Archive for Travel Planning

How to Keep a 3-Year Old Busy While Traveling

I have been posting a lot about our trip, and I’m sure many of you are wondering how we kept the kids busy. Felix was difficult. he was just starting to walk/cruise when we left so it was really hard for him to be in the stroller and on buses and trains all the time. Anya was much easier, thankfully. I came up with some projects for her to work on, though she called them “missions.”


Finger puppets! I packed these and gave them to Anya a couple at a time.


She was able to practice writing on plane and train rides.


I created two different “photo hunts” where she had to take a certain number of pictures of certain things. These were awesome for outdoor tours. Sometimes she really got into them and kept pointing out when she would see what she was looking for.

Eric found this idea for how to make a sturdy folder to hold paper and markers out of a DVD case, so he made this before we left.



It holds paper and markers!

 What have you used to keep your kids’ occupied while on vacation?

Souvenir Ideas

When we go on vacation, we like to get a few souvenirs, but what we don’t want is a bunch of new junk to find places for. I know everyone likes different things to remember their trips, but here are a few things we often look for when we travel:

1. Ornaments wpid-wp-1388850897739.jpg

I’ve mentioned this before, but we really love putting up our tree every year and seeing the ornaments from all the places we’ve been. Some places (especially in Europe) don’t always have ornaments, but we usually find something that we can make into an ornament, like a magnet or a key chain or something similar.

2. Earrings

I know this might be a little strange, but I love buying earrings on vacation. I remember where I bought all of them and every time I get them out to pick a pair to wear, I think about where I bought them. I’m sure I can get similar looking earrings anywhere, but I like buying things like this in markets and from street vendors when we’re on vacation.

3. Shot Glasses

This is totally my husband’s thing, and we have what seems like a million of them sitting upstairs in a room. He likes to find these on vacation when he has a chance.

4. Dolls and other Toys

When we took Anya to Europe two years ago, we let her pick out a couple of dolls from street vendors and she still has them in her room. We also think it’s kind of neat for the kids to have toys from other countries. We were in Prague before we ever had kids and bought a little puppet just because it was cute and we thought any future children we had might enjoy it.

5. Paintings/Sketches

A Life in Tune - Travel Souvenirs

We bought this right outside the Musee de Orsay in Paris.

This is one of my favorite souvenirs. They are a little pricier than other souvenirs, but I love having paintings and watercolors to hang in the house. I don’t dislike what we currently have hanging on the walls, but my goal is to someday have only family pictures and pictures and paintings from our travels.





6. Music Boxes

Anya really enjoyed the music boxes we bought in Germany two years ago, so this is something we may start looking for. She still gets it down several times a week and plays with it.

7. Wine

Do I really need to say anything about this? It’s just too bad there is a limit to how much wine we can take home!

8. Home Decor

Sometimes we find little things to use as décor for the house. Another goal of mine is to have most of the décor be from our travels. It is happening slowly but surely!

What are your favorite souvenirs?

Preparing for a European Trip

Last week, I posted ideas for preparing small children for a big trip, but there are also things we tend to do to prepare ourselves as well. Besides all the physical and obvious preparations (accommodations, transportation, itineraries, etc.), there are lots of little things that help keep us excited about the trip (as if we really needed anything to sustain the excitement!).

1. Find books to read for the flights, trains, etc. I know that I am really weird about this, but I don’t like to read anything “scary” while I’m on vacation. Normally, I love a good vampire novel or a good historical fiction novel, but I don’t like to read anything too heavy while on vacation. I normally go for something that I can go back to and not have to remember a lot to jump back in. I never know when I will have a chance to read, especially when the kids are with us. A lot of times I end up with Chick Lit or “feel good” books. Anything with plane crashes or terrorist attacks are off the list!

2. Don’t watch any movies with scary plots. This means no plane crashes, terrorist attacks, or people being kidnapped or imprisoned abroad. (Basically, no Brokedown Palace or episodes of Locked Up Abroad.) I know this might seem silly but I really don’t want to watch movies about people catching a nasty virus on a plane or a plane being shot down right before I’m getting ready to get on one!

