Our Turkish Family Adventure: A Fall Fling in Istanbul

Thrifty Travel Mama | Family Adventures in Istanbul - Tips on Taking Your Kids to Turkey

Are y’all ready to check out the sultan’s sweet digs, savory street food, and a super cheap sea cruise? My family-friendly Istanbul recap is finally here!

An effort nearly a year in the making, sharing our family’s Turkish adventure with you is obviously long overdue. In between spelling tests and science experiments, I’ve been editing photos and typing up posts in my rare spare minutes over the past few months.

We enjoyed such a marvelous last major travel fling in the Middle East before moving to America, a trek complete with marvels and mishaps, that I couldn’t keep it all to myself.

After a trip like this, the first thing I want to do is capture the essence of the adventure in words and pictures (which, unfortunately takes for-stinkin’-ever these days). Following that, I wish to share what we experienced and learned with you and all my fellow traveling families.

I personally rely on these kinds of recap and bucket list posts from other travelers and especially family travel bloggers. So, without further ado, here are the treats awaiting you in the next few weeks. Links will be added to the list below as posts are published.

Istanbul Bucket List

All that, and….

As always, I’ll discuss my thoughts on whether I found Istanbul to be kid-friendly or not. I’ll be handing over my best tips for taking your family to Turkey including valuable advice on what to know and prepare before you even leave home.

I also have a harrowing hotel tale to share in hopes that you’ll avoid any potential arguments with your own accommodation arrangements. Plus, I’ve got a review of our experience flying Turkish Airlines with kids in the works.

It’s both thrilling and slightly depressing to be reliving our Turkish adventure here in words and pictures. Thrilling because, hello, we went to Turkey with our kids and had a blast. Depressing because of the whole being regular Americans now with real jobs and commitments who can’t travel whenever they feel like it (whine, whine). But, whatever.

Down with the reverse culture shock dumps, I say! Every day, this new life gets a bit more bearable. Meeting fellow expats helps. Making new expat friends helps. Using my passport again REALLY helps. And, writing here helps. It reminds me that we traveled before, and we can travel again. It may not look the same as it used to, but travel is different for every adventure-seeking family.

So, let’s do this Turkey trip recap thing together. I’ll write the posts. You plan, scheme, and dream up your own version. (And, failing that – just pin it all for later.)

See you back here in a few days when we explore the 8th wonder of the world! In the meantime, if you have a hankering to browse other bucket lists, you can find our Tuscan one here and our Croatian one here.

Which part of the bucket list are you most looking forward to? If you’ve been to Turkey and have a story or link to share from somewhere not on our bucket list, would you share it in the comments below? Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

 

Visiting Croatia in the Off-Season

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonWe’re bidding farewell to our Croatian Family Adventure today with a chat about visiting the Dalmatian Coast during the off-season.

My ideal travel destination is naturally gorgeous, affordable (okay, cheap), and away from the tourist crowds. If this is your cup of tea as well, then you may be considering visiting Croatia sometime other than the jam-packed summer months.

Though Paris is a beauty even in the dead of winter and Rothenburg is quiet when it rains, it’s possible to do and see almost everything even when the tour buses are absent. But Croatia? Not so much.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

It’s worth sitting down and deciding what your family really wants to experience in Dalmatia before booking flights or accommodation. Below, I’ve highlighted pros and cons to visiting during the off-season, which I would categorize as anything outside June, July, and August.Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

Drawbacks of visiting Croatia in off-season…

  • Ferry service to the islands is limited. If you want to see more than 1 or 2 islands, I would recommend hopping from island to island instead of trying to do day trips from the mainland. This will require quite a bit of logistical planning on your part since you’ll need to see if accommodation is available (see the next bullet, below) while simultaneously checking ferry timetables and researching ground transportation options to get from the port to the hotel and back.
  • Many attractions, restaurants, and hotels are closed for the winter. Some are even closed in spring and fall.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

  • Even if you’re able to arrange accommodation and transportation to experience the islands, they’re rather deserted when it’s not high season. Don’t expect party central.
  • The weather can be downright COLD. In fact, we had the heat on in the first two apartments we rented… in April. If you were planning to lounge around on the terrace at your vacation rental, just know that you’ll be doing so bundled up. Croatia also has this freakish freezing wind known as the bura, or brrrrrrrra.
  • The water is too cold to swim and going to the beach is only for those who enjoy a slow form of torture involving said wind, sand, and sensitive corneas.
  • This one’s only for the carnivores, but the infamous road-side meat stands on the way to Plitvice Lakes and along other Croatian highways aren’t open. You won’t be able to watch a whole pig or sheep being roasted and then partake of the freshly cooked flesh (vegetarians, rejoice).

