Expats Move Home: How Our Knick Knacks Crossed the Atlantic

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

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

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

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

The Container Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ship or Ship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whittling Down and Weeding Out

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

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

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

Barter or Bestow?

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

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

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

Sold!

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Post Haste

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

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

All simple tips, yet incredibly valuable.

How Do You Do?

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

Right.

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

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

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

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

It Takes Two

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

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

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

Crap Flap

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

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

Oh, snap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come and Get ‘Em

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fifteen-Box Miracle

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

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

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

Repeat Performance?

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

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

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

 

 

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

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?

Berlin With Kids – Round 2

We spent last week in Berlin: Doc Sci at a workshop and conference, and the boys and I gallivanting around town.  Even though we’ve been to Berlin before, I enjoyed my time in the city.

However, I have to say that it’s time to take a break from traveling.  As I schlepped luggage and children to and fro, I couldn’t help but realize, I’m too pregnant for this.  So, suffice it to say, I probably won’t be writing any (overnight) trip reports until we go from a family of four to a family of five.

Since I am ridiculously pregnant, I tried to be realistic about what I could and could not handle on my own.  I’m not one to ask for special favors or to be treated differently just because I happen to have an over-inflated basketball duct taped to my abdomen.  But that basketball does make it rather difficult to carry a hiking backpack full of clothing.

So, I made Doc Sci carry (almost) everything.  Except for a small day pack, a camera bag, and a snack bag that I took, Doc Sci carried luggage for four on his back.  I love that man.  And his muscles.

Our luggage – six days worth of clothing for four people.

From my prior experience in Berlin, I knew that not all U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations have elevators.  Last time, I had to rely on my own strength and the kindness of passersby to get our pram up and down the station stairs.  This time, Screech is old enough to walk almost anywhere, even if he doesn’t particularly want to.  We decided to leave the pram – and the stress of how to get it fro here to there – at home.  Instead the boys would take a laufrad (Screech) and scooter (T-Rex).

This is how my boys roll.

As usual, we stayed in a holiday flat.  Stay tuned for a separate review of that experience.

I decided I could realistically do one major attraction per day.  The weather was iffy, so I chose two indoor activities (Legoland and the Deutsches Technikmuseum) and one outdoor activity (the water playground at Britzer Garten) due to lots of forecasted rain and less-than-I’d-expect-from-summer temperatures.

Ironically, my expectations for each attraction ended up completely opposite of our actual experience.  Legoland was poo-pooed in the Toytown forumsbut was an absolute hit with my boys.  I have lots to say about Legoland, so I’ll write another post on that soon.

Screech and T-Rex at the Deutsches Technikmuseum.

The Deutsches Technikmuseum had been on my list of things to visit last trip.  I failed to check my research notes though, and we visited on a Monday when the museum was closed.  Oops.

The ship exhibit at the Deutsches Technikmuseum.

I had read in both the Toytown and TripAdvisor forums that this museum was fantastic, awesome for kids (and only 6 euros for me – the boys are free).  I was utterly convinced of this when I read that there were planes, trains, ships, and automobiles to explore.  How could little boys not like this place?

Kids could practice steering a ship using this simulator. Unfortunately, the hordes of elementary school students hogged the rudder.

I’ll tell you how: there’s little for small hands to touch and explore.

Swell old Lufthansa aircraft – no touching!!

After our visit to the War Memorial of Korea, we will be forever jaded.  The boys now expect to be able to poke, prod, clamber, and climb all over the exhibits.  All aircraft was off limits, and only one boat could be boarded.  Many of the trains had platforms for viewing, but looking inside the railway cars was difficult for little ones.

The railroad exhibit was the highlight of an otherwise humdrum museum.

Perhaps it was the lack of hands-on activities, my pregnant grumpiness, or the lingering deplorable weather.  Whatever it was, the Deutsches Technikmuseum did not make it on our list of favorite places in Berlin.  It wasn’t awful, but I wouldn’t patronize the place again nor would I recommend it to others.

The boys also liked this water wheel. Good thing since it was about the only entertaining item on the grounds. The museum also has a Dutch windmill, but it was being renovated.

I held off visiting Britzer Garten until the last day of our trip.  That day held the best chance for sunshine and warm weather.  After all, what’s the point of visiting an outdoor water playground if it’s not to get some relief from the heat?

The view while walking through Britzer Garten: monotonous and monochromatic.

