Q&A: Book now for summer villas in Europe and Christmas in Australia

The Independent Parent: Your questions answered
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QWe hope you can help, as we have reached a dead end. We would like to rent a villa for two weeks in August, preferably with a pool or a nice beach nearby. Our budget is around £4,500, and we are hoping (perhaps a bit optimistically) that this will also include flights, but will pay extra if necessary. We are thinking about France, Portugal, Spain or Italy. Our party will consist of four adults, three children under 12 and two infants (under one).

Q We hope you can help, as we have reached a dead end. We would like to rent a villa for two weeks in August, preferably with a pool or a nice beach nearby. Our budget is around £4,500, and we are hoping (perhaps a bit optimistically) that this will also include flights, but will pay extra if necessary. We are thinking about France, Portugal, Spain or Italy. Our party will consist of four adults, three children under 12 and two infants (under one).

B Ross, London W10

AThe good news is that, as far as summer villa rentals go, it is the medium-sized properties (sleeping four-six) that tend to sell out first. So, even at this relatively late stage, you should have some degree of choice. This will, however, be limited by your budget. One way of getting around this would be to travel just outside of the August peak season, which is generally the middle two weeks of the month. Travelling either the last week in July and first in August, or the last in August and first in September might, in theory, broaden your choice somewhat.

Including flights in your total budget is a bit optimistic. Many specialist villa tour operators do not include flights in the cost, which allows you to shop around, perhaps utilising Europe's low cost airlines. However, bear in mind that travelling in August you're unlikely to get the cheapest fares. As most villa rentals run Saturday to Saturday, you will also be travelling at the most costly time of the week. In August, you can expect to pay around £200 for flights to popular beach destinations such as Marseille, Nice and Malaga. Low cost airlines offer no discount for under-12s but don't charge for infants not occupying a seat. Since you are travelling from London, the new direct train through the Channel Tunnel to Avignon on Eurostar (0870 518 6186, www.eurostar.com) might be worth considering, with adult fares starting from £115 return. You say you want to fly, but driving is also a cheaper option.

A good place to start is the Individual Travellers Company (08700 773773, www.indiv-travellers.com), one of the biggest villa and cottage specialists, with comprehensive programmes to France, Spain, Portugal and Italy. This year, the company reports that it has seen a marked increase on early bookings for France. Many properties there are booked up. The company has a larger programme in France but, in general, recommends Spain for late availability and cheaper rates this summer.

Travelling from 23 August, two weeks in a smart modern villa 20 minutes drive from the centre of Granada (an hour from the beach), would cost £3,132. The house sleeps seven plus four children, is set in private gardens and has its own pool. The price includes two weeks' car hire. An additional car would cost £100. Flights to Malaga (two hours by car) start at £161 for adults and £151 for children plus £20 for each infant travelling without a seat, taking the total, just under budget, to £4,369.

French Life (0870 444 8877, www.frenchlife.co.uk) has more than 300 villas in France, including a four-bedroom house, Villa La Miguouniette, with a private pool in Toulon in the South of France. The villa has its own garden, is close to shops and restaurants, and is just 3km away from the beaches at La Seyne. Available from 10 August for two weeks, the cost is £3,356 which includes a short ferry crossing for one car, with an additional car costing around £150.

In Italy, villa rental in the popular Umbria and Tuscany regions will, at this late stage, probably take you over your budget. Lakes & Mountains Holidays (01329 844405, www.lakes-mountains.co.uk) recommends travelling further north, where prices tend to be cheaper and availability better. From 3 August, two weeks in two neighbouring two-bedroom apartments, set in a five-apartment villa called the Residence Monica in the stylish resort of Riva del Garda (10 minutes' walk from the shingle beaches of Lake Garda), costs £2,814. This price includes a Dover-Calais ferry crossing for two cars, with up to five passengers per car. A fly-drive package is available, but will take you around £1,000 over budget to £5,810. The price includes return flights from Heathrow to Milan and the rental of two people carrier-style vehicles for two weeks.

Mediterranean villa specialist CV Travel (0870 606 0013, www.cvtravel.co.uk) offers villas in the countries you mention and Greece; it suggests the latter as an alternative destination for good value villa rental. From 5 August, two weeks in a four-bedroom villa, Seki Bay, on the beach near Kassiopi in Corfu, would cost £5,285 including all flights, maid service and a food hamper (0870 606 0013). In Portugal (0870 606 0802) from 25 July, two weeks in a two-floor family house, Casa Ripala, near Quinta do Lago, Algarve, costs £4,750. The villa sleeps eight (plus two cots) with private pool and is 3km from the beach. This price includes maid service but excludes flights. Fares to Faro would be an additional £247 per adult, £176 per child plus £33 for each infant, taking you to a total of £5,983.

Q We are a family of four hoping to travel to Australia at the end of the year. We want to fly out end Nov/early Dec 2002 and return the first or second week of January. We plan to visit Sydney but ideally would like a stopover on the way there or back, with at least one internal return flight within Australia. Malaysia Airlines is currently offering £632 return (adult), including the chance to stop over in Malaysia with free internal flights in Malaysia – but no internal flights within Australia. Do you think this is a good deal? In your experience, are we going to get a better deal booking as early as possible, or are there usually special offers that come up nearer the time?

Barbara Whiting, via e-mail

A Long-haul agents report that flights to Australia over Christmas are selling fast, and a fare of £632 looks very good value at this stage – particularly with the unique Malaysia Airlines offer of a side-trip anywhere in Malaysia thrown in free. All you pay for is the hotels in your side-trip destination, at reasonable rates. I would recommend either Kota Kinabalu, on the island of Borneo, or Penang as an ideal diversion on the way to Australia, which will help you adjust to the time difference.

As you say, this deal does not include domestic flights within Australia, but you can get an "open jaw" deal for the same price that would fly you out to Sydney and back from Melbourne. You could cover the ground in between with a cheap one-way flight on Virgin Blue ( www.virgin-blue.com.au). Alternatively, fly in on Japan Air Lines via Tokyo or Osaka; the fares will be similar, but you can have the option of a Brisbane-Sydney flight thrown in.

Whatever you decide to do, do it soon – the Christmas period is always at a premium, and the best deals usually go to early bookers.

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

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