Deborah Jackson assesses the value of single-parent offers from the travel industry
"Guaranteed free child holidays!" declare the holiday brochures. But very little is guaranteed if you fail to travel in the traditional family group of two parents and a modest number of children.

Single parents are the ones who probably most need the rest - and the discount, but their needs are usually ignored. Travel operators make few concessions and may even insist that the oldest child pays the full adult rate. So we made some calls on behalf of a single mother with two children, aged six and eight, seeking a high-season holiday abroad or in the UK.

Package holidays abroad

The lone parent does not stand a chance. As the Thomson brochure states, "A free child place is only available for a child sharing a room with two full-fare paying adults", and all the other operators we checked make the same disclaimer. Also, watch out for under-occupancy charges if your room or apartment is meant to take four.

Most of the one-parent family offers we investigated turned out to be of little value. Either they did not apply to a single parent with two children, or the savings were feeble. Over and over, we were told we'd be better off paying for the oldest child as an adult and taking whatever concessions we could for the youngest.

Airtours (01706 260000): Single parents have to pay two adult fares whatever concessions they receive, said the operator.

Sunworld (0113 255 5222): The single-parent family saver advertised in the brochure looked promising: "We offer holidays where a special reduction applies to a child sharing a room with only one adult." But, the operator explained, this offer was redundant for a mother of two. "This only applies to one adult, one child. If you have two children, one pays the adult price."

Thomson (0990 673310): Thomson does not offer any concessions to single parents: "One of your children would have to go as an adult," I was told. I was referred to the Skytours brochure for single-parent offers.

Skytours (0121 252 3424): Even though this company is really just a brand name for the Thomson group, it has a much more solo-friendly attitude. At last, special deals for single parents at 16 selected hotels and apartments in 13 different resorts including Majorca, Tenerife, Turkey, and Halkidiki, Greece. Both first and second child prices apply to children travelling with just one adult. Unfortunately, neither child counts towards under- occupancy charges on this offer, so supplements could be steep.

First Choice (One Parent Family Hotline 0161 745 4600): The hotline is new for this year. However, offers apply to a small handful of hotels and apartments, "mostly in Majorca", and places were almost all allocated at the time of calling. "Sometimes it's cheaper to pay two adult fares and take advantage of the free child offer," said the operator. A one- parent family staying at, for instance, the Rosa del Mar apartments in Palma Nova would also be liable for under-occupancy charges of pounds 12 a night in high season, whichever deal they travelled on.

Cosmos (0161 480 5799): A healthy range of single-parent deals in hotels and all-inclusive resorts from Majorca to Malta and the Gambia. Look out for offers under the "Extra Value" section. Two children (or teenagers) qualify for discounts when travelling with one parent rather than two. But if one adult is sharing a room with three children, the third child pays the adult price.

Virgin Holidays (01293 617181): Excellent news in the Florida/Caribbean brochure for lone parents with up to three children. "Single Parent Virgins" are invited to enjoy discounts on selected hotels in Orlando, Miami and St Petersburg.

Camping abroad

These holidays are tailor-made for families of unusual shapes and sizes. Under-18s travel free, and one parent can usually travel with four children without paying punitive supplements or extra adult fees.

Eurocamp (01565 626262): One-adult parties are offered pounds 65 off the base holiday price. Operators are extremely helpful in working out the cheapest holiday prices and best deals on crossings.

Keycamp (0181 395 4400): There's a pounds 60 discount for one-parent families on single-centre holidays departing between 26 June and 20 August (pounds 30 discount on other dates). To qualify, book by 31 January.

French Country Camping (01565 626266): pounds 65 off the basic holiday price.

Canvas (01383 644000): A reduction of between pounds 30 and pounds 85 for single- parent groups, depending on season.

Haven Europe (01705 466111): Haven's "Single Saver" offers parties headed by one adult a reduction of pounds 8 a night between 19 July and 1 August, and pounds 4 a night on other dates. This applies to holidays from five to 14 nights long.

Award-winning UK hotels

A very mixed bunch of prices and attitudes from establishments who have won awards for catering for families.

The Knoll House, Studland, Dorset (01929 450450): A devilishly difficult system of adding up the children's ages and turning them into a percentage left us with a 100 per cent bill for the eight-year-old and a 60 per cent reduction for the six-year-old. "So the oldest child pays an adult fee?" I asked. "Well, yes, but it's not as simple as that." I wish it were.

The Saunton Sands Hotel, Braunton, Devon (01271 890212): One parent sharing with children in a triple-bedded room will not be penalised. "One child should pay an adult fee, but we would normally waive that." Children each receive their normal reduction from the adult tariff (40 per cent for a six- and an eight-year-old).

Crieff Hydro, Perthshire (01764 655555): There are no double occupancy supplements for single parents, who qualify for the usual child discounts, according to age.

Trevelgue Hotel, Porth, Cornwall (01637 872864): "We aim to give a great deal," said owner Nicholas Malcolm. "No single supplements, all discounts - even the youngest child free, when applicable." One-parent treats include complimentary childcare tickets; free use of gym, squash and tennis facilities, introductions to other guests for sports and entertainment; childcare at dinner time and priority booking on children's clubs. Top marks.

The National Council for One Parent Families (0171-267 1361) produces a free information brochure. There's also a `Guide to Holidays for One Parent Families' from the Holiday Care Service (01293 774535). One Parent Family Holidays (01776 889500) is a specialist tour operator offering hotel and camping holidays, mainly abroad. Holiday Endeavour for Lone Parents (01302 728791) arranges discounted holidays and day trips.