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

 

 

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Thrifty Tricks for Using Your Smart Phone While Travelling

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

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

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

“Now, where do we go?”

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

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

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

Perfect, right? Well, almost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The blue arrow shows your location on the map.

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

You can zoom into a high resolution view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can upload trails and routes to Mapswithme.

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

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

2)   Download offline travel guides with Scribd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My travel folder in Google Drive.

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

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

4)   Find free Wi-Fi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

Ten Things You Need to Do RIGHT NOW Before You Travel Abroad

This post was originally published as a guest post on a friend’s photography blog. Unfortunately, her blog is no longer active, but you can still read the tips below!

Thrifty Travel Mama | 10 Things You Need to Do RIGHT NOW Before You Travel Abroad

So You Want To Hop the Pond – 10 Things You Need to Do RIGHT NOW

Travel can be stressful, even if you’re going alone. Add a spouse and one or more kids in the mix, and you could be in for a wild ride. I’ve continued traveling since my first child was born in 2007, and I can tell you from experience that a little planning goes a long way.

Maybe you’ve gone to Grandma’s with the kiddos or to a family reunion a few states away. But, now you’re thinking of taking the kids to Europe. Are you crazy!? If the idea scares you because you simply don’t know where to start but secretly thrills you anyway, take a deep breath and read on.

Before you go anywhere, you’ll need to do some homework. Let me walk you through 10 very important things you need to do right now before you even buy tickets to “hop the pond” as they say.

 

Get a Passport. You might still be able to enter Canada or Mexico without a passport, but no airline will allow you to fly internationally without one.   It’s important to remember that each family member needs their own passport, babies included. Processing times can vary, but I would allow at least 3 months to receive your completed passport book.

Download the passport application forms you need online in advance here. Save time, money, and stress by taking your passport photos at home for free. (Want to know how? Click here!) Gather the required documents and head to the nearest courthouse (or make an appointment at a post office).   Don’t sign the application just yet – you’ll need to take an oath in front of a federal employee and then add your signature.

Remember that each person applying for a passport needs to appear in person to take the oath and sign the document. If your child is the applicant, BOTH parents must be present or you must bring a notarized letter detailing the absent parent’s consent.

 

Make a Budget. An amazing vacation provides your family with memories that last a lifetime. But, let’s make sure that the memories are all that remain after you return home. Don’t take a vacation you can’t afford. It’s fine to put your expenses on a credit card (and it’s actually wiser to do so especially if you have a special credit card such as World Mastercard with added travel benefits). But do yourself a favor and make sure you have enough funds to pay off the bill when it arrives.

Flights will vary widely, so use Bing Travel to give you an idea of the cheapest ticket in recent history as well as the average economy fare.

But what about a hotel or vacation rental? Will you take public transportation? Rent a car? How much will you spend on meals? Souvenirs? Entrance fees? An awesome resource for determining costs in major cities around the world is The Price of Travel. Select a continent, country, and city from the navigation bar, and you can easily view the price of meals, accommodations, and attractions.

Don’t forget to add the cost of parking your vehicle at the airport (or taxi ride), additional insurance (see below), weather appropriate clothing, luggage (if you need it), pet boarding, as well as en route meals and entertainment to your list.

 

Start Saving. Are you overwhelmed already? Don’t be! Now comes the fun part. How can you be creative and find ways to save up for your adventure? Take a good look at your every day expenses and make some changes.

Could you get rid of cable and live with just Netflix for 6-12 months? That could cover your rental car and gas right there. Do you get your hair cut every 6 weeks? Could you stretch it to every 8? You may have just found the money to purchase necessary luggage. Do you budget for clothing? Consider stashing it away and shopping when you get to Europe instead. What about eating out? Squirrel away the money you give to the pizza guy so you can splurge on an Italian feast in Italy instead. Could you give the kids a travel experience this year instead of electronic gifts?

These are just a few ideas – the main thing to remember is to be creative in how you stretch your means.

Where do you want to go? You probably don’t need any help with this one. Everyone has a dream of where in the world they’d like to find themselves some day. Make a short list of places you love, and ask the rest of your family to do the same. Have everyone agree on three destinations, and then research each one before making a decision (more on that below).

How long can you be gone? Consider time off of work, school holidays, boarding your pet, and your budget.

