Ten Tips to Make Your Family’s Istanbul Adventure a Smashing Success

Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!Have you smelled the salt in the air and felt the press of the crowds while virtually bopping around the Bosphorus and ancient city of Istanbul with us? I’m wrapping up our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series today with my top ten tips for making your own trip to Istanbul both budget-friendly and a smashing success!

Let’s get right to it, shall we?Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Get an e-visa. The majority of travelers will need a visa to enter Turkey. Unlike other countries with arduous processes (ahem.. Russia), obtaining a visa to enter Turkey is relatively painless and can be done online in advance here.

Bargain with your hotel to include breakfast and a ride to or from the airport.

Nearly every hotel I looked at (and believe me, there were scores I researched), offered free breakfast. Many also offered a one-way private transportation from the airport (Atatürk – not Sabiha Gökçen) with a stay of 3 nights, and a return service with stays of 6 nights or more.

It is possible to get to Sultanahmet from Atatürk via public transportation, but I would not have wanted to do that with the luggage we had from moving to the US. If you’re leaning toward DIY or your hotel won’t budge even when you pit different properties against each other, check out this comprehensive guide to your options as well as tips on getting from Sabiha Gökçen to Sultanahmet.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!You should know that even if you have a private driver waiting for you, finding him in the insane arrivals hall will be your first taste of the frenzy that awaits.

Pick a hotel in Sultanahmet or the Galata Tower (Beyoğlu) area.

By staying in one of these two areas, you’ll be within walking distance of as many sites as possible. When researching accommodation options, I (erroneously) thought that the Galata Tower area was too far away from most of the places I wanted to go. I didn’t know about the T1 tram or how easy it is to use. For an overview of the pros and cons of both areas, click here. For where not to stay, click here.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Avoid bringing a stroller if at all possible.

Istanbul isn’t known as the City of Seven Hills for nothin’. A simple walk from your hotel to the nearest tram stop becomes a tad more treacherous when you add a San Francisco-style grade to the route. If you do bring a stroller, you’ll likely save the kids’ energy but burn your own going steeply up and down all day long. It is possible to get on and off trams with a pram, but metro stations are more tricky to maneuver since most have stairs instead of elevators. Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Discuss cultural and religious differences in advance.

Unless your family is well-versed in Muslim culture, your kids will likely ask questions about why the women have their heads covered and why they hear the azhan (call to prayer) broadcast over loudspeakers five times per day. Encourage them to ask questions, find commonalities, discuss their thoughts, and learn about local traditions and customs like bargaining. Also, It’s always courteous (and fun!) to learn a few simple words and phrases in the local language.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Practice restaurant manners and encourage an open mind about new foods.

My kids rarely ate in restaurants during our four years in Germany (their parents aren’t, uh, crazy about German food), so they were a bit on the rusty side when it came to table manners and how to behave in a restaurant. Thankfully, the boys are usually pretty good about trying new foods, but I thought it would be fun to make a little game of it by encouraging them to find the similarities and differences such as how Lahmacun is like pizza or Kofti is different than Italian meatballs.

Save on dinner out by sharing adult portions with your kids and declining drinks.

For our family of five – and our three boys already practically eat as much as we do, we often ordered three adult portions and licked the plates clean. No leftovers means no waste and no extra cash going to meals out. We figured we could always buy Turkish bagels or fresh juice if we needed a little something after the meal.

We bought 5L bottles of water at local convenience stores and used these to refill our smaller water bottles at the hotel. We brought snacks with us from home instead of trying to find a supermarket in Sultanahmet (good thing, too, because – well, good luck with that).

Prepare for total strangers to touch your children and offer them gifts.

This happened to us in South Korea, too, but it didn’t make it any more pleasant for me or my boys. Decide beforehand what your family’s response to such gestures will be. I tried to be polite and gently decline the candy or whisk it away as soon as the stranger left. While that might have been a noble effort, in reality my kids hated being touched by strangers. Bravo smacked a man’s hand away because, “He wasn’t my friend.” Charlie was so sick of the attention that he threw down a piece of chocolate offered to him by a flight attendant. They were OVER it.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Time your visits to popular sites when crowds are smaller and in the shoulder season whenever possible.

