I feel that there has been much (metaphorical) ink spilled on the interweb on the subject of packing. I have no desire to rehash ad naseum what everyone else has said, but here’s an outline of how we pack and what has worked for us. […]
As I mentioned in my post about travel budgeting, I consider us to be “fat budget” travelers — we keep a close eye on our costs, but spend money where it counts. I think food is an area where you can strategically cut significant costs, and still have a grand time. Skeptical? Here’s what we do. (What don’t I do? Take good pictures of my food. I’m either A) too sheepish to do it well inside a restaurant or B) too busy actually eating to remember to take a picture! Usually B, my friends, usually B.)
Maybe it’s because I like to cook, and find foreign grocery stores fascinating to browse anyway, but food abroad, in my opinion, is not typically any more expensive than food in the States. If you’re staying in a place with a kitchen you can economize in small ways that add up big. (Notable exceptions are Iceland and Switzerland, which I’ve heard are both very expensive places to eat!) Restaurants may look more expensive when you first sit down to eat, but bear in mind that the price listed is what you pay, period, zero — tax and tip are already figured into the price. So, let’s say the lunch menu is 15€, and you think “This would only be $10 at home!”, remember that back home you’d pay close to another $3 in tax and tip, bringing your total to $13. Suddenly it’s a lot more comparable, right?
We have one basic method for our meals that saves money and sanity: every day we eat one sit-down restaurant meal, one picnic, and one meal at our lodgings. How this method plays out varies slightly depending on how small the children with us are and what we’re planning on doing. Our first variation is to make a yogurts/eggs/milk/coffee run from the local grocery when we first arrive, and supplement that with something from a bakery every morning for breakfast at the house (hey, that’s experiencing local culture– it’s educational!). We’ll then eat a picnic/bakery sandwich lunch, and end the day with a sit-down dinner when we’re all tired out. Sometimes we’ll switch lunch and dinner; restaurant for lunch, picnic/take-out for dinner. There are pastry/gelato snacks in between, obvs. France is made for “pique-niquing”; all boulangeries have sandwiches ready-made, so you can pick up your lunch at the same time as your breakfast pastry and be set until dinner. This eating schedule works well with older children or no children (or babies tiny enough to not care!).
If you have toddlers, I highly recommend the beautifully explained rhythm of starting your day with a bang — either an early start with breakfast at home, or a big, eat-out breakfast. (Especially nice when the city is known for its brunches. Oh Prague.) Then do a picnic sort of lunch (or a sit-down lunch if breakfast was at the house), and finish with an early night in to put kids to bed. For dinner, either cook an easy meal or do take-out. (Did I mention that pastry/gelato/coffee stops are also sprinkled in liberally throughout the day? Don’t they say an army travels on its stomach? We do.) We’ve found that this early-to-rise-early-to-bed plan capitalizes well on children’s natural rhythms and keeps everyone happier.
When planning our trip in advance, I keep a running list of all the markets/cafes/bakeries/restaurants we want to try, and group them by neighborhood/planned activity as much as possible. The night before we head out we check that we have a list of possibilities for maximum flexibility and preparedness (this does sometimes happens the day before…). We have previously mentioned our love of Rick Steves’ books, but we have found his restaurant recommendations to be inconsistent. (Nobody’s perfect, right?) We can always rely on him pointing us to something to eat nearby, but sometimes those somethings have been amazing, and sometimes they’ve left us feeling we could have done better choosing blindly. So we cross-reference when possible! We still wing it sometimes, but definitely prefer having known solid options near where we’re going.
If you don’t have options researched, this article has some sound strategies for finding good restaurants on the fly. Wikitravel will have restaurant recommendations; when heading to a large city, read the wikitravel article on the neighborhood you’ll be staying in. (Look! The Marais in Paris!) This is handy for countries that lack our favorite guidebooks, too. Also, if you’re staying locally, don’t forget to ask your hosts for recommendations, and don’t be shy about asking strangers for recommendations too. (No, don’t flag down random people, but do strike up conversations with docents and shopkeepers. It has stood us in delicious stead.)
