Planning for a Trip
What goes into planning a trip?
Some people are fly by the seam of their pants. Whereas the Type A bunch (like me!) want to have every last detail nailed down.
Regardless of your approach, here are some of our go to’s when we set out for our next adventure.
Ready to make plans? Here's our advice.
Budget - First thing's first - how much are you going to spend? You have a magical number in mind on how much you want to spend, but don't spend all that money on air and accommodations alone. You have a vacation to take! While you're researching where to go, take a look at how much you might spend while you're there and how much flexibility you have to alter your plans. Vacation spending can creep up quickly if you don't plan for it ahead of time and next thing you know your allocated budget has doubled out of nowhere.
When planning out your trip, find an amount per person you're comfortable with spending daily and add that into the total trip cost. Any tours you want to do? Price them all out and then decide from there which ones you're willing to cut out if they don't fit the budget. Add in the cost of meals - Are you planning on doing any exclusive meals? How much are you going to drink? How much do you plan to eat? Figure how you're going to get around & cost of transportation - charters or public?
Once you've got a rough estimate, see from there if this trip is really doable, even when cutting costs to save some money. You'll found that there are short cuts to make it affordable - you might just need more flexibility on when to go, where to stay and how many paid activities you do. If those are non-negotiables, then the world is your oyster and you can find another right fit place to go!
We can't state how important it is to factor daily spending in your budget. There's no point in going somewhere and not being able to do anything because you didn't plan for it. And it will also help eliminate surprises from post-trip bills. If you have your heart set on something but don't think you have the means, knowing costs can help you plan ahead to stay with your budget or encourage you to save a little more NOW so you can do everything you plan later!
Flights - There's something to be said about early bird gets the worm - if you're set on a date, then shop early if you can to guarantee you get the exact flights (and seats) you want! Otherwise, use these timelines we follow on when to book a flight - 4 months to 3 weeks for domestic flights & anywhere from 66 days to 200 days internationally.
Accommodations - We book our accommodations with the purchase of our flight because it is very important in making further plans and easy to get out of the way. We prefer hotels to vacation rentals because of the flexibility they offer and we prefer to book a flexible rate at a hotel to one with a zero cancellation policy. When it comes to exploring new cities, sometimes your thoughts on where to stay may change. I'm willing to pay a little extra for peace of mind that I can change my plans if my opinions do. And also know that sometimes the flexible rates can drop in price too - so you can always adjust your reservation to score savings! If possible, pay ahead for your hotels too - then that cost is eliminated and the only spending you'll have is on the extras during the trip.
Travel Insurance - We always, always, always purchase travel insurance once we've booked our trip (flight, accommodations and car all at once)! There are plenty of companies out there, but we prefer Travel Guard as we have found the best rates with them regardless of our journey. Travel insurance can cover you for anything from trip cancellation to trip interruption to or medical coverage if you need to visit a hospital while traveling internationally. For any of the above, just having that safety net for a few hundred extra dollars is worth it.
Once you book your flight, stay and ride (or within 24 hours), buy insurance! They need the total cost of your trip and where you're going as part of pricing your plan, so its better to know those totals upfront. Its also important to buy within the first day, because if you want or need additional coverage, you need to purchase the waiver within the allotted time period. Yes, plans change and you have the flexibility to adjust, but you need to have those elements secured and its worth every last penny in our experience. On our trip to Brazil we faced an over 12 hour delay due to mechanical issues with the plane - and though the airline provided us with an overnight hotel and meal vouchers to get us until our next flight, we still had out-of-pocket expenses incurred. With our travel insurance, we were able to write off any essentials the airline didn't cover and receive reimbursement fairly quickly after submitting our claim to Travel Guard.
If you travel often, we would recommend looking into purchasing annual travel insurance. Annual travel insurance can save on individual trip costs and the need to shop for insurance every trip. Annual travel insurance plans vary so shop around to find the best one that works for you and your traveling needs. Regardless, we can help find insurance needs!
Now that we're booked, what do we do next?
Activities - Book and plan anything you want to do ahead of time. We learned this the hard way when scheduling our trip to London. We booked back in July and then sat on making an agenda for a little too long. There really weren't tours we wanted to do - except the Warner Brothers Studio Tour of Harry Potter. By the time we got around to picking a date, we missed our window for booking this tour - we failed to find out that they sell out months in advance. We tried up to the very last minute to score tickets, but with no luck.
Try to plan ahead where you can and book when you what you must do - especially with plans that are time sensitive, like limited engagements or show tickets. All other plans you have time to shop around for the best price, like one of our absolute favorite sites for tour options, Viator. The site combines various tours into one selling hub to make shopping easy - tour information, length of time, and cancellation policy are all described in each listing. Once you're booked you're given contact information for the actual tour and you're ready to go! We love the ease of navigating the site and finding a variety of plans that can fit our needs!
