Choosing a family-friendly holiday

 

Sticks of striped rockOff anywhere nice this year? Funny how your whole definition of 'nice', holidaywise, changes when you become a parent. Suddenly, it's judged not so much by the whiteness of the sand and blueness of the sea as the availability of the cot and the twistiness of the swimming-pool slides.

Home or abroad? | Self-catering | Hotels | Holiday village | Camping | Skiing | Holidays with friends | Childcare

Thankfully, Mumsnet is full of parents who've already travelled to all sorts of places with children in tow, (more or less) survived – and maybe even enjoyed it. If you check out our Travel board, you'll find masses of helpful advice on shorthaul, longhaul and UK holidays, as well as weekend breaks, skiing, camping and cruising – not to mention some very useful General travel advice/tips. Don't even think about booking anything without having a read and/or post first.

It's definitely also worth knowing that being a Mumsnetter qualifies for various discounts with our Travel partners: check our discount page for details of the latest deals.

Foreign climes or stay in Blighty?

Gone are the days when you could just stick a pin in a world map, shrug on a rucksack and head to the airport. Now you are travelling with children, your choice of holiday destination largely depends on how long a journey you can survive without a feed/tantrum/parental breakdown.

"I usually come back from holiday needing a holiday." belgo
"I usually come back from holiday needing a divorce." morningpaper

Given the wonders of aviation, your maximum-lasting-it-without-losing-it calculation may well mean you could stretch to a trip overseas but, before you get the passports out (and don't forget that children need them, too), you should give some child-sized thoughts to...

  • The weather. Much as you may love the brilliant sunshine and scorchingly hot sands of the world's more exotic places, neither is exactly ideal for small children who tend to burn, wilt and dehydrate far more quickly than grown-ups.

"Before we had kids we used to go somewhere hot every year. With two small, fair-haired, sweaty children, it just doesn't seem worth it." Bozza

If you're still dead set on heading somewhere really hot (or actually even moderately hot), do make sure you're properly clued up about sun protection and heat stroke. And if you're plumping reluctantly for Britain's more, er, sun-challenged shores, cheer yourself up with the knowledge that most small children's idea of holiday fun has absolutely nothing to do with the weather...

"Want to know what we've learned about toddler holiday must-dos? Relaxing at glorious sun-drenched villa: nope. Puddle-jumping in Devon drizzle: tick!" juliab

  • The getting-there factor. There's nothing quite so wonderful as leaving the UK on a drab and dreary day and then clambering down the plane steps several hours later into gloriously exotic warmth and colour. Unless you've spent every single second of those several hours trying to stop your offspring wailing/kicking seats/loudly shouting about "that fat lady with the funny hair" across the aisle.
"You will have a great time, as long as you accept that you are paying for a 14-night holiday but will actually get maybe six nights of calm, two nights transferring back in the dead of night, two nights on the toilet with D&V and four nights up all night while the rest of the family vomit all over you. So long as you know them's the rules, you will be fine." (Squiffy)

Blissfully portable (generally) babies aside, the smaller your child, the less ambitious you should be about journey times. You can get a rough idea of how long it takes to get to Mumsnetters' favourite holiday hotspots by reading our Destination Guides.

"But don't forget to add in the waiting around time at airports - and transfers at the other end. Both of which can be hellish with squirmy toddlers." (threadneedle)

For some Mumsnetters, jetting off anywhere with a child under four is too stressful to contemplate, but most would agree that a short-haul flight (four hours tops) is just about bearable, sanity (and tutting-fellow-passenger) wise. Impressively, a few brave souls have managed to fly en famille as far as Mauritius or Malaysia by cannily booking overnight flights and persuading their progeny to sleep most of the way.

The food/lingo/culture. Yep, all that different and interesting stuff that actually attracts us adults to a different country - well, it ain't necessary going to do it for your child. Which is definitely something to remember should you ever find yourself justifying an expensive jaunt somewhere tropical with the words "it'll be such an educational experience of the kids"...

"We took ours for a six-week tour of the Caribbean last year; we had a great time, and so did they, but, when my daughter was asked about the best part of her holiday she said, 'I went to the park and had an ice-cream.'" Prufrock

"Spain, Italy or France are good with small children and the flights aren't too long. Especially Italy. Your children will be treated like royalty in Italy and ours love it there." LyraSilvertinsel

You can, of course, prepare your children a little for the "newness" of foreign climes – by cooking some local-style food for them before you travel, for example.

