Sri Lanka was recently voted best country in the world to visit in 2019 by Lonely Planet – quite an accolade, but we think it’s easy to see why. The endless beaches, the lush green hills, the history, culture, food and most importantly the people all make Sri Lanka the perfect holiday destination. And a great destination for a family trip too. There are so many sides to Sri Lanka despite it being a relatively small island. In fact, due to its size, you can easily get from place to place, and see and do so much in a relatively short time, which is part of the appeal.
The time of year you are going will, to some extent, determine where you go in Sri Lanka because there are different rainy seasons for the North and South. While the South and West is having its dry season, the North and East has its wet season and vice versa (although it is not an exact science!).
In general, the dry seasons are:
South and West : Nov – May
North and East : May – Oct
We don’t mind tropical storms that pass but visiting during the rainy season is not much fun if it rains the entire time, particularly if the all-important views are completely obscured!
The rain can make admiring the view a little tricky!
We chose to visit Sri Lanka in December and therefore picked a southern loop. Here is our 14 day itinerary.
Day 1 – Airport > Bentota
Day 2 – Bentota
Day 3 – Bentota > Unawatuna
Day 4 – Unawatuna
Day 5 – Unawatuna
Day 6 – Unawatuna
Day 7 – Unawatuna > Udawalawe
Day 8 – Udawalawe > Ella
Day 9 – Ella
Day 10 – Ella > Matale
Day 11 – Matale
Day 12 – Matale > Colombo
Day 13 – Colombo
Day 14 – Colombo – Airport
We arrived in the early evening into Bandaraniyke (Colombo) airport and arranged a car through Kings Tours (run by an old friend, Sujywa, and highly recommended!) to take us down to Bentota. They met us in arrivals and whisked us off in a very new and comfortable 7 seater van. It was the equivalent of 2am for us so rather than attempt to get on a train or organise a taxi on arrival, we booked this in advance knowing it would be a little more expensive (around $80). For us it was worth it to avoid any delays when we would inevitably be exhausted.
We decided to stay in Bentota because it is en-route down to Galle and gets that first leg out of the way in the evening when traffic is lighter. You will be tired and probably won’t be doing much on the night you arrive, so why not spend a little longer getting to your first destination and have a little nap in the van rather than wasting a night in an average location close to the airport and then having to transfer the next day when you could be relaxing on the beach?
Centara Ceysands at Bentota
We booked the Centara Bentota with the idea being that we would let the boys acclimatise gently in an all-inclusive hotel and get over the jetlag before starting our real adventure. We booked with them direct because they had a great deal running which beat all of the Online Travel Agents that we normally use. It is tucked in between the Indian Ocean and the Bentota River, and reception is accessed by taking a short hotel ferry ride over the river, which the boys loved.
We had a family room on half board plus basis (breakfast and dinner which included drinks with dinner). We thought this was better than all-inclusive as we could still venture out for lunch and realistically as much as we would have liked to, we weren’t going to sit around drinking all day… Tempting as it sounds, it’s not really practical with the kids! Our room even had a cute elephant waiting for us which the boys loved.
Towel art in our room at the Centara Ceysands
The room was great. It had bunk beds in the ‘living room’ and great black-out blinds. We changed and showered and went for dinner. We were in and out in 30 mins. One of the benefits of an all-inclusive/half board buffet is no hanging around for food when you have overtired kids.
The next morning we woke late due to jetlag and had missed breakfast but at least woke up feeling refreshed after a long sleep. There is a fantastic pool complex with a child-friendly pool (about 0.5m deep) which is perfect for smaller children.
Kids splashing in the shallow kiddie pool at Centara Ceysands Bentota
The Centara is located right on the beach and it is a gorgeous stretch of sand. The waves are a little big so it is not ideal for swimming, but when you have a great pool, it’s not the end of the world. At lunch we took a walk south along the beach for about 1km to the point where there were a few rocks for rock pooling and calmer water.
The long wide stretch of sand at Bentota beach
We had lunch at a little restaurant just set back from the beach called Rana’s Seafood which is a quick hop over the train tracks (watch our for trains when crossing!). It was a fun place to watch the trains go by and they had a decent selection of western food if your kids haven’t quite acclimatised yet!
Kids crossing the railway tracks to get to the restaurant
We spent the afternoon back by the pool and enjoyed a delicious Sri Lankan buffet for dinner. We were pretty wiped out so it was an early night for us.
Just a quick note on The Centara – they also have a kids club with lovely staff. If you are going to stay there for longer and appreciate a little down time to have a beach stroll or enjoy a cocktail by the pool, we would highly recommend them. We didn’t use it apart from to borrow their football goals and football so that the boys could get their daily fix, but the ladies were very sweet and the kids who were there look thoroughly entertained.
We stayed at the Centara until check out then took a tuk-tuk to the Bentota train station for LKR 200 (90p).
Waiting for our train to Unawatuna
The journey to Unawatuna from Bentota by train costs around LKR 200 per person (half price for children under 12 and free under 3) in 2nd class and takes about 90 minutes. We just bought a ticket at the station and hopped on the train. It was busy but people were very friendly and helpful and let the kids have seats which was great, particularly as our youngest, George, wasn’t feeling great that day. You can stay on the train until Unawatuna but as the station there is so small, it can be a little tricky to get a tuk-tuk, so you can also hop off in Galle and get a tuk-tuk to Unawatuna (20 mins and LKR 500). Train travel in Sri Lanka can be hit and miss. Sometimes it is so busy that it is a real stress to get the family on or off with all the bags. Timing is key. The usual rush hour times apply in Sri Lanka too.
Enjoying the views of every day Sri Lankan life from the train
Whilst Galle is a beautiful place to stay, we preferred to stay in Unawatuna so that we had the beach to come back to after exploring Galle. We stayed at Bedpsace which is set back from the main part of town and a little quieter. The room was great with air con, fan, mosquito nets over 2 large double beds and a spacious bathroom.
One of the main reasons we love travel so much is that we get to try so many delicious foods. Dinner at Bedspace didn’t dissapoint – some of the best food we had in Sri Lanka. Bonus points for not having to get the kids to walk too far to eat after a travel day, which is usually when they are at their most tired/grumpy!! The only issue is that my FOMO kicked in and I had a hard time choosing what to eat. It all looked and sounded so delicious. Luckily my herb crusted seer filet was amazing as was the black pork curry that Ed chose. Have a look at the menu and see what you think…
We all had a really comfortable night sleep in our new room.
The boys getting comfortable in their new bed at Bedpsace
Breakfast lived up to expectations too – coconut rotis and super spicy sambal with coconut water to cool off with. Do mention if you don’t think your kids will eat this as they will be able to make something else for them. Since we were right next to the most family-friendly beach in Sri Lanka (Dalawella), we hopped in a tuk-tuk to spend the day there. It is just under 3km south of Unawatuna and the tuk-tuk cost around LKR300. It is a small beach with less people there than in Unawatuna and the reef provides a great natural barrier to the large surf you find on most other Sri Lankan beaches which makes it very child-friendly.
Playing in the super safe water at Dalawella beach
At around 12pm you may also get the chance to swim with turtles – although we didn’t see any that day so it’s not a guaranteed experience. Look carefully though as they can glide silently past without you noticing. After our morning on the beach, we headed back to the hotel for a little down time and then in the afternoon we took a tuk-tuk to Galle. It was a 20 min journey and we paid around LKR500. We took a look around the beautiful Amangalla Hotel where you can have high tea, walked along the fort walls, dipped in and out of some of the boutiques, followed by dinner at Galle Fort Hotel. If you’re lucky you may catch a game of cricket at the cricket ground just outside the fort walls.
Wandering along the fort walls near the lighthouse in the historic Galle Fort
We were given the option of having breakfast at their beach restaurant Bedspace Kitchen on the second morning where they had even more choice. Great cappuccino with hoppers, french toast, stacked pancakes and fresh juices. It was a lovely leisurely breakfast and we even squeezed in a game of monopoly that we borrowed from the hotel.
Delicious egg hoppers at Bedspace Kitchen
After breakfast at the beach we explored Unawatuna. We had been there in 2010 when it was relatively small with a few restaurants along the beach. This time we found the restaurants crammed in and there were so many people. We didn’t spend much time there and decided to head to our next hotel, the Good Vibes Villa.
We took a tuk-tuk which was about 30mins @ LKR 600. It was a little inland from Unawatuna so we stayed there for the rest of the day and chilled by their amazing pool. There were games for the kids (giant chess, little chess, ping pong, swings, board games) and an honour bar for big kids! In the main house there were 4 rooms but we had a separate villa with 2 bedrooms and a lovely outdoor bathroom. It was a little bit away from the main house so the boys could do their thing without us worrying they would disturb other guests. It was set in incredible grounds and the kids were given a nature quiz so they could go and explore the flora and fauna.
