Posted by: ourtravelingcircus | August 15, 2010

Taking the Show on the Road

I promised myself that before I started blogging about ordinary life at home I’d add a long post about some of the things we’ve learned (the hard way) traveling in Europe. Somehow it hasn’t happened til now, but school is starting Friday and it’s time to wrap up all these little loose ends before I take a deep breath and find out it’s Christmas. So here we go.


By now we’ve been on enough trips (especially Tim, who’s been to Europe probably forty times in the past decade) to know the ropes, which makes travel a lot easier. But it wasn’t always that way. We were crazy enough to take our very first trip to continental Europe with a six year old and an eighteen month old, while I was pregnant. I’ll spare you the details of the two torturous hours we spent searching for our lodging in Rome during that trip, lugging too many suitcases and a couple exhausted kids. I think we were all crying by the time we found it. But we also had some great times on that trip, watching John, in a backpack, chuckling with delight over his first gelato cone, or Katherine’s wonder at finding little pieces of old tile on the beach in northern Italy. I’d go through the toddler jetlag all over again to relive some of those moments.

We are hard-core frugal travelers. Yes, the pictures are gorgeous and it all sounds like fun–and it often is–but we travel cheap, and that means relying on our own wits (and at times, jet-lagged half-wits). We’ve never had a tour guide, we walk a LOT, and we barely eat out. (If we did the latter in Austria, even for dessert, it was blog and picture-worthy and you probably saw it.) The ultra stressful, meltdown moments happen at some point and they are not pretty. But amazingly, we’ve always managed to make it safely home and I have yet to take an overseas trip I regretted.

So, some specifics:

1. Getting there
The top way we save on tickets is to use frequent flier miles, but obviously not everyone has that blessing. When Tim books his tickets for business travel, he starts at

If you don’t get a price that fits your budget, consider flying into an airport than the one near your final destination, and possibly using a combination of airlines. If you want to go to Florence, for example, you could fly into Rome or Milan or Geneva instead, and then either take a train or find a regional airline (such as Ryan Air) to get you the rest of the way. Around Salzburg we kept seeing signs for Air Berlin advertising crazy low fares, like 29 euros to Frankfurt. Be flexible and creative in looking for deals.

2. Staying there
The number one money saving thing we generally do on trips to Europe, and especially if the kids are along, is to choose a spot and stick fairly closely to it except for day trips. We would have loved to travel around Austria more, but we never left the Salzburg region until we went to Munich for a few days at the end of the trip. In fact, we never left the bus route. (More on bus savings later). With as many kids as we have, the train fare, meals, and hotel costs would be prohibitive. Both of the last times we’ve gone with the kids we’ve rented a house and settled down and lived there, and honestly, it’s a very fun way to get to know a place as well as a way to save money. We shopped at the same grocery stores the people in St. Martin shop. We walked on the trails around their village, rode the bus, went to the bank, bought bread at their bakery, watched the kids gathering for storytime at the library, and waded through their kniepping streams. We didn’t feel like mere tourists by the time we left. If we had stayed in hotels and traveled to different places every few days, eating out for every meal, we would never have felt that real connection with a place–and we would only have been financially able to stay for a fraction of the time we did.

The hardest part of traveling overseas for me is navigating around an unfamiliar place and in a different language. It’s difficult and stressful, much more so if you’re doing it with kids in tow. If you have to change locations every few days and try to settle young children down in new places over and over, it ends up being more hard work than fun. Settling down ups the enjoyment because you can focus on your surroundings and not have to be constantly figuring out the mechanics of daily life.

We had a private contact for the house we stayed in for two months in Switzerland. We found the one in Austria through a website called (Tim and I have used them before and been pleased.) Finding a suitable place is a tedious process that usually ends up taking hours or days–because you have to sort through them sifting by price, by area, and by whether you need a car or whether you can use public transportation–AND by whether the owners/caretakers speak English. Then you contact the owners of your final choices and wait for replies.