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonNow, on to the benefits of visiting during off-season..

  • Smaller crowds! This might seem insignificant, but when you’re walking the walls of Dubrovnik or hopping over waterfalls at Plitvice, you’ll be thanking your lucky stars that even though you’re freezing your bum off, you have room to breathe and appreciate what you’re seeing without constantly being elbowed and jostled.
  • Ferry tickets are plentiful. In summer, you can be stuck in long lines hoping that the particular ship you want to sail on is not sold out.
  • You can enjoy the Croatian national pastime of drinking coffee in cafes for hours with locals instead of tourists.
  • Though the availability is limited, the prices for hotels and vacation rentals are reduced and some attractions are even free.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

  • If you’re dying to see Plitvice, remember that water levels are highest in the spring after the snow melts which translates to some pretty powerful waterfalls.
  • The heat is tolerable. I remember walking the walls of Dubrovnik in April and nearly baking in the sun. It must be hotter than you-know-what up there in August, and crowded with cruise ship day-trippers to boot.
  • Traffic!! If you’re driving to Dubrovnik from Split or vice versa, you should know that the only way in and out is a two-lane highway on the edge of the sea. Traffic on this road in summer is a total beast. Also, the lines at border crossings for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro will be much shorter during the off-season.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-SeasonIn spite of (and also because of) all of the reasons above, I still think we would have chosen to visit Croatia during the off-season had we known all of this in advance (we didn’t).

But, when we go back, we’ll aim for September. The locals I talked to all recommended going in September because the summer crowds are gone but the water is still warm enough to swim. Just don’t tell the tour groups that…Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

My advice if you want to go to Croatia is to GO NOW. The country is fabulous, but it’s starting to realize this fact. And once it does, the danger to allow tacky tourism in for the sake of the income will be rather irresistible.

Ripping off foreigners in the form of outrageous admission fees for non-locals (which is the case already in places like Russia) is another potential problem for travelers. Some towns like Dubrovnik are already totally touristy which means expensive prices, questionable quality, and many “souvenirs” made in China. Thrifty Travel Mama | Croatia with Kids - Visiting During the Off-Season

But, there are still many, many places to experience authentic Croatia, and I highly recommend creating a Dalmatian family adventure of your own, posthaste!

Now that you know the pros and cons, would you visit Croatia during the off-season? Or is the warm weather and water too important for your family to miss?Signature Thrifty Travel MamaThis post is part of Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Our Croatian Family Adventure: Ten Days on the Dalmatian Coast

Thrifty Travel Mama | Family Adventures in Croatia on the Dalmatian CoastFinally, (finally!!) I’m giving you what you’ve always wanted – tales of our travels in Croatia! Admittedly, what you’ve always wanted is probably more like the opportunity to actually go to Croatia, but since I’m not giving away any trips today (boo!), this will have to do.

In April, we spent ten days in Croatia, overnighting in Zadar, Split, and Dubrovnik. We usually prefer to just stay in one place and do day trips to surrounding attractions, but the driving distances were too great for our norm to be realistic this time around.

When I visit a new destination that I’ve always wanted to see, I often make a list of the must-see sights (you too?). I ask myself, what will I regret not seeing or doing if I don’t make it happen this trip? I know the usual travel advice is to assume you’ll be back. But life gives us no guarantee, so see what you want while you’re there. However, don’t stress yourself out by doing so much that you don’t enjoy the trip. I know, I know… it’s a delicate balance.

Now, I must admit, I feel a bit ridiculous talking about our travels in Croatia. SJ of Chasing the Donkey has put together such an incredible blog filled with gorgeous photos, fascinating sites, and fun things to do in the country. If you have not yet had the chance, I highly encourage you to hop on over to her blog, and follow her straightaway. She’s an Aussie expat living in Croatia with her husband and son who is the same age as our little Charlie.

With SJ’s help, I put together an itinerary that I hoped would be a balanced diet of sightseeing, driving, and rest: three nights in Zadar, three nights in Dubrovnik, and four nights in Split.

