Tuesday, December 9, 2014

How I Plan Trips: Make Packing Easier

This is the last post in my 3-part series about how I plan trips. I started with Initial Steps, like choosing a destination and booking flights. Then I moved on to how to find and organize fun, family activities. The natural next step? Packing.

After becoming a mom 5 1/2 years ago, I've often stumbled upon the phrase, "the hardest part is getting out the door." Ain't that the truth. Stocking the diaper bag. Filling the sippy cup. Even just getting socks and shoes on everyone can seem like such a hassle. And that's just for a quick trip out to the grocery store or park!

So what do I do to make packing and departing even easier? Here are a few steps that work well for us.

1) Have a list. I actually don't keep a comprehensive packing list, although I probably should. If you need inspiration, I think the best resource for packing lists for families is at the Travel Mamas blog. She's got a packing list for every phase of travel from babies to business trips. I used these resources frequently when we were just getting started. But now I've packed us up often enough to have a pretty good handle on the basics.

Instead, my struggle tends to be the items I can't pack until a day (or even an hour) before we leave. So I keep a "last minute list." Electronics. Chargers. Phones. Camera. Passport. Medication. Tickets. That favorite stuffed animal. I start the list at least a week before we leave and as I use something I want to bring on the trip but can't pack yet, I jot it down. It's the last thing I look at before we walk out the door. In fact, I've been known to tape it to the front door.

2) Toiletries at the ready. The biggest timesaver when it comes to packing is that our toiletry bags are always ready to go. We just drop them in the suitcase.

I have a spare of every single thing I need to get ready in the morning in that bag, from a toothbrush to makeup. It might cost you a few bucks at the beginning to get a second of everything you need, but well worth the effort. Just the comfort of knowing there's no risk of forgetting any of those essentials makes me feel more organized. And then when I get home from a trip, if I used up any product, I simply replace it as I'm unpacking.

3) Keep kids' entertainment stocked and organized. I implement a very similar strategy for things to entertain my kids on flights, car rides and trains as I do toiletries. I keep two large boxes with lids, one for each child, in our office and I'm constantly adding things to them. It can be anything from a freebie coloring book I picked up at a restaurant, or a small puzzle we got at a birthday party, or a 1000 sticker superhero book I saw on clearance at the grocery store. The night before we leave on a trip, after the kids go to bed, I pull these boxes out and select a few new things for each kid. Then all that's left to do is throw in a few of their favorite toys or books, and we're ready to go. (At age 5, I now ask Big Arrow to pack his own "old favorites.") We often take spur of the moment day trips on the weekends and these boxes are a such a lifesaver and lead to much quieter car rides!

This also helps me to see exactly how much "stuff" I have on hand for each kid (which therefore saves us money). About a week before a trip, I'll take a peek at my inventory to see if I need to pick up anything, and realize that both kids still have plenty of new things to play with in my stash. And then I don't spend another dime.

Here's another tip: The biggest way I add to my "inventory" of travel entertainment is to put aside stuff they already have. Meaning after Christmas and birthdays, I grab a few items that got neglected in favor of more popular gifts in the immediate aftermath of opening presents and put them in their travel boxes. Or if I get tired of reading a particular book over and over again, that book sneakily makes its way into the travel box. They're so thrilled to see these things again a few weeks later.

4) Bath time is packing time. One of my biggest challenges as a mom of young kids is finding a time to pack up the stuff the boys need. Can't do it during naps or after bedtime, when I do the bulk of my packing, because I need access to the clothes in their room. But once they reached the age where they didn't need constant supervision in the bath, this has become the ideal time to pack them up. We always give them baths the night before a trip anyway. And I'm right there at the ready to help them if they need anything (or break up fights) because the bathroom is right next to their rooms. But I can multitask by spending those 20 minutes grabbing the things they'll need while also supervising them. Let me be clear: this will not work if you have a baby who needs to be constantly supervised during bath time.