Research entry requirements. Some countries are a breeze to enter (hello, Germany). Others are a big more strict (sorry, UK). Still others are literally invitation only (uh, Russia). Other than your passport, what is required at immigration control? You might need proof of onward travel, sufficient funds, or immunizations. Some countries in Africa, Asia, and South America require insist that you be vaccinated against specific diseases and that you carry proof in the form of a little yellow international health book.   Find out exactly what’s required at your destination here. In addition to all that, you might need a visa. Speaking of…

Do you need a visa? What are the requirements? Wait, first, what’s a visa? It’s not a credit card; it’s special permission to visit/live/work in a country. As with the entry requirements, some countries are relaxed about visas – you can purchase one upon arrival.   Others have a complex system and very strict rules about how to obtain one. Find out what you need here.

Consider travel insurance. There’s a saying, “If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.” It’s a nice mantra, but truth be told, I don’t purchase it every time. Policy rates will be more if you have something called trip cancellation. Trip cancellation means just that – you have an emergency that causes you to cancel your trip (think your son stole third but ended up with a broken leg). In this case, the covered expenses (usually airfare and hotel) will be covered by the policy.

Check your health insurance. Generally, American health insurance does not cover medical expenses overseas. They may reimburse a few costs, but it’s a good rule to just consider your policy completely useless abroad. I have purchased – and like, but luckily never used – Travelex insurance. Keep in mind that if you plan on taking part in any kind of high risk activities like bungee jumping or if you are pregnant, you’ll need a special (code word for expensive) policy.

Note that many, but not all, travel insurance policies include health insurance. Examine your coverage closely.

One more word of advice – if you’re going to spend the money for supplemental health insurance, make sure you have emergency evacuation coverage. This means that if you find yourself in a third-world hospital, you can be airlifted to the nearest western hospital for better care on the insurance company’s dime.

 

Have an emergency plan in place. Family vacations are meant to be filled with happy memories. But tragedies can and do happen. Protect your family by ensuring you have an up to date will, power of attorney, and guardianship for your children. Establish an emergency contact at home that knows what should happen in case of the unthinkable and provide them with a copy of your itinerary and any other necessary documents.

My hope is that this list gives you the confidence you need to move forward and plan an amazing family vacation abroad! If you have any questions on what I’ve discussed here today, please feel free to leave them in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer. Happy travels!

 

Signature-Marigold

 

Vacation Rentals for Families Big and Small

Thrifty Travel Mama - Vacation Rentals for Families Big and SmallIt’s no secret that I am not a fan of staying in hotels while on vacation.  I may change my mind when the boys are older, but for now, we stick to vacation rentals.  Hotel rooms do not offer our family of five enough space, and – even worse – they are often more expensive than renting an entire apartment.

Want to get in on the vacation rental craze?  For your next vacation, consider a private property for your family instead of a hotel room.  Here are three sites to get you started: Airbnb.com, Homeaway.com, and Vrbo.com.

Airbnb.com

Airbnb is the new kid on the vacation rental block.  Of the three sites, this one is definitely the most diverse.  The current stats on the homepage boast properties in 35,597 cities and 192 countries.  I’ve seen all sorts of interesting spaces for rent here; beyond simple apartments, you can also find houseboats, castles, off-grid homes, cottages, tree houses, bedouin digs, and places to go glamping.

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Simply enter your desired location, dates of stay, and how many guests.  I usually include the older boys, but not the baby.  Some hosts charge for extra guests (even children), so it’s important to be honest about how many are in your party.

Perhaps the key to Airbnb’s variety is that the properties available on their site are often real people’s homes.  Sure, some are managed vacation properties, but many are just some Joe Schmoe’s pad that he wants to rent out while visiting his great Aunt Edna for two weeks at Christmas.

Some properties even state this outright – one woman posted that the property was her actual home, and that if you booked it, she would just move out for a few days.  Airbnb also lists rooms for rent (as opposed to the entire home/apartment) for the super budget-conscious.

More a community than the other two websites, Airbnb requires you to create a profile, upload a photo, and enter your phone number to contact potential hosts.  As an introvert who is not big into social media, I found it rather annoying to have to give away all this information just to make property inquiries.  However, it does add an element of comfort for the owner to be able text a real person, so I acquiesced.

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If you want the entire place to yourself, click on “Entire home/apt” in the left column.  Otherwise, the search results will show private rooms and shared rooms in your desired location.  Adjust price for your budget, and filter results based on neighborhood or amenities.

