Monday, December 04, 2017

How do we travel Europe on a budget? Picking a destination

So a lot of people have been asking me for travel advice the past few months and I have really been thinking about how and why we travel so much with our four kiddos.  So I have decided to write a few blog posts on different aspects of this topic.  Hopefully it will be useful info to someone, but even if it isn't, I will enjoy the trip down memory lane.

First of all, we have a travel budget. Rob and I both value travel and sharing experiences as a family, so when we go through all of our monthly expenses we make sure to set aside a regular amount for travel.  Some years it has been a very tiny amount (like sleeping on an air mattress at a family member's house tiny) and other years we have dedicated more money to travel, as our finances and situation allow.

This post will look at destinations we have visited (or plan to soon visit) from our current home base near Wiesbaden, Germany.  Maybe when we move back to the States again I will write about travel there.

Day-trips or pit-stops:  These are places we can drive to in about 2-3 hours.  When our kids were babies that was as far as we could get in the car before a meltdown or feeding.  They are perfect for a day-trip, or as a place to stop for a few hours on the way to somewhere further out.  These are the cheapest way to travel and explore not far from home.

Strasbourg or Colmar, France: I love that we can be in France in just a few hours and enjoy Alsatian food and French pastries while visiting cathedrals and castles.

Baden Baden: This is a spa town; Caracalla is for ages 7+ and people wear swimsuits, Friedrichsbad is 14+ and nude.

Heidelberg: Castle ruins and downtown shopping

Rhine River cruise, Bacharach, Burg Rheinfels: The Rhine River cruise is especially nice for people with limited mobility.  We prefer to ride just one direction, then take the train back.  (The ride coming back upstream is slooooow.)

Burg Eltz (and other castles): One of my favorite castles in all of Europe!

Michelstadt: Little medieval walled town with an intact wall, toy museum, adorable Rathaus, and lovely Christmas market.

Trier: This wasn't one of our favorite spots, but it is very historical and a lot of people love it... maybe we were just having an off day or something.

Worms: Birthplace of the Lutheran Reformation.

Aachen: One of my favorite cathedrals in Europe, the diminutive Aachener Dom.  Also burial place of Charlemagne.

Ulm: Home of the Ulm Minster- the tallest cathedral in the world (until Sagrada Familia is completed.)

Rothenburg ob der Tauber: Probably the most famous walled medieval town in Germany.

Cologne: I know there is more to see in Cologne than the cathedral, but the cathedral alone made it worth the drive.

Barefoot Park: This is a uniquely German past-time and so much fun with the kids!

Long weekend driving trips:

Not having to buy airfare significantly reduces the cost of traveling.  These are places near enough that it makes sense to drive there even if we are only staying for a few days.

Black Forest camping trip: Our family likes camping, and this can be a great way to travel for less.  We loved the Black Forest area.

Luxembourg camping trip: This is one we haven't done yet, but plan to soon.

Garmisch: The first time we lived in Germany we never visited Garmisch, but this time around we have visited there repeatedly.  It has become our favorite spot for an actual relaxing vacation- with some skiing and sight-seeing on the side.

Normandy, France: We loved seeing Mont St. Michel, but many people come to this area just for the WWII sights.  There is a ton to see and do here, and we get to eat French pastries- my favorite.

Legoland: The kids just love this.  We have gone maybe 3 times now? I just look for the overnight deal on their website- one night's stay in their theme cottages, including breakfast, with park tickets for 2 days. It costs less than park tickets alone. 

Berlin: It took us a long time to actually visit Berlin, but when we finally did we really liked it.  The city is very easy to navigate and full of interesting history and iconic monuments.

Dresden: The Dresden Christmas market might be my very favorite in all of Germany.  I'm sure the city is lovely to visit year round, but I am so glad we went during the Christmas market! We also love awesome outdoor sights, and nearby Bastei Bridge was one of those for sure.

Munich and Dachau: We loved the Englischer Garten and Biergarten and walking in downtown Munich.  Nearby Dachau Concentration Camp may be difficult to explain to small children, but I think it is an important part of history and was worth the effort and emotional toll to visit.

Paris, France: Okay, maybe Paris isn't exactly cheap.  But with a large family, it is cheaper to drive there than to fly.  We also make it more affordable by taking the metro or walking within the city, staying in an airbnb, and if visiting a LOT of sights, getting the citypass. I can't even believe it myself, but I have now been to Paris four times.  Once with my nephew (in my mid-20s, backpacking,) once as a family with 2 kids (driving,) once with some mommy friends (flying,) and once with just Charlotte (by train.) I think Paris is totally do-able on a budget.