Like our trip to Tuscany last summer, I created a (much shorter) bucket list for our Croatian holiday. Follow along as I write about the highs and lows of each of our adventures in Croatia with three boys. I’ll add links as I post about each place.

Our Family’s Croatian Bucket List:

I’ll also answer the inevitable question… “Is Croatia kid-friendly?” I searched high and low for this kind of information before our trip, but I came up empty-handed most of the time. Look for my answer and some tips on taking the kiddos to Croatia here.

Taking your family to Croatia outside of the high summer season requires some special consideration and advance planning. Read my pros and cons of visiting during the off-season here.

And, it wouldn’t be right not to include some Supermarket Souvenirs that you can enjoy while in country or take home to friends and family. SJ wrote a post on Croatian candy, and I’ll report back with our taste test results.

So, to the Dalmation coast we go.  First stop, Zadar!Signature-Marigold

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.

 

 

 

Do Vegas Up Family-Style: 5 Kid-Friendly Activities

My memories of visiting Las Vegas as a child are of endless subdivisions and eternal buffets.  The Strip then wasn’t what it is today, and the best thing we found to do was play arcade games inside Circus Circus. 

But, boy things have changed!  As today’s guest writer Kendra Thornton points out, Las Vegas may surprise you as a family-friendly (and budget!) destination. 

Do Vegas Up Family-Style

Believe it or not, Las Vegas is one of the family-friendliest places to travel in the United States. While you may associate Vegas with the more adult-themed activities that have led to its negative reputation, it is important to know that much of this is just hype.

Las Vegas may be marketed toward those who will spend freely as they imbibe in libations; however, this can easily work toward your advantage.

Businesses frequently make it cheap to travel to and stay in Las Vegas because they know that most adults will spend big money once they hit the casinos and clubs. This makes it easy for you to utilize cheap travel packages to take your kids on less-expensive and family-friendly cultural activities that I have included on this list of my favorite Vegas hot-spots.

1. Chill at Serendipity

If you have never had frozen hot chocolate, then you are in for a treat. In the rest of the country, everyone else may be warming up to a mug of hot cocoa. However, drinking it cold Las Vegas style will be a thrill for your kids. At Serendipity 3, the fun is just beginning when you walk in and are greeted by funky décor and an exciting menu. Enjoy your frozen hot chocolate as you plan your next grand adventure.

2. Thrill at Adventuredome

Inside Circus Circus you’ll find the Adventuredome, a five-acre theme park that is sure to dazzle your kids. Here, roller coaster enthusiasts from all over the world come to find their thrills. Enjoy world-famous rides such as the world’s only indoor roller coaster with a double loop and corkscrew. Then, have fun rock climbing. Those who are less adventurous will also love the arcade.

3. Lounge on a Hoover Dam Houseboat

Even if your kids have seen it all, they still have not yet had the thrill of enjoying a stay on a houseboat. A houseboat on Lake Mead can be rented for a single night or several days. In addition to being an event to be remembered, this can also be less expensive than traditional hotel stays. On a Hoover Dam houseboat, you have lodging and entertainment covered. Then, you can take in the view while enjoying the nature-side of Las Vegas vacations.

4. Experiment with Indoor Skydiving

It may or may not be your kids’ dream to jump out of a plane. Here your kids can try it out in the safety of an indoor space. This thrill is achieved by using a wind tunnel to mimic the effects of an actual skydiving experience. As a parent, you can enjoy giving your kids a great thrill while making sure safety is a priority. As an added bonus, this is even less expensive than the real thing.

5. Experience a Venetian Winter

If you would have never thought Las Vegas could be a winter wonderland, then be prepared to be surprised. At the Venetian, the halls will be decked for the season this winter. Here, you can enjoy an ice skating rink. Then, listen as real-life carolers sing holiday melodies as they roam the halls. Every night, they serve spiced cider so you can sip and enjoy the sights while visiting with your family.

This year, experience an unbelievable vacation full of holiday surprises in the amazing city of Las Vegas. Although they may say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, your family will be too delighted with their adventures to keep them a secret. Whether you explore the Hoover Dam or dine on a divine frozen hot chocolate, every moment will be savored. By exploring the other side of Vegas, your family will always remember their time in this amazing city as one of their fondest memories.

