If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I am fiercely independent when it comes to booking travel. Planning and booking trips is one of my favourite things to do, so you’ll find me poring over accommodation, comparing flights and checking out as many available activities as I can, as well as scoping out the best (read: quirkiest) restaurants and bars.
I’m not sure I could ever do an all-inclusive holiday as I would feel too restricted. It would feel like a waste going out to another restaurant for food if we can eat for free in the hotel. It’s great for people who simply want to go and relax in the sun and do absolutely nothing for a week without seeing any of the area, but for me, I can’t think of anything worse.
It was with trepidation, then, that I actually looked up some package holidays for various destinations before we finally settled on Malta.
Now to be fair, as I looked through the lists of resort-type hotels, in my exhausted state they started to look more and more appealing. We could really do with a trip to just relax.
However I wanted the best of both worlds – booking the whole lot in one click, while still having the option to explore as much or as little as we wanted.
Choosing the destination
Without trying to sound like a travel snob, not many of the most popular tourist destinations from the UK really appeal to me – Tenerife, Majorca, Lanzarote, Benidorm? I can’t slate any of them, because I’ve never been.
Originally, I was looking at the Algarve (which I love), Madeira (which only flies once a week from Edinburgh, and not even at weekends), Turkey (a new country for us) and Malta (another new country and somewhere a bit different).
Like everything, it really depends what you want out of the trip. If we wanted a holiday where we barely left the hotel, we wouldn’t have picked Malta. We would have gone somewhere we had no real interest in exploring. As that type of holiday doesn’t appeal to me anyway, we wanted somewhere that had a mix of being able to get out and do things, but not so full-on that we’d have no time to relax.
And so it was: Malta.
I had been looking at Jet2 as a couple of my friends swear by them, but while they do offer package holidays to Malta, they don’t fly there from Edinburgh.
I ended up booking through Thomas Cook, forgetting of course that Thomas Cook the airline went bust.
Therefore, our flights were with… Ryanair.
In true Ryanair fashion, Ash and I were sat separately on both flights, so even booking it as part of a package didn’t give us any extras like choosing our own seats (and I refuse to pay extra for that). The only extra was that one of us had an overhead cabin bag included (as opposed to the free under-seat bag), however as part of this, you also get speedy boarding. For one person. So we couldn’t even board together.
If I was to book this particular holiday again, I would look into just booking it all separately and compare the price.
However, if we were to book a package holiday again, I’d definitely look at a provider like Jet2.
(As an aside, I’ve seen a lot of feedback that the customer service from Jet2 throughout the pandemic has been consistently outstanding, so I would be happy to support them to one of their destinations instead!)
This was the one part that provided a lot of value to us, as we would probably have had to get a taxi otherwise.
Normally when we arrive at a destination, I’m more than happy to rely on public transport, but here we were staying more than just a bus ride away from the airport, and we weren’t just staying in the city either.
I also enjoyed our journey, surprisingly, as the driver practically gave us a tour as he dropped people off just outside Valletta, through Sliema and St Julians, and north to Bugibba where we were staying. He gave us some history, pointed out restaurants we should try as we passed, and even gave us tips on which buses to catch and where to go.
It was a nice welcome to Malta that we wouldn’t have got if we were just getting on a bus and finding our own way.
The only downside is you’re restricted to their times – rather than a straight shot to our hotel, we dropped off at about five other hotels before ours, and then on leaving, we were picked up over three hours before our flight.
(I’m sure most people would be fine with that, I would just have been happy with longer for breakfast instead of having to sit in the airport for hours.)
Ordinarily, I would shortlist a whole bunch of options for accommodation and then whittle it down to the final contenders and liaise with Ash over what we want.
That’s kind of what we did with the packages overall, but as long as the hotel had good reviews and looked nice, we weren’t being too picky.
We could have gone for a plush all-inclusive resort round the corner, or a massive hotel in the heart of the party district of St Julians, but instead we opted for a mid-range hotel with a rooftop pool.
Again, I think it totally depends on preference – we didn’t want somewhere that would be massively busy with hundreds of guests fighting over sun loungers, or with a pool full of kids, nor did we want somewhere with no soul whatsoever.
We went for Hotel Santana in Bugibba, far enough from Valletta to be away from it all, and close enough to be able to get there easily.
