Saturday, 7 November 2015

Tesco-tastic holiday savings

Who'd have thought that Tesco could be your best friend when it comes to booking holidays?

A really easy method of saving cash on holidays abroad is to use Tesco Clubcard vouchers. Not many people realise that these coupons can be put towards a European holiday, either by using them to book cross-channel ferry crossings or purchasing entrance tickets to theme parks and attractions. We spent a fun-filled week in northern France, predominantly paid for by our clubcard points, purely earned on our weekly shop.

So, how did we make the most of our Clubcard points?

Well, my son (and husband) both grew up with Asterix comics and, after countless nights of reading aloud bedtime stories about the Gauls, I felt I knew the characters intimately.  Indeed, I considered Mrs Geriatrix a close friend! So, when I discovered that there was an amusement park devoted to the tales of René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, I was sold on the idea of a family trip to France.  Parc Asterix is only 45 kilometres from the centre of Paris. A perfect combination: plastic for the children and a bit of culture pour les parents.

Obviously, we had a choice of transportation.  We could either fly direct to Paris or we could drive, meandering down through the UK and having a few days exploring northern France on 'the other side'.  Not being rushed for time, we decided to take the long route.  However, have you seen the price of ferries?  No wonder Ryanair and Easyjet have a monopoly on European travel.  Having only travelled by cross-channel ferry on the odd 'booze cruise' in the 1990s, I hadn't anticipated just how expensive it is to take a car (and a family) to Calais.  This is where Tesco came to the rescue as I discovered that I could pay for my ferry crossing with points I'd built up through the year.  £10 worth of Clubcard points become £30 when you redeem them with DFDS Seaways.  So, effectively, our ferry cost zilch.

In a bid to make the most of our journey, we spent the night before our crossing in Dover at a Premier Inn right on the seafront, complete with the noisiest seagulls I've ever heard. Arriving at the windswept coast at lunchtime meant that we were able to see Dover's eponymous Castle - the most amazing place I've ever visited. We spent hours exploring the secret tunnels of World War II, comprehending the danger of the Dunkirk evacuation and noisily charging around the battlements. Built atop the white cliffs, this castle's history features many larger-than-life characters and the children were captivated to see history so up close. As if our day at Dover Castle hadn't been fantastic enough, it was even better knowing that our entry had been free, courtesy of Tesco. Using our Clubcard points, we'd purchased English Heritage annual membership at the beginning of the summer and had already made the most of free entry to amazing places such as Kenilworth Castle and Kenwood House. Had we paid the entry fee for Dover Castle, it would have set us back £50 for a family entry. However, we'd managed to secure a whole year's entry into castles, palaces and stately homes for just £30 worth of Tesco Clubcard points. That evening, we continued the Tesco theme that evening by eating in nearby Canterbury, using Prezzo vouchers we'd earned through our Clubcard points. We were definitely reaping the benefits of spending countless pounds on groceries the previous year!

Once we'd crossed the channel the following day, our French sojourn stretched before us and we listened to dodgy Europop all the way to what was to be our home for the next few days.  One hundred and fifty miles from the bustling port of Calais, we'd found a great holiday rental in the town of Chantilly, a place famous for its lace and cream.  Staying in an annex of an elderly French couple's house meant that we had use of their garden, complete with table-tennis table for the kids and much-appreciated sun loungers for mum and dad!  A supermarket in the nearby town, a local boulangerie and a pizza delivery firm down the road meant that we were never far from food!
Perhaps the best aspect of our holiday home, though, was its proximity to the beautiful Domaine de Chantilly, a perfect stately pile in which to while away an afternoon. Originally built for the Montmorency family in 1560, its majestic interior is opulent, yet the formal gardens are a wonderful playground for young and old alike. As the children ran wild through the 383 acres of lawns and forest paths, we sat back and admired the architectural splendour and the bygone days of French aristocracy against the backdrop of stunning natural charm. With a wallaby zoo, a maze and the enticing cream pastries in the cafés, Chantilly is a well-kept secret in this region of France.  Just opposite the grand house are the largest horse stables in Europe, complete with equestrian shows within the grandeur of the 18th century architecture. 

Also not far from our rental home in the Picardy region of France was Chateau de Pierrefonds, the setting for films such as the 1998 version of "The Man in the Iron Mask" starring Leonardo DiCaprio and John Malkovich.  The BBC's "Merlin" was also filmed here, using the castle as a representation of Camelot.  We had great fun burning off some energy at this beautiful castle.  With under-18s going free, it made for a cheap and educational daytrip.

Once we'd fully explored the locale of Chantilly, we ventured into the bright lights of Paris.  As the local train hurtled through the suburban environs of this captivating city, we kept the children entertained with a 'spot the Eiffel Tower' competition. Their faces when they eventually spotted the 324m high monolithic pylon were a joy to witness; their eyes lit up to see such an iconic landmark.

Once we'd arrived at Gare du Nord, we didn't stop. We walked for hours, taking in all the sights.  Sacre Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, Le Louvre and Arc de Triomphe were all ticked off our list. Every corner of this city was visited on foot and, by the time, we found ourselves eye to eye with Mona Lisa, we were exhausted and more than ready to return to the calm of Chantilly.

The next day, Parc Asterix, only 15 miles from our accommodation, was everything we'd hoped it would be. From the larger-than-life characters wandering the park to the stomach-churning rollercoasters, all was an excellent day's worth of fun. A cool alternative to the worldwide monopoly of Disney just down the road, Parc Asterix has the feel of a bygone age of amusement park and it seems earthier and more honest than other theme parks we've visited.  Entrance prices to Parc Asterix are as you would expect.  At fifty euros for adult tickets and 40 euros for children, this could be an expensive day out.  However, by converting our Tesco Clubcard points before leaving the UK, we managed to enjoy our day with Asterix and Obelix for free.  For just £15 worth of Clubcard points, we were able to get a day's entry ticket posted to us and ready to be exchanged at the ticket office.

Leaving our holiday rental on the last day of our holiday didn't mean that our French adventure was over.  With a late ferry crossing booked, we had the whole day to stop and explore.  With a history-mad eight year old in tow, we decided to stop at Vimy Ridge, the site of the World War I battle of Easter 1917 when 3,600 Canadians were killed and over 10,000 wounded.  The monument commemorates this key event of the Battle of Arras and it is considered a Natural Historic Site of Canada.   Finished in 1936, this majestic memorial took eleven years to construct and the tranquility surrounding the monument is both thought-provoking and poignant.  Due to this site being on the Western Front, visitors can also experience the trench lines of  a battlefield in a relatively realistic state.  Now concreted and maintained, the trenchlines enable the modern-day historian to stand below the surface and imagine the horror and destruction of a hundred years ago; a visit which will stay with the children.

So, a week of memories and all for a minimal cost.  Thanks to Tesco, we managed to save a fortune on our trip across the channel.  A free ferry crossing, entry to an incredible UK castle, tickets to a theme park and a family meal out were all benefits of having shopped at Tesco for the year.  Once I'd totted up our savings and realised that our Tesco points had saved us in the region of £450, I allowed myself a smug smile as I flicked through the photographic reminders of an amazing week.

Yes, we could cash in our Clubcard points instore, but I'd much rather know that my regular grocery deliveries were building up to a week of fantastic French fun!  In fact, once home, and as we began to unpack our suitcases, the doorbell rang.  Our Tesco delivery had arrived to restock our fridge and to help us on our way to the next Tesco-funded holiday.

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