A few tips on selecting a property… First, take a good look at the photos.  If the property has three bedrooms, are all three pictured?  Even more important, what is not pictured?  The apartment is supposed to have a washer and dryer, but where are they?

Second, ask a LOT of questions.  Ask how far it is to the nearest grocery store.  If there is free parking, is it right outside the house?  In a garage three miles away?

Third, examine the reviews.  Are there any for this property?  If not, why?  Is it new?  Were renters not satisfied?  If a negative review exists, did the host respond to the complaint and post a reply?

I also recommend contacting all the host for the properties where you are interested in staying.  For my recent booking (we’re going to the Netherlands in a few weeks!), I ended up reserving my fifth choice.  My first choice was not available, and my second choice only responded once to questions I asked.  The other two did not reply at all.

Currently, the only method of payment that works for most users on Airbnb is credit card.  As with hotels.com, you must pay in full for the reservation up front.  What happens to your money?  The funds are held by Airbnb and then released to the host 24 hours after the guest checks in.

Some countries allow payments via Paypal, but I was not able to get that option to work.  However, even though the property I reserved was in the Netherlands (payable in euros), I could change my country to the US and pay in dollars.  The exchange rate matched the one I found on xe.com exactly.

Airbnb currently allows credit card payment in USD, CAD, EUR, and GBP.  If your credit card is not in one of these currencies, the rate is charged in EUR.

To read about my personal experience using Airbnb in The Netherlands, click here.  For more help on booking with Airbnb, click here.

Homeaway.com

If I can’t find what I’m looking for on Airbnb, I hop on over to Homeaway.com.  Current stats for Homeaway’s offerings claim 720,000 vacation rental home listings throughout 168 countries.

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Homeaway’s default is the US, but click another region below the map to search Hawaii, the Caribbean, Europe, or worldwide.

I find the listings on Homeaway to be a tad more expensive than Airbnb.  This is probably due to the difference in structure between the two sites – Airbnb charges a service fee for completed bookings, but simply listing your place is free.  Homeaway charges owners to advertise their spaces, but they does not handle transactions or levy guest fees.

Homeaway search options are more limited than Airbnb, but they are much better than Vrbo.com.  Filter results by number of bedrooms, number of guests, or by amenities such as wireless internet, parking, pet-friendly, etc.

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If price is an issue, you should know that it’s only possible to enter a monetary range per week (not per night) and in USD.  Switch to map view to search geographically.

One minor annoyance for international users is that the rates listed in the search results are displayed in USD.  Clicking on individual properties gives the user an approximate exchange rate, but it can be confusing to search in dollars when your budget is in euros.

Also note that many Homeaway properties have minimum stay requirements, some of which are an entire week.  I ran into trouble with this when trying to book our recent Netherlands stay.  However, the advantage to this is that if you are staying a week (or more), rates can be less than when booking per night on other sites.

If a weekly rate is not listed, ask the property manager for a quote.  I was able to get a booking down from $98/night to $89/night with the right dates and a pretty please.

Since Homeaway does not handle transactions, it is important to ask about any extra fees that the host might charge – cleaning, linens, parking, etc. – and payment method.  Get an invoice and a rental agreement in writing before sending any payment.  Make note of the cancellation policy before booking.  Most are quite strict.  For more help with Homeaway bookings, click here.

To find out whether or not I’d personally recommend Homeaway, click here.

Vrbo.com

Vrbo is my least favorite, but it’s still worth a look before giving in to over-priced hotel rooms.  They are owned by Homeaway, which only make sense when you figure out that the two companies have different clientele.  Vrbo has fewer listings (currently 190,000+ properties in 100 countries), but it is the older of the two sites which means it has more loyal customers and more reviewed properties.  Both charge hosts fees for listing their properties and are hands-off when it comes to payment arrangements.

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Like Homeaway, Vrbo is best for US properties, but other locations around the world are searchable by clicking on the tabs to the left.

It can be hard to navigate the listings and find exactly what you are looking for, especially when searching big cities such as Amsterdam, like I did.  Few filters are available to narrow down the options.  But, prices are displayed per night and in local currency which is a nice plus over Homeaway.

When clicking on a listing, scroll down to see details regarding amenities, pricing, and minimum stay requirements.  Keep in mind that even though search results list a nightly rate, a large number of properties require guests to stay longer than that.

