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).

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Turkish Family Travels: Bucket List FAIL and the Mishap That (Almost) Ruined Our Trip

Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

This post appears as part of our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series, chronicling a fun fall fling in the city of Istanbul… well, except for the hotel shenanigans I’m sharing today.

It’s obvious from comments both written and spoken that some people think the life of an expat or long-term traveling family is one of endless glamour. It must be amazing to see so many places in the world! You are so lucky! I wish I had your life! Hmmmm.

Amazing? Yes, at times.

Perfect? Hardly.

I think the travel blogging community doesn’t do enough to show the other side of travel. You know… the my-kid-threw-up-on-the-train-and-we-just-had-to-leave-it-or-miss-our-connection side. The diaper-blowout-that-coated-the-entire-car-seat-at-4am side. The I-so-looked-forward-to-this-place-but-it-totally-let-me-down side.

I’m definitely an accomplice in this only-show-the-pretty-side routine. It’s not that I want to purposely hide anything. It’s more that I prefer to write about the fun times and often forget to write about the travel disasters.

So, today I’m sharing a bucket list FAIL and a nasty hotel mishap that nearly ruined our trip.

You can read more about our mishaps and total travel fails in Italy, Bulgaria, Karlovy Vary, and Seoul via the links provided.

Out of Time

You’ve probably seen my bucket list here. The last item on the list is something I’ve never done before – visit two continents in the same trip without flying between them. Fortunately, this is easily done in Istanbul… if you have time.

But, time we did not have. Sadly, we could only sail between Europe and Asia, touching the former but not the latter. All in all, not a super big deal. Plus, it means I’ll have to go back. Three cheers for silver linings!

Now, on to the dark cloud..

Istanbul Accommodation Hunt

Normally we stay in vacation rentals when we travel. They’re cheaper, provide more space than a traditional hotel room, and give us the opportunity to imagine living in the city.

I had a terrible time looking for accommodations in Istanbul. It seemed that all of the apartments were in Galata – or much further away.

I wanted to be within walking distance of as many places as possible in Sultanahmet since we only had three days. I had no idea (and had no time to research because we were moving) how we would do on public transportation, and I didn’t want to risk it.

Numerous searches did not turn up any apartments that fit my criteria – and yes, I continually loosened my expectations over the weeks I looked for a place. Finally, I had to fact the facts – a holiday apartment was out. Time to look for a hotel.

Shabby Digs – Chic Prices

Many of the hotels looked ridiculously run down, shabby quarters with royally high prices. We needed a cot of some kind for Charlie at least two double beds for the rest of us. I hoped for a door of some kind to make the room a suite so that Doc Sci and I could hang out at night while the boys went to sleep. A kitchen is also a huge plus for us.

The hotel rooms my search returned were both depressing and hilarious. Some of them were decorated with antiques in a rich, granny style which is fancy but never feels clean to me. Others appeared so cheaply put together and dirty I could easily imagine the grime and the bugs (not pictured, of course).

My absolute favorite was a “family room” (their words, not mine) sporting a double bed and a single bed in one room… both were nestled in the main room next to a hot tub with neon lights. Just – wow.

Lucky Strike?

I finally found a hotel I thought could work. The Hotel Enderun featured a beautiful breakfast area enclosed in glass and a small green area perfect for little boys to let off steam in a stressful new city.

The rooms did not have kitchens, but I figured that we would not need to cook when staying only a few days. Having breakfast provided would be enough for 1-2 meals a day (we usually make sandwiches with buffet items).Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

The description on the website stated that the Family Room (the language suggests they have only one) had two connecting rooms, one with a double bed, and the other with a single. However, the photos showed two singles and one double. Either way, that would work for us – and it had a DOOR! After all, that’s what connecting means, right?

Wrong.

When we arrived, we were shown to a regular hotel room (ONE room) that had one double bed and three portable cots. Yep, this hotel expected my big boys to sleep in baby beds. Even worse than that, they completely lied about the description of the room.

