Turkish Family Travels: Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar (Without Being Ripped Off..)

Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravelThis post appears as part of our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series, chronicling a fun fall fling in the city of Istanbul.

Getting ripped off is one sure-fire way to ruin your holiday, and the Grand Bazaar is the best place in Istanbul to do just that.

Middle Eastern cultures are famous for haggling, the custom of arguing over a price before agreeing on the final amount. True, it’s much more work than buying items at fixed prices. But, when in Turkey, do as the Turkish do.

The problem is that if you’re reading this, you’re probably not Turkish which means your Turkish haggling skills probably leave much to be desired.

So, how do you learn to bargain like a pro and avoid handing over too many Liras to a smooth-talking shop owner?

That was the very question I needed to answer for myself. I scoured articles, posts, and guide books for the best tips. Some of the advice was contradictory (be the first customer – no, you should be the last!). But, surprisingly, most of the suggestions worked like a charm.

Read on to find out how you can get the best prices in the Grand Bazaar.

Prepare Yourself

Haggling with experienced merchants is not for the faint of heart… nor for those hungry or in a hurry. Set aside a fixed amount of time you are willing to devote to a shopping excursion.

Eat a decent meal beforehand, and bring sustenance. Trust me, you do not want to go into this hangry.

Also, if you’re somehow able to secure a map of the Grand Bazaar, this will help you find your way out of what should really be dubbed the Grand Maze.

If you’re curious, here is the map I used. (not an affiliate link)

Decide What You REALLY Want

I have two absolute favorite Middle Eastern artisan objects – lanterns and decorative plates. I knew I wanted to buy several lanterns and at least one plate to adorn our new home (wherever in the world that ended up being). I wasn’t sure what else I wanted to buy, but I was fairly certain I could skip the tchotchkes and cheap imitation designer clothing.

If you don’t know what you are looking to buy in the Grand Bazaar, I highly recommend browsing the shops. Preferably, this would be on a day or during a time other than that which you’ve set aside for actual shopping.

Without this step, you may find yourself obligated to take home that shimmery belly dancing outfit and matching sultan costume.Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravel

Do Your Homework

Okay, so you’re well-fed and armed with your list plus a fistful of Lira. Time to start bargaining, right?


First, you need to establish what the going rate is for each item on your list. I did this by wandering through the stalls, fixing my eyes only on those adorned solely with lanterns. When I found a lantern I might like, I used this formula:

  1. Ask the price of an item you do NOT want first.
  2. Ask the price of an item different from the first, and preferably smaller and/or cheaper.
  3. Ask the price of the item you are actually interested in buying.
  4. Politely thank the proprietor, and walk away.

I repeated this in multiple shops until I had an idea of the going rate for lanterns that I liked. In the questioning phase, I learned valuable background information such as the different metals used for making lanterns and that blown glass lanterns are of better quality and more expensive. I also was able to look at a wide variety of lamps that helped me narrow down the options and know exactly what I wanted to buy.Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravel

Expert tip: Avoid the shops that advertise “Fixed Price.” These shops are designed for tourists not skilled in bargaining who just want to pay a certain sum and be done with it. You’ll end up paying much more than the items are worth. And, really, you CAN do this bargaining thing.

Deflect the Charm

During your research phase, you’re going to hear a lot of schmooze from the mouths of the shop keepers. Your money keeps them in business, and they are not shy about going after it.

As an introvert, this really wore me down. I just wanted to browse in peace and quiet. I’m content to be ignored by German shopkeepers; but, this is simply not the way things work in Istanbul.

Be polite, but firm. And, under no circumstances should you sit down to tea with a vendor if you do not intend to make a purchase!

Name Your Price

When you have a decent data set for your coveted item(s), decide how much you are willing to pay. However, this number is top secret and should be known only to you. Burn it into your mind, because you’re going to need it in a few minutes.

Take a deep breath, and approach the merchant with confidence. Follow the first formula mentioned above, always asking about several items instead of only the one you actually intend to buy.

The price he offers you (and it’s always a he) will be massively inflated, and your job is to talk him down. Here are the steps I followed to negotiate a reasonable selling price:

  • Ask the price of several items as described in the first formula. Do NOT show special interest in the object of your desire.
  • When he offers you a price, slash it by about 60%. The first price you offer should be lower than what you are actually willing to pay. For instance, if you thought it was worth 50, offer 40.
  • Use phrases like, “It’s a beautiful piece, but my budget is only 40.” Or, “I would really like to buy it, but I was only looking to spend 40.”
  • He will counter your offer. Keeping with the aforementioned numbers, if you offered 40, he may counter 60. At this point, you can either make another offer or politely decline and either ask about another piece (starting the process over) or walk away.
  • Prepare your second offer. To do this, you have two options. First, you could stick to your original offer to see if he comes down any. He might offer you 50. Or, you can up your offer, and say something like, “It’s a lovely piece. Would you be able to do 45?”

The second offer sometimes turns into a third offer or even a fourth. The pressure can build, and you can find yourself emotionally involved in the negotiation. If this happens, simply tell the seller you need a moment to think about it.

Take Ten

Remember that secret price you decided on before entering the shop? It’s time to bring that number to mind.

Evaluate the negotiation that has already taken place. Is the owner willing to agree to an amount less than your secret price? Are you willing to go a bit above it? Only you can answer the second question, but it’s important not to let the pressure of the situation push you over-budget.

You can always walk away and try again with another shop. You can even come back later to the same merchant if no other stall offers the same piece (which actually is rather rare).

The most important thing to remember is that YOU need to be satisfied with the price you end up paying.Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravel

Did I get the most amazing deal on the lanterns I bought? Honestly, I have no idea. But, I do know that I talked the shopkeepers down significantly and paid what I thought the pieces were worth.

Whether I got the best price or not, I’ll never know. However, I am confident I got the price that I was comfortable paying and have no regrets about my purchases. That’s what matters.

Bribery and Coercion

This last one has nothing to do with salespeople and everything to do with little people. I’m guessing by this point, you’re thinking the whole thing sounds completely exhausting.

Guess what? You’re right.

And if you feel that way, imagine how the little ones with you are going to fare during your negotiations. Mutiny is the word that comes to mind.

I highly advise talking with your children in advance about the proposed activities of the day.

Explain that you’ll be looking for (lanterns), and ask for their help spotting (lanterns). Be honest and tell them that it might take a while to find the most special one for the best price.

If you know how long you intend to spend in the Grand Bazaar, tell them. And then describe what kind of reward they’ll receive if they help you buy the perfect (lantern) by behaving well while you talk to the shopkeeper.

We used one big reward at the end of the day (I’m sorry to say it was eating dinner at McDonalds), and several smaller rewards in the meantime.

If they have a handheld toy or book, bring it. Just keep in mind that the floors of the Grand Bazaar are icky at best, so don’t plan anything that requires rolling around on the ground.

Pack snacks and water. This is battle, and you definitely don’t want to go in unprepared.Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravel

But, What About the Spice Market?

You may have noticed that I haven’t whispered any expert tips on shopping at the Spice Market. That’s because I found it to be overly touristy with virtually no Turkish people shopping there. All the shops featured the same products; I could find nothing unique from one stall to the next.Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravel

If spices are what you’re after, head outside of the Spice Market and make your way to the west side. There, you’ll find more shops selling spices and other Turkish delicacies and Turkish customers.

