Is a joint holiday a way of sharing fun times or will it all end in tears? Siobhan Mulholland (top) and Victoria Summerley (below) share their experiences

It always sounds like a good idea - friends with very young children invite you and your very young children to go on holiday with them. You think it makes sense: there will be other kids for your children to play with (so you don't have to provide all the entertainment), and other adults for you to talk to. You believe you will be one big happy family and that the childcare will be easier.

It always sounds like a good idea - friends with very young children invite you and your very young children to go on holiday with them. You think it makes sense: there will be other kids for your children to play with (so you don't have to provide all the entertainment), and other adults for you to talk to. You believe you will be one big happy family and that the childcare will be easier.

Wrong: children under three do not really interact together, they play alongside each other, but not with each other. Thinking there will be other young children around to distract yours is a bit hopeful. Also at this age children are not very good at sharing toys, and on holiday these tend to be limited to a few favourites. So given that most toddlers will only give up a prized possession under duress, you're in for more tears and tantrums than you would get at home.

And there are so many tears and tantrums on these combined family holidays.

For instance, say you are trying to get two young children out of the house for a trip to the beach; there is a one-in-two chance of a tantrum. But what if there are more children - say you have four pre-schoolers to contend with? The maths is simple - you double your chance of a tantrum. You're four times more likely to be faced with a kicking, screaming, two-year-old refusing to co-operate. It doesn't get easier with more children, it gets more difficult.

Take something as simple as both families going for a walk. Some children are used to lots of walking, others will only go from A to B in a buggy or by being carried part of the way. If your family is in the latter group you end up carrying your child for some distance, or taking a buggy and risking all-out war when the kids in the other family see yours having an easy ride.

Catherine Hutchins, whose son was five, daughter three and baby eight weeks when she went on holiday with her brother's family, found it exhausting. "My brother and his kids are big on walking, we're not, so I used a backpack which is hard work with a heavy child in it. I felt I was on an SAS training course rather than a holiday," she says.

Then there's the infamous family battleground - meal times. Children quickly pick up each other's bad habits. It's like watching a Mexican wave go around the table as each one takes it in turn to say, "don't like this". The parental "eat-or-die" look has little effect in the midst of a mass revolt. Or maybe you find yourself dining with the perfect family. According to Catherine, it's even more stressful. "My children are picky eaters, my brother's children eat everything. As the week progressed I found myself becoming defensive about the way I was bringing up my kids."

Children's nap times can also cause friction - do you insist your child has one in his bedroom at the usual time every day, thus bringing to a halt all activities for everyone else? Or do you, for the sake of the rest of the holidaymakers, go with the flow and have a very tearful child who can barely eat his supper at the end of the day?

Franny Mills, mother of Freddie, eight, and Katie, six, has holidayed with other families for the past eight years. She believes it only works if the children have the same routine. "Everyone has to eat at the same time, have their naps at the same time and go to bed at the same time. And it helps if all the parents have a similar attitude to behaviour. I found I'd get cross about something which another parent barely blinked at," she says.

Babies are not any easier. When planning holidays, many parents are in denial about one inescapable fact - wherever you go, regardless of all those "have baby will travel" articles, nothing changes: babies still need the full-on, club-class treatment they get at home.

"Wait until the children are older," advises Franny. "Then it's actually easier to go with another family. My kids are now six and eight and will go off with other children and amuse themselves. On the beach they'll kick a ball around together which means you can sit and read a paper, whereas if we went on our own I know my son would expect me to play football with him."

However, there is one advantage of going on holiday with another family whatever the age of your children, and that's the company of your friends in the evenings. Once all small children are in bed you can finally relax, as good behaviour from adults is not normally a problem.

*****

The first key to a successful joint family holiday is to pick the right family with which to share it. And by that, I really mean the right parents. Don't worry about whether the children will get on: it's far more important to know that both sets of parents are likely to agree on the same basic rules of behaviour.

The first mistake people make - and I've made it myself - is to assume that children of the same age will automatically play together. The younger the children, the more erroneous this assumption can be. Last year, we spent our summer holidays with my sister's family, my stepson's family and my mother at a campsite in the Loire. I assumed that my step-grandson, Cailean, would play with my nephew Dougie (Cailean's seven, Dougie's five). In fact, Cailean spent most of his time playing with my daughter and my niece, both nine, because he wanted to be seen as one of the "older ones". Dougie, meantime, spent the holiday tagging after my 13-year-old son, who, he had decided, was his new best friend. Everyone was happy, although not in the way I'd originally envisaged.

It helps, of course, that all these children are in some way related, just as it helps that all the adults are connected, however loosely, by family ties. We all get on and we all spend a lot of time together, which makes it easier to predict how various individuals will behave in certain circumstances.

I know, for example, that my mother is likely to be intolerant of people running around screaming while she's trying to read, but that she's very good at doing handstands in the swimming pool and producing scrapbooks with which to create wonderful holiday diaries. We're all very different personalities but we do all agree that: a) children should, within reason, eat what's put in front of them

b) that tellings-off should if possible be confined within each family unit

c) that we don't all have to do exactly the same thing at exactly the same time

Which brings me to my second point: accommodation. I have holidayed many times with my sister and her family, but never in the same house. This means that if things do get a bit tight-lipped, as they invariably will at some point, you can disappear into your own space while everything calms down without having to sulk in your bedroom. Camping holidays are ideal for this sort of loose arrangement, as you can opt for separate tents or mobile homes. All the big camping operators are used to handling bookings from groups of families and friends and will try hard to ensure you're in adjacent tents or mobile homes. Circling the wagons, my husband calls it.

This year, our extended family is abandoning the campsites and renting a property in Gers, in south-west France, through Gascony Secret (01284 827253; www.gascony-secret.com), which consists of a maison de maitre and a maison des amis. This arrangement is not uncommon in French holiday rentals, and our version is enclosed in a large walled garden with its own pool. The main house has three bedrooms, a big kitchen, dining-room and reception rooms and the guest house has two bedrooms and its own sitting-room.

In the heart of Armagnac country, how could we all be anything but happy?

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