The first golden rule about holidays with kids is – keep them happy. If they’re happy, everyone else can be happy as well – and if they’re not they can make life a misery.

The second golden rule – and this one’s as important as the first – is make sure the holiday is real break for the parents. Looking after kids is tough and the people who do it need to recharge their batteries to make sure they’ve got what it takes.

Budget

There are a few ways to make savings. First of all, if you have preschoolers, you can travel outside the school holidays. And whenever you go, look for accommodation easy walking distance from major attractions like the beach. Transport, whether public or by hire car will add to expense. Other tips include saving on supplements for extras like a sea view or balcony, especially if you’re not planning to spend much time in your room. You might also like to consider going for somewhere a little less luxurious but pay for extra service, for example end of holiday cleaning for an apartment. It will help you go home feeling more relaxed.

In self-catering check if electricity and gas prices are included. If not and you need the heating on, it will almost certainly be more expensive than at home.

Remember too that big resorts can appear cheaper but the entertainment laid on for children like merry-go-rounds, amusement arcades, souvenirs and more, can make a serious dent in the budget.

Unless you yourself are a theme park fan, save on visiting the bigger ones until the children are old enough to appreciate what they are getting. Around seven is when children start to get value for money out of the bigger names and can enjoy most of the rides. Although very little children may believe the characters they see wandering around are real, sometimes they’re just scared.

What Children Want

Pre-crawling babies are relatively easy to take with you as there is a limit to how much trouble they can get into. In fact, unless suffering from colic (normally over by around four months) babies are portable just about anywhere as long as they aren’t yellers. That means it can be a good idea to treat yourself to a holiday before they learn to move – especially as there are reduced air fares for under 2s who sit on your lap.

The main problem with crawling and early walking children is that you need somewhere which is safe to explore. Almost as important, however hard you try to stop it, it’s probable that anything encountered will go into the mouth, so there’s a good likelihood that a toddler will pick up a bug of some kind.

From around the age of two the company of other children becomes more important, although how much depends on the child. Places to have fun are also more important. For some children this might be just a day at the beach, while others learn to demand rides, shows and regular trips to the ice cream parlour.

At around four years old tetchiness on holiday may kick in. The parents no longer make up the child’s whole world and the stress of changing their environment can lead to more clinging or tantrums – details depending on the child. Returning to the same place for a few years can be a good solution once you’ve found somewhere you and your children enjoy.

Junior school age is felt by many parents to be the ideal age for exploration together. Teenage ‘cool’ has not yet flattened curiosity or enthusiasms. For best results tap into those (generally shared with at least one parent) whether for fishing or the world’s best thrill rides.

What Parents Want

For some parents total chill is all they need – a chance to lie back and have all the drinks, the meals, the laundry and everything else laid on. For others it’s a chance to go crazy on the dance floor. Others again, especially dads, really need to burn off some physical energy and get the adrenalin pumping with lots of sport of one kind or another. Others, especially working parents, just see a holiday as a chance to spend time together as a family – especially if the kids see things the same way. However, even those parents might like a break occasionally – not for nothing is the kids club in some resorts known as the Nookie Club.

Choose Your Destination

The key issue is health. If you want the GP’s opinion on all your children’s ailments, travel abroad is something which should wait. Even well known holiday resorts don’t always offer major hospitals, or many English-speaking doctors.

If you are happy to go but want to be sure of access to an appropriate doctor, pick somewhere your travel operator can provide details of one, or consider a cruise which will have a doctor on board and probably a couple of nurses as well. However, bear in mind that any visits are almost certainly going to have to be paid for and, unless the condition is serious, will probably not cost quite enough to be covered by your travel insurance policy.

If your child is prone to any particular childhood ailments, choose a holiday on which they wouldn’t be catastrophic. This means, if given to ear infections, avoid anything which involves flying. Cancelling the holiday if you can’t leave home is bad enough, but what if your child gets an infection at the end of the holiday and you can’t get back? If colds are a common problem, look for somewhere where there is more in the way of entertainment than sun and swimming, which might not be suitable for a few days.

When it comes to getting there, shorter and quicker is better with children. Think hard about going anywhere if it involves long transfers or connections.

When you’re picking the resort it’s a good idea to look at the photographs in a number of brochures to find out what it really looks like. Then ask your travel agent to show you the resort information in something like the OAG gazetteers which are held under the counter by most agencies. These cover around 600-plus resorts worldwide and are compiled by a 14-strong editorial and research team and cover quality of beach, nightlife, style of the resort and the OAG researchers’ opinion.

Issues to check out include accessibility. Accommodation a 10-minute drive from the beach is all very well but will there be parking when you get there? If you’re going to walk will there be safe roads with pavements to do so and/or will there be a lot of steps? If it’s a beach resort make sure the beach is nice and sandy, wide enough and there are no dangerous currents.

Do check out the weather. Too hot, too cold or too wet can all ruin a family holiday, especially in accommodation which is only designed for lovely sunny days. You need to look at rainfall, and any regular wind, as well as the temperature.

Remember too that temperature charts in brochures are there to sell the destination. To hot places for example they will give average highs, which are measured in the shade. In the middle of the day and out on a pavement or the beach it will be a whole lot hotter. Where the weather is cooler the quoted temperature may be the daily maximum, reached only around midday.