Bruges, Belgium: Ohhh just thinking of Bruges makes me miss the daffodils, waffles, fries, and beautiful buildings.

Amsterdam & Keukenhof, The Netherlands: Amsterdam was a very expensive place to visit, so why is it on this list? We were able to see the highlights of Amsterdam in one well-planned day and two nights.  We stopped to see Keukenhof (early, before the crowds) on our way home on day two, and we had an unforgettable mini-break.  And it saves money to visit both sights in two days rather than taking two separate trips.

(Our kids look forward to road trips because we usually stop at least once for McDonald's.  We generally don't eat McDonald's except for when we are traveling.)

Extended road trips: These trips are more involved, longer, and require more planning.  But again, because we are not buying plane tickets, we are able to see many more places for our money.

Venice and Slovenia: Venice is expensive. Using it as a one-two night stop on our way to much more affordable Slovenia means that we got to experience it for less cost.  Slovenia was fantastic!  Lake Bled, green cities,  caves, and castles ... we loved it.

Eastern European Road Trip: this was the first BIG road trip I ever planned for our family. We visited 7 cities in 8 days: Nuremberg, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Vienna, Hallstadt, and Salzburg.  Again, we couldn't afford to visit all of these places if we tried to go to them individually, but by stringing them together on a road trip we could get much more travel bang for our buck.

Ireland Road Trip: We did fly to Ireland and rent a car there, but because Ireland is on the Euro and costs are lower there, this trip was less expensive than our similar British road trip which had no airfare or car rental expenses.
Northern Italy Road Trip: There are so many places that we wanted to see in Northern Italy, that a road trip made the most sense.  Cinque Terre, Pisa, Florence, and Milan.  The toll roads in Italy were a killer- they add up fast!  But overall, this was still an affordable 9 day trip.

Less expensive destinations to fly to: These are some places that we have visited (or will visit) by flying.  We either think it is too far to drive, or airfare is inexpensive, or a combination of the two.

Rome: As far as MAJOR European cities go, I think Rome was one of the cheapest for us to visit.  It is very walkable, food is affordable, and we flew on Ryanair.

Croatia: We also flew to Croatia on Ryanair, and stayed at a family campground type of resort which was much cheaper than a hotel. We did a few tour group type things there because we didn't have a car, but it is such an affordable destination that it was totally within our budget to do that.  Plitvice Lakes is still one of our favorite places we have ever seen.

Greece: This is one we have planned for 2018. Greece's economy is pretty weak right now, which makes it a travel bargain.  We are going to do a Mediterranean Cruise (with MSC budget cruise line) and visit Athens, Olympia, Santorini, and Corfu, as well as Brindisi, Italy and Kotor, Montenegro.  I think a budget cruise can be a great way to see a lot of places.

Iberian islands like Ibiza or Mallorca: Now, Ibiza wasn't really a kid friendly destination, but Rob and I enjoyed it and it was an affordable anniversary trip.  We plan to visit Mallorca with all of the kids before we leave Germany and have heard great things about it's history, beaches, and other sights.

Barcelona: I think Spain and Portugal are both affordable places to fly to and to stay, but so far we have only made it to Barcelona.  We flew on Lufthansa (which is a nice airline) and I think our tickets were less than $90 each.  We also stayed in a nice apartment just a few blocks from the beach and it was very inexpensive.

Splurges: When I was a kid and people would ask, "If you could go anywhere in the world..." I would always answer London. Of all of the places we have visited, Rob feels like Iceland just speaks to him.  Sometimes the place that you MOST want to visit is not budget friendly, but if it is the place you MOST want to visit, than it is worth saving for.  These are some of those places for us, and how we tried to keep the costs down.

London: We only spent 3 days in London when we went, because that was all we could afford.  We flew on Ryanair, and stayed (then we were a family of 4) in a very small hotel room that included breakfast. We took public transit and walked everywhere.  This was also a celebration of our 4th anniversary. I LOVED IT.

Iceland: We traveled to Iceland on our way to the US to visit family.  Icelandair allowed a free stopover which meant that we didn't have to pay airfare to get there.  Once there, we rented a car and stayed in a cabin out of the main city.  We bought groceries and had breakfast and dinner at the cabin and only ate out for lunch.  We also traveled during the off-season in October which meant less crowds and lower prices.

