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Are Lucky Dip holidays value it?

A luxury summer holiday is off the cards for me this year but a short break overseas is not. The kids are doing their own thing so I feel free to take a gamble on a last-minute bargain.

With passport in hand and an open mind, I log on to the internet hoping to discover a cut-price option for the next day.

Confronted with so much choice, I take the plunge with travel website Skyscanner and press the ‘Explore Everywhere’ button.

Toby Walne in Biarritz in south-west France, an elegant seaside town on the Basque coast

Toby Walne in Biarritz in south-west France, an elegant seaside town on the Basque coast

Biarritz has 20 surf schools where you can learn from ¿les tontons surfeurs¿ so it's no wonder the cheapest deals are hostels aimed at surfers

Biarritz has 20 surf schools where you can learn from ‘les tontons surfeurs’ so it’s no wonder the cheapest deals are hostels aimed at surfers 

‘Lucky Air flights’ that immediately catch the eye include a deal to Oslo in Norway for just £15. But when I tap in dates, the offer suddenly vanishes. 

I find out it was for a one-way trip in September and wonder whether the term ‘Lucky Air flights’ may be a marketing ruse.

I persevere and choose my nearest airport Stansted for my flight out and return – and, hey presto, trips to Ireland from £35 and France £39 appear on screen.

Seeking an exotic spot, a city break in Cork, as wonderful as it might be, is dismissed. 

The cheapest France flight arrives at Bordeaux airport at half past midnight the next day – not ideal for a relaxing getaway. 

Yet it also offers a return to Biarritz for £55, a Basque seaside resort just 30 miles north of Spain.

The cheapest France flight arrives at Bordeaux airport at half past midnight the next day ¿ not ideal for a relaxing getaway

The cheapest France flight arrives at Bordeaux airport at half past midnight the next day – not ideal for a relaxing getaway

Grande Plage beach with Hotel du Palais in the background. Winston Churchill, Pablo Picasso and Charlie Chaplin all stayed here

Grande Plage beach with Hotel du Palais in the background. Winston Churchill, Pablo Picasso and Charlie Chaplin all stayed here

It is an elegant favourite among the French middle-classes and our own royalty rate it too. 

Queen Victoria used to take the reins navigating a carriage around town pulled by a donkey. Other visitors included Winston Churchill, Pablo Picasso and Charlie Chaplin, who all checked in at the Hotel du Palais – taking in La Grande Plage sandy beach below and the glamorous Art Deco casino. 

This five-star hotel was originally built as Villa Eugenie by Napolean III for his wife in 1854 and was renovated into a luxury hotel following the monarch’s downfall in 1870.

I whip out my credit card to book the flights. The website seamlessly switches me to Ryanair. The catch is a 6.20am flight out. Despite only living ten miles from the airport, it still means setting the alarm clock for 4am. 

The 90-minute return home is due in at 10.05pm the following day, so the deal offers two full days of living the French dream.

I resist Ryanair’s attempt to more than double the price with a £76 ‘flexi plus’ option to choose a seat and to carry on board more than a laptop-sized bag. 

This bag can measure no more than 40cm by 20cm x 25cm and must fit under the seat in front of me. It provides just enough room for a laptop, notepad and toothbrush – but not enough for clothes.

The website then announces: ‘Oops, something when wrong’.

When I refresh the page, this apparent technical glitch has raised the total of my flights to £59 despite me agreeing to pay £33 to go out and £22 back.

Unless you travel light, with a bag that fit under the seat and so is free, luggage comes at a hefty extra

Unless you travel light, with a bag that fit under the seat and so is free, luggage comes at a hefty extra

The cost of travel can add up. We now spend an average of £36 per person on snacks, meals, wifi and duty free at the airport

The cost of travel can add up. We now spend an average of £36 per person on snacks, meals, wifi and duty free at the airport

Even so, rolling the dice for a last-minute flight means I may have paid less than the £100 or more I might have expected to pay if I had booked the seat a couple of months earlier.

Nightly rates for Biarritz hotels on Skyscanner start at £49 – providing offers picked from websites such as Booking.com, Expedia and Agoda.

