Have Stroller, Will Travel

The first trip we took with our older son when he was 10 months old we had the brilliant idea that we didn’t need to bring a stroller with us. We knew that in the airport he would be in the front pack and we wanted our hands to be as free as possible. Of course, once we were in Madrid we would want a stroller but we wanted less to bring with us. It was before we were really packing light but it was the beginning of an idea.

Since I had been in Madrid for a summer semester in college I knew they had this wonderful store, El Corte Ingles, where we would be able to find ourselves a cheap umbrella stroller that would work for our purposes and if it didn’t make it home – that wouldn’t be a problem.

It was a HUGE success! We checked into our hotel (stayed there one night until the apartment was ready but that’ll be a story for another day), hooked up with our friends and set off to El Corte Ingles with the baby in the front pack. We had no problem finding ourselves a $25 umbrella stroller with a sun shade and walked out of the store with the baby riding in it, safely strapped in. He loved this stroller, it even had a little fish hanging down from the sun shade so if he was bored with us or the walk, he’d keep himself happy with the fish. The stroller did make it home and we even still use it on occasion. Talk about a GREAT investment.

So off we were to our 2nd major international trip with the little one and thought we would travel sans stroller and have the same success as Madrid. Boy were we wrong. You have to know your location. In Madrid I knew we would find a great deal and the exact store where that would happen. In Florence we didn’t know the area, wandered around to several different kids stores with the baby backpack until we finally found a store with strollers… couture strollers… not what we had in mind. After looking at all the options and asking the store personnel for help, we ended up with a stroller for $120. It had a lot more options than our umbrella stroller (it could recline, had a large sun shade and a rain guard) but it also ended up being a much bigger pain to steer, fold up and now we cared whether it made it home or not!

We learned a very valuable lesson that trip. If you don’t do the research in advance, it might be a drain on the wallet to travel that light. We did get a lot of use out of that stroller – it made it on several international trips and was just retired after having it for 5 years, so all in all not a terrible investment but at the time we would have rather have had a cheaper smaller option.

So keep that in mind when you’re traveling. Most airlines will let you gate check the stroller for no cost (check their website before you go so there are no surprises) so it’s easy enough to bring a stroller you already own. You may not get your stroller back in the condition in which you gave it to the airline and there will not be any compensation for that or you could do a little research before you go and pick one up once you’re there. Then you may not care if it gets a little bit banged up on the way home. And you never know, it might end up being a stroller that lasts.

Hello Again!!

Hello! Long time no talk.

I tell you what, summer took its toll. That and a full work, kid, and hobby schedule. And our oldest son starting school.

But we’ve been able to fit in a little travel. And travel hasn’t been far from our planning minds.

One of the hardest things for me is to reign in all my travel ambitions. I have so many places I want to go. So many experiences I want to give my kids. So much food I want to try.

Until now, getting away has been relatively easy for me. I just cram like crazy at work before and after, and all is well. Now we have a school schedule to factor in, and that sure complicates things.

What we don’t have is unlimited funds. And sometimes what we want to do and what we can do don’t jive. We haven’t been overseas with the boys yet this year, and the odds of making it happen aren’t great.

But, hey! I’m rambling.

Sometimes I have to remind myself -

It’s not where we travel as much that we travel. Especially with kids.

Sure, I’d love it if we took a couple long weekends per year around the state. And a couple weeks to visit family throughout the country. And a week somewhere new – by car or plane – around North America. And maybe a couple trips to Europe, somewhere new and somewhere familiar. And then maybe the occasional really far afield trip (something we’ve yet to try.)

That all sounds neat, doesn’t it. Fancy fantasy land.

We’ve actually had some pretty solid runs. I wrote it down the other day. There’s a couple years where we checked off a good portion of that list. How did that happen?

Here’s the key, we didn’t force it. We just kept travel a priority, and we chose our shots.

Sometimes it was a big trip with lots of action. Sometimes we used miles and careful timing to go on the cheap. But we went.

A few factors have complicated things this year. Schedules and a decision to make sure our boy doesn’t miss school in his first year of kindergarten is big factor. Our availability has been very limited. And when you don’t have a flexible schedule, it’s tougher to find good priced tickets. And plane tickets are by far the priciest part of our travels.

Two things I’ll remember to increase our hit rate in the future:

1 – We’ll block time and make priorities much further into the future. This will help us schedule around everything going on in our lives, and it will help us make sure we’re capitalizing on all of our opportunities. Looking back at the first half of the year, we might have gotten that overseas trip scheduled in the spring – back before school when we could be more flexible.

