A Week in Crete – How did that happen?

I wonder who this is?I found myself, one morning in mid-April, with the heating on full blast, the rain machine-gunning the windows, and I am fed up. So I idly turned to Skyscanner. I don’t know if you are aware of this website but for those that aren’t, it is the absolute business for finding cheap flights. It is particularly effective when you are flexible about when and where you are thinking of going. This is because it allows you to search using the widest possible criteria. And by wide, I do mean wide. Start off by searching for flights from anywhere in the UK. You fill in the search fields as follows. In the ‘from’ box put ‘UK’, and in the ‘to’ box put ‘everywhere’. Then adjust the date boxes to ‘whole month’. You will be presented with a list of countries and the cheapest available return flights over the next 30 days. Now many of these will be of no interest whatsoever, possibly because the UK departure airport is hundreds of miles away, or because you simply have no desire to go to, say Norway in April, no matter how cheap the flight.

Ah, that's who she is!But I can almost guarantee that somewhere among the flights listed will be something to whet the appetite. I have just followed the steps above and found that I could indeed get a return flight to Norway for £31. (Travel research was conducted on 11th May 2012). But I also note that I could have three days in Venice for flight costs of £32. The return flights to Greece start at £40 (Stansted to Araxos), through Mykonos at £69 (Gatwick), then Skiathos also £69 (Birmingham).

Of course you can also search with much tighter guidelines, including from a single specified airport to another. However, you can save literally hundreds of pounds by the simple introduction of some flexibility into your planning. This includes some flexibility in your travel dates. To illustrate this, today’s prices indicate that I could book a week in Corfu departing from East Midlands on 16th May for £120. If I insisted on departing on 18th May, two days later, the flight cost would be £321.  Flexibility in departure airports can also be kind to your wallet. For example, the expensive £321 flight above would be reduced to £219 simply by travelling on the same day from Birmingham, or £166 travelling from either Bristol or Manchester. Flexibility will genuinely reward you.

So, back to my rainy day in mid-April. I found a return flight from East Midlands to Crete Heraklion for £79. This indeed whetted my appetite, most particularly when I discovered on the internet that the current temperature there was 24 degrees. If you intend to follow up and actually make a booking, you now have to inject some urgency into the process. Flight prices can change on an hourly basis. However, there is no point in booking a flight until you have established that you will be able to secure suitable and affordable accommodation. This means more research on the internet. Trivago is pretty good, but my preferred site based upon consistently good results is Travelrepublic. Sure enough, they produced the goods again. Probably because it was the very first week of the season, they could offer the four star Iberostar Hermes hotel, on an all inclusive basis, for £229. Decision time, and a prompt decision is required if I am to obtain the £79 flight price. I made the decision and booked the flight and the hotel.

The walk down to the harbour from my hotelThe costs don’t end there of course. The Iberostar Hermes is in a place called Agios Nikolaos and it transpires that this is around 60 kilometres from the airport at Heraklion. Travelrepublic offered me a coach transfer to and from the hotel for around £18.50, so I also booked that. Additionally, I needed to organise car parking at East Midlands. My preferred method of doing this is to take one of the hotel ‘overnight stay plus parking’ offers that are available. After some research, I plumped for the ‘mystery hotel’ option available through holidayextras. This covered car parking for the duration of my trip plus an overnight stay prior to my early morning flight, and cost £65.

So how did it all go? I must still confess some amazement that it is possible to sit in your own home and book flights, hotels, transfers, and car parking from various different companies and for it all to work. Each company emails you a voucher for their particular service and you print this off on your own printer at home. If you think about it, there are a lot of component parts. You have a voucher for your airport overnight stay plus your car parking. This, in turn generates your transportation between the hotel and the airport. Then there is a voucher for your flight. Another for your transfer from the foreign destination airport to your hotel. And yet another for the hotel. And of course, you will need them all again for the reverse journey. The essential difference between doing it this way and booking a package is that you will have no local representation in the resort. There will be no ‘holiday rep’ to turn to if things go wrong.

