The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered

Is a cruise a good way to explore the Med with my daughter? And how can we find good B&Bs in Germany?
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Q My daughter and I are considering a Mediterranean cruise this year or, more probably, sometime next summer. Katy will be 12 in September - which companies would be most suitable? Will we be charged as two adults? And is it realistic to aim at under £2,000 in total including excursions for 14 days? Also, is this a suitable type of holiday for someone of her age (she suggested it)? I feel it would be a good way of combining sun, swimming, relaxation and sightseeing with a view to returning at a later date to the places we liked.

Q My daughter and I are considering a Mediterranean cruise this year or, more probably, sometime next summer. Katy will be 12 in September - which companies would be most suitable? Will we be charged as two adults? And is it realistic to aim at under £2,000 in total including excursions for 14 days? Also, is this a suitable type of holiday for someone of her age (she suggested it)? I feel it would be a good way of combining sun, swimming, relaxation and sightseeing with a view to returning at a later date to the places we liked.

M Alexander, York

A Your daughter certainly has the right idea - cruising is a relaxing way to visit a number of different countries in a short space of time with a minimum amount of fuss. These days, plenty of companies offer family-friendly cruises with lots of onboard activities for children and teenagers.

As a first port of call, I'd suggest the Passenger Shipping Association's recently launched Discover Cruises initiative (020-7436 2449; www.discover-cruises.co.uk). This is an information service offering plenty of useful practical information about booking a cruise as well as dispelling a few of those lingering myths such as dinner at the Captain's table and interminable rounds of bingo. It also has links to individual cruise lines' websites and offers factsheets covering an array of subjects including first time and family cruising.

The cruise season in Europe runs from early May to late October, although exact dates vary among operators. The majority of Mediterranean cruises set sail from Palma, Venice, Genoa and Piraeus (the port for Athens). Usually, the cost of flights is included in the price of your cruise. Many people prefer the fly-cruise option as it means less time is spent at sea, leaving more time for sightseeing. The bulk of the sailing is done at night, which means that you will wake up anchored in a different country ready to explore. Shore excursions start after breakfast; they usually cost an extra £20-£40 depending on the operator and destination.

Finding a two-week cruise for the two of you for under £2,000, though not impossible, will mean biding your time and shopping around. Firstly, as you suspected, your daughter will be required to pay the full adult fare. Secondly, the majority of Mediterranean cruises in the summer months are for seven days. I am also presuming that you will be travelling during the school holidays, which means that you'll be paying peak season prices. One way to keep costs down is to pack a guidebook and head off on your own to see the sights. All cruises include all food and entertainment in the cost of the holiday.

Suncruises (part of the MyTravel conglomerate, 0800 916 0622; www.mytravel.com) is the company that brought the cost of cruising down to close to the cost of ordinary package holidays. The company has a range of itineraries, most based in the Mediterranean, though next year it will also operate in the Baltic and the Atlantic.

Yet while your spending limit does mean many of the more luxurious cruise lines are out of reach, it doesn't mean you have to settle for a budget-style cruise. I suggest setting your sights a little higher up the scale by taking advantage of one of the many discounts offered as incentives for early bookers. With a bit of planning, you will be able to book a holiday on one of the mid-range cruise lines, which will offer newer ships with better facilities, food and entertainment.

One cruise which I think will suit your cultural and sightseeing requirements perfectly, is Festival Cruises' (00870 126 3080; www.festivalcruises.com) 11-night "Chasing History" itinerary around the eastern Mediterranean. The cruise departs from Venice on either 5 or 15 July 2004 and calls at Dubrovnik, Katakolon, Alexandria, Rhodes and Pireaus before returning to Venice. The brochure price for this cruise is £1,230 per person, however if you take advantage of its current early booking offer of 30 per cent off, the total price for the two of you will be £1,722. The deadline for taking up the the offer is 31 October.