From the Hotel Enderun website:

Family Connected Room has 2 Connected Rooms each other. One of them has 1 Single beds and the Other Room has 1 Queen Bed, Private bathroom with shower, Dual action (heating and cooling) air-conditioner, 24 hour hot water,Satellite LCD TV with major European channels, Direct dial telephone, Mini bar, Hair dryer, Safe deposit box,WI-FI, Free internet connection. Buffet Breakfast, Non Smoking. Maximum 3 Person per room in existing beds.

 

At first they were “full” and then they suddenly had an extra single room next to that “family room” that they could give in addition to the room we currently had. But, my kids are too young to sleep alone in a strange hotel in a new city, and I didn’t feel comfortable going in the hallway in the night if they needed us.

Plus, this was NOT what I booked. The manager on duty finally admitted that the room we had was a “deluxe” room – great, but NOT what I booked.

I can handle a lot of stressful situations but being tricked and ripped off is not one of them.

I explained that this situation was unacceptable and showed them on their own website. I asked repeatedly to see that room in the pictures. The manager told me he had never seen those photos and had no idea they had that kind of room. Wow… Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

After a bunch of “But, we’re full..” garbage, I was finally allowed to see a suite – again, not the same as the photos. I was assured nothing could be done that night. And I assured them I would not be paying the quoted rate for that night.

We had no choice but to sleep in the room offered or be on the street that evening. I paid half of the nightly rate and also negotiated a free return taxi to the airport at the end of our stay.

The Saga Continues

The next day, we finally were able to see what was supposedly the advertised room (“It’s our best room! You’ll love it!”).

Want to guess what we found?Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

Inside were one double, one single, and one roll-away bed (NOT four real beds). There were indeed two rooms at one time, as in probably a hundred years ago, that now are one big room with a six-foot opening in between.

No door.

Once more, c’mon, let me hear it… NOT WHAT I BOOKED!!!!Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

I was – naturally – furious. But what could be done? Either I could accept this room and make it work, or I could let this ruin the rest of my vacation.

We chose the former.

Buyer Beware

Unfortunately, the photos of this fake room are still up on the website.

I know now that these are photos from various rooms, not one room, put together in a slideshow to lead the customer to believe they’re getting something that does not exist.

I know this because I’ve been in these rooms. The bathroom pictured is from our first room (the one with three baby cribs for three big boys). And several of the other photos are from the other family room I was shown, but that we did not stay in.Thrifty Travel Mama | Turkish Family Travels - Bucket List Fail and Major Hotel Mishap

I write about this not to shame a particular hotel (though that is an added bonus), but to caution you. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

In this instance, the price wasn’t outrageously high or low, and nothing about the website seemed sketchy. I wish I would have had a backup plan so that when I was offered a room at another hotel, I could’ve had something to bargain.

Be Bold!

False advertising?! Language translation error?! Who knows – what I do know is that I wasted hours on this mess, and it nearly ruined our entire vacation since we had to deal with this garbage on two of our three days in town.

If blatant misrepresentation happens to you, do not be afraid to call management out on the error and negotiate terms to make the stay acceptable to you.

These infuriating shenanigans are part of that less glamorous, least-publicized, rarely discussed side to travel. These kinds of situations are the mishaps that make a place memorable – for better or worse.

What about you? Have you ever bumped into false advertising on your travels or had another mishap nearly ruin your trip? What would you do if what you got was not what you paid for?

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Lead image credit

All other images are from and link to the Hotel Enderun website.

Our Unforgettable 10th Anniversary Swiss Getaway

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, SwitzerlandThe last time Doc Sci and I had the chance to escape alone, Charlie was still swimming in my stomach. We went to Milan for one warm, delicious day (the little one must have liked it because we ended up back in Italy to celebrate his first birthday). But with the little guy nearly two (2!!), we were due for another getaway.

With our tenth anniversary on the horizon, I entertained visions of endless days spent lying on Greek beaches, in private villas, and around infinity pools. These images must have been more delusion than dream because who I am kidding?! There’s no way we have the financial or child-care means to support such grand plans.

Instead, we ended up with a plan that was much more “us” than my former imaginations. We booked our trusty babysitter for a day and a half and set off for Switzerland to sleep in the Alps and hike the classic Faulhornweg.

