35 Tips to Help Your Family Pack Lighter for Air Travel

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

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

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

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

What (Not) To Wear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Powder Room Essentials

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

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

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

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

Baby on Board

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

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

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

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

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

Read: Tips for Planning a Travel Itinerary with Kids

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

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

Kiddos and Tots in Tow

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

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

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

Read: Jet Lag Tips for Families

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

Everything Electric

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

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

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

Supplies

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

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

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

Logistics

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

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

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

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

Practice Makes Perfect

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

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

Signature-Marigold

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

Photo credit

Lounging Around – Our Tuscan Villa Experience

Casal Gheriglio

Casal Gheriglio

If you’re American like me, the idea of a two-week vacation more than once per year is unthinkable.  Perhaps after working for 10+ years at the same company, you might have enough to take a few weeks off of work.

But Europeans?  They’re quite used to their 28+ days of paid vacation per year thankyouverymuch.. which means they have nearly six weeks to travel.  Lucky blokes.  Score: one for living in Europe, zero for living in America.

Here’s the real kicker that STILL boggles my American mind after three years here…  Bosses don’t gripe when vacation time is requested.  It’s expected that those with families will be absent from work for weeks at a time, several times per year.  Even in their absence, the work gets done, or customers and colleagues simply wait until the employee returns. 

(Another piece of evidence that supports  the “customer comes last” mentality here – but that’s another post for another day.)

Though we’ve taken a few vacations in the 2-3 week range (to the US, Korea), these were not trips without an agenda.  Usually, one or more of us has had meetings to attend, friends to visit, errands to run, etc.  I’m not claiming for a single second that these obligations weren’t welcome or for good reason.  But just once, I wanted to try out the European habit of lounging around the villa pool all day.

Honestly, don’t we all?

I’m happy to report that we did, indeed, do our best to practice deliberate laziness at two separate villas.  We spent the first week at a property outside Lucignano (Casal Gheriglio) and the second near Pistoia (Alice del Lago Country House).

Alice del Lago Country House

Alice del Lago Country House

If you’d like to read in-depth reviews of both properties, you can find them on TripAdvisor here and here.  Just look for the shoes!  I’ll try to post my reviews on TA going forward, but I’ll always add a link for you here as well.

Of the two, we loved Casal Gheriglio the most.  Perhaps it will always have a special place in our memories because Big Foot celebrated his first birthday there, and T-Rex and I learned to make delicious, authentic Tuscan fare in the large villa kitchen.

Contrary to my picture-perfect vision, even our relaxing moments ended up characterized by doing rather than simply being.  I wouldn’t necessarily consider this negative, especially since reality with little boys means that we parents are (almost) always on the move.  But we definitely have a ways to go in learning how to holiday like a proper European (more on that below).

At the villa, Doc Sci and I gobbled up several books in the shade while the boys amused themselves in the outdoor shower.  T-Rex honed his cannonball skills in the pool, and Screech conquered his water anxiety.  We savored as many meals al fresco as our mosquito-pecked legs could handle.  We napped, we tanned, we nibbled cookies and sipped coffee.

Big Foot, just hangin' out.

Big Foot, just hangin’ out.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Lounging Around at Tuscan VillasBut try as we might, our efforts to waste away the day poolside paled in comparison to the Belgian family next door.  Each morning, we noticed that they moved only from the apartment to the pool, sometimes stopping to eat a bite at the outdoor table.  The rest of the time, the parents remained on their laurels with a beer and a book open. all. day. long.  The girls (aged 9 and 11) occasionally went for a dip in the water before returning to their own books or beds for a nap.

Perhaps I’m just not cut out for this full-on European “holiday” thing.  After forty eight hours, I couldn’t contain the urge to get out and explore.  Not that these lazy days are bad… In fact, I think building rest time into any vacation is a key component to keeping kids happy during the more itinerary-intensive periods (and giving parents a break).

After all, that’s our family travel style – balanced.

Italian breakfast - coffee and cookies.

Italian breakfast – coffee and cookies.