When we visited the Hagia Sophia first thing in the morning, we were joined by throngs of other travelers. But, when we passed by it in the late afternoon, the lines were nearly nonexistent. A fluke? Maybe. I would research the best times to visit each site on your list (you may be surprised what you find). And shoulder season is always a bargain.. if you can handle the cold!

Seek out local playgrounds to reward kids and give everyone a break.

The best playground we found (okay, the only one) in Sultanahmet was Gulhane Park. The large Gulhane green space was a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. The park wraps around the north and west edges of Topkapı Palace.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

The Palace seemed grand from the entrance, but that’s as far as it went for us. Yes, I know you you can peek into the sultan’s harem for an a token admission fee, but we preferred to enjoy the fresh air and rare opportunity for the kids to run free.

By the way, there’s a lovely tea garden on the far (north) side of the park overlooking the water. The tea service itself is pricey by Turkish standards, but the view is absolutely free.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

If you’re counting, you know we’re at 10 already, but I thought I’d toss in one more tip of a more serious nature..

Have a plan for what to do in case your family gets separated.

It’s no secret that Istanbul is incredibly crowded. Getting on and off trams and subways can be squishy business, and tourist buses can unload and overwhelm a site in an instant. Decide what to do if you get separated from one another, and know emergency numbers and phrases.

YOUR Family’s Adventure

You made it through all the tips (yeah!), and now you should have a better idea of what to consider, research, plan and look out for while in this crazy middle-eastern city.

‘Tis true – Istanbul is loud, smelly, and intense. It is NOT a destination for those seeking rest and relaxation, though I hear Turkish beaches are well-suited for such purposes. However, don’t let that discourage you from giving Istanbul a go; there’s lots to love and gems to be found in the middle of all that mayhem.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travel: Top 10 Tips for Traveling Families.. what you need to know before taking the kids to Istanbul!

Here’s to your own family’s Turkish travel adventure!

What tips would you add from your own research or travel experience in Turkey? What do you wish you would’ve known before you went or what question are you hoping to answer before you go?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

All images are mine except the first one (credit).

Visiting Croatia in the Off-Season

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonWe’re bidding farewell to our Croatian Family Adventure today with a chat about visiting the Dalmatian Coast during the off-season.

My ideal travel destination is naturally gorgeous, affordable (okay, cheap), and away from the tourist crowds. If this is your cup of tea as well, then you may be considering visiting Croatia sometime other than the jam-packed summer months.

Though Paris is a beauty even in the dead of winter and Rothenburg is quiet when it rains, it’s possible to do and see almost everything even when the tour buses are absent. But Croatia? Not so much.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

It’s worth sitting down and deciding what your family really wants to experience in Dalmatia before booking flights or accommodation. Below, I’ve highlighted pros and cons to visiting during the off-season, which I would categorize as anything outside June, July, and August.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

Drawbacks of visiting Croatia in off-season…

  • Ferry service to the islands is limited. If you want to see more than 1 or 2 islands, I would recommend hopping from island to island instead of trying to do day trips from the mainland. This will require quite a bit of logistical planning on your part since you’ll need to see if accommodation is available (see the next bullet, below) while simultaneously checking ferry timetables and researching ground transportation options to get from the port to the hotel and back.
  • Many attractions, restaurants, and hotels are closed for the winter. Some are even closed in spring and fall.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

  • Even if you’re able to arrange accommodation and transportation to experience the islands, they’re rather deserted when it’s not high season. Don’t expect party central.
  • The weather can be downright COLD. In fact, we had the heat on in the first two apartments we rented… in April. If you were planning to lounge around on the terrace at your vacation rental, just know that you’ll be doing so bundled up. Croatia also has this freakish freezing wind known as the bura, or brrrrrrrra.
  • The water is too cold to swim and going to the beach is only for those who enjoy a slow form of torture involving said wind, sand, and sensitive corneas.
  • This one’s only for the carnivores, but the infamous road-side meat stands on the way to Plitvice Lakes and along other Croatian highways aren’t open. You won’t be able to watch a whole pig or sheep being roasted and then partake of the freshly cooked flesh (vegetarians, rejoice).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonNow, on to the benefits of visiting during off-season..

