All posts by damiller

Accommodation – Chain Hotels are so Last Decade

When planning a trip of any length, thinking outside the box can save you money.  Instead of just booking a chain hotel, check into other options like locally owned small hotels, hostels, inns and B&Bs as well as alternative options like apartments, houses, and even just a private room in someone’s flat.

When we took our European Odyssey trip in 2012, I used booking.com for all of our reservations.  Since we moved every couple of days, it was very handy to have all of the reservations organized in a central location.  If I had booked 13 hotels, hostels and apartments separately, it would have been a logistical nightmare to keep track of everything, and would likely have involved hauling around printed reservations.  Because I used booking.com, I was able to log in and see all of the reservations at a glance.  When one of my reservations was canceled at the last minute, booking.com sent me an email and I was able to make other arrangements on very short notice.

Our very first stop was Nottingham, England, and on booking.com I found a 2 bedroom apartment for rent at a very reasonable rate.   I had read a tip from some long-forgotten source on traveling with children, that renting an apartment or house could actually save you money over a hotel room, especially in Europe where rooms for only 2 people are the standard, and finding a Quad – a room for 4 – is actually difficult and expensive.  The apartment in Nottingham was an oasis.  Two bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, a living room and balcony – space can be a luxury all on its own.  Our children could go to bed undisturbed while we stayed up to talk or watch TV.  Such a thing is unheard of in the typical American hotel room with 2 double beds.  Had I known that the Nottingham apartment was going to be the best accommodation of the entire trip, I would have approached our reservations a completely different way.

For our extended trip to Andalucia, a hotel, inn or B&B was definitely not going to cut it.  I had used vrbo.com to book lake houses in Texas for a couple of family vacations, so I decided to start searching there for our home in Spain.  I managed to find a house in one of the Las Alpujarras mountain villages.  When I read the description that from the rooftop terrace on a clear day you can see the mountains of Northern Africa, I knew this was the place for us.

I recently discovered airbnb.com, and I’m so excited to have found it.  Just today I reserved a large house in Florida and a 2 bedroom apartment in Oslo, Norway, and both bookings were incredibly easy.  Airbnb.com wants their users to make a personal connection rather than be complete strangers making business transactions.  To that end, they require you to fill out a profile, and recommend letting potential hosts get to know you a bit to increase the chances of your reservation request being accepted.  I like that it’s not an anonymous process.  I take comfort in knowing that our Norwegian hosts love to travel, and enjoy planning vacations for each other, where only the planner knows the destination ahead of time.  I find that endearing, quirky and real, and I’m happy to be giving them my custom.  Both transactions with airbnb.com have left me feeling good about the process, and secure in the knowledge that my money will not be released to the host until 24 hours after we check-in.  That way, we have 24 hours to report any issues to airbnb.com, and ask for help, should the accommodations not be as advertised.    When you’re thousands of miles away from home, and you have two small children with you, this kind of security is most welcome.  Oh, and by the way, we are saving hundreds of dollars by staying in a 2 bedroom apartment, 15 minutes walk from the Oslo city center, as opposed to staying in a bare bones hostel a 20 to 30 minute bus ride from the center.  That one is definitely a no-brainer.

When the World is Your Oyster: Choosing a Location

We are planning an extended stay in the Andalusia region of Spain this Spring, and I keep finding myself so conflicted.  Should we stay in a city center, like Granada or Sevilla, or stay in a small village anywhere in the region?  The ability to easily use public transport or walk to anywhere we’d like to go are huge factors for us, as we are planning to do without a car, most if not all of the time.  We want to immerse ourselves in the food and culture of Andalusia, and see all of the amazing things the region has to offer, like the mountains, beaches, Moorish castles and ruins, orange and olive groves, and just everything that makes Southern Spain such an amazing place to visit, but we also want to be in a place that is comfortable, and homey, and most importantly, has stable internet access, since Scott will be working remotely while we are abroad.

I’m not sure what kind of experience we want our children to have: faster paced urban, or less anonymous small town life.  For that matter, I can’t decide what experience I would prefer!  The one thing I’m certain of is that I want to have a terrace with a view of something beautiful, whether that be the Alhambra in Granada, or a lovely plaza or garden in a village, or the mountains or sea doesn’t really matter to me.  I just want a place to sit and admire the landscape, and marvel that we have been presented with this amazing opportunity to live in a foreign land.  I wonder if our children will start to think of Andalucia as home?  I hope so, because one of the outcomes that I most desire to give them is that they will think of many parts of the world as home, and not just the United States.