Kendra Thornton is the former Director of Communications at Orbitz. She lives in Chicago with her 3 wonderful children and loves sharing travel stories and advice from her extensive experience traveling the world.  Follow her on Twitter here.

What other bloggers are saying about family-friendly Vegas:

Would you take your kids to Vegas?  Which one of these activities would your family enjoy the most? Signature-Marigold

Hiking with Kids: The Ravennaschulucht

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtI see looooooads of hiking in our family’s future.  Exploring nature – hopping over streams, listening to rushing rivers, searching for perfect walking sticks – is something every one of us enjoys.. well, except Big Foot.

He’s generally grumpy because he has to be bolted into a backpack whenever we wander about.  But I have hope that he’ll come ’round when his legs are strong enough to carry him and his will is soft enough to decide that listening and following directions really wouldn’t be so. incredibly. awful.

We’re rather fortunate to find ourselves within an easy drive of the Black Forest  in Germany which just so happens to be chock full of trails and adventures suitable for little ones.  My friend Nancy (hi, Nancy!) lent me an ADAC book on hiking in the Schwarzwald with kids (this one, if you’re interested) and insisted we take on the Ravennaschlucht.

The Ravennaschlucht is a wild and romantic gorge with a stream and several waterfalls chasing through it.  As if that wasn’t enough of a draw, the ADAC itinerary tacks on other attractions including several saw mills and a glass blowing studio… all in less than 8km.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtFancy a go at the gorge yourself?  Well, grab your trusty boots, and come along!

We followed the route set forth in the guide, starting out at Hinterzarten.  I balked at paying for parking at the train station, so we drove a bit further along Alpersbacher Str. where we discovered a free parking lot.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: Ravennaschlucht

As you walk along Löffeltalweg, you won’t be able to ignore the swelling sound of rushing water.  The Rotbach stream was used to power several saw mills located along the footpath.  My boys were in awe of the gigantic blades and completely confused as to how prickly, uneven logs turned into perfectly flat boards despite Doc Sci’s best efforts to explain.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtLeaving the mills, you’ll be treated to a series of waterfalls, several close enough to touch.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtSoon you’ll have to make a choice – continue on or face the B31.  I wasn’t sure how we’d cross three lanes of whizzing traffic on the “Hell’s Valley” highway.  Fortunately, my worries were needless – a tunnel for hikers and bikers had been constructed underneath the road.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtNext stop – the Hofgut Sternen, a small village composed of a hotel, restaurant, a large glockenspiel, and a glass blowing studio (with a gift shop, of course).  Scarf down a snack or two here, because the path through the gorge doesn’t offer many places for pit stops.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtAfter everyone is fully hydrated, have a look at the artist fashioning everything from vases to earrings to wine glasses to Christmas ornaments from the blazing hot and stringy glass.  I should mention that only well-behaved or independently wealthy children should enter the shop… Everything is within reach of the curious and clumsy.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtMake your way to the Ravennaviadukt, an imposing railway bridge that marks the entrance to the gorge.

Once you climb up the first set of steps, you’re in hand-holding territory.  Though I never felt unsafe, some parts of the path can be rather dicey with steep drop-offs and thinly railed bridges.Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtThrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: Ravennaschlucht

As we hiked higher and higher, I couldn’t help but wonder when the gorge was going to end.  I don’t like being lost, and the ADAC guide only mentioned that the path would end.  Not when or how or where.

When the trail finally did terminate, I was even more surprised at the lack of information.  You’ll know you’re at the end of the gorge when a lovely biergarten with a playground appears.  I guess this is so German that the writer didn’t think to include it!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtCarrying on, we made our way back to the ferocious B31 and, again, crossed underneath it.  We found ourselves in the company of some lovely cows on the grounds of the Birklehof boarding school.  Once you see the onion dome, take a quick detour around the back of the building.  There you’ll find a fantastic playground and fire pit.

We ended the day with cookies in the car as a reward for excellent little boy behavior.  Hooray!

