Review: Librileo Book Boxes for Kids.. auf Deutsch!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Review: Librileo Book Boxes for Kids.. auf Deutsch!I know this might sound a bit strange, but the main reason I’ve worked so hard the past few months to really get my German skills up to usable levels is that we’re leaving Deutschland by the end of the year.

Wait, what?!

Why bother if we’re not going to live here long term? Well, for starters, it’s easiest to learn a language in a country where it’s spoken all the time. And, I’m determined to not sit by and watch my boys’ bilingual skills fade away. Since we can’t be certain we’ll end up in a city with a German school, the responsibility of keeping up with the language falls to me. So, you can bet I am all ears when it comes to getting tips on how to keep up the German in America… or wherever we end up.

Yes, we can (and will) look for other German-speakers to befriend, but it’s important to not stop there. In order to become truly fluent, one must also know how to read and write. Obviously, having German books on hand is important. But, what books? How does one choose? And how do I know what level of books my boys should be reading?

EnterLibrileo.

A startup company out of Berlin and the brainchild of Julius Bertram, Librileo is a genius idea for busy parents who value frequent and fresh reading material for their children.

The child receives a monthly box of anywhere from 1 to 3 books appropriate for their age range and according to that month’s theme. Past themes have included friendship, courage, and music (see examples here). Each box is reviewed in advance by a test family and a teacher before being sent to subscribers.Thrifty Travel Mama | Review: Librileo Book Boxes for Kids.. auf Deutsch!

I was thrilled to be contacted by Librileo and offered a box for review purposes. I only review products here on Thrifty Travel Mama that I would actually use myself and this service definitely fits the bill.

My oldest son is following in his mama’s footsteps and absolutely loves to get mail. He could barely contain his excitement when I told him the Librileo box was for him. July’s theme is science (Wissenschaft), and we opened up the box to find a gigantic book about technology and the environment as well as a small booklet with a cute story about water conservation.Thrifty Travel Mama | Review: Librileo Book Boxes for Kids.. auf Deutsch!

Librileo offers book boxes for a variety of age ranges so that elementary-aged children don’t receive board books and toddlers aren’t given chapter books to chew on. Currently, there are six different age groups: 0-1, 1-2, 2-3, 3-4, 4-6, and 6-8. Have an older child? Drop them a line here. The company is considering expanding this fall to include boxes suitable for children up to age 10.

Parents can order Librileo boxes for their children either on a one-time basis to try out the service, a recurring monthly basis, or as a set three-month subscription. Shipping is included in the price which makes the boxes a fantastic deal.Thrifty Travel Mama | Review: Librileo Book Boxes for Kids.. auf Deutsch!

The cost to buy the books yourself is about the same as going through Librileo. However, Librileo takes the guesswork out of what books to buy and if they’re age-appropriate, as well as adding a touch of fun by following a monthly theme. And, they have their own children’s book writer and in-house graphic designer who produce an extra story for the book boxes that aligns with the theme of the month. Bonus!Thrifty Travel Mama | Review: Librileo Book Boxes for Kids.. auf Deutsch!

But, what if you don’t live in Germany? We’re moving soon, and we won’t be able to take advantage of the libraries or loan books from friends here anymore. Well, Librileo has just expanded their service to include international shipping! The international boxes include the 7 euro shipping charge, which is absolutely reasonable.Thrifty Travel Mama | Review: Librileo Book Boxes for Kids.. auf Deutsch!

To read all the frequently asked questions regarding Librileo, click here. And when you’re ready to order, this link will get you where you need to go.

Once we have finalized the location of our new home, Librileo will be on our list of great ways to keep up with German culture and language outside of Deutschland. Viel spaß!

Expat and bilingual families, what are some of the ways you keep up with foreign languages at home? Signature Thrifty Travel MamaDisclosure: I received a Librileo book box for review purposes. I was not paid to write this review, nor do I receive anything if you subscribe. You can read my current review policy here.

Chipotle in Europe: How Does it Compare?

Thrifty Travel Mama | Chipotle in Europe: How Does it Compare?Hey, hey, happy February!  ‘Tis the Valentine season, and cupid’s quiver is full of posts on…. Paris!  I’ll be sharing all sorts of adventures, tips, and tricks for visiting the city of love with kids (oh, how romantic!) in the next few weeks.

