Kids: When five into one holiday won't go

Three children may hardly be a rabbit-like reproduction rate, but try telling that to a travel agent...
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The Independent Travel

You do get used to the raised eyebrows, the sharp intakes of breath and the sympathetic groans. Having anything in excess of the accepted norm of one pair of children does make you the object of sympathy and amazement on a fairly constant basis. But it only really becomes a serious issue when it comes to booking the annual family holiday. The fact is we only have three primary school-age youngsters, hardly in the rabbit stakes, yet when we enquired at our local travel agent last year about a package holiday in August we got the lot: brows, breaths and groans.

You do get used to the raised eyebrows, the sharp intakes of breath and the sympathetic groans. Having anything in excess of the accepted norm of one pair of children does make you the object of sympathy and amazement on a fairly constant basis. But it only really becomes a serious issue when it comes to booking the annual family holiday. The fact is we only have three primary school-age youngsters, hardly in the rabbit stakes, yet when we enquired at our local travel agent last year about a package holiday in August we got the lot: brows, breaths and groans.

In fairness, this was in early July, so choices were always going to be limited, but our budget was fairly generous, around £3,000 not including spending money. We specified self-catering anywhere in Europe, somewhere sunny but not too hot. Not the most demanding of criteria, but after what felt like hours of tapping away at a computer screen the agent was able to offer just one choice: a one-bedroom apartment in the Algarve, at a three-star complex finished in crumbling concrete. The resort photograph made the pool area resemble a municipal baths somewhere very austere, Siberia possibly.

All this could be ours, in the last two weeks in August for something around £3,200, car hire extra. I whimpered unenthusiastically and the agent promised to keep looking. Back home it was time for desperate measures. And at the time the internet seemed desperate. Who books a family holiday on the internet after all? It's only good for those with freedom to be totally flexible, surely?

We started by checking the low-cost airlines for cheap flights to pretty much anywhere in southern Europe. To our amazement we could get five return flights to Verona in northern Italy for £350. An hour searching for holiday-home sites threw up an online booking service for an owners' co-operative in the Lucca area in western Tuscany. The website told us which properties were still available; we saw one we liked and booked it.

The cost was about £750 a week: a fraction of the cost of similar properties listed in the glossy brochures. For that we got a 300-year-old house, three bedrooms, our own pool and no other properties in sight.

There was also an English agent nearby to show us in and to be available for any problems (such as the frantic phone call on day two to ask about a scorpion in the bedroom - no danger so long as it didn't sting!).

Hiring a car online took just minutes. But we did have a problem: an extra day in Italy before we could take possession of the house. Back to the internet and our discovery that Verona has the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world. If you don't mind sitting with the locals in the cheap seats, you can book tickets for the operas held there all summer. A few clicks and it was opera all round for less than £80.

The total package of fixed costs came to £2,200. That gave us £800 out of our basic budget to spend on entertainment and food. We had a fantastic holiday, safe in the knowledge that we could instead be mucking about in that one-bedroom box in Portugal. There is nothing like that sort of comparison to make you appreciate that a little bit of independent effort, particularly for us multi-breeders, can be incredibly worthwhile.

The travel agent who promised to keep looking was never heard from again. He's probably still telling his mates about the weird family of five who wanted to book a package holiday in the summer.

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