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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoid bringing a stroller if at all possible.

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

Discuss cultural and religious differences in advance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOUR Family’s Adventure

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

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

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

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

Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

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

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Turkish Family Travels: Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar (Without Being Ripped Off..)

Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravelThis post appears as part of our Turkish Family Travel Adventure series, chronicling a fun fall fling in the city of Istanbul.

Getting ripped off is one sure-fire way to ruin your holiday, and the Grand Bazaar is the best place in Istanbul to do just that.

Middle Eastern cultures are famous for haggling, the custom of arguing over a price before agreeing on the final amount. True, it’s much more work than buying items at fixed prices. But, when in Turkey, do as the Turkish do.

The problem is that if you’re reading this, you’re probably not Turkish which means your Turkish haggling skills probably leave much to be desired.

So, how do you learn to bargain like a pro and avoid handing over too many Liras to a smooth-talking shop owner?

That was the very question I needed to answer for myself. I scoured articles, posts, and guide books for the best tips. Some of the advice was contradictory (be the first customer – no, you should be the last!). But, surprisingly, most of the suggestions worked like a charm.

Read on to find out how you can get the best prices in the Grand Bazaar.

Prepare Yourself

Haggling with experienced merchants is not for the faint of heart… nor for those hungry or in a hurry. Set aside a fixed amount of time you are willing to devote to a shopping excursion.

Eat a decent meal beforehand, and bring sustenance. Trust me, you do not want to go into this hangry.

Also, if you’re somehow able to secure a map of the Grand Bazaar, this will help you find your way out of what should really be dubbed the Grand Maze.

If you’re curious, here is the map I used. (not an affiliate link)

Decide What You REALLY Want

I have two absolute favorite Middle Eastern artisan objects – lanterns and decorative plates. I knew I wanted to buy several lanterns and at least one plate to adorn our new home (wherever in the world that ended up being). I wasn’t sure what else I wanted to buy, but I was fairly certain I could skip the tchotchkes and cheap imitation designer clothing.

If you don’t know what you are looking to buy in the Grand Bazaar, I highly recommend browsing the shops. Preferably, this would be on a day or during a time other than that which you’ve set aside for actual shopping.

Without this step, you may find yourself obligated to take home that shimmery belly dancing outfit and matching sultan costume.Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravel

Do Your Homework

Okay, so you’re well-fed and armed with your list plus a fistful of Lira. Time to start bargaining, right?

Wrong.

First, you need to establish what the going rate is for each item on your list. I did this by wandering through the stalls, fixing my eyes only on those adorned solely with lanterns. When I found a lantern I might like, I used this formula:

  1. Ask the price of an item you do NOT want first.
  2. Ask the price of an item different from the first, and preferably smaller and/or cheaper.
  3. Ask the price of the item you are actually interested in buying.
  4. Politely thank the proprietor, and walk away.

I repeated this in multiple shops until I had an idea of the going rate for lanterns that I liked. In the questioning phase, I learned valuable background information such as the different metals used for making lanterns and that blown glass lanterns are of better quality and more expensive. I also was able to look at a wide variety of lamps that helped me narrow down the options and know exactly what I wanted to buy.Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravel

Expert tip: Avoid the shops that advertise “Fixed Price.” These shops are designed for tourists not skilled in bargaining who just want to pay a certain sum and be done with it. You’ll end up paying much more than the items are worth. And, really, you CAN do this bargaining thing.

Deflect the Charm

During your research phase, you’re going to hear a lot of schmooze from the mouths of the shop keepers. Your money keeps them in business, and they are not shy about going after it.

As an introvert, this really wore me down. I just wanted to browse in peace and quiet. I’m content to be ignored by German shopkeepers; but, this is simply not the way things work in Istanbul.

Be polite, but firm. And, under no circumstances should you sit down to tea with a vendor if you do not intend to make a purchase!

Name Your Price

When you have a decent data set for your coveted item(s), decide how much you are willing to pay. However, this number is top secret and should be known only to you. Burn it into your mind, because you’re going to need it in a few minutes.

Take a deep breath, and approach the merchant with confidence. Follow the first formula mentioned above, always asking about several items instead of only the one you actually intend to buy.

The price he offers you (and it’s always a he) will be massively inflated, and your job is to talk him down. Here are the steps I followed to negotiate a reasonable selling price:

  • Ask the price of several items as described in the first formula. Do NOT show special interest in the object of your desire.
  • When he offers you a price, slash it by about 60%. The first price you offer should be lower than what you are actually willing to pay. For instance, if you thought it was worth 50, offer 40.
  • Use phrases like, “It’s a beautiful piece, but my budget is only 40.” Or, “I would really like to buy it, but I was only looking to spend 40.”
  • He will counter your offer. Keeping with the aforementioned numbers, if you offered 40, he may counter 60. At this point, you can either make another offer or politely decline and either ask about another piece (starting the process over) or walk away.
  • Prepare your second offer. To do this, you have two options. First, you could stick to your original offer to see if he comes down any. He might offer you 50. Or, you can up your offer, and say something like, “It’s a lovely piece. Would you be able to do 45?”

The second offer sometimes turns into a third offer or even a fourth. The pressure can build, and you can find yourself emotionally involved in the negotiation. If this happens, simply tell the seller you need a moment to think about it.

Take Ten

Remember that secret price you decided on before entering the shop? It’s time to bring that number to mind.

Evaluate the negotiation that has already taken place. Is the owner willing to agree to an amount less than your secret price? Are you willing to go a bit above it? Only you can answer the second question, but it’s important not to let the pressure of the situation push you over-budget.

You can always walk away and try again with another shop. You can even come back later to the same merchant if no other stall offers the same piece (which actually is rather rare).

The most important thing to remember is that YOU need to be satisfied with the price you end up paying.Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravel

Did I get the most amazing deal on the lanterns I bought? Honestly, I have no idea. But, I do know that I talked the shopkeepers down significantly and paid what I thought the pieces were worth.

Whether I got the best price or not, I’ll never know. However, I am confident I got the price that I was comfortable paying and have no regrets about my purchases. That’s what matters.

Bribery and Coercion

This last one has nothing to do with salespeople and everything to do with little people. I’m guessing by this point, you’re thinking the whole thing sounds completely exhausting.

Guess what? You’re right.

And if you feel that way, imagine how the little ones with you are going to fare during your negotiations. Mutiny is the word that comes to mind.

I highly advise talking with your children in advance about the proposed activities of the day.