I had high hopes for this place.  The facility charges 3 euro admission for adults (my boys, ages 4 and 2, were free), so I figured this better be a pretty swell park with some nice views.  Maybe I just came in the wrong entrance, but I didn’t see anything amazing about Britzer Garten other than the sheer size of it.

The Garten is supposed to have a children’s train that runs through it. I didn’t see the train until just as we were leaving the park. Perhaps that would have been worthwhile…?

Unfortunately, the way to the water playground (Wasserspielplatz) is not well-marked on the garden maps.  I happened to find a signpost by accident, and thank God I did or we would have wandered around the massive grounds for hours.  What I saw completely underwhelmed me.

Icky water at the Wasserspielplatz.

Not only was the playground a lot smaller than it appears in pictures, but it had several reservoirs of water that had become a murky, yellowish-brown.  Gross.  I sincerely hoped my son who inherited the majority of the clean genes would refuse to go in.  No such luck.

The only other features for children to explore included a few dams and the giant scoop the boy in blue is using.

I should mention that there are two play structures with sand designed to be part of the playground.  This means not only are your children going to get seriously soaked, but they’ll be caked with exfoliating grit as well.  Bring a change of clothes and a towel (maybe for you, too).  At least the bathrooms are nearby.

Sand + nasty water = a nightmarish mess for a mama to clean up.

Though these two activities turned out to be duds in my book, we did squeeze in one other excursion that I thought was totally worth it.  We rode a double-decker bus!

Staring down at the passengers riding a “regular” bus.

Berlin public transportation buses 100 and 200 run from Alexanderplatz to Zoologischer Garten and back.  They have slightly different routes through Tiergarten, but both will show you major sights such as the Berliner Dom, the Duetsches Historisches Museum, the Staatsoper, Unter den Linden, the Brandenburger Tor, etc.  If you’re interested, the 100 passes by the Reichstag and the 200 by Potsdamer Platz.  Both buses are double-deckers, and tickets are standard fares for all Berlin public transport.  If you have a day ticket, you could make your own hop-on/hop-off tour!

To catch the 100 or 200, look for a bus stop sign like this directly across the street from Galeria Kaufhof (Alexanderplatz) on Karl-Liebknecht-Str. The bus ends at the Zoologischer Garten U-Bahn/S-Bahn station.

The Brandenburg Tor with all sorts of attractive construction going on.

The Siegessäule (victory column) in the middle of Tiergarten.

The entrance to the Berlin Zoo (Zoologischer Garten) is one of the last stops on the bus before reaching the end of the line.

Don’t pay for a fancy schmancy hop-on/hop-off tour. Create your own!

In addition to these main attractions, we squeezed in some time at playgrounds and stuffed our faces with burgers and burritos.  The former kept the boys happy, the latter kept us happy.

I really like Berlin even though it makes me realize I never want to live in a city that big.  Ever.  Instead, I’ll happily hibernate in my own little German city and wait for the next little traveler to arrive before hitting the road again.

Headed to Berlin?  Find more posts about this awesome German city here.Signature-Marigold

Shameless Repost: 25 Tips for Travel with Kids

Caz and Craig from y Travel Blog recently posted 25 Tips for Travel with Kids.  If you haven’t visited y Travel yet, you should!  Caz and Craig are also traveling parents with lots of experience.

I thought Craig’s post had some fantastic tips, and I encourage you to head on over and check them out.  Among my favorites..

  • Slow Down
  • Be Flexible
  • Consider Apartment Rental
  • Keep Meal Costs Down
  • Do the Free Stuff
  • Travel with an Open Mind
  • and more!

If you have your own tips you’d like to add to this list, add them below.

Road Trip!

I recently commented to several separate friends that I felt more comfortable and prepared to take my kids on an 8, 9, or even 10-hour flight than a two-hour road trip.

How ridiculous is that?

It’s true – we fly and travel by train a whole lot more than we ride in a car.  So when Screech barfed several times in his car seat while we headed up the Capital Beltway into Maryland on our recent trip to the US, I was caught off guard.  Embarrassingly so.

I had no paper towels, no change of clothes, nothing to clean him up or stop the flow of vomit.

Oh, and no GPS.

We just guessed on which exit would hopefully lead us to a shopping center, gas station, or fast food joint of some kind where we could clean the poor kid up.

After what seemed like hours on some random residential road, we found a McDonalds and helped ourselves to a tree’s worth of napkins.  Doc Sci remembered we had a suitcase in the trunk with too-small clothes destined for our storage unit.  As I scooped out handfuls of upchucked cheerios and curdled milk, I thought to myself, gee, aren’t you supposed to be like some TRAVEL mama or something?

