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

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35 Tips to Help Your Family Pack Lighter for Air Travel

Thrifty Travel Mama | 35 Tips to Help Your Family Pack Lighter for Air TravelOne of the main objections parents have to traveling with their kids is all the c.r.a.p. they feel they must bring along.  Four fifty-pound bags, three car seats, one double stroller, four backpacks, and two carry-on suitcases later, you’re exhausted… and you haven’t even left yet.

But, my friends, it really doesn’t have to be this way.

You can travel lighter and smarter, even with kids in tow.  Sure, you’ll have to make sacrifices (you can’t bring your snazzy cardigan collection, sorry), but I guarantee the tips below will lighten the load on your shoulders… and in your luggage.

Whether you’re a travel newb or a packing pro, read on to get your hot little hands on 35 tips for traveling with your family using only carry-on luggage.

What (Not) To Wear

1. Don’t pack options.  I love having multiple clothing options just like any other gal out there, but these are luxuries one can’t afford when packing light.  Allow two shirts per person.  Two long sleeve and two short sleeve for winter.  Two short sleeve and two tank tops for summer.  One long sleeve, two short sleeve, and one tank top for spring and fall.  You get the idea.

2. Babies can claim an exception.  If you’ve got an infant who is still in the poop-explosion phase (God bless you),  allow a double clothing allowance.  Those two extra onesies and baby legs won’t make much of a dent in your available space.

3. Pick a color scheme.  For our boys, I gravitate toward black, blue, or grey.  Choose items that can be mixed and matched.  Both short sleeve shirts should be able to go with both long sleeve shirts.  For the adults, this means sticking with brown or black depending on what shoes you plan to wear.  Select your belt, scarf, hat, gloves, accessories, and clothing to match a color scheme that includes brown or black and two or three other highlights.  But no matter what colors you choose, I highly suggest you…

4. Avoid extremes – no red or white items.  If you need to do laundry, you don’t want to waste your time with multiple loads.  Eliminating red and white means you can wash most of your clothes together in cold water without fear of turning your favorite white t-shirt a bright shade of bubblegum.

5. Think in layers.  For winter, this helps reduce the bulk of what you need to pack.  Items such as thermal underwear are typically thin, light, and extremely useful when you don’t know how cold it will be at your destination.  They can also double as pajamas in a pinch.  A nice sweater can be worn under a jacket for more insulation or dress up your jeans for dinner with friends.  For summer, layers add versatility to your traveling wardrobe.  For great examples of making multiple outifts out of only a few pieces, see here.

If fashion is not your forte and you’re having trouble coming up with multiple outfits out of so few pieces, check out this post by blogger Bridgette Raes or the One Suitcase series from Outfit Posts.

6. Pare down the pants.  Bring only one extra pair of jeans (wear the other on the flight).  Seriously, do this even for kids.  You can spot clean denim after the kids hit the hay or just let it go (as long as you’re not expected someplace fancy).

7. (Slightly) Over pack underwear.  For knickers and socks, I usually squish as many pairs as I can.  Find slivers of space in suitcase corners, next to lumpy toiletries, and inside shoes.  I’m not advocating a let-it-all-hang-out-and-bring-your-entire-sock-collection mentality, but it sure is nice not to be washing underwear every third day.  My rule – five socks and five undies, max.

8. Take advantage of laundry facilities.  If you’ll have access to a washing machine during your trip, plan to use it.  Don’t take six outfits for a seven day trip.  Take two of everything except undergarments and wash when necessary.

9. Go for low maintenance.  All clothing items should be easy to launder (no ironing or dry clean only pieces).

10. Earn extra points for double duty items.  Try to vary what you pack – for example, select one dressy pair of jeans that can be worn to restaurants and other photo-worthy occasions.  Choose a comfy pair to wear on the plane and everywhere else.  Or, instead of going with a sweater, opt for a cardigan that can dress up a tank top or be layered over long sleeves if you’re chilly.

11. Take the shoe challenge.  Evaluate your activities, events, and obligations during your travels.  Bring as few pairs of shoes as possible.  Do you have to pack boots AND flats?  Could you get away with only pair of shoes per child?  Pack first for comfort, then for style.  You don’t have room for a gazillion options (see #1) when you don’t check luggage.

