Want your brood to beam like the ones in the brochures? Then follow our guide to getting it right, from executing the ideal city break to planning a theme park trip to perfection
Planning a family holiday isn’t as easy as it seems – there are lots of people to please, and from booking to packing, it’s a lot more complex than organising a couple’s trip.
But fret not. If you’re dreaming of the perfect family holiday to put a smile on your kids’ faces and leave them with happy memories, then we’ve got your covered. From visiting major cities such as Rome, New York and Barcelona to tackling theme park holidays and maximising inclusive deals, here’s everything you need to know.
Start off on a high
Who’s every child’s biggest hero and hails from Greater London? Harry Potter, of course. Go seek out Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station as soon as you arrive and the kids will love you forever. Or at least until you get to the gift shop, a shrine to all things HP. The store also sells a few exclusives, such as Harry’s Hogwarts school trunk and acceptance letter.
They’ll be ravenous by now, but you’re itching to see the capital, so jump on a B Bakery bus tour (london.b-bakery.com; depart either from Victoria Station or just off Trafalgar Square). No-one can complain about a vintage Routemaster bus that clocks the city’s greatest sights – Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Royal Albert Hall – while serving you high tea. Alas: under-5s aren’t allowed – if that applies to you, try an Afternoon Tea Cruise on the Thames (citycruises.com).
Secretly educational sight
The Museum of London is really very clever. Parents view it as the national curriculum brought to life, but the kids only see fun, fun, fun. Watch London burn in the Great Fire (and wear a 17th-century fireman’s hat), then join a garden party in the days of Queen Victoria, before sitting inside a prison cell, its walls scratched with the names of turn-of-the-century debtors (museumoflondon.org.uk).
Blow off steam
The South Bank is a brilliant leg-stretcher: under-11s can reboot at Jubilee Playground and Gardens and older kids will get a kick out of Riverside Walk (selfies at the London Eye, street performers and more) – and no child will be able to stop staring at the skateboarders at Skate Space. If it’s raining, duck into Tate Modern (tate.org.uk) and let them run around the gargantuan turbine hall.
An underground swimming pool with doughnut inflatables, giant cinema screens, milk and cookies at bedtime, and kiddie certificates that can be cashed in for a mocktail in the bar… Haymarket Hotel, near Leicester and Trafalgar Squares, could have been designed by Kevin from Home Alone, yet it’s just as pleasing for parents – with the buzzy Brumus restaurant and chic interiors they don’t have to keep tidy. Consider, too, that the sister hotel in Soho – Ham Yard – has a bowling alley. Handy.
If only I’d known
Taxis make most sense for families taking short central journeys, even if it does feel extravagant. Use the Uber app and you’ll pay less to be driven from King’s Cross to the Museum of London than you would on the Tube when travelling with older children or more than two people. If you do take public transport, use your contactless bank card for a 50% discount – you’ll need a different card for each person.
Winter in Lapland
Don’t go too early
Lapland without the white stuff is snow joke, and winters up here are starting later these days, so go from the second or third weekend in December for a guaranteed snowscape. Ample time is crucial: do not book one of those 24-hour round-trips from another country — your child will be so tired and cranky you’ll wonder why you bothered. Four nights is better, and even then you’ll wish you had more. Darkness reigns: daylight falls between 10am and 2pm, when an eerie green and pink glow illuminates the sky.
Not all Santa villages are the same
Lapland spreads across the top end of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. However, Finnish Lapland is where almost all Santa trips go, and Rovaniemi, the provincial capital, is the ‘main’ home of Father Christmas (santaclausvillage.info): the big guy can be visited here every day of the year. With this comes a hefty slice of commercialism, and if you’re happy with that – paying for your photo in a snow globe, endless gift shops, a whopping great city of Santa – that’s where you should go. Children will love it; parents may not. For the real deal – and endless other wintry activities, such as snowmobiling, skiing and reindeer rides – head north to the smaller resorts of Levi, Yllas or Saariselka. Levi is just 20 minutes from the airport, making transfers with weary tots superspeedy. Here, Santa’s village is way out in the wilderness: a huddle of twinkly log cabins hidden among snow-laden pines. Kids can decorate gingerbread cookies with Mrs Claus, make decorations and visit Elf school to learn Finnish words such as ‘Hyvää Joulua’ (Happy Christmas), as well as having a private tête-à-tête with Santa himself. The focus is firmly on wholesome festive fun and, refreshingly, souvenir stops are sparse.