I had somehow forgotten everything I know about road trips.  And I’ve been on some road trips of the 1,000 mile-a-day variety, both as a passenger and a driver.  But in the years since then, I’ve just grown much more accustomed to alternative modes of transportation.

I decided I’d better remember some skills or the next journey, a 12-hour drive to Tennessee, was going to be downright torture.

First, I made a list of all the things we’d need for the trip.  At the top – paper towels and changes of clothing.  Oh, and big note to self, and never give Screech straight up milk with breakfast.  Ever.  Again.

Then, I thought about the departure time, keeping in mind how we could avoid rush hour traffic in big cities like Atlanta, maintain our boys’ regular schedule, make stops that would allow them to burn the maximum amount of energy, and still make the entire 12-hour drive in one day.

Oh yeah, and I got myself a GPS.

And a portable DVD player.

Duh.

But not a mini-van.  I haven’t joined that club yet, but I am starting to slowly understand the appeal.

Two of the best stops we made were Chick-fil-A (for the sweet tea + lemonade and the air-conditioned play area) and Red Top Mountain State Park in northern Georgia (to let the boys be boys outdoors).

Searching for rocks at Red Top Mountain State Park.

Tossing rocks and blowing off steam.

Checking out the geese. Screech wanted to chase them in the water.

Both times (to and from Tennessee), we left at the crack of dawn so that we could get 1-2 hours of driving out of the way before eating breakfast (bagels with peanut butter, bananas, sippy cups with milk/juice, and paper towels.. lots of paper towels).  Doc Sci hated getting up so early, but shaving those extra hours off the total entertainment, er I mean travel, time was definitely worth it.

Our other favorite stop - Five Guys Burgers & Fries. YUM.

It was harder to convince the boys to nap in the car, but the strategic stops and sticking to their normal routine helped.  If you’re going to “try this at home,” just make sure to fill your gas tank up and empty all passengers’ tanks (you know the kind I mean) before attempting an on-the-go nap, because the little ones wake up when the car stops.  Doc Sci and I also like to listen to a book on CD while we drive because it helps the adults stay awake and bores the kids to sleep.

To be honest, I wasn’t too creative with the en route activities.  I just packed the boys’ backpacks full of small toys and books, brought a DVD player (which we actually only used once), and hit the library up for kids CDs and DVDs.  That’s it.

Screech and T-Rex after 11 hours in the car, goofy and not into having any pictures taken.

And, somehow we made it.  Safely.  Sanity intact.  And without further vomit.  I’d call it a success, but I wouldn’t want to do it again anytime soon.  For now, we’ll just keep to our trains and planes, thankyouverymuch.

Are you a road trip warrior?  Share your tips for traveling by car with kids below.

Packing Tips For a One Day Trip

Let’s be honest.  Packing is always a pain.  Before children, the process would take me several days.  With children, I’ve become a packing procrastinator.  I never know if a last-minute illness or crisis is going to cancel my plans.

I had that same feeling of impending doom during the days leading up to our Milan trip.  Luckily, the boys weren’t going with us, so I didn’t have to stress about what to take along for them.  That also means, however, that this post won’t have tips about what to pack for kids on a one day trip.  I’ll post on that another time.

So, what do I bring for a short, one-day, kid-free trip?

The answer will depend on the circumstances, of course.  Factors to consider:

  • Weather – What’s the temperature, humidity, precipitation?  Will I need something warmer for a cool evening?
  • Destination – Am I going somewhere mountainous, hilly, flat?
  • Activities – Will I be walking all day?  Swimming?  Shopping?  Touring?
  • Travel documents – Do I need a passport?  Visa?  Mutterpass?
  • Money – Should I take cash or use my card?
  • Electronics – My camera is a given, but what about your my phone, iPod, iPad, etc?
  • Transportation – How am I getting to my destination?  Will I have to carry everything  on my person?
  • Going home – What am I planning to bring back?  Do I have a way to carry it?

Some additional tips for you from my own experience:

After you’ve given some thought to your upcoming trip, make a list of everything you think you might want to take.

Then make a star next to everything you absolutely possibly could not go on the trip without (passport and camera perhaps).

Put parentheses around items that you want to bring, but can leave at home if you run out of space.