Explain that you’ll be looking for (lanterns), and ask for their help spotting (lanterns). Be honest and tell them that it might take a while to find the most special one for the best price.

If you know how long you intend to spend in the Grand Bazaar, tell them. And then describe what kind of reward they’ll receive if they help you buy the perfect (lantern) by behaving well while you talk to the shopkeeper.

We used one big reward at the end of the day (I’m sorry to say it was eating dinner at McDonalds), and several smaller rewards in the meantime.

If they have a handheld toy or book, bring it. Just keep in mind that the floors of the Grand Bazaar are icky at best, so don’t plan anything that requires rolling around on the ground.

Pack snacks and water. This is battle, and you definitely don’t want to go in unprepared.Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravel

But, What About the Spice Market?

You may have noticed that I haven’t whispered any expert tips on shopping at the Spice Market. That’s because I found it to be overly touristy with virtually no Turkish people shopping there. All the shops featured the same products; I could find nothing unique from one stall to the next.Grand A Family Adventure in Turkey - Top Tips for Haggling Through the Grand Bazaar with Kids! #familytravel

If spices are what you’re after, head outside of the Spice Market and make your way to the west side. There, you’ll find more shops selling spices and other Turkish delicacies and Turkish customers.

Just hold your nose – the fishy aroma is on the potent side.

Wrapping Up

Is shopping at the Grand Bazaar as stressful as it sounds? Absolutely.

There is no question that scoring the most beautiful lanterns or the most intricately decorate plates is going to be tense and tedious. But, if you know this going in, and you arm yourself with the techniques above, you can have a successful – maybe even enjoyable?! – haggling experience.

Have you visited or lived in a culture where haggling is the norm? What strategies have worked for you?Signature Thrifty Travel Mamafirst image credit

Expats Move Home: Blazing the Paper Trail out of Germany

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceI’m spilling the beans on all the nitty gritty details of how we ended our expat adventure. To catch up on previous posts, click here.

Moving in America is relatively simple: pack, move, transfer your utilities, and forward your mail if you are desperate not to miss a single issue of your favorite People.

Getting out of Germany is a bit more byzantine. Yep, you do still have to do something with your stuff, but other bureaucratic matters get bumped up from suggested to required. But, is it as hard to get out of Deutschland as it is to get in?

Getting In

Moving to Germany is a nail-biting adventure in paperwork and bureaucracy, similar to attempting to get a visa or green card in the US. Given how much the Germans love order, it’s no surprise that all documents deemed obligatory must be just that – in order.

Strangely, I never posted on any of our experiences in obtaining resident permits at the Burgeramt (affectionately known as the “burger service” in our family), so you’ll have to just trust me on this one.

It is very likely guaranteed that during the initial residency appointment, you’ll suddenly realize or be made to realize you’ve forgotten an essential document (like an original birth certificate). Or, you’ll be scolded for something ridiculous like using all caps instead of upper and lower case… or blue ink instead of black.

For most expats, the “burger service” dishes up the first taste of German culture shock.

Getting Out

Thankfully, leaving Germany is a total piece of (Black Forest) cake. When we wanted out, we simply showed up at the local Burgeramt, filled out a form, provided the date we would exit the country, and received our Abmeldung (more on that below).

I recall thinking the process was just too easy. We must have forgotten something.

But no – the Abmeldung is all that we absolutely had to have as far as the government was concerned. We could even keep our residency cards as souvenirs; no need to turn them in at the Burgeramt or the border. Really!

Don’t let simplicity fool you. One should not underestimate the significance of the all-important Abmeldung. This document really is required. Without it, one cannot cancel contracts such as mobile phone service, internet service, insurance, etc. Remember, order and respecting the system are of first importance!

We asked for our Abmeldung four weeks before departure, but the norm is two weeks or even less. The officials at the Burgeramt did not want to issue the golden ticket so soon, but with a little pleading and begging in our broken German, they eventually obliged.

Duties

Now that we had our eerily-easy official paperwork in order, it was time to tackle other official duties. Thanks, Chandler, for ruining that word for me – forever.

The post office and the bank expected us to provide a German forwarding address, even though we were moving to the US. What?!

Thankfully, a friend volunteered to let us use hers. And, perhaps even more important, she was someone we could trust since she’d be opening our mail and possibly dealing with confidential information.

We notified Deutsche Post of the new address through their website. Again, the process was rather straightforward. Our mail will be forwarded to our friend’s address for one year. The only surprise was that in Germany, mail forwarding is not free!

We opted to leave our bank account open since we knew we would need it for our apartment deposit, German tax return, etc. We switched all our statements to paperless (an option strangely not presented to us before) and provided our new German forwarding address as requested.

If we had wanted to close the bank account, we would have needed to wire the balance to the US and pay some rather hefty fees on both the German and American sides. Seeing as the exchange rate between the euro and the dollar has shifted in favor of the dollar, I don’t foresee that money traveling to US soil anytime soon.

In the future, if we do decide to eventually close the account, we will need to write a letter stating our wishes (in triplicate and notarized in blood, I presume) and include our slashed-to-bits ATM debit cards in the envelope.

Fortunately, we did not have any phone or internet service to cancel since that was included in our rent. We did, however, cancel our health, auto, and personal insurance, providing a copy of our Abmeldung – of course! – to get out of the contracts.

Whew!

While the details of departing Deutschland seemed a smidge overwhelming in the moment, the process turned out to be fairly simple in hindsight. This was a welcome surprise while in the trenches of wrestling our worldly goods into fifteen, thirty-kilo boxes.

Little did we know, the hardest task lay ahead and had nothing to do with packing or  paperwork…

Have you ever had an experience where you thought navigating government bureaucracy would be more or less difficult than it actually turned out to be? And, if you’re an expat, what was the process like to enter/leave your country of residency? Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

Expats Move Home: How Our Knick Knacks Crossed the Atlantic

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

Almost everyone has moved somewhere at some point in their life. Whether it be down the street, around the corner, across the country, or even halfway around the globe, it’s a common human experience.

But, that’s where the commonality usually ends. Why? Where? How often? How far? And, literally… how?

In an earlier Expats Move Home post, I recapped the madness of our adventures moving from Germany back to the US. I briefly mentioned what we did with all of the goods we accumulated in four years. Today, I want to shed some light on how we did that and if our method was effective or not.

