how to grab that family holiday for a fraction of the usual cost
whether it's camping, holiday vouchers or house swaps, there are lots of ways to slash the cost of that annual family summer getaway, says FIONA McPHILLIPSAs the cold snap takes a fresh grasp of our souls, thoughts turn to warmer, happier possibilities. Some of us are excitedly planning and booking for the summer ahead, most of us are still dreaming of far-off shores and some have already given up hope of seeing them this year. If you are one of the many who have written off the chance of sun this summer, don't despair! There are ways of getting out of this rain-sodden piece of turf and that foreign holiday may not be as far away as you think.
My method of choice is camping. That's in an actual tent – not a chalet, a mobile home, a camper van or a pretend 'glamping' tent. Most people look at me in horror when I tell them, as memories of their miserable Irish childhood camping experiment resurface.
All of us of a certain age have had that 1980s camping experience. Forget that. I'm talking about a comfortable, spacious, warm environment with all the holiday facilities you need. The location – Britain, France, Spain or beyond – is up to you.
> camping: We bought our first family tent three years ago and since then have managed three trips to France, one to the UK and four short breaks in Ireland. The first couple of holidays were learning experiences, as we discovered what was essential for a family of five spending up to three weeks away from home. At this stage, we probably have everything we could need, so all we have to do now is decide where to go next.
If you are a camping newbie, then it is probably a good idea to borrow whatever you can. A five-man tent from an established manufacturer such as Gelert, Vango or Coleman can be bought from Amazon for as little as £100 but the rest of the camping paraphernalia can add up.
Essentials are mattresses, all-season sleeping bags, a stove, a table and chairs/stools, comfortable chairs for the adults, a good lamp, an electric hook-up cable (preferably with a plug board), a fridge and a collapsible wardrobe. There are several other things that will make your life easier, such as a washing- up bowl, shelves for food, kitchenware and toiletries, a gazebo/umbrella, but they are not absolute necessities. You will also need a car and most likely a roof box.
Where you go depends on what you are looking for in a holiday and how much you can spend. The south of England tends to be warmer and drier than Ireland and is just a short boat trip and drive away.
Wild camping is becoming increasingly popular in the UK and, while the permission of the landowner is technically required (no permission is required in Scotland), in practice wild campers are welcome and tolerated in most places.
If that sounds a bit too extreme, try the Camping and Caravanning Club for campsites – the more facilities offered, the more you will pay. The website www.ukcampsite.co.uk also has a wealth of information on camping in the UK and beyond. If you are looking for a bit more sun then keep driving all the way to Folkestone and take the channel tunnel to Calais. This is by far the cheapest way to get to France. You can sail directly from Rosslare or Cork, but it will cost a good bit more.
Once you are in France, the world really is your camping oyster. You can choose from small rural campsites with basic facilities to big family campsites with swimming pools, playgrounds, sports facilities, restaurants, bars, spas, nightly entertainment and all the mod cons you would expect from a resort. Or you can do both – when you travel with a tent and a car, you are free to go wherever you want whenever you want.
The further south you go, the warmer it gets and if you are in the mood for a long drive or a stopover, you can make it all the way to Spain. If you are planning on taking a ferry, then shop around for operators and dates as prices can vary considerably. If going at Easter is an option, then there are huge savings to be made – we paid about a third of summer prices for a similar holiday at Easter.
There are other ways to save money on ferries and campsites.
> holiday VOUCHERs:
Niamh Kinsella is using Tesco Clubcard vouchers to pay for the ferry to France for this year's family holiday.
"It's not covered completely but it is taking a big whack off it," she says. Niamh also used her Tesco vouchers to pay for a campsite in France two years ago. The family of five travelled via landbridge (Ireland to the UK to France), spent four days in Disneyland Paris and six days in a Siblu (www.siblu.ie) campsite. "We had priced Disneyland loads of times but it was prohibitive with flights and hotels," she says. "So we said, can we drive, can we actually do it?"
Niamh ended up saving "a heap of money" on the ferry, even taking petrol into account. She also got a deal at her Disneyland accommodation, where the kids ate for free.
"They offer them every now and again and you just have to watch out for them," she says. After Disneyland, the family spent six days in a mobile home at a campsite in the Loire Valley, four of which were paid for by Tesco vouchers. We got the whole summer holiday in France for the same price as it would have cost us to do Disneyland with flights."
> house swapS:
Another practical way to save a huge amount of money on a holiday is to do a house swap. Marie and Paul Murphy have been running the Irish branch of the home exchange network, HomeLink (www.homelink.org), since 1984.
"The whole concept started with HomeLink 60 years ago", says Marie. "It's not new at all."
The biggest issue for most people considering a home exchange is the security of their home. Marie points out that both parties are equally concerned and once a relationship is established, those concerns tend to disappear.
"Once you become a member, you're in contact with people all the time and you're building up a relationship with them," she says. "It's all down to trust – people feel they have a commitment to one another."
Helen O'Riordan exchanged homes with an Italian family last year.
"We were very lucky – a family contacted us before we had contacted anyone."
Helen and her family spent the first half of their holiday in the family home near Naples and the second half in their holiday cottage in Sardinia. "We got the two houses and a seven-seater car for absolutely no cost," she says.
The Italian family had plenty of home exchange experience and were able to show Helen the ropes. "The huge plus about house swapping is that you get inside knowledge about an area." Helen advises anyone thinking about a house swap to give it a go.
"My big advice is to start planning nice and early. Be prepared for a big spring clean and be very clear about how everything is going to work."
So whether you use a tent, deals and vouchers, online bargains or a house swap, I hope you get to see the sun this summer.