As mentioned earlier, we picnic daily; this usually involves exploring local markets and grocery stores. The experience of shopping for food in a foreign country (and language!) is almost always simultaneously exhilarating, fascinating, bewildering, and humbling. It’s a cultural experience in a way eating in a restaurant isn’t. (They keep the eggs where?!) In addition to being an adventure, it keeps our extra food expenses down to one restaurant meal a day. (Well, plus the coffee and pastries, but those aren’t going anywhere.) To me, not eating out lots while traveling doesn’t feel like deprivation; our other meals are so full of the delicious local food that they’re just as much of a treat, just one that happens to be much more economical. (Cheeses! Fresh fruits from the markets! Breads and pastries! Yogurts!)
Other helpful food tips in no particular order:
- Always carry a snack in your bag for children who get hangry and begin to melt down before a meal is imminent! (Also for adults to whom this may happen. We name no names.) Food isn’t always close at hand when we want it to be.
- Unless you’re in France, anticipate the likelihood of paying for water at dinner, and do most of your hydrating in advance with refilled water bottles. I don’t like spending 5-10€ at a meal just to slake my thirst…
- The larger your group, or the busier the city, the more reservations I suggest making (you can call on wifi for pennies using Skype, or stop by the restaurant earlier in the day if you’re in the area). Many restaurants are cozy, and not well-prepared to handle even 6 people walking in suddenly. If you’re making a special trip to a particular restaurant, it never hurts to call ahead.
- Don’t buy groceries you can’t transport or eat — it winds up not saving you money after all. Who, me, get carried away in an aisle of new foods?
- But do explore those stores and eat adventurously!
Are you hungry for some European treats yet? Next part of the series I’ll talk about how I pack and what I’ve learned not to worry about when packing.
Houston, we have a problem…All this imaginary trip planning has done nothing to ease my wanderlust. Nada. In fact, I think it’s made my husband catch the bug, and this may turn into a real trip yet. Ha! (Whenever we do go, I’ll […]
Welcome back to planning my would-be trip! Last time we talked turkey about budget figures. Today we talk about the next step of the planning process: how to decide where you’re going and how to get there.
If you’re planning a Europe trip (which thus far, all of ours have been), we often start with Rick Steves’ YouTube Channel just to see what’s out there and what piques our interest, as well as get our daily dose of dad jokes and fashion. (Last night I had the novel experience of watching one of his episodes, only to say, “Cute place, but I’d rather go elsewhere right now.” Never had that happen before, but totally helpful!) Before you decide where you’re going, it also helps to figure out what sort of activities you’d like to do: lots of food? museums? shopping? history? hiking? sitting and doing nothing? How many people are going and how busy/ambitious do you want to be? (Trip pacing coming up next!) Once we’ve figured out a broad outline of what we want to do, we buy a guide book(s) to help us in our initial planning; cities we want to visit, in what order they should be visited, how long we want to stay, and best ways to get there and get around. Again, we are fans of Rick Steves’ books for their practicality and clarity, not to mention suggested itineraries and which airports get you closest to where you want to go (between our families we own Spain, Germany, France, London, Italy, and have borrowed Czech Republic, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Despite all this, Rick has no idea who we are. Yet. Hi, Rick!)
Once we know where we want to go, time to stalk some flights! (I don’t book any lodging or transportation where I’m going until I have airline tickets in hand.) Getting a great deal on flights seems to me to be key to affordable international travel, especially with a crowd. You will most likely need some flexibility in your dates (and possibly your ideal destination) to get the best deal, but the savings are worth it! Traveling during the so-called “shoulder season” (usually April-May and September-October, depending on the destination) is our vote — everything’s in less demand since it’s not peak season yet, so your money goes further, but the weather is usually lovely, and it’s close enough to peak season for most everything to be open.
We highly recommend Scott’s Cheap Flights for scoring airline deals. (Scott doesn’t know who we are either, but we have a crush on him anyway. Hi, Scott!) It’s an email subscription that notifies you of airline sales (and possibly also mistake fares), with both a free and premium level. The free version is more than enough to trigger serious wanderlust, but for $39 a year the premium version will send you even more deals, and you can filter by airport. (I had to unsubscribe from even the free version because it was killing me to see that I could FLY TO GENEVA ROUND.TRIP. FOR $485. For our next trip I’m definitely buying a premium subscription.)