You can also prepare yourself by asking other Mumsnetters on Talk for their tips on everything from nappy brands to baby-food supplies in the country you're planning to visit. But there are other things, from an unfamiliar language ("My daughter spent the whole time trying to talk to other children she's spied as potential friends and they just looked at her blankly") to finding provisions ("At least in this country, I know I can get everything I need") that you might decide are overseas-holiday "dealbreakers" – at least until your child is older.

What type of holiday?

Self-catering

Lovely as it would be not to have to lift a saucepan while you're away, self-catering cottages, villas and caravan parks are actually a pretty good pick for family holidays - especially if your kids aren't old enough yet to usefully synchonise their tummy rumbles with a hotel-meals timetable.

"Self-catering is definitely easier with toddlers because they snack through the day – and you can cater for their weird or fussy tastes." Slur

Also, if you've got littlies who go to bed early, a house/flat/caravan of your own should give you enough space to be able to have a little time to yourself once they're asleep.

"Some form of self-catering is nicer when they are very young, so that you don't have to all go to bed at the same time. I like some time to sip a glass of wine and read a book." martianbishop

"Top tip: look for self-catering that has cleaning included in the price." LyraSilvertinsel

Of course, self-catering does mean you'll still have pretty much the same kind of chores you have at home. But it absolutely doesn't follow that the only holiday garb you need to pack are rubber gloves and a pinny.

"Just lower your standards: they won't die of malnutrition if you give them pesto pasta every day for a week." RonanTheBarbarian

One thing worth bearing in mind when booking your self-catering jaunt, though, is whether there'll be other children nearby. Babies and toddlers are usually perfectly content in a secluded villa with only you for company but, from preschooler age and up, there's a lot to be said for picking some kind of cluster/complex where there'll be other children of the same age to run about with (and child-friendly facilities for them to run about in).

"Holiday parks can be great: free swimming pool, and the kids make friends and enjoy the disco and clubs." JiminyCricket

"Yes, kids can play out the front with other kids on bikes, and you can drink wine with other parents." codthemod

Hotels

Hotel upsides? No washing up, shopping, cooking, making the bed, cleaning the bath. Downsides? Your children may not like the food or the set-up and, given that small children generally don't hold back with their opinions, you may not like the public humiliation of mid-meal breakdowns and mid-foyer tantrums.

"Try and anticipate what stage your child might be at by the time you go on holiday - we took a babe in arms to a swanky hotel and it was fine. We rebooked to go back six months later, by which time he was crawling, and it was chaos." Penstemon

"Hotels can be OK if you're lucky but if you end up in Fawlty Towers model, then you are doomed to spend your time ready to leap upon your child for breathing too loudly or worrying a bit of stray wallpaper." Slur

Then there's the whole who's-going-to-sleep-where thing...

"We stayed in a hotel with DS, then about one, last summer and hadn't thought this through at all. We ended up going for the baby-in-the-bathroom option! Luckily, it was big enough to put his cot in there. It meant a lot of creeping about - and no nice long soaks in the evening for us - but at least we were able to watch TV/DVDs." kissmummy

"We are very bad and always book a room with a separate sitting room (like a suite) or an interconnecting room, so our toddler can go to sleep in there. Extravagant maybe, but otherwise it feels like a waste of time going." JimJammum 

... and the what-do-we-do-once-they're-asleep thing:
 

"There we were, sitting in the room in the dark on the first night, thinking, 'WTF have we done?'" Caz10 

"My advice would be to treat it like a camping holiday! By which I mean, you do lots of lovely stuff together in the day, have dinner together, and basically all go to bed at the same time. I can highly recommend it but you have to completely forget any idea of hotel holidays as you may have had them pre-kids." Leo9

So, before you book, make sure you know how family-friendly the hotel is. Ask:

"We went to a lovely hotel last summer. It was really well set up for kids. Except that they didn't serve breakfast till 8am. Which, as we all know, is about two hours after most small ones are up. There were a lot of grumpy parents in the playground at the crack of dawn every morning!" dolphinerama
  • Where would we all sleep?
  • What time do you serve meals? Can children eat earlier in the evening?
  • Are there any other child-friendly facilities?
  • Are the other guests mainly young families?
  • Is there a babysitting/baby-listening service in the evenings?

     

Holiday villages

The all-singing, all-dancing club-type holiday offered by Centerparcs, Club Med, Sunsail, Mark Warner and even the five star Forte Village will doubtless have plenty to keep you (and your children) occupied but it does tend to come with a holiday camp/communal atmosphere. Which may suit you. If not, there's usually somewhere you can escape to: heaven forbid, you could even leave the compound.

"I have never seen my son so happy. And it was relaxing for us, as everything is geared to kids." noddyholder

These kind of holidays can work well even if one of you has not the slightest inclination to sail/windsurf/do aqua-aerobics in the midday heat because the children are generally so well entertained by creche nannies/kids' club organisers, there's time for the not-the-slightest-inclined to chill out instead.

