Whether to use kids clubs on holiday often divides opinion of families with young children. Some are guilt-wracked at the idea of abandoning their offspring during precious time together. Others see organised childcare as an essential ingredient of a trip away, without which a holiday really isn’t a holiday for anyone. So who’s right?
Well of course, everyone and no-one is right – it all ultimately depends on how you feel and what makes you and your family happy. As a working father of 3 under -7s, with a busy life and a long commute, ‘quality time’ with my children is reserved for weekends and holidays; and as weekends become more and more organised with swimming lessons, rugby club and parties (and me ever more a taxi service), the importance of holidays for really engaging with Leo, Genevieve and my baby son, Rufus, is growing.
BUT – and it’s a big but – as a working father of 3 under-7s with a busy life and a long commute, I get tired. I am tired. There’s barely a moment when I’m not tired. I want holidays to be a time to recuperate, a time to see my wife and feel like a husband as well as a Dad, a time to remind myself who I am. Without any childcare, a holiday simply becomes a change of scene. The tantrums continue. The spaghetti still ends up on the floor. The guard never comes down and true relaxation is never achieved.
For my wife and me, it has been about finding a balance. We are fortunate enough to take more than one holiday a year and, most of the time, we are happy not to have much childcare – a night’s babysitting at most. (On a recent holiday to the Isle of Wight, we had a lovely night out in Ventnor courtesy of the cottage’s housekeeper. I’m much happier using the owner or someone they recommend than to be given a local agency directory – we honestly would be unlikely to bother with the latter.)
However, for our main summer holiday, where we try and go away for a couple of weeks, we actively seek out somewhere with structured kids’ activities that will give us some valuable downtime and keep the children busy. We’re finding as the kids grow up, having a built-in network of other children to play with is becoming increasingly important – kids clubs can provide this. And I can honestly say that the summer holidays we’ve had over the last 3 years, when our children have spent some of their time in ‘the club’, are some of the best holidays I’ve had in my life.
Should you be tempted by the idea of using a kids club, there are a number of factors which determine whether it will all work out swimmingly or not. Firstly, there’s age of your children. In my experience, from about 2 years to 4, children can be happy in a kids club, but it’s touch and go whether they’ll scream before you can leave or cling onto your leg. Plus, you wouldn’t really want to leave them too long as they get tired and do start to miss the familiarity of Mum and Dad.
It’s worth noting that many places won’t actually take kids till they are four years old – which is a shame as it’s often when they are smaller that you appreciate the break most. If you do wish to leave an under-4, some hotels give you the option of paying for one of the nannies to specifically babysit them within the club. We used this type of service once when our son Leo was 18 months, to allow us to go on a snorkelling trip together and it was fine (if expensive). But we only left him 2 hours, and only did it once. You will find some operators, such as Scott Dunn, who will take kids from as young as 4 months, but this is relatively rare.
The optimal window for kids club is probably between the ages of 5 and 9 or 10. We really noticed this summer how our son, now 6, just thrived in his club in the Algarve. He made friends quickly and loved all the activities, from golf to tennis lessons and even excursions out to water parks and zoos. He got to do far more than he would have done had he been with us (especially as we had an 8 week old baby which precluded going very far or being too active) and the club actually offered incredible value – had we had to pay individually for all his activities, it would have really added up more to far more than the cost of the childcare.
Alongside age, there’s your child’s routine and familial situation to consider. If they are at school or nursery it undoubtedly helps, as they are used to being without you and being left in an environment with teachers/carers and other children. Although my daughter Genevieve was not quite two when we first used a kids club, we didn’t worry about leaving her as she had started nursery that year and was used to be being without mummy 24/7. It also helped that she had her big brother in the club with her. It’s worth finding out how age groups are split up and whether your children (if you have more than one) will be together or not. Because depending on what they’re like and how old they are, they may love or hate being together and it could make all the difference.