Anywhere in Scandinavia: Rob and I both really wanted to visit some of the Nordic countries.  I priced a trip to Norway the first time we lived in Germany (to see the famous fjords) and we decided we couldn't afford it.  Living here the second time we finally made that trip to Norway by doing the super fast Norway in a Nutshell route, and by staying at a campground for a few nights.  We also splurged on a Baltic Cruise (on budget cruise line MSC) which allowed us to visit Copenhagen, Stockholm, Tallinn, and St. Petersburg for less than we could have traveled to one of those destinations.  (Though it was still a big trip cost-wise.)  In 2018, Rob and I are planning to visit Finnish Lapland, without the kids, and do some bucket list items that they could not participate in.

Great British Road Trip: Rob has talked for years about the Isle of Skye and wanting to go there.  I just could not figure an affordable way for us to do that... except as part of a bigger road trip. This was our longest (15 days) and most expensive European adventure, but we did it as cheaply as possible (driving our own car, staying in airbnbs, doing laundry along the way, buying groceries, etc) and I have no regrets.  It was worth every penny to get to Bath, Windsor, the Lake District, Wales, Skye, the Scottish Highlands, Loch Ness, Edinburgh, and so on. Sometimes, it is worth the splurge.

Friday, November 10, 2017

All about Fall

I feel like there are a lot of little things that I haven't posted about (and some big ones too) since we have been busy the past two months or so... so let's re-cap.

We started school!
I posted this on facebook, but not on the blog at the time.  Charlotte is now in 5th grade, Toby is in 3rd, and Jake is in 1st.  Parent teacher conferences for the first quarter will be this week, so I'll find out then how things are going, but judging by the kids' descriptions, everything is going great.

We signed Amelie up for preschool ballet!
Unfortunately, the only time slot available was at the exact time the other kids got out of school.  It kinda worked as I could drop her off, then run (literally, on foot) to the school and meet the kids, and then come back to ballet.  Except that without me there, Amelie completely freaked out. We tried it for a month and when there was no clear improvement I gave Amelie an ultimatum, "suck it up, or no more ballet."  So yeah, we quit ballet.  Maybe she'll try again in a year or two.

We started reading the Book of Mormon (again) as a family and after scriptures each evening the kids would go upstairs and build something we had read out of Legos.  This is Lehi talking to Laman and Lemuel about how they are like the valley and the river. 

And this is Nephi cutting off the head of Laban.  They were having fun with this for a while and then petered out a bit, I'll have to remind them so they can do it again tonight.

The bigger kids also started sports.  Jake played soccer.  His favorite soccer shirt said, "no talk, all action" and we joked that it was the opposite for Jakey.. he was very much talk, and a little action.  

Amelie enjoyed her role as cheerleader.

And Toby and Charlotte played on a co-ed volleyball team.  They both improved a ton this season, had a lot of fun, and have decided they want to keep playing volleyball next year as well.

That brings us up to Halloween. This year we had Hermione, Cinderella, a Ninja, and a Pirate Captain.

Rob and I dressed up a little bit too as Napoleon Dynamite and Deb.

We attended the chili cook-off and trunk or treat at our church the week before Halloween.  Charlotte made this bean bag toss game on her own.  Skeleton = 3 pieces of candy, pumpkin = 2, and ghost = 1.

A few days before actual Halloween we carved pumpkins.  It is so nice to have a kiddo that is finally old enough to help carve!

The girls did a cat silhouette with a crescent moon and the boys did a classic Jack-o-Lantern. We got  few trick or treaters this year- more than in the past, and our kids even threw their costumes on and went to a few of our neighbor's houses that they saw were handing out candy.

The next weekend marked the end of the first quarter of the school year, which our Elementary celebrates with a skate party in the multi-purpose room.

First, they have grade K-2 skate, and then after an hour grades 3-5 skate.  Lucky us we get to be there the WHOLE TIME.  Charlotte likes to dance while she skates.

 Jacob had so much fun this year!  He was giggling and totally sweaty by the end of his time skating.  I bought him these roller-blades at the thrift store for $5 and he has been rollerblading in the basement nearly every day since the skate party.  (This little student council girl helping him is in 5th grade, by the way.  Jake may end up being bigger than Toby one day.)

Oh boy!  It has been a busy Fall and it is not even mid-November!!

