Planning the (Somewhat) Perfect Family Tour of Europe
On October 1st, Dek, Ty and I left on a 34 day journey around Europe to visit friends I had met at various stages in my life. It was an ambitious project, and like many of my plans it started out so simple.
Our family tour of Europe would start with Dek and I flying to Switzerland in the beautiful month of May, strap Dek in my friend’s convertible Mustang with her daughter and we would drive down to northern italy and then onto Sicily visiting friends.
And then I got pregnant with Ty. The plan needed to change.
Now we would leave in October, I would bring both boys with me. There would be no vicarious journey in a Mustang; we would be on planes and trains instead. My friend, who also got pregnant right after I had Ty, would not be joining us in our escapades.
Up until I got pregnant with Ty I was planning our trip like I was still a single lady without a care in the world. Everything was in dream land. The rest we could figure out when we got there.
Traveling with two kids on my own was the wake up call I needed that life was different now and I needed to get organized.
I bought a folder with many compartments to hold every aspect of the trip. Our itinerary went from 3 weeks to 5 weeks as my friend in Italy and I expanded our plans, adding in a road trip and long weekend in Tuscany.
Tip #1: Get yourself a folder with lots of pockets to stick any paperwork and notes into as you plan your travels.
I did start to joke that we may never come home and Mike would have to commute to see us from now on. We were just going to have too much fun.
With less than a month to go our final plan was set. There was wiggle room for day trips and side adventures, but the major elements were in place.
- October 1 – Fly to Zurich with 2 boys
- October 2 – Arrive in Zurich, take train to Bern
- October 9 – Train to Bologna, Italy where friend would pick us up and drive to Ferrara
- October 11 – Day trip to San Marino
- October 14-16 – Road trip to Lake Bled (Slovenia) and Rovinj (Croatia) with a quick stop in Trieste for lunch on the way home
- October 18 – Mike flies in to join our journey
- October 20-23 – Tuscany
- October 24- Fly to Palermo, pick up rental car and drive down to Sciacca
- October 30- Fly to London
- November 3 – Fly home
Every stop on our journey was based on where one of my friends lived. We would be visiting a childhood friend in Italy, a high school friend in Sicily, a grad school friend in Switzerland, and friends Mike and I met in Venice on our very belated honeymoon in 2007.
Most offered to put us up for free in their homes. The only spots we had to get hotels were in Slovenia, Croatia and Tuscany.
Tip #2 : If friends aren’t an option for you, make sure you compare your accommodation alternatives before booking a hotel in London and other European cities.
I left the Slovenia and Croatia hotel research to my friend in northern Italy. She was just as excited as I was for the adventure and it was a way for her to be a part of the process.
Every few days she would send me links to see what I thought of a property. We would make a final decision together and book.
Every hotel, or I should say apartment, we found was less than €130 per night for a 2 bedroom apartment with full kitchen and living room. Our two families split the cost, saving us loads of money while still being able to stay in a fabulous location within walking distance of everything we wanted to see.
Trains to Italy
I didn’t need a multiweek EuroRail pass, I was only going from Bern to Bologna via train. Rail Europe offered tickets that could get me there with just one train change. It was the easiest choice. It also meant I wouldn’t have to deal with airport check in, weight limits, and security lines. I did splurge for a First Class seats for Dek and I. Dek’s was discounted and it was worth it for the extra comfort and assigned seating.
Tip #3 Triple check that you are getting the train ticket or pass you actually need. Sometimes a one way ticket will save you much more than a multipass depending on your number of stops.
Europe is full of cheap airlines offering hopper flights between cities and countries. RyanAir is one of the most popular. It also happened to be the only one offering the routes I needed at a price that fit into our budget.
I am not a big fan of RyanAIr, mainly because it’s this weird mesh of organized chaos from booking until you pick up your bags at your final destination, and they also don’t always drop you off in the city you thought you were headed to (that is another story for a very fun post.) I do see RyanAir and other discount airlines as a means to an end though. It got us where we needed to go (for the most part) and was a faster and cheaper alternative to train travel.
Rental car in Sicily
We needed a car only in Sicily, which was a mere 6 days of our trip. I didn’t want to drag car seats all over Europe. Our friends in Switzerland and northern Italy had extra car seats we could use when needed.
I checked all of the usual sites: Avis, Budget, Dollar, and Auto Europe. I even checked into what my Costco Membership could get me through their travel agency. Everything was either too expensive or I couldn’t figure out what type of transmission the car had.
Tip #4: If you plan on driving in any country outside of the USA learn how to drive a manual transmission right now. You will save time, money and a whole lot of headaches.
Yes, it’s true. I can only drive an automatic car. I will be rectifying that one very soon.
I was then tipped off that Nova Car Hire had great rates. They out bid every company I checked and offered car seats for infants and toddlers (for a price of course). It was a done deal.
Commuter Train to London
Flying RyanAir into London Stanford threw me for a loop. I had only ever been to Heathrow. Thankfully my friend was looking out for me and sent me our options.
We could take a train to Liverpool station and hop in a taxi to their house, which could cost up to £30. The alternative was to take the tube to Victoria station hop on the train and then take a bus to their house.
Well, with 2 kids and 2 suitcases you can guess we chose the train to the taxi route. This was not the cheapest option, but it certainly was the easiest. The train was £45 for Mike and I; the taxi was £22.
Tip #5: Go with your gut. If the journey feels too complicated and you can swing the easier road, do it. You will be happier for it.
Yes, this is expensive if you are on a tight budget, but at this point in our travels I wanted convenience over savings. It was well worth it.
I did see that there was a cheaper bus from London Stanford that took you to Liverpool Street. I was not familiar with the station and wasn’t sure where it would drop us off, so we opted for the more expensive option this time around. On our next trip I will research the bus further however. It did have free wi-fi after all.
By the time the boys and I left for our trip my folder was packed. Every pocket was filled.
I kept everything straight by printing out a calendar for the month we would be gone. I wrote who was leaving when (I had to keep track of Mike as well after all) and what country we would be in on what days. Side trips were penciled in, erased and rescheduled. Confirmation numbers were jotted down on the day we were scheduled to leave.
It was an amazing resource to have at my disposal.
Oh sure I could have put it all into my phone, but I am a one glance kind of girl. I like to see my entire month laid out for me, not a bunch of tiny boxes with dots on them that supposedly mean I have something scheduled that day.
Tip #6: Have your master plan in one spot. Post-it notes stuck around the house won’t cut it on a journey this huge.
Thirty-four days later we arrived home safe and sound.
There were many hiccups along the way, like Mike getting rerouted through Madrid on his way to Bologna, but not having enough time to tell me this so I sat around in the airport for hours wondering if my husband had been kidnapped or lost (again, another post for another day.)
For the most part it was a dream trip.
And yes, I would do it again.