Just hold your nose – the fishy aroma is on the potent side.

Wrapping Up

Is shopping at the Grand Bazaar as stressful as it sounds? Absolutely.

There is no question that scoring the most beautiful lanterns or the most intricately decorate plates is going to be tense and tedious. But, if you know this going in, and you arm yourself with the techniques above, you can have a successful – maybe even enjoyable?! – haggling experience.

Have you visited or lived in a culture where haggling is the norm? What strategies have worked for you?Signature Thrifty Travel Mamafirst image credit

Thrifty Tricks for Using Your Smart Phone While Travelling

Even though I have a Pinterest board dedicated to Travel Apps for Kids & Families, I have a confession to make.. I don’t use travel apps very often. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have an iPhone (yet), or perhaps it’s because I feel overwhelmed by zillions of options and little time to explore them, but I’ll admit I’m completely behind the times in this area.

So, I am thrilled to not only share today’s guest post with you but also to read and learn for myself about the thrifty ways you can use your smart phone while traveling.

The tips and tricks below are written by my friend and fellow travel planning nerd, Nancy. She’s currently a part-time expat and the inspiration behind many of our family’s hikes and outdoor adventures.

“Now, where do we go?”

Invariably, our arrival at any new destination starts with this question. My husband and son look at me as they ask, confident that I—omnipotent mommy and family travel planner—will have the answer for them.

In response, I whip out my not-so-secret weapon against the unknown: my iPhone.

Smart phones are the perfect travel tools. With a smart phone in your backpack, you have a compass, a GPS, a star gazing tool, an elaborate gaming system, a camera and a library of hundreds of books on a device that weighs less than a pound. (We’ve come a long way from the days when I would tear out irrelevant pages in my travel guide to reduce the weight of my pack.)

Perfect, right? Well, almost.

Smart phones come with one major limitation while travelling. Once you are outside the area covered by your local cellular provider, downloading and sending data, making phone calls, and sending text messages can get (really) expensive. We’ve all heard the stories of unfortunate souls who have forgotten this and ended up with an outrageous cell phone bill.

Top 3 thrifty tips for using your smart phone while travelling abroad:

1)   Ask your cellular service provider if they have special international rates. Sometimes you can buy an international package that will reduce the costs for phoning and texting and will allow you a limited amount of data use abroad.

2)   Buy prepaid local SIM cards when you land at your destination. These are usually found in supermarkets, drug stores, or kiosks all over the world. Use Google or a local expat forum to find out where to buy SIM cards, average rates, and recommended brands.

3)   Simply turn off the cellular roaming data option on your phone and avoid making or receiving phone calls or text messages. (In other words, don’t answer any phone calls or texts.) Also, double check with your cellular service provider that you won’t be charged for incoming calls or texts, even if you don’t answer them.

Surprisingly, turning off the cellular data and ignoring the phone functions of my iPhone has been a good solution for me, especially when I have decent access to Wi-Fi to ease the pain of disconnection.

And, the lack of a cellular data plan doesn’t mean that you have to leave your phone at  home while you are out and about. There are some easy ways to use your smart phone even when you don’t have a local plan or data abilities.

Four great tricks for using your smart phone without a data connection:

1)   Use offline maps and navigation systems like Mapswithme and TomTom.

The GPS on your smart phone likely works even when you don’t have cellular data coverage. (You can Google the make and model number of your smart phone to check if your device has this ability).

To use the GPS system without cell access, you also need to have an offline map. There are offline maps available for most destinations, but our favourite offline map app is Mapswithme, an open source map system that covers most of the world.

Once you have downloaded the Mapswithme app, you then individually download the country maps that you will need on your trip. This feature allows you to choose only the maps you need in order to save space on your device.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

The blue arrow shows your location on the map.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

You can zoom into a high resolution view.

We have used this app to mark destinations like parking lots and trail heads; and we use it constantly when we are walking around a new place to find anything of interest. Mapswithme has saved us several times from taking the wrong turn while on a ramble through a new city.

Mapswithme also has lots of hiking and biking trails on it, which has been very helpful to us in New Zealand, North America, and Europe. My husband and I used the app on an overnight hike in New Zealand as a distance guide.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

You can drop a pin on the map and then click on it to see how far away you are. The distance from your pin is shown underneath your arrow. Unfortunately, we are very far away from New Zealand right now.

You can place a pin on any destination and when you click on the pin, the info screen will tell you how far away you are from the pin in a direct line. You can also upload a trail map or travel route to Mapswithme and monitor your progress on a trip.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

You can upload trails and routes to Mapswithme.

This app does have one major limitation: It doesn’t provide spoken directions when driving.

When we do need navigation help for driving, we use an offline navigator from TomTom. This is an expensive app, but it has proven useful several times and was well worth the value. Mapswithme is a good companion to the TomTom app. If I’m unsure of where TomTom is leading us, I double check with Mapswithme.

2)   Download offline travel guides with Scribd.

I use Scribd, a subscription-based app that lets me download an unlimited number of books for a very reasonable price (under $10 per month). The Scribd library includes all of the Lonely Planet guides, and other travel guides as well.

On a recent trip to Provence, I downloaded the Lonely Planet guide for this area onto my phone before we left. When we visited a new city, I would look up the city in the guide, choose the most important sights, and take advantage of the highly detailed maps in the book to figure out where we needed to start and what we wanted to see.

In addition, I use Scribd extensively just for reading. Imagine taking your local public library with you on a trip. Bonus!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

A list of all of the travel books that I have downloaded to my device in Scribd.

3)   Store travel plans and electronic tickets in Google Drive.

I usually make extensive travel itineraries for my family. It helps me know who has to be where and when. But I don’t like carrying paper. Google Drive is a service that lets you store and access documents from any computer or device. I create a folder for our trip in Google Drive, and I upload a detailed itinerary and all of the reservation and ticket documents to this folder.

To ensure that I have access to our travel documents even when I don’t have a data connection, I open the Google Drive app on my phone, open the documents I might want to access, and check off the option which will prompt the system to keep on offline version on my device. I’m sure that this would also work with other online storage systems like Dropbox .

The advantage of storing your documents in Google Drive or Dropbox is that you can access them in a pinch from any device or computer.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

My travel folder in Google Drive.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

Offline versions of boarding passes. Note that I have checked the “Keep an online version” option.

4)   Find free Wi-Fi.

I’ve become good at finding free Wi-Fi when I need to really connect. Free Wi-Fi is less common in Europe and New Zealand than in North America, but it does exist. For instance, Starbucks in Germany offers a free connection for two hours. This does help take the edge off life without a good Internet connection.

I have used the Wi-Fi Finder app, but have found it to be out-of-date. I’ve had better luck just keeping my eyes open. A couple of weeks ago in Switzerland, we visited Chillon, a medieval castle and popular tourist destination that offered free Wi-Fi with the price of admission.

Although I do prefer to be connected to the Internet at all times (like every minute of the day!), I have found travelling without a data connection to be possible and even preferable as I’m not constantly worried about how much money I’m spending every time I check the map.

And I’m still always able to tell my family where we are and where we should head to next!

So, how do you use your smart phone while travelling? Any other tricks to share?

Nancy (aka Twigg3d) is a Canadian traveller, writer, teacher and iPhone addict. In recent years, she has been travelling with her husband and son back and forth between Canada, Germany and New Zealand. Anyone who knows her will find it hard to believe that she can survive without the Internet even for a minute.