Other gals may go for diamonds, truffles, or expensive perfume and whatnot.  But, me?  I’m much easier to please.  A three-pound burrito wrapped in shiny tinfoil should do it.

Chipotle… in Europe?

While we were in the magical city of Paris, we savored our first taste of Chipotle in nearly eight months.  It was the lovely Maria of Busy as a Bee in Paris who first gave the heads up that the burrito king was in town.

Not long after, my friend Christy in Estonia (hi, Christy!) broke some even bigger news to me… Chipotle had recently set up shop in Frankfurt!  We needed to renew T-Rex’s passport in early January, and naturally we’d all be absolutely starving and in search of lunch after the morning appointment…

In a span of two weeks, we had eaten our hearts out at Chipotle in France and Germany

Chipotle… in Europe?  I must be dreaming.  But, I’m not.. they have SIX locations in London too!

So… How’s it Taste?

This is the real question, isn’t it?  If you slap a Chipotle sign on a mediocre Mexican joint, really, what’s the point?  The authenticity of ingredients and flavors is what’s important.

In short, both the Paris and Frankfurt locations dished up burritos and salads that tasted very close to American Chipotle cuisine.  However, we noticed a few slight differences.

German Chipotle:

  • Serves lemon-cilantro rice, not lime, that is extremely cheap in the worst way (think Uncle Ben’s, not basmati).
  • Beans are not as savory, especially the black ones.
  • Marinade on the chicken wasn’t as flavorful.
  • Salad dressing packs a punch – it’s much spicier than at home – and is noticeably creamier.
  • Tomatillo-Green Chili Salsa tastes even better than in America with a delicious, gentle heat.

French Chipotle:

  • Rice was also lemon instead of lime, but of better quality.
  • Salad dressing was extremely close to the original, but it had a subtle difference we couldn’t place.  Another taste test is on order..
  • Tomatillo-Green Chili Salsa is full of flame; our mouths were on fire!

In both the French and German locations, the portions were petty.  However, the staff acquiesced each time I begged for “a little more” of each ingredient.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Chipotle in Europe: How Does it Compare?

Chipotle in Frankfurt, Germany

What’s Different?

Not much is physically different in the Paris and Frankfurt locations.  Both interiors are all done up in the same wood and stainless theme.  The brown paper packaging, logo napkins, clear plastic cutlery, Tabasco sauce bottles… it’s all there.  Even the water dispenser looks identical.

(Oh, and the water is free.  Some restaurants in Germany will serve you complimentary tap water but not cheerfully.)

The biggest difference between the American Chipotle and the French and German Chipotle restaurants is the price.

Both European locations charge 9 euros per entree (burrito, tacos, salad, bowl) with your choice of one meat (chicken, steak, barbacoa, etc).  All the toppings are included except guacamole which comes with an additional 3 euro charge.  Yikes.

Currently, a Chipotle chicken burrito in our old Orlando location costs $6.25 (steak, carnitas, or barbacoa will set you back $6.65).  If you were to convert the 9 euro German burrito price tag to dollars, you’d be looking at $12.15 per burrito… or almost double!  If you want guac with that, be prepared to fork over $16.20!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Chipotle in Europe: How Does it Compare?

Chipotle in Paris, France.

That’s some serious cash for a beans & rice fix.  You might be wondering… why are the entrees so expensive?

The simple answer: ingredients.  To make Chipotle’s marinades, salsas, dressings, and other delicious menu items, you need foreign ingredients like chipotle peppers, tomatillos, cilantro, adobo, jalapeños, poblano peppers, and chiles de arbol.  These are usually Mexican or American products which means that they need to cross an ocean.

Unfortunately, the European palate doesn’t seem to be suited for frijoles which means that the demand isn’t high enough to produce these kinds of ingredients within the EU (perhaps climate is an issue as well) which would help reduce costs considerably.

Now, I can’t say I’ve ever asked for “everything” on my burrito back in America, but both the French and German Chipotle locations allowed us to order every single topping (except guacamole – see above) without charging extra.  I seem to recall that the fajita vegetables were instead of beans and that one may order cheese or sour cream.  At the European restaurants, you can have it all!

At least there’s a small consolation when it comes to order budget (and waist-line) busting burritos…

The Verdict

Frankfurt is our closest Chipotle location, but it’s still two and a half hours away.  When we add the price of fuel to cost of a burrito, it ends up being too expensive and time-consuming to be worthwhile.

