Friday, 29 January 2016

Roadtrip planning

Everyone loves a good roadtrip.  Whether it be along the sultry Route 66 or the rugged Welsh coastline, the excitement of not knowing what adventures you'll have along the way is priceless.

A fantastic new website that helps with planning the perfect trip is  This excellent tool will enable you to divide up your journey and see what's along the way.  Fancy a museum halfway on your journey between Edinburgh and London?  Want to spin upside down at a theme park on your way from Toronto to New York?  All the possibilities are but a click away.

This website is also handy for arranging meet-ups with friends you keep meaning to see.  Finding a restaurant or an art gallery halfway between your houses has never been easier!

Friday, 22 January 2016

Savvy self-catering

A shared pool in Gozo
Self-catering is the only way, in my humble opinion, to holiday with a family.  It's cheaper, it offers more freedom and the whole family can relax in the knowledge that they are in control of the holiday, tailoring your holiday to the family's specific tastes and save money in the process.  The internet makes the search for the perfect holiday so easy and, between them, websites such as Tripadvisor, Homeaway, Airbnb and Owners Direct have thousands of homes waiting for some temporary tenants.

Complete with our own frogs in Memphis, Tennessee
However, with so many search engines and brochures offering self-catering accommodation, choosing the right property can be time-consuming and ploughing through all the choices can sometimes be overwhelming.  So, how to pick with a wise eye?  As a family, we always self-cater, occasionally interspersing the holiday with a night in a hotel here and there, so I have plenty of experience in the ways of choosing a decent holiday rental.  Dotted throughout this week's blog are photos of properties we've had the pleasure of staying in - houses we could never afford to actually buy in places we've always wanted to live!

A historic shotgun house in New Orleans, Louisiana

So, here are my tips for picking wisely...

Be flexible.  Be willing to hire a place away from the hustle and bustle of the hubbub.  Sometimes, travelling a little down the road from the nearest town can reap rewards, offering a place with more garden space and perhaps a pool for less cost.  Also, don't rule out apartments instead of villas or cottages.  A funky penthouse apartment might offer stunning panoramas from the rooftop garden or a townhouse might put you directly in the action of the city.  Obviously, the exact location of your home-from-home will depend on whether you wish to hire a car or not. 

Original slave quarters in 'The Deep South'
As mentioned in my previous blogs, it's worth looking for flights to random places.  Not only are off-the-beaten track airports cheaper to fly to but these regions also usually offer more reasonably-priced accommodation, with less demand from holiday-makers.

Danish delight
Also, if you're a complete control freak like me, another way to guarantee the perfect holiday rental is to google map the address of the accommodation.  From looking at a bird's eye view of the address you can see what's in the immediate vicinity.  Yes, the photos of the house look stunning but has the owner captured the essence of the landfill site next door?  This extra (okay, slightly obsessive) veneer of research does ensure that you know exactly what you're getting when you land in foreign climes.  This method can also help with transport questions - is there a bus stop nearby or is the rental in the middle of nowhere?

Search engines such as tripadvisor are invaluable for the discerning independent traveller.  The search criteria for your rental property can be honed and tweaked until you have selected your preferred combination of preferences.  Need a pool?  Need wifi?  Need a dishwasher?  You can funnel your choices until your perfect composite is realised.

Swimming pools are essential for a fun family holiday and, with a bit of canny research, you can pinpoint your accommodation search to include pools.  Don't always be so quick to plump for a private pool though.  A shared pool in a complex can be just as fun and will ensure that there are other children to entertain your bundles of joy.  Our holiday in Italy last summer was a truly restful week, made perfect when we realised that the holidaying family next door had 'matching' kids.  We took it in turns to watch the children swim whilst we sunbathed, unbothered, for hours, dozing away whole afternoons and reading some truly trashy novels.  Bliss!

Italy, complete with trampoline
Before packing, do check what's included in the price.  Very often, self-catered options provide towels, bed linen and toiletries, saving you space to fit another sundress in your luggage.  Also, do check that utilities are included in the total price.  You don't want to arrive in Madrid in the middle of August and have to pay extra for an air-conditioning unit.  And, more often than not, the kitchen is usually complemented with basics such as dishwasher tablets and condiments.  Many places now offer a 'welcome pack' as standard which normally includes bread, milk, juice and a bottle of the local alcoholic tipple. 