Logistics

Faulhornweg day-trippers need to take the cog wheel train from Wilderswil to Schynige Platte, make their way to First (about 6 solid hours of walking, not including breaks), take the cable car back down to Grindelwald, and then a train back to Wilderswil.

It sounds confusing, but the basic idea is that you must travel up one side of the mountain, walk an insanely long way, and go back down the other side in order to return to your car. It can be done in reverse, but I consistently read that it was recommended to start at Schynige Platte.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

The terrace at Hotel Schynige Platte.

I figured with our limited budget, we’d need to overnight at a hotel in Grindelwald or even Interlaken. But, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Hotel Schynige Platte reasonably priced for Switzerland. The hotel sits just above the cog wheel train station on top of the mountain and affords diners and sleepers glorious views of the big three: Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger. Rates include both a five-course dinner and breakfast buffet.

Going Up

Since we missed the cog wheel train experience at Pilatus, both Doc Sci and I were eager to cross this experience off our bucket list. We bought tickets in Wilderswil and waited for the last train of the day. We were asked repeatedly if we had overnight reservations (yes) because it would be a cold night alone on the mountain if we didn’t.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

To our surprise, other than a pack of paragliders, we were the only passengers on the train, save one Swiss family with two children. Doc Sci and I were like giddy school kids, jumping over the benches, hanging out the windows, snapping photos every three seconds.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Interlaken!

At the beginning of the train ride, we could see Interlaken, Thunersee, and Brienzersee. But then the train went through a series of tunnels before popping out in front of her majesty, Jungfrau.

Just like with the Eiffel Tower, sometimes the best view is not from the monument itself, but rather from a distance.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Why, hello there.

The Hotel

We pulled into the station at Schynige Platte, and checked into our hotel. The Hotel Schynige Platte is marketed as something from “grandma’s time.” The bathrooms are very modern (though not en-suite), the hotel is renovated and sparkling clean, but we had to laugh at some of the cheesy antiques.

All chuckling aside, we could barely speak when we saw the view from our room. I’m absolutely sure we had the best room in the entire house because it was on the corner and we could see the Alps from both windows.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Jungfrau!

Dinner was a curious affair. I can’t remember the last time I ate a five-course meal in a restaurant. I must have forgotten that snobbery is often the only thing that comes complimentary.

When we arrived at our table, the waitress insisted that we must order drinks. We only drink water with dinner at home, and I didn’t see in any TripAdvisor reviews that drinks (or at least water) were not included in the dinner price. She refused to bring us tap water and because we only had a limited number of francs with us (stupid I know, but I was not expecting to be manhandled), we couldn’t just order anything regardless of cost. We awkwardly asked for a menu.

A little heads up on this would’ve been nice, and a little understanding from the server would’ve been even nicer. We finally ordered a half liter of Sprite to the tune of 6 CHF. Yikes.

The worst part was that we realized later that another table had tap water – and a different waitress.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Several of the courses were served on “plates” of stone or wood.

This flap put a bit of a damper on our dinner. We tried our best to ignore it, but this server was intent on remaining surly throughout the entire meal. To make matters worse, it started raining during dinner, clouding up our view of the Alps.

Well, whatever – we were here without kids, and we were going to make the best of it!

The room was chilly, but a space heater did the trick. As I mentioned, none of the rooms are not en-suite, but we never had to wait for a toilet or shower, and everything was very clean. It was odd to sleep in such silence with nothing but an occasional gust of wind to break it. We savored every minute of it.

In the morning, we rose early in anticipation of the long hike ahead. Breakfast was a limited buffet (though they did have hard boiled eggs and an assortment of pork cold cuts in the protein department). We made ourselves Alpine cheese sandwiches to take along, and we devoured the traditional Swiss yogurt and muesli in between swigs of coffee.

The Hike

After checking out, we stepped out into the drizzle. Unfortunately, the rain from the night before had lingered. Never mind that, our spirits were still high. Whenever anything threatened to fizzle our cheery disposition, we just looked at each other and said, “No kids!”Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

But this weather, this drizzle, was to be the best of the whole day. The plus side was that we were the only people on the trail. We could chat with each other or climb in silence. Our exclamations at the beauty of this place, even despite the fog and rain, annoyed no one. Pit stops were possible anywhere one pleased.