If you’re sharing the trip (and the responsibility of carrying what you’ll need) with someone, go over the list together.  Decide what each of you will use (backpack, purse, messenger bag, etc) for the day, and discuss the feasibility of fitting in all the items on the list.

In order to avoid any arguments (couples, this is especially for you!), agree in advance who will carry what.

Here’s an example of what Doc Sci and I packed for our day trip to Milan.  Some items are pictured above; some are not.

Factors (see above):

  • Weather – Daytime temperature of 60F, rising to 64F in the afternoon and falling to 54F in the evening.  Chance of rain 10%.
  • Destination – Mostly flat.
  • Activities – Walking all day.
  • Travel documents – Passports and mutterpass.
  • Money – Cash.
  • Electronics – A point-and-shoot camera and a DSLR.  iPods for the bus ride.
  • Transportation – Bus.  We must carry everything with us the whole day.
  • Going home – Souvenirs, including food items.

Based on this information, here’s what we brought:

  • A big, Kelty backpack for Doc Sci
  • An over-the-shoulder purse for me
  • Passports and my mutterpass 
  • Printed confirmations for our bus trip and Last Supper tickets.
  • Cash (350 euro if you really want to know!)
  • Map of the city with shops, restaurants, and attractions already marked (I cannot stress the value of this enough!  It saves time and money to do advance research.)
  • Wallet with health insurance cards and an emergency credit card
  • Disposable rain ponchos (lighter and less bulky than an umbrella)
  • Cell phones, charged
  • Watch (in case cell phones did not work)
  • DSLR camera with extra battery
  • Point-and-shoot camera, charged
  • iPods, charged
  • Two paperback books (for the bus ride)
  • Sunglasses
  • Makeup (better to do it on the bus than at 5am!) and bobby pins
  • Small pouch with copies of our passports, band-aids, gum, chapstick, a pen, and notepad
  • Reusable shopping bag for purchases
  • Ziploc bags for food purchases and leftovers
  • Breakfast food for the bus and snacks for the day
  • Reusable water bottles

Clothing can be tricky.  I never want to be too hot or too cold.  But, if I had to choose, it’s easier to deal with being too hot than too cold.  Therefore, layering is key.

I chose a short-sleeved shirt and layered it with a tank top.  Jeans were a no-brainer.  I wore comfortable walking shoes with knee socks that could be pulled up if I was cold or folded down if I was hot.

For the outer layer, I wore a fleece under a denim jacket.  I also brought a scarf and gloves.  I ended up bringing a hat for the 530am bike ride in the dark, but I would probably have left that at home otherwise.

So, did it work?  Yes, beautifully.

The only thing I brought that I did not use was my iPod.  But, since it’s quite small and doesn’t take up much weight or space, it was worth it to have the option just in case.

I hope you’ll find these tips on packing for a one day trip to be helpful.  If I’ve left out anything you would have included, please leave a comment below!

Backpacking With Kids.. sorta kinda

The littlest backpacker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trip Report: Hamburg with Kids (Part 2)

Some people say you learn something new every day.  Me?  I learn something new every trip.  And then I tell you.

Train Travel.  Traveling by train is not new to me.  Figuring out how to entertain a 1 yr old and a 3 yr old for six hours on a train is new to me.

  • Bring lots of food.  Eating takes a while, some foods more than others (take note!).  But change things up.  I brought T-Rex’s juice but in a new container.  We brought mama-and-daddy-only cookies and shared with the boys.
  • Get a compartment.  We were smart enough to reserve seats (normally for 2hrs or less, I don’t) for the whole journey.  But the obviously single reservations agent gave us a table (a good idea) in a quiet zone car (a bad idea).  Ask for a compartment (usually six seats).  We snagged an open one on the way up to Hamburg but weren’t so lucky on the return.  The boys can be their loud and crazy selves without me lowering my eyes in an attempt to dodge the meany pants stares of those around us.

    This is what my T-Rex spent most of the six hours to Hamburg doing. In your own compartment, the only stares you get are from the occasional passerby.

  • Be quick.  I knew that train stops were fast.  Two minutes usually.  But we got a major warning on this trip.  A man put two of his big suitcases on the train and stepped off to grab the rest of his luggage.  In that time, the doors closed and off the train went, sans the man.  This can be a major headache with two kids and lots of bags but do not leave the door or your children until you have everything (and everyone) on or off.  Ask for help, though most people are kind enough to offer without me even asking.

    The bags without their man.

Hotel.  I am not a family bed, room sharing kind of mama.  No judgment if you are, but I like my space.  And I like some quiet after 8pm.

