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Europe on a Budget

As soon as we step into our rented bungalow on the North Sea coast of the Netherlands, my 7-year-old son, Ross, takes off through the house like a tornado, returning with shining eyes and a big grin. "There's toys in my room and puppets and rubber duckies in the bathtub, so can I take a bath now?" he asks. Peter, my husband, and I look at each other and smile. This will be a good vacation.

We're in Park Zandvoort, a bungalow park about an hour west of Amsterdam. It's the third time we've stayed in these unique European parks, and we're convinced that they're perfect for families who want a safe, comfortable place to vacation. Also known as holiday villages, bungalow parks are similar to American campgrounds in layout and ambience. Instead of tents and trailers, however, accommodations include spacious cottages and apartments. The parks offer lots of amenities as well, including indoor swimming pools (with slides, fountains, and tropical decor), playgrounds, restaurants, and kids' activities.

Staying in a bungalow park is ideal for my family: With three rambunctious boys, we need lots of room. The homes are clean, comfortably furnished (think Ikea), and feature fully equipped kitchens, which I appreciate, because I like to cook even when we're traveling. Besides keeping costs down, preparing our own food teaches us about local culture and cuisine. In the Netherlands, for example, we buy vegetables at the groentenwinkel, bread at the bakker, meat at the slagerij, cheese at the kaaswinkel, and flowers to brighten our table at the bloemenwinkel.

If your children are as active as mine, they'll be right at home in a bungalow park, thanks to all of the family-friendly activities. For example, my older sons, Scott and Jasper, have participated in soccer, arts and crafts, and bowling tournaments -- all in the company of Dutch kids, who speak English surprisingly well. Ross's favorite activity is swimming in the tropical pools. For Peter and me, the best part of the day is when all five of us take an after-dinner hike in the countryside, where pretty-as-a-picture scenes unfold around each bend.

Cars aren't allowed inside most bungalow parks. Instead, guests park in a nearby lot and walk in. While some may find this inconvenient, not having cars rumble by keeps things peaceful, and the grounds are so much safer for kids on bikes and on foot. In fact, it's that secure feeling -- along with all of the activities -- that makes bungalow parks one of the best choices when vacationing in Europe with kids.

Here's what you need to know to ensure a smooth stay.

  • Ask about off-season rates -- usually in the spring or fall. These are still wonderful times to visit Europe, and you can take advantage of lower airfares. In June, our three-bedroom bungalow cost $700 a week, but rates dropped to as low as $350 in the off-season. (Note: Rates are subject to change.)
  • Pay attention to the size of the bungalow. We've found that 75 square meters -- about the size of a small two-bedroom home -- is comfortable for our family of five.
  • You'll need to rent linens, but other than sheets and towels, the bungalows are well equipped.
  • If you have a child under 5, you'll get a young-family discount. If Grandpa and Grandma come along, ask about the 55-plus discount.

Bungalow Best Bets

Check out these reliable companies for more rental information.

  • Center Parcs (www.centerparcs.nl) and Landal GreenParks (www.landal.nl) -- two chains based in the Netherlands -- run quality bungalow parks in seven countries (the Netherlands, Germany, England, France, Belgium, Austria, and the Czech Republic).
  • Pierre & Vacances (www.pierreetvacances.com) is a good resource for properties in France with family-friendly amenities.
  • A British company called Hoseasons (www.hoseasons.co.uk) offers a broad spectrum of vacation villages in Great Britain, Ireland, and ten other European countries.

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