Q and A: How can we go it alone on a camping trip?

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We have two young children and want to spend our summer holiday camping in Europe, probably France. We are not keen just to stay on one all-inclusive campsite. We have our own equipment. How can we make our trip as independent as possible?

Q. We have two young children and want to spend our summer holiday camping in Europe, probably France. We are not keen just to stay on one all-inclusive campsite. We have our own equipment. How can we make our trip as independent as possible?

P Biggs, Lancaster

A.Not everyone who enjoys camping holidays wants to stay on large campsites as part of a pre-booked package deal. People with their own tents or motorhomes don't need an existing, on-site caravan whose charms can wane during a two-week stay, and may prefer moving from one site to another, sampling a variety of locations.

Focusing on France makes sense because, with more than 9,000 official campsites and a further 2,000 farm sites, it dominates Europe's camping scene. Central Europe is another good bet, with campsites in Germany, Austria and Switzerland numerous and good value. In contrast, sites in Italy tend to be comparatively more expensive, and in Spain, they are few and far between.

Pitching up at the local municipal campground can work out fine, but in peak season it may be touch-and-go finding space. If you have your own caravan, motorhome or tent, and want a large degree of flexibility, but don't want to leave everything to chance, a company such as Eurocamp Independent (0870 366 7572, www.eurocampindependent.co.uk) is a good starting point. The company, says it was set up to cater for customers who wanted to take their own camping stuff while keeping some of the advantages such as on-site couriers and kids' camps. Geared specifically toward holidaymakers with their own gear, it will organise as much or as little of your holiday as you wish.

The company offers 102 sites in France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Holland and Luxembourg. You can book several sites for no extra charge, making a multi-country tour possible. Like all the camping operators, it offers Channel crossings at fares that may undercut those available on the open market, especially during the school summer holidays. A basic 12-night holiday in late July for two adults, a car, tent, and a P&O Stena crossing between Dover and Calais costs £440; children under 13 are free. But you may have to pay supplements for nights spent at some of the smarter sites (up to £15 per night), and for a pitch with electricity and drainage (up to £6 per night). There is also a supplement payable on the ferry if you travel at the weekend or have a motorhome, trailer or caravan; these range from £26 to £63.

For a more traditional holiday feel, try Les Castels (00 33 2 97 42 57 12), a French company with 49 four-star sites set in the grounds of chateaux, mills and farms. The receptionist in one site can phone ahead to others in the chain to arrange accommodation for you later in your holiday. A pitch at the Chateau Camping Le Colombier in Normandy costs around €25 (£15) per night in high season.

If you want to avoid the large campsites beloved by the French (and plenty of overseas visitors), look for one of the farms and houses that offer camping facilities for a small number of tents and vehicles.

Camping à la Ferme et Chalets Loisirs 2002 (Windrush, £10.99) gives details of more than 1,000 farms in France that accept campers. It is written in French – but even if you don't speak the language, there are easily understandable symbols.

Other useful guides include the Michelin Camping and Caravanning Guide: France (Michelin, £8.25), and the Alan Rogers books on France (£9.99) and Europe (£12.99) published by Haynes. These give detailed descriptions of hundreds of sites throughout the country. The Rogers guide is particularly user-friendly, describing sites in words, not symbols, and also helpfully offers a booking service. A pitch at a fairly typical place mentioned in the book, the Camping du Boise de Reveuge in the eastern Franche Comté costs around €20 (£12) per night for a family of four.

If you are after the ultimate rural idyll, some countries permit free camping for short periods, although this often translates into a complete lack of facilities. For example, away from Spain's towns you are not confined to campsites, provided there are fewer than 10 people in your group and you are at least one kilometre from the nearest site. In France, you cannot officially camp on public land, but private landowners are often happy to accept holidaymakers wanting to try a spot of camping sauvage. It is wise, though, to consult with the local tourist office if you intend to do a lot of this form of camping.

Q. Our two children are aged 12 and nine. We are looking for ideas for a one-week break in either the June or October half-terms at a location where there are huge swimming pools with lots of slides, wave machines, etc. We don't mind flying but don't want to drive long distances, either in Britain or abroad. We don't like very high temperatures. We've tried Center Parcs but any other suggestions would be gratefully received.

Jane Nairne, London

 

A.With both children over nine years old you have plenty of options; many water rides impose strict age limits, though for some there are height restrictions as well as, or instead of, age. Book as soon as possible if you're restricted to the busy half-terms.

You don't say what your budget is, but one of the cheapest (and coolest) options is to stay in the UK and go to one of two big water parks on the south coast. Quaywest in Devon (01803 555550, www.quaywest.co.uk) is located on Goodrington Sands near Paignton. It has pools and water slides galore. All day admission costs £6.95 per adult or £5.95 for children (£23 for a family ticket). However, it's open only 26 May to 5 September, which would leave you just the June half term. It's also quite a distance from London – the fastest trains take more than three hours and driving is considerably longer.

Splashdown, near Poole in Dorset (01202 716123) is closer to the capital. It has 11 tyre rides, flumes, whirlpools and rapids to keep you entertained. Most rides are indoors, too, so it won't matter if the weather is bad. Splashdown is open all year round. Admission is £6.50 for anyone over five.

However, if you don't want to risk rainy days, I'd suggest you book a cheap package holiday to mainland Spain, which has several sophisticated water parks well set up for families. The main resorts each have one nearby. In Benidorm on the Costa Blanca, Aqualandia (00 34 965 86 9101, www.aqualandia.net) opens on 5 May, but closes on 13 October, before half term.

On the Costa del Sol, Parque Aquatico Mijas (00 34 95 246 0404, www.aquamijas.com) is located on the picturesque Fuengirola bypass, but don't let this put you off (nor the fact that the website is accompanied by audio that sounds like a flushing toilet). The problem is that opening dates this year are 27 April to 29 September, ruling out the later half term, and the sun can be fierce in June in the south of Spain.

Aqua Brava in the north of the Costa Brava (00 34 97 225 4344, www.aquabrava.com) would be a better bet for June, though it does not open until 4 June – halfway through the half-term.

The travel trade reports that packages over the Jubilee half-term holiday in June are selling fast, so don't delay booking.

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

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