Pity the poor parent when October half-term rolls around. For most schools outside Scotland, the mid-term break this year is 24 October to 1 November. Not only do the clocks go back over the first weekend – making Britain feel distinctly wintry – but prices for overseas holidays go through the roof and availability shrinks. When I searched for a one-week trip to Spain’s Costa del Sol on the website of a leading tour operator, departing 24 October, I was told: “Sorry, there’s nothing for your chosen dates.”
Happily, there is still room on the train or plane for families needing a late-notice break: you just have to be flexible and canny with your choice of dates and destinations. Prices are per person and assume a family of four, including two children under 12 (who, conveniently, dodge air passenger duty).
The train from London St Pancras and Ashford in Kent direct to Marseille is a miraculous way to reach the Mediterranean with minimum stress (03432 186 186; eurostar.com). It runs on Saturdays year-round, and there is availability on Saturday 24 October for a week. Thanks to Eurostar’s generous reductions for children aged4-11, the per-person fare works out at a very reasonable £187 return.
You can step almost from St-Charles station to the newly opened three-star Alex Hotel (00 33 4 13 24 13 24; alex-hotel.fr), where a boutique feel is accompanied by friendly rates: €79 (£58) a night for a “club room” sleeping two. Once esconced, explore one of France’s most intriguing cities – or just head for the beach.
Plane plus train
Flying on Saturday 24 October and returning a week later, easyJet (0843 104 5000;easyjet.com) costs £438 to get each of you from Gatwick to Faro in Portugal. Yet on the same dates, the fare to Lisbon is only £295 return each – a total saving of nearly £600.
Rail fares between the Portuguese capital and the Algarve, on the south coast, total around £100 for a family of four. The journey aboard an inter-city train is swift (2h 30m to Albufeira) and runs through attractive scenery. Alternatively, hop on a local train to Lisbon’s lovely resort, Cascais – the Brighton of Portugal.
Not many people realise that Austria’s Tyrol generally enjoys a warm spell in October – with almost as much sunshine as June, and much less rain than in the summer months.
It can be an ideal time for trying parts of the Eagle Walk, a 199-mile long-distance footpath centred on the fine city of Innsbruck. The trail is divided into 33 stages, punctuated by convivial “huts”, which are considerably more luxurious than the term suggests. You can fly into Innsbruck itself for around £270 return with Lufthansa (0371 945 9124; lufthansa.com) from Birmingham via Frankfurt – or reach Munich non-stop for around £300, and take the train across the mountains.
Those Saturday-to-Saturday European fares are high. The cheapest British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) return flight from Heathrow to Faro costs £654; but for around £7 less, it will fly you from the same airport to Mumbai – four times further away. And with no half-term rate surge, accommodation will be its usual good value.
For older children, this energetic, colourful city has much to explore, as well as great food. Wandering through the mass of humanity at Chowpatty Beach at sunset is a life-affirming experience. And if it all becomes too intense then the sparsely populated coastline is only a train ride away.
Tenerife on the cheap(ish)
The natural choice for a sunny week’s break is the Canaries – which is why these Spanish islands tend to get booked up months ahead. So I was surprised to see Thomson (0871 230 2555:thomson.co.uk) still has availability at Las Piramides, in Playa de las Americas in Tenerife. Each member of the family pays £530 for flights from Manchester on Sunday 25 October, with transfers and half-board at the slightly tired but reliable hotel, which has two pools. The resort’s modest beach is a 15-minute walk away.
A half-term Canaries holiday at this price point must have a catch, and here it is: the overnight flight home gets back to Manchester at 4.55am on Monday morning, not the ideal start for school or work.