A tip that might, in the first instance, seem penny-pinching can save you a fortune on your holiday costs.  My advice is to find a property rental with a washing-machine.  With this facility at your disposal, you don't need to pack as many clothes.  Not having to pack as much means that you can travel with a small cabin case instead of hold luggage; this simple measure can save each traveller in the region of £50 on luggage fees with carriers such as Ryanair and EasyJet.  Even British Airways European flights now charge for hold luggage so it's advice worth thinking about.

Home made doughnuts from our neighbour in Croatia
Staying in a hot country means that your washing will dry instantly on the line so it's really no hardship to do some clothes washing a couple of times during your fortnight away.  Besides, a couple of loads of washing done on holiday means that you're saved the arduous domestic chores upon your return to the UK. 

If you do pick a place with a washing machine, a further tip is to take some washing tablets/sachets with you in your luggage.  You'll only use a few and it seem pointless to have to buy a big tub of Persil whilst on holiday.  Equally, I always take a few dishwasher tablets with me in my cabin suitcase to avoid the unnecessary cost of a bumper pack.

If TV is important to you, make sure that the accommodation has channels which will satiate your need for entertainment.  Personally, I love the fact that the kids have to watch and listen to TV from around the world.  One of my favourite memories from holidays last year is us all settling down to watch 'Bonanza' in Croatian every evening at 6 o'clock while dinner was being prepared and don't get me started on how excited I was when the 1980's Australian series of 'The Flying Doctors' was found on a channel during our Danish foray!  We've also shared in the televisual treat of the King of Norway's 70th birthday celebrations in 2007 - a five hour 'Big Brother' style coverage that will stay, indelibly, imprinted on our memory; what I can't tell you about the monarchy of Norway ain't worth knowing!

Our own beach in Maine, USA
Once you've entered your search criteria, you'll be presented with plenty of places to choose from.  At this point of your search, it's well worth 'sorting' the results by 'number of reviews'.  Anyone can put some fancy photos of their new bathroom on the internet but not everyone can find 100 friends who'll give them a positive review of their property!  Read reviews carefully.  Look for signs of the hosts being genuine and upstanding people.  I always like to see the hosts mentioned by their name in the ratings; I think it shows a genuine approachability and friendliness of the property's owner/manager.   Also, reviews help hugely by giving advice on the locality: bus route advice, local restaurants and even nearby playgrounds.  The independent travelling community is expansive and people will go out of their way to help and advise.  Even complete strangers will answer your queries - I once emailed a woman (through tripadvisor) to ask what her weather had been like in the time of year she'd visited Cape Town.  Her advice beat that of the travel agents hands-down and, seeing (from her profile photo) that she had similarly aged children to me, I was able to ask pertinent questions and she was more than happy to help me out. 
Our cute cottage on the shores of Lake Ontario
And, once you've enjoyed your holiday, don't forget to leave a review of the property yourself.  If you can help fellow mums and dads have a restful (and easy-on-the-wallet) break, then why not spend a few minutes penning a summary of your stay? 

Iceland apartment

If you're a little wary of 'going it alone' and favour the security blanket of a tour operator, perhaps search for a house whereby the owner lives upstairs or just across the way.  Eager-to-please hosts will help you with travel plans and local information.  Increasingly, in the competitive world of the holiday rental, householders will even pick you up from the airport free of charge.  We're off to Athens at Easter and 'Con' is going to meet us at the airport and even said he'll drop by the supermarket on the way back to his apartment so that we can get provisions for the week.  Indeed, if you pick your property wisely, you'll possibly end up making new international friends. 

For further 'security', look for British owners.  If you're worried or tentative about trying out your Croatian, stick to UK managers so that you can factor out the language barrier.  Having said this, I've never had any problems with my pidgin English and part of the fun, in my eyes, is learning snippets of conversation in a new tongue.  Another bonus of having British landlords is that expectations and standards will be similar.  You know what you're getting and this can be reassuring for some who like their creature comforts and shy away from cultural variation.