3. Peruse the forums and look at pictures. Nothing gets me more in the mood for a trip than reading others’ trip reports and questions/comments and seeing pictures of the places we are visiting.

4. Read books or watch movies that take place in or near the places you will be visiting. This is, of course, as long as the movie isn’t about how terrible and corrupt the city is!

5. Walk. A lot. We’ve been walking with the kids in the double stroller, as well as walking with Felix in the Ergo and Anya walking with us. She walked almost 2 miles the other day! It doesn’t seem like a big deal but I think people do a lot more walking in Europe than most people do here, at least where we live. We always try to make sure we are in decent shape when we go so that we are physically able to do the things we want to do.

6. Read about the sites you plan to see. I find that if I know more about the sites we plan to visit, it is much more exciting when we actually get there because I understand what it is I’m seeing.

7. Look up food to try while you are in Europe. Some cities have food they are known for, so we like to have a short list of things we definitely need to try. Langos in Budapest are a must, as are tapas in Spain!

8. Check the weather. As we get closer to our trip, I’ve been googling the weather in each of the cities to get an idea of how hot (or cold) it might be so we know how and what to pack.

Preparing for a Trip

This time around, there will be two little ones in the picture!

So I know a lot of these are probably overkill, but I get so excited when we get closer to the trip that I need something that helps me to contain the excitement!

What do you do to prepare yourself for a big trip?


You’re Taking Them With You?!

1. Take them off a strict schedule. I realize this is counterintuitive to a lot of people, but if you’re going to take a trip like this with your kids, it will be much more difficult to do if your kids are completely dependent on a strict schedule. Don’t get me wrong – a schedule is really great at home for lots of reasons, but on vacation, planes run late (so do trains and buses on occasion), and it’s not always possible to find food to eat at the times the kids are used to eating. Then, there’s jet lag and the time change to adjust to. We have been lucky that our kids have never been completely dependent on a schedule, and we have never been really great about implementing one, so traveling with the kids tends to go well most of the time. I do realize that lots of kids do better with schedules, so I’m definitely not saying schedules aren’t good. Just saying that they aren’t always easy to keep up on a trip like this.

2. Encourage them to try different foods. We purposely make different kinds of food at our house and visit different kinds of restaurants, so our kids are always trying something new. This makes it so that they are more comfortable with trying new foods in other countries. They may not always like it, but they will at least try it!

3. Simply talk to them about what’s going to happen on the trip. This doesn’t really work with our son yet, but our daughter did well with this on our last trip two years ago. We talked a lot about where we were going, how we were going to get there, and what we were going to do when we got there. I really think this helps them to have some idea of what to expect, especially if they have never gone somewhere like this.

4. Show them pictures of where you’re going. Again, this is something that works for Anya but not Felix. I’ve been showing her pictures of the places we are going, especially the ones I know she will enjoy and she has been really excited about it. We’ve also been listening to flamenco music.

5. Take them out. Anywhere. We purposely take our kids to places so they learn how it is to be in public. It’s not always pleasant but for the most part, they do pretty well. On our last trip two years ago, we migrated from the “cry room” at our church back into the general population because we wanted to be able to attend Mass in some of the countries we were visiting. By sitting with the congregation in our own church, we were able to do that. We also have been taking Felix to places with a considerable amount of noise so that he is more used to crowds. He doesn’t do as well with lots of people around as Anya did but is starting to feel much more comfortable with this.  

6. Find something for them to do during the “boring” stuff. It is definitely worth your while to go through your itinerary and identify things that might not be exciting for them. Then, come up with something for them to do during that time. We are working on things like finding new apps for the Ipod/Ipad, creating a book of search and find pictures, and coming up with “missions” for Anya to do. We also plan to do outside things or go to the park (or something else they will probably enjoy) for the other part of the day.

