Holidaying with a toddler

DSC00318Holidaying with a toddler is a totally different ballgame to travelling with a newborn. Toddlers are constantly on the move, they want to explore, so holidaying with one requires a degree of planning even for those fly by the seat of the pants types. It doesn’t mean the end of adventure but it does mean the start of a new era of adventure. Your holiday time is precious perhaps now more than ever given the demands of raising a child so arm yourself with a few of these tips to ensure a (relatively) relaxing holiday.

When and weather to travel
Unless you’re a teacher, don’t go on holiday (abroad that is) in July or August.  Only subject yourself to the school holiday swindle once you have no choice (that’s the next 12 years or so after your child turns four). You can snap up some wonderful bargains in the shoulder season staying in relative luxury for a fraction of the school holiday prices, so make the most of it while you can. Also, if you want to visit the Med, May, June and September plus early October are all delightful times of year to relax in warm sunshine. Don’t underestimate how exhausting it is to travel with a toddler when the temperatures are scorching. Although keeping young skin safe from the heat is easy to do with a bit of sun cream and a long sleeve swim suit, it’s hard work chasing after little people who still have tons of energy even when yours has been zapped by the heat.

The actual travelling part of the trip
Call me old school, but I’ve yet to give in to the lure of tablets on flights. I also don’t use them in cars although I’ve been tempted plenty of times. No doubt If I relented my four year old would probably be happy to look at one for the duration of a flight but my younger son, aged two, is incapable of sitting still for more than five minutes, so long flights are not on my radar right now. There are plenty of warm destinations within around two hours of most UK airports making long haul travel an unnecessary option. Corsica, Sardinia and Mallorca are all good options if you don’t want to fly too far.

As well as the flight duration, it’s also worth considering which destination allows you to pick a sensible timed departure. For example, we flew to Girona last summer for the Costa Brava departing at around 11am in each direction with Easyjet. However, charter flights to destinations such as the Greek Islands and Turkey  often have antisocial departure times. It definitely pays to either book in advance to bag the well timed flights before they sell out or just choose a destination which has several flights per day allowing you to pick the one which suits you best.

Aside from the flight, it’s worth bearing in mind how long the transfer is from the airport to your final destination. Sometimes it’s a twenty minute drive but it can be two hours. Greece and Turkey, for example, can have some lengthy transfer times, always double check. However, don’t rule out a long drive as it’s often the case that the further you get from the airport the more appealing the destination. The stunning Pelion peninsula in Greece is a good example, there are a few flights to nearby Volos but they tend to become very expensive and sell out in high season so many travellers opt to fly into Thessaloniki, a three hour drive away. Of course, some toddlers are perfectly happy in the car…

Type of holiday
Toddlers like to be on the move so it makes sense to pick a type of holiday which works for both you and the whirling dervish you’re bringing with you. If you opt for a beach holiday, ideally choose somewhere with sand. When I was a travel agent, this was one of the top requests among parents in the know. Most young children can literally spend hours digging holes in the sand which means parents can take it in turns to keep watch / join in / read a book / snooze. While the Med has sandy beaches aplenty, the places to double check before booking are Croatia, Greece and Turkey which have more pebbly beaches than the likes of Spain, Portugal or France.

If you want to inject a bit of culture into your time away, hitting the beach isn’t essential. Provided you stay in an apartment (more on this shortly), a city break can work well if it’s the right sort of city. Somewhere with plenty of parks or pedestrianized squares is ideal, Rome or Copenhagen are obvious examples. Otherwise, visit a city close to a beach such as Barcelona or Lisbon so you have both options covered. Alternatively, if you’d rather escape from crowds and tourists consider a rural stay in a country cottage or a farm. The local tourist office at your chosen location should be able to recommend short toddler-friendly country walks while old rural towns and villages often have pedestrianized sections where young children can explore under their own steam. The white washed towns of Andalusia in Spain and the medieval hilltop villages of Umbria in Italy are both perfect for a rural holiday.

Accommodation
Hotel or self catering? For many, a holiday isn’t a holiday without letting someone else do the cooking and cleaning, particularly when you have a fussy and / or messy toddler. However, staying in a hotel means either sharing a room with your child which is tricky come bedtime or forking out for two rooms or a suite so that your little one can slumber while you enjoy a glass of grappa or whatever the local tipple is. You’ also tied to hotel restaurant opening times although some will offer early sittings for families. Some hotels have apartments or villas in their grounds which is a great compromise allowing you to choose how much cooking or eating out you’d prefer to do.

If your budget doesn’t stretch to hotel stays, there are some great value small, basic apartment complexes in Greece which often have a shared pool and restaurant on site. Alternatively, consider staying at an agriturismo in Italy. These farm stays often have good value cottages or apartments which share a pool and spacious grounds for children to run around in. Some also have a restaurant on site offering (in my experience) particularly delicious, authentic and good value food. Should you prefer your own space and a private villa, consider a destination such as Croatia, Greece or Portugal where eating out is cheaper than other European destinations and can therefore be justified more frequently. If you’re not fazed by cooking on holiday, cottages and villas are my preference. Shopping in local markets, buying piles of cheese and salami and having a long lazy lunch while your toddler has a nap is my idea of a good holiday.