IKEA Hack: Expedit Lego Duplo Table with Storage

Thrifty Travel Mama | Ikea Hack: Lego Duplo Building Table with Storage Made From Ikea Expedit ShelvingWelcome back reader friends!  I trust you’ve had a nice long holiday break, wherever in the world you are.  We spent a wet week in Paris (more on that later), and now I’m dealing with a very particular toddler who has decided two naps per day is tooooo many.  Oh, joy.

Luckily, the little stinker has found his happy place smashing up his Christmas present – a Lego Duplo table that Doc Sci and I made from an Ikea Expedit shelf.

I was inspired by the Lego Playhouse I saw here.  However, I had a slightly different vision of what would work better for our family and apartment.  I wanted the table to include space for storage, and I wanted it mobile.

I absolutely loved making this gift for the boys, and I know your kids would be thrilled to receive this, too.  So, today I’m sharing how we did it.


*The large Lego Duplo building plates are too big to fit on the lower shelves (but, they are perfectly sized for the top!).

We could’ve bought them anyway and cut them to fit, but I wanted a lower stress option (what if the cut looked bad?  What about the rounded corners?).  We found smaller boards on ebay (none available on amazon!).  The size I used is 12×16 knobs as seen below.Thrifty Travel Mama | Ikea Hack: Lego Duplo Building Table with Storage Made From Ikea Expedit ShelvingActually, I bought all the Lego Duplo building plates on ebay.  Those suckers are crazy expensive, and I knew my boys wouldn’t care if a few of the knobs showed a bit of wear and tear.

Assemble the Shelf

First things first – put your Ikea Expedit shelf together!  I don’t think you need much help here – the shapeless nonverbal figures in the instructions should tell you everything you need to know.

Add the Wheels

Wheels are completely optional.  I wanted them because we have a very small apartment, and Big Foot takes a 3-4 hour nap in the boys’ room.  I thought it would be nice for the older boys to not have to carry out armfuls of toys to play with while the little one sleeps. Thrifty Travel Mama | Ikea Hack: Lego Duplo Building Table with Storage Made From Ikea Expedit ShelvingJust as a side note, it’s not necessary to use Ikea’s casters.  If you find wheels that suit your fancy elsewhere, just use those.

Again, I was going for low stress.  The wheels are competitively priced (at least in Germany), fit the Expedit shelf perfectly, and have a locking wheel which is crucial if you don’t want your playhouse running away from you.

A drill is handy to have when attaching the wheels, but it’s not critical.  Doc Sci was too lazy to bring ours up from the cellar, so he used good old fashioned elbow grease.

Glue the Boards

Decide where you want to position the boards, and glue them down one by one.  A few tips…

  • If you bought used boards, clean them first before gluing!  I totally forgot to do this (you can see it in the photo), and it was a pain in the you-know-what to scrub in between those little knobbies after they were cemented down.
  • It’s helpful to have two people glue the boards simultaneously in case you need to shift them slightly to ensure proper spacing.
  • Use Duplo bricks to attach adjacent boards together (see second photo below).  This will ensure you get the spacing correct.  If you glue the boards with the edges flush, they will be too close!
  • Pile heavy books on the boards while the glue dries overnight.  Keep the Duplo bricks in place during this time, too.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Ikea Hack: Lego Duplo Building Table with Storage Made From Ikea Expedit ShelvingThrifty Travel Mama | Ikea Hack: Lego Duplo Building Table with Storage Made From Ikea Expedit Shelving

Add Storage and Decorate

Zip your bins together, and fill them with your bricks.  I put a few extra of the bigger building plates in one of the bins so that play didn’t have to be confined to the table.  They do fit, but only at an angle.

I attached some colorful 2×2 Duplo bricks around the edges for decoration and to encourage “out of the box” play.Thrifty Travel Mama | Ikea Hack: Lego Duplo Building Table with Storage Made From Ikea Expedit Shelving

I liked the idea of laminating paper scenes and placing them inside the middle shelf.  However, I didn’t have time to do this, and I wanted to see how my boys would use the table first.

If I end up adding the pictures, I’ll use velcro tabs on the back of the laminated sheets so they can switch them out.  I’m thinking they would love the ability to rotate between airport, fire station, police station, post office, zoo, construction zone, and city scenes.

I added some vehicles, buildings, and people (all from ebay, of course) to make the gift super sweet for them.Thrifty Travel Mama | Ikea Hack: Lego Duplo Building Table with Storage Made From Ikea Expedit Shelving

And… You’re Done

That’s it – easy peasy!

We gave the boys this table as a joint gift.  We’re resisting the draw of the regular, smaller Legos as long as possible since Big Foot still puts everything in his mouth.  My hope is that this table will help the Duplos remain cool just a bit longer.  So far, so good!

Would your kids like this table?  What other variations can you think of to customize it for your family?Signature-Marigold

Ten Things You Need to Do RIGHT NOW Before You Travel Abroad

This post was originally published as a guest post on a friend’s photography blog. Unfortunately, her blog is no longer active, but you can still read the tips below!

Thrifty Travel Mama | 10 Things You Need to Do RIGHT NOW Before You Travel Abroad

So You Want To Hop the Pond – 10 Things You Need to Do RIGHT NOW

Travel can be stressful, even if you’re going alone. Add a spouse and one or more kids in the mix, and you could be in for a wild ride. I’ve continued traveling since my first child was born in 2007, and I can tell you from experience that a little planning goes a long way.

Maybe you’ve gone to Grandma’s with the kiddos or to a family reunion a few states away. But, now you’re thinking of taking the kids to Europe. Are you crazy!? If the idea scares you because you simply don’t know where to start but secretly thrills you anyway, take a deep breath and read on.

Before you go anywhere, you’ll need to do some homework. Let me walk you through 10 very important things you need to do right now before you even buy tickets to “hop the pond” as they say.


Get a Passport. You might still be able to enter Canada or Mexico without a passport, but no airline will allow you to fly internationally without one.   It’s important to remember that each family member needs their own passport, babies included. Processing times can vary, but I would allow at least 3 months to receive your completed passport book.

Download the passport application forms you need online in advance here. Save time, money, and stress by taking your passport photos at home for free. (Want to know how? Click here!) Gather the required documents and head to the nearest courthouse (or make an appointment at a post office).   Don’t sign the application just yet – you’ll need to take an oath in front of a federal employee and then add your signature.

Remember that each person applying for a passport needs to appear in person to take the oath and sign the document. If your child is the applicant, BOTH parents must be present or you must bring a notarized letter detailing the absent parent’s consent.


Make a Budget. An amazing vacation provides your family with memories that last a lifetime. But, let’s make sure that the memories are all that remain after you return home. Don’t take a vacation you can’t afford. It’s fine to put your expenses on a credit card (and it’s actually wiser to do so especially if you have a special credit card such as World Mastercard with added travel benefits). But do yourself a favor and make sure you have enough funds to pay off the bill when it arrives.

Flights will vary widely, so use Bing Travel to give you an idea of the cheapest ticket in recent history as well as the average economy fare.

But what about a hotel or vacation rental? Will you take public transportation? Rent a car? How much will you spend on meals? Souvenirs? Entrance fees? An awesome resource for determining costs in major cities around the world is The Price of Travel. Select a continent, country, and city from the navigation bar, and you can easily view the price of meals, accommodations, and attractions.