If you only ever take one package trip, this is the time to do it
If you let the experts plan this trip for you, the festive fun starts on the plane – and children are hooked. Trust us, when it’s -20°C outside you’ll want a coach-load of elves to collect you from the airport, equip you with thermal snowsuits and speed you straight to your accommodation. And with just three or four days on the ground, you won’t want to waste precious time at the supermarket, so opt for a hotel. The expansive buffets will please even the most unadventurous of little eaters.
Go against the flow
Book your husky ride, snowmobile and reindeer safari (all unmissable) for the last day or two of your hols. The numbers will have petered out by then as most people whizz off at high speed on the first day or two. Booking through the local tourist office or direct (laplandsafaris.com) can make it more crowd-free. Check your tour company’s included excursions carefully – these can be just five minutes ‘having a go’ and nothing like the longer experience. And remember the best fun is free… Some of your sweetest memories will be sledging, building snowmen or simply rolling around on the slopes. In Levi, sleds are scattered about, and there’s a nursery slope with free button lifts at Kids’ Land, so children can have a go at skiing. Pick up some sausages and marshmallows from the local S-Market en route and toast them free of charge over the fire in a little Lappish hut at the bottom of the slope (levi.ski/en/kidsland); hire ski gear a short walk away at Zero Point.
Maximise your chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis
The Northern Lights are elusive and the luckiest time to see them is in spring and autumn – here’s how to increase your chances. Stay far north of the Arctic Circle (in Levi, Inari or Saariselka), out of town (less light pollution), and download the aurora app (free). It shows the likelihood according to your location and will send an alert if a sighting is imminent – some hotels will even sound an alarm to wake you when the aurora is near. Or take an after-dark snowmobile safari for an atmospheric treat. Even if you don’t see it, speeding across a frozen lake at 60kph is an experience in itself.
Start off on a high
Forget the Sagrada Família (the kids won’t get it) and take bus T2a from Plaça de Catalunya to Tibidabo – the hill you can see from Passeig de Gràcia. On top, there’s a theme park with charmingly retro rides and fab views (tibidabo.cat). Or, on the other side of the city, take the funicular up to montjuïc (telefericdemontjuic.cat). The highlight here is the Magic Fountain, next door to the Poble Espanyol, a leftover from the 1929 World Exhibition (the equivalent of the Expo), where kids can visit attractions from the whole of Spain.
Take the metro to the Plaça d’Españya, then nip around the corner to the Suarna Bar restaurant on Carrer Llançà. Admittedly, from the outside it looks a bit like a shopping-mall diner, but the kids – like the cops and the locals who dine here – will love it. Paella is the house speciality, but there’s also a kids’ menu, entertaining staff and, on the top floor, a play area (restaurantesuarna.com).
Secretly educational sight
You may wish to explore La Ruta del Modernisme in a bid to understand Gaudí’s internal struggle between God and nature, but that won’t cut it with the kids – with the exception perhaps of the Alice in Wonderland fantasy of La Pedrera (lapedrera.com) and crazy Park Guell, where they’ll love exploring Gaudí’s cartoon-like playground. Otherwise, the Museu Maritim (mmb.cat) will easily fill an afternoon, with its fascinating collection of model ships and a fish-shaped submarine.
