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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free Baby Stuff for Mamas in Germany

Two of the things I miss the most about living in the US are free samples and coupons.  It’s not that they’re nonexistent in Germany; it’s just that they’re so rare they might as well be.

So you can imagine that I was quite excited to stumble across this post which contains links to all sorts of freebies for pregnant ladies and new mamas.  I wasn’t able to sign up for all of them, but I have been really pleased with what I have received.

All the baby coupons I have received thus far!

Here’s a rundown…

Hands down, the best goodies have come from dm’s babybonus program.  If you don’t know dm, it’s the German version of CVS or Walgreens.  This store offers your normal drugstore fare plus a great selection of baby items including clothing.  Each location has a changing table in it with complimentary wipes and diapers.  I haven’t seen parent-oriented service like that anywhere else in Germany save IKEA.

I love that dm has two different welcome packets – one for when you’re pregnant and the other for after the baby has arrived.

Items received from the dm pregnancy welcome packet (Willkommens-Paket zur Schwangerschaft):

  • 10% off your purchase, no minimum
  • A full size tube (150ml) of massage cream for prego bellies
  • A coupon book with savings on diapers, wipes, and other baby products as well as toiletries and pregnancy items (valid for more than 6 months)

dm babybonus welcome packet.

Items received from the dm babybonus welcome packet:

  • Soft rattle toy
  • Orthodontic pacifier
  • Samples of moisturizer and body lotion for mama
  • Sample of dm’s diaper rash cream for baby
  • Another (thicker) coupon book with similar savings to the pregnancy one (also valid for more than 6 months)

The next best box came from real,-.  You can read about how I love real,- here.  I first received a letter confirming my enrollment in their familymanager program that included only two coupons, one for baby gear and one for baby clothing.  I was a bit disappointed until I found a surprise from real,- in my mailbox right after Big Foot was born.

Box from real,-.

Items received from the familymanager Hallo Baby welcome packet:

  • Samples of Pampers wipes and one diaper
  • Purple Pampers baby socks
  • An iron-on logo to decorate a baby onesie and provide free advertising for real,- (ha!)
  • A lotion sample for mama
  • A coupon book with in-store savings on baby and household items (valid for more than 3 months)

Though I tend to frequent dm more, Müller is another great drugstore that also sells office supplies, department store perfume, toys, and entertainment media (CDs, DVDs, electronic games, etc).  I can attest that their Mein Baby program is well worth the five minutes it takes to sign up.  Though I wasn’t given any free samples, one could argue the contents were quite a bit more valuable.

Super thick coupon book from Müller.

Items received from Müller’s Mein Baby mailing:

  • Coupon for €5 off €20 (not limited to baby items and no expiration date)
  • The biggest coupon book I’ve ever seen in Germany with savings on pregnancy, baby, household, and family items as well as toys (valid for more than 6 months)

Honorable mention: Pampers Village The website states that if you sign up, you will receive coupons, newsletters, and a free box with items in it from the maternity ward where you give birth.  I never did receive the box, but perhaps the fact that I didn’t actually end up on the maternity ward after Big Foot was born had a little something to do with that.  However, I did receive coupons, and I successfully stacked a manufacturer’s coupon and a dm coupon when purchasing Pampers diapers.  Score!

If you’re actually signing up for all these freebies, I’d recommend skipping the registration for HiPP’s Mein Baby Club I only received a sticker to hang in the window of a car I don’t own and a coupon for 20 euros toward an account for the baby.  I thought that was rather generous… until I read the fine print.  In order to claim the money, I had to appear in person at the bank to verify all my information as well as the baby’s.  I understand that the company would like to know to whom they are giving their money (and that nothing is ever really free), but what new mama has time for an extra trip to the bank of all places??

Anyhow, it’s been great fun to sorta kinda coupon again.  I’ll take all the savings I can get!  If you’d like additional links to baby freebies in Germany, check out this blogger’s list.   Meanwhile, I’ll keep checking my mailbox for more money-saving goodies!

Shameless Repost: With Six Kids and No Car, This Mom Does It All By Bike

Wow.

That’s all I could think when reading about Emily Finch of Portland, Oregon, who bikes around town with six kids between the ages of 2 and 11.

Well, wow – and I’m a wimp.