The Container Conundrum

Most people moving overseas use a container to literally ship their home goods from one end of the ocean to the other. It’s the most practical (and often the only) way to allow you to sleep on the exact same bed in both South Carolina and Spain.

We didn’t use a container service moving to or from Germany. Why? Well, we simply didn’t have enough stuff to make the cost worthwhile.

Sea (or air) freight is very expensive, time-consuming, and full of paperwork. It’s really only worth the effort if you have an entire house to move.

When we first set out for Freiburg in 2010, we had no idea how long we would be there though we assumed it would only be one year. After considering the cost to store all of our belongings in the US, we decided to give away most of our American possessions and store only those items that would have been too expensive, sentimental, or difficult to replace.

We stuffed the remaining essentials into large suitcases which we checked as luggage on the airplane. For a trip down memory lane, you can read the turbulent story of when we – meaning me and only two boys – first touched down in Frankfurt five years ago here.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

This is how “moving” looked the first time around – big piles of junk in our friends’ garage that eventually was organized into fifty-pound suitcases. Sorry for the awful photo – making things pretty wasn’t a priority; getting through it was!

Ship or Ship?

After four years in Germany, we cataloged our meager possessions and realized that by 2014 we had acquired more than we had arrived with in 2010. But despite numerous trips to Ikea and a mountain of fantastic hand-me-downs, we still did not own enough household items to ship a container. 

We researched different options for getting our goods from point A (Freiburg) to point B (Florida). All air and sea freight options ended up out of our price range and not suitable for our circumstances anyway.

Schlepping suitcases wouldn’t work this time either because we would be traveling for several weeks before reaching our final destination in Orlando (you can read the summary of everywhere we went here). There was no way we could – or wanted to – lug a quarter of a ton of luggage around!

Ten, fifty pound suitcases equals five hundred pounds, and five hundred times four is two thousand, right? Correct me if I’m wrong – math has never been my thing – but that is just insane.

After talking with former Freiburg friends, we decided that the option best suited to our situation would be to simply post boxes with DHL.

Going with DHL is by no means the easiest or cheapest method. It’s just what we had to do given the meager amount of household goods.

Whittling Down and Weeding Out

Now, before I went wild with the tape gun, it was necessary to weed out what we didn’t want or need and whittle down the remaining items until we reached the true essentials.

This is a hallmark of any moving experience, but it’s trickier in Germany. Trash is a sensitive subject; one cannot simply leave their unwanted junk on the curb and have it picked up for free. And garage sales?! Please – there’s no such thing.

Yes, there are Flohmärkte, but that assumes that you (1) know of one that (2) fits your schedule, (3) you have a way to schlep your things to the prescribed location, and (4) you are able to haggle auf Deutsch with your customers. For me, a Flohmarkt just wasn’t happening.

Barter or Bestow?

I made a spreadsheet of all the items that weren’t going to earn a free ticket to America, and I divided that list into two categories: giving and selling. While in Freiburg, we made many amazing friends, and I was happy to give as many things as possible to those who wanted/needed it. Plus, I wasn’t going to sell my €3 IKEA salad spinner – I just wanted it gone!

But, moving continents isn’t cheap, so I had to sell big ticket items with lots of wear and value left. I added links to pictures and descriptions of the for sale items, and then I emailed the list to everyone I knew. I explained that the first person to email me about a particular item had dibs.

Additionally, I encouraged my friends to forward the list on to their friends. Expat networks are a beautiful thing, and word often travels fast in these circles. I really wanted to avoid having to hawk my junk on sites like ebay and Craigslist, though I did eventually have to do that for a few bigger items that no one needed.

Sold!

In Germany, used goods sell for nearly the price of new items. It’s absolutely ridiculous. An expensive new pram, for example, retails for €800. A used one would go for €700 unless it’s in really bad shape, in which case it might be let go for €650. Yes, really.

In order to move things along as quickly as possible (pun intended), I priced everything at 50% off – or more – of the original price. However, I did not list any amounts on the spreadsheet I emailed out; instead, I simply gave the price to whomever asked about the item. I think this helped because (1) buyers were already interested and (2) the dirt cheap deal I offered made the bargain too good to refuse. Since prices were so low, I did not have to haggle at all. Score!

Using the small, yet tight-knit expat community ended up being an excellent strategy. Not only did I mostly escape having to bargain with strangers, but my friends and acquaintances were more willing to agree on a later date to transfer the goods rather than having to hand the items over right away.

I can’t stress to you how advantageous this was. It was incredibly beneficial to know that my washing machine was indeed sold, but I could use it up until a few days before we actually moved.

 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

As you know, the process of moving takes an enormous amount of time. Here’s a snippet of what happened when I left my two year-old unattended in the living room while I packed… At least he put every.last.stinking.piece of our game and puzzle collection on the table instead of the floor. That counts for something… right?

Post Haste

With my remaining goods good to go, I consulted my former expat friend again, the one who had sent his own possessions home with DHL. He gifted me a few helpful pieces of advice.

First, he explained that I needed to list everything (yes, every.single.thing) that was in the box. Then, weigh the box + contents carefully, being certain to not go overweight. Finally,  schedule the boxes to be picked up at home instead of dragging them to the nearest DHL office.

All simple tips, yet incredibly valuable.

How Do You Do?

So, let me ask you, when you move, how do you pack? Super organized and careful at first, placing like objects together and paying attention to whether or not you can lift each box? With color coded labels for each room and the contents written in your best handwriting?

Right.

Okay, I usually start out like that – or intend to – but quickly devolve into “whatever” chaos – tossing in toothbrushes with toys and Tupperware. This madness is often performed alone in the wee hours of the night because my better half is often working on work or some other moving-related task.

But, friends, such packing behavior just isn’t going to cut it when you have to use a plane instead of pals to move your junk.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

I know I already used this photo above, but I want to tell you the secret behind it. When I checked the max. measurements on dhl.de, I thought I would be clever and order some of that size. Well, apparently centimeters are not my forte, because THESE were the boxes that arrived! Our entire family might be able to fit inside (well, if we were contortionists, that is), but each box could only WEIGH 30 kilos… uh, yeah – major MOVE FAIL.

It Takes Two

Packing boxes for a ride with DHL ended up being a two-person job (give or take one eager helper to wield the tape gun). One person packed the box while the other typed each and every little thing that went inside the box and added it to a detailed spreadsheet.

