Q & A: A little French jam goes a long way

The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered
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Q.Thanks to a tip-off in The Independent some months ago, we've booked a cheap crossing on SeaFrance from Dover to Calais next weekend (28 July) with our two children aged eight and 11. The problem is, we've got to get from there to our apartment in Beziers on the Mediterranean coast, and I've heard that it's going to be the busiest weekend of the summer on French motorways. Help!

Fiona Brunton, Nottingham

Q.Thanks to a tip-off in The Independent some months ago, we've booked a cheap crossing on SeaFrance from Dover to Calais next weekend (28 July) with our two children aged eight and 11. The problem is, we've got to get from there to our apartment in Beziers on the Mediterranean coast, and I've heard that it's going to be the busiest weekend of the summer on French motorways. Help!

Fiona Brunton, Nottingham

A.Schools are closing down for the summer both in the UK and on the Continent so, yes, next weekend the roads in France will be extremely busy. Your trip is roughly 1,100km (nearly 700 miles), so planning your route is obviously important. You should find two websites particularly helpful – both of them free to users. Even if you are not a member of the Automobile Association ( www.theaa.com), you can take advantage of its easy and straightforward travel planning service. Enter your starting point and your final destination, and you're presented with several detailed pages of instructions complete with road numbers, distances, service areas and the duration of the journey under normal road conditions.

However, this time of the year is anything but normal, so you will need to make provision for the trip taking longer than anticipated. It also offers several alternatives. You can choose between a fast route (mainly by toll roads), a toll-free route (bearing in mind a journey such as yours could set you back almost £70 in toll fees) and a scenic route which will be less busy than the previous two but will take longer. Another site, www.mappy.com, offers a similar service.

The French government takes the summer crush very seriously, and aims to minimise the congestion with its Bison-Futé scheme – intended to persuade motorists to use less busy routes or travel when the roads are quieter. For a leaflet about the scheme, call the premium line number (60p per minute) 09068 244 123 or visit www.bison-fute.equipement.gouv.fr. The AA operates a Continental Roadwatch service reporting delays and road openings and closures all over France. For example, many British motorists are enticed by the lack of traffic and tolls on the A75 autoroute that leads to the south coast. But the AA warns of long delays on certain sections of the N9 which is used to link unopened sections of the autoroute.

The recently published Driving Abroad also contains lots of useful advice and information. It is available from Haynes Publishing (01963 442 030; www.haynes.co.uk), price £12.99.

There is a good case for breaking your journey. Children don't relish long journeys and driving for long periods on busy roads without sufficient rest can be extremely hazardous. The route I was presented with for your journey passes through some of the most picturesque regions of France, such as Champagne, Bourgogne, Auvergne and Languedoc, so why not take a night or three to get a feel for the countryside? The French Travel Centre (178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL; call the same premium-rate line, 09068 244 123, or visit www.franceguide.com) offers comprehensive accommodation options.

But if you are looking for something a bit special, and not necessarily more expensive than your average motorway hotel, browse through one of Alastair Sawday's Special Places to Stay. The publisher (01275 464 891; www.sawdays.co.uk) offers two guides, French Hotels, Inns & Other Places (£10) and French B&Bs (£13.95). These cover a vast array of properties, from farms to chateaux, with helpful symbols denoting whether or not they are family friendly.

Even at this late stage you should be able to find something to fit the bill and make your journey more pleasurable.

Q.Call us old hippies if you like, but we would like to relive our Greek island-hopping days with our 10-year-old daughter. 1. Is it safe? 2. How can we get a bit more comfort? 3. Where can we find the best deals for flights this summer?

Jake Summers, Bristol

A.Island-hopping is one of the great pleasures of holidaying in Greece. Being able to move on to the next island whenever you feel like it is a liberating experience that your daughter is bound to enjoy. Depending on how much time you are planning to stay, you will have to decide which islands you would like your daughter to see. The most popular island-hopping spots are the Dodecanese near the Turkish coast which include Patmos, Kos and Rhodes, and the Cyclades islands such as Paros, Naxos, Ios, Santorini, Mykonos and Delos.

If you are planning to visit in August, these can get extremely busy so, to avoid the crowds, you could opt for some of the lesser visited islands of the northern and eastern Aegean. The Greek tourist office in London (020-7734 5997; www.gnto.gr) can supply accommodation lists, general information and a ferry timetable.

The ferries are the best way to get around but are notorious for changing their sailing times without prior warning. A valuable resource is Greek Island Hopping, 2001, Thomas Cook Publishing, (£12.99), with its associated website ( www.greekislandhopping.com). There is no centralised ferry timetable but one good website is www.ferries.gr.

From a safety perspective, the reaction to the Express Samina disaster last September – in which 82 people died when the ferry struck a rock – has been slow. While the government did suspend a number of the most geriatric vessels from service, there are still many old ships in operation, so if you are still worried you might feel more reassured travelling on the newer generation of hydrofoils and catamarans that are gradually being introduced between certain islands. The plus side is that they are much faster and safer, but the downside is you cannot sit out on deck watching the sun sink over the Aegean.

I'm not sure if an organised itinerary would shatter your island-hopping idyll but it is an option worth considering, especially as it guarantees a certain level of comfort. Numerous companies specialise in putting together island-hopping itineraries. Here are a few you could contact who can arrange anything from a simple couple of skips to an extensive, luxurious package: The Best of Greece (01784 492 492, www.best-of-greece.co.uk), CV Travel (020-7591 2800, www.cvtravel.co.uk), Hidden Greece (020-8766 7868), Island Wandering (01580 860 733, www.islandwandering.com) and Simply Greece (020-8541 2203, www.simply-travel.com). However, if you are planning to go in the next few weeks, some of the companies I called told me it was already too late for them to organise an itinerary due to restricted availability.

Having said that, Argo (0870 066 7070, www.argo-holidays.com) can put together an itinerary travelling in August consisting of four nights in Rhodes and three nights in Kos staying in A-class and Deluxe hotels. In both instances the hotels have children's clubs. The cost starts from £762 per adult and £265 for your daughter, if you all share a family room.

There is plenty of competition on scheduled flights from London to Athens, with British Airways (0845 773 3377, www.britishairways.com), easyJet (0870 600 0000, www.easyjet.com) and Olympic Airways (0870 6060 460, www.olympic-airways.gr) all slugging it out; expect to pay less than £200 return per person, with a reduction for your daughter on BA and Olympic. A cheaper and more convenient option may be one of the many charter flights from various UK airports, including Bristol, to islands such as Crete, Rhodes, Kos, Santorini, Mykonos and Skiathos. Avro (020-8695 4440, www.avro.co.uk) quotes a fare of £235 per person Gatwick-Rhodes on 8 August with Monarch. Ask your travel agent for other options, and check for late deals on ITV's Teletext.

Send your family travel questions to S F Robinson, The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS Or crusoe@independent.co.uk