I rode my bike with one child until 30 weeks when I just couldn’t peddle around my baby belly anymore.  And I gave up pulling a bike trailer with two boys in it long ago.  I thought biking around with almost 100 pounds of boy flesh and gear was too much.  This woman once estimated her load at FIVE HUNDRED AND FIFTY pounds.

Are you feelin’ the “wow” yet?

I wonder what kind of reaction she gets.  I know Portland is rather green, but it’s still the US.  Most people would choose a hybrid automotive over a bike for commuting any day.  And that would be just for one adult.  Piling all your kids in one bike instead of a minivan by choice?  Yeah, right.

In Germany, lots of people bike.  It’s not only good for the environment; it’s cheaper.  And totally normal.  Well, as long as said bicycle does not contain more than two children.  I think it’s safe to say Emily would be stared at in Germany as well, though more for the number of children than the bike itself.

If you haven’t read the article yet, you can do so here.

And then leave a comment to let us know – could you ride around town by bike with your children – no matter how many of them you have?  Would you?

Backpacking With Kids.. sorta kinda

The littlest backpacker.

After a week in very hot & humid Bulgaria, we are back in Deutschland.  Woohoo!  I am so glad.  No matter how nice the hotel, the best bed is always your own.  And no matter how fun the trip, kids behave so much better on their own turf.  Home sweet who-knows-how-long-we’ll-be-here home.

We did something this trip that I don’t think we have ever done before.  We did not check any luggage (!).  Slightly ridiculous?  You betcha.

Every one of the four of us took a backpack.  Doc Sci and I have Kelty packs from back in our early days and the boys have their itty bitty, only-room-for-four-cars-and-a-book bags.  Though you may not believe me and probably think I’m crazy, that most likely would have been enough for all of us for six days.  The problem is that I only half committed to this idea of backpacking.

In case you have only girls, I’ll let you in on a not-so-secret fact.  Boys are messy.  Like big time.  So unlike their parents who could re-wear outfits, that just ain’t gonna happen with my two.  Thus, when I choose where to stay, I almost always make washing machine availability a priority.  (And the place has got to have a pack & play because I sure as all get out am NOT going to lug that thing around the world!)

This trip, I only sorta kinda decided I would do laundry.  I’m torn between my personal love of options and my hatred of lugging around a mountain of crap.  So, truth be told, I brought more than I should.  If you’re going to try this at home, lay out everything you think you need and put back 1/3 to 1/2 of it.  Really.

Unfortunately, what I definitely could not put back were the wedding clothes for four.  We were able to make more room by Doc Sci wearing his humongous shoes on the plane and deciding the boys would go to the party in beach attire (because they’re so cute who is going to care anyway?).  However, I thought I should wear some fancy schmancy heels when really I just should have just gotten over myself and worn the flats that I was bringing anyway.  What a waste of space – those spiky shoes were ditched at the beginning of the reception.

Now, it is true that we only brought carry on luggage, but this comes with a few disclaimers.  First, we did bring one suitcase to put in the overhead bin.  This was to help make room for the semi-formal attire and for my running gear (that dang marathon thing follows me everywhere!) as well as to hold one of the car seats.  I made myself one of these (because I can’t bring myself to pay $15 for a strap) and when used to attach the car seat to a roller board suitcase, it doubles as a makeshift stroller.

Second, we did gate check two car seats and one stroller.  Bringing the car seats was a big, hairy, seriously annoying mistake.  If you are going somewhere and renting a car, duh, bring your car seats.  We were only going to be in airport transfers and on a few excursions, all of which were in small, European buses.  We didn’t end up using the car seats on the airport transfers and the seats were too big for the buses.  And we were not allowed to use our FAA-approved car seats on the plane.  But that’s a story for another day, maybe tomorrow.  Next time, we will rent car seats when we are unsure of the frequency of use!

Now that I’ve come clean, I thought I’d share my packing list with you.  I love, love, love lists and they are the only way I can keep the important thoughts in my brain in any sort of order.  Maybe this will help you pare down and figure out what you really have to have.

