Experts share tips to get cheap Center Parks holidays
For many families, Center Parcs is the perfect UK holiday break as it offers a range of different types of accommodation. From one bedroom lodges, hotel rooms and apartments, through to epic party houses perfect for big groups, boasting balconies, waterside views, hot tubs and activities suitable for everyone from babies up to older people, it’s the ultimate break offering something for everyone.
It’s even largely weather-proof, as long as you don’t mind getting a bit damp walking between buildings depending on where your lodge is. But Center Parcs’ popularity means the company doesn’t tend to run sales to discount their holidays.
While other family friendly getaways will often tempt people to book with discounts, Haven for example is currently running a promotion offering selected breaks for just £11.50 per person, anyone who’s been to a Center Parcs during the school holidays will know that they don’t tend to have trouble filling the place.
Despite that, there are ways to reduce costs on a Center Parcs break without ruining the experience. Here’s some of our favourites, both from experience and from tips picked up online where fans of the breaks congregate, mainly Mumsnet, Facebook and Reddit.
Pick your dates carefully
Although the jokes about how for the $44bn Elon Musk paid to buy Twitter he could have got a fortnight in Center Parcs during the school holidays are wide of the mark, for now, there’s no doubt that booking for when schools are off is the most expensive trip you can get and, post pandemic as with most things, prices have crept up even more.
But with some careful calendar planning there are deals to be had. First of all, if you have children younger (or older) than school age then congratulations, you can bag the best prices if you go during the week. Enjoy these days while you can as the first time you try and book with term dates a factor it’s a sad time.
If you do have to take school into account then in our experience, the cheapest week of the year if the days fall correctly is the first weekend after New Year’s Day. Yep, it’s cold and a bit grim but there’s plenty to enjoy nonetheless and we found that after the excitement of the holiday period some down time, squirrel watching, board games in front of a fire and the odd activity or two was actually a lovely way to end the festive season and ease the children back into real life without too many pangs.
It was also hundreds cheaper than later in the year.
Don’t forget to check for INSET days if you have a random day off in the middle of the year it’s a perfect opportunity to book a weekend away without having to arrive late on Friday night. Meanwhile, if you want to do the magical Christmas-themed events explore doing them in late-November.
Some might say it’s too early to get in the festive spirit, but if our family is anything to go by those ‘grinches’ might change their mind when they see the difference in price in booking to stay and see Father Christmas in late November rather than once Advent has started.
If you’re happy to go on the spur of the moment, you can sometimes get last minute weekend breaks but these get snapped up quickly, so check the site regularly as things come up, and be aware that the best last minute deals are, perhaps predictably, those for within the next week or so.
When you book think carefully about where you can cut costs on extras and get to know the site you’re on. We tend to pay £60 extra to be in a lodge closer to the three key areas because our children don’t ride bikes and so if we end up further out the walks of up to 20 minutes each way to the swimming pool or main activity area end up wearing them out quickly.
But if you’re happy to walk or cycle then you can safely be a bit further out. Also, on the subject of bikes, if you want to ride them invest in a cycle rack for your car and bring your own, the cost of hiring them for a family adds up quickly.
Plan your shopping
Assuming you’re arriving by car, soon as you have booked your Center Parcs stay research where the nearest branch of your preferred supermarket is and reserve a click and collect slot for the morning you’re due to arrive.
You can order everyone’s favourite foods and groceries for any nights you’re cooking in the lodge, although beware, in some lodges the fridges are only under-counter size so space might be short. Also, more importantly, you can buy the essentials you’ll need for your home away from home that if you don’t plan ahead will make you wince when you fill a basket with them in the Park Mart.
The Park Mart is a great place to stop for treats, family favourites for us are the blueberry muffins for children and the pick your own olive and deli bits counter for grownups, but when you try and assemble the makings of a meal or two with it costs mount up quickly.
For us the key things to bring with your from outside: bin liners, dishwasher tablets, toilet roll, kitchen roll, tomato ketchup, washing up liquid, a sponge (they always give you one but a second is always handy). While Center Parcs specify that only pre-packaged firelogs are used in their woodburners, when you see them in the shops even in a three-night bundle they come up as being expensive. We found Tesco nearby sold them, possibly because they know people like us will be looking to buy them for their break.
We tend to work on eating out once every day but that isn’t always a main meal as, even with them being chain restaurants for the most part, prices are considerably higher than you’d pay at Bella Italia or Cafe Rouge in your local high street.
One Las Iguanas dinner, with prices offset a bit because you pay £5 a head deposit before you go to reserve the table, alongside a Leon and some pancakes pretty much sets us up for a long weekend except for the odd additional Starbucks or ice cream.
Take advantage of the free stuff
When you start looking at a Center Parcs break it’s easy to end up sucked into booking loads of expensive activities. But there’s plenty of free things to enjoy too.
Since Covid trips to the Sub-tropical Swimming Paradise need to be pre-booked, but they’re free and with sessions available for three hours they can take up a big chunk of the day. Children can also enjoy plenty of indoor and outdoor play areas.
If you are tempted by activities, and arguably the most fun Center Parcs breaks must have at least one or two, book early to avoid disappointment and try and check the schedule to spread them out.
Everyone has their must-dos: in our house it’s Off Road Vehicles for the children and the Twilight Spa for me, you can buy additional treatments while you’re there if you want, but for me a plate of antipasti, a glass of bubbles and some time relaxing in the fragrant steam room while my husband does bedtime is the highlight of my weekend without needing to pay any more.
Whatever you sign up for, leave some wiggle room to enjoy an ice cream and have some down time, especially with younger children. If it all gets too much also just step away. Enforced fun is no fun at all and once the money has been spent you’re not getting it back so there’s no point trying to coax a sobbing child to enjoy Weird Science if they have been absolutely traumatised by putting on a white coat. It happens.
There’s plenty of things you can sign up for on the spur of the moment like bowling, pottery painting, arcades and usually a badminton court, but again bring your own racquets if you can to save money on hire.
Consider a trip abroad
Not everybody knows this, but Center Parcs is an international company with parks in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany. Not only are prices usually lower, but often school holidays vary a bit so you could end up there at a quieter point.
Mumsnet and Facebook in particular have groups with people offering advice on doing this. It’s a different kind of holiday and needs to be fully investigated as travelling to mainland Europe for a Center Parcs break isn’t for everyone.
But if you love the adventure of long road trips with the family it could work out cheaper, although you’ll need to factor petrol and ferry costs into your calculations.
Know when to splurge
Whichever Center Parcs you go to and whenever you get there, once you’re on-site the car is parked and without a lot of effort you’re in for the duration. At this point, just enjoy it.
There are certain things that you’ll find just worth the money. For us it’s a trip to the Pancake House on the last morning. Is it a lot of dough spent on, erm, dough? Yes. But it’s a fun rite of passage and the way we bid our lodge a fond farewell until next time.
Offset the costs where you can and enjoy your break. You’ve earned it.
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