By implementing all these strategies, it only takes me about an hour to get our family packed for a trip. And my husband probably spends another 20 or 30 minutes putting everything in the suitcase... that's his role in this process. Maybe I can talk him into a guest post about that very topic.

Now, can anyone teach me how to remember to lock our front door when we leave?

This post is a part of Travel Tips Tuesday at Suitcases and Sippy Cups and Walking on Travels.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Happy 3rd Birthday, Little Arrow!

A bit of blogging housekeeping: I'll resume my Postcards from the Lake District and How I Plan Trips series of posts next week. But as you may know, I like to write posts to the boys on their birthdays, and it is Little Arrow's third birthday. (You can read his 1st and 2nd posts, or Big Arrow's 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th posts.)

Happy 3rd birthday, Little Arrow! There was a time I didn’t think this day would come. Not because I didn’t think you’d live to see 3 (although your flying leaps off furniture and daredevil moves on the playground would suggest otherwise). But because for about a year and a half, you were sort of in a toddler rut.
Let me clarify that. You were lots of fun and filled our family with the same joy you have since you came into our lives. But until about six months ago, you didn’t talk much or show any particular interests (other than destroying anything in your path). In some ways, you were just kind of along for the ride. Much like many second children, I suppose (being one myself!)

But in the past six months, you have really come into your own. If our family was a high school graduating class, you’d be voted our class clown. And perhaps mostly likely to be spending Saturday morning in detention? We are constantly laughing at you. The things you do, the things you say, sometimes even your tantrums are funny. Sometimes.
A couple of weekends ago, we all traveled up to York for a day of fun completely centered around YOU. We spent the morning at the National Railyway Museum so that you could get your choo choo train playtime on, then we went out for an Italian lunch so you could fill your belly with pasta. True to form, you didn’t really care for the plain noodles that came with your kid’s meal, and instead wolfed down my spicy sausage pasta. And then we ended the day with chocolate ice cream cones. A food you have now eagerly consumed in at least 6 countries.

What’s been most interesting to us this year is that we've noticed that you're the one who has best adapted to life here. You drink tea. You eat Heinz baked beans like it’s going out of style. You refer to things you don't like as "rubbish." Your English accent is full on. Other than your hatred for walking around in wellington boots, I’d say the transformation from American toddler to British preschooler is nearly complete.

With Dad and Big Arrow off to work and school most days, you and I spend lots of time together. It’s hard for me to imagine the past 18 months living in England if I hadn’t had you as my constant sidekick. Whenever the days seemed to get a little lonely, I only needed to plop down on the floor with you and a puzzle or some toy cars and remind myself that my life was indeed quite full.
When your brother was this age, I was so busy and distracted by the needs of a newborn (you!), fatigue, and then less than a year later, the demands of orchestrating a move overseas. The past year has been about slowing down and savoring this time being home with you. The calendar pages are quickly turning and this stage of life will be passing both of us by soon. You’ll be off to school, I’ll be off to who knows what. And that’ll be great, too.

But just the other day, you curled up into my lap with your usual stack of books, ready to get down to reading business, and said, “You me best friends, mommy.”

We sure are, kid. We sure are.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Postcards from the Lake District: Wray Castle

In my post earlier this week, I explained that one of the ways I organize plans for our trips is by weather. Meaning I keep a list of outdoor activities and a list for rainy or cold days. I knew both from looking at the forecast and from what I've learned about English weather that I better be prepared for rain when we visited the Lake District.

At the top of my rainy day list was a visit to Wray Castle. It looked really unique... a medieval-style castle built in the mid-1800s. Because its somewhat strange history, the castle was given to the National Trust completely empty. Meaning no paintings, sculptures, furniture or other relics that typically fill these types of properties. Much to our delight, the National Trust has instead packed the castle with incredibly family-friendly activities.

My kids made crafts, built a castle out of foam blocks, played ping pong, and dressed as knights and kings.