We traversed so many different types of terrain – huge boulders, tiny footpaths, bits of snow, gurgling streams. We dodged cow pies in pastures with scary heifers and slimy black salamanders that came out to frolic in the puddles. It was incredible.

The only thing that could have made it any more amazing would’ve been the lifting of the clouds so that we could have seen the peaks around us while we hiked.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

The down side of the nasty weather was that by the middle of the hike, we were already on our way to being soaked. We wanted to sit in shelter somewhere to grab a bite to eat. We came across one restaurant (Berghaus Männdlenen Weberhütte) that rudely shooed us away since we only wanted to take a break and not buy a meal. The only other restaurant (Berghotel Faulhorn) we saw was at the Faulhorn summit. We figured we had about 5 CHF to spare and bought a hot chocolate with that in order to sit inside and warm up.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Faulhorn summit.

Unfortunately, our clothing and belongings were now thoroughly drenched (note to self: check waterproofing on clothing and gear before going on a substantial hike). Putting them back on and stepping back out into the chilly rain and blistering wind sent my teeth a-chattering and my body temperature in a frightening downward spiral. Thankfully, I warmed up again after about 30 minutes, and at that time, we discovered a free hut where we could have eaten our lunch.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Bachsee.

This hut looked out over the Bachsee, a lake popular with tourists ascending from Grindelwald to First. The sea was dead that day – no swimming, no fishing. I had hoped to take a dip in the Alpine water, but no dice. We had to keep moving to stay warm and get to a place where we could finally dry off.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking from Schynige Platte to First, Switzerland

Don’t get any crazy ideas – that’s a camera and zoom lens in my jacket, not a baby bump.

Water literally poured off of us as we stepped inside the cable car at First for the ride back down to the Grindelwald valley. I think the only things that weren’t completely dripping were our feet (thank God), our cameras, and our phones. We rode down the mountain relieved to have made it and eager to get back to our car to change into dry clothes.

Final Thoughts

Would I do this hike again? Absolutely. But, only if I had the assurance of a clear day with no rain. And I think my boys would love this route in a few years. Perhaps we’ll go back for our 15th anniversary.

Doc Sci and I talked about anything and everything during the hike to stay focused, positive, and warm. I am so thankful that we are the best of friends. The fact that after 10 years of marriage, we still have things to talk about really encouraged me. While I would have obviously wished for better weather and more amazing views, hiking in these awful conditions really solidified something for me. I’d rather be in a miserable place with my husband than in a gorgeous one without him.

Have you ever had weather or vendor attitudes threaten to ruin your plans for an amazing vacation? I’m not always this positive – I think the absence of potential chorus of whining helped – so if you have any tips on how you managed to make the best of things, share them in the comments below.Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

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!

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

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

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

Review: Petul Apart Hotel Residenz in Essen, Germany

Last week was a beast of a monster of a hurricane.  Okay, it wasn’t that ridiculous, but it was close.  Doc Sci trotted off to northern Germany leaving me with the three amigos for three days.  Needless to say, I’m glad it was three days and not three weeks. 

Since travel details are my specialty, I sorta kinda helped him to arrange his lodging.  But there are only so many hours in the day, and when my free time ran out, he ended up choosing the property and making the final reservation.  As such, here is another guest post from Doc Sci with a review of his hotel.

Last week, I hopped aboard a high speed train and managed to hang on for four hours until I reached Essen.  Translations of the word Essen include eating, food, meals, etc.  But this trip had nothing to do with chowing down.  Essen, Germany is quite a bit north from where we live and rather close to the Netherlands.  The purpose of my trip was to learn a whole bunch of scientific mumbo-jumbo, but I won’t go into that because this here is a travel blog not a how-to-be-a-nerd-scientist blog.

I booked a room at the Hotel Petul.  There are 6 different locations in Essen, some of which have a very modern look.  Since my wife and boys weren’t traveling with me this time, I only needed a single room.  However, most hotels in town were booked up on account of a convention at the city’s conference center.  The only room available was at the Apart Hotel Petul Residenz.