The ‘mystery hotel’ turned out to be The East Midlands Hilton. I parked the car, checked in, and gave them my flight numbers and booked transportation to East Midlands Airport at 6.45am the next morning. It all worked fine. The Hilton is not the closest hotel to the airport and the transfer takes about 10 minutes in a minibus. It is a well oiled operation, and my transfer was on time and worked well. So far so good.

My flight was with Thomas Cook and all went smoothly. Within half an hour I had checked in and was through security and in the departures lounge. A big positive at East Midlands Airport is that there is an official outdoor smoking area just off the departures lounge. I am surprised that more airports don’t make the effort. It will be of no consequence to non smokers, and everyone ends up happy. The flight was on time and all went well.

The main hotel pool is on the 5th Floor - with stunning viewsAt Heraklion, I presented myself at the nominated desk together with my voucher. My name was ticked off, and I was directed to coach number 4 in the car park. There, my name was ticked off again, and I just had time for a cigarette before we set off with the coach about half full. Initially, it was a bit of a tedious transfer. But after about 45 minutes, we had dropped everyone else off and we were still about 30 kilometres from Agios Nikolaos. The driver then invited me to sit in the guide seat at the front. “It’s OK to smoke now”, he said, lighting up, “I now take you the scenic route”. Very good it was too.

I eventually got to the hotel in the late afternoon. Check-in went fine and I was allocated room 408. Now, I have stayed with Iberostar a couple of times before, and I rate them as one of the best mid/upper holiday hotel chains. In general, they go out of their way to ensure that their guests are comfortable. There are two kinds of room at the Iberostar Hermes, sea view (the majority), and non sea view. Presumably, because I was on a deal, I was allocated a non sea view room. I was told that for an extra 20 Euros a night the reservation manager ‘might’ be able to find me a sea view. It soon turned out that this was absolute rubbish. I went for dinner on the first evening and counted precisely 16 fellow diners. The hotel was practically empty, and they must have had dozens of empty sea view rooms. It is my view that they missed the opportunity to have an extremely satisfied guest who would have been shouting their praises from the rooftops. In all other respects the hotel was excellent, and I certainly can’t complain about three good meals a day, plus refreshments and snacks and comfortable accommodation for £229.

I woke one morning to discover this monster had pulled into town!Incidentally, within the Eurozone, I would always seek to go All Inclusive. This is because resorts across Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece have jacked up prices higher and higher and higher. The reason for this will be obvious, landlords of desirable bars and restaurants will have pushed rents up more and more every year, and this is reflected in the prices that tenants have to charge customers in order to generate profit. The cheapest small beer I found in Agios Nikolaos was 3 Euros, almost £2.50, and restaurant food was expensive as well. I am not saying that you should not go out and enjoy the local facilities, but it is good to also have the back-up of an All Inclusive policy in your hotel.

The resort of Agios Nikolaos is a pleasant typical Greek harbour town. The harbour itself is five minutes walk from the hotel and is picturesque. There are plenty of places to sit and watch the world go by with a coffee or a beer. It is not really a youngsters resort, like Hersonissos. During the week I was there, there were two cruise ships docked for the day so that might indicate the flavour. All in all, a good place for a relaxing holiday. I am not sure I would want to go for a fortnight.

A more reasonably sized cruise liner. Very luxurious I am told.At the end of the week the coach appeared at exactly the time that it was supposed to. This time it was a more arduous trip which seemed to take forever. The coach was full by the time we got to the airport at Heraklion, and in fact, we were dropped off only an hour before the scheduled take off time. As it turned out, this didn’t matter because the flight was late, but we did have a bit of a rush getting checked in. Then we sat around being given no information whatsoever until we began boarding an hour late

Typical early evening harbour view. The excursion boats are all back.To be fair to the Thomas Cook pilot he managed to make up 30 minutes of the delay, and we landed back at East Midlands at 00.45am in the morning. I rang the Hilton and was told to wait by the information desk in Arrivals. This is a simple and sensible arrangement as it is easier than trying to find some vaguely specified bus stop, which is the method applied by some hotels. The minibus turned up reasonably quickly. There were three of us and there was some delay as the driver was apparently expecting five people. I eventually got back to my car and drove home. Once again, the mechanics of a trip, entirely sourced on the internet, had worked perfectly.

And finally..........?