Just a girl rambling around the globe and writing about it.

Musings from around the block and farther.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Family Travel Tips for a Whirlwind European Vacation

London Calling: Mia stepping out in stylish accessories
  NOTE: In anticipation of my upcoming family vacation in Europe, this is a "guest" blog about my friend Mia's recent trip. I wanted to pick her brain about traveling with her family to four European cities in three countries over the course of 11 days... with only carry-on luggage! Here's what I learned...

My friend Mia is a stylish fashion blogger and well-traveled woman who puts my wanderlust to shame. Given the glorious combination of a few vacation days and incredible airfare and accommodation deals, she can assemble a whirlwind trip for her family of four (which includes husband Iñaki, son Lukas, 14, and daughter Noa, 11) on a reasonable budget.

Her latest trip, taken over Spring Break, spanned four cities in three countries over the course of 11 short days (not including travel time) for seven people (they traveled with Iñaki’s sister and her two kids). They visited London, Venice, Rome, Athens and Santorini…
Did I mention it was only 11 days?

And not only that, but they didn’t check any baggage!

In less than a month, we'll be embarking on our next European family vacation - BarceRoma 2013 - so I was dying to learn the secrets of her travel success, and Mia was more than willing to share.

First of all, she said they chose Spring Break because both airfare and lodging are less expensive at that time of year than in summer. Her family has been to Europe before and this was meant as a sort of “sampler” for the kids – choosing places they can revisit when they’re older, giving them just a taste of new cities. 
Noa and Lukas
 The Starting Point: Easter in Rome
It has been a lifelong dream of Mia’s to spend Easter at the Vatican, so that was the first destination on their list and Mia planned everything else around that event.  While researching flights, Mia found that it was cheaper to fly through London than to go straight to Rome, so she added two nights in London to the start of the trip. Rome is a quick train ride from Venice… and the kids had never been there… so clever Mia decided they should fly there to begin their Italian holiday and take the train to Rome the next day.

Next, because Lukas is an ancient history buff and Iñaki is an architect, Athens was a must-see. And since it’s not that far from the Greek isles… well, you know Mia had to sneak in some relaxation in Santorini before returning home to Southern California.

The Plan: 4 cities/3 countries/11 days
Gelati counts as a meal, right?
So the final trip looked like this:

London - 2 nights, then fly to...
Venice - 1 night, then train to...
Rome - 2 nights, then fly to...
Athens - 1 night, then fly to...
Santorini - 3 nights, then back to...
Athens - 1 night, then fly home

WHEW! Anyone else's head spinning?

The Secrets: Mia's Tips for Traveling with Kids
#1 - Carry-on luggage - "It's so liberating! Everyone carries their own bag and even on the plane, everything you need is in the overhead bin. You literally walk off the plane and into your destination. You will never want to wait for luggage again and whatever you forgot, you can buy there. If there's a language barrier, then it becomes part of the adventure." She also suggests buying the extra large ziploc bags to store clothes in and pushing out air to minimize the space they take up.

#2 - Black clothes - "I took all black clothes to make it easy, then changed up my look for pictures by adding scarves and a little bit of jewelry. I left my jeans at home because they're too heavy and I was traveling light!" At the last minute, she grabbed her down parka, and was grateful - they encountered a range of weather and London was downright cold! Packing lighter with her regular layers enabled her to bring along a bigger jacket.

#3 - Be open to unique accommodations - Mia chose various lodging options, including hotels (and an upgrade to a very posh suite in Venice), family-run pensiones and a B&B in Rome. This last one seemed questionable to me - it was a shared apartment with four large rooms with a common kitchen/living area and the "breakfast" was a sort of help-yourself-to-the fridge thing (meaning yogurt, cereal, fruit, etc.). While that doesn't appeal to me, Mia said her family liked the way they "lived" with different people from other cultures for a few days. Also, since they spent at least 10 hours a day touring the city, they only used the room for sleeping. If that's your M.O. - spending your time out in the city versus spending a lot of time at the hotel - this could be a good option.

#4 - Scan your documents and email them to yourself - Mia scanned their passports and the front and backs of credit cards, then emailed them to herself. It's a smart way to use the "cloud" to your advantage, just in case you lose them and need the info. She also advises using a money pouch - a thin pouch that fastens around your waist, inside your clothes, and holds passports, money and important tickets - to discourage pickpockets. She's never had any trouble with theft, but she says she's always watchful. As she says, "Not paranoid, but aware."

#5 - Buy a local SIM card or cell phone - They're available at any cell phone store in Europe and can save you a bundle on roaming fees if you're calling local numbers.

#6 - Rick Steves - Mia and I agree that Rick Steves' guidebooks are invaluable when traveling in Europe. His "Europe through the Back Door" approach offers easy advice for every location, as well as tours of most landmarks and museums. Mia downloaded several of Rick Steves' free audio tours before they left and felt like she had guided tours of the major sights. She also suggests printing out his maps to help you navigate the museums. (NOTE: I just downloaded his Rome guidebook for $9.99 on eBooks for my iPad; hard to believe it was only a few years ago that I had to rip pages out of his guidebook so I wouldn't have to carry an armload of books!)

The Notebook / London
The Notebook
Mia's best tip - I saved it for last - is her notebook. Small enough to fit in a purse, her "logistical notebook" holds their entire itinerary. It includes: 

* dates
* hotel info/phone number/address
* directions to sights and hotels
* transportation tips
* a hand-drawn calendar listing sights to see on each date
* admission hours of major sights and landmarks

She relies on it so much, as soon as her family landed in a new city, they would turn to her so she could guide them to the hotel and each sight. I asked why she didn't make it hi-tech and use a phone app, and she explained that everything is right there, when she needs it, no batteries or WiFi necessary. And when kids are tired and it's late and you're walking around Venice in the rain looking for a teeny tiny hotel, that's essential!

The Recap
Noa and Inaki in Santorini, enjoying the Aegean Sea
As with any trip, there were highlights as well as a few areas where Mia would have made adjustments. Spending Easter in Rome, within days of a new Pope being named, was an experience Mia said she would never forget. Even though it was cold, London charmed her more on this trip than it had in the past, too, with its funky street style and the ease of the iconic hop-on/hop-off double decker bus. Santorini, at the tail end of the trip, was a highlight because it was simply three days of relaxing, swimming in the gorgeous Aegean Sea and eating plates full of gyros, tzatziki and yogurt.  However, Venice was a disappointment this time, a result of the cold weather, rain, late night arrival and early departure the very next day. She said an extra day would have been nicer, but that'll be for another trip!

Thanks so much to Mia Villarin for her tips and tricks! Look for my next installments of The Traveling Circus in mid-June, coming from Barcelona and Rome!

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