Don't leave anything to chance when renting privately.  Ensure that you have contact numbers, full names of the people you're dealing with and addresses of the property in which you're staying before you leave the UK.  Know when and where you're meeting the owner/manager and never be afraid to ask stupid questions.  At the end of the day, you're paying for a service and you expect value for money.

Photographs are a sure-fire way to ensure that you pick a place that suits you.  For a week, you can live in your ideal or dream house.  For me, a week in a cluttered house with trinkets and fanciful decoration would drive me wild so I always seek out the sleek minimalistic style which I crave at home.  Sounds silly I know but I always look at photos of the bed linen to ensure that I share similar tastes with the owners - I have been known to rule out a house due to its orange duvet cover and saggy-looking pillow!
Cheers to our Canadian rental
Another aspect that I always look out for when picking properties is photos of children in the owners' profiles, particularly those who look the same age as my own.  If you know that the landlord has children of their own, you know that they'll be understanding of the noise and chaos that will no doubt ensue.  Also, ready-made playmates are not to be sniffed at.  As you sit with the owners, sharing a few bottles of local wine under the shade of the majestic cypress trees, whilst the children race around your new friends' garden, you'll be pleased that you chose the property based purely on its family shot! 

The view from our bedroom window in Italy
Holiday off-season.  Sometimes, holidaying in the winter months can bring massive bargains.  The weather might not be so hot but the property will be and you'll see the sights without the hordes. 

Another tip for timing holidays well is looking at when your country of choice has their summer holidays.  Scandinavian countries, well known for their expensive accommodation costs, finish the school summer break in the middle of August, leaving the last fortnight of the UK hols to be cheaper.  We stayed in a wonderful chalet right on the beach last summer for a fraction of the cost (£50 a night) it would have been in the summer.  Complete with canoe, bikes and barbecue, it had every facility imaginable for the perfect family break.  After-dinner strolls along our own stretch of Nordic coast made the cost of having our own Danish bolthole negligible. 

A gated community in Gozo
Obviously, never pay the full amount of the rent up front.  A reasonable deposit will be required but ensure that you have contact details for the owner and exchange a few emails before committing yourself.  Do they answer your emails promptly?  Is the tone of their emails appropriate?  Are they helpful (and patient) with inane questions?  Do you get a good 'feel' for them?  Search engines such as tripadvisor allow you to pay by credit card for your accommodation which is good as you'll be covered should anything go wrong.  Try to avoid owners who insist on bank transfers.  It's time-consuming to get to the bank and expensive to transfer other currencies from your UK bank account.  What appears to be the cheapest deal can sometimes rocket in price once you add bank fees.

Perfecting his backhand in Paris
Other ideas
An even cheaper method of self-catering is to swap houses with friends or trusted acquaintances.  With so many of us living our lives through Facebook, your friends' (and their friends') houses are at your disposal.  Why not offer your house out for a week in the summer in exchange for accommodation elsewhere.  You'd be surprised at how many takers you have of your offer.  Why not target friends you know who live by the coast or a friend who lives in a cool city?

Chantilly cottage
There you have it.  Advice built up over a fair few holidays.  Having your own pad abroad really does add a dimension to the family holiday.  

Oh, and if you fancy a week at mine, do get in touch...

Friday, 15 January 2016

Iceland with the family

For a family adventure, you need look no further than Iceland.  Only 3 hours from the UK and serviced by the budget airlines, this destination will make a massive impact on everyone - I defy any member of your family not to fall in love with this island.

Flights to this ethereal country are dearer than other destinations but the almost other-wordly appeal of Iceland is worth the extra cost.

For families, Iceland is a perfect choice - it is one of those countries who have their priorities straight; children are seen as the owners of the future and, as a result, nearly everything is free for kids in Iceland and this makes this (otherwise slightly pricey country) a viable option for a fascinating city break with 'littlish' ones in tow.