As one Mumsnetter says, "I hate sailing but my husband loves it. We went on a Sunsail holiday, which I thought would be a huge sacrifice, but the children loved the kids' club, my husband loved his sailing and I read seven books by pool!'' On the other hand, if the din of aqua-aerobics music would spoil your poolside-reading programme – or your children really aren't the entertained-by-kids-club sort – it's probably best to go elsewhere.

Camping

An obvious option for young families, this one, because it's cheap and informal, but do bear in mind that it is something of a gambler's choice, given the havoc that can be wreaked in a family tent by the unscheduled apperance of bad weather or a spectacular vomiting bug. As one rained-on-once-too-often Mumsnetter puts it, "Camping should be fun - not an endurance test."

"Go camping with your mates and their kids. It ticks all the boxes, so long as you remember you have to drive off-site to have a row with your husband." Squiffy

If you're not sure whether camping's your thang (although, deep down, you probably know) or, more to the point, your thang now you have children, it might be wise to have a dummy run (with a borrowed tent) in your back garden first. One night under canvas with your dearest and nearest can reveal interesting domestic truths that might otherwise have taken you a few dozen more years to spot.

"Mine rarely get washed when we camp. I wipe the food off their faces after they eat but that's pretty much it. Doesn't do them any harm and they don't get smelly like adults." sandyballs

Should you decide to give it a go, do note that the main difference between camping pre and post-children is the sheer amount of stuff you need to take: we're talking roof racks for the car here – or even a trailer. And, with children in the camping mix, what you choose (or forget) to cram into said roof rack or trailer really can be make or break your holiday – don't leave home without consulting the primus-stove pros in Mumsnet's Camping topic on the essential clothes, kit and wet-weather diversions. Although having said that...

"Everything will be fine as long as you have enough cake. You have live off a diet of cake, whiskey and coffee for months." Puppydavies

Skiing

If you've never been on a skiing holiday with a child before, be warned: it's still a skiing holiday but not as you knew it. It's not just a question of cutting back on the apres ski; by the time you've sorted the offspring out (gloves, poles, skis, sunblock, tissues, lunch money, lift tickets, finding the ski school... we could go on but you get the picture), you'll be lucky to make it to the top of a gondola by lunchtime (which roughly gives you time for two blue runs before you need to pick them up again).

Unless your children are older and you're all at roughly the same level, it's unlikely you'll want to (or they'll be able to) ski together all the time, so you'll need book them childcare and/or ski school.

When considering childcare (assuming you can't bring along your own personal nanny – either of the grandmotherly or of the employee-erly persuastion), do check out the language the carers will be using, the ratios of carers to children, and opening times. Do the children have lunch with the carers or will you be expected to rush back from the Three Valleys to feed them, for example?

As far as ski school's concerned, ask for an English-speaking instructor and, preferably, a class with other English children. And check the times: if your child is only in ski school for half the day, what happens to them for the rest of the time? If it's their first-time skiing, what happens if they really don't like it. Don't book till you're happy: some tour operators that more flexible and willing to work around your needs than others.

"It's really worth reading the discussions on the Skiing boards. You can find out about resorts and pick up tips like only getting lift passes for the adults in advance because the children may not progress to needing a pass - the lower couple of lifts are free in many places." fourkids I

If you can stretch to it, a catered chalet is often the best accommodation. It'll provide you with breakfast, afternoon tea and an evening meal (often with free wine). You won't need babysitting because you're on site and you can usually have access to a kitchen if you want to make your child a snack. "Try to go with friends and fill the chalet," recommends one Mumsnetter. "If you know everyone, you're less likely to be embarrassed about a screaming child. Our toddler ate with us, and we bathed her and put her down in between the main course and dessert, then came down and enjoyed a great evening in with friends."

And, finally, whatever accommodation you book, think about its proximity to the lifts/nursery slope/creche:

"We had the best time when we booked a chalet which was in the same place as the resort kindergarten. It saved us so much work. Trying to pack a bag every morning with everything you'll need (for indoors and outdoors) and then wrapping the children up, trudging across the resort with the children, trudging back to the chalet to get your skis (and doing it twice if you forget anything) is to be avoided at all costs." hatwoman

 
Childcare - or not?