It is also worth regularly checking out one of the discount cruise specialists, such as Pick N Cruise (01323 472 130; www.pickncruise.com). These will invariably offer even lower prices than booking with the cruise lines direct. It is worth bearing in mind, though, that some of these offers can be short-lived, so you will need to move quickly.

You might also consider Ocean Village Holidays' (0845 358 5000, www.oceanvillageholidays.co.uk) 14-night "Palaces and Paella" cruise departing from Palma on 13 July. The cruise drops anchor at several ports around the Mediterranean, including Tunis, Rome, Santa Margherita, St Raphaël and Barcelona. Taking advantage of its current early booking offer of a 25 per cent discount, this cruise will be a little over your budget at £1,185 per person, including return flights to Palma from either Newcastle or Manchester. But booked through Pick N Cruise, the price drops to £1,049 per person.

It will be money well spent. The ship has a dedicated, staffed club area providing a packed programme of entertainment for seven- to 12-year-olds. Though informal in atmosphere, the Ocean Village is also a very smart ship, with two pools and four Jacuzzis, a casino, four "eat any time" restaurants and cafés, and several bars. Cabins are also among the largest in its class.

Alternatively, if you are willing to take your chances and wait, many cruise lines start slashing fares dramatically as the departure time gets closer and the ships need filling up. In high season this can be a risky business, particularly for family-friendly ships, but fares can often be reduced by up to 60 per cent. The best thing to do is closely monitor companies such as Pick N Cruise for any special offers.

As you are looking to travel next summer, it is also worth noting that Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of easyJet, has announced his intention to launch a no-frills cruise line in the Mediterranean in spring 2004. It will be a hop-on, hop-off service, and is expected to have a lead-in price of around £29 per night per person. Amenities will be basic, and hardly anything will be included in the starting price, but if it's just a taste of life on the ocean wave you're after, it could be just the ticket.

Q Before our daughter took her French GCSE exam we travelled to Normandy and stayed in a chambre d'hôte for a few days to give her a chance to practise her French. Next year, our son will be taking his German GCSE and we would like to do something similar for him. Does the same system exist in Germany? Or can you suggest an alternative for myself, my husband and our son?

D Wroe, Surrey

A Unfortunately, the chambres d'hôte system in place across France has no direct, nationally run equivalent in Germany. However, there are some private companies that run a similar service: Bed and Breakfast Privatzimmervermittlung (00 49 40 490 603 029; www.bed-and-breakfast.de), for instance, has bed & breakfast agencies across Germany which you can either contact online or by phone for a list of suitable rooms in the area. These are all graded at three levels: simple, where you will generally be staying in a private house and sharing a bathroom with the host's family; superior, staying in a guesthouse, often with an en suite bathroom; or luxury, where all the rooms are en suite and have comfortable furnishings. In all cases breakfast is included, and the owners are usually happy to chat and provide information about where you're staying.

Prices are also reasonable, B&B Berlin (00 49 30 7 891 3971), for instance, has rooms in the centre of the city from €27 (£19) per person per night. I'd recommend checking availability at the agencies in Hamburg, Cologne, and lovely, under-rated Bremen.

An even cheaper alternative, and one that should bring your son into close contact with plenty of Germans his own age, is to stay in a youth hostel. The German Youth Hostel Association (00 49 52 31 99 360, www.djh.de) has hundreds of hostels with accommodation similar to that of the YHA in the UK. That means single-sex dorms and separate male and female bathrooms. Many hostels also offer twin rooms for couples, or family rooms if your son wishes to stay with you. Self-catering is the exception rather than the norm, but you can choose to go on a B&B, half-board or full-board basis. Group meal times should also provide plenty of opportunity for language practise. It's advisable to book rooms in advance, and you'll need to join the YHA here before you go (0870 770 8868; www.yha.org.uk). Annual family membership costs £27.

As for where to stay? You will be spoilt for choice. Why not try a castle? Schloss Augustusburg is located on a hilltop about an hour west of Dresden, close to the Swiss border. It's a Renaissance palace with a chapel - not bad for €15.90 (£11) a night per person.

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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