Thrifty Travel Mama | 35 Tips to Help Your Family Pack Lighter for Air Travel

Does your bed ever look like this the day before you depart? No? Really?  Oh, okay, mine neither…

Powder Room Essentials

12. Clear things up in the bathroom.  I put all toiletries in clear plastic quart/liter zip-top plastic bags.  I’ll admit I do love a cute cosmetic case, but the bulky fabric, zippers, and handles take up precious space.  With this system, I’m able to make separate bags with liquids for security inspection, solid shower items (bar soap, razors, face cloths, shower cap), oral hygiene, makeup, prescriptions and vitamins, etc.

13. Simplify shower needs.  Instead of a separate brand of body wash for each person, consider using castile soap instead.  This amazing liquid can be used for washing bodies, clothes, and teeth (really!).  Bring one bar of solid shampoo that everyone can share and a small bottle of conditioner.  For facial cleansing, use disposable cloths that will free up some room on the return.

14. Streamline your make up.  Once you’ve chosen a color scheme (see clothing above), match your cosmetics to your outfits.  Do you really need a rainbow of eye shadow while traveling?  Several weeks before you leave, try using only a cream-to-powder foundation, concealer, dual duty cream blush & lip stain, one eyeshadow palette, a brown or black eyeliner, mascara, and one lip stick, gloss, or balm.

15. Shrink your hair styling needs.  Most hotels and even many vacation rentals offer complimentary hair dryers.  But, maybe you prefer to use a model that you can test drive before you travel or you have curly hair like me and need a diffuser.  What to do?  Shop for a miniature model.  Features to consider.. does the hair dryer fold in half?  Is it dual voltage for international travel?  Mini flat irons, curling irons, and hair brushes are also available.

Baby on Board

16. Use disposable diapers.  I cloth diaper part of the time, but never when I travel.  Why?  Because the paper nappies occupy space on the outbound journey that will be emptied and then subsequently used for supermarket souvenirs and other trinkets on the return.

Expert tip: Keep track of your child’s diaper usage for several weeks prior to the trip so you can make an accurate count of just how many diapers you’ll need.  Round up or add one extra per day (two for infants) in case of accidents and emergencies.

17. Rethink the diaper bag.  If you’re flying with carry-on luggage only, do you really need a fully-stocked diaper bag?  Instead, I prefer to use a diaper changing wallet with a small case of wipes, a few diapers, and a trial-size tube of diaper rash cream.  Need a change of clothes?  They’re right there in your suitcase.

18. Ditch the pack & play and high chair.  Unless you’re going to a remote location, you should be able to find accommodations with baby items.  It’s worth it not to schlep your Graco across country (or the ocean!), even if you have to pay a nominal fee.  If you really must have your own travel cot, test drive a pop-up tent like the Kidco Peapod or if you have a small baby, use the bassinet that goes with your stroller.  For high chairs, I like my Sack’n Seat.

19. Determine whether or not your destination is stroller-friendly.  Google it, ask a local mama blogger, or post questions on TripAdvisor.  Many cities overseas are NOT stroller-friendly (Prague, Seoul, Italy, and Bulgaria to name a few) because the curbs are steep, elevators are rare, and stairs abound.  If you won’t use it, don’t bring it.  Consider a backpack carrier instead.  If you prefer to have a stroller for use in the airport, go with a cheap umbrella model.

Read: Tips for Planning a Travel Itinerary with Kids

20. Shell out for a stroller and/or car seat bag.  We own an old school Phil & Teds double stroller that I bought second-hand on ebay.  A few months into love at first push, I invested in a pricey travel cover.  It killed me to pay so much for what seemed like an unnecessary item especially since the stroller was used.  But that concoction of black canvas and Velcro has earned its keep.  With careful packing, Doc Sci is able to fit the stroller, doubles seat, rain cover, and sleeping bag in there.  If you don’t need a rain cover or sleeping bag, you can sneak in a few bulky items like sweaters or scarves (shhh!).  The same goes for a car seat bag.  If you’re not using the car seat on the airplane, try squeezing a dozen or more diapers in the bum space.