If you can’t get the information you want, think about going back somewhere you’ve already been which might be suitable. That way at least you’ll feel confident of knowing your way around.

Accommodation

For a family holiday there are some specific issues you need to ask about any accommodation you are thinking of booking.

First of all, is it safe. Are there stairs in your rooms and do these have balustrades or gaps between the steps into which small children could wedge themselves? Are the floors hard or carpeted? If there is a pool is it fenced or at least within eyeshot of the sitting area so you can check that no-one is getting in unsupervised?

What are the plug sockets like and can socket covers be provided? Unfortunately most countries use the two-pin system so you will not be able to provide your own from home. Note also that electricity overseas, even in Europe, can be considerably less safe than in the UK, especially in bare feet and potentially when wet from the bath or swimming.

Is there a fenced/gated area to prevent children from getting off the property? How close and busy is the nearest road? Are there any full length glass windows? (These are particularly dangerous, being near to invisible in bright sunlight.) Are there windows which can be opened by children? Casement windows above the ground floor could be a particular problem.

Are there any balconies with balustrades or barriers children could climb over or squeeze through? Are there any breakable items such as ornaments or glass coffee tables which would be best removed? Are there any steep drops on or at the edge of the property?

Secondly will the accommodation be big enough, especially if you’re planning to book extra beds for the children. A suite, adjoining rooms or a self-catering unit all have the advantage that you can keep the lights on after the children have gone to sleep, and the little mentioned but relevant question of holiday sex is also an issue here.

Other issues include soundproofing. If you have a baby who yells there’s nothing worse than having to deal with it while fretting about waking strangers next door. If you’re planning to self-catering, make sure the kitchen is equipped for more than breakfast. Check too for drying space. This is sometimes a problem in smart hotels which don’t like the balcony being draped with beach towels, let alone children’s clothes. And is the property and the surrounding area buggy friendly? In many cheaper resorts there are limited pavements which can make this a problem.

Finally, what facilities are laid on for children? Can they provide a safe cot with bedding? Often those provided are not to British standards, often very rickety, with much lower sides than in the UK, and wider gaps between the bars which might allow a head to jam.

Can they provide a high chair for all children requiring them? (You don’t want a daily race for the only one.) Is there a bath if your child is unhappy in a shower? Can you boil yourself water and is there a fridge suitable for storing boiled water and children’s food items? If there is a mini bar can it be locked from children or emptied? (Some kids delight in downing the bottles of alcohol when no-one’s looking…)

Do they have a fenced in area, paved or grass, and any facilities specifically for children, for example a children’s pool? If no child pool, are children allowed in any adult pool, in which case will there be older children around who might intimidate toddlers? There is sometimes a lower age limit for use of large pools, or sometimes access at certain times only.

Are there any restrictions on children eating in the restaurant and are out of hours meals available, such as high tea? How fresh is the food? Hotel buffets are a prime spot for giving everyone and upset stomach. Will there be food your child can eat?

Childcare

Then, assuming that you would like at least a bit of time off from parenting duties, you need to think about childcare.

For most hotels and operators, childcare is little more than a marketing tool, sometimes unsafe, often uninteresting, and generally housed in an area they can’t find any other use for. To locate the better options check out the Kidzabroad rating for your chosen resort – and check out the hours too. If what you want is a meal out together, a mornings-only club is not going to do the trick.

Before you do that though, think about whether full-time care, occasional breaks, or just company for your children is what you need. If this last is all you need you can make big savings by simply picking a destination popular with other families. Pretty much anywhere with a pool in school holidays is likely to see families. However, you need to be aware that much younger children can be intimidated by teenagers so it can be helpful to check ages in other parties before booking. Smaller operators in particular are often good at giving you this kind of information.

If you want a break from your kids but don’t want to have to pay for it, you can consider holidaying with people you could share childcare with. One option is to self-cater with another family, friends who don’t have them but like children, or with relations, usually grandparents.

If you are going to do this, a trial weekend is a good idea and you need to agree in advance how you’re going to split the spending and be clear about who will be doing any childminding and when. It can also be a good idea to take adjoining self-catering properties rather than one large one. This means you’re not in each others’ pockets all the time, particularly in bad weather when children can be difficult. It also means a crying child can’t wake all the others in the night and you can get away from the other lot’s children when they get to be as irritating as other people’s children usually are.

If there are just two of you looking after the younger ones, an alternative is to give each other spells off childcare duty for relaxing.

If none of these suit, picking somewhere where children feel welcome will go a long way to making a success of the holiday. A rough rule of thumb is that the further east and the further south you go, the more child-friendly places are likely to be but, because children are considered fully paid up members of the human race, there’s not always a lot of special child entertainment laid on unless it’s for the tourists – in which case it’s likely to be expensive.

Pointers

• Make sure the kids will be happy. Remember that different ages have different needs.
• Make sure the parents can do what they like best so they get a break from the day to day grind.
• Make sure your accommodation is safe and has all the facilities and services you need.
• Think carefully about your childcare needs and don’t pay in advance for anything you might not use.
• Think about ways of getting the best value for your money so you’ve got some left over for treats.
• Think about what kind of weather suits your family. Little ones in particular aren’t happy in high temperatures.
• If you can’t find anywhere that suits, wait until next year – a bad holiday is worse than no holiday at all.