Before I wrap up, here are two more tidbits I’d like to talk about briefly just in case you fancy your own Italian villa vacation…

First, price.  I’m all about having the best experience for the least amount of cash.  I search high and low for affordable quality vacation rentals.  I’ll be frank.  These villas were NOT cheap.  They exceeded my target price per night by more than I care to think about.  But, in comparison to the other properties available (and there are MANY as a simple Google search will reveal), we did quite well for two-bedroom units at the height of summer travel season.

If you want to visit Tuscany on a budget, don’t do it in August.  May and September are more reasonably priced (and not as hot).  If you have a car, look for properties that are outside the main attractions (Siena, Firenze, San Gimignano).  You won’t want to drive in the cities themselves anyway, and the countryside is quieter and more scenic.

Second, ask yourself…  Is a villa is the right type of Italian accommodation for my situation?  Only you can answer that, but one primary issue to consider is transportation.

If you’re hoping to stay within walking distance of a certain city or attraction, know that most villas are located in the country.  If you don’t have a car, getting to and from the property could be problematic.  Buses in Italy rarely abide by a schedule (and may not even have one).  Roads often do not have sidewalks and can give you a real work out with their steep inclines.

Also, if you don’t plan on cooking many meals or doing laundry, you may not need all the facilities that a villa offers (full kitchen and washing machine).  In this case, try a bed and breakfast or budget hotel instead.

Many thanks to Claudia at Casal Gheriglio and Roberta at Alice del Lago for making our first real European holiday one that we will treasure for years to come.

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

Change Up Your Clean Routine

I love a clean house, but I hate giving away the ridiculous amount of time it takes to get there.  I like things to be neat and organized, and I don’t want to have crusty food on the table or crumbs all over the floor.  With three kids, it can seem like nothing is ever clean, and I often want to throw in the towel and give up trying.

However, with a few simple strategies, it is possible to have a clean home in less time.

Are you one of those people that cleans on a certain day or time of the week?  When I was single and also when I was first married, I would spend several hours on Saturday morning cleaning.  Everything got done then: the bathroom, the kitchen, the floors, dusting, etc.

After T-Rex was born, I struggled to keep up with the routine and standards I had maintained for years.  Three or four hours on a Saturday morning was not something I had to give anymore.

Teach your children to clean up their own toys (age appropriately) and, in turn, to be a good steward of the things they have.

Teach your children to clean up their own toys (age appropriately) and, in turn, to be a good steward of the things they have.

Shortly before Screech was born, I discovered Stephanie O’Dea’s Daily 7.  You may know Stephanie from Crockpot 365, a challenge to use her slow cooker every day for an entire year.  Awesome – but I’ll have to save my Crockpot love for another day.

Stephanie’s Daily 7 (based on the The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey) rocked my world.  I loved the idea of having little tasks to do every day so that the house stayed pretty clean the whole week through.  Why not clean the bathroom while you are already there supervising little boys in the shower?  Why not take the extra five seconds to put your dish straight in the dishwasher instead of leaving it on the counter or in the sink?

We don't have a dishwasher - at least not the kind you plug in!  We have to keep things clean because that 19" of counter space you see is all we've got.

We don’t have a dishwasher – at least not the kind you plug in! We have to keep things clean because that 19″ of counter space you see is all we’ve got.

The concept seems so simple – and, it is – but putting it into practice made a huge impact on my household productivity, not to mention my stress level.

The boys love to help by pushing the buttons on the washing machine.

The boys love to help by pushing the buttons on the washing machine.

