As the summer months edge into September, I cannot help but feel a tinge of regret. I always do, because summers had always been magical for me ever since my children were born. We were financially not well-off in those days, given that I was a University student and my children's young father did not have a highly paid job. But we had something infinitely more precious than cold hard cash, and that was time plus the mindset to enjoy that time with our children. OK, I must confess here that in the beginning, we used to fight over this: I would rather we worked during the summer months to ease our tight financial situation, but he resolutely would not work at all from July to September. Oh, how we fought over our ideals, but I am glad he won hands down in this instance, because we have had close to 30 magical summers in our lifetime together.
Here are our trialed and tested ways of having a fabulous summer on a tight budget:
1. Home exchange
This sounds unbelievable, but we exchanged our humble council house in a rough estate in Manchester with a couple from Italy who wanted two weeks of 'hard culture and party'. Welcome to the Barlow Hall estate, folks, where most of our unemployed neighbours stayed up late drinking cheap beer and watching football on television (you could hear the swearing though the thin walls). The couple from Italy was quite tight-lipped about what they had to offer (they posted photographs that gave very little clues), but we thought we had nothing to lose anyway because no house could be crappier than ours. Imagine our surprise when we arrived at a small palazzo in Venice. Apart from the stress of our children wrecking priceless carpets and falling into the canal, I must say it was one heck of a fabulous summer.
Websites for home exchange:
Over the years, I have visited some really amazing places, but when it comes to sheer magic, nothing could ever beat waking up in a tent in the morning, stepping outside and seeing hundreds of wild New Forest ponies streaming past within feet of me. My children were completely blown away.
Thus, investing in a tent was the best investment we ever made. If you are a camping newbie, you could try 'glamping' (glamorous camping) or camp in specialised campsites where you could find help on hand, running water and loo.
Though for me, nothing beats hitting the road with the children in the backseat of our old Land Rover, pitching up our tent wherever fancy took us. We camped in a cornfield in Luxembourg one summer (which must surely be the weirdest place ever) and had such a beautiful time in the fields of gold, feasting on corn, making corn dollies and going on long walks. Sometimes we ventured into the town for showers, to buy provisions and visit the sights. We waited every morning for the farmer to evict us, but he never came. We left a bottle of wine and a heartfelt Thank You note thanking him for one of the most magical holidays we have ever had.
3. Visit hospitable friends
My eternal gratitude always to my dear friend Ruedi Achermann who very kindly loaned us his sumptuous apartment in front of the Rhine when we couldn't afford holiday lets. We would chug to Basel on our trusty old beast of a Land Rover and live like lords for weeks on end. Look earnestly into your address book - you will have friends like Ruedi Achermann somewhere in there.
4. Pack up with similar friends
Exploit economies of scale. Go on holiday with like-minded friends with children of the same age group. Not only do the children entertain themselves, adults can trade babysitting duties too.
5. Collect coupons
We painstakingly collected coupons from The Times for free ferry crossing to France in low-season February, sailed to France for Valentine's Day and made our magical third child (a daughter) there, all on a shoestring budget.
6. Work for your board
My daughter's martial arts coach from the UK will be running a three-month martial arts training camp on the beautiful tropical paradise Phuket. His wife and daughter will be accompanying him for this experience of a lifetime. And you guess it, free board and lodging for the whole family, an opportunity to visit somewhere amazing and start something .... all on a shoestring (airfares covered as part of the deal).
First published in www.raisinghappystrongkids.com