21. Talk ’em down.  Look for rental car deals that include a car seat, or negotiate a deal with your preferred company’s customer service center over the phone so you don’t have to bring your own.  If your child doesn’t need to use a car seat in flight, you’ll save yourself a headache by borrowing or renting one at your destination (and if you do bring your own, it could be lost or delayed which means you’ll be stranded at the airport…).

Kiddos and Tots in Tow

22. Children carry their own weight.  As soon as your son or daughter is able (for my boys this was around the age of 2), invest in a small backpack so he or she can take their own toys.  If the toy doesn’t fit in the backpack or it’s too heavy, it stays home.

23. Allot each child a toy quota.  It also helps to have a round number so that favorite play items don’t get left in your hotel or vacation rental.  For instance, I usually allow the boys to take five small toys and two books each.  When it’s time to pack up to head home and I only see four Matchbox cars in their bag, I know we’re missing something.

24. Leave special stuff behind.  You might have to bring the teddy bear that accompanies your baby girl to bed every night, but insist on leaving collectable, valuable, expensive, and one-of-a-kind toys at home.

Read: Jet Lag Tips for Families

25. Keep them separated.  If your airline (hello, easyJet) won’t allow a personal item and a piece of hand luggage, you’ll need to get creative in dividing up the space.  Use large (gallon) zip-top plastic bags for kids’ toys.  Offer a pile of sharpie markers, and let them go to town decorating their bag. Then fill the bags with a few toys and books, the only rules being that the bag must lay flat and close easily.  These zip packs can be slipped into outer suitcase pockets for easy access during the flight.

Everything Electric

26. Consolidate gadgets.  Leave the laptop at home.  Instead, pack a tablet or netbook loaded with games and media.  Use it to watch movies, listen to music, read books, and check your email (be sure to confirm that you’ll have wifi at your destination).  Besides, unplugging from all those devices will help you focus on the experience instead of Facebook.

27. Power everything in one go.  Nothing puts a damper on your packing practices like a gigantic bag of chargers and adapters.  Consider investing in products that will recharge two or more of your electronic items.

28. Go paperless.  Use apps, websites, and online programs such as Google maps, Tripit, Evernote, and Dropbox to store your vacation notes, travel itineraries, photos, and copies of important documents such as your passport.  Take advantage of mobile boarding pass programs if they’re offered.

Supplies

29. Bring on the suds.  If you aren’t staying with friends or family and plan to do laundry, stash a few scoops of powdered detergent or a small bottle of castile soap (see #?).  Dryers are not standard in many parts of the world, so it’s a good idea to find room for a compact clothesline if you’re traveling internationally.

30. Beg and borrow (but please, don’t steal).  If you’re visiting a family, this is usually easy.  Take a look at your packing list and make a note of anything (really, anything!) you think your hosts would be willing to share or provide.  I get that you might feel a tad bit uncomfortable asking for face wash from the in-laws, consider phrasing your request like this… “We usually bring our own (toothpaste / iPad charger / kids Tylenol /etc), but we are trying to pack as light as possible in order to spend less time at the airport and more time with you.  Would you mind if we borrowed/used these items during our visit?”

31. Get specific with hotels or holiday apartments.  I’ve also used a similar conversational approach to the one above with vacation rental owners.  “I have a silly question for you… do you provide dish soap, a kitchen sponge, and dishwashing detergent in your flat?  Normally we bring a small amount of these items just in case.  But we have to pack very light for this trip, so I’d rather not put them in the luggage if you already have them available.”  Don’t be shy.  This email/phone call could save you a chunk of space.

Logistics

32. Fold clothes into small squares.  Make narrow, neat folds in your shirts (watch this video if you need a refresher) and then fold the final product in half and make a pile of very small, evenly sized squares or rectangles.  Jeans, pants and sweaters need special attention (click here for some suggestions regarding technique), but the idea is the same.  Make every item of clothing prim, proper, and as tiny as possible.  I know others prefer rolling their clothes, but I find that folding works best for me.