The bottom line is that kids will throw fits and there will be problems at some point during your trip, just like there would be at home. But hopefully, with a little preparation, these kinds of situations will be minor and most of the trip will go smoothly!


The kids trying out their new ride for the trip!


Anya and I enjoying a playground at Schonbrunn in Vienna.

How to Read Travel Reviews

I have mentioned more than once that we use reviews on Tripadvisor to choose hotels, apartments, and research things to do on vacation. But how do we sort through the millions of reviews? Here are a few tips.

1. Consider the time frame. We usually try to look at the most recent reviews when possible. This isn’t to say that the older reviews aren’t helpful, but if there was a problem with a hotel three years ago, it may have been fixed. So if we happen to notice an issue that was complained about in the past, we read recent reviews to see if it is still an issue.

2. Consider the source. Not everyone thinks the same way. Some people are looking for a luxury accommodation and are unhappy with the small B&B they booked, but if luxury is what they were looking for, they would never be happy with the B&B they stayed in. We see complaints about the small rooms on hotel reviews in Europe, but the truth is, rooms in Europe are just small. There is no getting around that. If the only thing people complain about when reviewing a hotel is the room size, we typically toss that aside because it is just a given when visiting Europe. There are also tons of people out there traveling the world, but they don’t always do thorough research, so they may just be complaining because they didn’t get what they expected and not because the hotel wasn’t a decent place to stay. Of course, there are things that really have no excuse and would cause us to just cross a hotel off our list. These are things like bed bugs, dirty rooms, broken locks, plumbing problems, etc.

3. Consider the time of year. Certain times of the year are more crowded than others. Reviewers may complain of noise, but if you are traveling in the off-season there may not be as many people around, making this complaint a non-issue for you. Complaints having to do with heating and air may not be a big deal depending on when you are traveling.

4. Consider what you enjoy. Someone may give an attraction a bad review simply because they didn’t like it, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t like it. If they aren’t interested in art and give an art museum a bad review, it doesn’t mean that you won’t want to visit it.

5. Consider the wording. Are the reviewers specific in their complaints? Or are they just complaining about general things? We tend to look for specifics when we read reviews. I hate to say it, but some people are just born complainers and if there isn’t something specific that was really wrong with the hotel or the attraction, then chances are, there really isn’t anything wrong with it.

6. Look for tips. A good reviewer will give tips on how to see an attraction. For example, they will say whether or not it was crowded when they visited or will recommend going at a certain time when the weather is nicer, etc. Or if it is a review of a hotel, the reviewer may recommend requesting a certain room in order to keep out noise or to be near the stairs, etc.

You can learn a lot from reviews but it is important to look at each one with a critical eye and ask yourself if what was being complained about would bother you. If you can sleep through anything, noise outside your window probably won’t bother you. If you are fit and don’t mind climbing stairs, the fact that there is no lift or elevator in a B&B may not bother you, but if you have knee trouble, this may not be the place for you. Don’t be swayed by just the complaints but really consider what the complaints are about and how it would affect you if you were in the situation.

Happy travel planning!

How to Read Travel Reviews

Europe 2014: Less Than 2 Months Away!

It has been weeks since I’ve done an update on our trip planning, and I am having a hardEurope 2014 time believing that we are less than two months out! Needless to say, we have gotten a lot of stuff done. The last time I posted about this, we had just booked our tickets to see the Alhambra and had all our hotels and the transatlantic flights booked. Here is where we are now:

1. Trains and Buses. We have all of our trains booked except for one and that is only because it is not available for purchase on the Spanish rail website yet. I am checking every few days so that we can book it as soon as it becomes available. We also have two long distance buses that still need to be booked but those are not available yet, either. I think one of them doesn’t become available until about 10 days beforehand, so we will be purchasing that within days before we leave.