Most people who rent out houses want to do it for a week at a time, but there are exceptions. Usually it’s more flexible in a city, or if you’re renting an apartment instead of a house. We were able to rent an apartment in Belgium for only four nights and it was no problem.

Another option that we have enjoyed is to stay in a convent or a monastery. We’ve done that twice in Rome and once in Spain. Both times we got terrific value for the money spent, although the rooms were fairly spartan both places. We had fond enough memories of the kindness of the nuns at the convent in Rome (they were sweet to the children, and also offered to let us hang our laundry out on their flat roof, which happened to have a stunning view of St. Peter’s) that we chose to stay there a second time years later. It was a clean, safe, and relatively inexpensive option in a place where putting those adjectives together is hard to do. The monastery at the top of the mountain outside Barcelona (Montserrat) was an even better deal financially. During the off season, we paid about $60 a night for an apartment with a bedroom, living area, bath, and small kitchen–and, incidentally, a fantastic view. You have to do some digging to find these places, and you have to book them several weeks in advance. The website Good Night and God Bless is one resource; I’ve seen links to other convents and monasteries posted on travel expert Rick Steve’s website Wall.

European hotels usually charge by the person, not by the room. In the US it’s not too difficult for us all to stay in one room, but that option is much harder to find in Europe. If you do stay in a hotel, check for family rooms or suites, and do it before you leave.

3. Eating there
We rarely eat out as a family in Europe. Only big cities have fast food, and it’s hard to find what we would consider mid-priced options. If we do have to stay at a hotel, we try to do it somewhere that has a breakfast buffet. (The kids are still talking with longing about the breakfast buffet in Munich…..three different kinds of sausages, two kinds of eggs, yogurt, cereals, cheese, fruit, hot chocolate, cappuccino………..) For lunch we go to a grocery store and buy rolls and cheese. Sometimes we add meat, fruit, and chocoloate. (OK, in the interest on honesty, we *always* add the chocolate.) We take our own water bottles and refill as necessary. At the house we did the same, except sometimes we had soup, and we baked the sandwiches. That was lunch pretty much every day of the entire trip.

For dinner we just did simplified versions of what we eat at home in the US. The Swiss house was convenient because it had a lot of spices, etc already there. This one had basically nothing, so in order not to spend too much on groceries we had to be somewhat creative, but it produced some interesting culinary memories. One night I wanted Chinese. I bought wok vegetables, mushrooms, bean sprouts, chicken, eggs, and noodle packets. Katherine suggested breading the chicken and we used seasonings that came with the noodles to make the finished stir fry taste more Asian, since I didn’t want to buy an entire bottle of soy sauce. Amazingly, it was good! Of course, almost anything tastes good with mountains to look at out the window and a few squares of chocolate for dessert.

Another tip–the grocery stores in Europe typically have frozen meals, or pre-made meals that just need to be reheated that taste better than their US counterparts. If you have access even to a microwave, this can also be a cheaper alternative to eating out every night.

4. Getting around
We’ve never rented a car overseas, always used public transportation only or walked. There are some big disadvantages to doing it that way, namely, you’re at the mercy of the local bus/train schedule. It would have been great to have gone to evening concerts in Salzburg, for example, but we couldn’t have gotten home because the last bus left just as the concerts were getting started. But since we’d have to rent a large vehicle for our whole family, the cost to do so is just out of reach for us. Also, the roads are narrower and parking can be harder to find than in the US, which is another difficulty with driving a large vehicle in Europe. So we’ve dealt with the frustrations of the public transportation system and chosen to enjoy using it. With a few exceptions the trains and buses we’ve used over the years have been clean and efficient. (Train bathrooms are the exceptions–bring hand sanitizer or packaged wipes!)

You can research the routes on the internet. Google the train service for the country you want to visit. Most of them will have the option to view the website in English. You can find out when the trains or buses run and how much the fare is going to be before ever leaving home.