The lovely chilled pool area of Good Vibes villa near Unawatuna
The meals were absolutely delicious. We stayed for dinner that evening and were treated to a Sri Lankan feast. Although the kids enjoy a good curry, they were given the choice of pasta with fried chicken and ice cream (which they jumped at after a few days of rice and curry!). The staff are so friendly and always on hand if you need them but are also good at being inconspicuous and you get the feeling of absolute privacy.
We had an amazing night sleep in very comfortable beds and peaceful surroundings. The breakfast was sumptuous and set us up for a day at Wijaya Beach at Dalawella. This time we ate lunch at Wijaya beach restaurant. Delicious wood-fired pizza, super cool smoothies with a beautiful view. We would have loved to have stayed here but as we were there in peak season it was all booked up way in advance (and had a minimum 7-night stay). If you are looking for a base on the best family-friendly beach in Sri Lanka, then this is a great choice.
Tasty smoothies at Wijaya Beach Restaurant with incredible views
After lunch, we headed back to our hotel to chill for the afternoon. Sometimes we like to sneak in an afternoon nap which allows us to go out for dinner without tantrums from tired kids! Just before sunset we went down to the turtle hatchery at Koggala Beach. The entrance was LKR 500. We love wildlife and were a little undecided on this one. They claim to rescue injured turtles and set them free when they are better, although there were one or two that could never be released due to injuries they have sustained meaning they would not be able to survive in the wild. In those cases I do wonder if it would not be better to let nature take its course rather than keep a large turtle in a small tank for the next possibly 60 years. As well as looking after adult turtles and nursing them back to health, they also buy about 30,000 eggs each..
When people ask us what our favourite family travel destination is, we have a very hard time answering. How do you choose? There are so many amazing places on this earth and each one is unique, but Jordan holds a special place in our hearts.
It had been a bucket list destination for us for a long time, mainly having fallen in love with the images of Petra when watching Indiana Jones. I guess we weren’t the only ones, because in 2007 Petra was voted one of the 7 new wonders of the world by 100,000,000 people! But due to its close proximity to Syria, Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia – hotbeds of conflict and tension over the years – we were a little apprehensive about going, especially with the kids.
More recently, media articles on visiting Jordan caught our eye and we started checking Tripadvisor and the Foreign Office for recent reviews. It seemed safe, something we always check before travelling anywhere, especially with the kids. One of the articles we read was an interview with King Abdullah II of Jordan in Travel Weekly in which he conveys his passion for his country and how he is encouraging tourism. As a result, tourist numbers are increasing.
We decided to visit during the Easter holidays and had 10 days to play with, which turned out to be a good amount of time to see the highlights of Jordan. If you are considering 10, 12 or 14 days, you can take a look at our itinerary and adapt it to suit your needs. We didn’t do Amman on this trip as we felt there were enough places to visit that were more child-friendly and we didn’t want to overdo it – but if you have more time, we would definitely recommend going.
Day 1 – Madaba > Dead Sea
Day 2 – Dead Sea
Day 3 – Dead Sea > Jerash
Day 4 – Dead Sea > Petra
Day 5 – Petra
Day 6 – Petra > Wadi Rum
Day 7 – Wadi Rum > Aqaba
Day 8 – Aqaba
Day 9 – Aqaba
Day 10 – Aqaba
We arrived in Amman late at night and picked up our hire car. It was all pretty straightforward as the hire company met us at arrivals and took us to their office where we sorted out the paperwork. We always book our car online before we travel to get the cheapest rate, using price comparison websites. The roads are pretty good and everything is well signposted, but we always plug in the location of our accommodation in google maps when we have wifi so that we have a working map when we’re offline. We brought our own car seats as reviews had suggested they weren’t up to scratch and we’d recommend doing the same. We got to the Mariam Hotel in Madaba very late, checked in and went straight to bed in our simple 4 single bed room.
The next morning we took breakfast on the roof terrace. It was a very simple affair including bread, hummus, olives, boiled eggs, yoghurts and cereal. The boys had a little swim but the pool was freezing so it was a quick in and out. We had a walk around the mosaics which is the reason we stayed there (and arriving so late at night we wanted somewhere close (25 mins) to the airport). The mosaics are very impressive but not particularly captivating for the boys so we didn’t stay long and found a quick and tasty chicken shwarma for lunch before heading off to our next stop, the Dead Sea and the lowest place on earth.
The journey took just under an hour. Thank goodness for Google Maps as our hotel would have been impossible to find otherwise! There are no real roads to get there, just a few tracks that are only there because people have driven over the ground enough times to make it look like dirt roads. Sometimes it felt like we were driving through people’s backyards. We stayed at the Thara Dead Sea hotel because it had good reviews and was cheap. Something to bear in mind is that Easter in Jordan is expensive. Probably the most expensive time of year to visit. We would have preferred to have stayed at a hotel on the shore of the Dead Sea but they were all very expensive. We had a car and were only 5 minutes from the main hotels (as long as you don’t take a wrong turn!) so it wasn’t a problem as we knew that we could get a day pass from one of these larger hotels anyway.
The hotel had a pool but only men could use the outdoor one. They had an indoor one which was for women, but when local women and children weren’t using it, they allowed us all to use it. The room was simple but had air-con, a small kitchen and fridge. The owner was very welcoming, although didn’t speak much English.
We had read much about the magical properties of the Dead Sea mud and were keen to try it ourselves. While we can’t confirm the rejuvenating properties of the mud, it was a fun experience. Take an old swim suit as that mud does not wash out easily! The floating experience was also something else! Weird fact – you can’t actually sink in the Dead Sea but you can drown. Because of the high salt content, you bob like a cork and it is difficult to swim. If you flip onto your front, it is difficult to lift your head out of the water. Even in a shallow bit of water, you can’t put your feet down.
All resorts will have lifeguards watching but keep an eye on the little ones! If you aren’t staying in one of the big hotels, a day pass is probably worth it because it is quite difficult to find somewhere along the shore to just stop and access the water and you probably also want some facilities to wash off the mud afterwards. Or maybe not. Each to their own!!
We decided to get a day pass. Lots of hotels do them, and they range in price. We went for the Crowne Plaza for about £15 per adult. We spent the day by their pool which was great for kids. They seemed to have one for residents and another for anyone. Just something to be aware of when checking out the Dead Sea, due to the high mineral content of the water, it can be quite harsh on sensitive skin. Our youngest suffers from the occasional eczema and he came out in a rash all over. Even though I didn’t think I had sensitive skin, I felt the stinging. There are showers right by to wash off the water and the mud so if there is any tingling, make sure to wash the kids immediately as it will continue to irritate. Also – take flip flops. Those stones are HOT!!!
We decided to take a day trip to Jerash. Jordan is a relatively small country and most things are reachable if you decide to stay in only a couple of places. From our hotel by the Dead Sea the trip to Jerash took 90 mins. We set off early so we could beat the crowds and the heat. We got there around 9.30am and it was already hot and so dry. The boys had hand held fans which doubled up as toys. They were really helpful. Also have loads of water…and hats!! There is quite a bit of walking if you want to see everything. We mainly focused on the huge amphitheatre and a few other bits as we wandered.
On the way back we watched a gladiator show. The boys loved this and got to hang out with the gladiators afterwards. We thought they looked pretty scary but the boys were fascinated.
On the way back we stopped at the baptism site of Jesus – just because it was there… and there were amazing views from up top.
And so to Petra. Our whole trip to Jordan was pretty much based around our visit to Petra. We probably shouldn’t have hung so much importance on it, but it was out bucketlist destination after all. You don’t actually stay in Petra. If you are searching for accommodation, type in Wadi Musa. There are so many hotels to choose from. Some are within about 50m of the entrance to Petra. It was a relatively long drive from the Dead Sea to Wadi Musa (3 hours 30 minutes) so we broke it up with a stop in Kerak to see the castle.
It is well worth a visit. The boys had headtorches which were initially a gimmick but actually came in very handy in a few places in Jordan, particularly this castle. There are lots of dark caverns and tunnels to explore. The boys loved it – although some parts were a bit spooky! After the castle we grabbed a quick lunch on the go so we could get to Wadi Musa and catch a sunset visit of Petra. Our boys love their chicken shwarmas!
We got to Wadi Musa at around 3pm and dumped our bags at our Seven Wonders hotel. We grabbed hats, suncream, water, comfortable shoes, long sleeved tops (it can get cold early morning and late afternoon) and headed off. There is a large car park near the entrance of Petra so we decided to drive and save our legs for exploring the Lost City.
The entrance for Petra is JD 50 for a day or JD 55 for 2 days. We opted for the 2 day pass as part of our Visit Jordan pass. See info at the end. You will want to spend at least a couple of days exploring.