Don’t forget to add the cost of parking your vehicle at the airport (or taxi ride), additional insurance (see below), weather appropriate clothing, luggage (if you need it), pet boarding, as well as en route meals and entertainment to your list.


Start Saving. Are you overwhelmed already? Don’t be! Now comes the fun part. How can you be creative and find ways to save up for your adventure? Take a good look at your every day expenses and make some changes.

Could you get rid of cable and live with just Netflix for 6-12 months? That could cover your rental car and gas right there. Do you get your hair cut every 6 weeks? Could you stretch it to every 8? You may have just found the money to purchase necessary luggage. Do you budget for clothing? Consider stashing it away and shopping when you get to Europe instead. What about eating out? Squirrel away the money you give to the pizza guy so you can splurge on an Italian feast in Italy instead. Could you give the kids a travel experience this year instead of electronic gifts?

These are just a few ideas – the main thing to remember is to be creative in how you stretch your means.

Where do you want to go? You probably don’t need any help with this one. Everyone has a dream of where in the world they’d like to find themselves some day. Make a short list of places you love, and ask the rest of your family to do the same. Have everyone agree on three destinations, and then research each one before making a decision (more on that below).

How long can you be gone? Consider time off of work, school holidays, boarding your pet, and your budget.

Research entry requirements. Some countries are a breeze to enter (hello, Germany). Others are a big more strict (sorry, UK). Still others are literally invitation only (uh, Russia). Other than your passport, what is required at immigration control? You might need proof of onward travel, sufficient funds, or immunizations. Some countries in Africa, Asia, and South America require insist that you be vaccinated against specific diseases and that you carry proof in the form of a little yellow international health book.   Find out exactly what’s required at your destination here. In addition to all that, you might need a visa. Speaking of…

Do you need a visa? What are the requirements? Wait, first, what’s a visa? It’s not a credit card; it’s special permission to visit/live/work in a country. As with the entry requirements, some countries are relaxed about visas – you can purchase one upon arrival.   Others have a complex system and very strict rules about how to obtain one. Find out what you need here.

Consider travel insurance. There’s a saying, “If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.” It’s a nice mantra, but truth be told, I don’t purchase it every time. Policy rates will be more if you have something called trip cancellation. Trip cancellation means just that – you have an emergency that causes you to cancel your trip (think your son stole third but ended up with a broken leg). In this case, the covered expenses (usually airfare and hotel) will be covered by the policy.

Check your health insurance. Generally, American health insurance does not cover medical expenses overseas. They may reimburse a few costs, but it’s a good rule to just consider your policy completely useless abroad. I have purchased – and like, but luckily never used – Travelex insurance. Keep in mind that if you plan on taking part in any kind of high risk activities like bungee jumping or if you are pregnant, you’ll need a special (code word for expensive) policy.

Note that many, but not all, travel insurance policies include health insurance. Examine your coverage closely.

One more word of advice – if you’re going to spend the money for supplemental health insurance, make sure you have emergency evacuation coverage. This means that if you find yourself in a third-world hospital, you can be airlifted to the nearest western hospital for better care on the insurance company’s dime.


Have an emergency plan in place. Family vacations are meant to be filled with happy memories. But tragedies can and do happen. Protect your family by ensuring you have an up to date will, power of attorney, and guardianship for your children. Establish an emergency contact at home that knows what should happen in case of the unthinkable and provide them with a copy of your itinerary and any other necessary documents.

My hope is that this list gives you the confidence you need to move forward and plan an amazing family vacation abroad! If you have any questions on what I’ve discussed here today, please feel free to leave them in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer. Happy travels!




DIY: Map Flower Wall Art

Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtEvery now and again, I just need something new in my home to make me smile… a cheerful little reminder that there’s more to life than diapers and dishes.

The easiest fix for me is to print out some recent family photos and update my gigantic cork board.  This time, though, I decided I wanted to make some wall art using a map from our Salt Lake City trip.

This cute flower canvas inspired the design for today’s DIY project.  However, I don’t own a hot glue gun, and I didn’t have a canvas lying around.  Being thrifty and all, I hunted for a canvas substitute.  The answer?  A shoe box lid!  Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtTo make your own map flower wall art, you’ll need a large shoe box lid (mine was from a boot box), a roll of brown paper, an old map, scissors, tape, and a glue stick.  That’s it!Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtStart by cutting a length of brown paper several inches larger than the lid.

Optional step: I wanted my lid to stay in place, so I covered all but a two inch strip around the edge with my glue stick.  Then, I smoothed the brown paper over the lid, glue side down.

Wrap up the lid like you would wrap a gift.  I used my glue stick as well as a little tape to secure the edges of the paper to the back of the lid.  Now your “canvas” is ready to go.Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtFor the flower petals, cut 2″ strips from your map, and then cut each strip into 2″ squares.  Perfectionists will be glad to know it’s not imperative to measure or cut exactly.  Eyeballing is acceptable in this case.Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtNow, cut leaves from the map squares by starting at one corner and cutting a wide curve that extends to the opposite corner.  Repeat the wide, corner-to-corner curve on the other side of the square.  Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtYou could also fold the square in half diagonally if you only wanted to make one cut per square.  I didn’t want a fold down the center of my flower petals, so I made two cuts per square.

Once you have a pile of petals, it’s time to design your flower.  Choose a center point, and place petals in a circular pattern extending out from the center point.

Layouts will vary based on the size and shape of your shoe box lid.  Since my lid happened to be more of a long rectangle, I added a few detached petals in the empty space.

When you’re satisfied with your design, use a glue stick to adhere the petals to the lid, one by one.  Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtSince this is a map flower, I thought a small compass would be perfect for the center.  I found a small compass printed on the map itself, but you could also draw one directly on the brown paper.

To up the adorable factor (and, ahem, cover up the AAA logo), cut out a small heart and place it in the center of the compass.  Glue the heart to the compass and the compass to the lid.  Thrifty Travel Mama - DIY Map Flower Wall ArtVoila!  An inexpensive, pretty little pick-me-up ready to hang on the wall in your home.

Want more map crafts?  Check out my DIY Map-Covered Pencil Holder. and discover lots of other ideas on my Travel Crafts and Projects board on Pinterest.Signature-Marigold

Four Tips for Planning a Travel Itinerary with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama Tips for Creating a Travel Itinerary with KidsI am often asked for tips on how to put together an itinerary when traveling with kids, so this is the beginning of a new series of Tips & Guides to Traveling with Kids.  Below, I’ve outlined a few basic – but very important! – rules that I live by when planning a trip with my three boys.

The absolutely-positively-totally-do-not-forget-it, number one rule of creating an itinerary with kids is this: keep your expectations rock bottom low Even the best behaved, most amazing, awesomely angelic children surprise us in unexpected, and sometimes shocking ways when taken out of their element and plucked in a foreign place.

By the way, if you have kids as I’ve just described, send them my way.  I’ll take them on vacation myself!

Could your kids last several hours in a fascinating – to you – museum?  Maybe.  But chances are if their routine is out of whack (and it almost always is when traveling), they probably won’t.  Sometimes their behavior isn’t even the issue; maybe that delicious street food you had for dinner last night is wreaking havoc right next to da Vinci.  You just never know.

In light of this, here are four more guidelines to help you determine your ideal vacation itinerary.