When the box was full, the two of us weighed it using a luggage scale and a gigantic Ikea bag (high-tech, I know). If the carton and contents were too light, we added more things (being careful to add them to the spreadsheet, too). And, vice versa, when the box was overweight, we shifted the innards (ensuring we deleted these items from the spreadsheet). Sounds like a pretty awesome way to spend your evenings, no?

Each box received a number from us that we also listed in our spreadsheet. That way, if any of the boxes lost its way, we would know which box had gone astray and what exactly was inside (toothbrushes, toys, and Tupperware, naturally).

Crap Flap

When we could finally see the floor in our apartment again – well, except the area underneath the tape-adorned boxes – I processed the shipping labels on dhl.de. To, From, Size, Weight… so far, so good.

When the required contents declaration appeared, I momentarily panicked when I realized that I could not just copy and paste my spreadsheet onto the DHL shipping manifest. Instead, I was given only six lines for each box… and, I was required to list a value and weight for each line item.

Oh, snap.

Germans love forms, rules, and those who conform. Delinquents who fill out forms incorrectly, ignore rules or decide to make their own, lose. Big Time. I knew that if I botched these forms, there was a good chance my bobbles and bits would never see the light of an American day.

I tried calling German DHL and asking. Though I somehow managed to find someone who spoke English, that phone call left me with more questions and even more paranoia than before.

Several deep breaths and a half a Ritter Sport later, it dawned on me. I could try and call US Customs in Florida, since that’s where my boxes would end up anyway.

I finally found someone to answer my questions, and she suggested I group similar items together and write descriptions like Used Children’s Toys instead of just Toys. She also urged me to indicate that the contents were personal household goods so as to not be hit with duty fees.

American customer service really is a beautiful thing. Even the grumpiest government worker in America can usually be coaxed into helping with a few kind words and a dash of appreciation. Maybe someday Germany will jump on the be-nice-to-your-customers-and-they-will-be-nice-to-you bandwagon…?

Feeling much better, I returned to the dreaded DHL website and followed her instructions. For the weight, I honestly just guessed on each category since I knew the total of the box. For the value, I kept the value for each box at or under €500 since this is the per box maximum amount of included insurance from DHL.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

Expert tip: do NOT take your boxes to the nearest DHL location. Schedule a pickup instead!

Come and Get ‘Em

With the shipping labels completed (and the return of my blood pressure to a normal range), I then scheduled a pickup with DHL at my home address. Not only was this absolutely genius because I did not have to drag 30 kilo boxes to the post office, but generally the DHL drivers do not weigh the boxes.

Now, I don’t want to condone or encourage dishonesty, here. Doc Sci and I were very careful to make sure the boxes were as close to 30kg as possible. But, I did not want to argue with a postal clerk if the cartons were a few grams over or under the limit because my scale wasn’t calibrated exactly like hers.

Thankfully, the transfer to the DHL truck was smooth sailing, and I received tracking numbers and receipts for the boxes from the driver.

All right, you Nosy Nellies, I know you’re curious. How many boxes did we ship? Well, in the beginning, I had hoped to ship ten boxes – we ended up shipping fifteen. The packages took two to four weeks to arrive from Germany. I could track them on dhl.com but often the updates were nonexistent or happened all at once. When we finally set eyes on those brown beauties again, they were pretty bashed up.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home - Shipping Our Stuff with DHL

Our beat up boxes, post ocean voyage and customs vacation.

The Fifteen-Box Miracle

As you can see from the photos above, most boxes were agape with holes or puncture marks. Some even had entire seams exposed. They looked really, really bad. This totally stressed me out, until I realized something.

Miraculously, all fifteen boxes made it, and not a single thing was lost though the dents and gashes.

I believe the reason every little knick knack made it is partly because within each big box, I packed our things in smaller cartons (such as diaper boxes). This nesting idea wasn’t for shipping purposes, though. We needed to fit the contents of the fifteen big boxes into nooks and crannies of our small existing storage unit since we did not have a place to live when we arrived. While it was a ton of work in the moment to sort of pack everything twice, this small act paid off in a big way.

Repeat Performance?

So, would I use DHL to ship our household goods across the Atlantic again? The answer depends heavily upon the circumstances. In our case, no other option made sense.

All methods of moving overseas carry a certain amount of risk. Yes, insurance can be purchased, but claim funds and replacement goods are not the same as getting your beloved winter coat or your Grandma’s English tea cups back. I feel like we did the best we could in our situation, and thankfully, it all worked out this time.

If you’ve moved overseas, I’d love to hear your story! Or if you are thinking of moving abroad one day, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts. Did you / would you go the container route? Check luggage? Ship boxes? Go minimalist and take nothing?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

 

Thrifty Tricks for Using Your Smart Phone While Travelling

Even though I have a Pinterest board dedicated to Travel Apps for Kids & Families, I have a confession to make.. I don’t use travel apps very often. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have an iPhone (yet), or perhaps it’s because I feel overwhelmed by zillions of options and little time to explore them, but I’ll admit I’m completely behind the times in this area.

So, I am thrilled to not only share today’s guest post with you but also to read and learn for myself about the thrifty ways you can use your smart phone while traveling.

The tips and tricks below are written by my friend and fellow travel planning nerd, Nancy. She’s currently a part-time expat and the inspiration behind many of our family’s hikes and outdoor adventures.

“Now, where do we go?”

Invariably, our arrival at any new destination starts with this question. My husband and son look at me as they ask, confident that I—omnipotent mommy and family travel planner—will have the answer for them.

In response, I whip out my not-so-secret weapon against the unknown: my iPhone.

Smart phones are the perfect travel tools. With a smart phone in your backpack, you have a compass, a GPS, a star gazing tool, an elaborate gaming system, a camera and a library of hundreds of books on a device that weighs less than a pound. (We’ve come a long way from the days when I would tear out irrelevant pages in my travel guide to reduce the weight of my pack.)

Perfect, right? Well, almost.

Smart phones come with one major limitation while travelling. Once you are outside the area covered by your local cellular provider, downloading and sending data, making phone calls, and sending text messages can get (really) expensive. We’ve all heard the stories of unfortunate souls who have forgotten this and ended up with an outrageous cell phone bill.

Top 3 thrifty tips for using your smart phone while travelling abroad:

1)   Ask your cellular service provider if they have special international rates. Sometimes you can buy an international package that will reduce the costs for phoning and texting and will allow you a limited amount of data use abroad.

2)   Buy prepaid local SIM cards when you land at your destination. These are usually found in supermarkets, drug stores, or kiosks all over the world. Use Google or a local expat forum to find out where to buy SIM cards, average rates, and recommended brands.