We had a little hassle at the beginning of the Siq (the 2km walk through a gorge to get to the Treasury) from people offering horse rides but they were all very friendly. We wanted to take it all in at our own pace so we walked it. We also felt it was important to get that first view of the Treasury on foot – and it was so worth it.
We wandered around the Treasury taking in the atmosphere and hung around until sunset and beyond. We were one of the last ones out. It was quite a full on day and we decided against the Petra at night experience but it looked amazing when they were setting up for it with hundreds of lanterns everywhere. We have more on our Petra with kids post.
Travelling with kids usually means we are up early so we made the most of this and set off early to get to the gates for 6am when they opened. This time we decided to get a head start on the crowds (not that there were many at that time of day!) with a horse and cart. It meant that we were the first ones to see the Treasury that day and got some great pictures with nobody in them (well as great as they can be when you have two little monkeys trying their best to sabotage your attempts!).
That day we managed a hike up to the High Place of Sacrifice. It was a 7km round trip and the kids walked it all themselves, which was incredible considering our then 3 year old insisted on being carried back home if we walked more than 200m! The views were spectacular. Just make sure to bring snacks, water, hats, suncream and long sleeves for early morning chill.
After the hike we put the boys on a pony to get back to the exit. The 2km walk through the Siq was just a step too far for the boys and they were absolutely pooped! Saved us carrying them when we were pretty tired too.
They were so tired that they fell asleep at the table at lunch before the food arrived which was a first!
After lunch we set off for Wadi Rum. After the morning’s activities, the boys had a good long sleep in the car. It took just under 2 hours. We called in at the visitor centre first as we had no clue where our desert camp was. They gave us a map and called the camp for us so they knew to expect us. We were advised to park at the car park and the 4×4 came to pick us up. This was the start of the adventure. We drove for about 15 minutes into the desert. It is a good idea when picking your desert camp to make sure it is a little way into the desert, away from the main road and lights from neighbouring villages.
We hadn’t booked any activities in advance so at the check-in/greeting, we ran through all the activities available and pretty much set off straight away on a sunset 4×4 tour of Wadi Rum. We piled into the back of the truck and set off. The boys loved the experience. It lasted around 2 hours and we got to get out and wander around various sites and play in the huge sand dunes. We caught an amazing sunset and then headed back to camp for dinner – but not before the boys tried a little sand-surfing.
Yala National Park – where crocodiles eat leopards!
Yala National Park, like Udawalawe, is a great place to take the kids on safari. We took the kids to Udawalawe in 2018 and they loved it and while we haven’t taken them to Yala, we know from a previous trip we did pre-kids that there are many similarities and that Yala is just as family-friendly.
The two most popular National Parks in Sri Lanka seem to be Udawalawe and Yala and it is well worth including one or the other in your itinerary. As we have said, they are very similar especially in terms of the wildlife you may see (although the topography is slightly different), so it really depends on the route you are going to take as to which one you choose. If you love safaris, maybe you will have time to squeeze in both!
The main difference between the two is that you may have an ever so slightly higher chance of seeing leopard in Yala which has the highest density of leopard anywhere in the world. Despite this, sightings are still not guaranteed.
Queues and queues of jeeps jostling for a sighting of an elusive leopard
Udawalawe on the other hand, has a large population of elephant and sightings are all but guaranteed.
During a trip to Sri Lanka in 2010 we chose to do a safari in Yala National Park. We landed in Sri Lanka having just finished 4 months overland travelling through Africa and going on safari in Tanzania, (the Ngorogoro Crater, and the Serengeti), the Okavango in Botswana, Etosha in Namibia and the Kruger in South Africa. You get the picture. We’d done a few safaris and were prepared to be underwhelmed with Yala. We asked ‘How could it compare with the amazing safaris we’d just done?’. We booked it anyway because it was considered one of the highlights of Sri Lanka.
Yala National Park at sunrise
Here are some quick facts about Yala. It is a mix of forest, open grasslands and lagoon areas and to the East it borders the Indian ocean (378 sq miles). It is about 260km South East of Colombo (6 hours by car) and 190km East along the coast from Galle (4 hours 30 by car). There are 44 specials of mammal, including an estimated 25 leopards (as mentioned previously, the highest density of leopards in the world) and 350 elephants and many many species of bird. It is the most popular National Park in Sri Lanka.
The best time of year to go is during the dry season between February and June. The best safari times for optimal wildlife spotting are 6am – 9am and 3pm – 6pm. Afternoon safaris in Yala are actually a bit quieter, and the leopards are also a bit more active towards late afternoon. As mentioned in Our half day safari at Udawalawe National Park post, if you are doing a morning safari, try to stay locally the night before to improve your safari experience. If you are staying further away and have to get up in the middle of the night to get to the park for when it opens for the best wildlife viewing opportunities, you (and no doubt the kids) will feel so tired and probably not appreciate the experience as much. There are plenty of accommodation options dotted around the edges of the park to suit every budget.
We arranged a half day morning safari through our accommodation. This meant being picked up at 5.30am to get to the park, buy our tickets, and get in for as close to the 6am opening time as possible.
The costs associated with a Yala safari are as follows (this is just a guide so that you know roughly what to be charged):
Private jeep – around LKR 3500 (£15) for half day
Park entrance fees are $15 / £11.50 per adult and $8 / £6 per child (under 6 are free)
LKR 250 (£1) jeep charge
15% VAT on top of everything charged by the park (excluding jeep fee)
Excitement building at Palatupana entrance gate at 6am
Once you are through the gates and away from the other jeeps trying to get in to the park early, you will start spotting wildlife. It may be the ubiquitous peacock perched high in a tree, or it may be the elusive leopard. The beauty of a safari is the excitement of not knowing what you may see and looking carefully for any sign of movement for that first sighting.
In our experience, every time you go on safari you will have a unique experience. On this occasion, our unique experience was seeing a crocodile eating a leopard. It was a pretty unusual sighting and not one we have ever seen on any of our African safaris. We were so mesmerised by the sighting that we didn’t get great pictures but you can kind of get the idea.
Leopard and crocodile thrashing about in the lake
The crocodile won the battle but then seemed disinterested in his meal
Unfortunately, we didn’t see a live leopard. We just missed out spotting a leopard because there were just too many jeeps as we mentioned above. This is one of the drawbacks to Yala being so popular.
We did, however, see a huge number of Asian elephants which incidentally, are much are less intimidating than their African relatives. There was a scary moment in the Kruger in South Africa when we were self-driving and a bull elephant started charging. We lived to tell the tale thanks to Ed speed-reversing in the style of James Bond!. We felt much more comfortable getting up close and personal with these elephants in Yala.
A docile Asian elephant enjoy its meal
We also saw more crocodiles, monitor lizards, water buffalo, spotted deer, bee eaters, egrets on elephants, egrets on buffalo… Considering egrets are apparently a rare species, we did quite well on the egret front! Here are some of our wildlife spottings.
Crocodiles cooling down with their mouths open
This water monitor lizard was about 3ft long
Water buffalo cooling down in a mud bath
Spotted deer on the look out for leopard and annoying tourists
Strikingly beautiful colours of the bee eater
Egrets hitching a ride on an elephant
Egret hitching a ride on a buffalo
As it turns out, we were so wrong to think Yala would be underwhelming, or compare unfavourably to a ‘real’ African safari. We had a really memorable experience. and it is what made us decide to take the kids when we went back in 2018. A good thing to remember when travelling; always be open to new experiences. The many and unique wildlife sightings was enough to convince us that a Yala safari was just as good as an African safari.
When going on safari, it is worth being prepared. Once you are in the park, there are no shops and no toilet stops (or they may not be very easily accessed). Here is a helpful guide to what to take on safari. The list is not exhaustive so if you think of anything else, please let us know!
The comprehensive guide to finding and booking cheap flights
And by comprehensive, we mean comprehensive! We want to warn you from the start that this guide to finding and booking cheap flights contains a LOT of information. If you still want to learn some tricks for saving money on flight bookings, then please read on…
Travel can be expensive, but there’s good news! It doesn’t have to be if you follow certain tricks that we have learned over the years. If you have a passion for travel, you probably also have an interest in seeking out the best deals to allow you to get the most out of that passion. We’ve spent a great deal of time researching and testing ways to get the best airfares to enable us to travel as much as we do, and we’d like to pass on some of our tips for seeking out these cheaper fares, as well as other ways to save on flights.
As with finding deals for anything, it pays to shop around when looking for cheap flights. The main places online you can buy your flights are:
They set the prices for their tickets, and occasionally have flight sales. Find out when their sales are if you are set on using a particular airline. Even during sales, however, booking direct with an airline will not always get you the cheapest fares – but check anyway just in case.