And of course don’t forget camping, the ultimate in cheap accommodation where adjoining bedrooms are guaranteed even if a good night’s sleep is not….

Free and cheap things to do in and around East Herts with young children

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Waterford Heath

Being the mother of a child in his first year of school, I woke up on the first day of the Easter holidays earlier this year and realised we had no plans for the two weeks ahead of us apart from a brief trip to my parents. With the summer holidays fast approaching I’ve decided to be a little more organised this time and have compiled a list of cheap and almost free outings to keep us all entertained. We’ve already sampled quite a few of them. My boys are aged four and two with quite simple interests so some of these excursions might not sound appealing or even appear to be proper destinations but they appeal to my little family!

 

Church Farm, Ardingley
Cost £3 per person or £10 per family
Unlike many of the some of the petting farms in the area, this farm is cheap and refreshingly down to earth. It has a great wooded play area plus a rather tired but useful indoor playroom for wet days plus a good cafe and a well stocked shop. There are pigs, chickens, turkeys and sheep to feed and even in dry weather there always seems to be loads of mud.

Cromer Windmill, near Walkern
Cost: small charge for adults
I took my boys here one sunny Sunday afternoon when my husband was away on business. It’s close to Church Farm (see above) and is surrounded by lovely rolling countryside. There are lots of steep stairs so it’s not necessarily the most sensible place to be outnumbered by small children but mine survived and they loved exploring the building and learning about how it worked. The volunteers were really friendly and ensured my two year old didn’t try to jump off the windmill whilst I guided my four year old down the steep steps.

Panshanger woods, Hertford
Free
I was thrilled to discover this wood last summer. It is a year round free attraction offering bluebells in spring, gorgeous oak and beech canopies in the summer, blackberries galore by August, rich autumnal colours and relative shelter from the elements in winter. It is a perfect playground with fallen trees and large branches littering the ground offering endless opportunities for den building.

Fairlands Valley Aquapark, Stevenage
Free
I must admit I haven’t visited the water park on a hot August day, only in term time, so I’m not sure how rammed it can get. There are three separate water sprinkler areas, all enclosed with just one gated exit (crucial if you have speedy little explorers). There are toilets and a little kiosk next to it plus a rather badly designed (visibility if you have more than one child is tricky) but well equipped playground.

Whitewebbs Museum of Transport, Crews Hill
Open on Tuesdays and last Sunday of the month
Free for under 12s, £4 for adults
I’m hoping to take the boys to this quirky museum during the school holidays and I’m expecting it to be a big hit. The boys love the London Transport Museum but it’s so busy and big and not a very relaxing experience keeping an eye on two small children at the same time, I like the idea of visiting a smaller version. Looking at the website’s gallery, there is a good selection of cars, motorcycles, fire engines and plenty of other vehicle-related paraphernalia.

River walk from Hertford to Ware
Free
This is a great trip if you have energetic kids who fancy a long walk or a bike ride. There is a tow path along the river from Hartham Common (where the sports centre is) to Ware. Highlights (for my children anyway) were watching boats pass through the two locks and walking under the A10 bridge. Actually, the highlight for my four year old was probably the train journey back to Hertford East passing through a level crossing in Ware, he’s quite a railway fanatic. We’ve had lunch a few times at Zero Italian restaurant in Ware which has a good selection of pizzas and pasta which my kids enjoy.

Amwell Nature Reserve, near Ware
Free
As with the Hertford to Ware walk, the highlight of this excursion for my boys is the railway. This time in the form of a pedestrian level crossing. Aside from this (as I appreciate  this shouldn’t be the main attraction), there are hides overlooking the water in which to view the birds and plenty of paths to run / peddle along.

Van Hage, Great Amwell
Free animal park, train rides are £1 per person
Eternally popular with local families and for good reason, Van Hage garden centre has a free animal park and the East Herts Miniature Railway. The former is openly daily while the latter runs during school holidays on Tuesdays and Thursdays as well as every weekend.

Waterford Heath and River Beane
Free
Waterford Heath is a mix of woodland and open heath with excellent blackberries at the end of summer. It has some paths where you can take a buggy. There are plenty of short walks through the woods which are perfect if it’s raining as it is very sheltered from the elements. This is a great destination for cycling as there are paths which allow you to cover quite a distance. The River Beane meanders through the Heath and on through a meadow grazed by cows. In the meadow the river is shallow and clear (unless there’s been heavy rainfall) and perfect for paddling. There is parking space for a couple of cars next to a gate which leads to the meadow on Vicarage Lane. The main parking area for the Heath is a little further up the lane on the left after you’ve crossed the railway bridge.