If you’d like to hike Ravennaschlucht yourself, I’d like to suggest a few variations from the ADAC itinerary:

  • If you have a car, park at the Hofgut Sternen and start your hike from there.  You won’t have to pay for parking near the Hinterzarten train station, and more lunch options will be available in town.
  • If you only want to hike the gorge, I’d again recommend parking at the Hofgut Sternen.  Keep in mind that you will have to double back.  This would be a good option for the littlest of legs.
  • However, if public transportation is how you’ll be traveling, then the only option is to begin and end at the train station.
  • Consider hiking the reverse of the order I’ve mentioned here.  You’ll be walking downhill instead of uphill through the steepest part of the gorge.  The slope near the saw mills is rather gentle in comparison.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Hiking with Kids: RavennaschluchtMore family-friendly places to explore in the Schwarzwald area of Germany – Triberg, Kastelburg, Staufen, Steinwasen Park and Schauinsland (from our first month here – four years ago!).

How about you?  Been on any good hikes lately?  Are they within driving distance of southwest Germany? 🙂Signature-Marigold

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

Exploring Tuscan Hill Towns: Montepulciano, Pienza, & Lucignano

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThe landscape of Tuscany is littered with tiny hill towns.  Many of these enclaves are not well known outside of the immediate area (Torrita di Siena), while a others appear as regulars in the guidebooks (San Gimignano).  So, how do you know which ones to investigate and which ones to ignore?

Honestly, I have no idea.

Not the answer you were expecting?  The truth is, that even though I travel often and trip logistics is a hobby (okay, obsession) of mine, I still end up overwhelmed.  Too many options, too little time!

Don’t worry – I won’t leave you completely in the dark.  Here are two approaches that will help you sort through the list.  What?  You have no list yet?  Consult your nearest Lonely Planet, Best Small Towns in Italy or Wikipedia.

Location

With three small kiddos, this it the method I use most.  Punch your villa / vacation rental / hotel location into Google maps.  Zoom out a bit until you can see the surrounding location names.  Use the driving directions feature for any towns not immediately visible.

And since location and transportation go hand in hand, don’t forget to factor how you will get from your lodging to your day trip location.  I am a big fan of public transportation, but I have to say that in Italy, I much preferred to go by car to the small towns.

Be advised that if you’re traveling roads other than the autostrada (interstate with tolls) or the raccordo (highway), driving times will be longer than what is shown in the search results.  We limited our list to locations one hour or less by car.

Travel by bus in Italy is intermittent and rarely on time.  Train travel is better, and if you choose this method you’ll have any easy time narrowing down your list as few hilltop villages feature railway stations.

Interest

What are your family’s interests?  Love wine?  Try Greve in Chianti.  Enjoyed Under the Tuscan Sun?  Don’t miss Cortona.  Into religious history?  Stop in Assisi.  Find out what each town is known for, and narrow the list from there.

Today, I’d like to feature three hilltop towns we explored: Montepulciano, Pienza, and Lucignano.


Thrifty Travel Mama - Montelpulciano with KidsMontepulciano surprised me with its attractive alleys (really!), quiet streets, and unique shops.

As we trekked up the shockingly steep streets, I felt like REAL people lived here despite the obvious presence of tourists and souvenirs.  Perhaps as evidence, we happened upon two playgrounds frequented by Italian families.

We did not, however, see many children on the streets of Montepulciano.  One possible explanation is that cars are not banned in the city center.  Sure, these areas are technically pedestrian zones.  But, I never felt comfortable letting go of my child’s hand for fear of being run over by the constant stream of trucks and whizzing Vespas squeezing through the narrow lanes.  Alas, this is Italy – and we quickly grew accustomed to the perpetual hand holding.Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill Towns

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsOf all the landmarks in Montepulciano, T-Rex and Screech enjoyed the well at the Piazza Grande the most.  Doc Sci went all nerdy on me trying to explain the physics of lowering and raising water-laden buckets.  I tried to admire the architecture but found it difficult to ignore the twenty gazillion plastic chairs and concert equipment mucking it all up.

Montepulciano is known for its wine, so savor a glass or buy a bottle to go.


Thrifty Travel Mama - Pienza with KidsPienza was designed to be the “perfect” Renaissance town (more history and why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site here).

The architecture is lovely for sure; but, best of all, it’s flat and quite small.  In fact, if you don’t stop to gawk or eat, you could walk the entire thing in 30 minutes or less.

The centro storico is a treat for art or history buffs… that is, if you can manage an eyeful in between the crowds.  Better to wander behind the main square and catch a breathtaking view of the Val D’Orcia landscape.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsBesides a great spot for a family photo, this punto panoramico is an excellent area to give your nose a rest.  Pienza is known for its pecorino cheese, and they’ve got the stench to prove it.  If you don’t mind the odor, feel free to sample the different varieties offered in the shops.  But hold on to your pocketbooks and purchase your edible souvenirs at the grocery store across from the Agip gas station on the SS146.