33. Wear your heaviest, bulkiest, biggest pieces.  Coats and boots travel on your person, never in your luggage.

Expert tip: No one will weigh or check your coat.  What you put in your pockets is up to you… I’ve stashed everything from books to chocolate bar souvenirs in my winter jacket. 

34. Don’t overlook petty cash.  Leave room in your budget to buy what you might need but can’t stuff in your suitcase.  Chances are you don’t need as much as you think you do; you might surprise yourself with how little you can live with for a few days!  But if the diaper supply runs dry or your son uses his shirt as a permanent marker canvas or you receive a surprise invitation to a fancy dinner while on holiday, ask a local for the best place to buy what you’re after and consider the shopping trip part of the whole travel experience.

Practice Makes Perfect

35. Take notes.  These tips come from years of traveling as a single person, then as a married couple, and finally as a family of five.  These things work for us.  In time, you’ll discover what hints are most helpful for you, what advice does or simply doesn’t work for your family, and what luggage sacrifices you are or aren’t willing to make.  Jot down observations in your travel journal, and remember that practice really does makes perfect.

Which of these tips will you try during your travels this holiday season?  What would you add to the list?

Signature-Marigold

Full disclosure… At this time, I do not use affiliate links.  If I’ve included a link, it’s because I’ve personally used and liked the product, or it’s on my wish list.  I have not been compensated in any way by any company for this post.

Photo credit

Mishaps: Our Not-Exactly-Perfect Italian Adventure

Thrifty Travel Mama | Our Not-Exactly-Perfect Italian AdventureOkay, this is my LAST Italy post, and then I’ll shut up… promise!

When I post personal vacation pictures from our travels, I often get comments about how great it is that we travel the world.  And it is…. and, it’s not.

We are so, SO blessed to have this experience.  It’s awesome to pack up the kids and head to Italy for two weeks.  However, I just want to bring things down to earth, and share some of the utter chaos that often accompanies us when traveling as a family.

What follows is a short recap of our mishaps – the Italian edition.

Saturday… 330am

We wake the kids up in the middle of the night in order to knock out several hours of driving while they sleep.  We discover that Big Foot has a massive squidgy poo in his pants.  Annoying, but this is life with a baby, right?
Somewhere between Basel and the infamous Gotthard Tunnel, the poor thing has another blowout.  This one is even more epic and reminiscent of the early infant days, creeping its way up all over every possible surface within a six inch radius, including his car seat that conveniently does not have a washable cover…
And we wondered why he only slept about ten minutes of the first 3 hours of driving.  Huh.

Saturday… 330pm

By this time, we have been sitting in standstill traffic on the Italian highway for nearly three hours longer than expected.  We can’t exit the highway because the rest stops are clogged with other travelers escaping the eternal gridlock, and we are about to go bonkers listening to the bored boys in the backseat… screaming, crying, fighting, tired.

Saturday… 830pm

We realize that due to the morning’s unforeseen fecal fiasco, we seem to have forgotten the older boys’ stuffed animals that they sleep with every night.

Sunday

Screech is playing in the yard in front of our villa, being creative with the available materials.  He pretends the gravel is chicken and stuffs it in the stone grill.  He rips the unripe pears off the tree and uses them to bomb the “bad guys.”
He then picks up a terra cotta vase that is used to decorate the yard.  As I warn him not to use the (ancient? irreplaceable? collectible?) artifact,  he promptly drops it like a hot potato and laughs as it smashes to bits.  There goes our security deposit…

Monday

In Siena, T-Rex tumbles head first down a flight of stone steps.  He lands on his face, bruising his nose and knocking three front teeth loose.  I have nothing more to say on this since I’m still *slightly* traumatized.

Tuesday

Doc Sci tries to hop onto the swing where I am sitting on the playground just outside Pienza, and splits the front of his one good pair of shorts wide open.  Daily photo ops are now over.
Later that evening, I am doing cartwheels with T-Rex in the front yard when I accidentally kick him square in the mouth, in the exact spot where he had injured his teeth the day before… I could not have aimed more perfectly if I’d tried.