But their favorite was acting like Peter Rabbit, the mischievous and beloved Beatrix Potter character. An entire tower of the castle has been developed into a Peter Rabbit play area. The best part? This isn't at all out of place or tacky. Potter had close ties to the castle. She spent a holiday there when she was young, and she used the royalties from her first book (The Tales of Peter Rabbit, of course!) to purchase large portions of land around the castle.

And it felt a little bit like Potter might have been watching over us that day. Because just as we arrived, the clouds cleared a bit and we were able to enjoy the land she once owned.

This post is a part of Friday Postcards at Walking on Travels. I shared photos from a Lake District hike around Hawkshead last week, and will share more photos from our time in the Lake District next week.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How I Plan Trips: Finding and Organizing Fun Family Activities

Last week I shared my initial steps for planning a family trip. While I felt it was a necessary post to write, it’s not the part I really enjoy and look forward to. I’m much more interested in the “how we’ll spend our time once we’re there” part of travel planning.

Instead of steps, I’ll break this down into the various “stages” I find myself working through as I prepare for a trip. I should note that these stages work best if you have a couple of months until your trip starts. On those occasions where a trip gets booked with short notice, I identify one or two key resources (perhaps a blog that covers the region, or a guidebook that has excellent family resources) and just jump right ahead to the Finalizing phase.
You can spend as much or as little time on this as you want. I spent only a few hours preparing for our Ireland trip. But I spent two months planning our Scandinavia trip last summer. Hopefully this will help you use whatever amount of time you have wisely.

My travel planning happy place.
This is the phase I most enjoy. It’s the part of trip planning where I snag 20 minutes at a coffee shop with a guidebook. (Save money and check them out from your local library!) Or spend an evening reading blog posts from fellow travelers who have been to my intended destination. Later, I’ll hop on the websites of attractions that catch my eye and read up on them in greater detail. I pay particular attention to the portions of websites that are focused on families. I find I can usually quickly gauge if there’s much to interest my kids by reading this.

But nothing beats firsthand posts by my fellow family travel bloggers. (If you don’t follow many family travel blogs and don’t know where to start, a great beginning resource is Trekaroo. With writers based all over North America, it’s probably the most comprehensive family travel site out there, at least in terms of number of destinations covered.)

I quickly identified Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo as a must-see attraction based on several family travel blog posts.

This phase is pretty fluid for me. The only real organizational skills I put into practice are to somehow save or bookmark things or places that catch my eye. So if I’m reading a guidebook, I’ll put post-it notes or sticky flags on pages that I want to refer back to later. I’ll hop on Pinterest and create a specific board for the trip, or pin ideas to existing boards. But I mostly spend my time reading and getting inspired, not getting too hung up on logistics. (That will come later!) Remember the most important rule of brainstorming? There’s no wrong answer. Yeah. That.

This is when I begin to get more serious. I go back to anything I’ve pinned or saved, and begin looking them up one by one. I often spend the longest time on this phase… it’s kind of like the quality control part of my planning efforts. Since my brainstorming efforts typically leave me with more ideas than we realistically have time for on a trip, this is the stage where I begin to rule certain things out, and make other things a priority.

1)      Where is this attraction? The easiest way to keep track of where all your intended activities are is by using an app called TripDoc. This is an especially convenient tool when visiting big cities. It essentially maps out anything you want to keep track of while on your trip. So that one museum you really want to check out? It just happens to be two blocks from that restaurant your friend told you to try. Now you know you should plan to do both the same day while you’re in that neighborhood.

If you’re visiting a more rural area (like our trip to Ireland this summer), then I typically just use Google maps to determine how far the drive is between places (and in which direction) and make a note of this. You can even save the maps and reference them later.