Map it Out - There are so many great websites and apps for making your trip really come to life and one of our favorites is Google Maps. We love to read up and watch travel blogs on a place we're planning to visit and at the same time take note of key places we want to experience. As we read or watch, we drop pins on a Google map we've created for that city, so we can later start to make an itinerary of what we want to explore. We try to connect the dots (pins) to make realistic walking tours and also color code each day so we have a full guide map laid out. This tool has truly been wonderful in our travels; we can plan our days near each other and make sure we're not wasting precious time (or money) on unnecessary commutes!
If you rather have all your plans made for you, we love Citymappers for itineraries planned from start to finish which include estimated travel times for best planning your day. If you rather explore as you go, and you plan to travel down a road less traveled, try Roadtrippers for cool places to see as you go!
Plans & Flexibility - We lay out all our plans on a calendar, so the whole family can see what we have on the agenda & we can work around, when things come up. We found this extremely effective for our longer trips to keep us on track and to also use as a reward tracker for the kids. Yes, we're on a break from the real world, but etiquette and behavior shouldn't be. We're all entitled to frustration or slight grouchiness because of hunger or lack of sleep, but to let it ruin everyone's mood is not something we tolerate. We strive to make sure that the kids (and adults) work out any issues, shake it off and carry a positive attitude the rest of the trip. For the little ones, we make sure to reward positive behavior with stickers on a calendar - if they collect enough, they earned a special souvenir by the end of the trip.
And just as anything else in life, plans change. You may have hit a delay, or inclement weather has made your outdoor plans non-existent, or it took longer to do one thing which altered what was scheduled for later. Whatever it may be, know that plans may not go accordingly and allow yourself to accept that. You may also just run into to something much better because you weren't looking for it, and it made your trip extraordinary. Accept that you need to have a positive attitude and a plan B when traveling and it'll help your journey go smoothly.
Phone Plan - If you don't have an international cell plan and want to use your phone abroad, look for what options might work for you. Some like to go the route of an international SIM, whereas we opted to check with our provider (AT&T) for plans that work. We knew we needed at least one phone to use to call locally and access Google maps. But we didn't want to be limited on data usage (or pay for the surcharge). AT&T has a $10/day option starting from when you turn your phone on in international soil for a rolling 24 hours. This plan not only gave us flexibility to shut off during the cruise, but also allowed us to use without any wasted time.
Cash & Cards - Most, if not all places, accept most major credit cards. But we had instances where we needed cash on us. To travel, we converted Euros before departure to insure we had cash for our first transfer. Otherwise, we could have paid as we went. We bank with Bank of America who has sister banks worldwide - at those banks we could use the ATM fee free and only pay the conversion for cash pulled. We had several in our proximity in each of our destinations, and going forward we will be mindful of this and the amount we pull prior to traveling.
As cards go, Visa is king internationally Make sure you at least have access to one while traveling. Personally, we prefer to use our American Express because it allows us to travel without foreign transaction fees. Whatever option you pay with, make sure they're aware of travel plans so you don't get declined any purchases and also make sure you bring up a back up card in case one stops working or goes missing. Designate one card for charges you weren't expecting, particularly for an emergency, so you can still have a disposable amount on another card.
We feel like we've got our packing down to a science, many times traveling with just one suitcase for all four of us. What & how do we pack it?
Carry-On - We always pack the essentials to bring on board, in case anything happens like a flight delay or lost luggage. We've learned this through experience about this so we always make sure that we have the following on us to get through any delays.
Luggage - When we pack for an extended trip, one thing we try to do is pack interchangeable pieces so we can use less, more often. Below is a sample of how we packed for 17 days in Europe.
Top Kid Hacks
Here are some of what we found to be the best tricks to keep a kid happy on a trip.
Above all, pack a good sense of humor for any of the unexpected that pops up. They always will! J caught the stomach bug in Europe; or should we say, he caught the stomach bug stateside and it manifested in Europe. Talk about your worst nightmare! But luckily we were well-equipped this trip (unlike any before) with Benadryl to keep the nausea at bay and give him a few hours of lost sleep; along with patience and lots of prayers that none of us would get it on the flight home!
If traveling wasn't an adventure, then I don't know what else it would be. But how else would we ever learn what we're made of? Hope that some of our school of thought helps you as you start to plan your next adventure somewhere!
And if all this seems but overwhelming to you, we can help make those trip plans - and then just leave the packing to you!