  • Smaller crowds! This might seem insignificant, but when you’re walking the walls of Dubrovnik or hopping over waterfalls at Plitvice, you’ll be thanking your lucky stars that even though you’re freezing your bum off, you have room to breathe and appreciate what you’re seeing without constantly being elbowed and jostled.
  • Ferry tickets are plentiful. In summer, you can be stuck in long lines hoping that the particular ship you want to sail on is not sold out.
  • You can enjoy the Croatian national pastime of drinking coffee in cafes for hours with locals instead of tourists.
  • Though the availability is limited, the prices for hotels and vacation rentals are reduced and some attractions are even free.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

  • If you’re dying to see Plitvice, remember that water levels are highest in the spring after the snow melts which translates to some pretty powerful waterfalls.
  • The heat is tolerable. I remember walking the walls of Dubrovnik in April and nearly baking in the sun. It must be hotter than you-know-what up there in August, and crowded with cruise ship day-trippers to boot.
  • Traffic!! If you’re driving to Dubrovnik from Split or vice versa, you should know that the only way in and out is a two-lane highway on the edge of the sea. Traffic on this road in summer is a total beast. Also, the lines at border crossings for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro will be much shorter during the off-season.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonIn spite of (and also because of) all of the reasons above, I still think we would have chosen to visit Croatia during the off-season had we known all of this in advance (we didn’t).

But, when we go back, we’ll aim for September. The locals I talked to all recommended going in September because the summer crowds are gone but the water is still warm enough to swim. Just don’t tell the tour groups that…Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

My advice if you want to go to Croatia is to GO NOW. The country is fabulous, but it’s starting to realize this fact. And once it does, the danger to allow tacky tourism in for the sake of the income will be rather irresistible.

Ripping off foreigners in the form of outrageous admission fees for non-locals (which is the case already in places like Russia) is another potential problem for travelers. Some towns like Dubrovnik are already totally touristy which means expensive prices, questionable quality, and many “souvenirs” made in China. Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

But, there are still many, many places to experience authentic Croatia, and I highly recommend creating a Dalmatian family adventure of your own, posthaste!

Now that you know the pros and cons, would you visit Croatia during the off-season? Or is the warm weather and water too important for your family to miss?Signature Thrifty Travel MamaThis post is part of Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Is Tuscany Kid-Friendly? The Good, The Bad, and 3 Ideas to Engage Little Travelers

Thrifty Travel Mama | Is Tuscany Kid-Friendly?If you’ve been hanging out around here for the past month or so, you’ve been inundated with posts describing our adventures in Tuscany.  Perhaps you’ve been inspired to make your own Italian memories in the near future.  But, wait – will the little ones even like it?

Is Tuscany kid-friendly?  The simple answer is yes.. and, at the same time, no.

This region of Italy offers many exciting things for kidscastles, knights, bikes, and hikes – in addition to the awesome food.  What kid doesn’t like pasta, pizza, and gelato?  And, to be fair, there are a few attractions aimed at kids (here’s a handy list).

But, logistically speaking, Tuscany is a parental nightmare. DSC_0187Thrifty Travel Mama | Is Tuscany Kid-Friendly?A few examples of what you might experience in Tuscany with kids in tow:

  • Pushing a pram here is utter insanity.  Streets are incredibly steep, sidewalks nonexistent, and often a set of stairs is the only way up or down to an attraction.
  • Safety.  Streets, even “pedestrianized” ones, can be dangerous for little ones.  Vehicles zoom by, and often leave you with only a few inches of room to tiptoe along.
  • Bathrooms.  Facilities are hard to come by, and often cost money (up to 1 euro per visit!).  Some towns only have squatty potties… which are super fun when your child needs to go #2 and there’s no other toilet around… not that I know what that is like or anything…
  • Changing tables.  I only remember two places that had such a luxury; both were in Firenze (Coin on Via dei Calzaiuoli and the former Prenatal store on Via De Brunelleschi if you’re interested).
  • Diapers, wipes, and baby food.  Expect to pay premium prices on a very limited selection of products.
  • Kids meals.  What are those?  You’ll only find these novelties at overpriced touristy restaurants that usually don’t offer authentic cuisine.  The same goes for high chairs.
  • Museums.  Tuscany is FULL of no-touch art and history.