Friday

The boys have managed to break half of the pool toys we brought along, including two brand new super squirters.  In just a few more days, they will have managed to reduce every last pool toy – literally – to pieces.

Saturday

Despite our harrowing experience the previous Saturday, we decide to risk taking the highway for a short distance between Chianti and a pit stop near Pistoia.  We have not learned our lesson… and endure an unnecessary hour in standstill traffic.

Monday

I leave my brain by the pool instead of taking it with me to Firenze.  I grab the wrong paper map, fail to pre-load my “Tuscany with Kids” Google map on my phone, and forget the Frommers guidebook in the car.
We know our way to Brunelleschi’s Dome.. but after that?  No clue.  We wasted hours (hours!!) looking for a wifi spot in order to revive the map and trip notes on my phone.
I could go on, but you get the idea.  Life with kids is unpredictable and wonky in the best of circumstances; traveling with them just takes the pandemonium up a notch (or ten).
May our mishaps serve as the catalyst to bring contentment to the place you’re currently at (traveling or not) and anchor your dreams to reality (traveling with kids is only done by crazy people).
Got any good traveling-with-kids horror stories?  I’d love to hear them in the comments below!Signature-Marigold

Happy 1st Birthday, Baby!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Happy birthday, baby!I’m sure I’m not the only mama out there that breathes a HUGE sigh of relief at the arrival of baby’s first birthday.  I always feel like it’s such a miracle to make it to one.

This special moment is a milestone of the best kind, one that can’t be criticized, analyzed, or compartmentalized.  No matter what your baby is doing – eating, sleeping, crawling, walking, somersaulting, bungee jumping – the first birthday is a day for the whole family to celebrate.

Big Foot’s arrival was a bumpy one; but, I thank God every day that through it all, we made it through with a healthy baby.  I know we are so blessed, so lucky, to have the biggest complaint lie in almost 8 months of sleepless nights.

This is a season of wonder for us.  This cranky baby who took 7 months to decide that life outside the womb was okay, even good, now shrieks with laughter and joy.  We are amazed at his determination to walk as early as possible and to perfect his balance in order to chase after the big boys.  As the big 1 approaches, we are so thankful for this bright-eyed boy built of solid muscle and trimmed in pinchable pudge.

In his first year of life, our wee traveler-in-training has visited 8 countries and 4 US states, crossed the Atlantic four times, traveled by train/bus/car/and plane, made his mark at 8 castles, and sneezed at one of the highest mountain peaks in Europe.  That’s a busy 12 months for such a little guy!

We love you, Big Foot, and we look forward to the many adventures to come over the years.  Happy birthday, baby!

P.s. – In case you are wondering about the photo… For all the emotions this kid has in him, he barely blinked at the sugar high served to him on a plastic orange platter.  No glee – no tears.  I guess this is preparing me to expect the unexpected from this little man!Signature-Marigold

Yep, I’m THAT Parent

Thrifty Travel Mama - Expat Life MishapsAn open letter to those bystanders who opened their eyes but not their hands…

Hello, you.  Yes, you.

Have you forgotten how it feels to have a baby in your arms, in your care?  I suppose if you’ve never had one, I’ll grant you that excuse.  But your face betrays the fact that you know.  May I presume then, that you’re drawing a blank as to what it’s like to run errands toting a baby who protests his presence in your plans with all the force his twenty two pounds can muster?

Because you look like you’re judging me.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who parks her bike + trailer as close to the bank door as possible without actually blocking the exit or getting anyone else’s way but still manages to absorb the sneer of the suited man on his way out to grab coffee.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who precariously positioned her baby on the ledge jutting out in front of the ATM, while flailing arms punched numbers, grabbed cash.  Yes, I know I could’ve put the baby on the floor, but wouldn’t you have glared harder had he howled in protest at being only an arms length away from his beloved?

Yep, I’m that parent who weaved through the pedestrian crowds with said bike + trailer the length of a minivan, accidentally bumping old ladies and chanting “excuse me” right and left as if tossing flowers for a bride behind.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one that found a marginally acceptable place to park the self-propelled minivan in front of the home goods store only to have the entire bike and occupied baby seat tumble over while reaching for the steel U-lock nestled on the floor of the trailer.