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Sort by, Bedrooms, and More filters are the only search options.  Results are displayed in one column below.

Comb the reviews at Vrbo for additional information regarding potential hosts and homes, but keep in mind that Vrbo gives owners the option to display all feedback, only positive feedback, or no feedback at all.  This company wouldn’t still be around if it did not have many reputable rentals, but be extra cautious in asking as many questions as possible until you’re comfortable enough to make the booking.  Read about Vrbo’s advantages here and FAQs for travelers here.

To see how I fared with Vrbo in Salt Lake City, click here.

As always, when renting from individuals, be sure to protect yourself.  If a listing looks to good to be true (think a ten bedroom home in Tuscany for 50 euros per night), it probably is.  Each site has their own safety tips (Airbnb, Homeaway, Vrbo), but you can find additional tips here.

With a little luck and a few simple searches, you could be on your way to renting an amazing home during your next vacation for less than the cost of a hotel room but with enough space for your family.

Have you used any of these sites before to book vacation rentals?  We’d love to hear about your experience!Signature-Marigold

Send Some Photo Love in the Mail

photo source

photo source

One of the challenges of living life abroad is staying in touch with those you love back home.  I must admit, it’s much easier today than it was ten years ago.  Most people have Skype and Facebook.  I can even use Gmail chat to “text” friends who are also signed in to chat.

And, while digital communication is marvelous, sometimes it’s nice to send (and receive!) something tangible.  Sure, it’s possible to pick out a birthday card, scrawl a greeting, print out a photo or two, enclose it in the envelope, walk to the post office, stand in line, and mail the card.

But why would you want to?

As a furiously busy mama of three, I’d rather not freely give away my precious time to any of the above activities if at all possible.  Luckily, I’ve found three companies that make my life easier – and my friends and family back home arguably happier. 

Shutterfly1

Shutterfly

Best for: photo cards and their free photo sharing site.

My first favorite is Shutterfly.  Maybe you already love Shutterfly.  If you don’t, here’s why you should: their photo cards rock. 

Before moving to Germany, I only knew Shutterfly because of their kinda-pricey-but-decent-quality photo books.  While these are great if you can get a coupon code or amazing Black Friday sale, chances are you won’t be sending photo books more than once or twice per year (and other companies have better deals when you factor in international shipping.. see below!).

But greeting cards?  Those are a monthly staple.  I don’t know about you, but I loathe picking out greeting cards.  They are either too schmoopy, too cheesy, to childish, or too serious.  I can’t stand it.  I’d rather just see some photos of my favorite people, thank you very much.

Shutterfly3

Shutterfly’s cards are good quality, and a good price.  Most cards are $2.99 or less, and you can jam as many photos as your heart desires on all surfaces of the card.  I like the designs available, and I find them suitable for anyone on my list, old or young, male or female.

Shipping is reasonable for the cards, and Shutterfly will even mail the card to your recipient for you!  The fees are fair, even for international.

Bonus – Shutterfly often gives out a code for a free card (CARD4U).  This code resets every once in a while, so I always attempt to use it before purchasing my card.

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And, just before I step off my I-heart-Shutterfly soapbox, may I also mention that with Shutterfly you can create a free photo sharing site?  You simply upload your photos, password protect them, and then send an email to your friends and family with the details.  Love it!

Artscow1

Artscow

Best for: sending photo books anywhere in the world.  Photo canvases if on sale.

Artscow is a company out of Hong Kong.  I know, you’re thinking, what the junk yo?!  Why would I want to order something from there?

Because they have tons of sales, and their shipping is the same price to anywhere in the world!

That being said, I only order their products on sale.  The best deals are those that include free shipping or give you the product for free and you pay the shipping.  Artscow always has a link to deals from their homepage.  You can also find other sales and codes if you know where to look.  Or if you ask me.  Nicely.

Personally, my best luck with Artscow has been with their photo books.  Their quality is satisfactory, or even better than that though if you consider that often I’m getting the books for nothing or next to it.  Many a family member has received a photo book for Christmas from Artscow!

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Tip: If you do decide to try Artscow for a gift, allow several weeks of lead time especially if ordering for Christmas.  After all, the photo book will be coming from Hong Kong.

Full disclosure: I once ordered two sets of photo coasters.  The colors were super saturated, and the glue adhering the photo-printed fabric to the non-stick pad had leaked in between coasters and mangled the image.  But even without the damage, the quality was sub par.  Personally, I’ll be sticking with the photo books.

