Webchat with Will Gray
Award-winning travel journalist Will Gray came to Mumsnet for a webchat on 3 July 2008. This is an edited transcript of the session.
Ready-pitched tents in Britain | Beach holiday with sport and history | Budget foreign holidays | Best short-haul for families | Best long-haul for families | Long-haul flights with kids | Keeping babies cool in heat | Family adventure holidays | City breaks with kids | Kids clubs | Holidays for single mums | Sunny spots for autumn half-term | PortAventura | New York | Barcelona
Will Gray: Hi everyone. Thanks for inviting me on to this chat. Looks like there are lots of questions already, so I’ll get cracking…
Camping in Britain in ready-pitched tents
Luckylady74: I was wondering if you know of any ready-set-up tents (like Canvas et al do in the rest of Europe) in the UK. I have looked at Yurts and Featherdown Farms, but would like something a bit cheaper and am happy with basic!
Will Gray: Go Camping offers ready-pitched tents at four locations in Suffolk from £319 a week during the high season. And, if you can stretch your budget (and your legs!), you can join a self-guided cycle tour staying at all four campsites. Each tent comes with four campbeds (plus pillows), fridge, BBQ, electric lights and even somewhere to charge your mobile.
Beach, sport, history: where to find all three?
Luckylady74: I have another question to ask you on behalf of a friend of mine. She would like to go away this summer with her husband and six-year-old son. As her son is an only child who loves sport, a kids club or similar would be ideal. Her husband detests sitting on a beach but loves snorkelling and history – oh, and is also practically a vegan. All my friend wants to do is sit on a beach. The Maldives suited them last year. They've considered the Caribbean but are concerned about hurricanes at this time of year. Egypt will be too hot. On a budget of £2,000, where can they go?
Will Gray: Hmm, I wonder if Croatia might fit the bill? Or, for something further-flung, Zanzibar - it certainly has the mix of beaches, history, kid-friendly resorts and superb snorkeling that your friend is looking for.
Foreign holidays on a budget
Nbg: Any tips on doing foreign holidays on a budget? We went to Majorca in May and the only reason we could go was because someone else came with us and we split the costs. If we'd gone on our own and at a better time in the summer, we couldn't have afforded it.
Will Gray: Nbg, you raise a really important point. I think the whole expense issue is going to be a recurring theme in this discussion. Family holidays aren't cheap but, as you found by splitting costs in Majorca, there are ways you can save money.
Here are some tips I hope you'll find useful:
- Trawl the internet for bargains. It sounds obvious but this is where you’ll find special online deals, which can range from free child places to extra days.
- You can't beat the self-drive, self-catering option for a great-value family holiday. Simply throw some camping gear into the back of your car and mainland Europe is yours for a fraction of the cost of a package deal.
- With preschool children, you can dodge high-season premiums and take them on holiday whenever you choose. But, even when you're confined to school holidays, it is still worth being selective about when you travel. For example, the last week in August is usually cheaper than the first and you may also find that mid-week flights offer better value than weekend ones.
- Choose countries where the pound is strong and the cost of living is low. Turkey and Tunisia, for example, are relatively cheap compared to more traditional Mediterranean destinations such as Greece and Spain. For long haul, consider Brazil and Mexico – both represent excellent value and have plenty to offer families. If it's warm winter beaches you're after, think Goa rather than the Caribbean. And if you're set on a safari, opt for countries such as Namibia or South Africa where it's easier and cheaper to do it yourself, compared to pricier, all-inclusive options in Botswana and Zambia. With two dollars to the pound, the United States is another good bet for eking out the family holiday fund – particularly if you shop around for cheap flights to the east coast.
Best short-haul destinations for families
Rowlers: William, I'd love some advice. We have two children under five and would like a holiday in the sun – not too far away; certainly in Europe. We don't like to be too hot. We like to feel we're abroad and enjoy the experience of another culture but we would rather poke our eyes out than end up in a "resort" (shudder). What's the best way to book a holiday and ensure you get what you think you're going to get? Travel agent? Internet? Recommendation? I'm utterly bewildered by the whole thing so we tend to avoid and go to Wales instead. (We're not wealthy, either.)