2)     When is this attraction/restaurant/activity open? How much does it cost? Does it open later in the day? Closed on Mondays? Only open in the summer? Only serve breakfast and lunch? And by checking admission prices, you’ll often become aware of any printable coupons or special deals. Plus, for me, it helps me to determine if an attraction is really worth our valuable vacation dollars. A museum that has little for children but costs $20 to get in? Probably not going on my list. A restaurant with no kids menu and entrees that cost $25 a piece? Might not be a place where we will feel comfortable.

3)      Check TripAdvisor reviews. I’ll be the first to tell you that TripAdvisor is not a perfect system. That’s why I rarely rely on it exclusively to determine how we choose to spend our time. But it can offer some valuable feedback on attractions that are just not worth your time or money. Conversely, after reading a long list of favorable reviews, it might cause you to take a chance on a place you weren’t quite sure about. My biggest TripAdvisor tip is to not pay that much attention to the star rating, but to instead read the specific comments people have written. You’ll often be able to separate out the crazy people from the more reasonable travelers with valid complaints. For instance, someone writing “that restaurant was overrun with children!” is, in my mind, a positive not a negative. It means my family will likely fit right in!

Their faces say it all. We had a pretty rotten time at the Kew Gardens Christmas event in London last year.
If only I had checked Trip Advisor. The reviews were nearly uniformly negative about it.


This stage typically happens while I’m in the midst of my Organizing Phase (see above). I wish I could say I had some fancy system, but beyond using the TripDoc app, I rely on a simple Word document. Which I then print out prior to departing. In this document, I list any attraction or restaurant that I think we might want to visit while on the trip. Depending on the trip, I’ve organized this document in various ways.
By Location. In big cities, I’ll often break down activities by neighborhood. For our upcoming Paris trip, I’m listing activities by their Arrondissement (the various regions of Paris) so that we can see as much as possible during our days there without criss crossing the city multiple times. TripDoc is great for helping you visualize this.
By Weather. If we’re visiting a place where we want to spend the bulk of our time doing outsdoorsy things, then I like to make the most of good weather and have a plan in place for rainy days. This is how I organized my document for our recent trip to the Lake District. We primarily wanted to hike and admire the beautiful scenery, so I listed some great hikes under the heading Nice Weather. And then I listed a handful of attractions that would work well under the heading Rainy Day. This would work great for beach-focused trips also.
By Day. This is what I did for our Belgium trip last Easter. We knew we wanted to spend a day or two exploring Bruges, where we were staying, and then spend the remainder of our days doing day trips. So I listed some things to see in Bruges, followed by Ghent, the coast, and Brussels.

We knew exactly how to spend our day in Ghent, Belgium, including a visit to Castle of the Count.

So what types of information do I include in this document? The address. What time they open. Any days they happen to be closed. Their website address. Do they serve food? If I’m watching costs I’ll copy down the entrance fee. Any notes I want to remember (like “dress up area for kids on the 5th floor”). I do a lot of copy/pasting from websites. By doing this simultaneously with my organizing phase, I’m basically keeping track of pertinent info as I research. If I’m using the TripDoc app to organize attractions by location (mentioned above) then I’ll often paste some of this info in the app, also.
I know this word document might seem a little 1987. But many of our travels are to another country. Meaning I won’t have constant, free access to the internet. Sometimes (like in Belgium) I don’t even have internet access in our accommodation. So having some of the basics jotted down makes organizing our time much easier for me. If you’re not leaving the country and know you’ll have reliable wifi, you can probably organize this another way. (Or just reference the word doc on your device of choice and kick it old school with me!)

Next week I'll share how I stay organized at home to make packing and preparing for trips even easier.

This post is a part of Travel Tips Tuesday at Suitcases and Sippy Cups and Walking on Travels.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Postcards from the Lake District: Hawkshead

Many a famous writer has hailed from the Lake District in northwest England (like William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter). One visit there and you'll realize how creativity could be sparked into greatness by the amazing beauty that surrounds you there.

Alas, I'll fall far short of their ability to describe this place with the written word. Instead, I'm relying on my trusty Canon Rebel camera to do that for me over the next few weeks in a series of photo essays about our long weekend there in October.