Side note: Other folks have had a good experience with Artscow’s canvases when on super sale.

P.s.: I’m done now!

amazingmail

Amazing Mail

Best for: knocking out your holiday card list in one fell swoop.

I love sending Christmas cards.  I really do enjoy designing the photo, and snapping together a little sentiment.  But this year, with a baby, and an overloaded advent season, I knew I was not going to have any shred of time left to address envelopes – or put up with the post office for that matter.

Enter Amazing Mail On a tip from another expat friend, I gave this new-t0-me company a shot.  My first impression from their website was that they must be some kind of direct mail company.  I thought, oh no, they make the stuff that most people directly recycle.  I don’t want my holiday cards instantly tossed!

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But the price just couldn’t be beat.  It costs about the same amount to send a photo post card through Amazing Mail as it does to print, stuff, address, and mail a photo from Germany (adjusting dollars and euros to be equal).  However, the time savings is huge.  I could sit and design a photo and a message at my convenience, upload my addresses in an excel file, get an instant proof, and be done.

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Feedback from friends and family was positive – the cards stood out and were of good quality.  One drawback is that it isn’t possible to put an international address in the return address field.  I know this is because the USPS won’t actually “return” the mail internationally.  But, it’s still annoying.  I got around this by placing the address in the message area.

Amazing Mail sends domestically and internationally, with acceptable rates for both.

What about you?  Have you tried using Shutterfly, Artscow, or Amazing Mail for any of the services I mentioned?  What other websites do you like for sending some love through the mail?

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are solely my own.  I have not been paid or compensated in any way, and I do not currently use affiliate links.  I only recommend products I have personally used.  Happy sending!

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?

TripAdvisor Forums: Your Best Friend in Planning Travel with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama | Trip Advisor Forums - Your Best Friend in Planning Travel With KidsWant to know where the best playgrounds are in Berlin?  How about if the streets of Rome are stroller-friendly?  Wondering what to do with a 12-hour layover in Seoul?  Are shops closed on Sundays in Prague?

You could Google all these questions, but that would not be the best use of your time.  Instead, make fast friends with the TripAdvisor travel forums.

If you’re not already familiar with TripAdvisor, it claims to be the world’s largest travel site featuring reviews and advice on hotels, resorts, flights, vacation rentals, vacation packages, travel guides, and lots more.

The two main TripAdvisor features I use consistently when researching a travel destination are the hotel reviews and travel forums.

I like the hotel reviews because users often upload their own photos of properties.  This gives me a more accurate view of the premises than the professional advertising photos which are designed to present the grounds in the most favorable light possible.  I appreciate the reality of the user photos and the chance to see if the hotel lives up to its hype.

The TripAdvisor travel forums give you the opportunity to ask questions that are often too obscure or specific to be mentioned in any guidebook, especially when it comes to traveling with children.

It’s worth noting that in my experience the TripAdvisor forum community seems to be quite friendly, so don’t be afraid to ask “stupid” questions!  This is not necessarily the case in expat forums (such as Toytown Germany) which can also be a source of finding answers to destination inquiries.

So, how do you go about mining this information?  Obviously, you’ll first need to visit the TripAdvisor home pageType a destination in the search box located in the upper right hand corner of the page.   Note that there’s another search box on the left side of the page, below the main tool bar.  Don’t use it – it won’t take you to the forums. After reaching the page for your destination, click More in the tool bar to reveal several other options including Travel Forums.  TripAdvisor recently changed their website layout, and it’s possible you may end up accessing a page with the old layout (I did).  In this case, the link to the Travel Forums will be on the left hand side of the page.  Once on the forum page, I do one of three things: search, browse, or post.  If I want to get a general idea of what people are interested in seeing at a particular destination (or common questions such as available options for airport transportation), I browse for a while clicking on recent topics that are relevant to my upcoming trip.

Type keywords such as “with kids”, “with toddler”, “with baby”, “stroller friendly”, or “high chair” in the search box for advice and valuable tips from locals and travelers who have visited your destination before.

I recommend searching the forums before posting a new topic.  You’ll get your information faster, and you’ll know if you need to ask any additional questions to clarify previously posted information.

Still can’t find what you’re looking for?  Click the “Ask a question” button to post in the destination’s travel forum.  You’ll need to be a TripAdvisor member, but signing up is free and relatively painless.