Will Gray: Thanks for your question. How about Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia? No, I'm serious! This little trio of Baltic countries has sandy beaches, comfortable summer temperatures (mid-20 degrees), activities such as cycling and canoeing to keep the kids happy, lots of cultural interest, quirky self-catering places to stay, direct flights PLUS they’re good value. According to specialist tour operator Baltic Holidays, "in the Baltics it is possible for a whole family of four to have a three-course meal, with drinks and still have change from a £20 note". But, having said that, if you do end up returning to Wales this summer, I shouldn't worry – we're going camping in Pembrokeshire/the Gower ourselves and I reckon you'd be hard-pressed to find more beautiful and child-friendly beaches anywhere in Europe. Or the world for that matter.
On your second point about what's the best way to book a holiday and ensure you get what you think you're going to get, personal recommendations can be like gold dust. Also, check whether the operator is affiliated to an organisation like AITO, where the members are not only passionate about their destinations and offer advice based on first-hand experience, but they're also bound by a strict code for providing clear and accurate information about their holidays. Good luck this summer, and safe travels.
Best long-haul destinations for families
Willow: Hi Will. If you had to pick somewhere long-haul and 'exotic' that's a) suitable for a family holiday and b) didn't involve taking malaria tablets and having numerous jabs, where would it be? (If such a thing exists?)
Following on from that, where can you go on safari that would suit seven to ten year olds and not necessitate all those meds? And following on from that, what are your thoughts on travelling to malarial areas with kids? Should we just get them to neck the tablets, smother them in bug spray, follow usual precautions and stop worrying?
Will Gray: Two places keep springing to mind as I read your questions: South Africa and Namibia. The Cape Provinces of South Africa are malaria-free, as is the Madikwe/Waterberg region to the northwest of Jo'burg. We’ve taken our twins to both areas and they are fantastic family holiday destinations. If you pick the Cape, for example, you can combine the Cape Peninsula (visiting Two Oceans Aquarium at Cape Town, swimming with penguins at Boulders, seeing Robben Island, taking the cable car up Table Mountain) with a self-drive tour of the Garden Route (dolphin-watching at Plettenberg Bay, shell-seeking at Nature's Valley, taking a steam-train ride at Knysna) and a safari in one of the reserves to the north of Port Elizabeth. Some of the private ones, such as Madikwe and Shamwari, can be pricey but you'll get superb accommodation and wonderful guides who will capture your children's imagination with nuggets of bushlore. In north west South Africa, stay at Madikwe Safari Lodge and your kids can qualify as 'Planet Managers, while Ant's Nest offers a home-from-home experience deep in the African bush. To cap it all, the water wonderland of Sun City makes a convenient stopover en route to your safari.
We found Namibia had similar appeal to South Africa, with a good infrastructure for independent touring and excellent value family accommodation. Windhoek won’t leave your kids gawping (unless they're into German colonial architecture) but Swakopmund is Adrenaline Central, with all kinds of activities, from paragliding and kayaking to dune-boarding and 4x4 tours along the Skeleton Coast.
Malaria is present in northern and eastern parts of Namibia, particularly from November to June, so that may mean you should miss Etosha National Park off your itinerary. Ultimately, though, a family trip to Namibia is about getting sand between your toes (and just about everywhere else). Sossusvlei’s giant sand dunes are the setting for the world’s ultimate roly-poly.
Out of Africa, malaria-free top spots would have to include the northeast coast of Brazil. Praia do Forte Ecoresort has a good range of accommodation and is close to a turtle conservation project. You can learn to snorkel in reef-protected lagoons, visit the Historic District of Salvador, go humpback whalewatching (July to October) and explore the ruins of the medieval Garcia d’Avila castle.
Moving on to your general point about malaria, I think it's too serious to ever stop worrying about it, particularly with very young children who are unlikely to relish the prospect of being smothered in mossie repellant or taking anti-malarials! We've taken our children to malarial zones a few times and, even when you take every precaution (covering up at dusk, treating clothing etc), you still find yourself lashing out at every winged insect that passes within a few feet of them. It's not my job to give medical advice but all I would say is think hard before taking children under five to a malarial zone and always speak to your doctor/health advisor well in advance of your trip.