  • Passports!
  • Cash (best when traveling to Eastern Europe)
  • One credit card for emergencies
  • Printed confirmations: airline and hotels
  • Train tickets and Deutsche Bahn cards
  • Cell phones and one charger
  • Cameras and chargers
  • Plug adapter (for electronics)
  • iPods and one charger
  • Nike+ and armband for iPod
  • Walkie talkies and charger (ours have a baby monitor function which allows us to have some alone time somewhere nearby the hotel room while the boys sleep)
  • Two books each (for the adults – one might have been enough)
  • DVD player and a few movies out of cases
  • Eye masks (great for putting boys to sleep on late or early flights)
  • Car seats.. grrrrrr
  • Travel clothesline (duh for laundry but also for hanging up the next item)
  • Queen size, flat black sheet (for making rooms dark or dividing them)
  • Ziploc bag with two scoops of powdered laundry detergent
  • Diapers and pull-ups (I like to take them because it makes room on the way back for any purchases)
  • Wipes and rash creme (nothing like trying to explain that in another language)
  • One stuffed animal and one blanket each for boys for nighttime
  • Small cars and paperback books for boys
  • Water bottles for all
  • Snacks for traveling
  • Two each: plastic kid cups, straws, bowls, spoons, and forks (can be ditched if need be)
  • Sack ‘n Seat
  • Sunscreen (in travel-size bottle)
  • Bug spray
  • Bathing suits + cover ups
  • Sandals for all
  • Hats for boys
  • Shorts and shirts for everyone for four days (I actually ended up with more like six days’ worth – not necessary!)
  • Running gear for me
  • Nice outfit for welcome dinner (only Doc Sci and me)
  • Wedding outfits for all + shoes + belt
  • Flat iron (totally did not know Bulgaria was too humid to even bother trying to straighten my hair)
  • Travel hair dryer with diffuser (if you don’t have curly hair, just use the one at the hotel)
  • Small plastic poncho and small umbrella
  • Sunglasses
  • Small day backpack
  • Small “purse” to hold passports, cash, little camera, sunglasses and phone (use one with a strap that goes across your body to help fend off would-be pickpockets)

This list is not exhaustive; it’s simply meant to show you that with a few tricks and the right gear, you can travel light with kids.  I think this will get even easier as the boys grow older and need less toys and comfort items.  They’ll also be able to carry their ever-growing clothing.  Score!

Have you taken a trip with kids and not checked any luggage?  What tips and must-have gear make it possible for you?

Trip Report: STR — MCO (and back)

If you’re short on time today, I’ll sum up our flights for you in one sentence:

Delta Airlines, we cannot be friends anymore, not even Facebook friends.

To start at the very beginning and be perfectly honest, I made so many blunders in planning this trip, it’s beyond ridiculous.  And here’s my disclaimer in case I haven’t said it before: I’m not the Perfect Travel Mama, just the Thrifty one.  I often find I cannot have perfect and thrifty together.  And, hello, if I didn’t make mistakes, this blog wouldn’t be very interesting to read, now would it?

First up, I picked Stuttgart as my departure, an airport I thought would be a good alternative to busy, crazy Frankfurt.  Dead wrong.  I can get to Frankfurt from my city occasionally without any train changes.  At most, I would have one change.  I thought this was also the case for Stuttgart.  And, it is.  But not for Stuttgart Airport.  Grrrr.

Changing trains twice might not sound so bad to you.  But that’s because you don’t have to take a train to even get to the main train station in the city.  And you are probably not moving from place to place and therefore do not have as much junk to haul around.

In the end, our lovely friend volunteered to go with us on the three trains to help with children and our from-the-sticks baggage getup.  Two prams (strollers to you US folk), two car seats (one with a bag), two 50-lb bags, two backpacks, one carry-on suitcase, a diaper bag and a toddler backpack.  Shoot me now.  We were a sight to behold.  And yes, Germans do stare.

I think long-haul flights going west are always better than the ones going east.  Why?  Because you’re not fighting the clock, nor are you using the airplane as a crowded group sleep hotel.  Unfortunately, it’s harder to get kids to nap on a flight that does not dim the lights.  Our solution?  Eyemasks.

Screech’s nap style.

But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Let me mention a word (or thirty) about flying with an infant.  In the US, it is almost always free to fly with a child up to the age of two on your lap.  Internationally, it is not free.  But, it is significantly cheaper than purchasing a seat.  Because I had Doc Sci with me, I chose the lap child route.

