The Independent Parent: your questions answered

Where would make an exotic Christmas getaway for our family? And can my young daughter fly to Italy by herself?


Q We are considering forgoing our usual Christmas celebrations and taking off somewhere more far-flung and exotic. Our children are quite intrepid and they absolutely love animals. We'd ideally like to go somewhere in the Far East, but we're not exactly sure where. Borneo is one thought - or can you suggest somewhere else?

Q We are considering forgoing our usual Christmas celebrations and taking off somewhere more far-flung and exotic. Our children are quite intrepid and they absolutely love animals. We'd ideally like to go somewhere in the Far East, but we're not exactly sure where. Borneo is one thought - or can you suggest somewhere else?

M McCormick, via e-mail

A Tour operators have cottoned on to family-oriented adventure holidays and the idea that children and their parents often want more than the average bucket-and-spade holiday.

Several companies now offer a range of family-friendly adventures to a variety of exotic locations around the globe. Tours offered will either be tailor-made to suit your requirements, or escorted group tours of about 10 to 18 people. Departures are also timed to coincide with the school holidays.

However, few operators currently offer tours in Borneo, given the diverse and often taxing nature of the terrain. At present, the only company I have found offering family trips to Borneo is the wildlife specialist Reef and Rainforest Tours (01803 866965, www.familytours.co.uk). It offers tailor-made holidays aimed at families with children aged between two and 11.

At this stage, I must also point out that Christmas is not the ideal time to visit Borneo, as you will be arriving in the middle of the monsoon season, which affects the island from November to February. Borneo's climate is typically humid, and temperatures hover around 30C all year round, but you will find that the monsoon season will mean a rise in humidity and the possibility of the occasional tropical storm.

Reef and Rainforest does offer departures throughout the year, and the monsoon season will not necessarily ruin your holiday. If you decide to risk it, you will be comforted to hear that Borneo is also out of the main cyclonic belt, so storms will not be too drastic and you will undoubtedly have dry days as well as rainy days. If you're still unsure, I would suggest that you delay your trip until the Easter holidays, when the weather will be better.

Either way, you won't be disappointed. Borneo is the world's third-largest island and is home to a dazzling array of wildlife, including orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, tropical fish, turtles and exotic birds, to name but a few. The island is divided into four territories - the Sultanate of Brunei in the north-west, the Indonesian state of Kalimantan in the south and the two Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah in the west and north-east. The Reef and Rainforest tour visits the Malaysian side of the island.

A two-week holiday based on two adults and two children sharing two double rooms, departing on 12 April 2004, will cost £1,749 per adult and £1,277 per child (age 11 and under). This includes return flights with Malaysia Airlines from London Heathrow via Kuala Lumpur, transfers, bed & breakfast accommodation at the beach resorts and full board in the rainforest, plus rainforest excursions. This is a tailor-made itinerary, so it is possible to pick and choose what you want to do, but the following standard itinerary will give you an idea of what it offers.

The first four days of the holiday are spent acclimatising and relaxing in the sunshine at a beach resort a short drive from Kota Kinabalu airport. The resort is close to the Kinabalu National Park, which is home to the spectacular 4,101m-high peak of Mount Kinabalu.

The third and fourth days are spent exploring the rainforest and snorkelling, followed by another day by the sea. You will all then fly to Sandakan on the island's east coast, where you will spend an evening turtle-watching on the island of Selingan. The following days are spent visiting the nearby Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre, followed by a rainforest boat excursion to experience the exquisite wildlife. On the 11th day, you will all fly back to Kota Kinabalu, where you will be able to spend the remainder of your holiday back at the beach resort, or you can opt for a visit to a private rainforest reserve. The inclusion of flights and boat trips into the holiday are designed to cut down time spent driving or walking around the island and is therefore ideal for families with younger children.

If you are still keen to travel over Christmas, you might like to consider Thailand. Travelbag Family Adventures (01420 541007, www.travelbag-adventures.com), The Imaginative Traveller (020-8742 8612, www.imaginative-family.com) and Explore Worldwide Family Adventures (01252 760177, www.familyadventures.co.uk) each offer escorted family adventure packages mixing island relaxation, jungle walks, elephant trekking and sightseeing.

Thailand's islands are some of the most beautiful in the world with excellent snorkelling and superlative beaches. The north of the country is characterised by dense jungle and ancient ruins, and is teeming with wildlife such as elephants, monkeys and birds. Christmas is a good time to visit as the monsoon season which affects the country roughly between June and October will have drawn to a close. Temperatures again are hot but tolerable - averaging around 30C in December.

Travelbag Family Adventures' "Islands and Tribes" offers an escorted tour for groups of between eight and 14 over Christmas. Departing on 20 December, this 15-day holiday costs £1,059 per adult and £932 per child (aged five to 11). This includes return flights on Gulf Air from London Heathrow via Bahrain to Bangkok, accommodation, some meals, transfers and an experienced tour leader. It is currently reporting availability for this trip, but bear in mind that Christmas departures are the most sought-after. The tour includes sightseeing in Bangkok, relaxing by the beach on the island of Koh Samet, jungle walks and a visit to a hill tribe in Soppong. There is also the chance to go elephant-trekking in the north and a visit to the spectacular Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai.

Explore Worldwide Family Adventures also has places left for its 16-day "Thai Hilltribe Adventure", also departing on 20 December. This costs £1,095 per adult and £920 per child (aged eight-11) and includes return flights from London Heathrow to Bangkok via Amsterdam, accommodation on a B&B basis, some meals and the services of a guide.

It is also important that you have all the recommended vaccinations before you travel. Your GP will be able to advise you, but these should include hepatitis A and B, tetanus, typhoid and polio, and you may need to take malaria tablets if visiting areas outside tourist resorts.

Q I have promised my 11-year-old daughter that she can fly on her own this half-term to Pisa to visit a friend who now lives in Tuscany. Which airlines will take her and is this going to cost me a small fortune?

Mrs J Berry, London

A The situation with regard to "unaccompanied minors", as they are known in the business, is not the most satisfactory as far as parents are concerned. With airlines all looking to cut costs this is one service that has come in for the chop. The no-frills airlines have never allowed under-14s to travel alone, so you will have to rule out the likes of Ryanair. By and large, the emerging trend with most scheduled airlines is to either charge a fee in addition to the price of the ticket, or, as is now the case with the Irish national carrier Aer Lingus, refuse to take unaccompanied children under 12 altogether.

To fly your daughter to Pisa, you have two options. British Airways (0845 850 9850, www.ba.com) will still take unaccompanied children aged between five and 12 on flights, but since last month, it will only do so at a price. It is currently offering a fare of £106 for your daughter to fly to Pisa during half-term (it does not offer children's fares on its cheaply priced European destinations). However, you will have to find an extra £30 each way to pay for its "Skyflyer Solo Service" which will increase the ticket price to £166.

Your second choice is to book your daughter's flight with Alitalia (0870 544 8259, www.alitalia.co.uk), which will cost less than half as much. Alitalia does not charge a fee for unaccompanied minors on its flights, and as your daughter is 11, she will qualify for its cheapest child fare, which will work out at around £73 return from Heathrow to Pisa over half-term. So why did I not recommend it first? because it involves your daughter having to change planes at Milan's Malpensa airport. If you choose this option, the airline needs at least 48 hours notice to arrange an escort to accompany your daughter on and off the flight.

Whichever airline you book with, you will need to give the name of the adult who will be meeting her at the airport in Pisa at the time of booking. He or she will have to present their passport or ID when collecting her. You also have to give yourself plenty of time when you see her off, as you will have to stay in the airport until her flight has taken off in case there are any delays.

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