Blow off steam
Hit the beach. Most visitors head to La Barceloneta, but for a more family-friendly vibe take metro line L4 to Selva del Mar and the Platja del Bogatell, where locals combine competitive volleyball with loafing, paddling and long lunches. This could also be the spot for another memorable meal: try the paella at the beachfront Xiringuito Escribà (restaurantsescriba. com). And don’t miss the magical Parc de la Ciutadella at the edge of El Born district. It has a boating lake, zoo and playgrounds – perfect for hide and seek
You can find cheaper places to stay, but you won’t find a better location than the Majestic Residence, one block from La Pedrera on Passeig de Gràcia. The two-bed apartments come with sitting and dining rooms and, on the off-chance you’ve got fussy eaters in tow, a fully equipped kitchen. Prefer a hotel? The Icon BCN is three blocks east of the Plaça de Catalunya and 20 minutes from Parc de la Ciutadella.
If only I’d known
The Barcelona card saves you so much cash, providing free public transport and free entry to 25 museums (barcelonacard.org).
Start off on a high
No New York City attraction will wow your kids like the rooftop views from the Rockefeller Centre. The 67th/68th floor indoor gallery is good, but the open-air 70th-floor observation deck is better, with OMG views of all Manhattan’s icons, including the Empire State Building, Central Park and the Hudson River. Come at night for added sparkle.
For a classic slice of ’50s Americana in Midtown Manhattan, grab brunch in a booth at Comfort Diner, notorious for its artery-clogging buttermilk pancakes, piled high with toasted pecans, bananas and berries (comfortdiner.com). Free coffee refills, leather banquettes and possible sightings of Comfort Diner fan Justin Bieber – it’s a cracking find, less than 10 minutes’ walk from Grand Central Station. For dinner, Urbanspace Vanderbilt is a food hall with 20 burger, taco or pizza vendors and communal tables (urbanspacenyc.com).
Secretly educational sight
Some families will lick their lips at New York’s dizzying list of art museums. But not all. However, even philistines enjoy the fifth-floor gallery at MoMA, a perfect 90-minute highlights reel of A-List artists, from Picasso and Pollock to Mondrian and Monet. There’s no charge for under-16s, free wi-fi at the excellent cafe by the gift shop, and selfie opportunities with Van Gogh’s Starry Night to impress even the grumpiest teen (moma.org).
Blow off steam
Running for two-and-a-half elevated kilometres between Hudson Yards and Chelsea, the disused railway High Line is an entertaining riot of wildflowers, urban art and belting views, starting right beside the instantly Instagrammable new Vessel landmark (thehighline.org). Or make yourselves comfortable on a bench in Washington Square Park, brimming with buskers at weekends, and just next door to the cage, aka West Fourth Street courts, a famous no-frills breeding ground of basketball legends.
A 15-minute walk from MoMA and the Rockefeller Centre, the Roger Smith on Lexington has oodles of old New York style and family suites that won’t blow your holiday budget. It also has a bite-sized rooftop bar, so while the kids gorge on wi-fi back in the room, mums and dads can sip manhattans while basking in the city views with midtown’s after-work crowd
If only I’d known
The city’s parks are packed with free family stuff – and they’re a great way to meet New Yorkers. Check out nycgovparks.org for free events in parks, including theatre and piano recitals, yoga and juggling classes. The best green space of all is Brooklyn Bridge Park, with six piers of activities, from kayaking to Pilates.
Universal Studios and Orlando Theme Parks
Avoid summer holidays
Balmy Florida is a year-round destination, so skip summer, when it’s priciest, and nab better deals at Christmas and October and February half terms. There’s added off-season value, too, with festive decorations and parades from October (Halloween and Thanksgiving), then Mardi Gras from February to April. If summer is your only option, travel as late as you can – in many US states, children are back at school by mid-August, so theme-park queues start to dissipate then.
Stay at on-site hotels
For starters you’ll avoid driving and parking headaches with free transport to the parks, but the other perks are worthwhile, too. Stays at all the Universal hotels grant you early park access, meaning an hour’s head start on the masses to tick off the most popular rides – think Simpsons, Revenge of the Mummy and anything Harry Potter-related. Bookings at the three premium hotels also include an express pass to skip the lines – it’s worth calculating whether this will actually work out cheaper than a less pricey stay plus express passes on top (the new Endless Summer Resort is the most budget-friendly on site). If you’re planning to visit other Orlando parks, too, and want to stay offsite, the International Drive neighbourhood is the most central. Kissimmee, while convenient for Disney, is less so for Universal Studios.
