Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Vacation Wrap-Up


As previously mentioned, we would absolutely take the very same vacation again, even knowing the small difficulties we endured. In hindsight, there are some things that worked great that we'd keep, and some things that didn't work so well that we'd ditch or swap out.

First, I want to stress the importance of adjusting expectations when traveling with your children. You are absolutely not going to have the same kind of trip you had when you traveled sans children. If you expect to do even half of what you did when you traveled on an adults only trip, you will be sorely disappointed. If I am honest, I'll say that we maybe (maybe) did 25% of what we could do on previous vacations. In order to gauge what you'll be capable of on vacation, think of your day to day life. How much of what you got done before children can you accomplish now? Now knock your percentage down at least 10% because you're on vacation, and you should be relaxing.

Also take into account that your child will want to have fun, too. It took me awhile to even consider that we should ask Zinashi what she wanted to do with her day. It's only fair that if the adults get to do things they prefer, the little people should get some say, too. This is a vacation for all of you. Particularly if you've traveled before and have a certain way of doing things, you'll have to be intentional about making the changes you need to make in order to make it relaxing and fun for all of you.

Once you've gotten accustomed to your new vacation pace, you'll need to think about details. As I noted in previous posts, there are a few things that we should have packed that we didn't. I recommend making lists to be sure you don't forget anything, and setting aside time to specifically think about the trip and what you might need. The main issue that arose for me was the during the time I'd set aside for making my packing list, I ended up braiding hair. Should you actually end up having the time you set aside to make your lists, some things to consider are:

1. What does your child use every single day as part of your routine? This is everything from clothing to bath items (including toys that can go in the tub if you'll have one) to a special blanket to a bib for meals.

2. What extra items might your child need to stay neat and clean (I know, I know, this is not a priority for everyone) and transition throughout the day? This includes everything from extra clothing items and wipes to melatonin to help beat jet lag if you're crossing time zones. Budget traveling tip: I brought detergent so I could do laundry in the bath tub. I packed less clothing and didn't stress about having to use an extra outfit.

3. If you are planning on lazy mornings or afternoons in, what kind of toys and books will your child need to stay occupied until you are ready to go out? Consider the variety of toys your child plays with and make sure you pack a few things from every category.

4. What kind of transportation will you be using, and what will you need to make that safe, enjoyable, and just plain manageable for you and your child? Will you need a car seat? Carrier? Stroller? The number one thing I wish we'd brought that we didn't was a stroller. If we had been honest about the limitations of the legs of a four-year-old and the patience level of two adults, we would have recognized that sometimes we would want it.

Next comes the question of travel methods. I'm going to specifically address the methods we used, which were airplane, public transportation, and car service. I've belly-ached about it enough that you probably know that we did not have a good experience with Air Canada. If nothing had gone wrong, or even if it had only been the issue of our luggage not arriving with us, I would probably give them high marks. Our main issue was that once we had a problem, it wasn't resolved in a satisfactory manner. We are not entitled travelers, and we are willing to overlook a lot of small things. Sometimes things happen! But one of our priorities for air travel was that we would all be seated together, and that did not happen on our first flight, even though we called ahead, attempted to check in online, and showed up for our first flight in plenty of time. Choose an airline with a good track record of accommodating families and making amends if necessary. Because this was Zinashi's first big trip post coming-to-America, it was important to us that we be able to keep her as comfortable as possible. If I had it to do over again, I would have paid up to $100 more per person to make sure that we would be taken care of.

In the case of our shorter flights to Nice, EasyJet did not disappoint, so I recommend them highly. Even though they don't assign seats, we were able to get seats together because of their boarding policy that allows families with young children to board early in the process (after those who have paid for their Speedy Boarding service have boarded, but before everyone else). Their prices are excellent, and we got to Nice and back for under $100 per person, including the extra fees we paid to check luggage. If you can figure out how to use just hand luggage, you'll make your journey even more affordable.