Hertford museum
Free entry but payable for extra school holiday activities
This little museum offers, as the name suggests, a history of Hertford. They have a little play shop on the first floor which my boys enjoy using and there are lots of free and cheap events on during the school holidays.

Welwyn viaduct and nearby playground
Free
Now, some people might not think this is actually a destination but, if your kids love trains and all that comes with them, head to the little playground where Hertford Road meets Digswell Park Road in Welwyn Garden City. There is a perfect view of the viaduct from the playground and trains pass over it regularly. There is also a decent sized field next to the viaduct if your kids fancy a game of football / picnic in view of the viaduct. I’ve not visited nearby Sherrardspark Wood but this looks like a good outing to combine with the viaduct.

Mill Green Museum, Hatfield
Free for kids, £3.50 for adults
We’ve yet to visit this 18th century working flour mill but plan to take a look this summer. The watermill is in action on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sunday afternoons but it’s worth calling ahead to double check due to weather conditions. There are gardens to picnic in and there are various galleries to explore which sound like they should be pretty child friendly with hands on exhibits.

Welwyn Roman Baths, Welwyn Garden City
Children free, adults £3.50
This is another place we’re planning to visit this summer. The baths are part of what was an ancient Roman villa and are meant to be remarkably well preserved.

So, that’s my list of suggestions. Please let me know if you have any other recommendations.

May half term in chilly North Norfolk

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Wells next the Sea beach

 

Norfolk originally became my favourite English beach destination due to the ease of travelling there from our previous home in north London. The lack of major motorways means that the journey is a pleasant one, through attractive villages and swathes of forest. We used to hop in the car on a Friday night once we were certain the weather would be fine and then stay in a B&B or campsite before hitting the beach the next day. By contrast, this May half term trip, our first summer holiday since being tied to school terms, was six months in the planning. If your family holiday requirements involve packing a bag for more than a night during the school holidays I have discovered (already) that it pays to be organised (more on such matters here).

So I had never been on a beach holiday in Norfolk in poor weather before. Although I enjoy a brisk coastal walk in a bracing wind when I’m in the right mood, this type of weather isn’t ideal when one’s two year old has a bucket and spade he is keen to put to good use. But, as with most British seaside destinations there is plenty to do off the beach in Norfolk and not all of it involves being stuck in a cramped and expensive tourist attraction with other people’s children.

Our home for the week was a traditional little cottage in Wells next the Sea, booked through Kett Country Cottages,with a view of the playground and fields; we could even see the train line from the back  window. The cottage had a small garden (rare for the town centre) and spacious rooms. We had no mobile phone reception and there was no WIFI, which I see as both a bonus and sadly at times a slight inconvenience. Everything was close at hand (shops, eateries, playground and beach) and had the weather been better we probably wouldn’t have got back in our car until the end of the holiday.

On our first day the weather was still pretty good allowing us to explore Wells and its lovely selection of shops, many of which hint at the rather moneyed clientele who frequent the coastal towns of Norfolk and Suffolk; clothing boutiques, art galleries and upmarket gift shops rubbing shoulders with the more down to earth and traditional seaside shops selling fishing nets and beach balls.

Wells next the Sea benefits from a little train which runs alongside the walkway to the beach. This excursion followed by digging in the sand is probably all my children would have needed from their week’s holiday, such is their current obsession with both pastimes. Indeed, that’s all I was after when I booked our trip. However, the weather was so grim for the rest of the week that this first day was the only proper one we spent at the beach.

On a good day I think the stretch of Norfolk coast from Wells along to Holkham is some of the best the country, the continent or indeed the world has to offer. I know that’s rather a dramatic statement but it’s not an exaggeration, as I’m sure those in the know would agree. The sand, backed by dunes and pine forest goes on for miles in all directions, particularly when the tide is out, so even on a perfect hot August day you can find an empty stretch to enjoy. I have many fond memories pre-kids (and I hope to have plenty more in the future) of days spent wandering along the beach from Wells; first past families who stay close to the entrance (where there are toilets, car park and a good café) and then past groups of people flying kites, playing bat and ball, football, cricket, until finally the visitors thin out and you’re eventually left with this wonderful wide open space dotted with figures and the sea sparkling in the distance.

Back to the present, and our second day in Wells. The weather had turned but as I was to discover as the week progressed, my children are still too young to realise that inclement temperatures and high winds every day of the holiday are reasons to be disappointed. When children are little you don’t need to impress them with big hitters. Crabbing at the harbour; flying a kite on a windy beach; climbing up the rigging of the pirate ship in the excellent playground; tea and cake at the beachside café with unexpected entertainment by the Kings Lynn Ukelele Club fill a day quite easily and surprisingly satisfyingly.