Are you welcome to bring your kids along almost anywhere you go in Tuscany?  Yes!  Italians are not annoyed by or hostile toward children.  You won’t be shooed or shunned.  After all, their culture places a high emphasis on family.

However, you will have your work cut out for you.  Just because you can bring your kids, doesn’t mean they’ll want to go everywhere you do.  Plan your itinerary carefully (check out my tips here), and give lengthy consideration to the personalities, needs, and interests of your particular children, even more than usual.

If you need help, ask lots of questions on TripAdvisor, and mine the Frommer’s Tuscany, Umbria, & Florence With Your Family guidebook for helpful hints.Thrifty Travel Mama | Is Tuscany Kid-Friendly?Here are three things that helped to keep my boys happy in the humdrum and make our travels more interactive:

  1. Binoculars.  Thanks an obscure comment in the Frommer’s guidebook, I purchased inexpensive binoculars from Amazon.de in advance.  I presented them to the boys during the long car ride from Germany; the newness and fascination held their interest for hours.  I then encouraged the boys to use their trusty field glasses inside churches, at museums, and when surveying the landscape at various panoramic points.
  2. Digital Cameras.  We have an old, somewhat-busted Canon Elph that has become the kids’ camera.  It still takes pictures, but it’s not reliable enough for me to use anymore.  Just giving the young ‘uns something to do while you walk through yet another hill town is priceless. Arrows Sent Forth has a great post on turning your kids loose with an old digital camera.
  3. Journaling.  Almost every evening, we asked the boys to tell us their highlights from the days’ activities.  I made notes, and I also asked them to use Travel Turtle’s Free Printable Journal Page.  They really enjoyed being part of our nightly discussion and making something to preserve their memories of Italy.  Also check out Travel Turtle’s journaling prompts for kiddos and adults as well as how to make your own journal.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Is Tuscany Kid-Friendly?With a good measure of forethought, you CAN have a wonderful family holiday in Italy.  Just don’t, uh, wing it.

For an insider perspective on the question of whether or not Tuscany is kid-friendly, check out what At Home in Tuscany has to say.

All right, your turn – I want to hear from you!  Have you taken your kids to Tuscany?  Why or why not?  If you haven’t been yet, would this be a place you’d want to visit as a 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!

 

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

Vacation Rentals for Families Big and Small

Thrifty Travel Mama - Vacation Rentals for Families Big and SmallIt’s no secret that I am not a fan of staying in hotels while on vacation.  I may change my mind when the boys are older, but for now, we stick to vacation rentals.  Hotel rooms do not offer our family of five enough space, and – even worse – they are often more expensive than renting an entire apartment.

Want to get in on the vacation rental craze?  For your next vacation, consider a private property for your family instead of a hotel room.  Here are three sites to get you started: Airbnb.com, Homeaway.com, and Vrbo.com.

Airbnb.com

Airbnb is the new kid on the vacation rental block.  Of the three sites, this one is definitely the most diverse.  The current stats on the homepage boast properties in 35,597 cities and 192 countries.  I’ve seen all sorts of interesting spaces for rent here; beyond simple apartments, you can also find houseboats, castles, off-grid homes, cottages, tree houses, bedouin digs, and places to go glamping.

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Simply enter your desired location, dates of stay, and how many guests.  I usually include the older boys, but not the baby.  Some hosts charge for extra guests (even children), so it’s important to be honest about how many are in your party.

Perhaps the key to Airbnb’s variety is that the properties available on their site are often real people’s homes.  Sure, some are managed vacation properties, but many are just some Joe Schmoe’s pad that he wants to rent out while visiting his great Aunt Edna for two weeks at Christmas.