Europe by Sea
For 7 days of our 17 day Europe trip we opted to cruise through the Mediterranean to visit some key ports. We wanted to see a variety of places in one swoop on this trip and with two little ones in tow figured this was the easiest way with a limited amount of time. We've seen places we wouldn't necessarily fly to, so why not do this in Mediterranean where there's so much we want to see. It is one of the easiest, cost effective vacations you could ever ask for in the - but is it the way you want to see the Europe?
Here's some points to consider-
Read on about our cruising trip and decide for yourself how you want to see Europe!
Day 1 Civitavecchia
So two days after we arrived and explored Rome, we headed to the Port of Civitavecchia to embark on a week of cruising the Mediterranean. We opted to do the cruise because we found an unbeatable deal on Norwegian Cruise Line, who with their Free at Sea offer, we were able to book the kids in the room with us for just the cost of taxes. The offer also gave us an additional free selection from Unlimited Open Bar (pay gratuities and taxes only up front), Shore Excursion credit, free Speciality Dining OR free Wi-Fi on board. Though a few of these options sounded tempting, we knew we'd get the best bang for our buck with free Wi-Fi since we wanted to plan as we went. And then with working through a travel agent, we earned enough on-board credit to cover stateroom gratuities and the cost of drinks we did buy on board.
So day 3 of our Europe Trip was our first day to cruise & finally relax since stepping foot on Italian soil. We set a private charter to pick us up from our hotel and drive us about an hour away to the Port of Civitavecchia. Private sounds fancy and every bit expensive, but it was the way to go. For a group of 6, we paid about $30 a person to have a guaranteed way to get there, without the stress of taking a train (the cheapest way to go). On the train, you do have the option to reserve a seat, but the price of that was close to what we paid for our driver and with a guarantee we'd arrive on time. With Italy being notorious for sudden workforce strikes, we wanted to have a stress-free way to start part 2 of our vacation - which wouldn't come with a train. The transfer granted us someone at our door on time, and drop off directly under the cruise ship.
Boarding the Epic was by far the easiest experience I have ever had boarding a ship, and that's a lot to be said as we have some of the most well-run ports in Florida. And I would not be exaggerating when I say we were checked in, through security, commemorative picture taken, and boarded in about 15 minutes time! We went straight to lunch and let the rest of the day ease by, as we had nowhere to be, and could kick back, relax and enjoy that beautiful Italian sunshine as we waited to embark on the rest of our journey.
Day 2: Livorno, Pisa & Lucca
Our first stop brought us to the port of Livorno, better known for Pisa and Firenze (aka Florence). We chose to skip Florence, which is rare for first timers, and headed to a place of more significance - Lucca. Lucca is where my paternal great grandfather was raised and we knew being so close to our homeland we had to pay our respects to the city we had roots in. We hired a private driver via Your Tour in Italy and we decided the itinerary for the day based off what we wanted to do. Once again, a private driver was every bit worth it since we were at liberty to design our day and it surprisingly, was much cheaper than the cruise ship rates for a group preplanned excursion.
We chose to stop in Pisa to see her famous tower on our way to spend the rest of the day in Lucca. Pisa was a sight to see, particularly because there is nothing else in the city other than l'duomo, the baptismal building and the bell tower, better known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It's magnificent to experience something so obscure in person and really comprehend that yes, it is standing and there are people in it too! Hearing the bells ring definitely drove the point home, kind of like staring at a phenomenon you wouldn't think could exist let alone work. Pisa has nothing else to it, other than a little town square and lots of street vendors selling you souvenirs with the tower stamped all over it. Those aspects of our trip made visiting a little somber; its one thing to see tourist shops in Orlando where everything feels made up for a show. But to see these places rich in history have their streets filled with "artifacts" you can wear, definitely takes away some of its ancient beauty. I couldn't even bare to take a true picture of how tourist rich and tacky Pisa could look because its not what I want to recall. The photo below of my 6 year old holding the tower up is the only way I want to remember it, when I remember nothing else at all.
We then made our 30 minute drive through the beautiful Tuscan countryside to Lucca, which resides within thick city walls. Outside of Lucca proper, felt like any other city you were entering with store and gas stations dotting the roads. But within the walls is old Lucca, captured in time. It is absolutely stunning with its immaculately kept interior and the small town charm we didn't find in Rome. We were dropped off to visit the cathedral, Cattedrale di San Martino, which was humbling to know that I have family that have prayed within these walls. After we walked to a square while in search of the building my great grandfather studied art at and instead found a carousel! The kids made a friend after their ride and though one didn't understand the other, they played just the same. We decided to get a proper view of Lucca - so the six of us rented a surrey! The city walls are a city above a city - big enough even drive a car on at parts, so we decided to explore the city overhead! We pedaled the city walls filled with restaurants and beautiful walking trails. And the city itself is just as charming, wrapped up in simple traditions and a quieter lifestyle. It is much more manageable to see but we also barely scratched the surface in seeing it. The best part though was getting to see a place my family has called home, a place that has some of our beautiful history, and getting to share it with the next generation of our tree. We ended our day in Lucca with lunch at Ristorante San Colombano, a restaurant on the wall covered in trees and pigeons with fantastic fresh food. And amazing local wine!