For public transportation, we used the Underground in London as well as overground trains when we needed them. These were all easy to navigate. Gatwick Express was a bit pricey, but it was efficient and comfortable, with plenty of luggage racks and tables on which to eat the snacks we'd brought on board. In Nice, we used the airport shuttle bus, which is affordable though sometimes a bit crowded. If you prefer ease, you might choose a taxi, but we don't mind standing and swaying with the movement of the bus in order to save a few euros. We didn't have to pay for Zinashi on any of the public transportation, so that saved us some money as well.

On our way to the airport for our flight out of London to get home, we had to leave too early to take public transportation, so we booked a car service. Green Tomato Cars was excellent, and the fee ended up being equal to what we would have paid to take the Underground and then the Heathrow Express. The bonus here, of course, was that we were not hauling all our luggage on and off public transportation.

Once you know what you're packing and how you're getting to and from all your destinations, the remaining big piece of your travel puzzle is accommodations. If you are traveling with small children, it will behoove you to choose a place to stay that is central to where you'd like to go. We made a mistake in this regard when we booked a place in Barking for the first part of our London stay; we confused saving money with good value and paid for it in time and travel effort. (And grumpiness, if I'm being honest.) For our second stay, the W14 Hotel was just $12 more a night and not only more convenient to travel from, but also simply nicer, with a much lighter atmosphere and more usable common spaces. We had a room with twin bunk beds, which ended up working out just fine thanks to the smallish size of our daughter and the storage cabinets and drawers in the room. Read reviews and look at maps when you are booking your stay. Is it really worth it to walk a mile to the Underground station as opposed to four blocks just to save money? And are you really saving money if you have to pay a more for your Underground pass because you are further out? For us, those answers were NO and NO, NOT AT ALL.

In Nice, we really enjoyed staying in an apartment. There is nothing like having a little home away from home to keep routine more intact and have plenty of privacy. If we could have afforded to rent an apartment in London, we would have done so. It was just so much better for Zinashi, and Jarod and I both prefer it as well. We don't care about luxury linens or maid service. Staying in a place that could feel like home for the week was just right. We highly recommend Nice Pebbles should you travel to Nice. There are similar services in other cities, so check travel sites and Craigslist to see what is available. I considered this to be the big splurge of our budget international travel, and it was totally worth it (and really not that expensive). Knowing we'd have an apartment in Nice made it easy to stay in hotels with a shared bathroom situation in London.

Finally, there were some small things that made all the difference. Because of the climate difference from London to Nice, we had a suitcase of clothes for cooler weather that we didn't need in Nice, and we were able to leave that with a friend of Jarod's while we traveled to Nice. In both Nice and London, we knew which places offered food that was both affordable and delicious. (Hats off to you, Pret A Manger, for being both ubiquitous and delicious.) The availability of free WiFi at both the apartment in Nice and the W14 in London was also key.

We're tentatively planning our next vacation of this sort for Autumn 2013. I think that in and of itself is the measure of our success--that we are not only willing to do it all over again (potentially with a second child in the mix), but that we are planning on it. We even know where we'd like to stay in Nice. Vacation wins a prize for sure.



  1. Great travel advice! I think it's really helpful to think through your regular day routine and decide what is necessary for a child to feel at home. It doesn't have to be big or plentiful, but a "taste of home" helps children to feel comfortable. When Lola was about 2 years old, she wasn't as enamored by the inflight entertainment as her brother. I bought hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of stickers from the dollar store. Lola spent her time sticking stickers on everything: my arms, my face, her arms, her face, the back of the chair, the inflight magazine, the seat... it was hours of quiet entertainment that took up little space and cost very little money.

  2. Very thoughtful tips -- interesting to read -- thank you for passing them along! We, too, have made the mistake of paying for a cheaper hotel in London that was further out from everything ... and it just wasn't worth it in terms of value all around to deal with the difficulty + time of getting where we wanted to go.

    Glad you're already planning Trip #2!

  3. Great tips! We hope to go visit family in Brazil in either '12 or '13.


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