2 – We’ll have fall back plans and we’ll know when to use them. It’s a shame to have availability, time off and a budget, and then not go because the first option is out of reach. That’s what happened to our planned October trip – we waited too long looking for a deal and we didn’t have a back up plan.

Which all comes back to – just travel. Make it a priority wherever it may be.

Next up for us is Thanksgiving. We planned to go visit family in Palm Springs – we’ve never been. Since we’re not going anywhere in October, we’ve decided to extend that trip and make it a genuine road trip, with Santa Fe and some other stops along the way.

And who knows – we might just squeeze that overseas trip in, stay tuned.

Having patience can be so hard!!

The best way to plan a trip is with a lot of patience. The first option you find isn’t always the best, sometimes it’s the fifth, thirtieth or hundredth time that’s a charm. We’ve been very lucky in the past that we can hone that skill and ensure we get the best bang for our buck. We’ve been flexible in our dates, scoured the internet for the best deals and waited until the perfect time to pounce on our finds. Those times seem to be slipping away from us.

Our oldest son recently started kindergarten (gasp!! How can he be this old already??) which limits our traveling time. We are no longer able to pick and choose the best priced, low-travel season time to go. We have a school schedule and the various breaks that we now have to fit our family traveling into.

We found a great time in October, based on his schedule, to go visit friends in Germany. So far, it is not looking good. I’m trying to remind myself to be patient… the right deal will come along. It comes with determination, just the right timing and being a little flexible. I have been looking and looking… nothing… Well – don’t get me wrong – there are TONS of flights that will get us there, just nothing that I can justify spending just yet.

I have to be patient. If I look back on our previous trips that’s what finally got us the perfect combination of flights/times/friends/housing, etc… we were patient and diligent in our searching and everything worked out. This year gas prices seem to be against us but we will keep at it and eventually that patience will pay off. I just know it will!

Eating Like A Local

As I write this, we’re on our way back from our second week-long trip out of the last three weeks. We visited local hot spots and family in two very different corners of the US – eastern South Dakota and the greater Los Angeles area.

One thing we like to do when we travel with the kids is to pick food and restaurants that we can’t get back home. Sometimes we run into picky eating, but more often than not the kids are up for adventure. I think if you set the standard that travel is a time for new foods you’ll find your children are fairly adaptable. It makes sense that new places mean new food. (By the way, this goes for you too.)

There are so many ways to branch out with food. You can find a local restaurant, gaining bonus points for a local dive. Or you can find a regional chain. Even a quick fast food lunch can be completely different in another state or another country. You might find a new go-to option for that area of the world.

We encountered a few places I’d recommend if you find yourself in the area:

While staying in Platte, South Dakota we had lunch at Boom’s Drive In. It’s a local place that’s been around for about 70 years and is a little slice of Americana. I have fond memories of it from my childhood. The food isn’t exotic – I had my usual chili dog, and the kids had some corn dog bites – but it was something new for the family.

In California we have a few favorites. This time we stopped at a local taco joint called Snapper Jacks. They have a mashed potato taco that is great in a crispy shell. It’s in Camarillo.

We went to a greasy spoon breakfast place with Chuck Wagon in the name, in old town Camarillo. I had a great eggs benedict that used jalapeño bacon (I have a bacon obsession.) My wife had an eggs benedict that used corned beef hash. Awesome.

And we stopped at a Los Angeles institution – Pink’s Hot Dogs – for the first time and had a great chili dog. (I have hot dog obsession, especially chili dogs.) The boys really ate like champs here, and I felt good about feeding them hot dogs because of the fun location.

And then there are chains. On our way from South Dakota we stopped at a regional chain called Runza were they have these ground beef and onion pockets that are tasty and very midwestern. Fun if you are into that.

And of course while in California we made multiple stops at In-n-out Burger. A must for all of us.

None of this was overly fancy, expensive, or complicated. But it was different. It helps the trip feel more like travel and broadens your kids’ horizons a bit.

I could talk food all day, but I’ve gone on long enough for now. Similar principles apply wherever your travels take you around the world. I’ll share some more local faves over time. What gems have you discovered?

Car Travel

Something we don’t touch upon that often is car travel… maybe it’s because it’s not necessarily my favorite way to travel, maybe it’s because it doesn’t get me to places out of my comfort zone or maybe it’s because car travel is hard. Hard? You may ask. Yes – hard. Two years ago we went on our first major car trip with our then just barely three year old and five month old.