The most important factor of all in the success of your holiday, however, will be the set-up and organisation of the kids club itself. There are kids clubs and there are kids clubs. Many hotels claim to offer one; but you turn up and find that it’s just a room with some paint pots and mangled toys, and staff who speak limited English. What’s more, hotels do not regard kids clubs as prime real estate: they are invariably tucked away in the darkest or furthest corner of the hotel because anywhere else would make more money as bedrooms. This was the case at one hotel we stayed at – the kids club was down in the basement and had no natural light. Consequently, we only used it to while away an hour as a family after we’d been kicked out of our room on the last day; for that purpose, it was fine. (That said, sometimes a darkened room does provide welcome relief from the baking sun).
Alongside uninspiring locations, the other problem with hotel kids clubs is that they can feel very transient – day-to-day, you don’t know who is going to be there. Families are arriving and leaving every day, putting their kids in and taking them out at different times. What’s more, travel off-peak (which is what you do with pre-schoolers) and chances are your kids will have the club to themselves. We’ve experienced this on a couple of out-of-season holidays to the Caribbean. In St Lucia, Leo was pretty much the only child in the resort. As he was only 2 at the time, he didn’t really need the sociability of other children and he got one-on-one attention from the nanny. But it certainly wasn’t a lively, sociable environment and we wouldn’t have wanted him in there by himself for more than a couple of hours.
Kids clubs work much better when there is consistency and everyone is on the same schedule, so your children have a chance to make friends. This is partly why our recent holidays in Greece have been so successful. We stayed at a place called Periyali Villas in Zakynthos (operated by Simpson Travel), a small complex of villas with access to a central creche. Everyone at the accommodation is there because of the Club so all the children attend on the 4 days a week it is open, with all arrivals and departures on a Sunday. Our kids quickly established a routine and made friends. What’s more, the club itself was bright and kitted out like the kids’ nursery back home, which all helped with settling in.
The alternative to kids clubs or organised childcare is, of course, the extended family holiday. Increasingly, we are travelling with nanna and granddad – extra pairs of hands that can give mum and dad that vital time to read by the pool or even steal off for dinner for a night or two. I’m all for inter-generational holidays – everyone wins; we did it last year and will be doing it again this Christmas. However, as nice as it is to be with everyone, it’s also nice too to do things just as your own family unit. And for these occasions – provided you do your homework (and your kids oblige) – I am firmly in the camp of Kids Clubs Rule.
My top things to consider in a holiday kids club:
- What are the carer-to-child ratios? This is essential info as good staff will make or break your children’s experience. Not many kids clubs will operate to UK standards – the younger your children, the more imperative it is that there are sufficient nannies on-site to take care of them.
- What hours does the club operate and which work best for you? It’s no point having a kids club that opens in the afternoon when your child is usually napping; or paying to put them in all day when you actually want more of a balance. Think about what will work best for you as some clubs will allow you to book just morning or afternoon sessions.
- Will they feed your child at the club and if so, what? It’s quite unusual for kids clubs to provide food; but if they do, check what’s on the menu. You probably don’t want your children eating pizza and chips every-day.
- Where is the kids club and what’s it like? Make sure it’s not a miserable room in the far reaches of the resort; and also try and find out what’s inside. You really want to know they have some decent kit and not just a box of manky toys.
- Do they take the children off-site? Again, this is fairly uncommon but it’s something Scott Dunn, for example, offer at their clubs in the Med. Leo loved it and his days out provided him with experiences he wouldn’t have got with us – there was no way we were taking our newborn baby on a trip to the water park.
- Do you have to pay extra? There is no hard-and-fast rule here; but in my experience, long-haul hotels tend to include access to their kids clubs for free (at least for the over-4s) whereas in Europe, it’s a chargeable extra. Look out, though, for off-season offers. If you can take your kids out of school holidays, then invariably operators will throw in free childcare as an incentive.
- Try and find out from other parents. If you can, try and speak to someone who’s been there. Search for reviews online and if you have questions, don’t be afraid to email the reviewer – I’ve done this on TripAdvisor and invariably get a quick response. People are flattered to be asked their opinion.