In Paris, I was shocked when I realized that 9 euros for a quick dinner was average, so there’s a good chance we’d be regulars if we lived there.

For now, we’re happily obsessed with our town’s taco truck.  But, that’s not to say we wouldn’t indulge if we happened to be in Frankfurt… and I’d be lying if I said we wouldn’t jump at the chance to try a British branch of Chipotle!

Any Londoners out there want to host a family of five for the weekend?  Burritos are on us!

Have you tried Chipotle in Europe?  If not, would you pay 9 euros for a burrito with authentic Mexican ingredients?

Signature-Marigold

Updated Review: Flying EasyJet with Your Family

Thrifty Travel Mama | Flying EasyJet - A Guide for Traveling with Babies, Children, and FamiliesIt’s nearly February which means I’m up to my eyeballs planning our family’s spring travel.  Are you doing the same?  Now is the time to search for deals for travel through April/May.  Depending on the carrier, summer fares may or may not be on sale yet.

Now, as you can imagine, we could easily shell out a fair amount of cash for five round-trip airline tickets.  In order to save money (and, therefore, travel more – duh!), we use budget carriers whenever possible.  The most convenient and affordable airline for our geographical location is easyJet.

I’ve written about flying easyJet with a baby before, but I wanted to update that older post with our recent experience.  All five of us flew easyJet to Edinburgh in November (more on that trip coming soon!).  I’ve added my thoughts from that trip as well as notes on new policies that easyJet has adopted.

You can read the updated review of our easyJet experience here.  We’ll be testing out Ryanair for the first time in April, so I’ll have a review on that airline later this spring.

Have you flown with easyJet before?  What did you think of your flight(s)?Signature-Marigold

Lounging Around – Our Tuscan Villa Experience

Casal Gheriglio

Casal Gheriglio

If you’re American like me, the idea of a two-week vacation more than once per year is unthinkable.  Perhaps after working for 10+ years at the same company, you might have enough to take a few weeks off of work.

But Europeans?  They’re quite used to their 28+ days of paid vacation per year thankyouverymuch.. which means they have nearly six weeks to travel.  Lucky blokes.  Score: one for living in Europe, zero for living in America.

Here’s the real kicker that STILL boggles my American mind after three years here…  Bosses don’t gripe when vacation time is requested.  It’s expected that those with families will be absent from work for weeks at a time, several times per year.  Even in their absence, the work gets done, or customers and colleagues simply wait until the employee returns. 

(Another piece of evidence that supports  the “customer comes last” mentality here – but that’s another post for another day.)

Though we’ve taken a few vacations in the 2-3 week range (to the US, Korea), these were not trips without an agenda.  Usually, one or more of us has had meetings to attend, friends to visit, errands to run, etc.  I’m not claiming for a single second that these obligations weren’t welcome or for good reason.  But just once, I wanted to try out the European habit of lounging around the villa pool all day.

Honestly, don’t we all?

I’m happy to report that we did, indeed, do our best to practice deliberate laziness at two separate villas.  We spent the first week at a property outside Lucignano (Casal Gheriglio) and the second near Pistoia (Alice del Lago Country House).

Alice del Lago Country House

Alice del Lago Country House

If you’d like to read in-depth reviews of both properties, you can find them on TripAdvisor here and here.  Just look for the shoes!  I’ll try to post my reviews on TA going forward, but I’ll always add a link for you here as well.

Of the two, we loved Casal Gheriglio the most.  Perhaps it will always have a special place in our memories because Big Foot celebrated his first birthday there, and T-Rex and I learned to make delicious, authentic Tuscan fare in the large villa kitchen.

Contrary to my picture-perfect vision, even our relaxing moments ended up characterized by doing rather than simply being.  I wouldn’t necessarily consider this negative, especially since reality with little boys means that we parents are (almost) always on the move.  But we definitely have a ways to go in learning how to holiday like a proper European (more on that below).

At the villa, Doc Sci and I gobbled up several books in the shade while the boys amused themselves in the outdoor shower.  T-Rex honed his cannonball skills in the pool, and Screech conquered his water anxiety.  We savored as many meals al fresco as our mosquito-pecked legs could handle.  We napped, we tanned, we nibbled cookies and sipped coffee.

Big Foot, just hangin' out.