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Outside the Beach Café at Wells next the Sea`

 

The weather steadily worsened as the week went on so our holiday became an exploration of what Norfolk has to offer away from the beaches. We drove along the coast to Sheringham for a ride on the North Norfolk Railway, or Poppy Line. It was bank holiday Monday so we were not alone in this decision but there was still plenty of space on the train and we enjoyed a leisurely trip down to Holt. The journey is scenic with views of the coast, woods and farmland. And there was an incredibly convincing recreation of Dad’s Army taking place at Weybourne station which even the children enjoyed even if they didn’t quite understand the background to it.

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North Norfolk Railway

 

My four year old has been obsessed with the Octonauts for some time so I’d had my eye on Hunstanton Sealife Sanctuary even before I read the weather forecast. This surprisingly good aquarium (it had a major facelift in 2014) is hidden somewhat by funfair rides but the wind pretty much blew us from the car park to the front door. Predictably, it was packed, but still enjoyable. There’s a decent sized tank full of large fish including sharks, rays and turtles plus plenty of smaller tanks housing sea horses, crabs, snakes and so on. The boys particularly liked the glass domes which you can stand in to give the effect that you are in the tank with the fish. I thought the medals given to them, and every other child, for “touching a starfish” was a bit unnecessary, surely touching the creature is reward itself (for the child anyway)? And the rather bleak little rehabilitation units for injured seals brought to mind what solitary confinement must be like but with the added torture of a terrifying audience of overexcited toddlers peering in at you. Aside from this, the trip was a success and we avoided trudging around in the pouring rain looking for a lunchtime eatery by chancing upon The Lodge in Old Hunstanton, a short drive out from the town centre, serving pizzas and offering a welcoming log fire (who’d have thought it in June…)

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With the fish at Hunstanton Sealife Sanctuary

 

My husband and I managed to enjoy an evening out in Wells while our parents (who joined us for a couple of nights in a nearby B&B) looked after the boys. We discovered that most of the pubs and restaurants are fairly pricey with our choice, the Golden Fleece, offering a menu and price on a par with the more upmarket gastro pubs dotted through the town. The bar area looks inviting, particularly on a rainy evening but the upstairs dining room, although with a good view of the quay had rather tired décor and felt a bit cavernous by comparison. However, the food and wine were good, I had a delicious fillet of sea bream while my husband had a particularly tasty monkfish curry. Following dinner, we decided to do a spot of research and visited first the Globe and then the Crown for a drink. Both offer accommodation and I was particularly taken by some of the suites at the Crown, for which I am determined to find a special occasion to warrant the rather hefty price tag (by our standards anyway).

Keen to avoid too many cramped indoor visitor attractions with fellow damp holidaymakers, we decided to visit the nearby Holkham Hall Estate on our final day. We loved the new Field to Fork exhibition. My two year old son has yet to appreciate the joy of television as he is incapable of sitting still, however he was transfixed by the ten minute ‘Holkham Year’ film at the exhibition, packed as it was with tractors and other heavy farming machinery (a clip is shown on the Estate’s website). There is no commentary, just some subtitles, which means parents can describe the story to their kids, although the video is so good it pretty much tells the viewer everything with the images. My four year old watched it three times. The rest of the exhibition is very well put together with plenty of hands-on exhibits including a stone for grinding grain into flour. The Estate also offers wide open spaces for walking, running and biking (cycle hire is available). There’s also a great adventure playground and the lovely beach is close by.

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Field to Fork exhibition at Holkham Hall

 

One of the other great aspects of trips to Norfolk is the variety of attractions to visit on route. Whilst our drive up there only involved a stop at Swaffham for dinner, our return took in the small ruins at Creake Abbey just south of pretty Burnham Market followed by the truly amazing remains at Castle Acre where children can run around and climb on top of the remains of quite a sizeable Norman castle. The boys would happily have stayed there all day had it not been for the parents’ desire to retreat from the cold weather. We also stopped at the Green Britain Centre, also near Swaffham, where those over 120cm can climb the wind turbine, something we’ll definitely do as soon as the kids are tall enough.

I have to admit that, in spite of a week of exceptionally bad weather, I felt rather melancholy to be back at home after our little trip. In fact, I have already planned (mostly in my head) our return visit later this summer, weather permitting.

My top 5 family friendly holidays in Italy

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Polignano a Mare

Italy is a popular family holiday destination; pasta, pizza, sandy beaches, child-adoring locals and favourable weather, what more could you ask for? Well, quite a few of us parents need an injection of culture or something at least to engage our brains while we’re on holiday. Can you still amble through an Italian city admiring the art and architecture with young kids in tow or are you better off retiring to the seaside until your offspring are in their teens? Well, I think if you pick the right part of Italy you can definitely have your torta and eat it. So, here are my top five Italian holiday destinations for families with young children.