3)   Simply turn off the cellular roaming data option on your phone and avoid making or receiving phone calls or text messages. (In other words, don’t answer any phone calls or texts.) Also, double check with your cellular service provider that you won’t be charged for incoming calls or texts, even if you don’t answer them.

Surprisingly, turning off the cellular data and ignoring the phone functions of my iPhone has been a good solution for me, especially when I have decent access to Wi-Fi to ease the pain of disconnection.

And, the lack of a cellular data plan doesn’t mean that you have to leave your phone at  home while you are out and about. There are some easy ways to use your smart phone even when you don’t have a local plan or data abilities.

Four great tricks for using your smart phone without a data connection:

1)   Use offline maps and navigation systems like Mapswithme and TomTom.

The GPS on your smart phone likely works even when you don’t have cellular data coverage. (You can Google the make and model number of your smart phone to check if your device has this ability).

To use the GPS system without cell access, you also need to have an offline map. There are offline maps available for most destinations, but our favourite offline map app is Mapswithme, an open source map system that covers most of the world.

Once you have downloaded the Mapswithme app, you then individually download the country maps that you will need on your trip. This feature allows you to choose only the maps you need in order to save space on your device.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

The blue arrow shows your location on the map.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

You can zoom into a high resolution view.

We have used this app to mark destinations like parking lots and trail heads; and we use it constantly when we are walking around a new place to find anything of interest. Mapswithme has saved us several times from taking the wrong turn while on a ramble through a new city.

Mapswithme also has lots of hiking and biking trails on it, which has been very helpful to us in New Zealand, North America, and Europe. My husband and I used the app on an overnight hike in New Zealand as a distance guide.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

You can drop a pin on the map and then click on it to see how far away you are. The distance from your pin is shown underneath your arrow. Unfortunately, we are very far away from New Zealand right now.

You can place a pin on any destination and when you click on the pin, the info screen will tell you how far away you are from the pin in a direct line. You can also upload a trail map or travel route to Mapswithme and monitor your progress on a trip.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

You can upload trails and routes to Mapswithme.

This app does have one major limitation: It doesn’t provide spoken directions when driving.

When we do need navigation help for driving, we use an offline navigator from TomTom. This is an expensive app, but it has proven useful several times and was well worth the value. Mapswithme is a good companion to the TomTom app. If I’m unsure of where TomTom is leading us, I double check with Mapswithme.

2)   Download offline travel guides with Scribd.

I use Scribd, a subscription-based app that lets me download an unlimited number of books for a very reasonable price (under $10 per month). The Scribd library includes all of the Lonely Planet guides, and other travel guides as well.

On a recent trip to Provence, I downloaded the Lonely Planet guide for this area onto my phone before we left. When we visited a new city, I would look up the city in the guide, choose the most important sights, and take advantage of the highly detailed maps in the book to figure out where we needed to start and what we wanted to see.

In addition, I use Scribd extensively just for reading. Imagine taking your local public library with you on a trip. Bonus!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

A list of all of the travel books that I have downloaded to my device in Scribd.

3)   Store travel plans and electronic tickets in Google Drive.

I usually make extensive travel itineraries for my family. It helps me know who has to be where and when. But I don’t like carrying paper. Google Drive is a service that lets you store and access documents from any computer or device. I create a folder for our trip in Google Drive, and I upload a detailed itinerary and all of the reservation and ticket documents to this folder.

To ensure that I have access to our travel documents even when I don’t have a data connection, I open the Google Drive app on my phone, open the documents I might want to access, and check off the option which will prompt the system to keep on offline version on my device. I’m sure that this would also work with other online storage systems like Dropbox .

The advantage of storing your documents in Google Drive or Dropbox is that you can access them in a pinch from any device or computer.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

My travel folder in Google Drive.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Thrifty Ways to Use Your Smart Phone While Traveling

Offline versions of boarding passes. Note that I have checked the “Keep an online version” option.

4)   Find free Wi-Fi.

I’ve become good at finding free Wi-Fi when I need to really connect. Free Wi-Fi is less common in Europe and New Zealand than in North America, but it does exist. For instance, Starbucks in Germany offers a free connection for two hours. This does help take the edge off life without a good Internet connection.

I have used the Wi-Fi Finder app, but have found it to be out-of-date. I’ve had better luck just keeping my eyes open. A couple of weeks ago in Switzerland, we visited Chillon, a medieval castle and popular tourist destination that offered free Wi-Fi with the price of admission.

Although I do prefer to be connected to the Internet at all times (like every minute of the day!), I have found travelling without a data connection to be possible and even preferable as I’m not constantly worried about how much money I’m spending every time I check the map.

And I’m still always able to tell my family where we are and where we should head to next!

So, how do you use your smart phone while travelling? Any other tricks to share?

Nancy (aka Twigg3d) is a Canadian traveller, writer, teacher and iPhone addict. In recent years, she has been travelling with her husband and son back and forth between Canada, Germany and New Zealand. Anyone who knows her will find it hard to believe that she can survive without the Internet even for a minute.

 

 

 

What You Need to Know About Taking a Night Train in Germany with Kids

Traveling by train in Germany is one of the easiest ways to get around. We’ve ridden the rails numerous times, but this past April was the first time I attempted to take a child on the overnight train.

Known as the City Night Line (CNL) here in Deutschland, these trains travel slowly, stopping at various points along the route and (usually) arriving after the sun is up at the desired destination.

Although I hadn’t slept on a CNL train before this trip, I did have a smattering of sleeper train experience. I took the overnight train between Moscow and St. Petersburg when I first visited in 2001 and more often when I lived there in 2003. I had no idea how the trains in Germany would compare to those in Russia.

Lucky for me, my husband took the same night train for a work trip two weeks before I went with solo with Alpha to the Netherlands and back. Thanks to him, I had a heads up on the differences before I even left home.

To read about our mama-son adventure to Keukenhof Gardens in the Netherlands, click here!

Alpha is my oldest, a very brave and grown-up six year-old. He was thrilled to be the boy chosen to accompany me (er, indulge my floral fancy) on our whirlwind Dutch adventure.

On the evening of our departure, I put him to bed at home as usual, only he slept in his street clothes instead of pajamas. Our train was scheduled to depart at 11pm. I woke him around 10:15pm; we slipped on our shoes and strapped on our backpacks. We walked to the tram that took us to the train station, and then sat on the platform waiting for the CNL to roll in.