Reykjavik (meaning Smoky Bay in Icelandic) is compelling. This compact capital can be explored easily on foot and, being so tiny, you'll think you'll missed a chunk.  You haven't - it really is that small.  In a couple of hours, you'll feel at home and the village feel of the city will make you feel welcome.  And with only 115,000 Icelanders living in Reykjavik, you'll make friends quickly!

Ambling through the streets of wooden houses, you'll soon come across Hallgrimskirkja, as this beautiful church is a landmark which can be seen across the city.  Designed by Guðjón Samuel in 1937, the design is inspired by the effect of volcanic lava cooling into basalt rock.  To climb the tower offers panoramic views of Rekjavik and the ocean. 

Another attraction of Reyjavik is its very own shoreline.  Blues of every shade cascade into the ocean and a windy walk along the promenade chills your cheeks and warms your soul.  The colours are so vibrant; the whites are pristine and the silvers almost dazzle.

Only 321,000 people live in Iceland and it shows!  There is never a queue, there is seemingly little traffic and the air has a glorious purity that smarts your lungs.  Even the parliament building looks like someone's house!
The population is so small that, in 2013, an app was launched which allows Icelanders to see how closely they are related; an app much-used by the younger generations on nights out!

What this island lacks in citizens, it more than makes up for in wildlife.  There are more ponies than people in Iceland, puffins dart in and out of the water at whim and whale-watching companies touting their fascinating trips line the harbour.  So few citizens to share the most wonderful scenery... 

When visiting Iceland, an absolute must is the Golden Circle day tour.  This guided coach tour leaves from the centre of Reykjavik and its an amazing trip of stunning natural contrasts. This trip (free to children under twelve years) takes you to the very spot where the Eurasian tectonic plate and the North American tectonic plate meet in Thingvellir National Park.  Almost lunar in appearance, Thingvellir is remote and seemingly barren yet, upon closer inspection, it is alive with a million geology lessons rolled into one. This trip allows you to see the original parliament of Iceland, Althing.  Originating in 930, this special location means a great deal to the Icelandic people and, when you see how beautiful it is, you'll understand why.

The Golden Circle trip also takes in Gullfoss, a torrent of the river Hvítá.  The spray from this waterfall alone is enough to soak you through to the skin and the noise of the rushing water is deafening.  And, as if that wasn't enough natural beauty in one day, a stop at the Geysir geothermal area is included in the trip.  Watching the kids' faces as they wait for Strokkur, the most active geyser in Iceland, to erupt is priceless. 

Obviously, another natural phenomenon is the majestic Northern Lights.  Trips leave nightly for nature's laser show and, again, kids under twelve are free.  Tour guides explain  the science bit and the lightshow is unforgettable.  The colours, the hues and the crisp air all combine to bring the night sky to life right in front of your incredulous eyes.

So, practicalities...

Accommodation and eating out are both expensive in Iceland but these costs can be counteracted by renting an apartment rather than paying over £150 for a family room in a hotel.We stayed at Reykjavik Residence Hotel which, just along from the tiny parliament building, offered us a luxurious two-bedroomed apartment with a full kitchen.   Catering for the family is easy as just off the main square in Reykjavik is a minimart where provisions can be bought.  We dined out just the once at a fish and chips restaurant.  Yes, we needed to take out a small mortgage to buy them (£60 for the four of us) but it was by far the freshest fish we've ever tasted.

Looking at flights, April and May seem to be the cheapest months to travel north from the UK.  It's also worth considering Iceland as an add-on to a stateside holiday as airlines fly direct to the east coast of North America from Reykjavik for as little as £170 return! 

Friday, 8 January 2016

Family London on a budget

London.  Extraordinarily expensive for a family trip?  Not necessarily.  As a home-grown Londoner, I am fiercely proud of my hometown and want to share the secrets of how to explore this city in style, without straining the purse-strings.

London is a city with the commuter in mind.  Therefore, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em by saving on accommodation costs and staying outside of the city.  Depending on which part of the UK you're travelling from, stop as soon as you near a tube line.  Travelodges and Premier Inns have the monopoly on cheap rooms and, with kids breakfasting for free in these chains, you can fill up excited tummies with enough fried food and cereal to keep them going until mid-afternoon.  Next February half-term, there are Travelodge family rooms available in north London for only £35 a night.

