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‘We have heard horrible stories of what can happen’: Leaving Cert holidays spell euphoria for students but anxiety for parents

Portuguese resort Albufeira is the hottest destination for post-exam trips this year, while the Greek island of Zante is popular among south Dublin schools

Magaluf, on the Spanish island of Mallorca, has long been the destination of choice for Leaving Cert students. This year, Albufeira in Portugal is the hottest destination. Photograph: AP

After endless months of cramming and a marathon set of pressure-cooker exams, a sunlit upland awaits thousands of students: the long-awaited post-Leaving Cert holiday.

For school-leavers it’s a chance to hit the beach, party hard on frenetic, neon-lit streets and maybe get a dodgy tattoo, without adult supervision.

And for mothers and fathers, it’s a nerve-shredding time as their fledglings navigate all manner of potential hazards on their first trip abroad on their own.

Magaluf, on the Spanish island of Mallorca, has long been the destination of choice for Leaving Cert students in search of a budget holiday in the sun with its supersized nightclubs that entice partygoers with free shots at the door.


This year, however, the hottest destination for Irish students is Albufeira in Portugal, with its buzzing strip of bars that stay open until dawn, its sun-kissed beaches and its coastal booze cruises with unlimited drink deals.

Punta Ballena Street, also known as "the strip", in Magaluf, Mallorca. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty

Many of the more affluent south Dublin schools are following the herd down to Greece. Zante is the place to be: an island with more than 1,000 bars and one of the best clubbing strips on the Continent.

For Cork students, meanwhile, Santa Ponsa in Mallorca – packed with bustling nightlife – is popular thanks to direct flights from the local airport.

Students are typically paying €600-€700 for flights and a week’s accommodation. While sneering older folk may see the Leaving Cert holidays as a sign of pampered Gen Z excess, Aileen Eglington, a spokeswoman for Cassidy Travel, sees things very differently.

Most students pay for their holidays in instalments and learn important lessons about budgeting and delayed gratification along the way, she says.

“Once a student is over 18, they can book it themselves,” she says. “Normally, they’ll pay a low deposit and pay it off over the year ... They’re planning this for months.”

Alanna Costello (18), from Navan, Co Meath, is counting down the days until she jets off to Albufeira with her classmates from Loreto Secondary School.

“It’s helped us get through the exams, just knowing that you have something to look forward to ... It is an escape from everything,” she says. “Lots and lots of our friends in school are going there.”

Rory Bowers (18), and his friends in Swords, Co Dublin, have chosen to do their own thing.

They are heading to Paros in Greece, not known as a party island, with the help of research by a Greek friend.

“There’s seven of us going. Flights are about €300 and accommodation is €200 per person in a villa ... I am really looking forward to it and seeing my friends,” says Bowers, who has been working part-time in B&Q to fund the trip.

Magaluf’s “strip” is a frenetic neon-lit street lined with lap-dancing clubs, tattoo parlours, bars, clubs and fast-food restaurants. Photograph: Tomeu Coll

If there is euphoria among teenagers at the prospect of being off the leash for the first time, there is trepidation among parents.

Last year’s double tragedy, when classmates Andrew O’Donnell and Max Wall from St Michael’s College in Dublin died in separate incidents while on a Leaving Cert holiday in Greece, looms large in the memory of parents. Just this week a British teenager went missing during a holiday with friends in Tenerife.

In the fleshpots of Magaluf and other party towns, sexual assault is not uncommon. Drink-related assaults are always a risk, as is “balconying” – the practice of leaping from balcony to balcony or into a swimming pool. New Government advice, following last year’s tragedies, urges teens to “travel wise” this year. It’s enough to send any parent scurrying for anti-anxiety medication.

To calm her nerves, Carol Costello has clear instructions for her daughter, Alanna, during her trip to Albufeira next month: stay with her friends, don’t get isolated and keep her Snapchat location-sharing settings on at all times.

“I’m not a stalker or trying to invade her privacy, but for me, personally, I like to have an idea of where she is,” she says.

“I’m lucky, she’s a good kid and very honest with me ... but we have heard some horrible stories of what can happen, and it plays on your mind ... I don’t want to be over the top or stress her out, but I also want her to have a good time. ”

Alanna, who just turned 18, is her eldest child. She concedes that she is maybe a little overprotective.

“My sister calls me a helicopter parent,” she says, laughing. “But I feel there are many more dangers now.”

Máire, a parent from Newbridge, Co Kildare, is less nervous but apprehensive all the same. Her 18-year-old daughter is also heading to Albufeira.

“She’s with a mixed group of girls and boys; they are a nice group and they are good at looking out for each other,” she says.

“This is their last hurrah before they go their separate ways. Given how much Covid impacted on them, they are right to squeeze the marrow out of life.”

Albufeira beach

Veronica, a Cork parent who asked for her full name not to be used, has grounds to feel twice as nervous: her twin boys, who turned 18 a few months ago, are heading to Santa Ponsa with the bulk of their class.

“It’s like half of Cork is going there,” she says. “Am I dreading it? Absolutely. They are still innocent, so I will be warning them about all the dangers.

“They are innocent lads. There are risks for girls, but for boys too. I’ll be reminding them about consent and if a girl is drunk, nothing can happen ... I’ll just pray for the best and hope it all goes okay.”

Diane O’Neill, a mother of three and psychotherapist from Co Wexford, is drawing on all her reserves to calm herself.

Her youngest son, Fionn (18), is the first child in the family to go abroad on a Leaving Cert holiday. He plans to head to Salou in Spain with his friends for five days.

O’Neill’s strategy for now is to avoid fixating on what lies ahead.

“I’d say that to any parent: try not overthinking things until it happens,” she says. “Also, try putting in place a couple of rules, just to reassure yourself. I’ll ask my son to send a text each day to say good morning or good evening ... I’ll ask for a couple of his friends’ numbers, just in case.”

Ultimately, she says, parenting is about learning to let go, allowing your children to leave the nest.

“Part of me is excited for him that he gets to do this,” says O’Neill. “The other part of me is nervous. Yes, I’m a mental health professional, but I’m a mother at the end of the day.”

Staying safe abroad: travel tips for Leaving Cert students

Know your address Keep the address of your hotel or apartment written down. If you get separated from your friends or your phone battery dies, you’ll need to be able to get back safely.

Stick together Don’t leave friends alone or head off on your own with strangers.

Drink sensibly Drinking on an empty stomach is never a good idea. Go easy. And don’t leave your drink unattended.

Sunscreen Use sunscreen with a good SPF, spend time in the shade and don’t forget your sunglasses and hat.

Charge your phone Keep it charged so you can stay in contact with friends.

Bring cash A safe backup if you lose your ATM card or your phone dies.

Safe sex Avoid the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

Avoid unnecessary risks Use only official transport, remain in well-populated areas after dark and stick together with your friends