Thursday, 2 November 2017

How to Have Holidays on the Cheap

Two words which don't really inspire confidence when put next to each other: "Cheap and "holidays". Conjuring up images of half-built villas and dodgy all-inclusive buffet tables, it can be a minefield working out what actually constitutes good value and what will potentially be the worst experience of your life. Resolutely a warm weather person (I'm half Italian and spent my childhood summers under the Tuscan sun) I can't countenance the idea of a summer without sand, sun cream and salty skin. Holidays are important to me and I don't view them as a luxurious indulgence. But I don't have a very big budget when it comes to planning them.
I also have a bit of problem with the cost of holidays in the UK. While I love UK beaches I struggle with the idea of spending considerable amounts of money to sit shivering on a picnic rug, smiling through gritted teeth as the rain clouds set in. 

Our recent half term trip to Ibiza was borne out of a search for accommodation in the UK. When it costs less to spend five days in the Balearics than it does to rent a beach hut in Whitstable for the weekend, I'm afraid my patriotism runs a little dry. I just can't bear the idea of spending upwards of £700 for a weekend on the UK coast when at this time of year it's most likely going to rain for over 50% of the time.

Needless to say as a parent the odds are stacked against you when it comes to doing holidays on a budget - term time travel is a bugger and obviously you need to multiply costs across several people. But it IS possible to have a few breaks a year without breaking the bank. However you will need an open mind when it comes to accommodation; lovers of luxury hotels and chi chi villas - this post probably isn't for you. Furthermore this isn't a guide to far-flung travel either; since having our children we've accepted that travelling beyond the Northern hemisphere is something we'll have to leave till our retirement. 
Ibiza Town in the sunshine but without the crowds

So, here are my tried and tested tips for doing family holidays on a budget:

Travel out of season

A no-brainer. Travel in October half term compared to July or August will shave considerable amounts off your holiday costs. But what about the weather? Obviously it's not as guaranteed out of season in Europe but on our recent trip to Ibiza we had blue skies from start to finish and temperatures of 26 degrees; definitely beach weather. And a huge bonus of travelling at this time of year is having more options for accommodation and far less crowds to contend with. The beaches in Ibiza were blissful - the sea was warm from weeks of summer sunshine and we had plenty of room to spread out. 
Blue skies and plenty of room on the beach

Everything is much less stressful this time of year; there are no queues at the airport, you can walk straight out and into a taxi and car hire is a much less stressful experience than it is in the summer. It all makes for a much more serene experience of family travel. I can't recommend it enough.

Have a flexible approach to accommodation

I've stayed in some truly odd places over the years. From the Venetian Airbnb with a weird spiral staircase stuck in the middle of the kitchen to the Ibizan apartment missing an oven - it was pretty fun realising you can actually cook a pizza on two-ring gas stove - we've enjoyed some random accommodation on our family holidays. But having never really experienced luxury I perhaps don't know what I'm missing, and I've generally regarded our holiday accommodation as a base rather than a focal point. 
Great central location in Venice. Just slightly odd design elements

Obviously I want things to be clean and functional but I have a realistic approach to our family holidays - we simply don't have the funds to consider 5 star hotels or flashy villas. I'd honestly feel quite out of place and uncomfortable somewhere posh, and there's something uniquely funny and charming about seeing your kids in fits of laughter about some weird design element or functionality of your holiday accommodation - I reckon kids remember the random stuff far more than the luxury stuff (well, that's what I tell myself anyway.)

It pays to do careful research, though - consulting Google maps for satellite and street view photos is really useful, though I wouldn't read too much into TripAdvisor reviews. On our recent stay in Ibiza, we stayed in a very basic but spotlessly clean apartment - for £200 for four nights. It might have been positioned in a charmless suburban street, but it was close to the beach and Ibiza Town - perfect for a budget half-term break. It goes without saying that Airbnb is your friend - we've had some great experiences in both the UK and abroad using this option.

Do city breaks in the summer 

If you're more of a city person than a beach person, high summer is when prices fall on city breaks compared to spring and autumn. Of course, you need to choose wisely, though I wouldn't necessarily avoid hot weather places at this time of year - just be sure to choose accommodation with air conditioning and be prepared to get up early to do your sight seeing. Remember that lots of cities have urban beaches, perfect for breaking up a morning of trailing round the city with an afternoon of lazy snoozing. 
Verona - bloomin' hot in August but we did our sightseeing at the crack of dawn

If you're looking for another way to do Paris on the cheap and don't mind a bit of inconvenience take a look at my post on how we did the French capital by car for less than £500. Clue - it involves Tesco Clubcard points, the Channel Tunnel and staying at a Eurocamp site just outside the city.

Choose a fly and flop destination

Car hire can add serious money to any holiday, particularly in the height of the summer. In Ibiza, we specifically chose somewhere a short distance from the airport, close to a beach and close to the town so we didn't need to rely on a car or public transport. There are lots of other beachy destinations where you can do this, but two places I'd recommend from personal experience are Nice and Faro. Both are within spitting distance of the airport and have easy public transport links to the beaches. 

In the case of Nice, the beach and town are interlinked, so you really have every kind of amenity you might need on your doorstep. Nice is a colourful, vibrant place with an authentic vibe you don't get in other places on the Cote d'Azur - I'd really recommend it for a family break as the climate is mild, the beach lovely (though do note it's a pebble beach) and the old town has fabulous markets and restaurants. 
My son on the beach in Nice when he was little

Choose somewhere a little off radar

The beaches I spent my childhood summers on are barely known beyond Italy. They're not the most beautiful in the country, but they tick a lot of boxes - spotlessly clean, sandy and backed by cafes and restaurants. The Tuscan coast is very much a place where Italians (and a few Germans) take their holidays so it's a very uncommercialised  area and you're very unlikely to hear an English voice during your stay. As such, it's a far less expensive option than the famous resorts in the South and on the islands. 
And my other son when he was little on a budget trip to Sardinia

Furthermore, this stretch is close to both Pisa and Genova airports, as well as the beauties of inland Tuscany - it's a great place to combine a beach stay with trips to places such as Florence, Siena or the Cinque Terre. 

Staying with Italy, the same goes for the islands - Sardinia has a reputation for being expensive but that's only really centred around the snazzy Costa Smeralda. Other areas of the island are much more accessible, plus it's served by budget flights to both Alghero and Olbia. Then there is Elba - a bit of a faff to get too, it's a lot cheaper than Capri and is much more traditional, meaning simple, budget-friendly accommodation options are plentiful. Eurocamp has a site in on Elba in the lovely resort of Marina di Campo.

Happy holiday planning!

Me (far right) on the beach in Italy, sometime in the '80s

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