We drove to South Dakota. The destination – the Black Hills and beyond. The expected travel time? 11 hours. The actual travel time? 14+ hours. The last two were with a screaming 5-month old in the back seat. You see, driving in the car wasn’t his favorite thing ever. In fact, I think if he could avoid the car it would have been his preference. So being stuck in the car for 14+ hours was not ideal. We didn’t drive “straight through”, we took several breaks for food, stretching, feeding the baby and sightseeing. Even with those stops, it was too much for them. Our older son was happy to have a movie on as long as he got to pick – which we were more than happy to accommodate – but even he couldn’t seem to time his potty breaks with everyone else so we ended up making quite a few extra stops.

Well, even if it isn’t my favorite way to travel we have another trip coming up in the next couple of weeks where we get to drive to South Dakota for another family reunion. The boys are older, they are more excited for the trip and yet I know 2 hours in we will be hearing “are we there yet”… A few things we will be doing to help mitigate the pain of being stuck in the car for a day as we drive to the first stop:

1. Portable DVD player – they’re both old enough to enjoy the distraction of a movie.

2. Snacks – I don’t usually let my kids eat in the car but having a couple of snacks to keep them going when we aren’t quite ready for a stop will be worth it.

3. Family and two cars – the boys will be able to switch vehicles or have people rotate into the car they are mainly stationed in so they can have different company and keep the scenery fresh.

4. An open mind – I know that if Mapquest or Google Maps tell me that it’s going to take 9 hours, with kids I’ll expect 12. Going in with an open mind will help me feel good about getting there in 11 hours thinking I beat my expectation.

5. Plenty of music – my kids love to sing and I do too, that will keep us busy.

6. I will still pack light – Less is Less!! But they will have a few of their favorite toys with us – superheros, Leapster 2, and cars – to keep them entertained.

If we pass a park we might stop when before – just the two of us – we wouldn’t think of such a thing, wanting to get to the destination. With kids you have to be flexible, be willing to take a slower path and take the breaks that they need. Being stuck in a car seat is hot and can be boring – not just for the kids! It’s good to get out, stretch, have a minute to run around and then get on your way again. Be sure to factor in these extra stops and enjoy the time with your kids – it’s the time together, not the ultimate destination that is the most important part of your travel experience. It’s the experience together!! Whether in the car or in the air… famvoyage!!

A Thanksgiving to Remember

We were first introduced to traveling with our friends over the Thanksgiving holiday. The first time (without kids but pregnant with our first) we celebrated in a 400 year old restaurant in Vienna with a delicious meal with our friends.

We definitely had the bug and traveling over Thanksgiving can be incredibly economical so we decided to do it a few more times. My favorite European Thanksgiving is the night we spent at Il Latini in Florence. One of Jeremy’s clients had told us we HAD to go there so we thought, why not make it our Thanksgiving spot to celebrate. I am so glad we did but we weren’t thinking and didn’t find it before the day of Thanksgiving nor did we make a reservation. We definitely didn’t expect a huge crowd on a Thursday night.

Luckily our friends B&L who had joined us for the last few days of their honeymoon had an unlimited data plan on their phone and were able to lead us to the restaurant using their map app. I don’t know that we would have found it otherwise. We finally saw the street – hooray! – and as we turned the corner we were shocked by the number of people in the alley way. The doors to the restaurant were still closed, we thought getting there at opening time would assure us a table, but the crowd went from one end of the alley to the other.

Jon made his way towards the front of the crowd as they began letting various groups into the restaurant – all with reservations or already on a waiting list – and the alley way slowly cleared out. There were still several groups outside with us and Jon was at the front!! We were a group of 7, so after watching all those other people in we weren’t sure there would be room and then – Jon was waving us in. We rushed to the door lest someone change their mind and were seated at the very last table available in the entire restaurant right at the front!!  They even had a child’s chair that hung from the table for Holden.

My back was to the window, our table was just inside the entrance and the front of the restaurant including the giant door was all glass, but I turned around to see why I saw wait staff going in and out of the front door – I knew there weren’t tables outside and couldn’t imagine what they were doing. Not 30 minutes into our dinner, after they practically cleared the alley, it was filled again and the waiters were serving the people wine and cheese while they waited. We were so blessed to have made it in so quickly!

The waiter came up and immediately brought us a bottle of wine and kept it coming. He didn’t bring us any menus but instead asked if we were interested in trying a few courses with food typical of the area. We were in! What an experience. We had a salad course, soup course, pasta course, meat course and dessert course. The food was incredible and we had so much fun eating, drinking and enjoying the company of our friends at this amazing restaurant celebrating all we had to be thankful for that Thanksgiving night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Owner came over to see how we were doing, spent some time chatting with us and then he verified the bill with the waiter. We never saw any pricing or menus so we weren’t sure what to expect – especially after all of the food and wine. They conferred and we received the bill, simple as that – no menu or posted pricing. For as much food and drink as we had during the three plus hour meal, we were completely flabbergasted at how affordable the dinner was per couple and how stuffed we were! After the bill came, they gave us each a drink of lemoncello, another round of desserts and two bottles of wine to go!! We even got to take a picture with the Owner.