Online Travel Agencies (OTA)
They are the middlemen who sell flight tickets for airlines, as well as lots of other travel products. Depending on the type of ticket sold, OTAs have some flexibility on pricing, and more often than not you will find the same flight cheaper on an OTA than on the airline’s website.
The OTAs we like to use for researching and booking flights are:
Netflights (generally these guys are better for long-haul flights)
These sites list all companies who sell airline tickets – OTAs, airlines and traditional offline travel agencies. You can search by flight class and include travel brokers, charter airlines and budget airlines. The metasearch sites we like to use are:
Kayak – the feature we like is being able to filter options based on whether or not you want to check in bags so you can compare costs more accurately.
Skyscanner – gives you fare options in a monthly view to find exactly when is cheapest to fly. It also has the option of just showing you when is the cheapest time of year to fly to your chosen destination. It has very good coverage of budget flights, searching over 1,200 airlines and travel sites in total.
Momondo – we like Momondo as it shows you the cheapest and most expensive dates around your flight, as well as helpful insights such as the cheapest airport to fly from/into. It doesn’t do it for all destinations, but it has the biggies such as New York, Dubai, Sydney, Cape Town.
skyscanner – the top flight website
Some of the more niche airfare checking sites are:
Kiwi.com – combines all airlines to create routes that are cheaper than booking a return with one airline
AirWander – lets you extend layovers into stopovers enabling you to visit 2 destinations for the price of 1
JetRadar – includes budget airlines, which many search engines don’t
It’s also worth checking Google Flights. It can be a useful starting point before going to some of the others as it has a cool map view, but in our experience doesn’t always offer the best prices.
In summary, OTAs or metasearch sites are the best bet for consistently lower fares. Our overall favourite for flight bookings is Skyscanner.
When searching for flights, it pays to be secretive. Some companies use your own search history data against you. Ed and I have often done exactly the same search for airfares at the same time using different devices and got completely different results. Some airlines, online travel agencies and metasearch sites change prices based on your previous searches, mostly increasing them, so we recommend using incognito or private browsing for your searches.
In Chrome and Safari, you can go incognito by clicking Control, Shift and “N”. For Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer, click Control, Shift and “P”. This will open a new browser window where your device and information are not tracked, so you will not be shown inflated prices as a result of your previous searches. If you want to start with a clean slate for each flight search, close all your incognito windows, open a new one, and then start your flight search.
Be flexible on travel dates
If you can be flexible as to your travel dates – even just by a couple of days – you can potentially save yourselves thousands of pounds when booking flights for a family of four. Not that we want to be seen to promote this kind of behaviour, but we do sometimes fly a day or two before the end of a school term if it means saving hundreds of pounds. Luckily we have a supportive head teacher who recognises the benefits of family travel.
If you can be flexible, there is a website called www.triptivista.com that allows you to scan a whole month to get the cheapest option for a holiday length that you decide (e.g. I want to travel from London to Bangkok in October for 10 days). Add the origin, destination, number of days you want to take off, number of passengers and min and max date you want to scan flights for.
Again, if you can be flexible, Skyscanner offers a similar feature by giving you a whole month view, allowing you to pick the cheapest days to travel. Here’s how:
3. Click on the departure date and it will allow you to enter either ‘specific date’ or ‘whole month’. You can go one step further by selecting ‘cheapest month’ if you are not dead set on travelling in a particular month.
4. Hit ‘Search flights’.
Kiwi.com and Google Flights work similarly to Skyscanner, plus they have map views as well, so you can see where the airport is. For tracking when and where is cheapest to fly, Hopper also offer price analysis and track fluctuations (i.e. when is best to fly).
Be flexible on departure or arrival airports
Being flexible with airports – and even cities – can unlock some significant discounts. If you’re planning a road trip from A-B, could you do it from B-A instead? Some of the larger cities have a number of nearby airports so you perform a search for those airports and compare prices.
Don’t assume that flight prices will be similar from them all. All airports have different overheads and taxes. We live close to Luton. It is undoubtedly more convenient for us to fly from there, but when we search for flights, sometimes we find it is much cheaper to fly from Stansted, Gatwick or Birmingham, even after taking into account the extra cost to get to these airports. You need to obviously weigh up the saving versus the inconvenience of landing somewhere and having to take a one hour taxi at 3 am versus a ten minute journey!
You can find out which airport is the cheapest for your flight when using Skyscanner by selecting the ‘add nearby airports’ option when you search and then un-tick the ones you don’t want to fly from.
This works for your arrival airport too – but be careful – if you’re not sure where the airport is and how to get to and from it, you could end up spending more in airport transport costs and therefore negating the saving you made on the fare.
Be flexible on departure cities
Airline pricing is a crazy world which we do not claim to fully understand! What we do know is that sometimes you can find returns much cheaper if your origin is not your local airport, particularly if your local airport is one of the main London ones (Gatwick or Heathrow). This is because the airport taxes are so high flying out of London. If you fly out of another hub like Paris, Rome, Amsterdam or Dublin, you will probably connect to the same flight you would have taken from London, and you will save hundreds of pounds.
This obviously involves a separate flight to get to that alternative airport which is not great for your carbon footprint, but with the savings you make on the flights, you can choose to offset your footprint by paying a little donation which goes towards planting trees or another similar green initiative.
We’ve saved significant amounts on a family trip from London to Vancouver by booking a return flight from Dublin to Vancouver, and a budget flight from London to Dublin. The flight from Dublin actually takes us back to London and we then take the same flight we would have taken if we had departed from London, but because we aren’t ‘departing’ from London, we save £1,600 for a family of 4! There are the connection times to consider leading to an overall longer journey– but for a saving that great, we think it is worth it.
This particular price discrepancy was down to the difference in airport tax between Dublin and London, but is along the lines of what’s known as “Hidden city” ticketing, related to booking flights with connections, and not taking the whole route. There’s now a website dedicated to showing hidden city tickets called Skiplagged – however the airlines don’t want this publicised and are taking action against the website. Some things to bear in mind you use this flight price trick:
If your luggage is checked, it may go on to the final destination. For this reason it’s best to have carry-on luggage only or check with the airline before booking what the situation is. Sometimes you can ask at check-in to have the bags offloaded where you want, but we couldn’t guarantee this will work!
You may not be allowed off the plane if the same plane is continuing onward to its final destination. Again, check with the airline.
Airlines may detect that you did not take your connection. We are not sure what the consequences of this are, if there are any at all, especially since people miss flights all the time. You can’t miss the first leg of your flight as the next leg will be cancelled (ie we have to take the Dublin to London section of the flight, rather than boarding in London). On the way back, we will exit at London and not take the connecting flight on to Dublin. We will have hand luggage only. Wish us luck on cramming everything in!
Be point savvy
Have you ever taken a ‘free’ flight? When we say free, we mean excluding the taxes as you still have to pay the taxes when paying with miles, but it is still a significant saving and it feels great! In recent years the value of airline loyalty schemes has diminished but there is still reason to collect points.
Airline reward credit cards
You can sign up for an airline rewards credit card that earns points with a particular airline. For years we have been members of the BA Amex scheme. We collect the companion voucher and this has allowed us to travel to South Africa as a family of 4 for £900 which would have cost over £4000. We put all of our household spend on it (and pay it off each month as the interest rates are very high) – and make sure we meet the annual spend (£10,000 for a premium card or £20,000 for a blue card). You collect miles faster with the premium card and the spending threshold to get the companion voucher is lower, but there is a £195 a year annual fee. This is more than covered by the savings you make so we think it is worth it. If you do decide to take out a card, please feel free to use our referral code above in the link.
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General travel reward credit cards
There are also more general travel reward cards that let you redeem points across a variety of airlines. We recommend using your card for everyday purchases, and to treat it like cash and paying your balance off each month. That way, you won’t be charged interest, and you’ll effectively get your points for free! The best card around at the moment seems to be the SPG Amex card which is linked to Starwood Hotels (Marriot, Westin etc) – but can also be exchanged for airmiles. The rate is 3 points to 1 mile so it is not the best deal around, but you can quite easily collect a lot of points with bonus sign up points of 30,000 (when you reach a certain spend within the first 3 months – currently £1,000) and 9,000 for referrals. We have decided to use our points this year for a 3-night stay in a Westin in Vancouver. Vancouver is an expensive city for accommodation, and this hotel would have cost over £300 a night, but with 35,000 a night, you pay just £40 in taxes. If you do decide to take out a card, please feel free to use our referral code above in the link.
We collect Tesco Clubcard points as we have a mortgage with Tesco, a credit card, fill up the car at Esso stations, and do our grocery shopping at Tesco. This all adds up and you can convert the vouchers to BA miles. For every £2.50 of clubcard vouchers you exchange, you get 600 BA miles. We also exchange our vouchers for cross channel ferries as £10 in vouchers gets £30 towards the ferry, which is a great saving.
