Child's play could cost you a fortune this summer

Keeping one child happy over the holidays costs an average of £1,200. Thea Jourdan finds out why it's so much
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The Independent Online

School's out, and many parents will be seriously out of pocket by September. Summer holidays are an expensive business. According to a survey by the Abbey bank, the average cost of keeping a child happy until the autumn term starts is now £1,200, double what it was last year.

School's out, and many parents will be seriously out of pocket by September. Summer holidays are an expensive business. According to a survey by the Abbey bank, the average cost of keeping a child happy until the autumn term starts is now £1,200, double what it was last year.

This figure breaks down to £600 on extra childcare, and £600 on entertainment. Over the next six weeks, parents in the UK will spend £1.78 billion on theme parks, au pairs and other treats, excluding the added cost of the family holiday. Parents with two children can expect to pay more than £36,000 over the course of their children's school life on holiday care and entertainment costs.

In many cases, parents are being caught unawares by the extra expense. "People tend to underestimate the costs of the school holidays," says Virginia Wallis, author of The Which? Guide to Financing Your Child's Future (Penguin, £10.99). Most parents fail to plan ahead to cover the additional summer costs, with 71 per cent of those in the Abbey survey saying they intend to take money out of a current account. More than half ask family and friends to help them out.

Why is it all getting so expensive? The rocketing cost reflects the fact that the number of parents who are preparing to take time off to look after their children this summer has halved since last year, down from 55 per cent last summer to just 25 per cent now.

Our holiday tastes have also become more costly. The most popular entertainment option is still a visit to the seaside, with 90 per cent of UK parents planning at least one visit to the beach, but donkey rides and puppet shows are losing their appeal. Older children increasingly demand more exciting entertainment.

Theme parks, high on most kid's to-do lists, are expensive amusements. Prices rise when the school term ends so parents are forced to pay the highest rates. Alton Towers, one of the most popular, costs £82 for a peak-season family day pass, not including the popcorn, T-shirts and souvenirs. Queues for popular rides like Air or Nemesis, can be longer than two hours. Weekend breaks for two adults and two children, staying in the Alton Towers Hotel, start at £495, but you do at least get priority passes for some of the rides. A Virgin survey suggests that parents will pay £320 per child on day trips during the summer holidays.

American-style summer day camps are becoming more popular, particularly among affluent middle-class families. Children at these camps can choose to study music, receive sports coaching and enjoy supervised fun from dawn to dusk, but do not come cheap.

Camp Beaumont is one of the largest providers in the UK and runs day camps for children from three to 18. Typical charges are £204 per week per child, but the extras can make the total double that. Door-to-door travel costs £125 and lunches an extra £25 per week. Tennis and soccer academy adds an extra £50 per activity. Residential camps can cost even more.

The Government plans to encourage the growth of camps in the holidays with extra funding, which should bring prices down to a more affordable level. This week, ministers announced a £12.5 million, lottery-funded drive to develop a scheme, which will offer 20,000 free places next year. A national scheme would eventually offer 600,000 places and cost an estimated £150 million a year. Young people will be able to take part in activities ranging from pony trekking to canoeing, dance and drama. The programme was developed after research found that only one in five teenagers participated in any structured activity during the summer holiday.

As entertainment costs soar, childcare fees have also risen as demand increases. While there are 11,000-out-of-school clubs in the UK, only one in four offers holiday day care. According to the Daycare Trust, the average weekly costs of a play scheme place has risen nine per cent since last year to £73.71 (up from £67.70 per week in 2003). In the South-East, where the demand is greatest, prices can rise to as much as £220 per child per week, or more than £1,300 for the six-week holiday period. Some parents pay additional costs for trips out and visits.

Stephen Burke, director of Daycare Trust, said: "The long holiday in the summer is a particular headache to many working parents who need to find quality care for their children. Access to quality affordable childcare during the holidays still depends on where families live and how much they earn.

"Many families struggle to find appropriate summer holiday childcare which they can afford. We need to make sure that quality childcare services are available to all children and families during school holidays, and that parents are able to access adequate help with the costs through the tax credits system."

Fortunately, there are ways to keep the kids amused on a budget. Councils organise a range of free or cheap activities in the summer months. The Magnet Leisure Centre in Maidenhead, for example, runs a variety of activities, including 50p swims. Supervised trampolining for an hour costs 50p and a football pitch can be hired for £10.

Local newspapers, community centre notice boards and libraries are excellent for information. Clubs or sports associations may also have details of free or affordable activities. Many museums now offer free entry but few people take advantage of it. One survey showed that only around one in five parents visit the free museums and galleries with their children.