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Piazza del Duomo, Syracuse

1. South East Sicily
Sicily has culture and sandy beaches in spades so it should appeal to everyone. It’s a huge island so if you have small kids I’d recommend just concentrating on one area. I love the Baroque towns of the south east, particularly Modica which, even in a rain storm (or perhaps because of the rain) felt incredibly atmospheric when I visited. The food and wine in this region require a mighty appetite; the pasta dish (more of a cauldron actually) I consumed at Modica’s Osteria dei Sapori Perduti could have sated my appetite for a week if I hadn’t been aware of the town’s famous chocolate shop, Antica Dolceria Bonajuto. So, once you and your family have filled your tummies with pasta and chocolate, head a few miles south for your pick of the endless sandy beaches which run for miles along the coast. If your children can tolerate a two-centre holiday, include some time in Syracuse a little further north for car-free streets galore, perfect for little ones to burn off some energy while you admire two thousand years of Sicilian history in one setting. The city’s Piazza del Duomo is my favourite square in the whole of Italy (so far) and just the place to introduce your little ones to Sicily’s delicious granita.

2. Calabria
Calabria has a special place in my heart as I have wonderful memories of camping there as a student and spending hours snorkelling off the stunning beaches. Add to this some wonderful coastal towns such as Tropea and Scilla plus delicious spicy food and great value wine and you have the perfect seaside holiday! Pretty cliff top Tropea is my top recommendation for your base in this region. There are no major sights to explore and all the better for it, it’s all about soaking up the atmosphere and watching the world go by. Enjoy an obligatory morning cappuccino or gelato in charming Piazza Ercole and once the children have tired of browsing the enticing food shops, head to the sandy beach below the town with your bucket and spade!

3. Valle d’Itria, Puglia
I’ve visited Puglia several times and what sticks in my mind is the fantastic sandy beaches and the amazing seafood. The beaches attract Italians from all over the country, with vast stretches of sand gently shelving into dramatic turquoise waters. Children will love exploring the conical trulli houses which scatter the towns and countryside. Alberobello has the biggest concentration of these dwellings, it’s quite touristy but fun nonetheless. Nearby, the white washed towns of hilltop Ostuni and pretty Locorotondo will vie for your attention. There are some enjoyable seaside towns too such as the much-photographed Polignano a Mare, perfect for introducing (or attempting to) your children to Puglia’s famed seafood.

4. Southern Marche
The delightful town of Ascoli Piceno in the south of Le Marche tends to be overlooked in favour of the big hitters of Tuscany and Umbria. However, it has a particularly spectacular Renaissance square, the car-free Piazza del Popolo where you can try the local delicacy of stuffed, deep fried olives. As with most historic Italian towns, Ascoli is perfect for aimless wandering although there’s plenty to occupy art and architecture enthusiasts should the kids allow it with an impressive art gallery, Pinacoteca Civica, and many fine buildings. Half an hour east of Ascoli sits the coast where mile after mile of sandy beach awaits you. The seaside isn’t in the same league as Puglia or Calabria but it is incredibly child friendly (plenty of toilets and little play areas). I wasn’t a fan of the regimented deck chairs when I first visited but the area has grown on me over the years. I particularly like the umbrellas which on some beaches come with a safety deposit box for your valuables, such an Italian touch! And I also love the way Italians take passeggiatas through the shallows on the beach as if on a high street, stopping to chat to friends and relations along the way. Heading back inland, the area is very rural so good-value and family-friendly agriturismos abound with delicious homemade food as standard.

5. Northern Tuscany
I know this may be a boring cliché but Tuscany is a brilliant place for families. The region is pretty big with some long (and dull if you’re a small child) driving distances. For ease, I would recommend staying near Lucca, a charming city big enough to have a good range of sights and eateries but small enough to enjoy with children. The city walls are great for toddlers to run along (not as dangerous as it sounds) and Piazza dell’Anfiteatro is the perfect square in which to contain little ones while you stop for lunch or a coffee. Lucca is around half an hour from the coast so you can split your day between sightseeing and sandcastle building. If you hanker after those infamous green Tuscan landscapes and idyllic rural villages, head half an hour north. Children will have fun crossing the medieval Ponte della Maddalena (or bridge of the devil as it’s also known) near Borgo a Mozzano while the nearby picture postcard hilltop town of Barga is guaranteed to satisfy those Tuscan cravings.

5 reasons to book your family holiday with a travel agent

So, it’s the end of April and you’ve not yet booked your 2016 family summer holiday. Do you panic as friends around you wax lyrical about the amazing deal which they booked before Christmas? Or do you call your travel agent and ask them to sort the problem out for you?