If you don't fancy staying overnight, single-day return trains booked in advance can be reasonable, particularly if you split the journey if you're travelling from afar.  For example,when travelling from Shrewsbury, I never buy one ticket.  I break up the journey and buy two tickets:  Shrewsbury to Birmingham New Street and then another ticket from Brum to London Euston.  For a family of four, we've often saved in the region of £75 when buying tickets like this.  And, if you travel by train, be sure to keep hold of your ticket stubs; proof that you travelled by train can gain you 2-for-1 tickets at lots of attractions in the capital.  Take a look at National Rail's 2-for-1 website to find out more.

Once in London, tube fares are reasonably-priced, even more so if you have an Oyster Card.  It's worth investing in an Oyster Card so that it can be reused on future trips to The Big Smoke.  It's basically a reloadable travel card which is debitted every time you make a journey.  And, as a bonus, under 11s are free on the underground and bus network, making transport even less of a financial worry.

Once in London, there are hundreds of free and inexpensive sights and experiences to enjoy.  A personal favourite of mine is The Museum of London. This fascinating (and free) museum is located near The Barbican and can easily take up a full afternoon of exploration; there are 450,000 years of history covered!  From The Great Fire of London to The Blitz, no aspect of London's past is left unturned and free guided tours are available for families at various points through the day.  Even the building itself is interesting; 1960s architecture really wasn't pretty, was it?

A great spot whilst in this neck of the woods is The Monument.  Built to commemorate the very spot where The Great Fire of London started in 1666, this doric column was finished in 1677 and was designed by Sir Christopher Wren.  It's an easy walk up the stone steps to the public gallery, about 160 feet above the sprawling metropolis.  It's cheap too.  At only £2 for children, it's a fantastic way to see the city.  Another handy tip is that, at the weekend, this part of London is deserted.  Slap bang in the middle of the Square Mile, this area of town is abuzz in the week with financial experts but, come the weekend, it closes down, leaving restaurants empty. 

If you have time, there is a combination ticket which can be bought at The Monument.  For under a  fiver for children and ten pounds for adults, the family can visit both The Monument and Tower Bridge - the iconic source of many a nursery rhyme, built in the 19th century.  Your entry ticket allows access to the exhibition rooms of the bridge and a thrill-seeking walk across the glass floor of the walkways. 

Marvel at the Thames flowing below your feet and wonder at the history that this part of London has seen. It's worth checking the website to see whether your visit coincides with a day when there's a bridge lift (the majestic arms of the bridge rise to allow oversized vessel clearance) as this is a sight not seen be many people.

Another tourist attraction just a wave down the river, not to be missed, is the eleventh century Tower of London.  It is quite expensive to get in but, with a little forward planning, there are ways to easily shave money off the cost.  National Rail's 2for1 offer is applicable to tickets here, as is Tesco's Clubcard.  When we visited, we used Tesco vouchers.  For every £2.50 worth of points we cashed in, we received £10 off our entry to the historical palace.

The Tower is one of my faves.  The Beefeaters are friendly and I have personal proof that they will answer any question posed by an inquisitive (and rather cheeky) eight year old!  The Crown Jewels are also a must-see and, if your child has read  David Walliams' "Gangsta Granny", they'll want to see the exquisite jewellery that Granny attempted to steal. 

A little-known free activity in London can be found in Westminster.  Here, your trip can become even more educational, with politics mixed into the equation.  A guided tour of the House of Lords, House of Commons and Westminster Hall can be arranged through your MP and, booked in advance, this tour is free to UK residents.  This opportunity is an amazing eye-opener, which will surely illuminate (and inspire) young minds.

Whilst in Westminster, there is an even lesser known tour which is available for over-11s with a British passport.  Again organised through your MP, tours of the Elizabeth Tower, the home of Big Ben, are fascinating.  To see behind Ben's clockface is something very few have done.  Watching the chimes at New Year's Eve will never be the same again!