This turned out to be a total nightmare with Delta.  They do not allow online ticketing for international infants.  I must have talked to a handful of agents in customer service, none of whom knew the correct answer to my dilemma.  The infant ticket with Delta is PAPER (when was the last time you saw one of those??) and can ONLY be sent to the billing address of the cardholder purchasing the ticket.  Lovely.  My billing address is in the US, I live in Germany, and I need the paper ticket in hand to fly.  After way too much go-around for my taste, we finally agreed upon a solution: I would purchase the ticket at the desk in STR when I checked in.

When we got to the airport in STR, a huge line had formed at Delta.  They clearly did not have enough people working the desk.  I had to check in with one agent, go to another desk to purchase Screech’s ticket, and then return to the middle of the first line to check bags.  By the time we got through this whole shebang, the check-in operation was shutting down.  We literally had to RUN to the gate.  And we had arrived at the airport two hours prior to our flight.  I would have done three hours, but that would have meant leaving the house at 4am instead of 5am.

On the plane, things went from stressful and annoying to hair pulling and eye bugging.  I love history, but flying on a jet that belongs in a museum is not my idea of a good time.  Ashtrays, anyone?  Earphones with a double jack?  Single screens spaced every fifth row or so with whacked out colors?  No kids programming?  What is this 1983?

I usually wait until after the main meal is served to coax my kids to sleep.  I went out on a limb and ordered a child’s meal for T-Rex.  Barf-o.  This kid eats just about everything and he was not about to touch those chicken nuggets or mashed potatoes flecked with mystery bits.  Ewww-ee.  My chicken was slathered in mushroom sauce (I’m allergic), and Screech ate my sandwich (always bring backup food!).

What a fan-stinkin’-tastic ten and a half hours this was going to be…

After the food fiasco and missing half of the only movie schedule to be shown that I was even half interested in (due to T-Rex asking me to fix his never-going-to-work-anyway headphones every three minutes), we hatched a plan to turn our three seats into four and maybe, just maybe, get some relief.

We own a Sunshine Kids car seat, which Doc Sci picked out for two reasons: it’s narrow so you can fit three bambinos across in a normal car’s backseat, and it’s highly rated in safety.  (But, between you and me, a little FYI, the thing’s a beast to carry because it’s made of steel.)

Because said car seat is skinny in the bum-width factor, we raised all arm rests, scooched the Superman seat up next to Doc Sci’s ribs, and then T-Rex and I shared the remaining 1 1/2 seats using just my seat belt.  I’m sure that’s totally against airline regulations.  But I wanted a round of naps for everyone, me included.  And, if you really think about it, it’s probably safer than holding a very large, very squirmy 18 month-old in your arms.

After all boys were strapped down, eye masks were applied, and sleep was enforced.  Screech was so tired he didn’t fight his eye shade.  T-Rex wore his because he wants to be like Screech (shouldn’t it be the other way around?)  Amazingly, Screech took three 1 1/2 hour naps on the flight.  I think we only managed one of those for T-Rex.  But some sleep is better than no sleep.

We arrived on time in Atlanta to make our connection to Orlando.  Oh yeah, except that “they” couldn’t get the gate hooked up to the aircraft.  “They” tried the front door.  “They” tried the middle door.  “They” tried the front door again.  The middle door again.  And finally, after 20+ minutes, the front door won.  But we lost, ending up at the back of a long passport control line.

After collecting and re-checking our baggage, we had TWENTY minutes to go through security, travel three terminals, and get on our flight to MCO.  Oh yeah.  We like things edgy around here.

Just kidding.  I hate rushing.

But rush we did, and we arrived five minutes before the scheduled take-off.  Did they open the door back up for us?  No way, they did not.  Unfortunately, my life does not involve being a celebrity, being on the Amazing Race, or being a celebrity on the Amazing Race.  We were put on a flight that left two hours later.

Two hours?!  This might not seem like much.  But, it was dinner time.  We had been up since FIVE AM Germany time.  And it was not our fault that we had missed it.

As much as I really wanted to, getting mad just wasn’t the best option.  It wasn’t going to help anyone.  Food, on the other hand, well, that usually takes the edge off.