Surviving long-haul flights with children
Wannabesurfchick: I find the whole concept of travelling with my kids a bit of a nightmare to be honest. Do you have any top tips on how to handle long-haul flights with toddlers? And how not to take half the contents of your house with you?
Will Gray: Ah, long-haul flights with toddlers! I was waiting for this one. Keeping a sense of humour is the best bit of advice I can give you! I could suggest things such as surprise toys to keep them entertained but they drop them, they roll off down the plane and you never see them again. In any case, they’ll be more interested in the detachable headrest covers…
But seriously, here are some of the tips for flying with children that I covered in my book Travel with Kids:
At the time of booking…
- Budget for children under two paying 10% of the adult fare but remember that they have to sit on your lap and are not usually given a food or baggage allowance
- Reserve seats so you can all sit together
- If you are travelling with a baby, request bulkhead seats where bassinets can be fitted (remember to obtain approval from the airline if you want to use your child's car seat on the flight)
- Pre-order children's meals
- Check whether you can take your stroller to the boarding gate and where it will be available again after landing
- Find out what other special children's facilities may be available, such as goodie bags, seat-back entertainment systems etc
- If possible, choose a daytime flight to minimise disturbance to sleeping routines
- Arrange a meet-and-greet service with an airport parking operator such as Purple Parking - you simply drop your car off at departures, someone parks it for you and then has it waiting at arrivals when you get back
Packing for the journey
- Take all your baby essentials in your hand luggage
- Pack a supply of healthy snacks
- Don't forget to take a few sachets of Calpol (infant paracetamol)
- Remember trainer cups with non-spill lids for toddlers
- Have a few boiled sweets handy to help ears pop during the final descent
- Pack a familiar pillow or soft toy to comfort and help children sleep
- Help children to pack their own small in-flight backpack
The day before flying
- Try to keep things calm and normal
- Eat light, bland meals so as not to risk upset stomachs
- Sort out comfortable, loose-fitting clothes for the flight
At the airport
- Get there in plenty of time so you're not stressed out or stuck at the back of a half mile-long check-in queue
- Fit reins on toddlers to give them freedom – safely
- Find out if there's a children's play area
- Before boarding, always check the floor where you've been sitting – a favourite teddy or toy is bound to have been dropped
- Make use of priority boarding for families with young children
During the flight
- Feed your baby on take-off and landing to reduce discomfort caused by changes in cabin pressure
- Don’t be afraid to ask flight attendants for help, warming baby food etc
- Ensure your children drink little and often to ward off dehydration
- Don't drug your child with medicines, such as antihistamines, unless you’ve tried them before flying because although they can help some children sleep, other side-effects include irritability or short-lived deep sleep followed by hyperactivity
- Do try natural relaxants, such as lavender oil or camomile tea
- If the cabin’s dry air causes discomfort to your child’s nose, lips or sinuses, try getting them to breathe through a handkerchief soaked in a little water
- Don't expect a toddler to be absorbed with one activity for the duration of the entire flight - bring lots of toys, books and snacks to distract and amuse them
- Take your kids to the toilet well before the seatbelt signs come on for the final descent
- Respect the comfort of other passengers by dealing firmly with unacceptable behaviour (such as kicking the seat in front) but be prepared for some people to give you the 'raised eyebrow' treatment merely at the sight of your little darlings
- Remember, the more you tell kids not to press the hostess call button the more they will do it
Coping with jetlag
Transcontinental, overnight flights will leave your children flagging but try to keep them going during your first day. Help their body clocks readjust by getting outside, doing some moderate exercise and drinking plenty of water. A few gentle hours in a local park is ideal. There's nothing wrong with them grabbing a short nap but try to get them to bed at the same time as they would go to bed back home. Then just pray that they sleep through!
Tips for keeping your baby cool in the heat
Ginghamgiraffe: I'm not looking for destination advice, as my husband and I are heading to southern Italy at the weekend for a fortnight, where the temperature is in the 30s mostly at the moment. This chat has come just in time for me, though, as we're going with my three-and-a-half-month-old, who's a precious first-born, which makes me a clueless first-timer! Any top tips on how to keep him cool?