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Charlotte turned 11!

For Charlotte's birthday this year, she asked to have a party at the bowling alley.  (She's pretty much our only kid that likes to have parties.) We ordered way too much pizza, ate chocolate cake, and then bowled a game with a few of her best girlfriends from school. It was in the middle of a very busy Saturday with a volleyball game in the morning and a Halloween party in the evening.  Charlotte thought it all made for the "best birthday ever!"

Time to sing Happy birthday!
(Jake totally understands the role an annoying little brother is supposed to play at events like this.)

We put all the big girls on one lane, with the boys and Amelie on the other lane.  11 year old girls are their own kind of amazing and silly all at once! They had so much fun.

We like to call Charlotte the "cruise director" because she loves to invent games and crafts and get her brothers and sisters to play with her.  They all enjoy her imaginative ideas.  She is also a great teacher who has taught Amelie all of her letters and number 1-10. She enjoys school and reads sooooo much that we have occasionally caught her with her light on long after bedtime.  She loved playing volleyball this Fall and feels like she has fond her sport.  I love to see her try new things, make friends, and show her kindness to everyone she meets. We are very blessed to have a Charlotte girl. 

Charlotte's Birthday Interview
1. What is your favorite color? Hot Pink and Teal
2. What is your favorite toy? ALL my stuffed animals
3. What is your favorite fruit? Blueberries
4. What is your favorite tv show? "I don't really have one, because we don't really watch TV."
5. What is your favorite thing to eat for lunch? Nutella toast
6. What is your favorite outfit? "Jeans, my "beautiful" teal t-shirt, and my sparkly white polar bear hoodie."
7. What is your favorite game? Clue
8. What is your favorite snack? Cheesesticks
9. What is your favorite animal? Polar bears and snow leopards
10. What is your favorite song?  Katy Perry's Birthday song
11. What is your favorite book? The Harry Potter series
12. Who is your best friend?  "I don't really have a bestie, but I just have a lot of friends at school."
13. What do you want to be when you grow up?  An author or an artist
14. What is your favorite thing to do outside?  Ride my bike
15. What are you really good at?  Reading and Language Arts
16. What is a food that you hate?  Mushrooms
17. What do you like to do with Mom or Dad?  "Cuddle up with some hot cocoa."
18. What is your favorite thing to eat for breakfast?  Nutella toast
19. What is your favorite dinner?  Pasta Primavera
20. What makes you happy?   "Snuggling up in the middle of my stuffed animals with a good book."

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Great Italian Road Trip: Parma and Milan

Leaving our happy Tuscan Euro camp experience, we headed north toward Milan. On the way, we decided to stop for lunch in Parma and stroll the Old Town.

We found what looked like a very local joint down one side road.  I snuck this picture while Rob was helping the kids finish up their pizza.  It was so chaotic, with the guy ordering a drink at the counter, the dog roaming over to say hello to us, and none of the staff speaking English.  They did have a sign on the wall though that claimed they had the best pizza in town. 

They totally had the best pizza.  Rob got pesto and pecorino on his and I got the Buffalo mozzarella on mine.  As you could see from the first photo, we ate them ALL.

When we left the pizza place, very fat and happy, we turned the corner to see and hear this opera singer singing from the balcony of the theatre.  We only caught the last half of the performance, but it was lovely.

Turns out we were witnessing the opening of the week long Festival Verdi.

We strolled past the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista, built in 1604, and then headed back to our car to drive the rest of the way to Milan.  Parma was fun that it was totally NOT a touristy spot, but there also wasn't much to do there.

We arrived at our airbnb apartment in Milan, and walked over to the nearby shopping mall and grocery store for some breakfast and snack items.  Rob decided to grab pasta and sauce and made dinner back at the apartment (we were still pretty full from our pizza-fest at lunch.)

The next morning we walked two blocks to the metro, and rode down to the Duomo stop.  As soon as we popped up above ground we were greeted by the Milan Cathedral.  The largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and the third largest of any kind of church in the world.  They started building it in 1386, and it was finally finished completely in 1965.

We made our way to the ticket office and bought tickets to go inside the cathedral and to visit the terrace on the roof.  There was an even happening in the cathedral that morning, so they said we wouldn't be able to go in until noon, but we made our way to the elevators and went up to the roof first thing.  (While there was no line.)

We walked around the rooftop with no crowds at all and enjoyed looking at the sculptures, views of the city below, and intricate Gothic architecture.