Big Foot, just hangin’ out.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Lounging Around at Tuscan VillasBut try as we might, our efforts to waste away the day poolside paled in comparison to the Belgian family next door.  Each morning, we noticed that they moved only from the apartment to the pool, sometimes stopping to eat a bite at the outdoor table.  The rest of the time, the parents remained on their laurels with a beer and a book open. all. day. long.  The girls (aged 9 and 11) occasionally went for a dip in the water before returning to their own books or beds for a nap.

Perhaps I’m just not cut out for this full-on European “holiday” thing.  After forty eight hours, I couldn’t contain the urge to get out and explore.  Not that these lazy days are bad… In fact, I think building rest time into any vacation is a key component to keeping kids happy during the more itinerary-intensive periods (and giving parents a break).

After all, that’s our family travel style – balanced.

Italian breakfast - coffee and cookies.

Italian breakfast – coffee and cookies.

Before I wrap up, here are two more tidbits I’d like to talk about briefly just in case you fancy your own Italian villa vacation…

First, price.  I’m all about having the best experience for the least amount of cash.  I search high and low for affordable quality vacation rentals.  I’ll be frank.  These villas were NOT cheap.  They exceeded my target price per night by more than I care to think about.  But, in comparison to the other properties available (and there are MANY as a simple Google search will reveal), we did quite well for two-bedroom units at the height of summer travel season.

If you want to visit Tuscany on a budget, don’t do it in August.  May and September are more reasonably priced (and not as hot).  If you have a car, look for properties that are outside the main attractions (Siena, Firenze, San Gimignano).  You won’t want to drive in the cities themselves anyway, and the countryside is quieter and more scenic.

Second, ask yourself…  Is a villa is the right type of Italian accommodation for my situation?  Only you can answer that, but one primary issue to consider is transportation.

If you’re hoping to stay within walking distance of a certain city or attraction, know that most villas are located in the country.  If you don’t have a car, getting to and from the property could be problematic.  Buses in Italy rarely abide by a schedule (and may not even have one).  Roads often do not have sidewalks and can give you a real work out with their steep inclines.

Also, if you don’t plan on cooking many meals or doing laundry, you may not need all the facilities that a villa offers (full kitchen and washing machine).  In this case, try a bed and breakfast or budget hotel instead.

Many thanks to Claudia at Casal Gheriglio and Roberta at Alice del Lago for making our first real European holiday one that we will treasure for years to come.

This post is part of Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!Signature-Marigold

Vacation Rental Reviews: Airbnb – Haarlem, The Netherlands

Thrifty Travel Mama - My Airbnb Experience, HaarlemAirbnb makes it easy to find a place to lay your head (almost) anywhere in the world.  Add cheap per-night prices in the mix, and you’ve got yourself a budget traveler’s dream.  Right?

Well, it depends.

In my first mention of Airbnb a few months ago, I suggested that perhaps the key to Airbnb’s discount prices and variety of properties 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.

This real life factor caused Airbnb to fall from my #1 budget vacation rental choice to #3.

When we showed up to the apartment in Haarlem for our weekend in The Netherlands, everything looked the same as the pictures on the website.  The owner didn’t misrepresent anything.  But, what I didn’t realize is that other than stashing her toothbrush in a cabinet and clearing out most of the fridge, she left everything as is and went to sleep at her boyfriend’s house for the weekend.

It’s one thing to look at your sister’s used makeup brushes, crusty spices, haphazard junk mail, and grody toilet sponge.  It’s quite another to find yourself surrounded by the personal effects of a complete stranger, and one that doesn’t share your taste in cleanliness at that.

As the owner showed us around the apartment, I noticed she still wore her shoes around the house (a total no-no in most European countries).  And then I realized, why would she care if she wore shoes or not?  It’s not as if she bothered to clean the floors.  Ugh.

With Airbnb, no standards exist.  Anyone can list their home, and accommodations can be in any condition.  It’s up to the traveler to scour the available photos and be savvy enough to ask the right questions.

I inquired about location, public transportation, amenities, and the like.  But one issue I failed to discuss beforehand – other than personal cleanliness standards – was that of temperature.

It never occurred to me that we would need to use the heat at the end of March.  We are lucky to have a very warm apartment in Germany and seldom (if ever) use the radiators all winter long.  Not so in an ancient townhouse down in damp Holland.