Some properties even state this outright – one woman posted that the property was her actual home, and that if you booked it, she would just move out for a few days.  Airbnb also lists rooms for rent (as opposed to the entire home/apartment) for the super budget-conscious.

More a community than the other two websites, Airbnb requires you to create a profile, upload a photo, and enter your phone number to contact potential hosts.  As an introvert who is not big into social media, I found it rather annoying to have to give away all this information just to make property inquiries.  However, it does add an element of comfort for the owner to be able text a real person, so I acquiesced.

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If you want the entire place to yourself, click on “Entire home/apt” in the left column.  Otherwise, the search results will show private rooms and shared rooms in your desired location.  Adjust price for your budget, and filter results based on neighborhood or amenities.

A few tips on selecting a property… First, take a good look at the photos.  If the property has three bedrooms, are all three pictured?  Even more important, what is not pictured?  The apartment is supposed to have a washer and dryer, but where are they?

Second, ask a LOT of questions.  Ask how far it is to the nearest grocery store.  If there is free parking, is it right outside the house?  In a garage three miles away?

Third, examine the reviews.  Are there any for this property?  If not, why?  Is it new?  Were renters not satisfied?  If a negative review exists, did the host respond to the complaint and post a reply?

I also recommend contacting all the host for the properties where you are interested in staying.  For my recent booking (we’re going to the Netherlands in a few weeks!), I ended up reserving my fifth choice.  My first choice was not available, and my second choice only responded once to questions I asked.  The other two did not reply at all.

Currently, the only method of payment that works for most users on Airbnb is credit card.  As with hotels.com, you must pay in full for the reservation up front.  What happens to your money?  The funds are held by Airbnb and then released to the host 24 hours after the guest checks in.

Some countries allow payments via Paypal, but I was not able to get that option to work.  However, even though the property I reserved was in the Netherlands (payable in euros), I could change my country to the US and pay in dollars.  The exchange rate matched the one I found on xe.com exactly.

Airbnb currently allows credit card payment in USD, CAD, EUR, and GBP.  If your credit card is not in one of these currencies, the rate is charged in EUR.

To read about my personal experience using Airbnb in The Netherlands, click here.  For more help on booking with Airbnb, click here.

Homeaway.com

If I can’t find what I’m looking for on Airbnb, I hop on over to Homeaway.com.  Current stats for Homeaway’s offerings claim 720,000 vacation rental home listings throughout 168 countries.

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Homeaway’s default is the US, but click another region below the map to search Hawaii, the Caribbean, Europe, or worldwide.

I find the listings on Homeaway to be a tad more expensive than Airbnb.  This is probably due to the difference in structure between the two sites – Airbnb charges a service fee for completed bookings, but simply listing your place is free.  Homeaway charges owners to advertise their spaces, but they does not handle transactions or levy guest fees.

Homeaway search options are more limited than Airbnb, but they are much better than Vrbo.com.  Filter results by number of bedrooms, number of guests, or by amenities such as wireless internet, parking, pet-friendly, etc.

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If price is an issue, you should know that it’s only possible to enter a monetary range per week (not per night) and in USD.  Switch to map view to search geographically.

One minor annoyance for international users is that the rates listed in the search results are displayed in USD.  Clicking on individual properties gives the user an approximate exchange rate, but it can be confusing to search in dollars when your budget is in euros.

Also note that many Homeaway properties have minimum stay requirements, some of which are an entire week.  I ran into trouble with this when trying to book our recent Netherlands stay.  However, the advantage to this is that if you are staying a week (or more), rates can be less than when booking per night on other sites.

If a weekly rate is not listed, ask the property manager for a quote.  I was able to get a booking down from $98/night to $89/night with the right dates and a pretty please.

Since Homeaway does not handle transactions, it is important to ask about any extra fees that the host might charge – cleaning, linens, parking, etc. – and payment method.  Get an invoice and a rental agreement in writing before sending any payment.  Make note of the cancellation policy before booking.  Most are quite strict.  For more help with Homeaway bookings, click here.

To find out whether or not I’d personally recommend Homeaway, click here.