Other than a decent playground on Via Enzo Mangiavacchi, we didn’t find many hidden gems in Pienza.  I’d say the village is worth a quick stop especially if Renaissance architecture is your thing, but refrain from making it the star of your day.


Thrifty Travel Mama - Lucignano with Kids Prior to researching villas, I’d never heard of Lucignano before.  We ended up booking Casal Gheriglio which lounges at the foot of the hill.  On one of our hang-out-and-do-nothing days, we decided to wander up and have a look.

What a treat!  Billed as a model example of how medieval towns should be, we appreciated the orderly streets… with nary a tourist in sight.  Lucignano was a breath of fresh air after the chaos of Siena and the crowds of San Gimignano.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThough almost every nook and cranny was shut up on the day of our visit (Ferragosto), the playground was filled with families.  We couldn’t help but stare and giggle at the old men playing cards at the outdoor cafe.  What we assumed was Italian trash talk stood in sharply contrasted their pressed shirts and neatly combed white hair.  Perhaps Rick Steeves might have missed this “back door.”

If museums and shopping are what you’re after, look elsewhere.  Lucignano hasn’t yet been overrun by tourism.  The locals do have to eat, so you won’t be without a trattoria, pizzeria, and gelateria.  But, streets are hushed, and the most interesting thing to do here is burn up your camera taking photos… which is just fine with me.

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!

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Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy

Thrifty Travel Mama | Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in ItalyDear September, I’m so glad you’re here.  I sure do love me some fall food, soft scarves, and crisp leaves crackling beneath my boots.  But, hang on.  I’ve still got summer on the brain.  So forgive me; I feel the need to revel in the warm sunshine just a wee bit longer.

What about you?  Was your summer vacation a tad too short?  Are you already drowning in lunch boxes, laundry, and loads of commitments?  Then escape the grind for a moment, and dream with me about Italy.  Italy!  Eeek!!

After spending two contemptibly boring Augusts in southern Germany, I vowed to venture out this year and experience a true European “holiday.”  Destination of choice?  Italy in general, Tuscany specifically.

Unfortunately for me, Italy is terribly expensive and crowded in August.  It seems the whole world loves this country and shows its affection by turning up once the sun starts burning the hills with her summer heat.  Somehow, I managed to secure two somewhat affordable weeks of lodging – in villas with pools, no less – and the itinerary planning began.

In reading through my guidebook (more on that in a moment), a bucket list of sorts emerged.  As our travels have increased, our appetite has changed.  We’re no longer simply interested in seeing a place, adding a country to our list, snapping a few photos, and moving on to the next overcrowded attraction.  Now, what we crave is the experience. 

What does Italy smell like near the sea?  Taste like when you make regional food with your own hands?  Look like from a medieval tower?  Feel like inside the stone walls of a hill town?  Sound like in the bargaining chatter of the open market?

From these questions, I came up with a bucket list.  Even with two weeks, it’s quite impossible to fully discover all that Tuscany was and is.  Add kids in the mix, and you’re lucky if you get to do anything that doesn’t involve a pool and pizza.  This bucket list is my happy place.  It’s only a taste of Tuscany, but for now it’s enough.

Our Family’s Tuscan Bucket List:

If you’re planning your own Italian adventure, you might be curious as to how I came up with this list.  Several items on the list have been personal dreams for years (Cinque Terre, the Uffizi, a cooking class).  But I owe a great deal of gratitude to my friend Audrey (hi, Audrey!) who recommended the guidebook, Frommer’s Tuscany, Umbria and Florence With Your Family.  Not an affiliate link – just an honest recommendation!

I’ll touch on this in later posts, but Tuscany is not exactly “kid-friendly” (which is not to say that it’s unfriendly toward kids).  The Frommer’s Tuscany guidebook highlighted activities and attractions that my family could and would actually want to do.  The budget restaurant recommendations were spot on.  When I tried to squeeze in some extra research time for “Tuscany with kids”, I can’t think of anything I found online that was not in that book.  Prices were out of date, but that is to be expected.  The advice is still solid.

