The summer of 2010 is one my family will never forget. My wife, my 3 children and I planned to visit 6 European countries in 10 days. We were going to visit France, London, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Germany. It was a trip that took more preparing than any other trip we have ever taken. We were going to travelled between countries mainly by plane and train. We stayed with friends, in hotels and a hostel. With the help of a few friends who have travel Europe we were able to avoid the mistakes they. Our experience was a little different from our friends and family as we were travelling with 3 children. We learned a few lessons from this “trip of a life time” and wanted to share them with you. You can see my trip report with pictures here.
Be your own travel agent
Technology as they say is the great equalizer. Let me warn you that this is not for the faint of heart, however you can save a lot of money booking your trip on your own. My wife and I spent countless hours online booking the trip. The flights were the first thing we booked. That was easy. Try to get a long stop-over if you can. We were going to London but chose to fly Air France because of a 10 hour stop-over in Paris. We were going to go back into North France later in the trip but this stopover gave us the opportunity to see the Eifel Tower. The Air France planes were equipped with individual CD players for each seat which is perfect for children. Next were the train and the inter-country travel. We had a list of countries we wanted to see. The challenge was figuring out a train route. We used Easyjet the discount airlines in Europe for inter-country travel. Book your train route based on the attractions you want to see and the time you have. In some cases it may be cheaper and more efficient to fly between a few countries. We knew we would start in London and end in Germany. We knew we had to visit friends in Switzerland and France. After a few scenarios we found in a few cases that flying would save us some time and money. We will discuss hotel later. We used a nifty spread sheet that a friend provided to track our destinations, train departure/arrival times, train connections, flight times, and hotels and contact information.
Pack Light and do laundry
We set a goal that we would only carry four bags. The size would be carry-on luggage on wheels. It had to be light enough for us to roll around mainly from the hotel to our train station and in airports. It would make switching trains easier and everyone would “own” their luggage. It also gave us a free hand to hold on to the children. We started out thinking we would pack an outfit for almost each day. That is before we got a great tip for a family member who used to travel all the time. He mentioned we should pack less and do laundry at the homes of friends and relatives we would be staying with while in Europe. If we need anything else we would buy it in Europe. This was one of the best tips we got.
Shoes and clothing
We travelled during the summer. For that time of the year I would recommend bringing comfortable clothing. You may not think of Europe as being hot but the temperatures were near 99 Degrees Fahrenheit everywhere we went except London and Austria. Check the weather forecast a few days before you travel and make changes to the clothes you packed if necessary. You will be doing a lot of walking so be sure to carry walking shoes. If you are taking the train or bus around a city be prepared to walk. Also, many of the attractions require walking long distances. We visited a castle in East Germany and I am sure we walked over 2 miles once we completed the tour. This is on top of the 2 miles from the parking lost to the entry to the castle.
Book your hotels directly and near the train stations
We found many of our hotels by looking at reviews at tripadvisor.com. I even read stories on Jamaicans.com from other users who visited Europe. One of the big challenges we had was finding a hotel room that was affordable, close to a train station & attractions, and can accommodate a family of five.
Once we found the hotel we would use Google maps to see the proximity to train stations and the attractions we wanted to visit. This way we could walk to the attraction or hotel from the train station. In some cases we had to take local transportation to the attraction or hotel. We could not rule out hostels as we were a family of 5 and many countries in Europe do not have affordable rooms to accommodate us. We used a hostel in Austria and were very impressed by it.
Make you reservation directly with the hotel/hostel if possible as the prices are lower and they may have discounts. The rates are more affordable directly than through a wholesaler. We would search tripadvisor.com, Expedia and other websites. Once we found a hotel/hostel we liked we would seek out their website for better rates.
Stay or Visit with family and Friends
Jamaicans are avid travelers and you can find one in just about every country in the world. We were doing very short visits to each country. We had family and friends in a few of these countries and we contacted them almost a year before our trip to find out if they could accommodate us. They knew we were doing short visits so our stay would not impose on them. One of the advantages of also staying or visiting with family and friends is you get to see, feel, touch the culture. You also get to see some places you may not normally see on the list of tourist attraction. On our trip to Germany a friend took us outside Berlin to a castle in East Germany and gave us a history lesson on the area. In London my aunt took us through the famous Brixton Market.
Book the first train, Arrive Early at the Train Station and Watch the Schedule
we missed 1 train due to traffic in Switzerland. It was not a major setback as during the time we were planning the train travel we knew there was an average of 3 trains going to our destination. We purposely booked the first train this way we had the option to catch the other 2 if we were late. Never trust the train platform they give you at the information booth. We learned in Zurich that they change the train platforms constantly, when we stood waiting at the train platform given to us by the information booth in Geneva and the train did not show. We missed that train as they changed the platform. We watched the schedule and caught the second train.
Share meal portions, ask for a child’s meal, cook your own meal
eating out in Europe is expense. Do not be afraid to ask for a kid’s meal or an extra plate. The portions in Europe are very similar to the US and if your families are not “big” meal eaters you can split meals. Cook where you can. We cooked a meal that fed four for less than 10 Euros.
Cash is King
Carry cash. Many of the restaurants do not accept Visa or MasterCard. They only take cash. Also they will not take big bills so try to get small bills. This can be especially challenging with small restaurants where you can find affordable food. We learned this early in the train portion of the trip when we stopped in Zurich. We tried to pay be credit card and was told they only accept cash.
Adversity builds character. Don’t panic if you miss a train or connection. The children are watching how you respond to this situation before they react. We had a few on our trip. In one case our Google maps showed our hotel on an island with a monastery in Venice. It was late at night and it seemed we were the only people on this island with this monastery. I was smiling all the way through the situation. My kids were worried but they mentioned if I had lost it they would have “freaked” out. We eventually got to our hotel on another island at 1:30 am in the morning. We now look back at this situation and laugh. It may be one of the stories that will be passed down for generations.
Photos/Trip Report – You can see my trip report with pictures here.