When the world is your oyster, and the options are wide-open, it can be a daunting task to commit to a single place.  My wanderlust is high, and in the back of my mind this thought keeps flashing by like a LED banner sign “but you have so much time, you could see so many places if you just moved around.”  I have to keep reminding myself that this trip is about immersion, not about seeing as much of the world as we can in the time we have allotted.  It helps that I clearly remember how exhausted I was during our last family trip abroad.  It was an amazing experience, and we saw so much during that nearly 6 week, 9 country odyssey, but it was rather grueling at times, and being tied to hotel reservations and train schedules made it far less spontaneous than we prefer to be.  This trip is about living as a local, and having the time to actually figure out what that means in Andalusia.  We will certainly take a few road trips on the weekends, and venture afield from our home base, but the heart and soul of the trip is to just hang out in one place and live.

Packed Luggage

Packing “Light”

We are traveling in Europe exclusively by rail, so we need to be able to easily manage both the children and our baggage.  In the early planning stages, we considered renting a car so that we could more easily haul our stuff around, but I don’t like to drive, so that would not have been a nice vacation for Scott who would have ended up driving most of the time.  Also, the scope of our trip would have had to be much smaller, because driving for thousands of miles around Europe is quite a different undertaking than riding the rails.  In the end, we decided that taking trains was the better option for us as a family, but for me, this decision added the challenge of packing for a family of four in such a way as to make us as agile as possible.

I first stumbled upon the packing light concept in 2004 while searching online for packing lists for Disney World.  The basic premise is that no matter how long your trip is, you should be able to fit everything you need within a carry-on sized suitcase.  You must be willing to do laundry, b0th in your hotel room sink, and for longer trips like ours, in laundromats.  It is essential to pack clothing that matches, for instance, all tops should match all bottoms, and 1 or 2 pairs of shoes should be all one needs to pack.  There are many of excellent websites devoted to packing light, so I’m not going to delve any deeper into the specifics of it here.

Now, packing light for an adult is fairly simple.  Adults don’t really need much stuff: clothes, toiletries and electronics, that’s pretty much it.  Children, on the other hand, require all kinds of peripherals: bottles, diapers, formula, blankies, toys… the list really can go on and on.  Children are less adaptable.  Our 3-year-old daughter cannot sleep without her special pink polka dot blanket and her Dora the Explorer pillow.  Our 1-year-old daughter likes her stuffed giraffe and her purple polka dot blanket.  I am confident that I will not be able to find replacements for these beloved items in Europe, so they not only must come with us, but also must be closely guarded against loss.

Here is a photo of the luggage we are taking to Europe:

2 Ikea rolling backpacks with zip-off dayppacks padded and suitable for carrying laptops, iPads and other delicate electronics, 1 umbrella stroller (Combi Flare), 1 ERGO baby carrier with matching backpack, 1 Skiphop bumblebee backpack for our 3-year-old to carry, and not pictured here an Ikea reusable shopping bag with a zippered top to use to carry snacks onto the plane, since we have a 6 hour layover between our flight to NY and our flight to London, and I have a picky eater.

I keep unpacking the luggage and looking for things to leave behind.  For example, I dumped the separate bottles of laundry detergent, dish washing liquid, body wash and shampoo in favor of a couple of 2 ounce bottles of Dr. Bronner’s Miracle Soap.  This stuff gets great reviews among light packers, so hopefully it will work out for all of the uses named above, but if it doesn’t it’s not like we’re going to be in a 3rd world country!  We can buy anything we need over there, which is important to remember.  This afternoon we watched Rick Steves’ Europe travel skills episodes, and in one of them he said “Pack for the best case scenario.”  I’ve been pondering that advice all evening, and am seriously considering removing half the amount of diapers I currently have packed.  Europeans do have babies after all, so it’s not likely I will encounter shortage on size 4 diapers!  I do plan on posting the complete list of our luggage contents, but I’m going to wait until I know for sure what will make the cut.  Stay tuned!