We use Topcashback and Quidco which give you a % off travel booked. I’ve included our referral links as it is mutually beneficial to sign up through a referral with both sides getting a referral reward! They usually only ever offer around 1% for flight bookings, but every little helps as Tesco claims! You can, however, get great deals on hotel bookings, particularly with companies like Expedia and Booking.com (on the subject of Booking.com, please feel free to use our referral link. We get £15 for a referral and you get £15. win win), offering up to 12% cashback. ebookers also have the Bonus+ reward scheme that allows you to earn 1% cashback to redeem on a hotel booking. Some airlines themselves offer great cashback deals, such as Emirates, who were offering 6% when we booked with them via Topcashback. You must make sure you click through Topcashback or Quidco to the site you are going to purchase your flight from though, otherwise the cashback won’t track.
If you know exactly when and where you want to go, if very rarely makes sense to wait to book. Although it does happen, airline tickets generally don’t get cheaper as the departure date approaches.
Flights are often released 360 days before. The latest research from the comparison site Momondo found that it’s generally best to book 60 days ahead and that booking then can be up to 30% cheaper than booking on the day of departure. You can use Momondo’s ‘Flight Insight’ tab on many routes to see the data regarding the ideal booking date. It will vary by destination (see Flight Insight for info).
One thing to note if you are booking using airmiles, it is always best to book as early as you can as there aren’t many miles seats per flight and on popular routes, they sell out very quickly.
Timing is everything
The Airline Reporting Corporation in partnership with Expedia Group recently released its fifth annual comprehensive study of worldwide air travel trends. They analysed air ticket purchase trends for the world’s most popular domestic and international routes and in conclusion, they recommend:.
Best day to book is Sunday. Worst days are Thursday and Friday.
Start the journey on a Thursday or a Friday
Include a Saturday night stay
Include a stop-over in your itinerary
Save money on booking a flight with a stopover rather than a direct flight, and plan the stopover as part of your itinerary. A night or two in Dubai or Rekjavik have been done and were great!
You can book your own multi-day layovers, essentially allowing you to see two destinations for the price of one. Rather than spend a day sitting in the airport, you can spend multiple days exploring the city you are laying over in. AirWander is a specialized search engine for doing exactly this. Put in your origin, final destination, and number of days you want to stopover. AirWander will return a list of places you can visit on your stopover, often even cheaper than a regular flight search engine. You can also do this if booking direct on an airline’s website.
Look at package rates
Book a package on an OTA
Airlines sell package (flight + hotel) rates and allow OTAs to distribute these rates too. A cool hack when booking on an OTA website is to look for a package where you only book a hotel for a portion of your trip – maybe only for one night, and you will still get the package rate. We’ve saved over £300 on a London to Austin return flight using this method, plus got our first night in Austin included!
Book a package but don’t stay
Booking a package holiday with a charter flight to your destination can sometimes be much cheaper than booking a scheduled flight. For destinations such as Orlando, package holidays can be extremely reasonable. It won’t always work, but it’s worth a try. Plus, you get extra protection from ATOL or ABTA for combination bookings.
Mix up your airlines
Long gone are the days when it was cheaper to book a return flight with the same airline. Research from Skyscanner suggests that taking single journeys with different airlines could save you quite a bit, particularly on short-haul flights with the budget airlines.
Doing a comparison of all the flight options on the airlines is easy with metasearch websites. Their results will pull up the cheapest way to fly one way or return to a destination, regardless of airline. If you don’t want to mix it up, you can deselect the airline combination checkbox.
Budget airlines are cheap – but watch the fine print
Budget airline fares will come up on your OTA or Metasearch site but beware because the fare displayed will probably not include baggage allowance, food or seat allocation. Budget airlines are just that. Budget. They offer a no-frills service but they will get you from A to B. If you are looking for the cheapest fare and don’t care about the frills, then go for it as they are pretty good value – although the £0.01 fares of Ryanair seem to be a thing of the past!
If you are travelling as a family with small children, you will inevitably have to pay for the privilege of sitting with your children which will push the price of your ticket up. If you don’t pay to be seated together, you may have to rely on a kindly stranger to look after your child for the flight. Whilst this may be appealing for some parents looking for a peaceful flight, we can’t imagine many would be very keen on this idea! Before you book, always read the fine print.
Check where the airport location is (some budget airlines fly to airports further out of town which will cost you more in airport transfer fees).
Ensure you’ve booked & paid for your luggage allowance before your flight. Make sure you stick to the strict restrictions on weight, height, and number of bags allowed. Some airlines (e.g. Ryanair)..
When you think of going on safari, what springs to mind? Images of elephants and giraffe wandering around the Savannah with Kilimanjaro in the background? Or perhaps herds of wildebeest migrating in the Serengeti? I grew up watching Sir David Attenborough wildlife documentaries and at an early age I fell in love with the idea of seeing these animals for myself one day.
Herds of wildebeest in the Ngorogoro Crater in Tanzania
Once upon a time, a safari (journey in Swahili) involved hunting big game. Nowadays, thankfully, that practice has almost been wiped out. The guns have been replaced by cameras and it is all about observing wildlife, photography, education and protection of some of the world’s most magnificent creatures.
The first safari I took in 2000 was magical. I was hooked! It is partly the reason why Ed and I decided to incorporate Africa into our 12 month world trip, choosing it over the beaches and laid back life of South East Asia.
We had the most amazing time during our 4 month African overland trip. We went to the Serengeti, Lake Manyara and Ngorogoro in Tanzania, Chobe and Okavango in Botswana, Etosha in Namibia and the Kruger in South Africa. We love reading literature relating to our travels to help get immersed in new countries. Through Africa we read Born Free by Joy Adamson, Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owense, Don’t Run, Whatever You Do: My Adventures as a Safari Guide, by Peter Allison, Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux and The Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway. All great reads and by the end of the trip, we were both hooked on Africa and on safaris! So much so that there is a theory our first son Ernest is named after Ernest Hemingway!
Ed enjoying a good read with an amazing view of the wildlife at Onguma Fort, Etosha
There are so many fabulous places to go on safari in Africa and we absolutely love every aspect of the safari experience; the unique safari style accommodation; falling asleep to the various wild animal noises (including elephant nudging past the tent); the early morning starts; catching the beautiful African sunrises; the excitement of the first big sighting and the refreshment breaks.
Setting up for a refreshment break during a morning safari in the Okavango
We arranged our Botswana safaris with Audley Travel who create the most amazing tailor made safaris, working with their partner in Africa &Beyond. One of our lasting memories of their safaris was the refreshment breaks which would include tea and coffee and cake, or wine and beer – at 9am! This was our bit of luxury in the middle of 4 months of hardcore backpacking and camping in Africa so we made the most of those beers! But is all this suitable for children? Maybe not the beer and wine at 9am – but why not take them on safari?
Sunrise over the Serengeti during a morning safari
Safari with kids? Why not?
Never thought of going on safari with kids? Neither had we! We thought that they needed to be over 12 years old to go on safari as we had heard that big game can view young children as prey! And there we were thinking it was because young children would disturb other guests on the safari drive and scare the animals away. We assumed that it would be a long wait before we could go on safari again after we had the kids, but we are pleased to report that we were wrong!
Ernie expressing his excitement about being on safari!
Not so long ago a safari was reserved for honeymooners or couples. It wasn’t really something you would consider doing as a family but nowadays there are many family-friendly safari options available throughout Africa. We were so excited to share our love of safaris with the boys when we went to South Africa in 2016. They were 2 and 4 and they loved it!
They loved the whole experience of getting into the jeep in the early morning or late afternoon, sitting up front for the best view (their eyesight is a lot better than ours and they were great spotters), bouncing around as the 4×4 jeep negotiates the bumpy tracks, using the binoculars (usually the wrong way round!), the first sighting of an animal (it is usually a competition between the boys to see the first one) and of course, safari snacks!
South Africa’s best family-friendly safari options
Having been on safari in quite a few countries across eastern and southern Africa, we know that South Africa is a great place to go on safari with your family for a few reasons.
South Africa has it all. From the Big Five – lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and Cape buffalo – to antelope, zebra, hippo, giraffe, hyena and a wide variety of bird and marine animals
There is an amazing choice of parks and game reserves where you can view these animals in their natural habitat. Many of these parks are actually in the Western and Eastern Capes, close to the popular ‘Garden Route’, and are malaria free so are easily accessible.
Many of the parks are self-drive with camping grounds so you can do a relatively cheap safari compared to some of the other African countries.
