The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered

Q. We are thinking of taking our three children aged 17, 14 and 10 (the two eldest are girls) to Italy for a week in October. We are on a budget but were contemplating Naples and a visit to Pompeii. Would it be feasible (ie not horribly expensive) and interesting enough for two teenagers and a younger boy? And what is the best way of organising it? Should we go through an agent or book flights and accommodation separately?

Q. We are thinking of taking our three children aged 17, 14 and 10 (the two eldest are girls) to Italy for a week in October. We are on a budget but were contemplating Naples and a visit to Pompeii. Would it be feasible (ie not horribly expensive) and interesting enough for two teenagers and a younger boy? And what is the best way of organising it? Should we go through an agent or book flights and accommodation separately?

Mary Wright, London

A. Overall, Italy is a very family-friendly destination. Naples, though, could prove challenging. It would not be ideal for a family with younger children, but older children such as yours should be fine. Your daughters are old enough to appreciate the city's beauty and idiosyncratic Italian style. And in the unlikely event that Pompeii's excavations leave your son cold, the city's multiple castles and archaeological museum won't. Bear in mind that the reputation of southern Italian men for being excessively attentive to women is not wholly undeserved; your daughters will need to be briefed about the likelihood of wolf-whistles and similar, though rarely anything more serious.

Thanks to the influence of no-frills airlines, independent travel to Naples is a better option than ever. The lowest fare for a London-Naples scheduled flight used to be around £250 return, but since Go (0870 607 6543, www.go-fly.com) started flying from Stansted to Naples, you can travel as cheaply as £85 return – though when I made some trial bookings for October the lowest I was quoted was £157.

You can travel more cheaply on a with-frills airline, Alitalia (0870 544 8259), which is selling flights from Heathrow or Gatwick for £129. The catch is that you will have to change planes at Milan or Rome, which adds considerably to the journey time and stress. Most low fares offer no discounts for younger passengers, except under-twos (who travel free). Whichever airline you choose, to get the lowest fares the best policy is usually to book as far in advance as possible and try to be as flexible as possible with your dates and times of travel.

Compared with the north of Italy, accommodation in Naples is cheap. Staff at the tourist office at the central station can book rooms for you on the spot, but even travelling outside peak summer season, it's advisable to book in advance.

The cheapest hotels are to be found around Piazza Garibaldi, near the central train station, but are more rough than ready. A better bet is the Centro Storico, the colourful, historic core of the city. The Hotel Bellini (00 39 081 456 996), a popular budget hotel located in the centre of the old town, costs L80,000 (around £25) for a double room.

The Italian State Tourist Board in London (020-7408 1254, www.enit.it) can provide listings of accommodation. Several UK-based room booking services can reserve affordable hotels on your behalf, if you don't want to make long-distance calls and battle with speaking Italian. The choice of hotels may be thin, however: when I checked yesterday, Accommodation Line (020-7409 1343, www.bookeurohotels.co.uk) had a choice of four, while Room Service (020-7636 6888, www.roomservice.uk.com) was offering only one hotel in Naples.

Driving in Naples, even by Italian standards, is demanding. Unless you are planning trips further afield, hiring a car will not be worth the cost or effort. Public transport is cheap: from the airport, buses 14 and 15 run to the city for a fare of only L1,500 (around 50p) – much cheaper than the airport shuttle service or taxi.

It is easy to get to Pompeii and back within a day and still have plenty of time to explore. The site is about 30km from Naples. There is a regular Sita bus service from Piazza Garibaldi in front of the central station. But the quickest route is via the trains that run every half hour from the Circumvesuviana Station (just south-west of central station) to Pompeii's Villa dei Misteri station. The 30-minute journey costs L3,100 (around £1) one way. The train deposits you right outside the western entrance to the site.

Adults pay L16,000 (around £5) for admission to the site; under-18s get in free. For more details, contact the Pompeii Tourist Office (00 39 081 850 7255).

