The European Center Parcs holidays that are half the price of Britain’s

The Aquapark at De Vossemeren in Belgium has a new floating obstacle course for €15
The Aquapark at De Vossemeren in Belgium has a new floating obstacle course for €15

The very best family holidays offer some form of organised leisure: the children are well entertained; the parents can grab moments to relax. Holiday parks have long answered this need. That relaxation goes out the window, however, if you’re nervously watching your bank balance dwindle. The add-ons at places such as Center Parcs can really add up. A one-hour high ropes course, for example, will set you back £42 or more. Show me a child who sees a pedalo and doesn’t want to go on it, and I will happily give you 10 times the £18.50 Center Parcs UK charges to hire one for a mere 30 minutes.

Happily, for parents after a UK Center Parcs-style holiday, with organised activities for kids of varied ages on site, there is a cheaper option: head to continental Europe. There, in 27 Center Parcs sites spread across France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, stays can cost less than half those in the UK version for roughly the same product. From archery lessons to pony rides to skiing (indoor or water), these parks are packed with adventures designed to keep kids active and engaged. That pricey high ropes course in the UK? €18 (£15.40) in Villages Nature, near Paris, where you can secure a pedalo for €15 (£12.80).

How much can I save?

The most substantial accommodation savings can be found in May and October half-terms, according to research by the consumer champion Which?, with a four-night stay for a family of four in a French resort costing an average of £597, whereas four nights at a UK park over the same period would cost an average of £1,449. Once you add in the cost of the return trip to France (just over £200 for the Eurotunnel; or approximately £180 for the ferry, and far cheaper if you book in advance) families can still expect to save an average of £650. Over the same May half-term week, the Which? research found that families would pay an average of £661 in Germany, £707 in the Netherlands and £777 in Belgium for Center Parcs stays, excluding travel costs.

Which? compared the cost of a four-night stay for a family of four at 32 Center Parcs sites across England, and the Continent, during five popular periods over the UK school holidays: May, July, August and October. Note that, while they share a name, the UK group, which has parks in Suffolk, Cumbria, Bedfordshire, Wiltshire and Nottinghamshire, is a separate company.

But is it the same?

The European parks aren’t just cheaper, but they offer better value for money: at Villages Nature, just outside of Paris, my family enjoyed the excellent playground and elaborate outdoor lagoon, plus my children found the très French mime performance one evening utterly charming. Our forays to UK Center Parcs have also been fun, but they feel like less of a holiday. Perhaps that is because we can understand the chatter around us, perhaps it is the familiarity of the restaurants and supermarket brands.

My friend Rosie has visited Holland’s Der Kempervennen twice – each time with a few other families – drawn by the low prices over half-term. As she points out, it’s a nice easy drive (three hours from Calais), and her family stopped en route in Ypres for The Last Post, along with a visit to First World War trenches for some history. This is a point that many friends make: a Continental Center Parcs delivers a similar indoor tropical swimming paradise, but it’s more interesting than going to Bedfordshire.

Rosie notes, too, that frugality is embraced without shame in the Continental parks: for example, families bring a packed lunch into the swimming dome to avoid unhealthy, pricey snack kiosks. She warns, however, that some of the more basic camps can be a bit lacklustre: it can be worth upgrading to “VIP” accommodation, which often comes with a private sauna.

The distinctive silhouette of Center Parcs Villages Nature Paris
Center Parcs Villages Nature, near Paris, where our writer's family enjoyed the playground and outdoor lagoon - V. Dorosz / Alamy

Do your research

Before you completely defect to the Continent, it’s worth doing a few extra calculations: there’s the time it takes to get there: Center Parcs UK says the average travel time to its parks is around two hours; if you travel to the Netherlands instead, you’re looking at a drive of at least five hours, ferry costs and extra fuel.