Once we were outside we took several squishies – this was the best one that mostly got all 7 of us in, you’ll have to trust that Holden is in the stroller and we weren’t just posing around it but this long Italian dinner wore him out!!

It was one of the most amazing Thanksgiving experiences and I am so glad we were able to have it. Don’t shy away from traveling and having these experiences just because it’s tradition to stay home. I’m not saying you have to travel on a holiday but don’t rule it out, you never know what you might encounter.

Frugal Family Travel

Do I dare call family world travel frugal? Semantics police might object. If you are amongst them, read it as fancy frugal family travel from now on, and you’ll be just fine.

But as with most things, the cost of traveling with your kids is highly variable. From experience, I’d say it can range anywhere from hardly more than bumming it on your own – which is almost nothing – to infinity, I suppose.

We are on the finite end of the range. For both money and time. Yet we’ve managed to travel throughout the US, a bit of Canada, and a fair bit of Europe over the last few years. And we have a lot more planned. We have learned some things along the way.

And that’s the first lesson, family travel can be done on a budget. Pretty much anywhere you’d like to go.

Next lesson. If time is of the essence, pick and choose where to save. Save in one category or several, but realize that it can be (a bit) more work to design in maximum savings. If you get a kick out of thinking about your trips and planning, then you can save some real money. But don’t be scared – you can save money even if you are a lazy planner.

(Disclosure. I like thinking about the trip. But kinda generically. I wouldn’t do anything crazy like planning or writing stuff down. And I can still save a buck or two. H, however, is meticulous in planning. And that’s where a lot of magic happens. But sometimes being a lazy planner can save you a ton of money. Stay tuned.)

Now. There are some specific categories to consider.

- Where to go
- When to go
- Getting there
- Getting around
- Staying
- Eating
- Drinking
- Activities
- Souvenirs

Each of these is a fun discussion of it’s own, and we’ll spend some time on all of them.

The moral of the story is that if money IS an object, you STILL don’t have an excuse not to famvoyage!

An Unexpected Surprise…

There are a number of things that can surprise you when you’re traveling – not all of them good – but when my husband and I recently lost a combined 110 pounds thanks to the 4 Hour Body by Tim Ferris, we were surprised at the changes we experienced while traveling. I never thought of myself as obese (though the Wii says otherwise) and I have always been strong, haven’t had any trouble climbing 160 steps to the top of a tower (or no more than anyone else did!) and I traveled “comfortably”.

Before the Weight Loss - Traveling to Ireland

Well, I thought I was comfortable… now that I’ve lost 54 pounds, turns out that it is possible to travel even more comfortably than I was before. I no longer have lap children – we have to buy their seats – but that doesn’t mean they sit in their seats the entire flight. The leaner me fits into my seat better, with room to spare on either side, can keep a child on my lap without feeling like they’re being crowded into the seat in front of us, and I just feel better.

Not only that, I can still walk up 160 stairs without getting more tired than the next person, fit in the small curving staircase a bit better AND can accomplish it while carrying or wearing a child.

Our clothes are smaller so they take up less space in the suitcase, enabling me to pack even LESS!! Which you all know, it is a goal of mine to pack less every time we travel.

What a surprise, I never thought something as small as losing some weight could make such a huge difference.

On Beer Gardens, Tapas Bars and Similar Great Places

I like them. And so do my kids.

Let’s get this out of the way now. This is not the kind of place where we look for sanitized kid friendly things to do while the adults sip ice water and descend into boredom. Kids don’t need you to reduce your trip in order to bring them along. Let’s face it – the more varied your travels, the more you’ll travel. And seeing more of the world is just plain good for kids. Better with you than not at all.

So here’s an insight – if you are doing it right, travel will expose your kids to some dirt and chaos and questionable behavior. You will be ok. Your kids will be ok.

And another – maybe some of what you consider questionable is just normal to other people. You don’t have to approve, I don’t always. But you don’t have to worry too much.

I’ve got nothing against parks and playgrounds and toys and all of that. We’ll get there too. But sometimes I just need an ice cold brew. Sometimes my kids need a snack too.

So. Germany. April and the sun is starting to emerge victorious more often than not. We’re in Munich and locals clearly have spring fever. We’re along for the ride.