Vrbo.com

Vrbo is my least favorite, but it’s still worth a look before giving in to over-priced hotel rooms.  They are owned by Homeaway, which only make sense when you figure out that the two companies have different clientele.  Vrbo has fewer listings (currently 190,000+ properties in 100 countries), but it is the older of the two sites which means it has more loyal customers and more reviewed properties.  Both charge hosts fees for listing their properties and are hands-off when it comes to payment arrangements.

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Like Homeaway, Vrbo is best for US properties, but other locations around the world are searchable by clicking on the tabs to the left.

It can be hard to navigate the listings and find exactly what you are looking for, especially when searching big cities such as Amsterdam, like I did.  Few filters are available to narrow down the options.  But, prices are displayed per night and in local currency which is a nice plus over Homeaway.

When clicking on a listing, scroll down to see details regarding amenities, pricing, and minimum stay requirements.  Keep in mind that even though search results list a nightly rate, a large number of properties require guests to stay longer than that.

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Sort by, Bedrooms, and More filters are the only search options.  Results are displayed in one column below.

Comb the reviews at Vrbo for additional information regarding potential hosts and homes, but keep in mind that Vrbo gives owners the option to display all feedback, only positive feedback, or no feedback at all.  This company wouldn’t still be around if it did not have many reputable rentals, but be extra cautious in asking as many questions as possible until you’re comfortable enough to make the booking.  Read about Vrbo’s advantages here and FAQs for travelers here.

To see how I fared with Vrbo in Salt Lake City, click here.

As always, when renting from individuals, be sure to protect yourself.  If a listing looks to good to be true (think a ten bedroom home in Tuscany for 50 euros per night), it probably is.  Each site has their own safety tips (Airbnb, Homeaway, Vrbo), but you can find additional tips here.

With a little luck and a few simple searches, you could be on your way to renting an amazing home during your next vacation for less than the cost of a hotel room but with enough space for your family.

Have you used any of these sites before to book vacation rentals?  We’d love to hear about your experience!Signature-Marigold

Ticket Talk: The Open Jaw

Hooray – it’s officially trip planning season for me!  Dark, dreary, cold, and wet outside, I’m keeping warm by burning through the euros in our bank account buying tickets.  I’m never so happy to see money go.

As with last year’s trip to the US, we are doing a multi-city itinerary.  I just can’t seem to go there and back again without at least one sideshow.

However, this year, the best deal for me was using something called an open jaw.  Say, what?  Simply put, if you were to draw your itinerary, it would be, uh, open, like a – you guessed it – jaw, instead of a basic straight line.

You know I wouldn’t do anything wonky without sharing how you could do the same.  A lot of the tips from my previous multi-city itinerary post are also applicable to open jaw itineraries.  I’ll jazz them up a smidge and throw them back’atcha below, but first, a few Q&A’s.

What in the world is an open jaw?  As I mentioned above, it’s one type of itinerary that does not go in a straight line.  The best way to explain it is to give you an example.  For me this means, I fly from Frankfurt (point A) to Salt Lake City (point B), and then from Orlando (point C) back to Frankfurt (point A).

Just so you’re in the know, another kind of open jaw itinerary exists.  Here’s an example.. fly from New York (point A) to San Francisco (point B) and then from San Francisco (point B) to Miami (point C) and terminate the trip there. 

When/why on earth would I use one?  If you want to visit two destinations instead of one, but it is cheaper to get yourself from point B to point C by a means other than the airline you are using for A to B and C to A, try an open jaw.  The missing point B to point C segment could be completed via ship, car, another airline, alien abduction, etc.  This is a popular ticket to use in conjunction with cruises that do not return to their port of origin.

Can I book an open jaw myself?  Yes!  Most major airline websites will allow you to book an open jaw itinerary online.  When you arrive at the airline’s main page, look for a small link near where you enter your city pair (departure and arrival cities) that says something along the lines of “Multi-City.”  Enter your point A to point B and the date and then your point C to point A and the date.

Can you give me an example?  Of course!  Let’s use the trip I just booked.  Our “home” airport is Frankfurt at the moment, so we always start and end there.   We have to go to Salt Lake City for one of Doc Sci’s conferences, and we need to go to Orlando once a year to take care of business and visit friends.

