Return of the travel agents: The package holiday is making a comeback

All-inclusive trips booked by travel agents are rising in popularity as holidaymakers seek security

A decade ago it looked like the game was up for travel agents after more than 150 years in the sun. But while big players like JWT and Thomas Cook have gone to the great Club Tropicana in the sky, the chaos of the pandemic and the travel sector’s capacity for reinvention has seen it – improbably – bounce back.*

It would be overstating it to suggest it’s all plain sailing for Ireland’s travel agents now, but a bumper start to 2023 suggests the rollercoaster ride that has lasted more than 150 years has a few twists in it yet.

That rollercoaster started slowly, back in 1841, when Thomas Cook offered his first holiday package. Looking at it now, the 11-mile train journey from Leicester to a temperance meeting in Loughborough doesn’t sound like much craic, not really worth the shilling he charged, but every journey starts with a single step... or a slow moving steam train.

By 1844 Cook was off again, taking people from Leicester to Liverpool, a round-trip of about 240 miles, and by 1855 his wanderlust had spread wider as he ferried folk to Paris via Antwerp, Brussels, Cologne, Heidelberg and Strasbourg.


The high cost of travel and the impoverished state of us – and a couple of world wars – slowed the growth of leisure travel, and for the 100 years that followed, it was exclusive to the mega rich and the poets and dreamers looking to go from here to there on a shoestring.

Things started to take off – literally – with the end of the second World War, and the dramatic improvement in air travel fuelled by wartime technologies retooled for leisure travel. But even then, international jet-setting remained the preserve of the rich, and the notion that a humble Irish person would travel to Spain or Africa or an idyllic Indian Ocean island to lounge by an infinity pool sipping wine (wine of all things!) before returning home tanned and chilled was as unimaginable as having the dinner without potatoes.

But the world was opening up. The first modern-day package holiday was organised in 1950 by Horizon Holidays which flew British tourists to Corsica, and in 1955 a company called Wings started selling two-week packages from the UK to Portugal for 49 guineas – or €1,400 in today’s money. British European Airways – later to become BA – was not having it, probably because it was offering return air fares to Lisbon for about €1,500. It used its influence with the British government to ensure that Wings was fatally clipped.

By the 1980s sun holidays were almost commonplace, as tour operators and travel agencies made hay at home by selling sun far away. Joe Walsh Tours flew pale Irish people with a few bob to Sitges, south of Barcelona and Benidorm before flying them, tanned and sometimes lobster red, home again a fortnight later. In the 1980s Budget Travel was born and made holidays even more accessible.

It was a golden age for travel agents who popped up on every street corner. But then the internet and a little known EU policy known as Open Skies – allowing for unlimited air travel between EU airports, and to anywhere in the US – came along and everything changed utterly.

Less than 30 years ago the idea that Ryanair could challenge tour operators was laughable, but Open Skies broke the flag-carrying airlines’ monopoly and while low-cost carriers focused first on big cities, they soon followed the money and flew to the sun spots too.

Suddenly arranging a two-week holiday on the cheap was not only possible, it was simple. People had direct access to hotels and resorts and were facilitated by platforms such as TripAdvisor, and hundreds more. Then there was Airbnb. More than a decade ago independent bookings started to outstrip travel agency bookings and things looked bleak.

But the agencies held their own and, while many closed, many more adapted.

It may be that the pandemic – which could have been the death of them – will turn out to be the making of them instead. With international travel reduced to levels not seen since Thomas Cook’s heyday, the sector went into a tailspin and scrambled to survive. But then it proved its worth. People who had booked flights, accommodation and car hire independently struggled to get home and to get refunds. By contrast, those who had booked package deals were largely protected, and able to roll bookings over from 2020 into 2021 and often into 2022.

But the security doesn’t kick in only in the event of a global pandemic; booking with a travel agent also gives you the knowledge you are covered in the event of missed connections, airline failures, or repatriation if there is a problem travelling.

That sense of security should things go wrong is said by multiple travel industry sources to be behind the resurgence in the sector, which has seen its value soar. According to the Commission for Aviation Regulation, Ireland’s tour operators and travel agents had turnover of €1.3 billion last year, less than the independent travel sector but still pretty robust.

“Consumers are still booking independently, but they are also booking with travel agents and as a sector we are very much alive,” says Paul Hackett, president of the Irish Travel Agents Association (ITAA) and owner of online travel agency Click & Go.

“The draw is service and speaking to a real person,” he says. “There is one point of contact and one person responsible for your holiday. Think back to Covid. If you had booked everything yourself, you were on your own chasing refunds, but with travel agents there was one point of contact. People also value service and experience as well as the protection. And they are getting that for the same price as doing it themselves, so why bother with DIY?”

When The Irish Times pushes back on the price point and suggests that surely the DIY model is cheaper, Hackett is adamant. “We are buying in bulk and linked into bed banks. The hotels might say book direct for the best deals, but that is not always the case because the suppliers book thousands of rooms. The hotels simply can’t rely on direct bookings.”

He points to one particular all-inclusive couples deal in Majorca for the summer, priced at €499 per person. “There is just no way you could match that price by doing it yourself.”

We gave it a go. The cost of the room for two adults for the same dates in May when booked independently came in at just over €694 on an all-inclusive basis. The flights for two to Palma with Aer Lingus, meanwhile, came in at €413, taking our total to €1,107 or €553 per person, and that’s without connections.