Now, obviously I am biased as I worked as a travel agent for over ten years but I do think there are many good reasons for booking your holiday with a professional. Some holidays are easy and fun to book but others involve hours of research. It’s interesting that people continue to use estate agents to sell their properties but don’t see the value of using a travel agent to find them a holiday. Of course, these two things are wildly different price-wise but they are important in similar ways. You spend precious time in your house with your family and you spend crucial time together on a family holiday. Family holidays are that rare time when you can all be together without the distractions of work, school, DIY, TV and so forth so it’s important you get them right. A good travel agency is a bit like a good department store, its staff are there to look after you and help you find what you need. So, here are my top five reasons why you should use a travel agency for your next family trip.

1. Time
This is the main reason, in my opinion, to use a travel agency. It takes ages to find the right holiday when there are both adults and children involved, particularly with the Internet offering myriad choices. There are so many factors to consider. Apart from the destination and the weather, parents often concern themselves with factors as detailed and diverse as the depth and temperature of a swimming pool, the safety of the stairs in a villa, the local food for fussy eaters, the list is endless. If your requirements are more complicated than a caravan in the Isle of Wight you may spend many hours trawling the net to find the right option for your family. Call a travel agent, tell them your budget (it’s essential to be honest on that) and your absolute priorities and they should be able to come up with some sensible options.

2. Cost
This very much links in with time. Some people balk at the thought of paying a penny more for their holiday than they have to and if that means spending multiple evenings glued to the net rather than paying a little extra for someone else to do that for them then so be it. But what is your own time worth? Freeing up what could be a considerable number of precious hours is surely worth paying for. In fact, quite often a travel agency will charge the same as a hotel or tour operator as they are given commission and don’t necessarily need to mark the price up. Also, a good agent will be honest about cost. If you’re being unrealistic about money, they’ll tell you rather than trying to sell you a cheap holiday which you’ll hate.

3. Expertise
Find a travel agency which specialises in family holidays. In my agency we booked the same families year after year. We learned what they liked and, crucially, what they didn’t like and when we found something that worked well for one family we would suggest it to other families who had similar interests. Each year, we were able to drill down to the right holiday quicker as we formed a better understanding of our clients’ needs. It’s worth visiting a few agencies, perhaps where you live and where you work until you find one which you gel with. There are some pretty dreadful ones out there but also a number of very bespoke companies who will offer a very personal, genuine service.

4. Integrity and peace of mind
If you’ve left it late to book and you’re thinking that elusive villa with pool near a sandy beach within your budget may not be possible, a travel agent will be your reality check and say yes, you’re too late, go camping and save your money for next year. They won’t sell you a rubbish holiday just to get your money. And if you’re worried about your financial security, ensure the agency is ABTA-bonded and your holiday has ATOL protection.

5. Independence
A proper independent travel agency is not beholden to a particular hotel, resort, tour operator or villa company. Their main objective is to have a regular client base, it’s in their interest to find the right holiday for you so that you will come back again and again. It is a lot easier, cheaper and less time consuming for an agency to have regular clients than it is to market themselves to prospective new customers. Obviously they do need to turn a profit though so if you want a £200 jolly you’re best off looking elsewhere.

Hassle-free car hire: some top tips

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Whilst working as a travel agent and in my own capacity as a tourist, I’ve experienced the pain of hiring a car abroad. From aggressive up-selling of insurance policies to long queues, it’s a tedious business especially when you have children in tow. I’ve detailed a few of my findings below, feel free to add anything I’ve overlooked in the comments below.

Don’t let price dictate
Whilst it’s tempting to search the Internet for the cheapest car hire deal, my biggest piece of advice is to avoid the low cost operators. As with everything else in life, it’s cheap for a reason. Along with suspicious credit card charges, rubbish child seats and desperate sales staff (of which more later), in my experience these firms always have the longest queue at the airport, snaking through the arrivals hall. Everyone has booked their car with this firm for the same reason as you. On a recent holiday I decided to spend a bit more money and hey presto, I arrived at a desk with no queue whatsoever. (No doubt this was partly luck as well as good planning but my previous car hire company had a long queue again.)

Buy a tank of fuel
Now, this is a point that not everyone will agree with. Certainly, if you’re only using your car for a few quick jaunts it may not be necessary but, if given the option, buy a tank of fuel from the hire firm and opt to bring it back empty. At the end of the holiday, it is much more relaxing to head straight to the airport rather than driving half way round the country looking for that elusive last petrol station to fill the tank up at. If you happen to be dropping off your car for a lunchtime flight out of the Med, the petrol stations may well be shut from 12 until 2 and their self-service machines won’t necessarily accept your foreign credit card (can you tell I’m speaking from bitter experience?) Although buying the tank of fuel upfront will cost a bit more than paying at the petrol pump, it means you also avoid the exorbitant charge on your credit card post-holiday when the hire firm decides the tank was two millilitres short of full.