When researching our first trip to South Africa with the kids we discovered that there are quite a few game reserves that welcome children and so we decided to go and check them out. We have put these in ascending price order. There is no doubt that an all-inclusive luxury game lodge with the big 5 is going to be, for some, a once in a lifetime experience. But there are other ways to see the big 5 without having to win the lottery.
Our top 5 South African family-friendly safari picks1. Addo Elephant National Park
Big 5 – YES
Entrance fee: R307 (adult) and R154 (child)
Addo Elephant National Park is located about 60km from Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. If you are going to self-drive, all you need to pay is the entrance fee which makes it a really economical way to have a safari experience. There are various accommodation options in the park, ranging from campsites to pitch your tent, to luxury lodges, so there is something to suit every budget. There are also plenty of accommodation options outside of the park.
Addo Elephant National Park entrance gate
Addo started out as an elephant park back in 1931 with just 11 elephants and was set up to protect the remaining Addo elephants from being completely wiped out by hunters and farmers. I remember visiting in 2000 when it was just elephants. It was the first time I had seen them so close and free and will admit I was a little freaked out by them! If elephants are your thing (or your child’s thing!) – you will not be disappointed with Addo because they are everywhere!
Family of elephants heading to the watering hole at sunset
We were in the park a good 30 mins after closing time because we got stuck behind a family meandering up the hill to a watering spot. We didn’t want to pass because they were clearly protecting their baby, so we hung back. We were worried we would be locked in but the ranger found us and told us we could take our time. It was amazing watching them with nobody around as the sun was setting.
In 2003 they introduced six lions to the park. They now have around fourteen, although we didn’t see any on our drive. Our chances of seeing them may have been improved on a guided safari, but we were happy doing our own thing on this occasion. If you want to book a guided safari, make sure to do it well in advance through SanParks as they get booked up.
Probably a good thing we didn’t see lions at Addo
2. The Kruger National Park
Big 5 – YES
Entrance fee : R372 (adult) and R186 (child)
If you are venturing further north or you fly into Johannesburg and are keen on doing a safari, you wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity to visit the Kruger National Park. It is relatively close (well – 300km which, in South African distances, is not that far!) to Johannesburg. It is an enormous national park bordering Mozambique to the east and Zimbabwe to the north. You can self-drive and stay at relatively inexpensive campsites within the park which is why we have put this second, but there are also some eye-wateringly expensive luxury lodges. If you are looking for a luxury safari experience in the Kruger, we have heard from friends that Chitwa Chitwa is beautiful and welcomes children, but we haven’t been ourselves – ye… We’re saving that for when we win the lottery!
We stayed at the inexpensive campsites located within the park. We were self-driving and had a tent with us but there are also chalets equipped with bedding. You can check on the SanParks website for more info. Some of the campsites have pools which were great for relaxing and cooling down between morning and afternoon safaris, especially when temperatures were reaching 40 degrees. We stayed at the Malelane campsite and Lower Sabie (with pool).
Relaxing and cooling down at the Lower Sabie campsite pool
We entered via the Malelane entrance. Within two minutes of passing through the gates had a very close encounter with a rhino. We saw him to our left as we were driving and he was not slowing down so we sped up a little to get out of his way. The rest of the game viewing was just as spectacular. There is something so exciting about a self-drive safari. You feel like you are out in the wild on your own and anything can happen!
Our close encounter with a rhino in the Kruger
The Kruger National Park currently advises that people take anti-malarials because of recent cases of malaria but you should check the situation before you go as it can change.
3. Buffelsdrift Game Lodge
Big 5 – NO (missing leopard)
For prices it is best to check with the lodge because they have various different packages available.
Buffelsdrift is just outside the town of Oudtshoorn. We stayed in a traditional (but quite luxurious) family safari tent. It had 2 bedrooms separated by the bathroom (with claw foot bath, double sinks and outdoor shower) and a lovely veranda that looked out over the lake. It seems safari accommodation is always perfectly situated to enjoy a sun-downer!
Arriving at Buffelsdrift Game Lodge
We went for the half-board option and chose a game drive and elephant experience. We chose Buffelsdrift because it was one of the relativley few private game lodges in South Africa that allows children under 12, and conveniently on our route passing through Oudtshoorn to visit the caves and crocodiles. It was also a bit cheaper than some other private game reserves because it doesn’t have the big 5. They had a lot of wildlife just wandering between the tents, such as Nyala and during breakfast and dinner by the lake, we would see hippos which the boys loved.
Nyala wandering between the tents
There was also the option of elephant, meerkat or lion experience. We opted for the elephant experience – and it certainly was an experience!
Elephant cuddles at Buffelsdrift
Another relatively inexpensive safari option if you want the safari tent accommodation and guided game drive is Chandelier, also near Oudtshoorn. They don’t have the big 5, but they do have a huge area to explore on foot which the kids loved. They also have a giraffe feeding experience where you can buy food and hand feed them at breakfast time. We just did one night here on the way back down the Garden Route.
The boys exploring the interesting landscape at Chandelier
Big 5 – YES
Price – check with the lodge
Kariega is situated in the Eastern Cape, about 40km from Grahamstown (and about 150km from Port Elizabeth) and incorporates both the Bushman’s and Kariega rivers. We love that Kariega is family-friendly because it is built on the land that was once owned by the boy’s great, great, great, great, great grandfather, Jeremiah Goldswain. He was one of the original English settlers in 1820 and the remains of his house can be seen on the Kariega land (although it is all rubble now!).
Kariega sitting above the Kariega valley
One of the great things about Kariega is that they run a daily kids programme between 11am and 2pm, offering guided trails in the bush (within the boundaries of the Main Lodge), identifying animals and animal related arts and crafts. It is fun and educational.
Children can accompany their parents on game drives, although children 5 and under is at the ranger’s and general manager’s discretion based on a safety assessment. If they can’t accompany you, there is a babysitting service.
George ever on the look out for animals
There is a play area in the Main Lodge, which is also where dinner is taken so if the kids have finished their meal, you don’t need to feel like you have to rush yours too because they can go and play, leaving you to enjoy a meal in peace .
If you are staying with children under 10, you will only be able to stay in the main lodge (log chalets) – but that is fine because they are super cosy and some have private pools with a great deck overlooking the Kariega valley for sun-downers! Kariega is extremely warm and welcoming and you will definitely enjoy your stay here.
Big 5 – YES
Price – check with the lodge
Shamwari is located around 75km from Port Elizabeth and is easily doable if you are driving the Garden Route. It is one of the world’s leading safari and game reserves and works hard in the areas of conservation and environmental education. It is also famed for having had Mrs Thatcher and Paris Hilton among its clientele!
Rhino encounter at Shamwari
There are two family-friendly lodges at Shamwari (Riverdene and Sarili). There is also a main pool with shallow end for children.
Getting up close with the lions in Shamwari
It is getting into the very expensive bracket but it is truly a 5 star experience and you will be very well looked after! We haven’t stayed with kids but have visited prior to having the kids and loved the set up there. Children under 4 aren’t permitted on game drives but there is a childminding service. There is also a great activity centre for kids where they can zip line, wall climb and access tree houses with interconnecting walkways. There are also arts and crafts in the kid’s centre.
Shamwari’s children’s play area
We hope this has given you some inspiration to add a safari to your South African itinerary. For more information check out our what to take on safari post and tips for wildlife spotting on safari.
South Africa is easily one of our favourite places to travel with kids. It is vast with an incredible variety of landscapes and wildlife, so it is somewhere we can go back to again and again and still find somewhere new to visit or something new to do. It is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful with the sun-soaked white sandy beaches of Cape Town overlooked by Table Mountain, the wild and rugged beaches of the Eastern Cape, the soaring peaks of the lush green wine regions, the craggy cliffs and valleys of the Drakensberg, the wetlands of the west coast and the dry desert landscapes of the Karoo. We should also mention that South Africa has the biggest, bluest skies and the sunsets are something else which we find are best enjoyed with a delicious bottle of wine we picked up from one of the many stunning wine farms!
The beautiful scenery of the Stellenbosch wine region
If you’re not sold already, then here are some more great reasons to try South Africa with kids;
Cape Town is an easy 12 hour overnight flight from the UK and virtually no time difference which means no jetlag. Jetlag is something many kids struggle with so to be able to go somewhere where you don’t spend the first few days battling tired and grumpy kids is a huge benefit.
With the many different sides to South Africa, there is something for everyone.
English is widely spoken so there are no communication issues and it is very westernised. There will be shops and restaurants you recognise, but also some you won’t, and those are always worth trying.
The Western and Eastern Capes are malaria free so if you are planning on seeing wildlife, you won’t need to take anti-malarials which are essential in other game viewing parts of Africa.
Lastly, the exchange rate makes everything so reasonable, particularly eating out in world class restaurants.