In trying to make this Daily 7 idea work for me, I realized that not all of her 7 fit my situation, my home, or my personality, so I came up with my own version.  I encourage you to make your own list as well based on the particular needs of your family and living space. Here are mine:

  1. Clean up after yourself and help children do the same.  Duh, but a great reminder.  Be an example – your kids are watching!  Help them to accomplish what you eventually want them to do on their own.
  2. Make beds right away.  If you don’t already do this, make it a habit.  And, along the lines of #1, this is a chore that even very young children can learn to do.  It makes a huge difference in the appearance of your home.
  3. Wipe down bathrooms.  When you’re in the shower, scrub it.  When you’re waiting for the kids to finish their bath or shower, give the rest of the bathroom a quick clean.
  4. Do a quick clean up before naps and bedtime.  Less toys scattered about the house means more focus for me during downtime and at night.
  5. Keep the kitchen sink empty.  Put your dishes straight in the dishwasher.  It’s an extra 5 seconds, but the aesthetic payoff is huge.  If you don’t have a dishwasher (I don’t in Germany), try to wash the dishes right away and stack them in the drying rack instead of leaving them on the counter.
  6. Vacuum the entryway and around the dining table.  These are the areas most prone to debris, and you can eliminate that dirty house vibe with a quick swipe of the Hoover.
  7. Wipe down dining table and kitchen counter.  Simple, but highly effective.

By now, you may be thinking, this sounds GREAT!  But, what about the rest of the house?  I can’t just vacuum the entry way and under the table.  Eventually the rest of the floors are going to get pretty grody.

Before we bought a dryer, I had to wash one load of laundry per day in order to give it time to dry on the rack.

Before we bought a dryer, I had to wash one load of laundry per day in order to give it time to dry on the rack.

What works for me is to do one or two “big” chores every day.  Here’s what that looks like in my house:

  • Monday – Grocery shop, put away food, quickly organize fridge and pantry.
  • Tuesday – Wash sheets and towels.  Dry and either fold or put back in their places.  We only have one set of bath towels, so I just hang them back up after they’re dry.
  • Wednesday – Vacuum and mop.  Beat or wash rugs.
  • Thursday – Sort and pre-treat laundry.  Dust house.
  • Friday – Wash and dry laundry.  Meal plan for the upcoming week.
  • Saturday – Fold and put away laundry (can also be done on Friday night while watching a movie).

I don’t have to clean the bathroom or wipe down the kitchen because that’s done daily.  The kids pick up their own toys, and the bedrooms look neat because the comforters and pillows are in place.  This leaves more time for hanging out together, taking care of other priorities, and – of course – traveling on the weekends.

We do the German thing and use a brush to clean up under the table, but if you have a Dust Buster, I'd recommend using that instead!

We do the German thing and use a brush to clean up under the table, but if you have a Dust Buster, I’d recommend using that instead!

You may have noticed I don’t do a Martha Stewart job on my house.  You’ll never see me cleaning my light fixtures with a Q-tip.  My home is meant to be lived in, not shown off.  But, I’ll concede – every now and again the house needs a bit more than the above routine.  So, twice a year we do a “deep clean” in our home.

This little helper is cleaning his own kitchen!

This little helper is cleaning his own kitchen!

Most people do spring cleaning.  I prefer to do a late winter cleaning because it takes me several Saturdays to accomplish such a formidable task.  I’d rather be stuck inside scrubbing on a dreary, cold day than a beautiful, warm, sunny one.  We also do a fall cleaning once the chilly rains begin in late October, again because there’s no advantage to traveling then.

We use our Saturdays for deep cleaning because, truthfully, there just isn’t time during the week.  And, now that the boys are a little older, we can give them easy tasks to keep them occupied and help us out.

I compiled a list of items to be completed as part of the deep clean, and I filed it in my Household Notebook.  I am not publishing it here because it’s specific to my apartment, and you probably wouldn’t get much use out of it.  But here are several links to exhaustive deep clean lists that are extremely helpful when making your own deep clean checklist:

We’re midway through this year’s late winter cleaning, and we should be finished by the time the sun decides to show its face.  Then, we’ll have plenty of time for exploring all that Germany and the surrounding countries have to offer, and a clean home where we can return and relax after our adventures.

Have you implemented any of these cleaning strategies?  Any tips that I may have left out?

Signature-Marigold

Household Notebook

I finished my Household Notebook – yay!

Well, “finished” as in as complete as any project done by a perfectionist could possibly be.  I’m doing my best to let it be what it was intended – a tool that our family USES – and not merely a piece of art that adorns my desk.