Take time to check for existing damage and take photos
It’s tempting when you collect your car to dash off to your holiday destination, especially if you have tired and / or hungry children. However, it really pays to take a few extra moments to double check all the existing damage on your vehicle and ensure  in a really pedantic way that EVERY scratch is noted. Following a trip to Portugal, I spent several months clawing back a €250 charge for repairing a tiny scratch which I swear was already on the car but hadn’t been noted as it seemed too small to matter. On another occasion I hired a car in Italy with a huge dent in the side which was casually dismissed as irrelevant by the laid-back staff when I collected the vehicle (I felt much more relaxed once I’d convinced them to mark it on the paperwork). As you often drop off a car at the end of the holiday without seeing a member of the hire company’s staff, it is worth taking a few final photos of the car to confirm it has been returned in good (or the same) condition.

Take your own child seats and satnav
As with much of the baby and child paraphernalia parents have to fork out for, hiring a child seat with your vehicle is a complete rip off. I’ve done some cursory research to prove my point (based on a week’s hire at Palma de Mallorca from 28th May 2016). Of Avis, Hertz and Europcar, the latter came out cheapest at £55.59 for a toddler seat. So, to save money you can either take your own seat or, if you’re concerned about losing / damaging an expensive seat or the one you have is too awkward to transport, you could buy one for holiday use. There are seats starting from £30 if you have a quick look online or if you want to go with a name you recognise, Mothercare has an own brand seat costing £100. Alternatively, you could invest in a £200 Joie Every Stage seat which will see you through from birth to 12 years. So, providing you’re planning more than one trip during your offspring’s childhood, this would be a sound investment. And it’s always handy to have a spare.

Satnav costs upwards of £68 to hire for a week with the three providers while Halfords currently sells a TomTom including Western Europe for £70.

Other than cost, there are also some practicalities to consider on the car seat front. On my aforementioned trip to Portugal (where I had opted for a cheap rental company and endured a tediously long wait) I hired a car seat for my then two year old. I had planned our trip meticulously with all of my supposed travel agent knowledge and everything had run smoothly until we tried to fit the child seat into the car. After two infuriating hours and a refusal by the car hire firm to assist in any way we finally fitted (or possibly jammed) the seat into the car. On a more recent trip we took our own car seats for our children which the airline carried free of charge. We bought JL Childress car seat covers which do a great job of protecting the seats, or in our case protecting other people’s luggage if your child has had their first ever attack of travel sickness on the way to the airport and there’s no time to clean the vomit off the seat properly before checking it into the hold.

Collision Damage Waiver
When you hire a car, the excess you have to pay in the event of an accident is usually around £1000. Taking out collision damage waiver insurance gives you the option to reduce the excess down to zero. I am guilty, as I am sure others are too, of having purchased collision damage waiver insurance twice: once at the time of booking and again at the collection desk when faced with a very sophisticated sales pitch. It’s amazing what an early start, tedious airport queues, a failed attempt to speak the local language and an underpaid car rental employee can do to your intelligence. The local charge you’re likely to incur ranges hugely depending on the supplier but to give you some examples, Hertz quotes insurance on an economy car collected from Palma de Mallorca airport at around €130 payable locally while Europcar charges £145 for a similar car at the point of booking. Instead of being bamboozled by rental firms, I’m planning to purchase a separate insurance policy on my next trip. The AA recommends Insure My Car Hire for this purpose; the annual cost, currently £39.99, looks very reasonable. No doubt there are plenty of others on the market too.

Know what size car you have booked and how much luggage it will take
Collecting a hire car is hard work. Once you have fought off the impulse to purchase the aforementioned CDW insurance, your next battle will be avoiding the car upgrade scam. On my last holiday, the staff at the rental desk were charm personified. Even our reluctant one year old who has a healthy suspicion of everyone was nearly seduced by their sales patter when they offered him a lolly pop. I was so taken off guard that I nearly agreed that the huge saloon car I had booked wasn’t sufficiently huge for our modest luggage and little family. Only fall for the sales pitch if you really need to.

Measure your expectations
It can be difficult to avoid national stereotyping when hiring a car. If you travel to Germany or France you expect good service and a reliable car. If you go to Italy on the other hand not only are you pleasantly surprised that the car hire firm is open but if you are handed the keys to a car without any damage to the paintwork it’s an unexpectedly pleasant way to start your holiday. I hired a car in Morocco a few years ago, I expected it to have no air conditioning but I hadn’t banked on it having blood on the upholstery. However, it didn’t break down and it allowed us to explore some amazing parts of the country.

Holidaying with a new baby

mallorca (120)

So, you’ve had a baby. Now you want to go on holiday but you’re a little bit terrified. There is a plethora of advice on the Internet about holidaying with babies and children. Lots of sites offer long lists of what to take and suggest luxury hotels which offer everything from babysitting to baby concierge. I thought I’d try adding my two pence worth if only because a) I’ve travelled with a little baby and b) in my previous job as a travel agent I booked lots of family holidays. I’m not trying to sell anything to anyone so I hope I can offer some impartial advice to any would-be new travelling families. We took a holiday with our first child when he was six weeks old so I’m talking here about holidays with young babies rather than infants on the move (which is a totally different type of “holiday”). I’m also referring to the type of trip which involves using a passport.