Activities vary in price and availability: for example, archery costs from £20.50 at Nottinghamshire’s Sherwood Forest, compared to £13 at Belgium’s De Vossemeren. Just to enter the spa at Elveden, in Suffolk, will set you back £70 per person for a three-hour visit; at Les Trois Forêts, the largest Continental Center Parcs spa in the mountains in the east of France, prices start at closer to £25. Activities such as indoor skiing have specific booking windows: make sure you ask about these to avoid missing out.

If you can be spontaneous, there are last-minute (meaning six weeks out) weekend breaks available with savings of as much as 33 per cent off already lower prices on the European Center Parcs site. Split the driving and cost with another parent and child, and you’ll be looking at a keenly priced adventure.

Finally, a great source of advice is the very useful rabbit hole of a Facebook group called “Center Parcs Europe Just For Brits”, where you can ask the 38,000 members advice on the quality of pools and age-appropriate activities at a particular site. Responses are rapid and meticulous. One of the most popular questions is whether men must follow French municipal swimming pool protocol and wear swimming briefs rather than shorts to pools at the French Center Parcs sites. Spoiler: no budgie smugglers required.

10 great family holiday parks in Europe

Here are a few of the best Center Parcs options (, chosen for their accessibility from the UK, on-site activities, and quality of lodging. All prices are for a family of four, with two adults and children aged four and eight, based on the lowest price with current availability for stays during the school summer holidays. During the same period, Elveden Forest, in Suffolk, has a seven-night stay for £2,328, while Whinfell Forest, in Cumbria, offers lodges from £2,328.

1. Eco chic near Paris

Wood-clad cottages at Villages Nature Paris nestle into the surroundings
Wood-clad cottages at Villages Nature Paris nestle into the surroundings - V. Dorosz / Alamy

With excellent proximity to Disney (less than four miles) and Paris (24 miles), Villages Nature was launched seven years ago. Water slides in the indoor tropical pool complex, ambitious landscaping and sleek apartments combine in a luxury “eco village” that features a pretty wooded adventure playground, kids’ club (ages 3-12; included in booking price) and plenty of shopping and dining opportunities. There’s an on-site farm, with a centre for pony riding (ages 3-13; €5 for 30 min), bread-making and beekeeping classes, and the pièce de résistance, the indoor-outdoor Aqua Mundo swimming pool and waterslide extravaganza dotted with trees and friendly lifeguards.

Seven nights in a comfort cottage costs from €1,809 (£1,555.60)

2. Watersports and Champagne

Lac Du Aliette's outdoor pool has views out over the lake that gives the park its name
Lac Du Aliette's outdoor pool offers views of the lake that gives the park its name

Head to northern France and stay in a colourful village on the banks of a crystal-clear lake. At Le Lac d’Ailette, visitors can pursue watersports, from stand-up paddleboards to pedalos to canoes, and try 13 different slides, including four on the Water Tree, or take to a high ropes course (from €17.50). If you fancy an excursion, you’re just near Reims, heart of Champagne country.

Seven nights in a VIP lakeside cottage from €1,729 (£1,482).

3. Spa in the Vosges mountains

Les Trois Forêts has a sizeable water complex to explore
Les Trois Forêts has a sizeable water complex to explore

Set in the fir woods of Les Trois Forêts, near the Vosges mountains in eastern France and with the largest spa in Europe’s collection of Center Parcs, here adults will find indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, steam rooms, sensory shower, salt cabin and salt-water pool (from age 16; €29, with extra charges for treatments). There are also plenty of children’s adventures, including a climbing wall with 12 different routes (ages six and up; €17).

Seven nights in a renewed comfort cottage from €2,179 (£1,865).

