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Booking your summer holidays? Here’s how to travel more sustainably as a family

by Staff

Worried about your travel footprint? Here’s how to reduce the impact of your family holidays.

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Sarah Faith is a content and values writer at activist travel company, Responsible Travel.

Last year we drove to France with friends. They took their electric car, arrived three hours late and had to deal with two tired children screaming through a 2am charging stop in a dark Lidl car park.

It doesn’t have to be that way. With a little bit of planning your family holiday can be more sustainable – and more enjoyable – this summer.

Before you pick a destination, start by asking yourself these five questions:

What do we love doing as a family? What do we need to bring to have a successful family trip? What will my kids eat? Could we travel by train? Do we need to travel during the summer holidays?

Make the journey part of the adventure

Next time they take the electric car, our friends vowed, they’ll plan for it. They’ll make the journey part of the holiday and use the charging stops to incorporate their love of adventure on the way. They might stop to explore chateaux in the Loire Valley – some, like Cheverny, have charging stations in the car park.

Use ChargeFinder, ChargeMap or ShellRecharge to plan ahead.

Cycling holidays offer adventure for older kids who are confident riders – and they’re a fun, low-carbon way to explore a new destination. Families might find it easier to be centre-based – where you return to the same hotel each night – to take away the need for parents to repack each day.

Catalonia’s Via Verdes (disused railway lines), the Loire Valley’s Loire à Vélo cycle paths, and the Danube Cycle Path make excellent family-friendly options.

Stay off-grid at an eco-hotel or farm

Your accommodation takes up a big chunk of your holiday carbon budget. So, where you stay matters. Luckily, there are some excellent off-grid hotels in Europe serving up solar-heated pools and packages of active family fun that won’t break the bank.

El Geco Verde in Granada, Spain, is an off-grid boutique hotel run entirely on renewable energy. Its seven-night family activity packages start at £422 (€495) per person excluding flights, including three activities, B&B accommodation, and six three-course evening meals.

Other options, like Wheatland Farm in Devon, UK, connect you and your family more deeply with nature. Fully off-grid self-catering lodges support the 21-acre wildlife reserve in which they sit, where your kids can run, cycle, splash in the pond, and spot bats, butterflies and more to their hearts’ content. Seven nights costs from £252 (€296) per accommodation.

Pack light for lower emissions

Packing light is a game changer, enthuses Emma Heywood from family activity specialist, Undiscovered Balkans. “It lowers emissions for air travel and also means the travel company can use a smaller, lower emission vehicle while you’re in-destination,” she says. “Plus there’s less stuff to lose along the way!“

It certainly makes taking the train or ditching the hire car in favour of public transport much more appealing.

But, packing light – especially with little ones – is all about trusting that your accommodation can cater for your kids’ needs.

That’s where Johnny Robinson at Caserio del Mirador comes in. His family-friendly hotel in Valencia, Spain, comes equipped with what he describes as “all the right stuff to give families the confidence to pack less”, including cots and bedding, toys and books, towels, plates, bowls, bibs, sippy cups and a cheap, fast laundry service to deal with inevitable spills.

Eat local to slash your carbon footprint

Eating local, seasonal food over imported, international fare – and avoiding buffet restaurants – is an effective way for your family to lighten its carbon footprint.

We’ve spent the past two summers in southern Italy. Mainly because pizza, pasta, olives, tomatoes and cheese are culinary hits with our four and six year olds.

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It’s a win-win. Local, traditional restaurants and street markets pack a greater cultural punch than global chains, we get to support small Puglian businesses, and we keep our food miles low while we’re away.

To make it work, choosing a local restaurant or a more sustainable hotel that really ‘gets’ children is key, says Robinson.

“Lots of choice helps alleviate parental anxiety, as does a glass of wine,” he says, “but mostly it is joining in with their new friends that really helps children enjoy mealtimes.”

He focuses on encouraging kids to enjoy healthy, locally-sourced food. “All the dishes are made from scratch in our own kitchen so we can talk about where the ingredients came from, the butcher down the road, the vegetable garden, the fig tree near the trampoline.”

Get perks for travelling by train

Saskia Anley-McCallum thinks it’s more fun to take the train. She runs La Source, a holiday provider specialising in off-grid, active family breaks in the French Alps.

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On average, picking a trip that’s accessible by train can cut your carbon emissions by up to two thirds over flying.

“So many of our guests take the train from London to Paris, spend a lovely night in Paris and then jump on an easy train to Cluses” (her nearest station), she says. “They really enjoy getting the train as it eases them into holiday mode and gives the children a good flavour of French culture.”

Travelling by train can be super straightforward, Anley-McCallum insists. Young kids often travel free, and some French, Swiss, and Finnish intercity trains have onboard play areas, too.

Train expert the Man in Seat61 offers detailed advice on how to book European trains – and some operators will book for you, or even offer discounts for arriving by train.

If you can, ditch the hire car and travel on public transport to explore your destination when you get there. You and your kids will get more of a feel for local culture and it’ll cost less, too.

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Switch your summer holiday for an Easter break

Rather than ramping up the air conditioning (that’s rarely powered by renewable energy) during the next European heatwave, consider swapping your family’s summer Mediterranean break to Easter instead.

Southern Spain and Portugal, Malta, the Balkans, Turkey and the Greek islands are all pleasantly warm at Easter – and with most school holidays at least two weeks long, you’ll have plenty of time to slow down and explore.

Switching your big trip away from the peak summer season is likely to cost less too – and you won’t be contributing to the overtourism crisis in popular destinations, either. Look for deals during the Easter holidays and half-term breaks.

For more tips, check out Responsible Travel’s family travel guide.

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