One thing we learned partway through the Swiss trip was that it is often possible to purchase a point to point ticket for unlimited travel along a specified route. You need to do this in person at a larger station, but it can be a big savings in time, money, and stress. We bought tickets that worked from Salzburg to St. Martin for a month for Tim, Katherine, and me. (It was cheaper to just pay the younger kids’ fares each time since they were half the adult fare but the unlimited ticket didn’t discount for that.) Also check for unlimited day passes or regional passes. Before going to Austria we read about the Bayern Ticket which for 28 euros provides twenty-four hours of unlimited train travel for up to five adults plus children anywhere in the Bavarian region. Believe me, this is a steal. We all rode from Munich to Salzburg on that one ticket and bought it again coming back and when we went to Oberammergau. Germany has other deals, like the Happy Weekend ticket, where you can travel anywhere in Germany on a weekend day for a fixed low price if you’re willing to take the slower trains. There are lots of options like these in different countries. Research them.

Some countries offer a half fare card for public transportation. We were able to do this in Switzerland and it saved us an enormous amount of money. We didn’t have that option in Austria. If we had, we definitely would have traveled around more. Children between the ages of 6-15 are usually half fare, and free under six. Too bad we didn’t go last year–Elizabeth would have been free and Katherine still a child.

Do read up on other people’s experiences using the train and bus systems of the country you want to visit. Each country is different. Switzerland and Italy share a border but their trains systems are like night and day. In Switzerland, you can walk right up to the ticket machine, buy a ticket, and hop on the next train coming through–and you probably won’t wait long for it. In Italy you must reserve a seat. Sometimes this is no problem at all. Sometimes the ticket machines don’t work; you stand in line at the counter for an hour, waiting, hoping you can get through in time to catch the last train to your destination, and just before it’s your turn they slam down the window and shut down for two hours. Lunch break. Yes, that really happened.

5. Money
A caution here. More and more, Americans are forced to use cash in Europe. Until recently and in many countries, we used our Visa debit card almost everywhere and had virtually no problems doing so. Changes in the banking laws are making this harder, as we started to see last fall. Maybe only 10% of the places we might have wanted to use Visa on this summer took it. We were thrilled to find one grocery store in the next town that accepted American Express. Otherwise, it was European cards only, and of course we didn’t have one. We had to use cash for most things, which required carrying around large sums of money. That was definitely a little scary (and would have been more so in a place that felt less safe than Austria), and a big frustration, especially because in our case, the only bank we found to withdraw money from our account without fees was one in Germany. It was along the bus route, but still a hassle.

6.  Packing

Pack everything you think you’ll need for the trip.  Then take out half of it.  Then do that again.  Trust me on this one.  We did regret not taking more reading material on the last trip, but otherwise less is more.  There are few things more miserable on a trip than hauling heavy bags up and down train station stairs while simultaneously holding a screaming toddler under the other arm.  Our current policy is one bag per person able to pull/carry it.  The airline weight restrictions are really a kindness.

7. Language
We aren’t fluent in any language besides English. I wish I could claim otherwise, but that’s the truth. Tim and I both had two years of German but I doubt we could have carried on even a rudimentary conversation when we graduated, let alone almost two decades later. (We hope the kids will do better.) Yes, lots of people speak English in Europe, but lots of them don’t. Sometimes it’s like being deaf and dumb. It is more than worth the effort to at least learn to say, “Do you speak English?” Please” “thank you” and “excuse me” in the language of the country you’re visiting. It is always embarrassing to watch other Americans elbow up to a counter and immediately begin speaking loudly in English. The ugly American stereotype is real. Sad to say, we complimented the children the night a waiter thought we were a British family.

Our shared family memories of traveling together are priceless to us. If you possibly can, go! If you did and you have tips of your own to share, please add them to the comment section.



  1. Thanks for the tips. We just bought tickets for another trip this fall.
    I love the picture of the kids – what fun memories.

  2. How exciting! Where are you going this time?

    I was counting on you to add to the list–I think you get the prize for length of trips and also the number of them……

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