When my husband envisioned a family summer in Europe, it fell on me to make it happen.
While he imagined sophisticated city tours, long walks in high mountains, and short stays in remote, unspoiled villages, I wondered how to avoid bland tourist hotels, traveler’s burnout, and bored children.
So I armed myself with high-speed Internet access and a shelf of travel guides from my local library. By paying attention to the advice of well-traveled experts, I saved us time, money, and logistical hassles. We zeroed in on the best of Europe, thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and rarely met with the sullen stares of preteens.
It seems that when it comes to travel, research pays. But I will also say that soon after we departed for our European adventure I discovered the first of several lessons in what the travel guides did not tell me.
1. Definitely take along a rolling suitcase
We succeeded in packing light, although I know now that I could pack even lighter. But when it came to choosing a bag for the trip I faced somewhat of an identity crisis.
As a typical baby-boomer I have an attic filled with backpacking equipment from the American wilderness experiences and summer treks in Europe of my former life (which could also be referred to as my youth).
I know the “I-can-go-anywhere” glee that comes when one’s home is on one’s back and one’s hands are free to embrace the wonder of it all. And, also typically, I wanted my children to have that experience, too.
So they, too, discovered how sweaty their backs became from walking just a few city blocks. They, too, now know the difficulty of stuffing unwieldy shapes into the trunks of compact trunk spaces and overhead train luggage compartments. And I haven’t even mentioned all those dangling straps. On the day before our departure, my smart, well-traveled husband simply asked, “Are we sleeping outdoors on this trip?” Learning otherwise, he chose to bring along the tried-and-true rolling black carry-on suitcases that accompanies him on all his trips.
For me this did not convey the romance of a backpack. Plus I had been warned that those wheeled suitcases don’t roll on all those cobblestone streets in quaint areas of villages and cities. So when I found a “convertible” suitcase that doubled as a backpack and an over-the-shoulder bag (respectable in nicer city hotels, according to its advertiser) I thought I had found the perfect solution. Big mistake! I rued my choice as soon as I hoisted it out of our car and hauled it to the checkout counter at our local airport. This bag, for all its cleverness, had neither the comfort of a backpack designed by technicians or the ease of rolling luggage. I complained all through customs at Gatwick airport to King’s Cross Station, and then laughed heartily at a London Times satirical piece on all of the practical, wholly unstylish travel items American catalogs tout these days.
Throughout Great Britain and the Continent I gave periodic bulletins on how often (never) we encountered cobblestone streets where my husband would find it necessary to carry his suitcase. By the time we reached the car-free villages of Switzerland, I was rolling his suitcase while he served as my pack mule.
So, don’t take a backpack unless you will actually be tenting in the outdoors. Go ahead and outfit everyone in the family with a carry-on rolling bag. You’ll still manage at least a one-arm embrace.
2. Athletic shoes are no fashion crime in Europe
Some guidebooks will tell you that Americans are easy to spot in Europe due to their lamentably unglamorous footwear — among other clothing choices that reveal a preference for function over form. Wear inconspicuous footwear. Buy sensible, sturdy (leather) walking shoes and break them in before you go, travel experts suggest.
Admittedly, 20 years ago in Paris, my white Nikes were as much of an eyesore as golden arches near the Arc de Triomphe. Likewise, my Vibram-soled, heavily traveled wilderness boots were clearly out of step in Bath. But those were the days of my forgivable youth, and now I have become a dignified and experienced adult.
For my grown-up sojourn I chose to take along my “European-styled” flat leather footwear. They were already broken in and already part of my everyday, also typically baby boom, attire. I will say that the shoes served me well, both during the day and for dressier evenings.
Curiously enough, none of the European women appeared to wear shoes resembling mine.
It became my idle habit to notice the footwear of fellow travelers and native citizens wherever we were, and let me tell you there were a lot of drab white, well-worn athletic shoes!
The wearers just as often as not spoke a myriad of languages besides American English. Plenty of Italian, Israeli, German and Japanese tourists were wearing white Nikes. The feet in London’s tube transport were often clad in white as well.
The trend did not hold true among French women, and I still could not happily wear such footwear out for an evening in the city.
But all in all, it appears that, at least for now, drab white athletic shoes have become something of an international classic.
