Choosing a family-friendly holiday
The process of picking a holiday destination changes when you become a parent - your priorities suddenly switch from finding empty, white beaches to judging the twistyness of the swimming pool slides
Decision one: Foreign climes or stay
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".
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 thought to...
Much as you may love brilliant sunshine and scorching sands, 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."
If you're still keen to head somewhere really (or even moderately) sunny, make sure you're clued up about sun protection and heat stroke.
"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!"
The getting-there factor
There's nothing quite so wonderful as leaving
the UK on a dreary day only to clamber down the plane steps
several hours later into glorious warmth and colour. Unless you've spent
every single second of those hours trying to stop your offspring
wailing/kicking seats/loudly inquiring about "that fat lady with the
funny hair" across the aisle.
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 favourite holiday spots by reading our destination guides.
"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."
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. 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.
"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."
Yep, all that different and interesting stuff that actually attracts us adults to a different country - well, it ain't necessarily 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 educational."
"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'."
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 to finding provisions, that you might decide are dealbreakers for overseas holidays - at least until your child is older.
"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 - ours loved it there."
Decision two: What type of holiday?
"Self-catering is definitely easier with toddlers because they snack through the day - and you can cater for their weird or fussy tastes."
If you've got little ones who go to bed early, a house/flat/caravan should have enough space for grown-ups to have (peaceful) time alone 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."
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.
"Top tip: look for self-catering that has cleaning included in the price."
"Just lower your standards: they won't die of malnutrition if you give them pesto pasta every day for a week."
Consider 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 preschool on 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."
"Kids can play out the front with other kids - and you can drink wine with other parents."
Upsides: no washing up, shopping, cooking, making the bed, cleaning the bath.
Downsides: your children may not like the food or the environment, and, given that small children generally don't hold back with their opinions, you may not like the public humiliation of mid-meal breakdowns or 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."
"Hotels can be OK if you're lucky but if you end up in a Fawlty Towers-type one, 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."
Then there's the question of who's going to sleep where...
"We stayed in a hotel with our son, then aged 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."
"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."
... and what you're going to do once they're asleep:
"There we were, sitting in the room in the dark on the first night, thinking, 'WTF have we done?'"
"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."
Before you book, make sure you know how family-friendly the hotel is. Ask:
- 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?
"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
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 communal atmosphere. If that doesn't suit you, 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."
These kinds 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. The children are generally so well entertained by the creche/nannies/kids' club organisers, there's time for the not-at-all-inclined to chill out instead.
"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 the 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 kids' club sort - it's probably best to go elsewhere.
"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."
If you're not sure whether camping's your thang (although, deep down, you probably know) or, more to the point, your thang now that 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 nearest and dearest 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."
Should you decide to give it a go, 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 trailer really can make or break your holiday. Don't leave home without consulting the Primus stove pros on essential clothes, kit and wet-weather diversions. Although having said that...
"Everything will be fine as long as you have enough cake.
You can live off a diet of cake, whiskey and coffee for months."
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...), 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 to book them childcare and/or ski school.
When considering childcare, do check out which language the instructors will be using, the ratio of carers to children, and opening times. Do the children have lunch there or will you be expected to rush back from the Three Valleys to feed them, for example? 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 are more flexible and willing to work around your needs than others.
"It's really worth reading the discussions on the Skiing Talk 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."
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. 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."
Decision three: 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 people 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?"
... and in the blue corner, the unapologetic:
"I spent two weeks in Kefalonia with my children last year. They were three and 13 months when we went. It was the most stressful fortnight I have ever had. I spent the whole time shouting at and 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.) My partner said he'd have given his right bollock for a kids' club."
If you suspect your corner may be rather more blue than red, 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.
"I think all kids are different. Mine crave 'daddy time', so no way would they go to a kids' club for long on holiday - maybe for the odd morning here or there, but that is it. Other kids do want to be 'in the mix' and with lots of other kids all the time."
If it doesn't really matter to you whether your child is in kids' club or not, 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 decor to achieve it.
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."
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: 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.
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Last updated: 11 months ago