Hiking Around Hawkshead

When I rented our adorable cottage in the Lake District, I selected it completely at random. I liked its size, the fact that it had a small playroom, and that it had some character and plenty of outdoor space. But I knew absolutely nothing about its location. I figured as long as it was in this beautiful area of England, it would probably be fine.

In the end, the surroundings of our cottage and its closest village, Hawkshead, will be one of my lasting memories from the trip. As with anything in the Lake District, it's best explored on foot. Which is exactly what we did, taking a short hike from the front porch of our cottage along a footpath straight into Hawkshead's center.

It almost seems a little unfair, to pack all that natural beauty into one, single walk, doesn't it?
We finished the day off watching the sunset from our porch, my dad handing us glasses of wine through the dining room window while the boys rolled down the hill at least a dozen times. It was the kind of day that I think the Lake District always intended its visitors to have. Cheers to that.

This post is a part of Friday Postcards at Walking on Travels.

Monday, November 10, 2014

How I Plan Trips: Initial Steps

I recently asked on the Arrows Sent Forth facebook page if any readers were interested in hearing more about how I organize our travels and plan our trips. I (happily) answer lots of questions from family members and friends about this, but haven't written much about it.

Some of you experienced travelers may read this series of posts and roll your eyes. What I do is pretty basic stuff. And certainly, there may be better ways. This is simply what works for me and my family. For those of you just starting out in family travel, I hope this is a helpful starting point.

Step 1: Choose a Location

Sometimes this is the hardest part! Prior to moving abroad, we often based trips around things we had going on. Maybe we tagged along on my husband's business trip. Or road tripped it for a wedding. Other times we were craving sun and warmth, and just looked up where the cheapest direct flight to Florida was.

One of our favorite family trips was to Iowa for a big family wedding! (Look at that cute ring bearer!)
Since moving to Europe, we've found that our bucket list is far larger than our vacation time or budget will allow. So we've had to be strategic. Occasionally I'll get writing opportunities that are too good to pass up, and we'll plan a trip around it. Or there's a place that family members want to go to as well, so we'll hit that when they're over visiting.

But our general rule of thumb since moving to England has been to identify places that we can travel to via a direct flight. (Or a 5-6 hour drive.) We live within a 90 minute drive of three decent airports, so the options are plentiful. We also try to factor in weather. Are there areas that are more pleasant in the summer months vs. winter months? Or vice versa?

Do you need travel inspiration? Feel stuck in a rut? Here's how I've found some of my very favorite travel destinations:
  • Poll your FB friends. I think this is more effective if you offer some parameters, like "where should we head with our 6-month old baby in November for a few nights within a 4-hour drive?" I'm constantly trolling the comments when friends do this, even though it's not my post, because if someone is motivated enough to respond, they probably had a wonderful experience somewhere... and I want to know about it!  The best part of this approach is that if you pick one of these suggestions, you already know someone to ask questions of once you start planning further.
  • Websites like Skyscanner make it possible to "browse" flight prices. So if you know you have a tight budget, you could type in your home airport, your dates, and see what pops up!
  • Read travel blogs. Like yours truly. It might be particularly helpful to read those with kids who are a similar age to yours or who have similar interests (camping, skiing, etc.). If you need suggestions, leave me a comment, I might know some!
  • Look at a map. What's within a {insert your drive time limitation here} hour drive of your house? Then google that place and "tourism bureau" and you're likely to find their local tourism office. A quick glance through the site will probably indicate if it's a place you'd enjoy. I planned a lot of our travels around Indiana this way.
Step 2: Price EVERYTHING Out Before Booking ANYTHING

Before booking anything, I get quotes on all the major components of the trip. Flights. Lodging (including the hotel vs. self-catering debate). Car Rental. Any train tickets or other travel we'll do in the middle of the trip. The times that I haven't done this, I've often been burned. I don't decide which hotel to stay in or whether to splurge on a mid-size rental car at this stage. But it gives me a sense of how much things will cost on the exact dates we are considering, which is helpful. Using big travel sites like Expedia, Skyscanner, and Priceline make doing most of this research possible in just a couple of hours.