So, what exactly is a Household or Family Notebook? 

Our family’s Household Notebook – turquoise!

I suppose it’s not the same for everyone; but, for us it’s a collection of documents to manage our family “business” better.  It will help me be even more organized, and it should provide valuable information for Doc Sci or anyone else who might need to take over daily affairs for some reason.  It should also provide quick access to vital information during an emergency situation.

I started out researching what other people had in their notebooks (using Pinterest and Google, of course).  I made a huge list of ideas, and then I narrowed that list down to 15 categories.  In those 15 categories, I wrote down items that were appropriate to the category and would be referenced or used frequently.  I then searched for existing templates that I could use as a springboard to design my own documents.

When poking around online, I noticed some people had four binders instead of one.  Other people used their binders exclusively to pay bills and didn’t include anything else like meal planning or personal health records.  I didn’t want my notebook to be a replacement for a file cabinet – but, I also didn’t I want my desk to be overwhelmed with a library of resources.

Ultimately, a Household Notebook needs to be something useful for that particular household.

So, what’s in my notebook?

Categories.

My 15 categories and a few examples of the documents in each are as follows…

  • Contact Info
    • Emergency phone numbers
    • German & American contact numbers
    • “In case of emergency” document
  • Planning
    • 2012 and 2013 at a glance
    • Important dates (birthdays, anniversaries, etc)
    • Yearly calendaring list (everything from dentist appointments to dryer cleanings)
    • German and American holidays including daylight savings schedules (they’re different for the two countries)
    • Doc Sci’s work schedule and my weekly schedule
    • Party planning checklists
  • Home Management
    • Deep cleaning checklist
    • Storage unit contents – Germany and USA
    • Stain removal guide
    • Garment care symbols
  • Meals
    • Grocery lists for regular grocery stores
    • List of items only available at specialty shops
    • Meal planning sheets
    • A list of staple meals
    • A list of meals to try (and space to write the verdict)
    • Restaurants to try (and space to write the verdict)
    • Seasonal produce guide for menu planning
    • Stockpile inventory
  • Family
    • Children’s current sizes and measurements
    • Chart with American and European sizes, including shoes
    • Children’s daily schedule and routine
    • Babysitter notes for nights out
    • Birthday party ideas
    • Chore chart ideas
  • Health
    • Medical history for each family member
    • Physician phone numbers
    • CPR instructions
  • School
    • School contact info and phone list
    • Home school weekly planning sheet
    • Home school year overview
  • Money & Finance
    • Family budget
    • Wallet contents including card numbers & contact numbers
    • Password log
    • Yearly schedule of the best time to buy household items
    • Auto insurance coverage details
  • Travel
    • Ideas for local family outings (not overnight)
    • Vacation destination idea list (overnight)
    • Packing lists
    • Before-we-leave checklist
    • Frequent flier mile information for all family members
  • Expat Living
    • Copies of passports
    • Resources for renewing visas
  • Projects
    • Generic to do list
    • Generic project work sheet
    • Generic week at a glance schedule for completing a project
  • Holidays
    • Thanksgiving guest list, meal planner, and grocery list
    • Thanksgiving week planner
    • Christmas card labels
    • Gift gift lists
    • Christmas cookie swap party planner
    • Christmas guest list, meal planner, and grocery list
    • Blank copy of December 2012
  • Blog
    • Ideas page for future posts
    • Yearly calendar for planning
  • Activities
    • Local public pool schedules
    • Local sport club classes for kids
    • Ideas for activities during summer and holidays
  • Lists
    • Items I frequently (and currently need to) request from the US
    • List of topics to research
    • Household items to fix
    • Generic sheet for thoughts on a particular topic

Using the documents I found online, I created my own set of documents in Illustrator that fit our family’s situation (living abroad, don’t own a home, etc.).  I also had to make sure all the pages matched and looked pretty!

My funky European two-ring binder.