I priced itineraries with United, Delta, American Airlines, and Lufthansa.  Delta was the cheapest of the bunch, so I pressed on from there to find the bottom dollar deal.  The ticket prices were still higher than I wanted to pay, so I dropped the middle out of the itinerary (Salt Lake City to Orlando) which lowered the total cost down over 300 euros per person, a significant savings.  Ironically, the flights offered on the same dates but with an open jaw itinerary were also much, much better (note that this isn’t always the case – but it was a very nice surprise).

Most airlines are notorious for charging exorbitant one-way fares… but not Southwest.  A ticket on Southwest between my point B and point C only cost about 160 per person.  So, I will still flying all my segments (as opposed to driving between my point B and point C), but I will ultimately pay less by using two different airlines this time.  Southwest doesn’t fly between your points B & C?  Try AirTran, JetBlue, or Spirit.

How do I know if an open jaw would be cheaper for me than a multi-city itinerary, all with the same airline?  You’ll have to do your homework, of course!  Price the itinerary with and without the point B to point C segment.  Also, try reversing the order of the two stops you want to make (go to point C first and then point B) even if it’s only for comparison’s sake.

And, in case you missed my previous post with all my multi-city itinerary secrets, here they are again… remixed for the open jaw.

Tips on Booking Open Jaw Itineraries

Be patient.  It takes a lot of work to search multiple combinations of dates and cities, let alone just trying to figure out which airline is the cheapest for your particular route (for more on airlines, alliances, and hub cities check out the practical tips for booking multi-city itineraries in my previous post).

Don’t expect to get what you want by just typing in a few simple searches.  If you know it’s going to be a while before you get it the price and schedule just the way you want it, then you’re apt to be less frustrated.

And, unless you really know what you are doing and you’re totally sure of your plans, don’t book on a whim.  If you think you’ve found your perfect itinerary, have another pair of eyes look it over with you to double check all the details.

Be flexible.  Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays are generally the cheapest days to fly.  I say generally, because sometimes loads (the amount of passengers) are lower on other days on certain routes.  However, you won’t know this until you start searching (as I said, be patient!).

Try your itinerary a week before and a week after.  Pay attention to your calendar, noting any holidays.  Also, if it’s peak season at your destination(s), prices just may be high, period.  Your job is to find the lowest in the date range you are available to travel.

Be persistent. One advantage that open jaw itineraries have over multi-city itineraries is the ability to search using Flexible Dates with some airlines.  Still, it’s a rarity (or perhaps even an impossibility) that your perfect itinerary will be the first date and city combination you search.  Keep looking.  Try alternate airports, alternate order of stops, etc.

Be discerning.  How will you get from point B to point C?  Yes, flying is convenient, but sometimes it’s not always the answer.  Weigh the drive time (but be realistic about how far you can go in one day with kids!) versus the money (four tickets at $250 is quite a chunk of change, but you will also have to pay for the car rental, gas, perhaps a hotel room or two).

Don’t forget your time is valuable as well, so consider how much time you’d spend in transit while flying vs. driving.

Be smart.  Do your homework.  Consider all the costs of flying a separate airline from point B to point C.  What are the baggage fees?  Are there fees for choosing a seat?  Would you have less stress if your itinerary was all with one airline?

Be realistic.  How much flying and driving can your kids handle?  How many different beds can you sleep in before you swear off traveling all together?  Are you better off paying an extra $25 per ticket to avoid taking toddlers on a red-eye flight?  Think about what’s important to you, your family, and then make the best decision with what you’ve found for a happy vacation.

How about you?  Have you booked an open jaw itinerary before?  Any other tips I may have missed?  Questions?

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!

TripAdvisor Forums: Your Best Friend in Planning Travel with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Trip Advisor Forums - Your Best Friend in Planning Travel With KidsWant to know where the best playgrounds are in Berlin?  How about if the streets of Rome are stroller-friendly?  Wondering what to do with a 12-hour layover in Seoul?  Are shops closed on Sundays in Prague?