So I begged.  Please oh please oh please won’t you give me some meal vouchers for my starving but adorable young children?

Why, yes, of course we will.  Here’s $30 to use at the Chick-fil-A down the terminal from your 7pm flight.

THIRTY DOLLARS?!  I think we bought almost everything on the menu.  Delicious, fried, spicy, chicken and fries.  And fruit of course.  Lots of fruit.  Who do you think I am?

After twenty-four hours of traveling, both boys gave up and passed out somewhere above Disneyworld.  Thank God.

Welcome to Orlando.

Our return to Germany held much of the same: ancient plane, serious ick-factor food, no extra seats at all on the flight.  But, I did do something I had never done before.

The gate agent in ATL took the liberty of assigning us to the bulkhead row in the Economy Comfort section.  Now, I have never requested this for the simple reason that you cannot have anything at your feet in a bulkhead row.  With kids (and with our life circumstances that usually dictate we travel with a mountain of stuff), this just never seemed like a sane option to me.  I specifically asked about the junk around the feet factor and was told that the only time the floor space had to be clear was during takeoff and landing.  Fair enough, we’ll give it a shot.

One reason many families request the bulkhead row is because of the bassinet.  I also have never used this.  It’s a little baby bed that attaches to the bulkhead wall.  Why have I never used it?  Because I have gigantic babies that are usually waaaaay over the weight limit by the time I find myself in a position to test it out.

Weight limit: 25lbs or 12 kilos.

But this time, I broke the rules and used it anyway.  I know I might get some hate mail for this, but most baby gear is rated lower than the actual capacity of the product for insurance purposes.  I was willing to take the risk and if anything happened, it would be my fault.  And, our turn-three-seats-into-four plan wouldn’t work in the bulkhead.  The armrests contain your tray table and do not move.  Booooo!

(And for disclaimer #2 of this post… I am in no way advocating that you use a bassinet when your baby is over the weight limit.  I did it once, took full responsibility, but won’t do it again.  Don’t say Thrifty Travel Mama made me do it!)

Turns out, Screech hated the bassinet thingie.  Who can blame him?  It smelled strongly of vinyl and was basically a mesh tupperware with a strappy, clasping lid that you shove the baby in and seal up for the flight.  We managed to get him to sleep about 5-6hrs but not without 30 minutes of crying.

Screech in a box with the lid unrolled.

Would I do the bulkhead again?  Maybe if I had a smaller baby.  The extra legroom was nice, but it somehow came with an invitation for other people to walk all over you (literally), even when you were sleeping sprawled out.  Alas, by the time we return to the US, most likely Screech will be two years old, and we’ll have to purchase a seat for him.

So, as I said earlier, I won’t be using Delta Airlines internationally again for some time.  When you add in the rail tickets and the stress, Lufthansa might actually come out ahead in the thrifty factor.  And then, there’s always the draw of better food, better entertainment, better service.

And what about the jet lag?  Look for that post coming soon!

Tick Tock Time Change

Man-o-man-o-man I hate time changes.  Not only do they make everything a bit wonky for a week or so due to lack of sleep (even during the so-called “gain an hour” change).  But, they really mess with your kids too.

My normally-very-tired-after-kindergarten T-Rex decided not to take a nap today.  I usually lay down with him so I can sneak in a nap while he falls asleep.  Huffy and annoyed after almost 40 minutes (the norm is 20), I left the room to (ahem) blog.  I came back and what was that child doing?  Dressing up in my pj’s and reading his daddy’s Bible.  Then he wanted to put some paper around his juice cup like he was some kind of Starbucks regular.  And then he jumped in the empty bathtub.  With the yuppie cup.  Oh MY.

As if lack of normal, regular sleep weren’t enough, let’s compound this even further.  The US changed their clocks two weeks ago.  Germany changed theirs yesterday.

p.s. – My dad lives in Arizona.  Arizona doesn’t change their clocks at all.  I’m still not sure what time it is there.

Doc Sci and I usually try to ease the boys into the change by starting four days before the dreaded Sunday and moving their schedule 15 min increments.  But, I have to tell you that the first time we tried this (when T-Rex was a wee lil’ babe), we did the 15 min increments in the wrong direction and had him TWO hours off his normal routine.  Oh yeah, we are total geniuses.