But you, you were the one who wagged your head at me in judgement as my baby wailed more from shock than pain.  You offered me no help.  You craned your neck to peer at the poor woman who surely must be idiotic or inconsiderate to allow her child to topple toward the cobblestones.  You wondered, was I that kind of parent?

Yep, I’m that parent, the one whose left arm cradled a concrete ten month-old and with the right clutched a bag containing a rather fragile plate bearing a chip not noticed until purchased with precious little pocket money, all the while praying that neither arm would give out.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who rehearsed the phrases in another language, debating word choice, verb order, correct question grammar, formality all in a whisper while shushing her still-whimpering baby.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who fumbled over her lines, voice trailing, humiliation apparent, yet surprisingly emerged victorious with a darling new, chip-free plate destined to be the centerpiece of friendship and fellowship for as long as it shall live.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who held her head high as she walked past you, the onlooker sipping her coffee in the shade of the cafe and squinting at me in disapproval, only to realize that the awful crunch and creak coming from below belonged to a hopelessly flat tire sentencing me to an even further frustrating walk home.

Yep, I’m that parent, the one who has these kind of adventures almost daily, the one who sometimes finds kindred spirits and kind faces, that blessed stranger that gives empathy so warm you care not if summer ever arrives or if it should leave without notice.  But, alas, not today.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

Disposable Baby Diapers in Germany

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expat Life - DiapersSeveral weeks ago, I gave you a snapshot of the options for jarred baby food in Germany.  But eventually all that food is going to come out the other end, and you might want to be in the know about what kind of products we have here to cover your (baby’s) bum.

In short, the two main disposable diaper options in Germany are Pampers and generic store brands.  I have never seen Huggies diapers (only a strange, stray box of DRY wipes), nor do we have Luvs or Seventh Generation.IMG_0107 copyThe diapers are sized similarly, but the weight ranges are in kilograms.  Whatever US diaper size your baby wears (1,2,3,4,5,6) will most likely be the same in Germany.  IMG_0101 copyIMG_0102 copyIMG_0103 copyIMG_0099 copyIMG_0106 copyAs for cost, I did a quick comparison of the German Pampers prices with the American Pampers prices on diapers.com, no sales or coupons.  When you convert euros to dollars, the diapers work out to be about the same price in both countries.

If you’re looking to save some money, the generic disposable diapers at dm are actually of decent quality.  Grocery stores like Lidl and Aldi also sell store brand diapers, but I would only use these in a pinch except for the Lidl pullups which are similar in quality to the dm ones.IMG_0100 copyWe used Pampers diapers for all three boys (including Big Foot who was born here in Germany) when they were newborns, and then switched to generic diapers once they hit size 3 (except for when we used cloth diapers which I really, really miss).  On any given day, you can find dm diapers on Big Foot’s bum, and we have personally used the dm pullups as well.  IMG_0093 copyIMG_0095 copyIMG_0096 copySpeaking of pullups, the options for underwear-style diapers are the dm ones I mentioned and Pampers Easy-Ups.  For older children, DryNites are also available.IMG_0098 copyIMG_0091 copyIMG_0105 copyFor those that want to go a more environmentally friendly route, dm also sells chlorine-free diapers.  They are cheaper than Pampers and a little more expensive than the generic dm brand.IMG_0109 copyAnd, for summer and trips to the pool, dm sells their own brand of swim diapers.  I haven’t seen any Pampers swim diapers, but they may be lurking in large grocery stores that I rarely visit.IMG_0097 copyThough we have less choice than in America, I think this actually makes diapering decisions easier.  I’ll take three decent options over fifteen mediocre ones any day.

Have you tried disposable diapers in Germany or elsewhere outside the US?  What was your experience?Signature-Marigold

Four Tips for Planning a Travel Itinerary with Kids

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Them Interested

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Them Happy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Them Fed & Hydrated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Them Comfortable

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep an Open Mind

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

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

Letting boys be boys.

Letting boys be boys.

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

Trying out the funky swings in Dublin, Ireland.

Trying out the funky swings in Dublin, Ireland.

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