After designing all the documents, I organized them into folders on my computer hard drive that matched the categories above.  That way, when I need to print out new menu planning sheets, I can just open the “Meals” folder on my computer the same as I could flip to the “Meals” tab in the notebook.

The only tabs I could find that would reach beyond the page protects had to be cut by hand. Not great for someone who can’t snip a straight line to save her life!

I wanted to print out the documents at a lab so they’d look nicer.  Unfortunately, I don’t know of any existing print labs in my city, so I had to settle for our HP Deskjet. Surprisingly, Illustrator did a great job with color, and what I saw on the screen was how it looked on paper.  Sweet!

Some reference documents went in page protectors, and some were just hole-punched and placed in the corresponding category tab.

Page protectors are very cheap here – both in terms of quality and money.

I bought a plastic envelope to put in the back of the notebook to hold takeout menus and other small scraps of paper that didn’t fit anywhere else.  Unfortunately, it was too big, so I’ll have to check a few other stores for smaller pouches.

My too-big plastic envelope.

I have a few finishing touches to put on the notebook (for starters, filling in the budget and phone numbers by hand).  After that, I’m looking forward to how this notebook will help streamline my “mama” job and make life easier for Doc Sci when I’m out of it for a few weeks.  I think my Household Notebook will be a great tool for our family in the years to come.

p.s. – I’ve made a Pinterest board with links to all the documents I used for ideas.  You can view the board and links here.

How about you?  Do you have a household notebook? Why or why not?

Dashboard Confessional: I Bought a Dryer

So here’s the truth: I’m a spoiled, rotten, American.

And, I happen to live in what could arguably be called the richest country in Europe.

Many families all over the globe do not have a washing machine.  Or clean water.  Or electricity.  Nor could they read this post if it were printed out and placed in front of them.

And here I am, a hoity-toity snob who showers in what most of the world would deem drinking water, tosses expired food that the hungry would gladly eat, and uses a smartphone that was probably made by minimum wage workers in China.

I know all of this, and I often find it difficult to live with these facts.  I do what I can to share what I have (little by Western standards; enormous by the rest of the world’s).  Yet, it’s still hard.

Honestly, I always feel the most guilty when I get something that makes my life easier.  So know that when I tell you I got a dryer, I am not bragging.   And I know I don’t deserve it.

But, we should do our best to make the best of our circumstances whatever they may be, keeping mind they could change at any time.

Here’s where I currently find myself.. About to have baby #3.  And a massive increase in laundry.

It’s not that I mind drying my clothes on a rack.  I really don’t.  I have a schedule for which days to wash which sheets and which days to wash towels, fitting in loads of clothes between the large items.  But there is absolutely no way my neat little system can handle the explosion of newborn clothing.

After research and number crunching, we decided to purchase a condenser dryer (kondenstrockner). It requires no ventilation and can be set up anywhere in the house.  Good thing, since the only space we had was the utility closet.

I ordered the dryer on Amazon.de.  I LOVE this website.  Not only does it have much better prices than the retail stores in my city, but it often includes FREE delivery which is a must for people like me without a car.

Here’s a look at our new workhorse.

Though we took careful note of the dimensions of each potential dryer we considered, we forgot to measure the doorway to the utility closet! Luckily, Doc Sci is not just a theoretical genius. He figured out how to shimmy it in anyway.

Next, he built some IKEA shelving around it for storage. We have the same setup around our washing machine which is located in the kitchen.

Then, I filled up the shelving with pantry goods.

Then it was time to test our new machine. Apparently, he is a basketball fan. (Beko is the dryer brand, and BBL is the German basketball league.)

Here we go!  First things first, load the dryer with wet laundry.

Turn it on. Then run to the internet to help figure out what all the German settings mean. Press start (at least that’s in English).

After the load finishes, remove the lint trap.

Clear the lint out and hand it to your two year-old who thinks dryer lint is the coolest thing. Ever.

And, don’t forget to empty the water reservoir! This type of dryer collects the steam from the clothing and puts the resulting liquid in here. This water can be reused in humidifiers and irons as well as to water plants or hand wash delicates.