But, this year, we completely 100% forgot to do our smarty little advance moves.  Again, genius at work.

The boys did rather well this year if I do say so myself.  Ha, who am I kidding?  It hasn’t even been 24 hrs.  The jury is still totally on lunch break.

And then there’s that ferocious, non-naptaking T-Rex.  He would nap if he knew what was good for him.  He doesn’t realize him not sleeping means Mama doesn’t sleep which means she turns into some kind of kooked up zombie woman.  No good, T-Rex.  Close them eyes.

Well, maybe zombie isn’t the right term.  I seem to be leaning in the hillbilly direction.  I am so not politically correct with these kind of terms.  Is “hillbilly” ok?  Is “white trash” better or worse?  I may be reading too many pages of The Help at once.

Hey, the apples were part of an elaborate counterweight system, thankyouverymuch.

Luckily, I’m pretty sure Germans don’t know anything about either term.  So I cay say I’s from da stix today and nobody done gone a know what I’m a meanin’.  But Germans do know a half-crazed American when they see one.  That’d be me today.  Pushing a stroller packed with more produce and pasta than a pretzel-scarfing toddler.

Since I’ve had enough you-are-the-most-ridiculous-thing-I-have-ever-seen looks today, I’m sitting at home dreading the moment I have to go out again.  You see, our beloved Red is up on blocks (she got ‘er a shard a glass stuck all up in her rubber, done popped da’ tube, ‘n rendered her useless).  You never knew how country I could be, did you?

I never knew how much I loved Phil & Teds until I had to settle for Eddie Bauer for a day.

Now I’m daydreaming about a nap and wishing on a ? that someone would cure my sleep deprivation and bloodshot eyes with Starbucks.  T-Rex is just rubbing it in with his homemade java jacket.  Double shot, no whip, more foam, half-caff, extra this, none of that, low-fat, skinny, tall, and syrupy.

Oh please, oh please, oh please.

Bring me home a rubber donut with a bent valve on the side for my Red and you’ll be my new best friend.  For life.

A Clearance Rack? In Europe?

Since we are thrifty around here, it just wouldn’t be right to keep sale secrets from you.  If you’re from the US, you’re likely used to seeing “massive markdowns,” “storewide events,” and “everything must go” signs on nearly every major holiday and sometimes (it seems) just for the heck of it.  If you expect this abroad, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

For starters, holidays are (obviously) not the same here as in the US.  Memorial Day and Fourth of July and even Thanksgiving as Americans know it are just regular ol’ work days here.  But beyond that, the Euro crowd seems to like to smash all the sales in to two months per year, January and July.

The January sales offer all things winter: jackets, hats/gloves/scarves, skis, boots, etc.  I’m sure you can figure out what July brings.

If you’re used to getting 75% or even 90% off, you may need to drown your sorrows in a venti vanilla latte from Starbucks (yes, following in McD’s world-domination footsteps).  While I have seen signs for 70% off, those deals are rare, and it seems that getting 50% off is about as good as you can hope to get.

Two things about the January clearance surprised me.  One, the sales lasted for AGES.  The signs went up right after Christmas and some are still up today, the 3rd of February (most ended Jan 31 or the Saturday before – everything is closed on Sunday!).

Second, at one department store, I found an extra 20% off already reduced items.  A pleasant surprise indeed!  We were able to get Doc Sci a much-needed, waterproof, windproof, 3-in-1 jacket (he rides his bike to/from work).  A soaked, freezing husband is worse than a wet cat.  Trust me.

I ended up with a new ridiculously fat, warm scarf & euro-style hat.  I searched high and low for calf-height boots but to no avail.  I would’ve bought a new weatherproof jacket myself but I really had to decide… Do I want a new jacket when my old one works but is, just, um, old – or do I want to go somewhere far away during summer holidays?

Decisions, decisions.

What would you do?  Buy the new jacket which would be used often since walking everywhere rain, snow, or shine is the way or life?  Or save those euros and go some where amazing?

 

The Family Car

T-Rex is always asking me if we are going to go get in the car.  Sorry, little buddy, we don’t have a car here in Germany.  But we do have bikes – and a borrowed bike trailer!