Keep Them Interested

The first thing I do in itinerary planning is make a list of everything I am interested in exploring.  I rank the list of attractions, shops, restaurants, etc. according to importance.

Next, I make another list of things that my children enjoy (such as swimming, hiking, going to the playground, etc.).  Google “(your destination), (activity), kids” or “(your destination) with kids” to see what fun activities are possible for them.

Visiting the Museum was something I knew my boys would enjoy.

Visiting the National Air and Space Museum was something I knew my boys would enjoy.

When I have my lists, I pick ONE thing from each list to do per day.  Yep, only one.  Most likely that’s all you’ll successfully accomplish – and even the successfully part is not guaranteed.

Your compilation will vary greatly with your personal interests as well as with the age of your children.  Some things I blacklist when traveling with a baby, a preschooler, and a kindergartener are museums, organized tours, places where children MUST be quiet, fancy places with breakable objects, expensive restaurants, and attractions with potential danger for children.

Hiking Hallasan was something Doc Sci and I really wanted to include in our visit to Jeju-do.

Hiking Hallasan was something Doc Sci and I really wanted to include in our visit to Jeju-do.

Families with older children probably won’t need to blacklist anything.  Also, the interests of older children will be more developed and personal.  I suggest letting each older child make a list of things he or she like to do.  Then, give each of the children a block of time to plan.  You might need to help in the area of logistics, but as much as possible let them come up a realistic itinerary that embraces their unique interests.

Keep Them Happy

Now that you have your ONE thing per day that you are really looking forward to, it’s time to provide some incentive for the kiddos to be on their best behavior.  The rewards for positive attitudes, good behavior, listening, and being patient can range from a simple treat like ice cream or a souvenir from a fun shop to something much bigger such as a visit to the zoo or a water park.

My boys LOVE chocolate.  79 cents for two hours of good behavior is a total bargain.

79 cents for two hours of good behavior is a total bargain.

It’s definitely okay – and encouraged! – to use attractions from the kid’s list as incentive.  I’d steer away from threatening (“If you don’t keep quiet, I’m not taking you to Legoland.”), and instead just keep it positive (“I can see you’re trying hard to be quiet.  Keep up the good work, and we’ll have fun at Legoland together when we’re finished with this exhibit.”).

How about a visit to an animal park or zoo as a reward?

How about a visit to an animal park or zoo as a reward?

How and when you use these incentives is up to you.  Sometimes I find that telling my boys too far in advance that they will get to go to a fun kids restaurant for lunch results in me having to listen to, “When are we going to the restaurant?” three hundred and fifty times in a span of about ninety minutes.  I usually let their best morning behavior run its course before reaching in my virtual bag of tricks to pull out a reward.

Keep Them Fed & Hydrated

It seems rather obvious to feed your children, right?  But, it bears repeating since every parent knows the horror of a hunger-induced public meltdown.  Get a good breakfast in your kids, and then set out to do your one thing.

We usually have a picnic or eat at the vacation rental for breakfast as well as one other meal per day.  When we eat in restaurants, I scope out the location, type or service, and the menu in advance.

It's rare that we eat at the Golden Arches.  But, when we do, it's a big deal to the kids, and a lot of bang for our buck.  Full tummies and a reward for good behavior all rolled into one.

It’s rare that we eat at the Golden Arches. But, when we do, it’s a big deal to the kids, and a lot of bang for our buck. Full tummies and a reward for good behavior all rolled into one.

Once your itinerary is set, start searching for restaurants that are in the area.  I use Google maps for this, and it works great!  Type in your location, click on the little marker, and then click on “Search nearby.”  Enter in anything from pizza to kids restaurant to Mexican to take-away.

Choose two or three options, and make notes of opening times, address, price range, etc.  I cannot tell you how many times we have gone to try a Mexican restaurant in a new city and it is closed (permanently or temporarily).  Have a backup or two.

Beyond eating out, BRING SNACKS and drinks!  You will inevitably be stuck in a line, on a bus, waiting for a train, on a crowded tarmac.  Special snacks are also good rewards, and they can keep children busy when you are enjoying your ONE thing.

Keep Them Comfortable

Does your family have a daily routine?  Do your little ones still take naps?  Do they have a special nighttime ritual?  Give your kids as many comforts of home as you possibly can while traveling. You won’t be able to totally recreate your home environment while away, but do your best to include some elements.

I often let the boys watch a DVD while I cook dinner, so they enjoyed catching an episode of Thomas the Train in Korean while I prepared rice and dumplings in our kitchenette.

I often let the boys watch a DVD while I cook dinner, so they enjoyed catching an episode of Thomas the Train on Korean TV while I prepared rice and dumplings in our kitchenette.

For instance, my two younger boys still take naps (and the older one and his parents definitely benefit from an afternoon snooze).  Unless there’s something mind blowing happening from 2pm-3:30pm in the city I’m visiting, my boys will be napping in our vacation rental, the car, the stroller, or a backpack carrier.

In line with the very first rule of keeping your expectations rock bottom low, I know that my boys might not actually sleep during nap time.  But, I’ve found that it’s better to give them the opportunity to shut their eyes and the chance to cling to the comfort of their routine.

Do I ever stray from the routine?  You betcha.  But not without a lot of consideration, and I rarely – if ever – will screw up the flow two days in a row.

Keep an Open Mind

Traveling with kids is all about compromise.  It’s vital to balance your wants and needs with theirs.  Tip the scales completely in either direction, and it’s a recipe for some very unpleasant travel memories.

Have a mix of downtime and go-go-go.  If one day contains a frantic hop-on, hop-off bus tour where you’re packing in as many sites as you can, let the next day include a leisurely walk along a river or in a forest followed by a picnic lunch.

Letting boys be boys.

Letting boys be boys.

Find play places where they can let off some steam and take a break from behaving themselves.  Some of the best memories we have of certain destinations are of our boys just having a grand ol’ time on the local playground while Doc Sci and I sat and talked.

Trying out the funky swings in Dublin, Ireland.

Trying out the funky swings in Dublin, Ireland.

None of these guidelines are hard and fast rules.  That’s why they’re called – wait for it – guidelines.  Be willing to be flexible and go with the flow no matter if something amazing or drastic happens.  By using the tips above, you should have everything you need to successfully start planning your next itinerary with kids.Signature-Marigold

DIY: Map Covered Pencil Holder

Thrifty Travel Mama Map Pencil Holder

When I visit a new place, I always bring a map.  Whether it’s a custom one I’ve created in Google Maps or a traditional printed one I’ve purchased or picked up from a tourist office, I’m never without directions in my pocket.

But once I get home, I usually just shove the tattered streets in a file for “next time.”  Often I know there won’t be a next time, but I still can’t bring myself to get rid of the old things.  There’s just something about a well worn path with memories of the stops I’ve made.

Well, why not upcycle some of that map stack?  I decided to do just that with these map covered pencil holders.  They are super simple even for non crafty types, and they certainly spice up the bill corner.

Map Covered Pencil Holder Supplies:

  • An assortment of old maps
  • Empty drink cartons, washed and dried
  • Marker
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • A ruler (optional, except for perfectionists)

Thrifty Travel Mama Map Pencil Holder

Start by gathering your milk or juice cartons.  You could also use other types of boxes or even tin cans if you’re going for round pencil holders, but adjusting the height of the containers won’t be as easy if they’re metal.