It didn’t feel like a big resort hotel, which for me was a bonus. They offered all-inclusive packages, but their drinks were insanely cheap anyway – we went to their bar for happy hour, unintentionally, and ended up having four drinks, including two cocktails, for 6€!!? Even their normal prices were fantastic, most cocktails were around 5€ and we had a quick lunch one day which was under 3€ for a sandwich. I was really impressed, and I was definitely starting to see the appeal of not leaving the hotel.
However – and this is exactly why I couldn’t go for an all-inclusive – we never ate in their restaurant once. Breakfast was great, with a full spread of buffet goodness, and it was nice to see the return of buffet breakfasts.
Our room was nice, though we were on the ground floor so perhaps didn’t get the full effect of our balcony. The service was fantastic, the waiter in the bar was always friendly and making jokes.
Their outdoor pool is pretty small, and it was actually being worked on when we arrived, so we didn’t get to hang out by it on our first day. It was also slightly too chilly to actually swim outside, but that was okay as there was an indoor pool too. And it was warm enough to lay on a sun lounger and read a book, which is exactly what we did every morning.
They also had spa treatments on offer as well as activity deals and a gift shop. It wasn’t all in your face, but it was there if you wanted it.
Another point for me to consider was the area it’s in. I found with the Algarve, for example, that not all resort towns were created equal, and there were some I would much rather have spent time in than others, which is something I would consider a lot if we were to do an Algarve holiday.
Malta is exactly the same.
I suspect a lot of people don’t really care as they’re there for the sun, and it’s not like you have to worry about getting there is a transfer is included.
Bugibba / Qawra seemed like a pretty typical tourist town with plenty on offer, and easy links to the rest of the island. We could get direct buses to Valletta and Mdina, and there are boat trips to Comino and Gozo leaving from the town. I wasn’t expecting to love the town, but it was convenient and we didn’t need to be in the heart of everything.
However, and this is a big however – I wouldn’t stay in Bugibba again. It felt tired and run-down, while simultaneously having endless construction work going on. Unless you are there for an all-inclusive relaxing holiday where you’re not bothered about leaving your hotel, I would recommend checking out a different area!
Overall, it was an average service, but it did the job. Thomas Cook appears to be the broker rather than the operator, as the shuttles were run by a local company, and a representative arranged a meeting at our hotel to book any activities while we were there as well as the shuttle back to the airport, however she wasn’t from Thomas Cook, she was from a local tour company.
This was the only part I didn’t really like. Obviously, they’re there to sell you things.
Also, I was in the lobby on the first day to meet them, and despite being there ten minutes early, no one ever arrived. I saw a group of women squealing and laughing in the bar, which appeared to be some sort of meeting, but I didn’t think that was them as they’d already been in there when I went to the lobby.
Anyway, it must have been, because I had a number for the rep, and I messaged her just to say I must have missed her, and I didn’t need to book any excursions, I just wanted to confirm our flight transfer. I gave her the details, and her response was “well I was there. Don’t know how you missed me. I will be back again tomorrow morning.” Wtf??!
So I went back the next morning, and several people were waiting in the lobby with me this time. She turned up on the dot and took us all through to the bar. I honestly wonder if I’d been given the wrong time for the day before?
Anyway, she handed us a brochure from 2018 (Ash only noticed this afterwards hahaha), and directed us to various pages while telling us we absolutely needed to book a tour to Comino and Gozo. They were 30€ each which isn’t too bad considering I’d booked it online for 25€ each, and a few people booked with her. (However I will say we saw their boat the day we did the tour, and ours was far, far nicer!)
She was also really helpful in telling us what buses we could get around the island, so she wasn’t all about selling tours, which was good.
This is usually the big appeal of a package holiday abroad – the price!
We paid £440 in total – £220 each, for flights, five nights in a nice hotel, and return transfers!
Let’s consider for a minute that our trip to Lewis & Harris for the same length of time last year cost us more than that, and that was independent with our own car.
I don’t know if I could have got it cheaper booking it all separately, and to be honest I didn’t even think to check. But I will say that they can offer some really good value deals!
Would I recommend a package holiday?
Despite my anticipated grievances, I do think package holidays are a good way to go, especially if you don’t want to worry about choosing where to stay. I definitely wouldn’t be averse to booking another one, which makes Ash pretty happy as he says we should try to do more relaxing holidays!
I still wouldn’t go all-inclusive, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned. I love discovering the cultures of new places, meeting locals, eating varied types of local food, and getting out and about, and we wouldn’t have got that from staying in our hotel for the whole holiday.
This was the perfect mix as it took some of the stress out of booking and researching everything, but gave us enough flexibility to make the holiday completely our own.