Have a plan of attack
Fail to plan, plan to fail – a maxim that could have been designed for theme parks. Don’t head immediately for the rides by the entrance – start at the back of each park and work your way in. If you have small children, make sure to intersperse height-limited rollercoasters with age-appropriate rides, character meet-and-greets and play areas they can enjoy, too. Use the Universal app – it’ll not only show you live-ride wait times and schedules, it’ll even help you find the nearest loos. Disney and Legoland have similar apps. Carry swimming cozzies every day, just in case you decide to head over to Universal’s water park, Volcano Bay, where there are pools as well as splash rides – a good downtime opportunity without returning to your hotel/villa.
Buy a multi-park ticket
Explorer tickets, which give access to either two or all three of the Universal parks, are a no-brainer. Even if you plan to focus mainly on one park a day, without a multi-park ticket you won’t be able to ride on the Hogwarts Express, the HP-themed train that joins Universal to Islands of Adventure (make sure to ride in both directions – the return journey is totally different). Explorer tickets have to be purchased in advance, but this is a bonus, as buying on the day just means one extra queue to stand in. If you plan to visit other Orlando parks, combination tickets with access to Disney, Legoland et al are available (orlandoattractions.com).
Manage the merchandise
You are not going to escape without souvenirs – branded toys and clothes are, as you’d expect, everywhere. So negotiate spending limits in advance, and consider buying birthday gifts, as much of the merchandise is exclusive to the parks. If you’re staying in an on-site hotel, purchases can be sent directly from the till to your room, avoiding the potential for immediate loss or damage. But be sure to hang on to any interactive wands, as they can be used to cast spells at set locations around the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Going All Inclusive
Nooooooo! Don’t make me do it!
The idea of going all-inclusive is anathema to many parents, especially those who pride themselves on their intrepid lust for ‘authentic’ travel. But we’ve got bad news for you: everyone ends up trying it. And the worst news? You’ll love it. There’s nothing so blissful as being able to say ‘yes’ to your child’s third request for an ice cream (because there’s a free gelato kiosk by the pool); nothing so stress-busting as watching them taste – even screw up noses at – local cuisine (because no-one’s judging you, and there’s pizza if they don’t like parmigiana); and nothing so indulgent as taking them to the water slides for five minutes, before they want to try something else. (Who cares? You didn’t queue for pricey tickets). If you’re happy when your kids are happy, then an all-inclusive resort is the best family holiday you’ve never had.
You don’t have to wear a wristband
The tell-tale neon tag is dying out in the world of all-inclusives. They existed in resorts where different guests were on different meal plans (ie, purple for ‘premium’ drinks included, ‘orange’ not). But hoteliers have cottoned on to the fact that people hate this system and now everyone is on the same basis: all-inclusive, no questions asked. And if your resort is on its own private beach (many are – take a look at lovely LuxMe Daphnila Bay in Corfu) with a secure entrance, they know no-one can saunter in uninvited and plunder the food and drinks for free. You don’t have to eat buffet food, either. Some families love buffets (and who doesn’t, at breakfast, anyway?) – and there are big dining rooms with an international spread for those guests. However, more and more all-inclusives come with à la carte restaurants, often gourmet, where every dish and drink happens to be free. Ikos Resorts (four hotels in Greece, and one in Marbella from May 2020) has concocted the ‘ultra’ all-inclusive concept, which means Michelin-star menus and even the ability to visit local, independent restaurants (their food is included in your stay). If you want to eat a simple salad on the beach in your kaftan, you can, but if you’d prefer to dress up and reserve a table for a special meal, you can do that, too.
You can go all-inclusive and be adventurous
Besides its UAE resorts, Rixos operates premium all-inclusive resorts in other destinations –southern Turkey, Egypt, Croatia, even the Swiss Alps. Rixos Abu Dhabi is on Saadiyat Island: its beach attracts nesting sea turtles; its hammam wins awards; and it’s just minutes from Louvre Abu Dhabi. Or try Lujo Bodrum in Turkey. Yes, it’s all-inclusive, but it has the styling of an Indian Ocean five-star, with overwater beach club and all-glass villas, and is within driving distance of two of the seven wonders of the ancient world (Ephesus and Helicarnassus). You can sneak in the history curriculum between pool days and the teens won’t even notice.