First things first, if you have a healthy baby who’s gaining weight and feeding well, now is a brilliant time to take a holiday. Your baby should be sleeping a lot (during the day…) which means the flight shouldn’t be too much of an issue and it also means you should be able to enjoy plenty of “down time”, something you’ll get little of once your child learns to move. If you take a holiday now you’ll look back on it wistfully in a few years time as that last holiday which was more about what you wanted than what your children wanted.

You really don’t need to take too much stuff with you when you’re travelling with an infant. Young babies feed, sleep and poo so provided you have these things covered everything else should be pretty straight forward. If you’re breastfeeding you have very little paraphernalia to pack but even with bottle feeding you just need a few bottles, milk powder, access to a sterilising vessel at your destination (a saucepan if you’re self catering) and some packets of Milton. The big brands like Pampers have conquered most of the world so things like nappies and wipes can all be sourced locally. Indeed, unless you’re going somewhere very unusual you’ll find other countries stock pretty much everything you need given that mothers and babies exist all over the world. Any major essentials should go in your carry-on bag (which is a very generous allowance these days) to avoid that terrifying scenario of lost luggage, otherwise just pack enough for your first few days. Babies need a few changes of clothes and a few little toys but generally they’re pretty self-sufficient as they only really want to gaze at their mother for the first few months.

We took our six week old to Mallorca. We booked the flights and a villa the week before (once we’d secured his Winston Churchill lookalike passport photo) as it was the end of September and there were some great deals to be had. Although our son was rather unsettled during his first few months of life with colicky evenings, we decided jetting off for a bit of last minute sun before autumn set in would be a great little adventure. We flew with easyJet; the staff were charming and pretty much everyone on the flight had babies or children so the atmosphere was very relaxed (for parents that is, less so for those without offspring). We had a great week of long lunches in the sunshine, drives through the Tramontana Mountains and a few trips to the beach.

When you’re considering destinations for your first family trip abroad, there are two options. You could opt for a final “grown up” destination such as a gastronomic city like Lyon or Bologna, armed with the knowledge this might be the last such trip you take for a while or do what we did and go to a typical child-friendly destination.  I’d never been to Mallorca before but I will definitely be going back as it is truly fantastic for families. Distances are short, beaches are plentiful, restaurants are generally baby-friendly (plenty of baby changing facilities in toilets for example) and it’s only two hours from the UK (and accessed from most of our regional airports). Our villa was just outside Pollenca, near to Alcudia which has a beach with very firm sand which we could wheel our pram onto, not something we’d considered useful before. Everyone goes on about Italy being perfect for family holidays because of the nation’s love of children but Spain is on a par I’d say, as is every European country I’ve taken my children to. In fact, unless you’re visiting that make believe place from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, you and your baby should be welcome everywhere. Even the UK isn’t as bad as we all like to make out, we’ve had plenty of friendly and kind attention bestowed on us during our travels through Britain. Child-hating England is a myth I’m keen to dispel.

Once you’ve chosen your destination, the next decision is the accommodation. Unless you have piles of cash or you want to be stuck in one room with your baby all evening there’s really no need to stay in a hotel. There are some fantastic villas to be had outside the school holidays which give you space to unwind and peace of mind that your little angel isn’t waking those in the room next to you at 2am (believe me, if you’re in a hotel he will be). Our son was quite noisy for several hours in the evening and it was great having a large villa (booked through the excellent Vintage Travel) to pace about in while we endeavoured to settle him. If you’re opting for a city break, there are plenty of brilliant rental apartments these days accessed through Airbandb and such like. The only word of caution here is that you ensure the agent or owner does adhere to your baby-related requests. We took our son to Lisbon when he was 18 months and used a small rental agency who found us a great little flat in the city centre. However, the rather laid back property owner claimed no knowledge of our request for a cot. Fortunately the agency owner sourced one for us from another apartment.

In terms of flying, I found that feeding my son while the plane was taxiing along the runway worked a treat. He didn’t notice any change in cabin pressure and slept most of the way in each direction, the benefit of travelling with a newborn baby. In fact, if you’re considering flying further afield, perhaps to visit friends or family on the other side of the world, now is the time to do it. Small babies can be accommodated in bassinets, provided you book this in advance. Once your baby starts to crawl, or worse, walk, and doesn’t sleep on demand, flying further than the Med will be a less appealing prospect.

Something you’re unlikely to fully appreciate until it’s too late is that holidays now are no longer about you (although they are great in a totally new way). However, this holiday with your tiny baby is almost still your holiday rather than his. He will sleep a lot so enjoy those uninterrupted lunches and lounges. He won’t complain about boring car journeys so relish any scenic drives you happen upon. So, go on holiday, put your feet up and make the most of it, you might not get the opportunity again for many years.