Enjoying a beautiful lunch at Bistro 1682 in Constantia
The kids always have a blast in South Africa because there is so much for them to do and most of it is outdoors, which they love. Here are some ideas for family-friendly activities in South Africa.
Table mountain is one of the world’s most iconic landmarks and Cape Town’s number one attraction. You can either hike up or take the cable car. With kids aged 3 and 18 months we opted for the cable car but we did see families with slightly older children hiking. The views from the gondola as you ascend or descend are magnificent. The gondola rotates so as long as you are located close to a window, you should get a good 360 view. There is usually one window open so try to get that one for the best photos.
The boys enjoying the views from the Table Mountain cable car
Once at the top you can wander around and enjoy the magnificent views of Cape Town and further afield. There are some places where there is a vertical drop and there’s no fencing so watch little ones!
Beautiful views from the top of Table Mountain
The weather can be very changeable on the top. We went prepared with extra jumpers. As you can see from the pics, it was very windy and the kids complained of being cold, despite it being 30 degrees at the bottom. Tip – buy your ticket online before you go. It is cheaper and you will avoid the queues.
The top of Table Mountain is very exposed and you may need to use extra layers to keep warm!
Everyone loves a great beach and there are so many beaches in South Africa. Some of the most popular beaches in Cape Town are Clifton (of which there are a few), Camps Bay, Llandudno, Muizenberg (where they also have Planet Kids which is an indoor play area in case you encounter bad weather). Beware, the water around Cape Town looks gorgeous but it is very cold!
Beautiful white sandy beaches of Cape Town with the dramatic Twelve Apostles in the background
Bloubergstrand is good for watching kite surfers but as the name suggests, it is famous for being very windy. You do get a beautiful view back to Cape Town and Table Mountain though.
Kitesurfing at Bloubergstrand with a great view back to Table Mountain
As you carry on up the coast on the garden route, the beaches start spreading out into long stretches of sand. If you get as far North as Kenton-on-Sea, you will start to see very wild and deserted beaches.
The wild beaches of the Eastern Cape
Going on a safari with kids should be on everyone’s travel wish-list. It is amazing for them to see the animals in the wild and also very educational. Can you imagine how excited little kids get when a lion gives off an enormous roar or a huge elephant wanders right by the jeep with ears flapping and trunk swaying on its way to find water? Our boys get excited about any animal spotting, whether it be a dragonfly hovering over a pond or an ant gathering leaves, so we knew a safari would be a hit with them. There are many places to go on a family-friendly safari in South Africa. If you want to avoid the malarial areas of the Kruger, you can stick to the Western and Eastern Capes and you will still be able to see the Big 5 (Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Cape Buffalo and Rhino). If you are prepared to take precautions against malaria, the Kruger National Park is well worth a visit.
We slowly followed an elephant family at Addo Elephant National Park as they headed off towards a watering hole at sunset
Male lion having a big afternoon yawn
The kids were great spotters on safari
Due to the increase in families travelling to South Africa, the wineries have cottoned on and now include child-friendly wine tasting alongside their standard tastings. This is a great activity for the kids as they don’t know they are having grape juice and they feel very grown up being included in an adult activity. For more info, see our post on family-friendly wine tasting in South Africa
Family friendly wine tasting at Van Loeveren wine estate
Wine estate picnics
A great activity to do with the family. Much more relaxing than a sit-down meal in a restaurant as it is a novelty for the kids and they can get up and run around when they are done and leave the adults in peace to finish at a leisurely pace. For more info, see our post on family-friendly picnics on wine estates in South Africa.
Beautiful picnic spread at Spier wine estate
The V&A Waterfront
A very popular place to go when in Cape Town is the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. It is packed with shops and restaurants, and has amazing views of Table Mountain. There are usually street performers and a little colourful train for the kids. At the waterfront is also the Two Oceans Aquarium which is a good place to go if you encounter bad weather in Cape Town. Make sure you schedule your visit to coincide with penguin and shark feeding. There is also a touch pool with anemones, starfish and seaweed.
Kids riding the tourist train around the V&A Waterfront
Head to Boulders beach to spot the colony of African penguins. There are around 2,000-3,000 living there now. There are wooden walkways that allow you to wander around the colony and get close to them without disturbing them too much. You may also see them wandering around the neighbourhood. It’s best not to get too close though as they have sharp beaks! Boulders beach and its surrounding beaches now form part of the Table Mountain National Park Marine Protected Area so the penguins are protected. As the name suggests, there are also lots of boulders which are great for little rock-climbing enthusiasts.
Penguin colony at Boulders Beach
Oudtshoorn is actually a town, not an activity, but there are several great family-friendly activities here so we have lumped them all under Oudtshoorn. It is a town in the Klein Karoo which is an extremely arid area and is famous for ostrich and crocodile farms. If you are doing the garden route it is worth taking a little detour inland to visit Oudtshoorn as there are many ostrich farms offering tours to choose from. Some will be more commercial than others. Some offer tractor rides and have gift shops with an array of ostrich products. The visit allows you to get very close to an ostrich. Interestingly, ostrich meat is very healthy for you and did you know an ostrich egg is the equivalent of about 24 chicken eggs? You may see ostriches running freely as you drive around South Africa (which is how we prefer to see all animals really) but if you don’t and you would like to get up close and personal with them, then Oudtshoorn is the place to go.
Ostriches out in the wild – a pretty common sight around Oudtshoorn
There are also a few crocodile farms that you can pop into where you can see baby crocodiles through to huge adult crocodiles. You may even get the chance to hold one of the little guys!
Holding a baby crocodile in Oudtshoorn
If you’re in Oudtshoorn to see the ostriches and crocodiles, you’ll be very close to the Cango Caves, about 30km out of Oudtshoorn. Kids can visit the main chamber and go on the Heritage (easy) tour, but under 8s can’t go on the ‘advanced’ tour. I tried the ‘advanced’ many years ago and I think my claustrophobia started right there and then when I got stuck in the devil’s postbox, squeezing myself through a 27cm gap. Don’t say you weren’t warned! If you still want to do it, you need to book in advance due to their popularity.
Main chamber of the Cango Caves
You will usually find that you will need to go out on a boat in order to see whales – sometimes for hours, bobbing up and down… We have two members of the family who suffer from sea sickness so this isn’t really an option. We tried it once and vowed never again. If you would like to have a chance of seeing whales without taking a boat trip,
OK, we realise that this activity may sound a little irresponsible on the face of it – but we promise, it is a genuinely fun thing to do with kids while visiting South Africa.
How many times have your kids wanted to have a sip of what you are drinking? Our kids were very keen to have a go at a wine tasting themselves, so we set off to find the most family friendly wine estates.
George desperate to try mummy’s wine
DISCLAIMER: the kids aren’t actually tasting real wine! Thought I’d point that out early on. The ‘wine’ is actually grape juice – but they don’t know that and it makes them feel very grown up to drink out of a proper glass, especially when you treat it like a real tasting and ask them for their opinion on it – hilarious!
Ernie contemplating the flavours he can detect in his ‘wine’ (aka grape juice)
See? Promised it would be fun – and I would even go as far as to say educational.
The wine regions of South Africa are some of the most scenic areas in the whole country and are worth a visit just for that reason. Stellenbosch and Franschoek in particular stand out with the soaring peaks, rows and rows of vines, white Cape Dutch buildings – all of this under the deep blue African skies. If you are based in Cape Town, it is less than an hour to Stellenbosch or Franschoek – or you could easily incorporate it into your itinerary if you are doing the popular ‘Garden Route’.
Scenery typical to the Stellenbosch wine region
If you are a wine buff (or simply enjoy drinking a glass of wine!), you will no doubt want to head there to sample some of the country’s very fine wines. The fact that most of the wine estates have much more on offer than just ‘wine tasting’ though, means that the whole family can enjoy it.
Many of the South African wine estates have realised that more and more families are travelling these days and have ensured that a visit to their winery is family friendly by having play areas for the kids and kids menus at their restaurants. A few examples of family friendly wine farms that we have visited are listed below, but most wine estates (apart from the very traditional) will have something for the kids.
Vergelegen has a great play area but the grounds themselves are great also for exploring
If you are going to make a day of it, why not incorporate a family friendly picnic lunch into your agenda? Another thing the wine estates do really (and I mean really) well, is their picnic lunch – unique to each estate. They will use fresh, local, artisanal produce and can be complimented by a bottle of one of their many wines.
The beautiful picnic spread at Spier
We recommend these wine estates for family friendly wine tastings because they offer the option of a glass of grape juice for the kids :
Fairview – is actually a vineyard and goat farm so you get the opportunity to have a selection of 6 cow and goats milk cheeses with your wine tasting here.
George enjoying the cheese and wine tasting at Fairview
Van Loeveren – quite commercial but well set up for kid’s wine tasting. They also have a lovely garden for the kids to explore.