So, to Tuscany we go!  Enjoy your weekend, and I’ll be back with some sun and sea at the Cinque Terre on Monday!Signature-Marigold

Snapshot: Luxembourg with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Luxembourg with KidsI’ve long wanted to go on a BeNeLux trip, and the week before Easter I finally did it!

In a nutshell, the BeNeLux countries were beautiful, the food amazing, the weather freezing, and the itinerary exhausting.  We had three (three!!) home bases in 7 nights.  I generally do not like to travel this way with kids, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbled this time.  So, ready or not, here comes a whole host of posts (ha!) on everything BeNeLux we could jam into one week.

Welcome to Luxembourg!

Welcome to Luxembourg!

First up, the Lux part!  Doc Sci and I carefully woke the boys up around 430am on a Monday morning and crept silently to our car.  Under the cover of darkness, we made our way through France to Luxembourg.  We were hit with two curve balls – the traffic going into Lux happened to be a lot heavier than anticipated, and the weather in Lux was much colder than predicted.

The Grand Ducal Palace, official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg.

The Grand Ducal Palace, official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg.

After finding our way to what has to be the BEST park in Lux, we awkwardly dressed the boys in their day clothes (they slept in the car wearing pajamas), trying to maneuver socks and buttons in our cramped car.  We fed the boys and the baby breakfast, and set out for a walk around the old city.

We were the only crazy tourists out at 8am.

We were the only crazy tourists out at 8am.

Good morning, beautiful church.

Good morning, beautiful church.

Funky fountain near the city's history museum.

Funky fountain near the city’s history museum.

I had envisioned savoring the beauty of the architecture and appreciating the stillness of the morning unclouded by throngs of tourists.  Oh, the streets were empty all right.  But the only thing I thought about was how I could barely feel my feet.  After a few hey-we-were-here pictures, we headed back to the park.

Fancy a bite to eat?  Better have a wad of cash - this child's expression at the ridiculously priced kids meal says it all.

Fancy a bite to eat? Better have a wad of cash – this child’s expression at the ridiculously priced kids’ meal says it all.

I might've ponied up to try this Mexican restaurant (isn't Chi Chi's a cheap salsa in the US?!), but 8am is a little early for me to be breaking out the burritos.

I might’ve ponied up some euros to try this Mexican restaurant (isn’t Chi Chi’s a cheap salsa in the US?!), but 8am is a little early for me to be breaking out the burritos.

On the way back to the park and our car, we found the tourist office.  We stopped in (hello, free heat) and were told that we had caught all the interesting sights.  The only thing we missed and couldn’t do anyway because of our time schedule was the underground casemates tour (a great description of the tour can be found here).  The admission is surprisingly reasonable, and we will definitely do this tour should we have the opportunity to return to Luxembourg.

Even without the cold, we probably could have spent one day in Luxembourg – max.  The city is quite compact, and very walkable.  If you’re traveling with a baby or toddler, prams are okay, but a backpack carrier would be better especially if you plan on walking up and down the fortress walls or taking the casemates tour.

When researching Luxembourg, I noticed a hop on-hop off tour.  I have to say that after seeing Luxembourg in person, that tour is most likely a waste of money unless you have limited mobility.  The tour buses are not frequent, and all the sights are quite close together.

Luxembourg is a city with layers and layers and layers of history.  Seeing the old fortresses was Doc Sci's favorite part of the morning.

Luxembourg is a city with layers and layers and LAYERS of history. Seeing the old fortresses was Doc Sci’s favorite part of the morning.

Another view from the old fortress.

Another view of the city from the old fortress.

Though I loved taking in the view of the Grand Ducal Palace, I know the boys thought the pirate ship playground was the highlight of our morning in Lux.  If you’d like to visit yourself, the huge park is located near the corner of Avenue Monterey and Boulevard Prince Henri, right next to the Monterey parking garage.  Free (warm!) bathrooms are located in the park as well as in the parking garage.  Many cafes are within walking distance should you need a bite to eat.  (More about this park here.)

The gigantic pirate ship playground!

The gigantic pirate ship playground!

Though it's hard to tell, this slide is at least two stories high, maybe three!

Though it’s hard to tell, this slide is at least two stories high, maybe three!

This park ROCKS!

This park ROCKS!

My snapshot of Luxembourg: bitter cold, enchanting, historically fascinating, and very expensive.

Have you been to Luxembourg?  What was your favorite part of Lux to see, do, taste, or experience?Signature-Marigold