2. Sightseeing and Itineraries. I am currently researching all our options for each location. This includes museums, churches and cathedrals, tours, experiences, shows (flamenco, fado, etc.), etc. As I go through each city, I am putting together a tentative itinerary and I have been posting them to the appropriate forums on Tripadvisor to get first-hand advice. So far, I have a pretty decent itinerary for Lisbon and Seville. I am working on Tarifa right now, and this also includes the several day trips we are taking from Tarifa, since it is mostly serving as a place from which to take these day trips. After that, all that is left is Granada.

3. Travel Equipment. We have purchased a fold-up lightweight backpack to take with us this time. I thought it would be nice to have something to put picnic food and snacks in, or even to store souvenirs if we buy some along the way. It is very small and doesn’t take up much room. We also purchased a small double stroller and have been trying it out with the kids. The handle is a little close and it feels like I am going to run into the wheels as I push it, so Eric is working on rigging it up so that we can stand a little further away from it and push it. Thank God for the internet! We’ve also been getting some summer clothes for the kids that we will also be able to use for Europe. I have been on the lookout for jeans and some new walking shoes for myself as well. I have a pair of Skechers I plan to tak but also wanted to bring something a little dressier but something that would still be good for walking. We recently got the two Rick Steves guidebooks we need so that we can take them with us when we go.

Double Stroller

The kids in their new double stroller.

4. The Little Details. There are several things we like to do before leaving for Europe, so we have been working on checking them off the list. Just the other night, my husband registered our trip with the state department. We do this whenever we leave the country so that our country is aware of where we are. This might sound weird to some, but if something catastrophic were to happen, there would be a record of our being in a certain country and they would know to look for us there. Also, if there is information we need to know, they know where to find us. We have also started looking into ordering some euros beforehand so that we have a little before we get there. We plan to call our credit cards in the next few weeks (we have already called one) to let them know we will be out of the country. Sometimes it helps to call beforehand so that any purchases made in the countries you are visiting aren’t blocked.

5. “Missions.” Apparently, Anya would like to have “missions” to complete while we are on vacation (just like Dora!). I am working on coming up with some fun games and projects she can work on on trains and planes and in the stroller. We gave her one of our old cameras and I plan to come up with a list of things for her to take pictures of on our walking tours. We have also found several free apps for our phones and the Ipad that we plan to introduce when she is bored on a bus or train.

So this is where are at this point. I’m still finishing up the itineraries and will book the remaining transportation legs when possible. And we are always on the search for things we need for the trip!

Europe 2014…Moving Right Along!

Wow! We have been super busy later trying to get things in order for our trip. Since weEurope 2014 have moved it up several months, it did not leave us much time to book our flights and hotels. I had no idea what to expect when booking these for only a few months out. I am glad to say that we have the following finished:

1. Airline tickets. We got them for $920, which I happen to think is a great deal! Also, the times are pretty decent and we have the right amount of layover time in each place.

2. Accommodations. We have all of them, which is amazing! It took a lot of work, but I’m glad we went ahead and did it, because some of the places in Granada were already starting to fill up. We have a bed and breakfast type place in Lisbon, apartments in Seville, Tarifa, and Granada, and an airport hotel with a free shuttle in Madrid the night before our flight back to the US. The best part? All of these are under $100, except for the airport hotel that is about $102. I feel really good about our choices. Look for an upcoming post about! It is my new favorite trip website!

3. Travel Insurance. We have purchased insurance for all the nonrefundable parts of our trip that we have already paid for. This is a big sigh of relief! We will probably be adding to it as we purchase more tickets, etc.

4. Tickets to the Alhambra. Apparently the Alhambra is the most visited site in Spain. Who knew? There was already a day in May that was completely sold out, so we thought we better get to it. The timing of the tickets is really complicated so we did some research first and we feel like we have a good ticket time slot. The good thing is that we won’t be missing out on this awesome site!

So what’s next? We are researching transportation between cities and already have much of it figured out. We just need to start booking the tickets. Unfortunately, the Renfe website (the Spanish rail system) is a pain to deal with, if I remember correctly from the last time, so I’m not looking forward to this part, but it must be done!