You'll find that so many things can vary depending on region and season. For instance, it can be really hard to book a self catering place for less than 7 nights during peak travel months. Or some places charge quite a bit to pick up a rental car in one country and drop it off in another. You want to know these things and adjust your plans accordingly before you book anything.

Fond memories of exploring Ireland in this little (and cheap!) rental car.

Step 3: Lodging Before Flights/Transport

Some people may disagree with me, but I almost always finalize and book our accommodation before I book flights or trains. Let me be clear: I research flight options initially to get a general sense of prices and times (see Step 2), but I find it is far easier to make slight adjustments to lodging than it is to change a flight. Plus, I like the comfort of knowing we've found a place to sleep before I book us on a plane.

Doing things in this order has actually saved us a lot of money too. I specifically remember one trip to Florida where the cost of renting the condo we wanted from Friday-Tuesday was far more than Saturday-Wednesday. It didn't change the flight price or the amount of vacation time my husband needed to take, so we quickly readjusted. And we saved almost $200. Had we already locked into flights, it would have been too late.

Step 3: Other Logistics

I then typically finalize any other big expense, like car rental, ground transport, and airport parking. I like to know those things are done and how much the final cost will be. This is also when I really figure out how we're getting from Point A to Point B. How early is our flight? Do we need a hotel room by the airport the night before? What's happening when we land at our destination? Basically, I try to visualize how everyone is getting from their bed at home to their vacation bed. (And knowing how many forms of transit we're taking determines things like suitcases, strollers, etc.)

If I've done a good job during Step 2, then hopefully there aren't any unpleasant surprises during this phase and I'm basically just retracing some of those steps, this time with credit card in hand.

Step 4: Keep Track of the Details

As I book things, I log everything into the TripIt app. I'm not a huge app or tech person, but I like knowing everything is there and accessible on my phone. This is also a good backup in case I forget to print something out, delete an email, or misplace a confirmation number. Plus, you can share the info with anyone else who's traveling with you who has this app. Very helpful for multi-generation or multi-family trips.

In addition, I usually keep a manila file folder of any paper materials I've saved for the trip. I'll print out directions to our hotel or apartment. Flight details. Train tickets. Proof of our parking at the airport. I often print out a walking map of the city we're visiting ahead of time in case we don't come across a tourist office right away.

Step 5: The Fun Part

To me, the thrill of travel planning is not in these tedious logistics (other than booking self-catering accommodation... I'm not too proud to admit that I completely geek out over that). I try to plow through these details as quickly and efficiently as I can. What I really enjoy is thinking about how we'll fill our time once we're there. What should we see, where should we eat, what to avoid.

And just when things are getting good... you'll have to wait for my next How I Plan Trips post. I'll cover how I organize Step 5! (I know, I'm like that dreaded commercial at the end of your favorite television show.)

This post is a part of Travel Tips Tuesday at Suitcases and Sippy Cups and Walking on Travels.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Day Being an Expat Got Easier

I've been pretty up front that the first few months of life as an expat were difficult for me. I think I managed it pretty well and usually had a smile on my face. But I also refer to this time period as "the blur." I barely knew what end was up most of the time, and each day seemed to present a series of challenges I could never anticipate. I have a lot of fond memories from this time, too, don't get me wrong. But I'm happy to be past that initial "settling in" phase.

Because at some point, it just gets easier. This seems to be true for almost every expat I know. I'm not sure there's a definitive timeline to that. For some, it's probably just a few weeks or months. For others, maybe a full year or more. I can clearly picture my moment of serenity in my mind.

I was hiking on a footpath just a couple of miles from my home.