While I can see the value of a car here more than in bigger cities like Berlin and Munich, it just wasn’t worth the cost to bring it over for only one year.  Two years, maybe.  But not just one.  And then there are the issues of a German license, registration, insurance, etc., when you don’t speak the language.  In an attempt to keep some simplicity in our lives, we bought bikes.

Unfortunately, we weren’t very bright about this bike buying thing.  Of course, we didn’t have much choice.  We needed bikes ASAP.  Trams do exist in my city and are quite convenient.. but also quite expensive.  We got a great deal on  a bike from an American leaving to go home.  It just so happens to be a girls bike that is too big for me.  Oops.

Doc Sci went to a bike auction to be all thrifty (I love that man) and get a good deal on a used bike.  A good deal he did get – on a teenage boys bike.  So I ride the boy bike, and he rides the girl bike.  Ahh well, live and learn, right?

 

The cargo hold, a.k.a. the trunk.

 

Our Aussie friends lent us a bike trailer to tow the two boys around.  My Thrifty Travel Mama workout has now been changed from climbing stairs to pulling too many kilos of boys behind my bike to and from T-Rex’s kindergarten.

Actually, I haven’t done that yet.  I’m kind of afraid.  Afraid that it will take an hour for what takes every one else 10 minutes.  Afraid my muscles will wimp out and I’ll have to walk all those kilos of boys attached to my bike.  Uphill.  Both ways.  In the snow.

 

Backpack carriers are for more than just babies.

 

Most of the time T-Rex & Screech like the trailer.  One particular trip to IKEA proved to be the exception.  We did load their laps with cargo.  And they protested in a way only loud American boys can do.  MAAAAAAAAAAMMMMMMMMMAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!

 

We stupidly put coffee cups in here. They slid right out when I bent over to lock up the bike. Doh!

 

If you have any tips for packing on the cycling muscles, leave a comment and enlighten me.  My boys will thank you.

Thrifty Travel Mama

Flohmarkt

Saturday’s trip was a little one, a short walk and picnic in the Black Forest.  After all, we had FLOHMARKTs to go to!  And what, pray tell, is a Flohmarkt?

Google Translate tells me it is a flea market.  I don’t remember the last time I was at a flea market so I can’t attest to whether or not it really is like one.  But I’m pretty sure “flea market” isn’t entirely accurate.

Flohmarkt!

I happened to see a sign for the Saturday morning one while getting lost.  How is it that you find things when you get lost?  One of the mysteries of life, I suppose.  This one reminded me more of a yard sale.  We didn’t get anything.

Scouring for deals

While T-Rex and Screech were peacefully napping (ha if only that were true), I went out with my new friend to another money pit, er, I mean sale across town.  This flohmarkt reminded me more of a crazy kids consignment sale.  You had to pay to have a table inside, but people lined up all along the path outside hawking wares for free (fellow thrifty mamas!).  Gobs and gobs of moms were packed inside the gym.

Thank God for my new friend.  She gave me the scoop on what all I needed for boys in winter.  I haven’t the foggiest, snowiest, rainiest idea.  However, I am most excited about the fact that I got… drum roll please… a PUKY bike for T-Rex!

I love me a PUKY bike!

These things seriously rock.  They are little bikes with no pedals.  The kid just scoots along, using his feet, while learning balance and steering.  I love it because it means I don’t have to push 36lbs of boy on an already heavy stroller.

I also picked up a pair of what my friend calls rubber pants.  Yeah, yeah, snicker away.  But I’m a clean freak which makes me a BIG fan of such contraptions.  The playgrounds here are mostly sand.  I already cringe at the thought of having to clean up sandy toddlers and babies (with no vacuum..) but once you get the stuff wet, it’s even worse.  Of course, Germans would have a solution to such problem.  The kids put these jumper thingies on and they can dig, bury, and roll around to their heart’s content.

Dirt is no match for T-Rex in the rubber pants

In addition to the PUKY bike and pants, I got a winter stroller cover for the Screech man, two tubs of good ol’ wooden blocks, a humongo sleep bag (I have only seen these for newborns – all kids here wear them), and three German word books.  All that for about €38!  I KNEW there were deals to be had here!

Do you have a favorite consignment sale, garage sale, etc find?  Leave a comment, link, or shameless plug!