Will Gray: Great to get your question. We took our twins to Naples and Puglia when they were 15 months old, so a bit older than your son, but I can completely sympathise with your dilemmas. I'm sure you've already thought (and packed!) lots of these but, for keeping your baby cool, I recommend you:
- Take a sun canopy/parasol for your buggy
- Dress him in loose 100% cotton clothing
- Avoid the midday sun - in Naples, we often sought out churches and cloisters – always cool and shady
- Check out The Kids Window – they have a range of sun-protection suits, hats, creams and baby sunglasses for babies
- Pack an SPF-50 beach tent/UV tent – great for instant shade wherever you are
And here's another nifty idea (although we haven’t tried this one ourselves): it's called Wallaboo, an infant car-seat cover that absorbs heat and keeps babies cool.
Family adventure holidays
Yellow Brick Road: I didn't have chance to travel much before my children were born and I'd still love to visit India, China and South America, to name a few. I'm not an independent traveller and have looked at tours with family-adventure travel companies but my children are six and one and the minimum age to travel is often eight. What can I do in the meantime that will help to satisfy my lust for travel but is suitable for my children? Where would you recommend?
Will Gray: Great to hear you've still got the wanderlust! You're absolutely right, most family-adventure operators have a minimum age, although it's often as low as five or six. There are one or two companies, however, that offer 'infant adventures' for families with children as young as two. If you can wait for your one year old to reach that age, then Families Worldwide and The Adventure Company can whisk you off to places such as Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and Sri Lanka. Families Worldwide, for example, currently has a nine-day trip (minimum age two) to Sri Lanka, based at a south-coast beach club with optional excursions inland from around £899 per adult and £769 per child, including flights.
How to do city breaks with kids
Tenmoreminutes: I'd love to go to Italy but I have two small children. Any top tips on how to keep kids entertained on a city break? Also, is there such a thing as a cheap city break? Even two nights seems to be a small fortune…
Will Gray: I suppose, more than anything, the city break embodies those heady days of pre-parenthood when, as a carefree couple, you could nip off to Paris or Rome with nothing more than an overnight bag. You could dawdle over lunch, go shopping and take in an art gallery or two. But with youngsters in tow, it can become more like a city breakdown as you haul your bored offspring from one museum to another, desperately trying to do the sights between tantrums. The mistake new parents make (and I am as guilty as any) is to try to recapture the essence of a city break as it was before they had children. It rarely works.
The key to remaining sane in the city, we've found, is to reprioritise. Don't scour the city map for galleries and museums until you've pinpointed the parks, public toilets, family-friendly restaurants and nearest toy shop. As tempting as that new Picasso exhibition may be, begin your city escapade with something for the kids, whether it's a hands-on exhibition, a boat ride, a trip to the zoo or brass rubbings in the cathedral. With a bit of forward-planning, you can also pick out those major sites that have child-friendly activities, such as quiz sheets, craft areas, interactive exhibits etc.
The cost? Yes, you're right, family accommodation in cities can be horrendously expensive. But there are alternatives. In Paris, for example, Eurocamp has a site in Maison Lafitte with excellent rail connections to the city centre, from £241 for seven nights in a two-bedroom mobile home.
Kids clubs: necessary or not?
OverMyDeadBody: It's not necessary to go to places with specific children's features and entertainment, is it? Kids have fun anywhere. Surely it's nothing more than another way to make us part with our money and make the cost of the holiday spiral upwards?
Will Gray: You're absolutely right - kids can have just as much fun building a sandcastle for free in Lyme Regis as they can being entertained in a kids club at a five-star resort on Antigua! Different families want different things…
Holidays for single mums with larger families
MarsLady: So, William, how about traveling alone with five children ranging between the ages of four and 16? Any suggestions – other than 'stay home, you fool!'?
Will Gray: Sounds like you've got your hands full! You’re obviously going to be watching your budget, so look out for companies that offer single-parent holiday discounts. I know I've already mentioned Eurocamp on this chat (I’m not being biased, honest!) but they not only offer such discounts, they also might well provide the kind of holiday that will keep your tribe happy. They've got kids clubs for children aged 5 to 13-plus, some great locations across Europe and some late availability for this summer. Their packages can be combined with rail travel so you don't have to drive either.