After emptying the water, shove the tank (gently) back in underneath the condenser, and you’re ready for another load.

Backpacking With Kids.. sorta kinda

The littlest backpacker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews: Swiss Airlines and Apartment Pinkas

Thrifty Travel Mama - Flying Swiss Airlines with KidsIt’s Christmas Eve’s Eve!  I’ve got a cake in the oven and peanut butter frosting in the works.  If I can prop my eyes open, I’ll be mixing up some gingerbread dough (sans molasses – where in the JUNK do you find that in Germany?!), wrapping presents, and putting the last-minute touches on T-Rex’s paper Pollack tree.  Picture to come!

Let’s wrap up the Prague trip and put a bow on it, shall we?  I have two reviews today, one of Swiss Airlines and the other of the vacation rental we used in Prague.

My little traveler in training thought getting a snack and a drink was the coolest thing about flying on the a-plane.

It’s Christmas so I’m going to start on a cheery note.  I really enjoyed flying Swiss.  None of us had graced their wings with our presence before.  The plane was small, but it didn’t feel like the tin can on steroids like most regional jets.  The flight attendants spoke three languages (duh, it’s Swiss – but bonus for us).

No peanuts for this crowd – on one leg we received a pretzel filled with cream cheese.  On the return, we were served mini baguette sandwiches.  Leftovers were offered to the passengers.  We had lunch the following day compliments of the airlines.  Oh, how I love “free” stuff!

But best of all, the staff did not mind having children on board.  As soon as we were seated, a flight attendant brought the boys several toys each: coloring books, colored pencils, finger puppets, puzzles, a cloth picture book, etc.  Doc Sci had Screech strapped to him, and the flight attending gave him a special seat belt just for the baby.  Coolness.  I’m hard to impress – I thought the attention to wee ones was superb.

The price was right, the Coke somewhat cold, and all luggage arrived on time.  Rock on, Swiss.  You just made my list of favorite carriers.

This is about how I felt regarding our apartment; unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the museum during our stay.

Now, let’s talk holiday apartments.  It’s wise to get an apartment when visiting a city with a family.  It costs the same (or often much less) than a hotel but you have a LOT more space, usually several rooms, and a kitchen.  However, keep in mind you won’t have concierge service, a 24-hr front desk, room service, or any of those other extras.  I can live without that stuff – I’m too thrifty to use it anyway.

To be honest, I somehow came down with a mad case of where-the-heck-did-I-leave-my-brain disease, most likely due to the week of cooking at Thanksgiving, a certain little boy turning three, and other miscellaneous things.  Apparently, I booked this apartment through an agency, and not with the apartment company itself.  Don’t ever do this.  It’s MUCH easier to deal with the property than with a middle man.

I give credit where credit is due: Swiss is getting a thumbs up and Farux / King Wenceslas / apartmentplan.cz (this agency has THREE names?!) / Prague Holiday Pinkas Apartments deserves a big fat thumbs down.

I booked this particular apartment for several reasons: location, price, cost of parking, baby cot provided, wifi, and washing machine in unit.

Location: Very good for the price.  The location is New Town so you will have to walk about 10 mins to the Old Town.  We live in Europe so we don’t care.  Americans who are not Jared the Subway miracle might care.  The flat is a 3 minute walk to Tesco, the subway, and a tram stop (unless it is a blizzard, then it’s more like 8 mins).

Cost of parking: We considered driving to Prague, but then I found such an amazing deal on Swiss that we flew instead.  For the record, it was 15 euro/day.

Wifi: It worked fine – but we had to call and ask for the password.  And while I’m thinking about it, none of the ridiculous number of companies listed above put together any kind of information for the flat.  We had no idea if or when linens would be changed (never), when and if trash would be collected (not even once), what to do with the mountain of trash that would unavoidably accumulate (pile it outside the door?), when to check out, where to leave the keys, how to turn the heat on, etc.  Very bad service, indeed.

Welcome to Apartment Pinkas – a busted baby cot shouldn’t make you lose TOO much sleep, right?