Thrifty Travel Mama Map Pencil Holder

Make a small horizontal line with your marker where you will cut off the top of the cartons.  Use a ruler to make all the sides even if you’d like.  I made three pencil holders at the same time, and I made them of varying heights.  Be sure not to make them too shallow (pencils will fall out) or too tall (pens will be buried).

Thrifty Travel Mama Map Pencil Holder

Using scissors (or a box cutter), cut off the top of the cartons.  Don’t worry too much (perfectionists) about making the edges amazingly even.  Covering the containers with maps will disguise minor flaws.

Thrifty Travel Mama Map Pencil Holder

Lay your container down on one of the maps and wrap it up like a Christmas gift, tucking the excess map inside the carton.  Use tape to secure.

Thrifty Travel Mama Map Pencil Holder

Repeat for as many pencil holders as your little heart desires.  Stand back and admire how nicely your writing instruments look in Berlin.

For more travel-themed handmade items, check out my Travel Crafts and Projects Pinterest board.

Booking German (Deutsche Bahn) Train Tickets Online

Thrifty Travel Mama | Booking German Train Tickets Online

Help for travelers and traveling families traveling by train in Germany

Are you planning a trip to Germany and need to get around by train?  Then this post is for you!

The German rail system is excellent, and most of the time it is the easiest and most efficient way to travel in country.  Follow along as I walk you through how to book tickets yourself – online at bahn.de.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Here’s the DB (Deutsche Bahn) home page.  Yes, it’s in German, but don’t let that scare you.  It’s rather easy to change the language.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

If you’re English-speaking, I recommend changing the country to Germany.  I’m sure I had a good reason for doing this a few years ago when I started booking tickets online, but I’ve forgotten it by now.  If you prefer to choose USA or UK/Ireland, go for it.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Enter your starting point and destination in the first two fields on the left-hand side of the page.  Select the dates of travel (select Return journey for round-trip), and the times you would like to depart or arrive.

Though it is possible to book a train ticket with more than one destination, I won’t be covering that in today’s post.  If you’d like to try your hand at it, click “Further Search Options,” and enter your stopover(s).

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Now, select the number of passengers in each age range.  It’s important to note that certain discounts can apply if two or more adults are traveling together and if one or more adults are traveling with children.

Awesome news for families – there’s no charge for children five and under!  Children aged 6 to 14 also travel free provided they are accompanied by their parent(s) or guardian(s).  Only enter the number of children five and under if you’d like a seat reservation for them.  I’ll get to seat reservations in a minute, but in case you are wondering at this stage of the game, I always enter my three children in my search whether or I actually reserve a seat or not.

Discounts are only given for those carrying a German BahnCard, Austrian VORTEILScard, Swiss HalbtaxAbo, or a Voordeelurenabo card from the Netherlands.  More on BahnCards below… It’s worth noting that discount cards will be checked on board, so don’t claim to have one if you don’t.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Next, you’re going to see a page with several train options based on the criteria entered on the homepage.  Here are some things to pay attention to!

First, double check the exact name of the station.  Big cities (such as Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, etc.) have multiple Bahnhofs (train stations).  Tief means underground, and refers to a particular part of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof.  Frankfurt Flughafen (Airport) and Frankfurt (Main) Hauptbahnhof are not the same!  However, at the Frankfurt Airport, Fernbahnhof (long distance trains) and Regionalbahnhof (regional trains such as those going to the city of Frankfurt) are two areas of the same station.

Triple check your dates and remember that Europeans use the DD.MM.YY format.

When determining which train to select, the number of changes should be considered.  Ideally, nonstop trains are everyone’s first choice.  But, they may be more expensive or unavailable between the two cities you selected.  From personal experience, if you are making your way to/from an airport with luggage, it is worth it to pay extra for a nonstop train if that is an option.

Total travel time can also be used to narrow down your options.  The main factor in travel time is the type of train used on the route.  Here’s a crash course on a few types of trains you might see:

  • ICE (Inter City Express) trains are the fastest but often the most expensive.
  • IC (Inter City) trains are a little slower than ICE and not as luxurious.
  • RE (Regional Express) and RB (Regional Bahn) are much slower because they make multiple stops along the route.
  • S (S-bahn or Schnell-bahn) are often only used in a regions, not usually between big cities.  They are commuter trains and may have limited seating and facilities.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Another deciding factor for me personally is the amount of transfer time between trains.  Five minutes or less is generally not enough time to shuffle two preschoolers, a baby, a pram, four suitcases, and two frazzled adults from one train to another.  I find ten to fifteen minutes to be ideal.  Any more time than that and the boys start going stir crazy trying to entertain themselves on a very boring train platform.

It’s also worth noting the platform numbers.  If the numbers are, say, 4 and 5, you probably do not have far to go, and a tighter connection may be doable.

Of course, if the train is late, then all bets are off and even your ten to fifteen minute cushion may disappear into thin air.  Not that a German train would ever be late…

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Once you’ve chosen your train, it’s time to take a look at price (or did you start with price and then narrow down from there?).  All routes have standard fares that usually only change once per year.  But, a certain number of tickets on each route are offered at the Savings Fare (also called Sparpreis).

Savings Fares can be up to 50% off and a super deal if you nab them in time.  The best time to secure a Savings Fare is when the route opens, 90 days prior to departure.  After that, it’s anyone’s guess how long they’ll be available.  Savings Fares are not available within 3 days of departure.

Lest you find yourself in shock, I should let you know that the price displayed on the first leg of your itinerary is NOT the full price for the journey.  The full price for both legs will be calculated once both train routes have been selected.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

So since we’re thrifty around here, it seems only right that we’d always choose the Savings Fare if available, right?  Wrong.

Savings Fares come with very specific conditions.  If you book the 9am train from Mannheim to Frankfurt (Main) Hbf and pay the Savings Fare, you MUST take that train, or you lose your ticket.  If you book the 9am train from Mannheim to Frankfurt (Main) Hbf and pay the Standard Fare, then you may take ANY train on that day provided the departure and arrival points are the same (even if the route is slightly different).

When would a Standard Fare be worth the extra money?  In my experience, the only time I have considered coughing up full price is to and from the airport.  Let’s say you arrive on a 12pm flight.  You estimate two hours to clear customs, collect luggage, find the train station, and get yourself to the platform.  But, what if your flight is delayed and you arrive at 1pm instead of 12pm?  Despite your best efforts, you may not make the connection, and Deutsche Bahn is not interested in excuses, only in correct tickets.  Consider the best and worst case scenarios, and choose wisely!

Once in a while, I have seen First Class fares that rivaled (or beat) Second Class Fares.  What is First Class and why would you want to pay more for it?  Here’s an honest review.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

After selecting the fare, you may or may not be given the recommendation to purchase a BahnCard and save immediately.  A BahnCard 25 gives the user 25 percent of all fares, Standard and Savings.  A BahnCard 50 gives the user a 50 percent savings on Standard fares only. 

Should you get a BahnCard?  Well, it depends on if you are a resident (definitely yes) or a visitor (maybe).  The temporary BahnCard (ready to print and use immediately) is normally valid for only 30 days.  The actual BahnCard is then shipped to you (as far as I understand, it’s fine to ship a BahnCard to a foreign address).  If you’re a visitor, you’ll either need to order it in advance so that the card arrives before you depart for Germany, or you’ll need to time the purchase just right so that you will only ever need the temporary card.