The first day of the trip is a good day to soak up local color and not be too ambitious. We go to the Chinese Beer Garden in a lovely big park. Our travel companions have been here before and show us the ropes. Our oldest son is almost two (this particular trip was specifically scheduled to enjoy lap child privileges one last time.) If I remember my chronology correctly, our friends were expecting their first and my wife was not yet expecting our second. So we had one designated walker.

We spent most of a longish afternoon in the beer garden. Our son amused himself with our company, probably some napkins, and probably some drawing. He was part of the gang. We enjoyed a beer or two, along with some of the local beer hall food. What kid doesn’t love wurst and pretzels? The crowd was varied and we were by no means the only parents in the bunch. We all had fun and it was no big deal.

That night – and several others on the trip – we found ourselves at the Haufbrauhaus. A little touristy, but historically important and in possession of great brew and pretzels with this mustard I can’t seem to find anywhere else. Did you know – this is a family place! Less so as the night goes on, but you can totally bring kids of all ages here. Our boy enjoyed the pretzels, but not so much the spicy mustard. He tasted the beer. Of all people, we got a lecture from a tourist! The locals were nonplussed.

When we were in Madrid, we went into a smokey tapas bar with our not-yet-one year old. It was pre-dinner tapas and beverages. We looked for the least tourist-friendly looking place amongst a group of bars in an attempt to get authentic food. Inside, I immediately felt awkward and out-of-place. This was our first family trip abroad, after all. But no one gave us a weird look. And guess what? Ten minutes later, a whole family of locals showed up with their young boys, taking a couple tables by the window. Our son enjoyed the Patatas Bravas.

In our travels before and since, our boys have been to all manner of fancy restaurants, bars, beer halls, pubs, and the like. Some places have rules. Some are more comfortable than others. None have been bad experiences – even when we have been kicked out, which is a story for another day.

This beer garden even had a table just for the kids!! They LOVED it!

Enjoying the beer garden in the rain

 

They even had time for a snooze at the beer garden!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The point is simple. There are a lot of things you can do with your kids that you might think are off limits. Things that seem really scary will seem really silly over time. I’ll write about some of them. I’d like to hear about the successes and failures of others. From these stories we can open a whole new world of family-friendly travel experiences.

Decisions, Decisions, Where to Stay….

A hotel, an apartment, a B&B, or a house? There are so many options of where to stay when traveling. We have tried them all. Our all time favorite is an apartment or a house with friends.

We typically travel with friends, and when we do we like to stay together. It is possible to stay together in a hotel but then once it’s time for the kids to go to bed, many adults have to turn in because you can’t just leave the kids. So we like to find a house or an apartment big enough for all of us. Another benefit to staying in an apartment or rental house is the cost savings. We have spent as little as $300 for an entire week per family. No – that isn’t per night, that is for a week. Everyone had their own room and we even had extra space. We don’t always have that much success in cost savings but we always beat the price of the local hotels. That is another reason why hotels are our last choice.

When we went to Ireland, we stayed in this cute little house that had enough room 9 of us (six adults and three kids), with an entire room left over!! We missed these friends though!

We’ve also stayed in apartments, B&B’s and hotels while traveling with friends and family.

We love staying in rental apartments or houses because we have the opportunity to spend even more time with the people we’re traveling with. Hotel lobbies can be an option for hanging out at the end of the day but we’ve found that once the kids are tired, we either have to go to someone’s room sitting on the bed or the floor or we call it a night. But when we stay in an apartment or a house, we can put the kids to bed and then enjoy the company of our friends in the living room or kitchen.

When we stay in a rental we also use the kitchen. During our last trip to Barcelona we spent a few nights having dinner in our apartment kitchen, even a few “first” breakfasts – of course we had to also partake of these lovely morning pastries and coffee at what became our favorite coffee shop – more on that later. But eating in saved us some money, and we didn’t eat typical American fare, we stopped by the local grocery and tried some local cuisine. It was super tasty and the boys LOVED it! We enjoyed it too.

There are lots of other benefits of houses and apartments. You might have washing machine helping you pack light. You don’t have to worry as much about noise – great for two-year-old’s. And you meet some great local people who will require a post or more of their own.

Where have we found these great places to stay? Well, I scour the internet. I love the hunt and planning a trip is half the fun – to me, not to Jeremy or a lot of people I know! We also have friends who also enjoy the hunt of the perfect place to stay. We have found success on the following sites:

www.homeaway.com

www.germanyby.com

www.spain-select.com

www.florenceby.com

www.bedandbreakfast.de

www.shortstay-apartment.com

www.vbro.com