The idea of paying extra for someone to look after your offspring for a few hours a day while you're on holiday seems to split Mumsnetters into two rather clearly defined factions. In the red corner, there's the positively outraged:

"Why bother having kids if you can't look after them yourself, especially on holiday." scottishmum007

... and in the blue corner, the unapologetically desperate:

"I spent 2 weeks in Kefalonia with my children last year. They were 2.9 and 13 months when we went. It was the most stressful fortnight I have ever had. I spent the whole two weeks shouting at them, running after them. Hardly quality time spent together (and I am at home with them a lot, so it wasn't like we weren't used to it). DP said he'd have given his right bollock for a kids' club." SheikYerbouti

"I think all kids are different. Mine crave 'Daddy time', so no way would they go to a kids' club for long on holiday - the odd morning here or there but that is it. Other kids do want to be 'in the mix' and with lots of kids all the time." amidaiwish

If you suspect your corner may be rather more blue than red, do bear in mind that the resorts that offer creches and/or kids' clubs are not necessarily always the ones with the best beach/accommodation/food, so you need to weigh up what's going to have the most positive impact on your holiday.

If it doesn't really matter to you if your child doesn't like (and therefore won't go to) the kids' club, or you only want them to spend an hour or so a day there, then you may feel able to compromise. If it's the single most important factor in you having a good holiday, then it's worth putting up with dodgy décor to achieve it. You don't want to end up like the Mumsnetter who "had to take ours out of the creche because they hated it so much, which left all our carefully-laid plans to learn to scuba dive in tatters".

And, if you do book them into childcare, don't feel guilty about it. Even the most child-friendly places don't take your kids 24 hours a day, so you will spend at least some of your time with them – and hopefully, you'll be so rested, you'll be happy to build endless sandcastles/play endless football/read endless books in the time you do have together.

"We have done this on holiday, more often at the request of the boys than because we planned for it. But it is nice to lie undisturbed by the pool." tiredemma

Do take a careful look at the age restrictions on the kids' clubs, though, and the times the childcare operates - you don't want to get there and find the only session on offer coincides with your child's naptime. And check the small print, too: some "creches" will only accept under-threes if they're potty trained or accompanied by a parent, which kind of defeats the object of the exercise.

Holidaying with other families

You like them. They like you. Your kids get on. What could be more lovely that spending two weeks in the sun together. Quite a lot, actually, if the Mumsnet boards are anything to go by. As one mum puts it: "I have seen many friendships crumble after joint family holidays."

As well as you think you know your friends (and their children), there could actually be unforeseen (but hugely irritating) differences between you – from clashing parenting styles to uneven standards of washing up – that only become obvious once you're all together in the Spanish villa with thirteen more days of shared hell to go.

Not that should necessarily put you off. Holidaying with friends can actually be a great experience, along as you go into it with your eyes open. Mumsnetters who've braved the joint holiday challenge – and survived unscathed – will tell you that the key to Happy Holiday Families is a little preparation and a fair bit of compromise...

"If this is your only holiday this year and it's really, really important to you that you get to do everything you want your way (which is fair enough: holidays are important things), then it might not be the best idea. If, on the other hand, you're quite easy-going and prepared to compromise a bit, then it'll be fine." hatter

Mumsnetters' seven top tips for surviving a holiday with another family

"I used to be of the school of thought that banned friends or relatives from staying with us on holiday. I was extremely zealous and rigid about it. Until DH made me change my mind and we shared a massive villa with some friends of his who had four children. I was dreading it. But the children played together, the families cooked for one another occasionally, converged occasionally, diverged occasionally, friends popped in ... It was fabulous." Quattrocento
  • Find out what their kids' bedtime and mealtime routines are before committing to anything. If they're in the habit of letting the kids eat with adults and stay up till 11pm while you're "pack them off to bed at 6pm, so we can get some peace" kind of people, then you will all end up killing each other. frogs
  • Discuss how you are going to handle money. Are you going to have a kitty for groceries? What about meals when out/treats/shared petrol? Before you go, have a meal and bottle of wine and discuss it all openly! Blu
  • Agree beforehand not to do everything together everyday. This is important, even if you are best friends. In fact, agree to make sure you spend some time separately. fireflytoo
  • Make sure you know what their kids really/won't eat. All the meals I cooked for all the kids were not eaten by my friend's child even though he, apparently, 'eats everything'. pamina3
  • Insist on booking enough bedrooms. One couple sleeping in the living room can be awkward, especially if you need to go through it to get to kitchen or bathroom! LIZS
  • Agree that whichever parent is present at any given moment is The Law, and has the right to dispense whatever discipline the situation calls for. This helps to make things much more relaxed for us as parents, because you don't have to be on duty all the time. Azzie
  • Do not comment on the behaviour of the other family's children or their parenting style – unless it is to compliment them! serenequeen

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Last updated: 19-Sep-2013 at 5:02 PM