The boys joining in with the wine tasting at Van Loeveren
Spier – all round great for kids with their indoor and outdoor play areas and activities such as their Eagle Encounter.
Kid’s wine tasting at Spier
In addition to searching out the family friendly wine estates, we have also been to a few of the more traditional vineyards for some straight forward wine tasting. Something you might want to consider with all this wine tasting is who will be the designated driver and if nobody wants to, then you can arrange a tour – or spit!
Here is a list of some of the famous but more traditional wine estates in South Africa. We have visited them all on various trips to South Africa with and without the kids and really enjoy their wines. Please note there is a charge for wine tasting in most wine estates these days.
Allesverloren, Open 8:30am to 5pm Monday to Friday and 8:30am to 2pm on Saturday.
La Motte, Open Monday to Saturday 9am to 5pm. Closed on religious holidays.
Meerlust, Open Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm, Saturday 10am to 2pm.
Nederburg, Open Monday to Friday 8:30am to 5pm, Saturdays 10am to 2pm.
Rustenberg, Open Monday to Friday 9am to 4:30pm, Saturday 10am to 1:30pm.
Rust en Vrede, Open Monday to Saturday 9am to 5pm and Sunday 10am to 4pm
Vergelegen, Open daily 9:30am to 4.30pm except for Christmas, Good Friday and Workers day.
Vrede en Lust, Open daily 10am to 5pm except Good Friday, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day
Zevenwacht, Open Monday to Friday 8.30am to 5pm and Weekends and Public holidays 9.30am to 5pm
It is always worth asking locals where they think is worth a visit. We got chatting to the owner of our accommodation in Paarl and he suggested we try a small vineyard called Bon Courage in the Robertson Valley wine region. The whole experience felt similar to the way it used to be when I first visited South Africa 19 years ago. The bottles are bought out to you and you can sample at your leisure. We sampled a few different wines while the boys had some lunch.
Wine tasting at Bon Courage
We had the place completely to ourselves except for their little dog who hung around to play with the boys. Unlike many of the larger wine estates above, the wine tasting was free. We really enjoyed their wines and bought a few bottles to enjoy during the rest of the trip.
The boys in the Bon Courage play area hiding from the dog
If you have any questions about family friendly wine tasting, please do get in touch.
Tea tasting & tea estates in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country
No trip to Sri Lanka would be complete without spending a little time in the Hill Country where you will see rolling hills blanketed in luscious green tea plantations. And it is all the more exciting if you’re a tea lover. Hill Country (or Tea Country) is arguably the most scenic part of the island and is also quite a bit cooler than the coastal areas due to its elevation.
The climate is changeable and can be quite damp and rainy, so pack a fleece and a lightweight waterproof just in case. We’ve been a few times over the years, and this post outlines the various tea estates we’ve visited.
The luscious green hills of The Hill Country on a cold, wet day. Be prepared!
Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was known when it was a British colony) is one of the world’s largest tea producers. It’s said that the first tea plant was brought (British code word for smuggled!) from China by the British in 1824, and planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya, Kandy. In 1867 James Taylor started growing what was the first commercial crop of tea on the Loolecondera Estate in Kandy. After a blight of the coffee crops, tea began to take over as the main crop and now around 350 million kg per year are exported. According to Google, tea is the most popular beverage in the world.
Ceylon tea poster
If you love your tea like Ed (whose dream job would be a tea taster) and would like to learn more about the history and production process, it is well worth visiting the Tea Country where there are dozens of working factories you can tour for free, or at a small cost. It’s fascinating to see a tea factory in action; from processing freshly picked leaves through to packing the finished product – and it’s cool to wander around the estate grounds taking in the atmosphere and seeing the pickers at work. We learned during our trip from one of our drivers that tea picking is extremely hard work and the workers are not paid very much so we have huge respect for them.
There are quite a few tea growing districts in Sri Lanka covering large areas of the Hill Country, so the chances are you won’t be too far from one wherever you are in Sri Lanka. The main tea growing areas are :
Uda Pussellawa (between Nuwara Eliya and Ella)
Uva (area around Ella and Badulla)
Sabaragamuwa (sweeping from west of Kandy down past Horton plains and to Udawalawe)
Dimbulla (between Hatton and Nuwara Eliaya)
Ruhuna (southern province of Sri Lanka encompassing Yala)
The most popular places to visit tea estates on people’s itineraries are Kandy, Ella, Haputale and Nuwara Eliya.
Kandy with the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic on the lake
Kandy (also known as the ‘Hill Capital’) is usually on most people’s itinerary as it’s the second largest city in Sri Lanka and a UNESCO World Heritage site, particularly famous for the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. If you don’t have time to venture further from Colombo into the Hill Country, then Kandy is a good place to go on a tea factory tour.
Kadugannawa Tea Estate
Kadugannawa is about 20km west of Kandy. It’s a great factory to visit because the lady giving the tours speaks great English and is very detailed in her explanation. You will get the full explanation about black and green tea production from picking the leaves to the final product. The tours are relatively quick which is good for the kids and are also free, with tea tasting at the end and a boutique with beautifully packaged tea gifts.
The iconic view of 9 Arch Bridge in Ella surround by undulating hills
The rolling green hills of Ella with views of Little Adam’s Peak make it a beautiful place to stop over and visit a tea factory. Ella has grown hugely in popularity and there is so much for families to do here which we cover in our Ella post.
Halpewatte Tea Factory
If you want to visit a tea factory in Ella, Halpewatte is a good option. It’s the largest tea factory in the Uva region and only about 3km out of Ella on the road north. Entrance is LKR 525 / £2. It can be a bit hit and miss with non-production days but seems it is mostly not operational on Mondays. Tours last between 45 mins – 1 hour with tea tasting at the end and a shop for gifts and souvenirs.
If you’re really pushed for time and won’t have a chance to visit Halpewatte, you could visit the Newburgh Tea Factory which is on the way to Little Adam’s Peak on the Passara Road. It produces green tea only and offers a quick insight into tea making.
Haputale is about an hour on a very scenic train ride southwest of Ella. The landscape is undulating, luscious emerald hills. On a fine day it’s said you can see down to the south coast. Unfortunately, we visited on a cloudy and rainy day – but don’t let that put you off! The scenery was still stunning and very dramatic.
Dambetenne Tea Factory
The main factory in this area is Dambetenne. It was built by Sir Thomas Lipton in 1890 and is one of the best tours you can do in the hill country. Realistically you will probably only do one tour on your trip (we did two but it was probably a bit much for the kids!). We chose Dambetenne because we could take a quick and very scenic train ride over from Ella (made all the more special because we weren’t lugging our backpacks with us!) and we wanted to check out Haputale and the view from Lipton’s seat. The tour fee is LKR 250. It is best to get there early on in the day, partly for the weather but also processing is more likely to take place in the morning. The factory is huge and the tour we had was very comprehensive although have heard that some people had a very rushed tour. We were the only ones there (probably because of the weather!) so maybe that had something to do with it. We watched the production process from beginning to end and enjoyed a lovely tasting at the end. There is no production on Sunday or Monday.
It is quite a hike up from town to Dambetenne so with little ones we recommend a tuk tuk
More scenic views around Nuwara Eliya
The train ride from Kandy to Ella is one of the most scenic in the world, but at seven hours it can be quite long for little ones. What you can do is take a trip on a shorter section, like Ella to Nuwara Eliya. Nuwara Eliya is beautifully scenic with a few other things to do, but mostly it is about the scenery (along with the 19th century colonial vibes and architecture). If you are stopping in Nuwara Eliya and want to visit a tea factory, you can try Mackwoods.
Mackwoods Tea Centre
Mackwoods is quite a short tour (good for the kids) so you get a rough overview rather than an in-depth explanation. The tour is free with tea tasting included. You can also buy cake to go with your tea. There is a gift shop but it is quite expensive.
Pedro Tea Estate
Pedro Tea Estate is the probably the most famous tea factory in Nuwara Eliya but as it produces a light tea, most of the production takes place at night. You also cannot take photographs here. If you still want to go, it is about 3.5km East of Nuwara Eliya. Entrance is LKR 250 with tea tasting.
Interesting fact – a good old cup of builder’s tea is in fact made up of the dregs of the crop called ‘dust’!
Various grades of tea – ranging from the best grade to the worst. Standard tea bags contain ‘dust’!
We hope that you will manage to work a couple of days in the Hill Country into your itinerary. Even if you are not a tea enthusiast and are not tempted by the factory visits, then it is still worth going for the views!
When doing any kind of tour, try to use the toilet facilities in your (or a nearby) hotel when possible, as the facilities in some of the factories are the hole-in-the-ground squat toilets that can get a little messy!