We cranked the thermostat up much higher than I’m sure the owner would have liked.  Unfortunately, even our best efforts weren’t enough.  I had not packed or prepared for such frigid indoor conditions, and Big Foot woke up crying because even with three or four layers he was so cold he couldn’t sleep.  No bueno.

Would I use Airbnb again?  Maybe.  But, I would exhaust all other possibilities first, endlessly analyze photos, and thoroughly interrogate the owner.  No amount of savings is worth being so uncomfortable that you seriously consider ditching your vacation and returning home early.  Signature-Marigold

Flying Lufthansa Internationally with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Flying Lufthansa Internationally With KidsOur trip to the US last month consisted of four flights: United Airlines from Frankfurt to Dulles, from Dulles to Orlando, from Orlando to Chicago O’Hare, and Lufthansa from Chicago O’Hare to Frankfurt. To read my review of flying United Airlines internationally with kids, click here.

Also, for tips on booking a multi-city itinerary like ours, see my previous post here.

Now, it’s important to note that I spend a lot of time on SeatGuru when I research and book flights.  I painstakingly pick flights based on seating configuration and entertainment, two major factors for a good experience flying with children.  It’s not nice to have all that work go to waste.

Or be wrong.

As I mentioned earlier, I love European carriers.  Lufthansa is one of my main squeezes.  When United offered a Lufthansa flight on their website as an option (and a cheaper one at that), I jumped at the opportunity.  But not without checking SeatGuru first to make sure the flight had personal TV screens for all economy passengers.

I learned a lesson here I want to share with you: check and re-check.

If you care to follow along, here’s a link to the aircraft for Lufthansa Flight 431 from ORD to FRA.  It’s a 747 with four seats in the middle (good).  If you hover over the economy class seats, you’ll notice that it says “Video: Personal TV.”  Great – that’s what I want.

But…

If I had gone up to the In-Flight Amenities section and clicked on “Video,” I would have seen this message:

In Economy, some Lufthansa 747-400 have not yet been retrofitted and do not offer touch screen entertainment. In these cases, films and programming are shown via overhead projectors and monitors throughout the cabin.

The dreaded overhead monitor that actually showed nothing but soccer (football) news and clips for the first two hours.

Normally I check both places, but for some reason I didn’t this time.  And we got stuck with overhead monitors.  Showing three movies total for an eight-hour flight.  Two of which we had already seen on the previous United flight.  One of which was a documentary about animals.  Whoop-de-doo.

Boy am I glad this was an overnight flight.  And boy am I glad that again, my kids slept like pros.  All. Night. Long.

On the flip side, the Lufthansa food lived up to its reputation.  Excellent dark meat chicken with a flavorful soy sauce, sticky rice, and steamed vegetables for dinner.  Breakfast was not hot, but it contained a name-brand granola bar and a good fruit cup among other things.

Both of my boys received an age-appropriate toy from a Lufthansa flight attendant upon boarding. T-Rex really enjoyed this one and still plays it.

Both of my boys received an age-appropriate toy from a Lufthansa flight attendant upon boarding. T-Rex really enjoyed this one and still plays it.

Other Lufthansa perks I appreciate: small toys to entertain children during boarding and take-off, comfortable pillows and real blankets, hot towels before meals, and friendly flight attendants who don’t mind if you ask to have one of their two-liter bottles of water all to yourself.

So would I fly Lufthansa again?  You betcha.

Have you flown either Lufthansa internationally with children?  What was your experience?  Signature-Marigold

Vacation Rental Reviews: Homeaway – Brugge, Belgium

Thrifty Travel Mama - My Homeaway Experience, BruggeFor families wanting a vacation rental for their next getaway, VRBO is a good resource, but Homeaway is much, much better!  Today’s review is of our Homeaway experience in Brugge, Belgium.

Though Homeaway doesn’t have as many search options as Airbnb, I am still usually able to narrow down my search enough to find what I’m looking for.  This is the main advantage that Homeaway has over its sister site VRBO – and the prices are usually better on the former.

As I mentioned in my comparison of the big three vacation rental websites, 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 often has minimum stay requirements, but if you’re close enough to the booking date, you may be able to request an exception.  The rental agreement for teh apartment in Brugge insisted all visitors must stay at least three nights.  We only needed two, and since the reservation was only a few weeks away, the owners acquiesced.

As always, I sent multiple emails to the owners, inquiring about all sorts of random details.  Is there an elevator in the building?  Is parking free?  Plentiful?  How long is the walk to the center of the city?  I received prompt replies, and the answers turned out to be accurate.  The owners were courteous and personable; the whole situation felt safe and comfortable.