3. Train seat reservations provide piece of mind to Families
When it comes to train travel, we’re all likely to think of the image of the young, footloose traveler with a light backpack (again!) and Eurailpass, hopping on and off trains according to whim. Now recall that such an image includes one lone traveler, or at the most, a twosome. The image doesn’t fit for a parent with dependent children. And yet many guidebooks will persist with the idea that train reservations are largely unnecessary throughout Europe, unless required on the high-speed routes.
From my own experience, I will tell you that I needed or would have welcomed seat reservations just as often as when rides worked out well without them. On our trip it became the standard query of my children to ask, “Do we have seat reservations on this train?” every time we boarded a train or made a connection. Our children learned fast that no reservations meant rushing through train stations, along with throngs of other travelers, to grab whatever seats were still available – all the while trying to stay together as a family unit.
Occasionally, as on long, hot Mediterranean routes, it meant standing up in between cars for three hours at a time, putting up with considerable amounts of cigarette smoke, or sitting in various single seats across the length of two or three cars.
To be fair, my son found this adventurous.
But besides introducing some discomfort and anxiety that could easily be avoided, sitting apart presents logistical problems for families. One parent or another is constantly walking back and forth down the crowded aisled to bring or ask about food and drink, help children use unfamiliar plumbing after they have located a restroom, or to check on the status of train schedules, maps, cash on hand and that evening’s hotel reservations. Seat reservations are not always necessary, but when they are needed cannot always be predicted. They also cost extra.
In the long run, however, for families, seat reservations are worth the added expense first and foremost because they are the only way to ensure that your family has the comfort and enjoyment of sitting together, and of sitting together in a non-smoking car.
4. Buy a family-friendly phrase book
You may not realize this unless you are caught in the same situation I was.
There I was seated with my family at a restaurant table on the terrace overlooking a long curve of the Dordogne River in France. After studying the menu for long minutes I determined that baby duckling would be superb at this restaurant, but my daughter might prefer the house vegetable soup and a sample of a local walnut-flavored goat cheese. My son was thirsty for cold milk with his dinner.
When the waiter arrived, I ordered my meal in my barely passable high school French that had been jump-started with a French phrase book. I moved on to try and order for my children, and I totally floundered.
“La jeune fille…” I stammered. “La jeune fille desire…” What words could I use to order for my daughter? I kept pointing at her and stammering what only meant, “The little girl desires.” My waiter patiently rescued me, but without correcting my French. I repeated this process for my son. Later that evening, back in the hotel room, I madly flipped through two phrase books to discover translations for ” husband”, “wife”, and even “companion” and “sweetheart” — but none for “son” and “daughter.” In time, we coaxed our shy children to occasionally order for themselves, and other proprietors helped us to make proper use of the French language when referring to them. Still, it would prove helpful to find out in advance how to order food for your children in the languages spoken in the countries you will be visiting. Some phrasebooks anticipate this, but many do not.
5. Set up a communication system between your home and the road
Especially when traveling for several weeks, a good communications system is helpful. It should include an easily accessible email address, a calling card to avoid high long distance phone call rates, and access to copies of travel documents in case yours are lost or stolen while traveling.
Establishing a web-based email account for the road can give you a convenient and inexpensive way to stay in touch and keep those at home informed of any changes in plans. Email can also be a fun way for your kids to stay in touch with friends or tell relatives about their trip while their feelings are still fresh. Both gmail and yahoo are good choices. In addition I emailed myself copies of our itinerary, as well as our address list for email and postcard correspondence. We found that to find cheap Internet access it was often simplest to ask at hotels and restaurants. Sometimes we came across public access terminals where we least expected it – such as at a community center in the alpine village of Murren, Switzerland.
However cheap and convenient, however, email is less essential than a global cellphone, local sim card, or calling card, which come in handy both for phoning home when necessary, and when calling ahead to confirm reservations. Many telephone companies offer international cards with excellent calling rates, and it’s best to purchase or acquire a card before you leave.
Taking the time to do some homework before you travel can help to ensure a smoother trip. It’s also your best defense against spending hard-earned dollars on a vacation that falls short of everyone’s hopes and expectations.
Sophisticated city tours, long walks in high mountains, and short stays in remote, unspoiled villages – all can be yours. So don those sneakers and let the planning begin.
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