A collection of random but very important things to know about the City Night Line trains in Germany:

  • Reservations are compulsory. You must select and book the kind of overnight accommodation you want – reclining seat, couchette, or proper sleeping car. And if you cancel your ticket, you do not get the money for the reservation back. In our case, the reservation cost about 60 euros.
  • Though I am thrifty and all, it is well worth the money to pay for a four-berth couchette. The cabins are small, and I would not want to be sharing that tiny space with five other adults. And the reclining seat? Forget it.
  • If you wish, you can reserve a space to bring your bike along for a small fee.
  • Sleeping cabins are mixed, men and women. Each train has one women-only compartment, but this must be booked at the train station.  I was able to reserve beds in this cabin with my son since he was young enough, but it took several employees and a manager before I received approval.
  • You cannot select whether you want an upper or lower berth online. If this is important to you, you’ll need to book this with Deutsche Bahn in person or over the phone.
  • An announcement that serves as a train-wide wake-up call is made on the train at 7am. If your station is scheduled to be before 7am, you can request that the steward wake you up.
  • Some trains have electrical outlets in the cabins, some don’t. The only other outlets I found were in the sink washrooms.
  • For couchette and reclining seat train cars, there are two sink rooms and a toilet located at the end of the car. For proper sleeping cars, toilets and sinks are located inside the cabins.
  • Doors have several locks that can be fastened from the inside. Leave them locked, but be aware you might have to wake up if your cabin is not full and more passengers are coming later in the night.
  • The train stops often and the lights at each station can shine brightly into the cabin window. Expert tip: bring an eye mask to wear while sleeping.
  • More expensive sleeper cabins come with a complimentary breakfast. Couchette and reclining seat passengers can purchase breakfast from the dining car or bring their own.
  • If your train crosses an international border, be sure to pack your passport as it could be inspected. A check was performed when Doc Sci took the CNL, but not when I did.
  • For loads of more great tips, see Seat 61.

When the white and red CNL cars arrived, we located our assigned wagon and climbed aboard. Once inside the cabin, I helped Alpha make the beds. Each passenger in the couchette is given a small pillow, a blanket, and a rectangular sheet that’s open on two sides and sewn shut on the other two. We arranged the sheets so that the opening was toward the middle of the cabin, fluffed the pillows, and placed the blanket on top.

Six berth couchette cabin. (image)

Six berth couchette cabin. (image)

A trip to the potty was followed by goodnight hugs and kisses. We donned our fancy shmancy eye masks and allowed ourselves to be lulled to sleep by the motion of the train.

Alpha woke me up a few minutes before the blaring 7am we’re-now-leaving-Germany-so-sleep-time-is-over announcement. We feasted on German rolls, yogurt, and juice that we’d brought along in our packs. The train ambled in to Utrecht around 8:30am where we changed to a commuter train headed for Schipol where we could catch a bus to Keukenhof.

Reclining seats on CNL trains. (image)

Reclining seats on CNL trains. (image)

Only twelve hours but thousands of tulips later, we were at it again, boarding another CNL train in Amsterdam headed back home.

We felt like pros, setting up our sheets, stowing our packs, and pulling out our eye masks. However, one thing was different – on this train, we were assigned one upper and one lower berth.

On the previous night’s train, we both slept below. Alpha sleeps on the top bunk every night at home, so he wanted to try the same thing on the train. I worried he might fall, but I shouldn’t have. The upper berths are slightly concave and feature decent guardrails. However, if you are also concerned about your child rolling out of bed, see below for a few tips on how to reduce the risk.

Since our arrival into our city’s main train station was scheduled for 5:55am, I requested a wake-up call from the steward. Just to be safe, I also set an alarm on my phone for 5:35am. The attendant rapped on the glass precisely 15 minutes before our station and waited until I opened the door and confirmed I was, indeed, awake.

Safety note: Don’t open the door unless you are expecting someone. Random “passport checks” in the middle of the night are usually a scam.

The boy and I slipped on our shoes and our backpacks and quietly left the other two ladies to slumber all the way to Zurich while we greeted the morning in our home city.

Would I take the overnight train with kids again? Absolutely!

But, how would that work with our little Charlie, who still sleeps in a crib?

Four berth couchette cabin. (image)

Four berth couchette cabin. (image)

I asked a good friend who often travels with her four kids (ages 0, 2, 4, and 6!) on the CNL to Hamburg for a few tips on taking the night train with infants and toddlers.

  • First and foremost, the attitude of the parents almost always determines the success of the venture. (This holds true for nearly every family travel situation.)
  • Prepare the kids ahead of time; talk through what will happen. Explain that they will sleep at home before they get on the train, then they will wake up in order to get to the train, and then they will go to sleep again on the train. Keep your expectations low – this is a new experience, after all – but don’t offer another option (playing on the iPad instead of snoozing).
  • If your budget allows, try to book out an entire cabin. Couchette cabins are either 4 or 6 beds, so pick the one that is closest to the number of people in your family. Children under 6 travel free, but you still have to pay to reserve their sleeping place (see top block of tips).
  • For small infants that don’t yet push themselves up, bring along a carrycot or small travel bassinet (I have the Phil & Teds cocoon and peanut) that you can place on the floor.
  • For older infants and toddlers, request child safety bars when you book the tickets. If it’s not possible to pre-book this feature, ask as soon as you board. Each train only has a limited number, so keep this in mind if you’re traveling during a busy holiday season.
  • If you’re worried about a child falling out of bed, have her sleep on the bottom berth and arrange your luggage in such a way that if she did fall out, she’d only fall a few inches to the luggage, not all the way to the floor.
Child safety nets in sleeping cars. (image)

Child safety nets in sleeping cars. (image)

If you haven’t had your fill of overnight train travel with kid tips today, here are a few more bloggers crazy enough to take their kids on an overnight train:

Would you take your family on an overnight train? Have you already? I’d love to hear your story in the comments below.

I’m happy to be linking up with Sunday Traveler once again! Please check out all of this week’s excellent travel-related posts here at Chasing the Donkey.
Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

IKEA Hack: Expedit Lego Duplo Table with Storage

Thrifty Travel Mama | Ikea Hack: Lego Duplo Building Table with Storage Made From Ikea Expedit ShelvingWelcome back reader friends!  I trust you’ve had a nice long holiday break, wherever in the world you are.  We spent a wet week in Paris (more on that later), and now I’m dealing with a very particular toddler who has decided two naps per day is tooooo many.  Oh, joy.

