How to Find Amazing Family-Friendly Vacation Rentals

Our backyard at Riverain, in England's Lake District.

Our backyard at Riverain, in England’s Lake District.

We’re near the end of an epic week in England’s Lake District. A big part of what has made this visit unforgettable: Where we’re staying.

On paper, we’ve rented a 3-bedroom “cottage” in the tiny town of Blencowe, about five miles outside of Penrith, on the northern edge of Lake District National Park. In reality, however, we are staying in part of a restored and renovated circa-1700 carriage house, one of the structures that flanks a castle-like manor house that dates back to the 1500s itself.

Our rental has heated floors, an incredible wood-burning fireplace and those tiny windows that you find in pretty much all castles and stone buildings from hundreds of years ago. On the grounds: A rushing stream, hundreds of sheep and acres upon acres of rolling hills.

Did I mention the place is costing us less than $225 per night?

In celebration of our find, Powerwoman and I put our heads together last night and came up with a list of tips for how to find killer family-friendly vacation rentals. Here are the highlights.

Tip 1: Book with Experts
In today’s age, many family travelers book on AirBnB and call it a night. If you’re lucky, the place is nice. The problem, of course, is that you might not be so lucky. Instead of winging it, we almost always opt for a vacation rental service. These services require property owners to keep places to a high standard of quality. They also are more than willing to help out if something goes wrong. For this trip—and for other trips to rural England—we used Rural Retreats, which is based in the Cotswolds. When we went to Ireland earlier this year, we went with Elegant Ireland. OneFineStay is another service about which I’ve heard great things.

Tip 2: Confirm there’ll be kid-friendly stuff
Some rental entities prattle on about how their properties are “kid-friendly.” What this means, however, can vary widely depending on where you go. We always like to call or email in advance and make sure the place we’re going has access to a) a crib b) stair gates and c) a high chair. If the place doesn’t offer this stuff—or if they can’t guarantee they’ll get it for us—we look elsewhere.

Tip 3: Follow the hampers
It’s standard operating procedure among the best vacation rental services to provide visitors with food hampers to supplement grocery items they’ll buy for the duration of their stay. The worst of these baskets amount to nothing more than snacks. The best of them provide the ingredients for multiple meals. In our experiences, baskets from Rural Retreats have supplied us with ingredients for the first dinner in the house, as well as a number of days of snacking. The best basket we’ve ever had: The one from Elegant Ireland, which contained freshly-baked bread, and all of the ingredients for multiple Irish breakfasts.

Tip 4: Go off-peak
Busy times at most vacation rentals are like busy times at hotels—if you’re able to find availability, the price points likely are astronomical. Instead, try building your vacation around off-peak times. Over the years (especially in Hawaii), we have saved big bucks scheduling trips around only one weekend instead of two. Another strategy we’ve used: Traveling from Tuesday or Wednesday to the following Tuesday or Wednesday (this was how we rolled this time around). Time of year is huge, too: Check websites for peak seasons, then book around them. Finally, be open to sacrificing location; a few miles away from the tourist hotspots could save you hundreds—if not thousands—down the road.

What are your secrets for finding great family-friendly vacation rentals?

Like a Virgin

Little R, loved every minute on the high-speed train.

Little R, loved every minute on the high-speed train.

We’ve relocated to Northern England for the better part of the next week. Some of the items on the agenda for the coming days include hiking, reconnecting with (some of my wife’s distant) relatives, and baaaa-ing at the sheep in the pasture out our door.

Of course our girls also will spend significant amounts of time talking (and, undoubtedly, drawing) about how we actually got here: One of the high-speed trains up from London.

We took the ride with Virgin Trains, from Euston Station up to Penrith, a city in the heart of England’s Lake District. Because we sat in First Class, we had reserved seats, a table, all-you-can-eat food (including a stellar breakfast service), and porter help with the bags. Because it’s Virgin, the girls also received “Kids Bags”—backpack-sized satchels full of games and puzzles to do while we were en route.

To say the girls made the most of the experience would be an understatement.

R was the bigger fan; she spent at least 90 minutes of the 3-hour trip peering out the window or asking about Thomas the Tank Engine (a natural association, given our activity).  L liked the train too, but was scared a bit by the rocking.

(Overall, we managed to survive just fine until about ten minutes before departure, when R threw a tantrum and knocked a full cup of tea into my crotch, and L threw a tantrum just go be like her sister.)

Still, the verdict is that train travel trumps airplane travel because a) you can walk around as much as you’d like during your ride b) you can look out the window and see more than simply clouds, and c) first class is something average families actually can afford (it cost us a grand total of about $300 for all four of us, round-trip).

Don’t get me wrong, traveling by train isn’t perfect.

In Europe, where railroads can go up to 125 mph, motion sickness can be a real issue; L felt sick pretty much every time she looked out the window. In the U.S., where we (inexcusably) lack the same sort of high-speed rail they have here, train travel can take a while.

From our perspective, after two consecutive excursions from London involving train travel, the rails provide a nice alternative to airplanes.

Beside, trips are always better when the getting-there is part of the fun.

From the perspective of a family traveler, what do you like best about train travel?

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