4. Playgrounds galore in northern France

Parents and children can practice their archery at Les Bois Francs
Parents and children can practice their archery at Les Bois Francs

If you catch the ferry to Le Havre, Les Bois-Francs is just over two hours from the port, set in the Normandy countryside. Activities include family paintball (€18) and a nine-hole golf course (€6 per person; there’s a golf academy, too, for lessons). Fishing is included, and there’s even a horse-drawn carriage excursion (€6). The Normandy coast has wonderful seaside towns such as Le Touquet to explore. Plus, you can pop over to Paris (1h 30min away) or take in the excellent art museums in Le Havre.

Seven nights in a Premium Pagode cottage from €1,369 (£1,170).

5. Thrills in southern Holland

At De Kempervennen, stay in cottages – or, if you are feeling adventurous, a houseboat
At De Kempervennen, stay in cottages – or, if you are feeling adventurous, a houseboat

Der Kempervennen is a favourite with British families. It has the distinction of having all of the usual Center Parcs fun – including Aqua Mondo, wooded play, as well as waterskiing, wakeboarding and diving in the lake – but you can also zoom down the indoor ski slope (book in advance; costs from €29.50). It is also just a 45-minute drive from one of Europe’s best theme parks, the Efteling, which, unusually, is equally good for toddlers and teens.

Seven nights in a refurbished comfort cottage costs from €2,249 (£1,931).

6. Dutch seaside near Amsterdam

Park Zandvoort has access to its own beach
Park Zandvoort has access to its own beach

Hosting an indoor trampoline park (from age seven, €5.50 per session), two waterslides, a wild-water rapid and an Aqua Cinema Park (where you watch films on floats), Park Zandvoort is set on the north Dutch coast, so there is the sea and dunes to play in when you tire of the Aqua Mundo (children never seem to, but their parents will). The park is just 40km from Amsterdam, so you could easily combine a bit of culture and canals with your North Sea beach vibes.

Seven nights in a premium cottage costs from €3,169 (£2,721).

7. Belgian Beach with Bruges

Accommodation at Park De Haan is in the form of cottages with your own private garden or terrace
Accommodation at Park De Haan is in the form of cottages with your own private garden or terrace

Park De Haan is an hour’s drive from Dunkirk, a 30-minute drive from Bruges and has access to beaches half a mile away. There are plenty of activities to choose from, including a farm and elaborate indoor adventure playspace. There is also outdoor laser tag for families (from €17) and wild rapids rafting (ages eight-14, from €16). Accommodation includes options such as VIP cottages with a private sauna, or lakeside cottages with pretty views.

Seven nights from €2,919 (£2,506).

8. Adrenaline-packed Flanders

From the age of eight, children can take full advantage of two onsite lakes at De Vossemeren, in Belgium’s northeast, by jumping, climbing and sliding about in a new floating obstacle course Aquapark (€15). There’s also flyboarding (a jet-propelled surfboard; €60) and a snorkelling pool filled with coral and tropical fish (included). There’s an indoor high ropes course (€19) for bad-weather days, and Bosland National Park is on your doorstep, making this park particularly popular with British families.

Seven nights in a refurbished cottage from €1,799 (£1,537).

9. Volcanic vibes in Germany

This is a nine-hour drive from London, but if you plan your trip well, you could potentially stop over in Belgium or Luxembourg. Once you arrive at the newly renovated Park Eifel, you’ll find yourself within cycling distance of fairytale castles in the cities of Cochem and Nürburg. There are also indoor and outdoor playgrounds, a bungee trampoline (from €7.50) and baby swimming lessons (€7).

Seven nights in a renewed comfort cottage from €1,859 (£1,596).

10. Nature adventure in Allgäu

Park Allgäu includes a go-kart track
Park Allgäu includes a go-kart track

A further drive south, Park Allgäu is the biggest and newest of the German parks, and has the advantage of its proximity to Lake Constance (a 45-minute drive away). This site has an excellent range of activities for older children, including a 10m-high climbing tower (€17). Those with a bit of riding experience can go for a horse ride in the woods (€35) or try out the bungee trampoline (€35).

Seven nights in a comfort cottage costs from €2,409 (£2,059).