My experience with Homeaway was so positive that I used the website to book our two-week Tuscany vacation in August.  If each reservation is as smooth as our Brugge experience, Homeaway will continue to be my primary vacation rental website.

For those interested in a review of Brugge Homeaway property #854271 here goes!

Tom and An rent a neat and clean two bedroom apartment in Brugge, twenty minutes by foot from the city center.  An welcomed us with a bottle of wine and personally showed us how to work everything in the apartment.

Loads of cable channels - many in English!

Loads of cable channels – many in English!

Light pours into the apartment, and the open plan of the living area makes the space seem large and bright.  Though it’s obvious that the building is old, the rooms have been thoughtfully renovated.

Second bedroom with double bed.

Second bedroom with double bed.

The view from the flat is nothing to write home about which is a pity since Brugge is such a beautiful city.  The front of the apartment looks onto the street; the back balconies face a sea of patchwork rooftops.  But, no matter, this apartment is a fabulous budget choice.

Street view.

Street view.

We walked in to Brugge each day; we didn’t need to take a bus or car.  At the property, on-street parking is free and plentiful. We experienced no street noise at any time of day or night.

Back balcony view.

Back balcony view.

Want to buy groceries and cook a meal at home instead of paying outrageous Brugge restaurant prices?  A gigantic Carrefour is located just a few blocks away.  The kitchen boasts a toaster and paper towels (not standard for most vacation rentals), but lacks dish soap.

Bathroom with tub and rain shower, a nice surprise.

Bathroom with tub and rain shower, a nice surprise.

A high chair and baby travel cot (pack & play) are available.  An has also collected various children’s games, puzzles, and books that other renters have left behind.  What a nice surprise to find new toys to hold the boys’ interest!

Kitchen and dining area with high, wobbly chairs.

Kitchen and dining area with high, wobbly chairs.

If forced to find a fault with this property, I’d mention that the table is a high top (not great for little kids), and the dining chairs are quite wobbly (dangerous for young ones who want to do everything themselves!).

Would I stay here again?  Most likely, unless of course I could find something comparable in price and amenities located just a tad closer to the center.  To sum it up – a fabulous find in a wonderful city!Signature-Marigold

Vacation Rental Reviews: VRBO – Salt Lake City, Utah

Thrifty Travel Mama - My VRBO Experience, Salt Lake CityFor our traveling family of five, the best accommodations on the go are vacation rentals.  Several months ago, I detailed three of the most popular vacation rental websites: VRBO, Homeaway, and Airbnb.  This week, you’ll be able to read reviews of my experiences with all three.

First up, VRBO.  I mentioned in my previous post that VRBO is my least favorite.  Since I travel with three children under six years old, I usually need to search for properties with kid-friendly amenities as well as necessities like wi-fi or extras like air conditioning or a pool.  It can be hard to navigate the listings and find exactly what you are looking for. Compared to other vacation rental websites, VRBO offers a paltry few filters to pare down the options.

Price is also important, and VRBO tends to be the most expensive of the three websites.  But, exceptions always exist, and I don’t recommend throwing VRBO out all together.

In fact, VRBO came out on top when I searched for a Salt Lake City rental during a very busy convention week.

According to VRBO’s security suggestion, I contacted the owner via email and phone.  I asked loads of questions about everything from what shops were in walking distance, where the nearest bus stop was located, if sheets came with the pack & play, etc.  The owner responded promptly to both email and phone calls.

I requested a discount since we were staying 7 nights, and the owner acquiesced.  Payment via Paypal went smoothly, and we received our damage deposit back as promised (also through Paypal).

All in all, our experience using VRBO to find and reserve a holiday apartment couldn’t have gone better.  VRBO has moved up to my second choice of the top three booking sites, and you can read more about why in my Airbnb review (coming Friday).

For those interested in a review of Salt Lake City VRBO property #328966 here goes!

As I mentioned above, communication with the owner was stellar.  The major selling point of this condo is that Lisa concerns herself with responding quickly and even anticipates guest questions and concerns.

One week prior to check-in, Lisa emails a thirteen-page check-in packet (yes, 13 pages!!).  Guests will know where to find items, how to use services, the quantity of supplies provided, and what to do if something goes wrong.  I’ve never seen a more thorough welcome packet.