  • Look for an extended stay or apartment hotel.  This type of lodging has rooms (and often suites with a door to close – bonus!) with more space and usually a kitchenette.  When Screech no longer insists that his milk be warm and waiting for him before his little feet hit the ground, I probably can do without the kitchenette (though it does save money to eat in).  But what’s really in it for me is the privacy and break I need when boys are sleeping.

    Our triple room with kitchenette (not pictured) was twice the size of a normal European hotel room.

  • If you can’t get what you want, improvise.  I could not find a one- or two-bedroom apartment/hotel/thingie for the dates I wanted and the price I wanted.  I finally did find an apartment hotel, but all three beds (Europeans are all about twin beds) were in the same room.  My boys will not sleep if they can see all the partying (yeah right) their parents do.  Knowing this, I brought along a black sheet and borrowed a duvet from T-Rex’s bed.

    Unfortunately, it lacked the one thing I wanted: a wall to separate. So, we made our own.

  • White noise is your friend.  I first tried this a few years ago on a trip to Ireland.  I downloaded a white noise track, slipped it into a playlist on my ipod, and brought a small speaker in my suitcase.  The skeptic in me was totally transformed as I saw not only how quickly T-Rex went to sleep, but how much better I slept as well.

Maps.  I don’t have a smart phone.  If you do, you are way more cool than I am, and you can pass go and collect $200.

  • Customize.  Did you know you can create a custom map using Google maps?  Plot your hotel, a nearby grocery store, and two places to eat, saving each location to My Maps.  As you read your guidebook or browse attractions online, type in the address, and save to my maps.
  • Print in sections.  Again, smarty pants smart phone users need not pay attention to this.  I printed my map in sections for each day at a scale close enough to read the surrounding street names and public transportation stations.  Then I only had to carry around one piece of paper each day.

Restaurants.  Ordinarily, if we can get a kitchenette, we try to eat dinner in the room a few times during our stay to save money.  But, there was no way I was going to cook and clean up with two little ones in a new place with hundreds of exciting safety hazards (wires, outlets, stoves, knives, etc) within arms reach.

  • Add to the map.  For every main attraction I wanted to visit, I plotted 1-3 restaurants nearby.  Although we were going to eat picnic lunches every day, I wanted options.

    The second worst fish I have ever tasted. I don’t want to talk about the first.

  • Some things are better left to chance.  If I had more time, I might have researched the nearby restaurants a little more.  I struck out on so many choices.  The Mexican restaurant was nonexistent.  The Irish Pub was a smokers hangout for 18 and up only.  The quaint hole-in-the-wall fish sandwich joint served room temp, bacteria-harboring, bone-filled fare.  As we walked away from that horrendous mess and seriously contemplated Burger King, Doc Sci noticed a restaurant with a beefy logo.  Turns out, it was a decent, affordable hamburger cafe.  Non-American hamburgers in Hamburg.  Brilliant.

    Another acciental find: a restaurant with a family table complete with books, high chairs, and a changing table in the bathroom.

    For Part 1 of our Hamburg adventure (and the fun things we did) click here.  Need help planning an itinerary with kids?  See my tips here.Signature-Marigold

Packing Up

Thrifty Travel Mama |Expat Life - Making The MoveLook around the rooms of your house.  Do you love what you see?  If not, in this instance consider yourself lucky.  If you do, how much do you love it?  Would you give it all away if someone needed or wanted it more than you?

I’ve heard sermons on the Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18-29) for years.  The pastor always seems careful to point out that Jesus isn’t actually asking us to give everything away.  But what if He really does ask you to do that?  Yikes.  Then we realize how much we actually love our stuff.

I wouldn’t consider myself materialistic in any sense of the word.  But packing up our life to move to another continent made me realize just how much I was attached to my junk and how much I really didn’t want to part with it.  I also realized how much I was keeping “just because.”  I threw away so much trash, and I gave away so many things that I never used or needed.  In the end, I was kind of horrified at how much we had accumulated and eventually purged.

Ask yourself, why am I keeping this?  Do I use it?  Do I really need it?  Does someone I know own this?  Could I borrow it?  Would I pay to store it?  If I didn’t see it for one year, two years, five years, would I miss it?

What about you?  If you had to move yourself, your family, your life in only eight, 50-lb bags, what would you bring?  What is most important to you?  What do you treasure?

Packing Up

Organizing and Packing Suitcases