Sunny spots for October half-term break
Bizageza: What suggestions do you have for a warm holiday (ideally with seaside swimming) in the October half term? Having endured one British summer too many, I think we'll need something to brighten us up. Our children are two-and-a-half, seven and nearly ten.
Will Gray: In October, it's still going to be warm in Crete and other southern Med destinations. For something more exotic (but not flying too far in half term), you could consider Egypt or Jordan, neither of which will still have the stifling temperatures of mid-summer. Plenty of Red Sea resorts have excellent children's facilities. Dubai would also be a good bet, too: loads to keep the kids occupied (the Wild Wadi water park, just for one example) and some amazing hotels.
PortAventura: holiday parks
Custardo: I want to go to PortAventura. Any advice, tips, cheapo sites to book with?
Will Gray: Check out this for a good deal. Also, Siblu have two holiday parks on the Costa Daurada. The Cambrils Park is a beautifully landscaped holiday park with a fantastic pool complex that has waterslides and squirting elephants! Onsite facilities include tennis, football, mini-golf and a Tiger Club for five to 12 year olds, while the beach (800m away) has a range of water sports. Self-catering is a piece of cake, thanks to the park's bakery and supermarket, and there's also a restaurant and takeaway for eating out. From around £300, based on two adults and up to three children sharing a two-bedroom Esprit+ holiday home for seven-nights.
As for the theme park itself, there are five lands to explore: China, the Far West, Polynesia, Mexico and (for a thinly veiled dose of reality) the Mediterranean. With no less than eight loop-the-loops, the Dragon Khan rollercoaster used to be the ultimate thrill ride at Port Aventura, but then along came Furius Baco, which accelerates its passengers from 0 to 135kph in three seconds. More stomach-clutching moments are available on Hurakan Condor, a 42-storey free-fall tower.
Families with younger children will find plenty of softer options, including the Sea Odyssey submarine ride, spinning Armadillos and the South Pacific dance show. In addition to three onsite hotels, PortAventura also boasts the Caribe Aquatic water park.
GeraldineMumsnet: Just to remind everyone that Siblu is a Mumsnet partner and offers a 5% discounts, plus an extra discount if you book online. Use the code MUMNET when booking.
Child-friendly places in New York
Sara75: Hi Will, I will be in New York for about ten days in late August. Are there any places you would recommend us to visit – or not? We are travelling with our five-month-old daughter and it is a new experience for us as she is our first child. I was wondering if there are family-friendly, affordable restaurants and attractions you would recommend.
Will Gray: Wow, sounds like a great trip! With a five month old (not yet crawling or walking), you'll need to consider the best way of getting around New York. Obviously, you'll want your buggy/stroller, but I'd also suggest a papoose/baby carrier for extra manoeuvrability and also to get her above 'exhaust pipe level' as much as possible. With a child of this age, city breaks can still be quite 'grown-up'. Your daughter will (hopefully!) be content to be wheeled around the odd gallery or museum – perhaps during her daytime nap. Many of the city's child-friendly attractions are geared for slightly older children (toddlers and up): the American Museum of Natural History and Children's Museum of Manhattan, for example, are full of interactive activities. One place I'd definitely make a beeline for is Central Park where you can visit the Children's Zoo (64th St) or simply find a shady spot to roll out a rug and relax. For restaurants, I'd recommend reading Frommer's New York City with Kids by Holly Hughes.
Must-sees and must-dos in Barcelona
Batters: I'm going to Barcelona with my daughter, aged ten, and my partner, aged aged a lot older. Any top tips?
Will Gray: With its pavement mosaics, street performers and market stalls, the 1km pedestrian thoroughfare of La Rambla is a good starting point for exploring Barcelona. At the harbour end, the 80m tall Monument a Colom offers views towards the otherworldly spires of Gaudí's Sagrada Família, while nearby Port Vell has an aquarium, IMAX cinema and even a moored submarine. A second day in Barcelona could easily be spent exploring Castell de Montjuïc (reached by cable-car) and the open-air cultural museum of Poble Espanyol. As a reward for all that city sightseeing, take the funicular to the Tibidabo funfair. Get hold of a Barcelona Card (available from tourist office) for free public transport as well as discounted entry to attractions. Have a great trip!