If you don’t live near a major airport, it may require some creativity to score a good deal… or friends near an airport. Consider multiple departure airports to cast your net as wide as possible. What, exactly, constitutes a good deal will vary on where you’re headed and how big the airport you’re leaving from is, but from New Orleans to anywhere in Europe I would consider anything $500 or less a bargain. If you’re flying out of NYC, a great buy can be even significantly less than that. If you’re considering booking two different tickets (say, to a major airport to catch the cheap international flight), be careful! Leave LOTS of time in between flights, so if there’s a delay you don’t miss your next flight. If you book separate legs the airline is under no obligation to you get to your final destination (file that under “lessons learned the hard way”, though it did pan out. After we payed extra money.)
If you’re traveling with children, you may have a lap infant up to the age of two (there will be taxes/fees involved on an international flight, so they won’t be totally free), and often airlines will give a little reduction in fare for young children (it will apply automatically). Don’t forget to get even the smallest babies a passport! And both parents have to be present when applying unless you have a notarized form for the absent parent.
Narrowing down what I want to see in a trip can be difficult (I want to see AAALL the stuff!), so now that we’ve figured out where we want to go, next up we’ll be talking trip pacing and booking accommodations.
Sometimes it’s little things that bring Europe into your home. Sometimes it’s the not-so-little things. This one is probably the latter. One thing about Europe – in particular Italy – that we’ve especially enjoyed has been the coffee culture. It’s easy to get […]
(Hi, it’s me, Christie! The third member of In Cahoots, the one with no kids, aka the one who gets the joy of aunting all over with my siblings!)
One of the perks of having siblings who live in Detroit is that it only takes about twenty minutes to go south of the border into Canada (yes, south! Bet you thought “south of the border” was only Mexico…). When I came up for a visit, I romanticized the idea of trotting across the border for a fun jaunt to another country. Don’t tell the Canadians I said this, but Windsor, Canada, is not hugely different from Detroit – or maybe it’s Detroit that isn’t so different from Canada. Whatever the case may be, I came up as traveling nanny and the Detroit Crew showed me a good time.
The first thing you get to see as you cross into Canada is the lovely Ambassador Bridge, where you pay a $5 toll both ways (credit cards accepted) and, after crossing, go through customs. We timed our visit to avoid the morning and evening rush-hour traffic. If you have similar flexibility, I’d advise doing the same – there was no one ahead of us in the line for customs! Since my sister-in-law Michelle and I took the kids alone, we also brought notarized waivers authorizing the kids to go across with just one parent. While we adults only needed our passports, the waivers are an extra precaution to combat child trafficking as well as household disputes in which one parent flees the country with a child. The border patrol was super nice and let us through after a few security questions.
The next stop was for coffee. If you’re traveling with four kids, you’re gonna need it… and Michelle and I had long hankered to visit Anchor Coffee House, so really the trip was an excuse to mark it off of our respective bucket lists.
It did not disappoint. We got a double chocolate cookie and an Earl Grey shortbread, which were both excellent – especially the chocolate! The kids helped us munch on the cookies while we sipped our coffee. The shop was open and spacious, but definitely had a quiet-studying vibe – thankfully the kiddos did not choose that time to act up (temporarily distracted by sweets, no doubt), or they might have disrupted the several customers who were there working. We didn’t linger too long, though, because we had another stop to make…
McKee Park! We started here with a playground stop for the kids, but only stayed for a while because it was very chilly and the playground was tiny. We relocated to Windsor Sculpture Park and took a walk along the river as there were plenty of interesting modern art statues to see – and we knew that the walk would end with another park to work off the kids’ bug juice before we crossed the border back into America.
The kids’ bug juice? Who am I kidding. I’m just grateful that Michelle puts up with my tomfoolery…
Windsor Sculpture Park was a great stop, though (free parking, convenient bathrooms, great views of Detroit). Centennial Park at the end of the sculpture walk was an awesome playground, and the kids played for about 30 minutes before we started the trek back to our car to return home. As we crossed back into America, the American border guard asked us our reason for going into Canada.
“Coffee,” we said.
He looked at us with disbelief. “You’re trying to tell me that you went into Canada just for coffee?”
Somehow, adding the playground into our explanation did not help. But he eventually let us back through, and we were all glad to be back on American soil again (I’m not saying I blared Lee Greenwood, but yeah I did). Even so, Canada, you were wonderful… we shall see you again soon.