Although my personal style is quite minimalist, I do appreciate the "more is more" Gothic look sometimes.

Mark Twain visited Milan in 1867, and said this about the cathedral, 

"What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems ...a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!... and the figures are so numerous and the design so complex, that one might study it a week without exhausting its interest...everywhere that a niche or a perch can be found about the enormous building, from summit to base, there is a marble statue, and every statue is a study in itself...Away above, on the lofty roof, rank on rank of carved and fretted spires spring high in the air, and through their rich tracery one sees the sky beyond. ... (Up on) the roof...springing from its broad marble flagstones, were the long files of spires, looking very tall close at hand, but diminishing in the distance...We could see, now, that the statue on the top of each was the size of a large man, though they all looked like dolls from the street... They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St. Peter's at Rome. I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands."

After our visit to the roof, we sat for a moment on the steps and took in the rest of the Piazza del Duomo.

On our left there were two very similar buildings.  This is one of them.  These were built during the Fascist era in the 1900s.  Mussolini liked to make use of this balcony to address the people on his visits to Milan.  The building is now a modern art museum.

On our right from the cathedral was the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.  This arcaded shopping area behind Rob and Amelie was built in the 1860s.  (This is around the same time the Eiffel Tower was being designed in Paris, and it felt similar to that with the beams and glass, and daylight streaming through the arcade.)  It is full of posh high street shops, cafes, and tourists.

The architect, Giuseppe Mengoni, sadly fell to his death from the scaffolding just weeks before his 14 year project was completed.  For luck, (and to avoid the same fate?) the Milanese, and many, many tourists, spin on the testicles of this bull mosaic.

Apparently the mosaic needs to be repaired regularly due to the damage of this tradition.  It looked perfectly fine while we were there though.  Only Charlotte and Toby wanted to participate in this ritual from our family. 

We strolled out the other end of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II to see the Opera House, La Scala.  La Scala opened in 1778 and is one of the premiere opera houses in the world.  There is an opera museum... but we didn't think our kids would tolerate that very well.

In the square facing La Scala is a monument to Leonardo DaVinci. In the late 1400s Leonardo left his work in Florence  and moved to Milan where he worked for a period.  His most notable work while in Milan is the Last Supper.  I tried for MONTHS to get us tickets to view the Last Supper, but was unsuccessful.  Oh well, life goes on.

We next walked over to Sforza Castle to look around.  Like the Medici family in Florence, the Sforza family held the power in Milan moving from the dark ages into the Renaissance.  Sforza Castle was built in the 1400s, but enlarged in succeeding centuries.

It is now an art museum, but we just enjoyed strolling around the inner courtyard.

Milan was very grey after the beautiful weather that we enjoyed in the Cinque Terre, Tuscany, and Florence.  I think we were also winding down and feeling ready to head back home to Germany.

For our last stop in Milan, we finally got in line to go inside the Cathedral. The line was long, but not as long as it had been earlier in the day, so I'm glad we waited.  We ordered some gelato to make the wait less painful.

The doors to the cathedral are every bit as complicated and intricate as the rest of the building.

I took this up close photo of one little part of a wall while we were waiting in line.  The kids liked looking at each individual face's expression, the biblical scenes, and how the human sized sculptures are straining to hold up the pillars of the church.  Super interesting artwork.

Almost there...

And finally!  We made it inside the cathedral! 
There is no denying how immense the interior is.  It looks large from outside, but inside it somehow felt even larger and made the people look like tiny ants by comparison.

In the back of the church, there is a replica of the 13 foot tall Madonna that sits atop the tallest spire.  The original was made in the 1700s.  The stained glass in the church comes from many different eras, as the church took so long to be built.  During WWII, the windows were all taken out and stored in a crypt below the church to protect them, and the Madonna was wrapped in gray-green cloth so as not to provide an easy target for Allied bombers.

I tried to take some panoramic shots of the interior to show the scale, but I don't think this does the church justice.  It was a fitting finale to our Italian road trip!

After the cathedral, we took the metro back to our apartment and played on the playground for a little while.  The drive back home took about 8 hours the next day and we were all SO HAPPY to be home and sleep in our own beds.  On the way back I asked Rob which Christmas markets he would like to visit this year and he said any that are close to home!  Between our three road trips this year (Great Britain, USA, and Italy) we have driven over 9,000 miles.  I agree, it is time for us to spend a little time at home.