So, that’s 1-0 to the travel agents.

Hackett also highlights the option of paying a deposit to secure a holiday, and points out that would-be holiday makers can secure a holiday for as little as a euro and pay it off in stages. Such bookings can also include a degree of peace of mind – particularly in an era of rising prices – with the cost agreed months in advance and elements such as baggage and transfers included.

Speaking of prices, he acknowledges that they have jumped on 2019 levels. “This year will be in line with last year, but 10-20 per cent more than 2019. That is because of higher input costs up and down the supply line, from aviation fuel to the costs faced by hotels and restaurants.”

He says people are booking earlier this year, and are more “flexible and looking for destination with the best value for the money”.

And where might that be? “In the summer it is the Canary Islands because they are open 12 months and can aggressively price for the summer.”

While Hackett will obviously highlight the positives of package holidays, there are negatives too. For many holidaymakers the experience lacks authenticity, and it can be harder to get off the beaten track, although there are agencies that actively facilitate that type of travel.

Travel agents also insist that because they buy in bulk, customers get better value and while that can be true in many circumstances, it is not always the case, particularly if you are flying to airports well served by low-cost carriers. And the protection piece – while important – can be overstated, and good travel insurance is cheap and covers most people for most eventualities.

Cassidy Travel has been selling Irish people holidays for 38 years, and last year recorded its best year ever. This January also proved to be the busiest start to a year. Director John Spollen says security has been key to driving bookings, although he insists there’s more to it. “We have been here for such a long time that we have a rapport with most suppliers and have preferential rates. Then there’s the convenience. It is a hassle-free and time-saving way of planning and booking.”

Claire Doherty of the Travel Department has also seen business bounce back faster than anticipated. “We’re not above pre-pandemic levels, but we’re not far off. We didn’t think long haul would recover as quickly as it has, but Egypt, South Africa, the US and Canada are selling well.”

For the Travel Department, which specialises in guided trips, Europe is by far the big seller with Italy, Croatia, Slovenia and Romania particularly popular.

Like Spollen, Doherty reckons security has been key to driving bookings in post-pandemic times, although she is not certain how long that shift in mindset will last.

“We have seen it happen before. We found that after 9/11 or the ash cloud, people realised that when something went wrong, they were on their own if they had booked online. So there was a surge in bookings, but then some went back to booking themselves.”

Covid might, she says, prove to be a more enduring shift. “It was so big and it affected everyone and there are so many stories of people being out of pocket because they didn’t book with a travel agency. I don’t think travel agents will ever disappear, and there will always be people who understand their importance and the fact that the assurances are there and we are bonded and people will not be out of pocket.”

She also says it is “a myth” that agents are more expensive. “We get better rates because we buy in bulk and can pass that on to our customers and you are getting expertise and advice from trained professionals. Our staff are not just pulled in off the street and they have years of experience. You can pick somewhere off the web, but it is not the same.”

Packages worth a look

Vampire week

A common complaint about travel agents is they don’t allow you take the road less travelled. Well, what about a week in Romania passing through imposing mountains, dense forests and medieval towns?

This package includes nights in Sighisoara and Sainaia, Brasov and Bucharest, as well as the chance to follow in the footsteps of Vlad Dracula on guided tours of the town where he was born.

Starting from €1,049 including flights, transfers, tours and mix of half-board and B&B accommodation.

Yes to the Camino

If you would like to find yourself on the pilgrim’s path to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia but don’t know where to start, this bespoke package might be worth a look. Pilgrims enjoy a meet and greet on arrival before being transferred to their hotel to join the group for a welcome dinner. Then it’s time to set off on a self-guided Camino journey with departure dates on the French, Portuguese and Celtic Camino ways.

Starting from €649 per person including flights, accommodation on a B&B basis, transfers and guides.

Lazing in Lagos

The Algarve remains one of the most popular destinations for Irish people with ease of access, glorious weather and comparatively low prices among the big draws. There are an endless number of packages and deals on offer.

This one offers self-catering accommodation in Lagos for two adults and two (small) children. The apartment is 600m from the beaches, 800m from the town centre and 80km from Faro airport.

A fortnight for four including accommodation and flights in the middle of June came in at €3,212.

Maybe Mallorca

Holidays on the Balearic Islands have been particularly popular with Irish people for generations, and the set-up there makes a holiday largely effortless. If you are looking for guaranteed sunshine, easy access to beaches and pools and cheap food and drink, you could do worse than checking out Mallorca. The trick is to find a resort with the most stars you can afford. The Inturotel Sa Marina in Santanyi is a five star option that looks pretty swish.

A week in June for a family of four was €2,070 at the time of writing, including Ryanair flights and a fairly small but okay looking apartment.

Lazing in Lanzarote

With its year-round holiday market, the Canaries are not under so much pressure to make all their money in the summer season so there are deals on the table. The Volcan Lanzarote Hotel looks gorgeous with its low-rise accommodation, swanky pools and adults-only option if you want to steer clear of the sounds of children laughing – and moaning – while you lounge in the sun.

Two weeks in June including flights and accommodation were coming in at €1,293 per person, or €2,585 for a couple, which works out at €184 per day.

* This article was edited on February 27th to remove a reference to Budget Travel – the original Budget Travel company went into liquidation and ceased trading in 2009. The name was bought by Club Travel and the company has been trading under the Budget Travel name in the Irish market since 2010.

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast