernal airport shuttles that you get in America. Once, in a fit of parsimony, I took the shuttle at New Orleans airport, even though it was 9pm and I’d flown for 12 hours to get there. For $15, it took 90 minutes to reach my hotel (obviously I was the last of eight passengers to be dropped), and I spent as much again on a room service sandwich, because I was too exhausted to go out. The return journey, by taxi, cost $20 and took 25 minutes. At least, on that occasion, I comforted myself with the knowledge that I wasn’t as big a fool as the couple beside me, who, together, had spent $10 more than the taxi fare for the privilege of riding round everyone else’s hotels.

No more false economies, I promised myself last month after a particularly trying early-morning flight. Until I can play these bargains at their own game, I’ll go by the real cost of things.

But then, last week, I saw some flights to Croatia for only £40 return. Even with a checked bag, I decided, it’d still be a bargain.

It was only after I’d booked that I checked the timings. We’re flying out at 6.15am.

Hotels in Stansted aren’t that expensive, are they?

Published in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)