Discounts are also available on travel. A family railcard can knock a third of the price off travel when children are travelling with one or two adults. Advance planning can also save you pounds. Booking online is usually cheaper. Legoland charges £23 for an adult paying at the door, but only £20.70 if a ticket is bought in advance on the internet. Visiting relatives is an inexpensive treat, chosen by 88 per cent of parents. For those on a smaller budget, 86 per cent of parents will choose activities at home and four out of five will head to the local park with their brood this summer.

Older children can actually contribute to their own costs. "Smart parents also encourage their kids to save pocket money for summertime treats, which not only eases pressure on the parental purse, but helps to establish independence and important savings habits for their children," says Angus Porter, Abbey customer director.

Childcare costs are reduced if parents use family and friends for childcare arrangements. Working parents may be eligible for working tax credit to help with the cost of additional childcare, even if it is just for a few weeks. Call the Tax Credit helpline (8am to 8pm, seven days a week) on 0845 300 3900 (for Northern Ireland 0845 603 2000).

So how do parents fund this holiday bill? The Abbey found the majority rely on their current accounts, but many dip into savings as well. Fifty-two per cent of fathers and 34 per cent of mothers spend savings.

The South-West is the worst offender for keeping the cost of the summer break to a minimum with only 43 per cent leaving children with friends and family, compared with 79 per cent in Wales and 72 per cent in East Anglia. This could be due to family and friends living too far away or not being able to help with childcare arrangements.

In contrast, almost four out of 10 London parents will pay for their children to attend an activity centre -- around double the rest of the nation's average of 20 per cent.

Summer holidays are never going to be cheap, but parents can lighten the financial burden by forward planning. Angus Porter advises steady saving throughout the year: "The most important thing to do is to save money throughout the year to help pay for the extra cost of the school summer holiday. Putting just a small amount aside each month makes the financial burden easier to bear."

* Daycare Trust: Helpline open 10am-5pm Monday-Friday. 0207 840 3350 www.daycaretrust.org.uk

* Legoland: 08705 040404 www.legoland.co.uk

* Camp Beaumont: 01263 823000 www.campbeaumont.com

* Alton Towers: 08705 204060. www.altontowers.com

THE SENIOR FAMILY: 'Luckily our childminder is really great and she organises lots of things to do'

Miranda Senior, a health and safety consultant, lives in High Wycombe with husband Chris, their children, Sophie, nine, and seven-year-old Harry. This summer, she is planning to take them to the Lake District for a week. She is also considering a range of activities including trips to Legoland in nearby Windsor and visits to the Science Museum in London.

She said: "During the six-week summer holiday, we have to arrange childcare for three days a week when I am at work. On a normal school week, I only have to pay for a few hours after school, which costs £75 per week for both children.

"During the holidays, I make them breakfast and then they go to the childminder for the day, which costs £200 a week. Luckily, our childminder is really great and she organises lots of things to do, which are free or do not cost a great deal of money.

"I don't feel quite so guilty if I haven't organised something fun for every single day because I know she is taking them out. The rest of the time, Chris and I will be with the children.

"Like all families, we plan our budget and spending. We would not get value for money at a theme park like Alton Towers as many rides are too old for our children and we prefer to spend our money on other things.

"We are planning to go to Legoland as a family. I am also planning at least one trip to London. We will all go down by train, because the trip from High Wycombe is quick and convenient. I want to visit the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum, which are both free. This does influence me when I make a choice.

"We will probably take a picnic from home instead of eating lunch in a restaurant. We both want the children to know the value of money and not get used to throwing money around", she said.

"We are members of the National Trust, so we can all get in to see the historic houses and gardens for free. There are quite a lot of places to visit around High Wycombe. The library organises events throughout the summer. We have a leisure centre and we have a Free Style card so we can use the facilities at a reduced price.

"The children really enjoy playing tennis. I don't believe in organising everything down to the last detail. On sunny days, we will probably go to the open-air pool, which has a small entry fee. We are very lucky because there are lots of parks in High Wycombe and we can walk by the river. It is very pretty

"We have had a holiday abroad this year. We all went to Mallorca in June. This time, despite it being more expensive to holiday in England, we are keen for our children to understand their heritage which is why, instead of going abroad again, we are going to holiday in the Lake District. While we are there, we plan to visit Beatrix Potter's House, which is owned by the National Trust, and go boating on Windermere.

"Costs in England are very high compared to abroad. When we went on holiday to Mallorca, we ate out all the time. We will not be doing that in the Lake District as it is far too expensive by comparison", she said.

BREAKDOWN OF COSTS:

Extra childcare: £625

Legoland: £41.40 (two adults, peak advance booking, children allowed in free)

Two trips to London:

Family railcard: £20; family day return tickets, plus day travel pass in London (with discount): £45.80; extras like ice-creams and special exhibitions: £40

Leisure activities in High Wycombe: £100

Lake District: Windermere lake cruise: £30; children's leisure activities: £40

Total: £942.20

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