Mazapan in Toledo, Spain

I crave those sun-drenched memories. The ones where it was warm and the lighting was just right, doing something simple with good people.

Our first international trip with our oldest boy was to Madrid. It was March, and we had just a bit warmer temperatures in mind. It was fine when the sun was out, but there were many a chilly moment, including a rain-drenched wait to see the palace (which is a story for another day).

We took a day trip to Toledo, which is a short high speed Ave train ride away from the city. This particular train is also notable for being a time machine, as when you arrive in Toledo it will be the middle ages. With tourist shops. Selling things you don’t need but will find yourself at least glancing at out of the corners of your eyes. We bought the boy a t-shirt. If he had been older he would have wanted one of their finest swords (kids into the idea of knights and stuff would love this place!)

Toledo was once a powerful city, but over the centuries it found itself less the center of attention. This leads to a frozen in time mystique that is perfect for street wandering. The hills and cobblestones don’t make it effortless, especially with a stroller, but it’s more than manageable.

While there, you should visit the cathedral. There is a room that acts as a mini art museum housing a number of works by my favorite artist (El Greco.) I enjoy the use of form and color that is not modern but appeals somehow to my modern art sensibilities. I find art in small doses like this are like a good appetizer. You get a taste but don’t get full. A little art tapa. And its a good amount for kids.

Speaking of food. We needed a snack. We were probably very near starving. Toledo is known, at least in one travel guide we had with us, for a sweet treat called Mazapan. It’s a sugary almond confection, very simple but very rich. I enjoyed it with a Coke, because for some reason I appreciate the sweet on sweet combination of soda and candy. My wife was probably drinking Fanta Lemon. The boy was sticking with milk.

After purchasing the Mazapan in a friendly little shop – a box for our little family and our lovely travel companions to share – we went looking for a place to sit and enjoy the sunshine. We found a tidy simple plaza up the hill just a bit. There was a bench or two, and some nice modest trees just starting to do their spring tree thing.

Did I mention that dappled light coming through the trees makes those sun-drenched memories all the more craveable?

The plaza was all cobblestones and low walls. It was small and empty. Quiet. Far from the city streets of Madrid. Far from real life. Instant memory. It was a memory as we lived it.

Anyway. There was a modern-feeling wall on one end of the plaza. It was out of place, which I liked. I spent a few minutes trying to capture it with a photo. It eluded me.

Mostly we just sat and ate our snack, enjoying. Sweet. We didn’t think to buy any to take home, to try later or to give away, because we often don’t think of those things. Or maybe we thought of it. But we didn’t buy any. We ate what we had and we drank our sugary drinks and we sat as the sun smiled on us.

I’m sure the boy, striking as his memory is, does not recall that afternoon. He was ten months old. But I wonder what he might think when he next visits Toledo, maybe with his kids, with the sun warming a nice spring day. Whether it’ll feel like a memory all at once, whether he’ll have just a little something from the time before, I know I’ll never forget.

We finished our snack and wandered down the rolling hills of the modest city. It was a great day for traveling and for the family. And then we took the train/time machine back to the city for more adventure.

And then a train ride??

My kids never fail to amaze me. They have joined us on more trips than we’ve taken without them and I wouldn’t change that at all. After traveling so much they’ve come to understand the process we follow every time we leave. Not the most unusual going, right? Everyone gets used to the routine but what is great about this is it makes each trip easier.

On our most recent trip standing in line at security on the way home my 2 year old looked at me and said “ride train next?” I was very surprised by the question, taking for granted that he is starting to understand the process of traveling. I did have to explain that we wouldn’t ride a train in that airport but that we would once we landed back home. He accepted the explanation and it was our turn to go through the scanner.

Later, in that same airport, we were standing by the gate and he looked up at me and said “boarding now?” as they began to make the announcements. He knew we had to wait our turn and once they called our number we had to get moving.

These little observations that he’s been making as we travel go a long way to a smoother trip. Our older son knows to watch the seatbelt sign and never tries to get up or take his seatbelt off when it is on. He doesn’t complain if he can’t get up, he understands that’s part of traveling. We’re working on getting our younger son to understand this too but he’s a little ways off. I am looking forward to when he he gets it though! Getting rid of that battle will be awesome!

One thing I try to remember is practice makes perfect and I’m willing to practice as long as it takes!!

Traveling with Kids’ … Car Seats

Our family trip to California is just two days away. The earlier post about buying our youngest a seat for the first time sparked some good questions about the relative merits of traveling with car seats. In LA, we will be renting a car and the car seats will be a necessary evil.

(Side commentary – We’re big supporters of the proper use of car seats. We spend plenty of time and money getting high quality safe seats for our boys, and we use them – always. And we don’t even mind that kids use them until they are 45 these days. I didn’t when I was little, but I’m sure my survival was a fluke :) )

But man oh man, are they a pain to travel with. Why?