Baby cot and washing machine: The bulk of our troubles rested on these two items.  When we arrived, neither one could be found anywhere in the unit.  We called the emergency number which was for Prague Holiday, not for apartmentplan.cz.  After a heated discussion with the man on duty, I persuaded him to come out immediately and get a baby cot in the unit.

Good afternoon, here’s a baby cot, put it together yourself.

The two cots this company had were broken and totally unsafe.  On Saturday night at 6pm, he said he couldn’t do anything about it that night.  Or the next night.  Or the night after that.  Nope, not even the night after that.  In fact, we visited the apartment office every day (except the day we went to Karlovy Vary) to ask about this and only on Friday night (the night before we left) did we receive one.  Shame on you, man.  You’re a parent yourself (I actually saw him with his wife and daughter at the mall), and you don’t care about other childrens’ safety.  Boo.  Hiss.

It only took three days of pleading to get the washer. And when it came, they actually moved the broken chair and other trash that happened to be living in this corner.

Since I was assured beforehand (by the website) that this unit had a washer in it, I packed accordingly.  My two dirt devils can give Oxi-Clean a run for its money.  Well, the problem is the website is just plain wrong.  In fact, the number of the unit on the website is also wrong.

After proving to the Prague Holiday guy that the apartmentplan.cz website listed a washer, he tried to talk me in to using one in another unit.  No way, pal.  I’m on vacation; I’m not here to pretend I live at a Czech laundromat.  After three days, we received a washing machine.  My boys and their clothes thank you, Prague Holiday.

Mmmm nothing like a little dirt to go with your TP.

On one of my daily visits, I asked the guy how long they had been in business.  “Since 2003,” he said.  I found that hard to believe seeing as the WC had no toilet paper holder or towel hook/rack, the bathroom had a wire hanging out of the wall, the living room had holes in the walls where other pictures must have been, etc.  The ever-truthful website said the flat slept 6.  I think you could fit about 23 with the ridiculous number of futons and single beds in there.

Prague’s tiniest sink.. with an invisible towel.

So, bottom line, I didn’t pay the original asking price for this apartment for the week. I exchanged many emails with the Farux / King Wenceslas / apartmentplan.cz person, asking him to call and discuss the situation.  He did not call once, nor did he offer any explanation or sympathy for the train wreck this apartment experience turned out to be.

If this sort of thing happens to you, speak up.  Document it.  And get a receipt in case those crooks charge your credit card later, and you paid cash.  And, do everyone a favor, don’t stay here.

Okay, enough Scrooge talk.  Happy Christmas Eve’s Eve!  T-Rex has two weeks off kindergarten so my posts may be spotty from now in to the new year.  Enjoy your holidays.  I hope Santa brings you lots of airline tickets!

Thrifty Travel Mama’s Workout

Doc Sci told me today I was getting skinny.  He’s nice like that.  I haven’t worked out in weeks.  Well, at least not in the traditional way!  Once upon a time, I was a runner.  I still might be; the jury’s still out.  Several years ago, we took a family vacation to Vail and went mountain biking.  We both agreed it was not our idea of a good time.  Ha – but here we are.  Biking everywhere.  Germany is very green.

If you’d like a little of the Thrifty Travel Mama’s skinniness to rub off, have a go at this workout…

Wake up.  Walk down 1 flight of stairs and shower.  Just because everyone else in Europe smells, you do not have to.

Eat a hearty breakfast of chocolate müesli or cereal or whatever.  Just make sure it includes chocolate.  Walk up one flight of stairs to get boys up.

After feeding boys, strap 25-lb Screech to your back and pick up a 10-lb bag of laundry and detergent.  Somehow manage to hold T-Rex’s hand and walk down 4 flights of stairs.  Remember these?

Stairs up to our flat

Walk down 1 more flight of stairs in the next building.  With Screech still on your back, do squats while loading laundry and detergent into machines.  Walk up 1 flight of stairs to ground level, then another 4 back up to the flat, then another 1 to put Screech down for morning nap.