I’ve had a BahnCard 25 every year I’ve lived here.  It pays for itself with two roundtrips to Frankfurt Airport.  And for those who are residents with a partner and children, the BahnCard 25 is a sweet deal.  The partner card costs only 10 euros for the year!  You’ll need to visit a DB office in person to apply for a partner card.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Then, choose how to proceed with the booking.  If you don’t plan on booking with DB again, just select “Book without registering.”  Otherwise, subsequent bookings are much faster if you register.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

The most convenient (and cheapest) way to ticket the journey is online via .pdf.  (I have yet to try the Mobile Phone Ticket – this is a new feature since I last used DB in September 2012.)

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Now, it’s time to think about seat reservations.  On the one hand, seat reservations are quite convenient and a blessing when trains are SRO (yes, this frequently happens during peak travel times and holidays).  On the other hand, they cost money, and if the train is empty you may feel like you wasted your cash.

My general rule is to pay for seat reservations on any journey over 2 or 2 1/2 hours, with two exceptions:  traveling alone or during children’s sleep times.  We often have to take the 5am train from our city to the Frankfurt Airport.  I find it best to reserve a compartment, keep the children in pj’s, and then have them lie down across two seats for an hour-long nap.  We have also had the boys nap successfully going to/from Berlin and Hamburg.

What are the different types of seats available?

  • Open Saloon – main compartment.  Seats are similar to airline seats: two across, foot rests, tray tables.  Seats may or may not be facing direction of travel.
  • Open Saloon with table – four seats around a table in the main compartment.
  • Compartment – six seats in a closed cabin.  The four seats closest to the window are around a small table.  The two seats closest to the compartment door have a small side table.  I always chose this type of seat reservation when possible.
  • Parent-and-child Compartment – similar to a Compartment, but slightly larger.  I’ve only ever seen these on ICE trains.  Since there’s only one per train, they book fast.  If you risk having no reservation and want to try to sit here (please do not try this if you do not have children!), the compartment is usually located between the dining car and the first class coaches.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

The next page will show whether or not DB was able to accommodate the seat reservation request.  In this case, the parent-and-child compartment was not available, so alternative seats were assigned.  If you don’t like the seating arrangements provided, go back and select another type.  If no suitable arrangements can be made, it’s up to you whether or not to pay for the reservation.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

DB is as strict as the airlines when it comes to matching tickets with identification cards.  Therefore, it’s of the utmost importance to select a means of ID that you will no doubt be carrying on your person at the time of travel.  Input the name(s) correctly, and double check.  Take note that if you’re using a government-issued ID card, you may not use a credit card to pay for the ticket(s).

The rest is rather simple.  Just enter your personal data, payment method, confirm the details, and purchase.  If you chose online ticketing, the ticket will pop up after payment is processed.  A copy is also sent to the email address you provide on the personal data screen.  Print out the ticket(s), bag your selected form of ID, and show up 10-15 minutes prior to the train’s departure.

Enjoy your trip!

Make Ahead Meals for Small Freezers – The Update!

Whew!  Big Foot has now made it through ten weeks of life!  Only 592,849,107 more to go, right?

Before he made his forgettable debut, I told you about my manic cook-n-freeze frenzyI’m happy to report that almost all of the meals I made turned out very well or at the very least, edible.  I was also super surprised by some pretty awesome friends who brought me some pretty delicious food during Big Foot’s first week before heading off on holiday.

As I was slaving away over a hot stove this summer, sweating it out sans air conditioning, I wondered if all the culinary madness was worth it.  The verdict?  Definitely!  The gifts of friends combined with the bounty in the freezer allowed me to cook almost nothing for a full month!  I can’t even begin to describe the value of having time to just be with my family and adjust to a new baby without having to worry about what in the world I will cook for dinner.

So, without further ado, here is the list from the previous post with my comments on how each item fared following its nap in the depths of the deep freeze.

Freezer Meals I Made

  • Pasta Sauce Great! This is hands down my favorite sauce recipe.  I wish I had made more.  It can be used for pizza, pasta, lasagna, polenta, gnocchi, etc.  I now make a vat of this sauce, multiplying the ingredients by 6!  I’d make even more at a time, but that’s all I can fit in my largest cooking pot.
  • Pueblo Corn Pie I love this meatless main dish.  It reheated well, but I’d recommend defrosting it overnight in the fridge before popping it in the oven.  It sucked way too much energy going straight from the freezer to the oven.
  • Potato Soup This one of two things I have not yet eaten.  But if the Twice Baked Potatoes are any indication, it should turn out just fine.
  • Lasagna Casserole I don’t really like ricotta cheese, but I found myself chowing down on this dish.  Very easy to make, freeze, and reheat in the oven.
  • Homemade Pizza Pockets (but I used Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day dough) These are better reheated in the oven than in the microwave.  Next time I might make half with meat and half vegetarian.
  • Teriyaki Chicken I never got the time to make this and then freeze it.  But I’ve made this meal again and our family really loves it.  It might sound crazy, but try serving it with mashed potatoes instead of rice!
  • Twice Baked Potatoes These take up a lot of room in the freezer.  I thought they were decent but could use a bit more cheese.  My boys didn’t like them, but I’m not sure why since they like potatoes, broccoli, and cheese.  Perhaps it was the potato skin??
  • Black Bean Burgers Cooking these burgers was a nightmare, and next time I will search for another recipe.  I still have not tested them since Big Foot has serious gas issues.  If anyone has a better homemade black bean burger recipe, please leave a comment with a link!
  • Lemony Lentil Soup A regular meal in rotation around here, and it tastes just as good after being frozen.
  • Creamy Turkey Wild Rice Soup I loved this soup, and I can definitely see myself making this a staple during the winter months.  No issues reheating the soup even with the dairy.  It’s a good idea to undercook the veggies as the recipe suggests. 
  • End of Summer Harvest Soup  I have thrown together this super simple slow cooker recipe many times in the past several years, but I was disappointed at how it turned out after being frozen.  The zucchini was mushy to the point of being unrecognizable, and the pasta absorbed most of the soup liquid.  Better to just cook this in the crockpot and eat right away.
  • Corn Chowder I added some black beans to this recipe which most likely contributed to it tasting a little off.  The texture seems grainy and chunky when cold, but it evens out when reheated in the microwave.
  • Lemon Chicken (an old recipe similar to Chicken Piccata without the capers – I froze the chicken separately from the cooked spaghetti and steamed vegetables mixed in with the lemon sauce)  If I did this again, I would only cook the spaghetti for half of the time called for on the package (even less than al dente).  I would also double the sauce and freeze the sauce in one bag and the pasta and chicken in another.  The steamed vegetables turned to mush.  I should have simply parboiled them!  Not a great dish to freeze but still a family favorite.
  • Taco Meat (with lots of extra veggies – I used zucchini, onions, and red bell pepper)  Delicious!  We made a huge baking sheet of nachos with this.  I should have made several bags of taco meat since it can be used for a host of dishes (tacos, burritos, nachos, taco soup, quesadillas, enchiladas, etc.).
  • Marinated, Grilled Chicken (fully cooked)  I undercooked these chicken breasts ever so slightly – smart move.  The reheated chicken was still moist and juicy even after being zapped in the microwave.
  • Roasted Vegetables (zucchini, bell pepper, onion – for quick omelets and vegetarian quesadillas)  We did indeed feast on veggie quesadillas!  I will be making lots of extras whenever we grill this vegetable mix again.  I can see myself tossing them in deep dish pizza, frittatas, soups, paninis, etc.
  • Cooked Black Beans  Convenient, but next time I will freeze in quart-sized bags instead of gallon bags.  Since Big Foot has so much extra wind flying out the behind, we have eaten beans & rice a lot less than I originally anticipated.
  • Cooked Pinto Beans  See above.
  • Salsa I regularly whip up a big batch of salsa and freeze three quarters of it since cilantro is hard to come by ’round these parts.  It does turn out a little watery, but that can be easily drained.
  • Whole Grain Blueberry Muffins  Scrumptious!
  • Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough  Amazing as always.  Freezing ready-to-go balls of cookie dough is pure genius!