A brief walk towards Trafalgar Square will take you past Downing Street.  Here, you can marvel at the police officer's guns and wave at the famous glossy back door as you head towards Whitehall and the Horseguards.  All day, these motionless guards sit aback their splendid steads, avoiding embarrassing eye contact with the public.  At 11am and 4pm on weekdays, the guards come alive and become a feast for the spectator's eye.  In the morning, the guards change in a splendid and pomp-filled ceremony, complete with shouting and stamping.  The afternoon's activity is a much more sedate affair when the guards are inspected by their superiors.

Once you've reached Trafalgar Square, another cost-free activity to enjoy is the National Gallery.  Armed with a sharp pencil and a sketch pad, any artistic child will while away many an hour quite happily here.  There is also a specially designed trail for children which can be downloaded before arrival.  The National Gallery's website has a 'family' page which details all the many arty crafty events available to young (and older) members of the family.

Next door to the beacon of art is the National Portrait Gallery with its paintings and photographs of famous people, both historical and modern.  It's fun to try to spot the kings and queens learned about earlier on your London trip, when you visited the Tower of London or the Houses of Parliament.  The whole packgage makes history come alive and sparks the imagination of even the most difficult-to-please child. 

Other (amazingly) free museums to be enjoyed are the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum.  The gothic splendour of these buildings will stun you, even before you've entered their hallowed halls.  Both fascinating for children, they are big on things to see and touch.  A handy tip though is to arrive early (or late) in the day to avoid the inevitable queues.  Another great building, just along from the Science Museum, is the Victoria and Albert Museum (the world's largest museum of arts and design) which will appeal to all budding fashion designers.

A little way from the tourist route, yet a worthy journey, is the Imperial War Museum.  Free to enter, it's recently had a complete refurbishment and the battles and squirmishes of recent years are brought to life sympathetically.  From here, the South Bank is just along the way and provides lots of restaurants, cafes and quirky bars.  The people-watching along the Thames is fantastic too; great for spotting celebrities!

A fair stretch of a walk along the river and you'll reach another cache of treasures in the shape of
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the Millennium Bridge, St Paul's Cathedral and Tate Modern.  Kids will love the funky art at the gallery and they'll burn off any surplus energy running across the steel suspension footbridge towards St Paul's Cathedral and trying to make it sway.  The Globe does have an entrance fee but, to be honest, seeing it from the outside is enough for young children.  If the little ones are desperate to go in, the access to the shop is free so you can see the 'inside' without paying extortionate ticket prices.  Tate Modern offers free entrance and the artworks are visually stimulating and a real feast for the eyes; I defy any visitor not to be captivated by the current work in the entrance hall. 

So, jam-packed with activities, sights and adventures, London can easily be a relatively cheap destination for a family trip.  As you can see, London is not expensive at all if you know how to find the 'free' things.  For up-to-date information, TimeOut's website has a section for families which is easy to navigate and details fabulous offers and events.  The freebies are out there - they just need to be found!

Enjoy my hometown.  It's an amazingly rewarding city with a photo opportunity around every single corner.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

How far can a tenner get you?

For those of you lucky enough to NOT be a teacher, there are some crazy bargains to be had this year!  If you're free to travel whenever you want and aren't constrained by the dates of the local education authority then you can pick up amazing bargains for the coming months. 

Even for those with school-aged children, it's sometimes worth taking a day or two off school to grab the bargains.  I'm sure that the odd 'sick' day will be overlooked and you can take your kids to see some amazing places which they'd only ever see in a book at school! 

Norway for £8 return?  Switzerland for £11?  Czech Republic for £17?  You couldn't get a taxi into the local town for that!

So, how to find these deals... is the place to look.  On their flight search page, select 'United Kingdom' as your point of departure.  Select your destination as 'Everywhere'.  Doing this will bring you the prices of all the possibilities across the globe. 

The next step, when choosing your date, is to use the drop-down menu to highlight 'Find Cheapest Month'.  Then, watch as the plethora of destinations hits the screen.

Yes, you do have to be flexible but, trust me, you'll have difficulity deciding where to go!