Luckily, the little stinker has found his happy place smashing up his Christmas present – a Lego Duplo table that Doc Sci and I made from an Ikea Expedit shelf.

I was inspired by the Lego Playhouse I saw here.  However, I had a slightly different vision of what would work better for our family and apartment.  I wanted the table to include space for storage, and I wanted it mobile.

I absolutely loved making this gift for the boys, and I know your kids would be thrilled to receive this, too.  So, today I’m sharing how we did it.

Supplies:

*The large Lego Duplo building plates are too big to fit on the lower shelves (but, they are perfectly sized for the top!).

We could’ve bought them anyway and cut them to fit, but I wanted a lower stress option (what if the cut looked bad?  What about the rounded corners?).  We found smaller boards on ebay (none available on amazon!).  The size I used is 12×16 knobs as seen below.Thrifty Travel Mama | Ikea Hack: Lego Duplo Building Table with Storage Made From Ikea Expedit ShelvingActually, I bought all the Lego Duplo building plates on ebay.  Those suckers are crazy expensive, and I knew my boys wouldn’t care if a few of the knobs showed a bit of wear and tear.

Assemble the Shelf

First things first – put your Ikea Expedit shelf together!  I don’t think you need much help here – the shapeless nonverbal figures in the instructions should tell you everything you need to know.

Add the Wheels

Wheels are completely optional.  I wanted them because we have a very small apartment, and Big Foot takes a 3-4 hour nap in the boys’ room.  I thought it would be nice for the older boys to not have to carry out armfuls of toys to play with while the little one sleeps. Thrifty Travel Mama | Ikea Hack: Lego Duplo Building Table with Storage Made From Ikea Expedit ShelvingJust as a side note, it’s not necessary to use Ikea’s casters.  If you find wheels that suit your fancy elsewhere, just use those.

Again, I was going for low stress.  The wheels are competitively priced (at least in Germany), fit the Expedit shelf perfectly, and have a locking wheel which is crucial if you don’t want your playhouse running away from you.

A drill is handy to have when attaching the wheels, but it’s not critical.  Doc Sci was too lazy to bring ours up from the cellar, so he used good old fashioned elbow grease.

Glue the Boards

Decide where you want to position the boards, and glue them down one by one.  A few tips…

  • If you bought used boards, clean them first before gluing!  I totally forgot to do this (you can see it in the photo), and it was a pain in the you-know-what to scrub in between those little knobbies after they were cemented down.
  • It’s helpful to have two people glue the boards simultaneously in case you need to shift them slightly to ensure proper spacing.
  • Use Duplo bricks to attach adjacent boards together (see second photo below).  This will ensure you get the spacing correct.  If you glue the boards with the edges flush, they will be too close!
  • Pile heavy books on the boards while the glue dries overnight.  Keep the Duplo bricks in place during this time, too.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Ikea Hack: Lego Duplo Building Table with Storage Made From Ikea Expedit ShelvingThrifty Travel Mama | Ikea Hack: Lego Duplo Building Table with Storage Made From Ikea Expedit Shelving

Add Storage and Decorate

Zip your bins together, and fill them with your bricks.  I put a few extra of the bigger building plates in one of the bins so that play didn’t have to be confined to the table.  They do fit, but only at an angle.

I attached some colorful 2×2 Duplo bricks around the edges for decoration and to encourage “out of the box” play.Thrifty Travel Mama | Ikea Hack: Lego Duplo Building Table with Storage Made From Ikea Expedit Shelving

I liked the idea of laminating paper scenes and placing them inside the middle shelf.  However, I didn’t have time to do this, and I wanted to see how my boys would use the table first.

If I end up adding the pictures, I’ll use velcro tabs on the back of the laminated sheets so they can switch them out.  I’m thinking they would love the ability to rotate between airport, fire station, police station, post office, zoo, construction zone, and city scenes.

I added some vehicles, buildings, and people (all from ebay, of course) to make the gift super sweet for them.Thrifty Travel Mama | Ikea Hack: Lego Duplo Building Table with Storage Made From Ikea Expedit Shelving

And… You’re Done

That’s it – easy peasy!

We gave the boys this table as a joint gift.  We’re resisting the draw of the regular, smaller Legos as long as possible since Big Foot still puts everything in his mouth.  My hope is that this table will help the Duplos remain cool just a bit longer.  So far, so good!

Would your kids like this table?  What other variations can you think of to customize it for your family?Signature-Marigold

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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Make It Yourself: Recipes for a Kid-Friendly Tuscan Pasta Feast!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Make it Yourself - Tuscan Pasta Feast

Along with cycling the walls of Lucca on a “gear bike,” the absolute best part of our trip to Tuscany according to my five year-old was learning how to make “noodles and sauce.”

I thought maybe I should correct him – actually we made tagliatelle, ravioli, ragu, and marinara – but I decided against it.  These are kid-friendly recipes, so let ’em call the food whatever they want!

T-Rex had a hand in every part of the recipes below from cracking eggs to pulsing the food processor to rolling pasta dough to cutting ravioli.

To create your own Tuscan pasta feast, whip up the pastas and sauces above.  Add a green salad tossed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil and a loaf of rustic Italian bread.  Don’t forget a bottle of Chianti for the adults.  Bonus points for adding a cheesecake and coffee for dessert.

So.. are you ready to make your own “noodles and sauce,” Tuscan style?  Bring on the recipes!

Tuscan Ragu with Tagliatelle

1 medium carrot, peeled
1 small stalk celery
1 medium yellow onion, peeled
3 sprigs flat parsley
1/4 c olive oil
350 g (12 oz) ground beef
60ml (1/4 c) red wine
2 – 400g (14oz) cans whole, peeled tomatoes
500g (1 lb) tagliatelle pasta*
Parmesan cheese, for serving

Cut the carrot, celery, and onion into several pieces so that the vegetables fit in the bowl of a food processor.  Remove the leaves from the parsley sprigs and add them to the vegetables.  Pulse until fine.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Make it Yourself - Tuscan Pasta FeastHeat the olive oil in a skillet over medium low heat, and add the chopped vegetables.  Saute for about 5 mins until they begin to soften.  Add the ground beef and crumble.  Cook covered on low heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender.  Add the red wine, and let the alcohol evaporate.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Make it Yourself - Tuscan Pasta FeastWhile the meat mixture cooks, place the tomatoes in a food processor using a fork (do not add the tomato juice), and puree.
When the vegetables are tender and the meat is fully cooked, add the tomato puree.  Bring to a simmer, and cook uncovered for 1 hour.  Add a little water (no more than 60ml or 1/4 c) if the sauce looks like it is drying out.  Salt to taste while the ragu is still warm.
To serve, make a small nest of tagliatelle (recipe below) on a plate or in a bowl.  Ladle the ragu over the nest, and top with Parmesan cheese.
If you don’t have time to make Tagliatelle from scratch and you can’t find it in your local grocery, fettuccine is a fine substitute.  Make sure to cook it al dente!