The pictures online accurately depict the state of the unit and the furnishings.  The beds were comfortable and the the kitchen fully stocked.  I was pleased to find extras such as laundry detergent, dish soap, sponges, and paper towels.

I really appreciated the baby-friendly amenities; the pack & play and highchair were both clean and in great shape.

A few things a renter might want to know before settling on this property… First, let’s talk location, a major selling point in the ad.  The condo is very close to the airport (less than 10 minutes) and downtown Salt Lake City (again, under 10 minutes).  Unfortunately, the area is rather urban and the surrounding buildings quite shabby.

I never felt unsafe in the neighborhood, though I will say I was glad the parking lot was gated.  We walked to the kids playground several blocks away one afternoon, and I decided not to do that again.  I know that honest, hardworking people live in this area.  But, if I have a choice about where I wanted to spend my time on vacation, this part of Salt Lake City wouldn’t be on my list.

Second, the condo is garden level, meaning if you walked up to the building, the living room window would be where your feet stood on the ground.  I felt uncomfortable leaving the blinds open during the day since everyone could (and did) look in the windows.

Third, I knew in advance the size of the condo was rather small (620 sq. ft).  But, I didn’t realize how cramped the common area would feel with three kids playing.  If I wasn’t spending a lot of time in the unit, the size wouldn’t be a concern.  But I did, and it was.

Would I stay here again?  Maybe under certain circumstances, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.  In a nutshell – great owner, not-so-great neighborhood.Signature-Marigold

Budget Restaurants in Brugge

As I mentioned in my Brugge, Belgium – With Kids! post, eating out here will bust your budget.  In fact, restaurant meals in BeNeLux cost a lot more than we are used to paying here in Germany.

I scoured Pinterest, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other corners of the web in hopes of compiling a respectable list of lunch and dinner options.  Unfortunately, the best research doesn’t always translate into a good dining experience.

I personally have the worst luck when it comes to choosing a restaurant which is why I prefer to stick to simple, inexpensive food, or make something from the local grocery store in our vacation rental.  I’ll be sharing some of my travel dinner recipes soon, but for now – budget restaurants in Brugge.

Manna & Co.

Manna & Co.

Manna & Co.  This restaurant was described as being a refreshing place to grab a quick and light lunch.  After all the fries and waffles we’d been eating, I really looked forward to a salad chock full of fresh vegetables.  Regrettably, my salad was served with a side of attitude.

The woman in charge clearly communicated her disdain for the little mouths in our party.  Portions were subjective and tangibly stingy, especially for the make-your-own salad.  When we drank some tea out of our thermos, she scolded us and insisted it was “not possible” for us to partake of our own beverage inside.  This only goes to show that just because a restaurant has high chairs, it doesn’t mean it’s kid-friendly!

Regardless of our poor experience, Manna & Co was obviously a local favorite.  Police officers came in for “the usual” and seating became scarce once the clock struck 12.  Katelijnestraat 46

Quick

Quick

Quick.  Our family has a somewhat twisted tradition of trying the McDonalds ripoffs in every country (Lotteria in South Korea, for instance).  Quick is the Flemish imitation.  Burgers and salads are acceptable; fries are atrocious by Belgian standards.  Kids meals (Magic Box) even come with a strawberry yogurt for dessert.  Come for the cheap food, stay for the market square view.  Markt 14

Chez Vincent

Chez Vincent

Chez Vincent.  Located on the east side of St. Salvator cathedral, Chez Vincent is a great place to grab a cone full of Belgian frites and some grilled snacks (we tried the shrimp on a stick).  Not as good as Fritland, but still delicious and inexpensive.  Sint-Salvatorskerkhof 1

Brasserie Medard.  So close to the Markt, you won’t believe your good fortune when the heaping plates of 4 euro spaghetti Bolognese arrive.
Of all the restaurants on the list, I looked forward to Brasserie Medard the most.  As my awful luck would have it, the restaurant staff didn’t feel like working the evening of our visit.  No reason, just a “kitchen temporarily closed” sign on the door.  Two female students who just happened to speak Dutch and also have their eyes fixed on the spaghetti prize confirmed what we suspected.  The telly was more interesting than the customers.  Sint-Amandsstraat 18
Republiek.  Billed as a funky student hangout, I found the prices a little bit above my post-doc budget.  Not the most kid-friendly, but an extensive menu and generous opening hours make up for it.  Sint-Jakobsstraat 36