Biarritz has 20 surf schools where you can learn from ‘les tontons surfeurs‘ so no wonder the cheapest deals are hostels aimed at surfers. 

But for £69, I find the two-star Hotel Les Alizes close to the beach – and knock the price down to £62 by visiting the hotel website and booking directly online.

Airbnb is another option and for £49 I can ‘share with Jeff’ – but this kind offer does not appeal.

Incredibly, the biggest bill I face is getting to and from Stansted Airport. It wants £88 for me to park my car for one-night in its nearest short-stay car park. 

So, for just £2 more, I pay £44 for a taxi from home to the airport and £46 back (this includes a £7 surcharge charged by the airport for using its pick-up and drop-off areas that is added to the taxi bill).

The airport also tries to suck money from my wallet as I jostle my way through the gleaming boutique shops and over-priced cafes and restaurants to the departure gate. 

According to Holiday Extras, we now spend an average of £36 per person on snacks, meals, wifi, and duty free at the airport. It says that’s a 37 pc increase in just two years and meals are up around 9 pc in price.

Once on board, I feel rather smug as, despite my bargain tickets, I actually get one of the best spots on the plane. The flight is almost full with mainly French travellers and British holidaymakers who look as if they are jetting off to surf the impressive waves around the Bay of Biscay town.

Arriving at Biarritz is a different world to the over-crowded rip-off left behind. Sailing through passport control, I board a €1.40 (£1.20) bus to the city centre.

Despite having picked up a €3 (£2.50) baguette with ham and cheese for breakfast at a local supermarket, my budgeting comes unstuck at the hotel.

The room is small and depressing, with the sound of the elevator echoing through the wall every time a guest uses it.

Fortunately, hotel receptionist Rebecca is flexible and finds me another room in the three-star Hotel Marbella just next door. I must pay €20 (£17) extra but this provides spacious accommodation with a balcony view of the sea. It is easy to justify splashing out extra after I have been so penny-pinching when booking the flights.

Prices for meals along the seafront are reasonable ¿ ¿20 (£17) for an overflowing plate of locally cured meats with cheese, bread and pickles

Prices for meals along the seafront are reasonable – €20 (£17) for an overflowing plate of locally cured meats with cheese, bread and pickles 

Prices for meals along the seafront are reasonable – €20 (£17) for an overflowing plate of locally cured meats with cheese, bread and pickles or grilled local shrimp, salad and chips. The price of a pint – Basque beer – is €5 (£4). The hotel breakfast buffet costs €14 (£12) and is a shrewd purchase as it lets me skip lunch. The bill for eating and drinking over two days adds up to about the same price as my flights.

Skyscanner is not the only website offering lucky-dip holiday bargains.

Wowcher offers a ‘Mystery Holiday’ from £99 but a key part of this mystery is how they snare customers with images of resorts, such as Barbados in the Caribbean, when the likelihood is you are going to end up being sent somewhere less exotic, such as Bulgaria or Poland. And in summer, you pay at least £129 for your stay.

Opodo also offers flight and hotel packages. Tap on ‘Anywhere, Surprise Me!’ and you can get ‘Prime Hottest Deals’ that include returns to Prague in Czechia this month for €70 (£59) with hotels costing from £80 a night.

Others to consider include Cheeky Trip, which has an ‘Anywhere’ option that might throw up unexpected bargains. For example, flying you to Agadir in Morocco for a seven-night hotel stay with breakfast for £141 this month.

Budget airlines such as Wizz Air often have links to discounted hotels on their websites

Budget airlines such as Wizz Air often have links to discounted hotels on their websites

Budget airlines, such as Wizz Air, also have links to discounted hotels. Press on its ‘Anywhere’ destination link for countries and it throws up unexpected options – such as flying from London Luton Airport to Tirana in Albania for £12.99 each way in September with hotels at £19 a night.

Sometimes in travel, you do get what you pay for but the cut-price gamble on Biarritz proved the perfect getaway offering great value for money.

The cost of flights, hotel and meals for two days ran up to just shy of £200. The real hike in my bill was the shocking cost of getting to Stansted Airport and back – or the official car park fee – adding £90 to the bill.