As you compose your message, be as specific as possible to get the best results.  If you have multiple questions, consider separating and even numbering them.  Then, sit back and wait for your personalized answers.  Signature-Marigold

How long you’ll have to wait depends on how popular the destination is and how active the forum members are.  For example, when doing research to visit Jeju Island, South Korea, last year, I noticed that there were several forums for the island of Jeju including a Jeju and a Jeju-do forum as well as Seogwipo and others.  I had the best luck in receiving replies by posting in the Jeju-do forum (the forum for the entire island).

If you don’t receive timely responses (and timely varies from place to place – check the frequency of existing replies), try posting your question again in another larger but still destination-appropriate forum.

When planning your next vacation with kids, give the TripAdvisor forums a chance to reveal locals-only knowledge to make your getaway even better.

What about you?  Have you used the TripAdvisor travel forums before?  What great tips did you learn?

Free DIY Passport Photos

Thrifty Travel Mama - Free DIY Passport PhotosDo you know I never, ever, EVER pay full price for passport photos anymore?  In fact, I haven’t since we needed photos to apply for T-Rex’s first passport at 15 months.

Personally, I have always dreaded the passport photo experience.  Walking into some random drugstore or Kinkos, and crossing my fingers that (1) the employee knows how to use the camera – seriously – and (2) my photos will come out somewhat decently without some lame smile or my eyes closed.

And that’s for (mostly) grown-up me.

What about for kids?  Even if all goes well with the employee and the equipment, there’s absolutely no guarantee that my little kiddos are going to cooperate.  At almost 10 dollars for TWO photos that may or may not be acceptable, I started the hunt for another solution.

Voila!  I found ePassportPhoto.com.  And, I LOVE it.

It’s incredibly easy, but I’ll walk it through with you.  Just in case.

The first feature you’ll notice on the home page is the ability to select your country.  I’ve always chosen the US, even for my German visa photos.  I haven’t had a problem yet (though, that’s not to say I never will).

After selecting your country, click “Get My Passport Photos.”  The next screen gives you instructions on how to take your photos in order to get the best result.

And this, here, is the genius of the DIY passport photo… You can take as many as you want – or as many as you need which is usually the case with children.  Fix your hair, practice your smile, change your outfit.  It’s your camera, your time, your space.

If you can, take your photos in the morning when there’s lots of natural light to be found.  I pick a white wall, turn off the flash, open all the blinds, and tell my boys that if they stay perfectly still and let Mama take some seriously boring photos of them, they can have a gummy bear (yep, one – I’m incredibly generous).

Doc Sci and I then alternate taking each other’s photo.  I almost always take three of each person (more of the kids if they don’t cooperate).

Download the pictures to your computer, and save them in whatever program suits your fancy.  Pick the best one (edit it if you’d like, but don’t change the background or add disguises like I did), and upload it to ePassportPhoto, using the “Browse” button.  Then, click “Next.”

When your photo finishes uploading, you’ll then be prompted to click and drag a box around the subject’s face.  If you don’t get it right, just use the “Clear” button and try again.  Pay attention to the instructions in the “Ensure Compliance” box.

After you’re satisfied, click “Next.”

The following screen is the only part of the website I don’t like.  It’s confusing, and it pressures you a bit to spend money.  I said these were free, and I want you to know that IS possible.

However, if you feel more comfortable ordering a service from ePassportPhoto.com, know that it is STILL cheaper than going to a drugstore and you got to take your photos in the comfort of your own home, on your own time.

Have I ever paid for a pro to look at my picture?  Yes, once.  I thought it was a waste.  I’m pretty sure the “expert” was the Walgreens guy in the photo lab where I printed my picture.  Plus, you do not get your photos instantly, and often I need them right now.

If you want to print them yourself, click the small, grey link at the bottom of the page, “No thanks.”

The final page is where the free option comes in.  I always choose the first button, “Download the passport photo sheet image.”  If you print your photos at home, click away until your printer starts humming, and you’re done!

I download the image, save it, and then transfer it to a flash drive.  I take the flash drive to my local photo printing shop, and pay 27 cents for one sheet of four passport photos.  Mine aren’t totally free, but just over a buck for the whole family is good enough for me!

Have you used ePassportPhoto or another service?  What did you like/not like about it?Signature-Marigold