Beware: not everything is thrown in
Generally speaking, spa treatments and motorised water sports aren’t included. But fitness classes, gym use, and kayaks often are – so be clever and get your fill of the free stuff first. If the kids’ club is complimentary, take your children along to explore on day one with no pressure to attend, and they’ll pick up on your laissez-faire attitude. Kids often love the all-inclusive versions of kids’ clubs. The standard is often higher, too, because all-inclusives are famously family-orientated; expect soft-play centres, splash parks, laser tag, cinemas and even sailing and sports schools. Don’t assume going all-inclusive costs much more than regular hotel stays either.
Start off on a high
The Pantheon temple’s floor is like a giant hopscotch, laid out in squares of contrasting marble. Head to the slab at the very centre and gaze up at the Roman dome, open to the sky through a perfect circular oculus. When in Rome, Little ones can lie down on the cool 1,900-year-old marble and try to spot a pigeon flying overhead. Arrive 30 minutes before last entry (7.15pm; 5.45pm Sundays) and you’ll be spared the rush-hour crush.
There’s no sign outside Villa Medici announcing the house cafe, Colbert (caffecolbert.it) – just head upstairs and you’ll find it. Its towering windows offer an exquisite panorama… and a mysterious optical illusion. While you await your home-cooked meatballs, fix your eyes on the dome of San Rocco in the distance. Now slowly back away from the window. As you reach the far corner of the room, the dome appears bigger, not smaller. Dig in and discuss.
Secretly educational sight
You might prefer the rooftop bar or the fourth-floor craft gallery at Rinascente Tritone department store (rinascente.it), but for the kids’ sake, start in the basement. Spanning the homeware section is a 60-metre stretch of ancient aqueduct, lit up with LEDs. Two millennia since Augustus’s Romans built the Aqua Virgo, it still transports 80,000 cubic metres of water daily to the Trevi Fountain – just three minutes away.
Blow off steam
After school hours, families let their kids loose in traffic-free Piazza Navona. Join them on the cobblestones, scampering between sidewalk artists, buskers and charcoal caricaturists. At dusk, out come the bouncing, whirring glow-in-the-dark toys – mesmerising for babies and tempting for toddlers. For a souvenir they’ll cherish, wander over to the Murano glass shop at 170 Via del Pellegrino – kids love foraging through the crates of adorable animal figurines, tiny treasures at a few euros each.
On sultry days you’ll be grateful for a pad on a cool, quiet, convenient street. Hotel Navona is a rare budget option sleeping up to four in a room. The Roman Forum is 15 minutes away on foot, the Pantheon just three. Find superlative pizza down the road at Baffetto (pizzeriabaffetto.it) and stellar coffee at the nearby Sant’Eustachio cafe.
If only I’d known
Not only is Rome swarmed by tourists in August, but the best restaurants and shops are often closed. If you must come during summer holidays, make it late July or late August.
5 travel tips from parents
Make a list
‘Make a packing list from your first family trip, and store it on your phone – then add to it as the kids grow. It means you’ll never forget goggles or Calpol. Essential packing? Earphones (no-one wants to listen to the little ’uns’ cartoons). What not to pack: kids’ wheelie cases – overhyped!’
Plan for passport time
‘Getting a child’s first passport takes longer than normal. Don’t book a non-refundable trip until it arrives’
Spot money saving opportunities
‘It’s free to take a car seat on airlines. And if you buy a storage bag for yours, it’s not only extra protection, but gives more packing space, too.’
Double check check-ins
Villas are great for families, but beware tighter check-in/ out times: 4pm and 10am. There’s no point booking an early outbound flight if you can’t access the property for hours.’
Pack for the worst
Don’t just pack a change of clothes for kids during the flights – think of yourself, too. Under-2s must sit on parents’ laps, so you’ll probably get as mucky as they do!’