I am also starting to research Lisbon, including tours and things we would like to do, and I hope to come up with a tentative itinerary soon.

May will be here before we know it!

A Change of Plans…

Europe 2014For those of you who have been following our travel plans…we have made a big change in our plans. The original plan was to take our European adventure in September. After looking at flights (these numbers have since changed), we’ve decided to move the trip up to May. Yep. May, as in 3 months from now. Yikes! Seeing the prices made me think outside the box a little and I realized that May might actually be a better month for us in a lot of ways, regardless of the price of the tickets:

1. Anya won’t miss any school.

2. Anya won’t miss any violin lessons. (These are prepaid and if we miss them, we may not get to make them up.)

3. The weather is actually a little cooler in Spain in May (a high of 81 as opposed to a high of 87) and will make for better walking weather.

4. Felix might be a little easier to tote around due to being smaller. He will also probably still be nursing, so it might be easier to get him to sleep.

5. Because we’ll be gone over Labor Day, we can make the trip an extra day and still take off work the same amount of days.

The only bad thing is that it has cut our planning time in half, literally. So the plans are definitely underway at this point. While making a decision about the dates, we had to check prices of accommodations to be sure there wasn’t a huge difference in price at that time of year. We also needed to see that places were not completely booked up. After about a week of checking those kinds of things and watching flights, we sat down to book the flights, only to find that the prices had jumped back up. Go figure. We’re really disappointed but I think we can still get them for around the price that we were expecting to pay, so I’m trying not to think about how cheap they were before. I’m sure something will work out, though.

Meanwhile, we have been finding some great places to stay for really great prices. We have booked a bed and breakfast in Lisbon for about $85 a night. It comes with free Wifi and a free breakfast that everyone has raved about in the reviews. It’s also in the middle of the old town, which is where we wanted to stay. We’re in the middle of booking apartments in Seville and Tarifa, in the hopes that we will be able to do laundry at one or both of those places. We have not started on Granada yet. So far, our itinerary looks something like this:

Tuesday: Fly to Lisbon

Wednesday: Arrive in Lisbon

Thursday: Lisbon

Friday: Lisbon (day trip to Sintra)

Saturday: Lisbon

Sunday: train to Faro and spend a few hours there; bus to Seville

Monday: Seville

Tuesday: Seville (day trip to Cordoba)

Wednesday: Seville

Thursday: Seville/head to Tarifa

Friday: Tarifa (day trip to Ronda)

Saturday: Tarifa (day trip to Tangier, Morocco)

Sunday: Tarifa (day trip to Gibraltar)

Monday: Tarifa/head to Granada

Tuesday: Granada

Wednesday: Granada

Thursday: Granada/train to Madrid

Friday: Fly from Madrid back home

What’s next?

We applied for Felix’s passport last week, so it should arrive in about a month or so. We hope to have flights and all hotels booked by the end of this coming weekend. Once that is done, we will move on to working out the details of the transportation from place to place and start looking into what all we want to see and do while we are there.


Europe 2014 – Narrowing the Itineraries

Europe 2014



We are working really hard to pin down which itinerary we are planning to choose. If you have been following along, we have been looking at several options. The two we are leaning towards at this point are:

1. Lisbon, Portugal; Andalucía, Spain

While I feel a little weird going back to Spain when we went to Madrid last time, Spain is one of my favorite countries and I love any excuse to learn and use the language. The flights from here to Lisbon and from Madrid to home aren’t too bad price-wise compared to some of the other itineraries we were considering, but there is still a minor issue with getting from Lisbon to Madrid. The flight (there is only one) is super expensive and not really an option at that price, and it costs an arm and a leg to rent a car or to hire a driver. The train is basically an overnight trip that connects in Madrid, therefore, making it a longer journey than necessary. There is also a 7 hour bus ride that is supposed to be the best option, but I’m betting whoever said that never took 2 small children on that 7 hour ride. What has been suggested to us is to take a train to Faro, Portugal (a coastal town in the Algarve region of Portugal) and then take a bus to Seville. This would break up the trip a little bit and if we time it right, we can explore Faro a little bit while leaving our luggage at the station. We are still thinking about using Seville, Tarifa, and Granada has our overnight stops, but doing some short day trips to places like Gibraltar, the white hill towns, and Tangier in Morocco. We are doing some research on Tangier just because we are a little leery of going. That being said, we don’t want to not go just because it’s Morocco or Africa; if we choose not to go it needs to be because of a legitimate safety/financial/travel issue, so we are looking into this more. I think it will literally kill me to be that close (you can actually see Morocco from Gibraltar) and not go there, especially if it is just out of an irrational fear.

2. Edinburgh, Scotland; Wales; The Cotswolds; Iceland

This itinerary became even more enticing when we heard about Icelandair’s deal. Apparently if you fly through Icelandair, you can do up to a 7-day layover in Reykjavik, which is a great excuse to go to Iceland. We also found out that Icelandair flies out of Indianapolis and St. Louis and this might actually be possible. The idea would be to fly to Glasgow first (Scotland gets colder faster so we would do this at the beginning of our trip), then head to Conwy, Wales. We weren’t stuck on this town but we had heard good things so that’s what we are currently researching. After spending a few days there, we would go to the Cotswolds. Eric has always wanted to go there and the little towns look really neat to see. When we were finished there, we would fly out of London to Reykjavik. The reason we would do this last is so that we would have a better chance of seeing the Northern Lights. We would fly home from Reykjavik.

We haven’t completely discarded the other ideas, but these two seem to be the most possible at this point.

Any Conclusions?

We have made no definite conclusions at this point, but the more we research, the more we lean toward the Lisbon/Andalucía itinerary. Right now the transatlantic flights are cheaper and I think those places are much cheaper in general. I also like being around other languages and I know we wouldn’t get that as much on the UK itinerary.

So what’s the next step?

We will continue to check flight prices every few days just to see what’s going on there. In the meantime, we are researching lodging (mostly B&B’s and apartments) in some of the locations to get a better idea of the price ranges in each area. We hope to narrow our options down to one in the next few weeks!

Which itinerary would you most like to do and why?

Other posts about planning Europe 2014:

Europe 2014?

An Update


Europe 2014?

Since taking our daughter on a European adventure in 2012 (right before she turned 2), we had thought about taking another trip sometime after having our second child, assuming we were brave enough to try it with two small children. Recently, I was thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be such a good idea, but whenever I think about all the places we’ve been in Europe and all the awesome experiences we have had, I just had to look into it a little more. Even though Anya was so young, she still talks about our vacation and the things we did and asks when we can go again.

So, I have spent the last few days looking at possible itineraries. A cup of coffee, a map of Europe, and my laptop on a Saturday night is a little dangerous! Assuming this little trip actually happens, I will be blogging about the planning process. A lot goes into a big trip like this, especially when there are small children involved!

So first things first. Where will we go and when? We are thinking September because the high season is over in Europe but it’s not too cold or rainy at that point. Also, the weather tends to be perfect for walking outside. Deciding where in Europe we will go is a little more complicated. There are so many places on our list that we haven’t narrowed it down just yet. Here are the possible itineraries so far:

1. Bucharest, Romania; Sofia, Bulgaria; Athens, Greece

2. United Kingdom: Edinburgh, Scotland; Wales; some smaller places in England

3. Brussels/Ghent, Belgium and Amsterdam

4. Lisbon, Portugal; Andalucía (some smaller cities in southern Spain)

5. Scandinavia (Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen)

The next step is to do some research on flights to see which of these itineraries will be cheaper. Also, I am doing some research to see how kid-friendly the cities are. Hopefully we will make a decision soon and can start working on the details!

Have you been to any of these places?

What itinerary would you take with two small children?

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