In addition to the formidable amount of freezer meals I assembled, I also put together jars of dry ingredients for homemade Hamburger Helper and pancake mix.  I was so impressed by the convenience of these ready-to-cook items that I have continued to refill the jars when they become empty.  In fact, I so love having easy peasy Sunday flapjacks on hand that I’ve got a how-to post coming soon with my go-to pancake recipe.

But perhaps the most remarkable discovery for me during this adventure has been how well baked goods freeze.  After being delightfully surprised by my defrosted blueberry muffins, I have successfully frozen pumpkin muffins, lemon cupcakes, chocolate chip scones, peanut butter cookies, and more.  Sticking half the batch of whatever I bake in the icebox saves waist and waste!

Freezer cooking has truly changed how I manage meal planning in my home.  It’s been a positive experience that I hope will continue to save me time and stress for all those 592,849,107 weeks to come!

Have you tried any of the recipes above?  Let us know how they’ve turned out, or leave a link with your own favorites!

Household Notebook

I finished my Household Notebook – yay!

Well, “finished” as in as complete as any project done by a perfectionist could possibly be.  I’m doing my best to let it be what it was intended – a tool that our family USES – and not merely a piece of art that adorns my desk.

So, what exactly is a Household or Family Notebook? 

Our family’s Household Notebook – turquoise!

I suppose it’s not the same for everyone; but, for us it’s a collection of documents to manage our family “business” better.  It will help me be even more organized, and it should provide valuable information for Doc Sci or anyone else who might need to take over daily affairs for some reason.  It should also provide quick access to vital information during an emergency situation.

I started out researching what other people had in their notebooks (using Pinterest and Google, of course).  I made a huge list of ideas, and then I narrowed that list down to 15 categories.  In those 15 categories, I wrote down items that were appropriate to the category and would be referenced or used frequently.  I then searched for existing templates that I could use as a springboard to design my own documents.

When poking around online, I noticed some people had four binders instead of one.  Other people used their binders exclusively to pay bills and didn’t include anything else like meal planning or personal health records.  I didn’t want my notebook to be a replacement for a file cabinet – but, I also didn’t I want my desk to be overwhelmed with a library of resources.

Ultimately, a Household Notebook needs to be something useful for that particular household.

So, what’s in my notebook?


My 15 categories and a few examples of the documents in each are as follows…

  • Contact Info
    • Emergency phone numbers
    • German & American contact numbers
    • “In case of emergency” document
  • Planning
    • 2012 and 2013 at a glance
    • Important dates (birthdays, anniversaries, etc)
    • Yearly calendaring list (everything from dentist appointments to dryer cleanings)
    • German and American holidays including daylight savings schedules (they’re different for the two countries)
    • Doc Sci’s work schedule and my weekly schedule
    • Party planning checklists
  • Home Management
    • Deep cleaning checklist
    • Storage unit contents – Germany and USA
    • Stain removal guide
    • Garment care symbols
  • Meals
    • Grocery lists for regular grocery stores
    • List of items only available at specialty shops
    • Meal planning sheets
    • A list of staple meals
    • A list of meals to try (and space to write the verdict)
    • Restaurants to try (and space to write the verdict)
    • Seasonal produce guide for menu planning
    • Stockpile inventory
  • Family
    • Children’s current sizes and measurements
    • Chart with American and European sizes, including shoes
    • Children’s daily schedule and routine
    • Babysitter notes for nights out
    • Birthday party ideas
    • Chore chart ideas
  • Health
    • Medical history for each family member
    • Physician phone numbers
    • CPR instructions
  • School
    • School contact info and phone list
    • Home school weekly planning sheet
    • Home school year overview
  • Money & Finance
    • Family budget
    • Wallet contents including card numbers & contact numbers
    • Password log
    • Yearly schedule of the best time to buy household items
    • Auto insurance coverage details
  • Travel
    • Ideas for local family outings (not overnight)
    • Vacation destination idea list (overnight)
    • Packing lists
    • Before-we-leave checklist
    • Frequent flier mile information for all family members
  • Expat Living
    • Copies of passports
    • Resources for renewing visas
  • Projects
    • Generic to do list
    • Generic project work sheet
    • Generic week at a glance schedule for completing a project
  • Holidays
    • Thanksgiving guest list, meal planner, and grocery list
    • Thanksgiving week planner
    • Christmas card labels
    • Gift gift lists
    • Christmas cookie swap party planner
    • Christmas guest list, meal planner, and grocery list
    • Blank copy of December 2012
  • Blog
    • Ideas page for future posts
    • Yearly calendar for planning
  • Activities
    • Local public pool schedules
    • Local sport club classes for kids
    • Ideas for activities during summer and holidays
  • Lists
    • Items I frequently (and currently need to) request from the US
    • List of topics to research
    • Household items to fix
    • Generic sheet for thoughts on a particular topic

Using the documents I found online, I created my own set of documents in Illustrator that fit our family’s situation (living abroad, don’t own a home, etc.).  I also had to make sure all the pages matched and looked pretty!

My funky European two-ring binder.

After designing all the documents, I organized them into folders on my computer hard drive that matched the categories above.  That way, when I need to print out new menu planning sheets, I can just open the “Meals” folder on my computer the same as I could flip to the “Meals” tab in the notebook.

The only tabs I could find that would reach beyond the page protects had to be cut by hand. Not great for someone who can’t snip a straight line to save her life!

I wanted to print out the documents at a lab so they’d look nicer.  Unfortunately, I don’t know of any existing print labs in my city, so I had to settle for our HP Deskjet. Surprisingly, Illustrator did a great job with color, and what I saw on the screen was how it looked on paper.  Sweet!

Some reference documents went in page protectors, and some were just hole-punched and placed in the corresponding category tab.

Page protectors are very cheap here – both in terms of quality and money.

I bought a plastic envelope to put in the back of the notebook to hold takeout menus and other small scraps of paper that didn’t fit anywhere else.  Unfortunately, it was too big, so I’ll have to check a few other stores for smaller pouches.

My too-big plastic envelope.

I have a few finishing touches to put on the notebook (for starters, filling in the budget and phone numbers by hand).  After that, I’m looking forward to how this notebook will help streamline my “mama” job and make life easier for Doc Sci when I’m out of it for a few weeks.  I think my Household Notebook will be a great tool for our family in the years to come.

p.s. – I’ve made a Pinterest board with links to all the documents I used for ideas.  You can view the board and links here.

How about you?  Do you have a household notebook? Why or why not?