Grand Cafe de Passage.  A little bit off the beaten path, this restaurant serves mains costing no more than 10 euro.  Dweersstraat 26

De Halve Maan Brewery

De Halve Maan Brewery

De Halve Maan Brewery.  Take a tour of the brewery (7 euros including a beer), or stop in for a beer and a snack in the tavern.  Walplein 26

Ribs 'n Beer

Ribs ‘n Beer

Ribs ‘n Beer.  At 18 euros just for the ribs, the only redeeming factor is these bones are all you can eat.  Dinner only.  Ezelstraat 50

If you know me, you’re wondering what in the heck I’m doing with a list that doesn’t include one single Mexican option.  Sorry – I couldn’t find ANY!  But, no worries, we still stuffed our faces with beans & rice and chips & salsa back at the holiday home.  For an excellent Amsterdam option, check out my Los Pilones post here.

Any Brugge budget restaurants I missed?  Leave a comment or review below.

Want to know where the best fries in Belgium are?  Check out my snapshots of Brussels and Antwerpen, and then decide for yourself!Signature-Marigold

Exploring Brugge by Boat

Thrifty Travel Mama - Canal Boat Tour, BruggeEverywhere I looked, the guides all insisted the same thing – explore Brugge by boat!  Or by horse drawn carriage.  Pick your pleasure, but either way a tour of the city must be taken.

I don’t normally spring for expensive tours in new cities.  I prefer walking, taking public transport, wandering about on my own and at our family’s pace.  But, I couldn’t get away from this advice no matter where I turned.  And, let’s face it.  Little boys love boats and water.

My boys also love horses, but we could only afford one splurge and the budget choice (though not exactly cheap) ended up the winner.  Plus, I can walk where the horses trot, but I can’t swim where the boats glide.

One of the many Brugge boat tour operators.

One of the many Brugge boat tour operators.

I couldn’t find any concrete information (as in a credible website, exact address, phone number, GPS coordinates) as to where exactly I should find said boat tours.  The only clue?  Head down the Wollestraat, and keep your eyes peeled for the skipper.

Our captain/guide - and a view of the Belfort!

Our captain/guide – and a view of the Belfort!

Well, whaddya know, those imperfect directions sufficed.  Several boat tour companies have set up shop in this small area.  We picked the only one open at the time we visited, plunked down some cash (€ 6,50 adults / children 4-11  € 3 / free for children under four), and climbed aboard.

Behind this house is the Lake of Love.

Behind this house is the Lake of Love.

Beautiful Brugge.

Beautiful Brugge.

Boats are small, so little ones should be closely supervised to avoid swimming with the sharks (just kidding, no fin friends here).  The captain offers gossipy and historical tidbits about the charming houses and occupants lined up along the water.  Not too dense, not too dull.  Our guide spoke English, but other languages were available.

Brugge through young eyes.

My boys couldn’t get enough of the giant swans.

Careful you don't take the wrong exit in this building!

Careful you don’t take the wrong exit in this house!

The whole shebang lasted about 35 minutes, just enough time to absorb a few facts but not long enough to drive little ones over the edge.  Tips will be solicited at the end of the ride, so keep your euro coins handy.

Fish eye view.

Fish eye view.

Speaking of tips, here are a few weather-related ones… Tours do not run when the canals are frozen.  Duh.  However, just a little ice doesn’t scare these fellas; our boat crunched its way through Brugge during our visit at the end of March.  Also, no tourists, no tour.  The captain waits until the boat reaches capacity before sailing off.  If you’re the first to arrive, you may find yourself shivering under the open skies waiting for the rest of the frozen folks to show up.

The Church of our Lady - constructed entirely of bricks.

The Church of our Lady – constructed entirely of bricks.

Brugge is full of canals, and known as one of the European “Venice of the North” cities, so no wonder all the experts insisted on seeing it the way residents have for centuries.  Our whole family enjoyed taking in the unique scenery that a boat tour affords, soaking in the atmosphere of this beautiful old city.

Fantastic!

Fantastic!

Would you rather experience Brugge by boat or horse drawn carriage?  If you’ve had the privilege of either one, share your experience in the comments below. Signature-MarigoldLooking for more about Brugge?  Check out the best things to do in Brugge with kids, and tips on eating out in the old city.