Car seats are surprisingly big, bulky and heavy. And better seats generally seem biggest. And they are so awkwardly shaped! Where do you even hang on to the thing? Is it any wonder I don’t want to drag TWO of these things onto a plane? Just getting from the car to the luggage check and back again with other bags is work!

A simple tip for dragging that thing through the parking lot is to tighten up the straps, and tie together the loose ends. The tightened straps make a nice little handle – a place to hold the seat! – and the whole process gets easier.

So now you have to check luggage! We pack light and for short trips generally carry everything on. Car seats end up an exception. This is more about the time spent and the extra stop at the counter than cost. Many carriers don’t charge you for this, unlike bags. And if you or your kids have frequent flier status, they might not charge you for bags. Check with your carrier to see if there is a charge. If so, you could always lug it on the plane if you got a seat. Might as well.

If you check a seat, bring it to the airline counter. Get one of those paper luggage tags and strap it onto the back, on one of the seat straps. Put your name on it. This will probably survive many trips. Then find or ask for a giant plastic bag for car seats. They seem wasteful don’t they? (Is there a reusable equivalent?) Anyway, the nice baggage people need you to stuff the seat in a bag, so get right to it. From there, they give you the baggage claim and off it goes. No more dragging for a few hours.

You wouldn’t want to avoid the bag anyway. The bag will get banged up and torn a bit. Better it than your seat. Even with it, your car seat will probably get dirty at least.

So what about renting a seat when you get there? That would avoid much of the lugging and car seat dirtying. A perfect alternative? Hardly. I have a number of problems with renting a seat:

- Where’s it been? Are you sure it hasn’t been in an accident? Some experts caution the purchase of used car seats, and I would thing similar caution has to be applied to renting one. I’m sure the broad majority of car rental establishments are careful about safety and inspect the seats. But I just don’t know.
- And will be it clean? Our one experience renting a seat was positive in this regard, but I’ve read some less flattering reviews.
- Will they have one the proper size for you to reserve? Will it be there when you get there? There is similar risk in checking a seat, as anyone who has had a bag lost knows. But I do get paranoid that I’d go to pick up my car and they wouldn’t have a seat. That would be unpleasant.
- If you’ve used a car seat, you know there is adjustment to get it to fit your kid right. With your own seat you don’t have this extra step. And unfamiliar seats can be worse. We once had a seat delayed on a return flight from Ireland (back to my earlier point about the risks of checked luggage) and the airline gave us a loaner for the night. It was a fine seat, but we struggled to figure that thing out and get it installed properly in the car.
- Lastly, and most importantly. As a family who considers themselves relatively frugal travelers, the price can’t be justified. After just a few days of renting a seat, you could BUY one. One you know and trust. One you’ve hand selected for its safety and features.

So that’s my opinion. So let’s assume you’ve made the right choice and are bringing your own seat. One more tip – if you have a spare seat, use that. We have a spare set that we use for my parents because they watch the boys quite often. That set is very handy for trips because it’s a bit less expensive making it less to worry about and also significantly lighter than our primary set. Encountering a problem would be less of logistical problem than with our primary set when we got home. And it means we don’t have to uninstall or reinstall the seats in our home airport parking lot which makes for a quicker load time when we get home and are tired. So if you are bringing your own seats, consider your backup seats.

(Thought – Does anyone know of seats that are especially well suited for travel? Either because of their size/shape or their portability. I’ve seen some gimmicky looking stuff, and I wonder if anyone has tried something that worked well.)

I’ve saved my best tip for last. If at all possible – don’t bring a seat! This is the method we employ on almost all of our European trips, and some American ones too.

If you are using public transportation – trains, buses, subways – you won’t need a seat. Many Europeans cities, and even day trips way out of town, are easily accessible this way. Plan your trip around public transportation to save not only cost, but the hassle of car seats.

Even in New York, we’ve skipped seats. There was a cab ride and a car service from the airport involved. We called ahead to make sure a seat wouldn’t be required. It was a little scary, but it was really fine and saved us seat lugging for 10 minutes of total driving. Just like when I was a kid. Please do note that this can backfire on you. In Berlin, I did get kicked out of a cab for not having a seat for our one year old at the time. Our older boy, then 3, was fine due to the cabbie having his own booster to use. We found a train instead and all was fine.

Hopefully with these tips you can make an informed choice about traveling with the car seat. As much of a pain as it can be, it’s far from a deal breaker. You will probably feel like a pro in no time with the tips above. Happy travels, see you after California!

PS – back to the safety of a car seat on a plane. Some seats aren’t designed for lap belts only, so I bet they aren’t all that safe in that context anyway. AND you have to be sure that your seat is FAA approved (it says it on the side of the seat) and you have to show the flight attendant on your way in or they’ll make you check the seat anyway. Heather says you can’t even have boosters on planes because they only have lap belts and boosters are designed to work with shoulder belts. One more reason to enjoy the lap child while you can!