Quick & Easy Italian Marinara

3 whole cloves garlic, peeled
60ml (1/4 c) olive oil
4 basil leaves, washed
2 – 400g (14oz) cans whole, peeled tomatoes
salt, to taste

Thrifty Travel Mama | Make it Yourself - Tuscan Pasta FeastPlace the tomatoes in a food processor (do not add the juice) and puree.  Set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium low heat, and add the garlic when hot.  Let the garlic sizzle for 1 minute, stirring constantly (don’t burn or brown it).

Carefully add the tomato puree to the hot garlic oil, and bring to a simmer.  Add the basil leaves, and cook on low heat for about 10 minutes until the flavors blend.

Serve with any pasta that strikes your fancy.


Basic Tuscan Pasta Dough

150 g all-purpose or type 00 flour*
50 g semolina flour*
2 pinches of salt (optional)
2 eggs

Thrifty Travel Mama | Make it Yourself - Tuscan Pasta FeastMeasure the flours into a medium bowl.  Whisk to combine the two types (if using).  Pour the flour into a small pile on a large, clean work surface.  Sprinkle the salt on the flour.

Make a well in the center of the flour, and crack the eggs into the well.  Using a fork, carefully scramble the eggs, and then gradually work the flour into the eggs until a dough forms.

Knead the dough with your hands until it become smooth.  Use the heel of your hand to form the dough into a ball.  Cover with plastic wrap, and let rest 15-30 mins.

This sounds a lot harder than it actually is.  To see pasta making in action, The Italian Dish has a short video demonstrating how to make the dough.

Using a large rolling pin, roll the dough out on a well floured surface in a large rectangle.  Make it as thin as you possibly can, all the while checking to make sure the dough does not stick to the work surface.  When the dough is about 1-2mm (1/8″ to 1/16″) thin, leave it alone for 15-20 mins to dry it out a bit.

From here, you can make ravioli (filling recipe and cutting instructions below) or continue on with tagliatelle.Thrifty Travel Mama | Make it Yourself - Tuscan Pasta FeastTo make it easier to cut into strips, fold the dough inward in two inch sections starting from the outer edge and alternating sides until the two folded sides meet.  Use a large, sharp knife to cut off sections of noodles, about 6mm (a little less than 1/4″) wide.  Toss with a sprinkling of semolina flour on a large baking sheet or plate until ready to cook.

Cook the noodles in a large pot of boiling, salted water for 2-3 minutes or until al dente.  Drain and serve hot with the sauce of your choice.

* Italians use Type 00 flour and semolina, but you can substitute all-purpose flour for the Type 00.  Semolina is fairly easy to find (try Bob’s Red Mill), but in a pinch, you can simply use 200g of all-purpose flour.  Also, it’s best to weigh the flour for this recipe, but if you don’t have a scale, use 2 cups of flour with 2 eggs.


Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli

45 ml (3 Tbl) olive oil
1 clove garlic
200 g (7 oz) frozen spinach
80 g (~3 oz) grated Parmesan cheese
2 eggs
200 g (7 oz) ricotta cheese
Basic Tuscan Pasta Dough, doubled (recipe + instructions above)

Thrifty Travel Mama | Make it Yourself - Tuscan Pasta FeastHeat the olive oil in a skillet over medium low heat.  Add garlic when hot and swirl for 1-2 minutes to flavor the oil.  Carefully add the frozen spinach.  Add 60 ml (1/4 c) water and cover.  Cook on low until the spinach is heated through.  Salt to taste, and let cool to room temperature.

Place the Parmesan in a food processor.  Add the cooked spinach and puree until smooth.  Add the eggs and pulse until incorporated.  Remove the mixture to a medium bowl, and stir in the ricotta cheese.

Separate the pasta dough into two equal portions.  Keeping one covered in plastic wrap, roll the dough out on a well floured surface in a large rectangle.  Make it as thin as you possibly can (1-2mm or 1/8″ to 1/16″), all the while adding more flour as needed to make sure the dough does not stick to the work surface.  Repeat with the second ball of dough, and leave both pieces alone for 15-20 mins to dry it out a bit.

Use a ravioli cutter to trim off any rounded edges to form a rectangle.  (Pass the scraps to the kids and let them make their own creations.)  Fold a strip of the dough over to indicate how large you’d like to make the ravioli.  Gently use the cutter to press a guideline along the cut edge of the folded strip of dough.  Unfold.

Drop teaspoons of filling along the inside of the fold in small piles where the center of the raviolis will be. When the row of dots is completed, again fold the dough over, lining the cut edge up with the previously pressed guideline.

Using a ravioli cutter, slide along the guideline, pressing firmly to seal the edges of the dough.  Now use the cutter to separate the pasta pillows from one another.  Set on a lightly floured baking sheet in a single layer to rest while you finish making the rest of the ravioli.

Fill a large pot with water and salt generously.  Add 45ml (1 Tbl) olive oil, and bring to boiling.  Cook the ravioli for 2-3 minutes or until al dente.  Drain and serve hot with the marinara or ragu.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Make it Yourself - Tuscan Pasta Feast

Buon Appetito!

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

DIY: Map Wrapped Floor Lamp

Thrifty Travel Mama | Map Wrapped Floor LampHey y’all!  Today I’ve got a fun DIY project to spruce up your home with a little travel style.  I love decorating the house with little touches of trips we’ve taken (or even just imagined).  With an hour and a few materials, you can transform a boring lamp into a conversation piece!

This restyle uses the IKEA HOLMÖ floor lamp, a bargain at $9.99 (€7,99), but you could use any barrel-shaped lamp shade.

Want to make this yourself?  Hop on over to Renee Angela Photography to see the full DIY post.

For more project inspiration, follow me on Pinterest and check out my Travel Crafts & Projects board. 

More of my map projects!  Wall Art & Pencil Holders.Signature-Marigold