On to the review…

I took the latest train I could in order to be away from my family for the least amount of time.  This meant I had a very late check in time at the hotel (after midnight in fact).  When I called earlier in the day to ensure someone would be there to check me in, the woman very kindly in English told me it would be no problem.

When I arrived, the graveyard shift guy was of the older non-English speaking persuasion.  Luckily, two years of living in Germany has turned me into an expert in pantomime. From his gestures, I was able to get my key and understand that the hotel was a 250m walk down the street, and that the apartment sat right on top of a Lidl grocery store.

Just a note about location… The Hotel Petul was less than a two minute walk from a tram line that took me everywhere I wanted to go.  Downtown, uptown, Essen’s main train station, etc., all ran along this line.

My room - a double business apartment.

My room – a double business apartment.

Upon walking in to the apartment, my first impression was that the room was very nice, much nicer and bigger than I needed for sure.  But again, it was the only thing available.

Nice extras - free wifi and calls to land lines within Germany.

Nice extras – free wifi and calls to land lines within Germany.

The room had a bed and a desk.  Standard fare in standard European style.  Nothing particularly unusual.  Well, that is, until I walked into the bathroom and noticed the shower.

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “The shower… who cares about the shower… I do not pick properties based on the shower.”  But believe me when I say this shower was total overkill.

The knockout shower complete with LED lighting and a rain shower flooding straight down from the ceiling.

The knockout shower complete with LED lighting and a rain shower flooding straight down from the ceiling.

I literally could not figure out how to turn it on in the first five seconds (I am an engineer so I am supposed to know how everything works).

Wall jets and a seat for just hanging out in the shower if you so please.

Wall jets and a seat for just hanging out in the shower if you so desire.

Then I noticed that this crazy contraption came with a TWO PAGE, front and back instruction manual.  For a shower.  Granted the instructions were in German and didn’t help that much but… come on.  If the shower takes two pages to explain… it is toooo complicated.

Shower instructions - and a remote.

Shower instructions – and a remote.

And a little too awesome.  How in the world am I going to go back to my measly bath after getting used to a rain shower and wall jets?

Since this building was the Residenz, my room was attached to a small kitchenette that was shared between two apartments.  The kitchen had hotpot for making tea and coffee, a small fridge, kitchenware, a single burner (but no pot), and a microwave.  This was nice for making tea and instant oatmeal before heading off each day.

The hotel does offer a breakfast buffet, but it usually isn’t included in the room price.  When booking the hotel, I noticed the breakfast costs a whopping 11 euros per person.  I had a look at it my last day when I was checking out.  Sure, it was a standard German breakfast with cold cuts, bread, joghurt, and muesli.  But I definitely could have just gone downstairs to Lidl and purchased whatever I actually wanted to eat for much less money.

Little extras - packs of gummy bears on the pillow I could take home to my kids as souvenirs.

Little extras – packs of gummy bears on the pillow I could take home to my kids as souvenirs.

Despite the language barrier, Check-in and check-out were very easy.  I found the staff to be both kind and helpful.  I was also surprised by the daily cleaning service that is not standard in apartment and apartment hotel properties.  I would definitely stay here again by myself, but would I stay here with my family?

In short, the Apart Hotel Petul Residenz would not be my first choice in Essen family accommodation for several reasons.  First, the rates can vary wildly from 61 to 166 euro per night.  Since my stay coincided with a convention in the city, I paid around 80 euros per night for the double business apartment.  Truthfully, I would not pay much more than that unless I was in a bind.

Second, though it is considered an apartment, the “room” really is just that – one room.  We generally prefer properties that have at least one room with a door in order to have some kid-free time in the evenings.

On the flip side, the shared kitchenette is a great amenity when traveling with children.  The hotel does not charge extra for children using existing bedding.  My room had a small couch that would be fine for a child as well as a decent amount of floor space for a baby cot or small sleeping bags.

All in all, the Apart Hotel Petul Residenz is a decent place to stay with kids and family while on a budget in Essen, provided you can catch the rate on the low end of the scale.