“We’re all going on a summer holiday” was the cry in 218BC as Hannibal led his troops through a high alpine pass to attack Rome in what was the first recorded package holiday. Things have changed since then; instead of elephants we have airplanes, and instead of meagre rations of salted meat we have 15 kilo suitcases stuffed with clothes that we won’t be wearing, but the objective is still the same – cross Europe to get some sun, have some craic and perhaps level a European capital. But the key to Hannibal’s success is much the same then as now – prepare, prepare, prepare, and try to leave the under twos at home.
There are two options – the package and the self-book. We opted for package as we had to weigh up the intense hassle of trying to organise flights, transfers, accommodation and all the rest for the six of us, knowing full well that we would make a mess of it and end up Home Alone-ing one of the kids (bad) or one of us (good). You can save quite a bit of money by spending hours of your short life on Booking.com and Ryanair, but there is always the fear that you will book one bag too few, one child too few, or an apartment that is 400 nautical miles from the airport. The package deal is the path of least resistance, a hedonistic luxury, like clicking your fingers and being magicked away, along with much of your annual income. But if there is one thing I learned from going on holiday with four kids, it is that there is no cheap way to do it.
Travel light: Everyone overpacks, especially if you are on a package holiday where you are unlikely to get hit with fines for overweight bags. You think you will need a different ensemble for every night you are there, but once you are there you realise that actually you don’t really care if you wear the exact same outfit to the buffet every night, as many of the other residents are bedecked in vests and swim trunks, making you look like Coco Chanel by comparison. If you spill gazpacho on your shirt, either the hotel or its environs will have a launderette. This means you can also clean your clothes before going home, thus avoiding clogging your washing machine filter with sand and seashells. Save also on luggage weight and space by leaving the aspirational items, such as books and gym clothes, at home. If you are travelling with kids you won’t have time or exercise to read as you will be gazing, unblinking, into the paddling pool to make sure you know exactly who hit whose kid first.
Screentime: You may have some notions about forcing the kids through some sort of digital detox and leaving all their devices at home. We went the other way, making sure that we had every form of electronic entertainment fully charged and ready to go before we left home. You can say, well screen time is the opiate of the tiny masses, but when you have three boys aged four to eleven ruining dinner for you and everyone else in the resort, some sweet sweet opiates are just what is needed – get ‘em doped up on YouTube and stuffed with patatas fritas and you might actually be able to enjoy your food, as opposed to the panicked trolley dash along the buffet with a screaming child in tow.
Plan activities: We tried to go places every second day. A day trip to a city or nearby fishing village, and then a day off from being cultured when you can just sit by the pool and do nothing except damage your skin.
Unless you are going off grid, TripAdvisor will be able to point you in the direction of local sites of interest, so at least you can come home and say you got some sense of the region. If travelling with smallies, bring a stroller, or hire one out from the hotel. We did this for our corpulent four year old, which led to us shamefacedly breaking two of them trying to lug him around. But it was worth it, as being trapped by the pool for more than a day really starts to feel like you’re in a display in the reptile house of Dublin Zoo.
Try somewhere new: When we only had two kids we used to go to the same resort in Lanzarote year after year. The reasoning was that it made settling in easier, but it became a sun-baked Groundhog Day. If you are booking a package holiday, it is unlikely that you will be more than a few minutes walk from all the amenities you will need, but a new location means new things to see – there are only so many times you can experience the wonder of Timanfaya National Park before you start yearning for another volcanic eruption just to liven things up. Also, two weeks anywhere is too long. Nine or ten days is loads, seven is just short enough that you want more. No holiday should end with someone muttering that they can’t wait to get home, although there is a great joy in flopping into your own bed after two weeks of weird springs and noisy air con.
Don’t drink: This, clearly, is not for everyone. Until this year I had never been on a holiday where I did not drink – in fact, like a lot of holidaymakers, I consumed more drink than I would at home. On this trip I found myself asking – why? A holiday is meant to be a break from the norm, and my norm is having a drink. So I didn’t drink – I had more energy, more focus, and more money in my pocket. Granted, I then spent that money on ten bottles of spirits that pushed my luggage into the Heavy Bag sticker category, but I found the break far more pleasant for not drinking. My kids would probably say the same, which is the aim of family holidays – in many respects, I am just a tour rep for them, making sure they have a good time and that they don’t get burned, or lost, or bitten by a rabid cat. Our memories of the holiday are as clear as they can be, free from the haze of alcohol, and beyond the duty free and tatty clothes we lugged home, it is only the memories that last.
Written for the Irish Independent.