Looking at the comparative costs, you can stitch your own trip together for less than the cost of an inclusive holiday booked through a tour operator. But you may find that the relative security of a pre-booked package allows you to relax and enjoy things a little more. Cresta Holidays (0161-385 4100, www.crestaholidays.co.uk) offers a week's break, at a three-star, centrally located hotel in Naples, for a family total of £2,660. This includes return flights from Gatwick and accommodation (one triple, one double room) with breakfast. Transfers are not included. The same deal through the southern Italian specialist, Long Travel (01694 722193, www.long-travel.co.uk), costs £2,231 – though you have the option of paying just for the accommodation and breakfast (£1,300) and sourcing your own flights.

Q. Do you know of any small hotels, guest houses or B&Bs that would be prepared to be taken over by our family for three or four days (or a week) over Christmas? Our party would comprise 16 people (minimum bedrooms: nine). Geographically, we are spread over Somerset, Shropshire, North Yorks, London and Bedfordshire.

Margaret Wall, Shropshire

A.Most small hotels, guest houses and B&Bs will be happy to take group bookings as this is the quickest way to ensure that they sell to capacity. A good place to start is the National Council of Hotel Associations (01225 835088, www.bed-and-breakfast.org), which represents some 6,000 small, independently run hotels/B&Bs, with a maximum of 25 bedrooms. The council says the best sources of information are to be found online. Unsurprisingly, it recommends its own website; the British Tourist Authority's website, www.visitbritain.com, is also good for comprehensive accommodation listings nationwide.

Group bookings are more common at Christmas and New Year than any other time. Also, some small family-owned/run properties close over the festive season, so make your reservation as soon as possible. The most promising destinations are tourist hotspots, such as Bath, the Lake District, Stratford-on-Avon, York and Chester, where there is a greater choice of tourist accommodation and a higher probability of finding a range of places happy to accommodate groups.

The Circle (01865 875888, www.circlehotels.co.uk) is a consortium of small family-run hotels and inns in Britain. Given your respective locations, the staff recommend the Cotswolds as a good destination for your Christmas celebrations. For example, you could try the Colesbourne Inn, near Cheltenham (01242 870376, www.colesbourneinn.com). This is an 18th-century coaching inn, with log fires and a cosy restaurant. Pets are welcome.

Alternatively, Woodfalls Inn (01725 513222, www.trad-inns.co.uk/woodfalls) is a traditional English country inn located on the northern edge of the New Forest, south of Salisbury. It was recently refurbished by the resident proprietors, and has two four-poster bedrooms. Over Christmas, you are looking at paying around £50-60 per person, per night for accommodation on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis plus a little extra for festive trimmings.

Old English Inns (0800 917 3085, www.oldenglish.co.uk/inns) represents around 100 hotels in England, most of which offer Christmas packages. It offers a number of small properties with between eight and 15 rooms, such as the Red Lion in Adderbury, Oxfordshire (01295 810269). This a coaching inn on the village green; during the Civil War it was a Royalist-owned hostelry. It is offering a three-night Christmas package for £285 per person, which includes dinner, bed and breakfast with Christmas stockings, lunch, and wine.

At the Woolpack (01373 831244) in Beckington, near Bath, a similar three-night package costs £275 per person. The Woolpack is a 16th-century stone-built coaching inn. The 12 rooms, all with en-suite bathroom facilities, are arranged around a garden courtyard.

All the properties mentioned above had availability at the time of going to press.

An intriguing alternative, if you are prepared to compromise a little on comfort, is to take over a youth hostel. The YHA's Rent a Hostel scheme gives you exclusive use of a hostel for four nights over Christmas (defined as the period from 21 December to 2 January). You could, for example, take over the former village hall at Bradenham in Buckinghamshire for a total of £560, just £35 per person. It has exactly 16 beds – though in only three rooms. For reservations, call 0870 241 2253.

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