You could Google all these questions, but that would not be the best use of your time.  Instead, make fast friends with the TripAdvisor travel forums.

If you’re not already familiar with TripAdvisor, it claims to be the world’s largest travel site featuring reviews and advice on hotels, resorts, flights, vacation rentals, vacation packages, travel guides, and lots more.

The two main TripAdvisor features I use consistently when researching a travel destination are the hotel reviews and travel forums.

I like the hotel reviews because users often upload their own photos of properties.  This gives me a more accurate view of the premises than the professional advertising photos which are designed to present the grounds in the most favorable light possible.  I appreciate the reality of the user photos and the chance to see if the hotel lives up to its hype.

The TripAdvisor travel forums give you the opportunity to ask questions that are often too obscure or specific to be mentioned in any guidebook, especially when it comes to traveling with children.

It’s worth noting that in my experience the TripAdvisor forum community seems to be quite friendly, so don’t be afraid to ask “stupid” questions!  This is not necessarily the case in expat forums (such as Toytown Germany) which can also be a source of finding answers to destination inquiries.

So, how do you go about mining this information?  Obviously, you’ll first need to visit the TripAdvisor home pageType a destination in the search box located in the upper right hand corner of the page.   Note that there’s another search box on the left side of the page, below the main tool bar.  Don’t use it – it won’t take you to the forums. After reaching the page for your destination, click More in the tool bar to reveal several other options including Travel Forums.  TripAdvisor recently changed their website layout, and it’s possible you may end up accessing a page with the old layout (I did).  In this case, the link to the Travel Forums will be on the left hand side of the page.  Once on the forum page, I do one of three things: search, browse, or post.  If I want to get a general idea of what people are interested in seeing at a particular destination (or common questions such as available options for airport transportation), I browse for a while clicking on recent topics that are relevant to my upcoming trip.

Type keywords such as “with kids”, “with toddler”, “with baby”, “stroller friendly”, or “high chair” in the search box for advice and valuable tips from locals and travelers who have visited your destination before.

I recommend searching the forums before posting a new topic.  You’ll get your information faster, and you’ll know if you need to ask any additional questions to clarify previously posted information.

Still can’t find what you’re looking for?  Click the “Ask a question” button to post in the destination’s travel forum.  You’ll need to be a TripAdvisor member, but signing up is free and relatively painless.

As you compose your message, be as specific as possible to get the best results.  If you have multiple questions, consider separating and even numbering them.  Then, sit back and wait for your personalized answers.  Signature-Marigold

How long you’ll have to wait depends on how popular the destination is and how active the forum members are.  For example, when doing research to visit Jeju Island, South Korea, last year, I noticed that there were several forums for the island of Jeju including a Jeju and a Jeju-do forum as well as Seogwipo and others.  I had the best luck in receiving replies by posting in the Jeju-do forum (the forum for the entire island).

If you don’t receive timely responses (and timely varies from place to place – check the frequency of existing replies), try posting your question again in another larger but still destination-appropriate forum.

When planning your next vacation with kids, give the TripAdvisor forums a chance to reveal locals-only knowledge to make your getaway even better.

What about you?  Have you used the TripAdvisor travel forums before?  What great tips did you learn?

Shameless Repost: Alternative Airports for Flying Around Europe on the Cheap

Today Travel (msnbc.com) has an excellent article by Gabrielle Zunde of Budget Travel with an organized and informative list of alternative airports for flying around Europe on the cheap.

I realize my last post was also pointing you to an outside article, but know that I wouldn’t send you anywhere that wasn’t worth my (and therefore your) time.

And speaking of time, these days mine seems to be lavished on thrilling things like expat taxes (more on that to come!), German government forms, visa paperwork, and the like.  This makes me dirt poor when it comes to minutes and hours for fun things like blog posts and Pinterest.

Anyway, back to the article!  Head here for a list of alternative airports for destinations like London, Paris, Munich, Milan, etc.  For each city,  Zunde lists the distance from the alternative airport to the main destination, the best way to get there, the cost, and the names of the budget airlines.

What a great research time saver!