Keep T-Rex quiet for 2 hours while Screech naps (this burns a lot more calories than you would think).  Remember laundry needs to go in dryer.  Silently (ha) slip out the door with T-Rex and run (literally) down 4 flights of stairs, across the lawn, and down 1 more flight.  Do your laundry thing, and then wearily walk up all those stairs with T-Rex who wants to turn on every light switch and investigate every speck of dust on the ground.

Walk up and down 1 flight of stairs to get Screech up.  Feed boys lunch.  Walk down 4 flights of stairs holding Screech on one hip and T-Rex’s hand.  While still holding Screech, drag stroller down 6 stairs and out front door.

Walk boys to the park.  Run around to tire out T-Rex, and pray he naps.  Wonder why you are the only people at the park.  Every day.

Push boys home on stroller.  Pull Screech + stroller up six stairs backwards.  Seat Screech on hip and try to corral T-Rex up 4 flights of stairs mid-two-year-old-hissy-fit-tantrum.  Up and down 1 flight of stairs to put boys to bed for afternoon nap.

Collapse.  Take a nap yourself.  Then eat more chocolate.  It really does make the world go ’round.  Wait, maybe that’s love.  No, it’s chocolate or else Valentine’s Day wouldn’t involve so much of the stuff.

Sneak off to get laundry sans boys while they are sleeping.  Up and down 4+1 flights of stairs.  Up and down 1 flight of stairs to get boys up from nap.  Ride your bike to the big American-style grocery store.  Because you are American and like big chains.  Little stores are sometimes just too, well, little.  Give yourself a talking-to about buying milk, vinegar, yogurt, potatoes, and onions all in the same trip.  Strap heavy groceries to your back.  Bike home.  Did I mention it is uphill both ways?  In the snow?

Make dinner amid chaos.  Eat dinner amid chaos.  For some extra special chaos, get boys socks, shoes, and jackets on.  Oh yes, you need those things too.

Go for an after-dinner-I-am-so-European walk.  Keep the whining contained while herding boys and husband up stairs for the last time.  Put boys to bed.  Eat more chocolate.  You need the calories.  Then eat ice cream because it’s cheap here.  Collapse and dream of a new flat with a LIFT and NO STAIRS!

What are your workout secrets?  Let’s hear ’em!

Marvel: How Long Does Laundry Take?

Drying diapers in the skylight sun

I am a cloth-diapering mama.  Not because I’m a drippy hippie silly; it’s because I’m thrifty!  I use BumGenius and FuzziBunz because I want babysitters and husbands to change diapers too.  Both of those brands are almost as easy as disposables.

Since I already owned a set of cloth, I brought them with me to Germany.  I think most things through, however this one just jumped off the list and ran away.  How in the world am I going to find the right detergent?  Well, really, just how in Germany am I going to find it?  And hello, no one owns a top-loading washer here.

Seven years ago, I lived in Russia.  I think it totally ruined my idea of living in Europe.  You couldn’t get much there that was remotely American and what you could get was terribly expensive and exhaustingly hard to find.  Miraculously, the first day, I found Ecover!  Hurrah!  However, figuring out the front-loading issue was not so simple.

I armed myself with some tips from Americans with front-loaders and my trusty dictionary.  I programmed what I thought was a cold cycle with pre-wash and extra rinse.  No angry beeps so I guess this is a good thing.  After that cycle ended (almost 1 1/2 hours later…), I pushed the buttons for a super hot cycle with pre-wash and extra rinse.  I saw a button for “stain.”  Ah, this should be good for stinky dirty nappies.  Apparently not – only angry beeping and flashing German error messages.  Okay, forget the stain thingamajiggit.  How about super extra licious fast spinning to get all the water out before hang drying?  Also verboten!

After almost four hours of soaking, washing, spinning, I had clean dipes.  Yes, that’s FOUR hours PER load.  Looks like I’ll be hanging out in the laundry basement.  Do you think they’d mind if I left some toys down there?  Snacks?

What’s your biggest laundry challenge?  How often do you have to do laundry each week?