Our driver, Luca, comes highly recommended for anyone wanting to get to know Italy! He did our regional tour but is also a private driver throughout Italy and very much made this way of seeing the country one to consider. He was knowledgable of the Tuscan region, as he calls Livorno home, and was respectful of our time. He allowed us to see what we wanted without feeling rushed, but also gave us an insider's view of a place we otherwise wouldn't know how to tackle. He ended our time there with a stop in his wine shop in Livorno, where we got great Tuscan wine and oils to ship home at very reasonable prices. A free tasting did not hurt to end the day, where our kids enjoyed our time together as much as we did.
Day 3: Cannes & Monaco
We arrived to Cannes as our second stop; France is a country I have always coveted to get to know! The French Rivera is every bit as beautiful as I anticipated, with quaint homes dotting the cliff and beaches. Our itinerary took us to visit Eze, a small hillside walking village on the coast; and Monaco, the country known for its glamour and wealth, and its small square footage.
We arrived early and in true European fashion, our guide right on time, not a minute earlier. This time we booked via Viator, who paired us with Gregory, a local guide very familiar with both Monaco and Cannes. We started with a captivating drive through the hillsides to Eze, even taking in the Alps with her snowcapped tops in the distance as we headed west. Eze’s allure is that its an adorable cliffside village with boutique shopping built spiraling up with narrow passage ways and labryinths to get lost in. The view from the top of the botanical gardens, overlooking the sea, was the peak of the visit (pun intended) to get a full view of the French and Monaco coast that surround us.
After our quick stop there, we made it to Fragonard Parfumeur, a perfumery in the region known for perfumes. And even though this was very much a solicited stop with obvious business opportunities, I welcomed it. We got a preview of what the greats of Chanel and Estée Lauder do, who also have businesses in this region known for the fragrant flowers that bloom here. Best of all, we got a little something unique to bring home – French perfume that can only be found here – the type of souvenir that is always appealing.
Another short drive over and we made it to Monaco, every bit as elite as it sounds. The streets are tight & winding and full of luxury everywhere! Everything about this tiny country is screams big money – it is very proper, crisp and pristine. I understand the appeal of it now, as it is absolutely gorgeous with bountiful views of the sea on one side, and of luxurious homes on the other. We visited the palace, walked the cathedral that Princess Grace wed in, and even got to see one of her daughters being police escorted back to her home. A little added bonus for our visit was that we got to first hand experience the tracks of the Grand Prix, which had just happened a few short days ago. The sound of cars racing is something I’ll always remember about weekend mornings of my childhood, when my dad would wake up early to watch these famous races, that we were now experiencing firsthand. That we got to ride the roads that were so much part of our life and we had a "taste" of racing is an experience I won't forget.
Day 4: Palma de Mallorca
Day 6 we headed to Palma de Mallorca, an island off the coast of Spain held back in time. This stop was amazing! We once again were able to do what we loved – discover a city on foot! We stopped by the Cathedral, explored the Arab baths, and walked down their Las Ramblas. We finally stopped for tapas at a street side restaurant where we drank the best sangria we’ve ever had. We finished our trip by heading up to Bellver Castle, situated on a hill looking down at all of Mallorca. The stop was a welcome change of pace to the car trips we had conformed to and made us feel like we were truly on vacation.
Day 5: Barcelona
What a stark difference even moving slightly over is! France to Spain were so different culturally than Italy and it really did feel like you made a transition to new terrain. But we were so limited in time in these new places that we felt like we barely got to scratch the surface in getting know these beauties!
We decided before we arrived to Barcelona to discover this city as we went. We had a full 12 hours at this port since this was another embarkation point. We chose to board in Rome though because of the distance from the city to maximize our time sightseeing. Whereas in Barcelona the port is in the city and proxmity to get there and back does not affect your time to explore. We also decided on just a double decker bus tour to get a scope of what we wanted to see. We mistook the sheer vastness of this city - it is HUGE and not a place that can be easily explored! And to add insult to injury, it was rainy and cold the day we got there. So we made the best of it and explored the city by bus, with stops to check out some of the hot spots.
We did hope off the bus at Sagrada Familia and Parca Guell, but because you can’t just get tickets on the spot, we weren't able to tour. Tickets are time stamped and sold in advance, which I applaud for being very organized and meticulous (really, this type A love this). So we handled it with grace, accepted our plans for the stop in this city, and enjoyed the rest of the bus tour. And we definitely made plans to come back for an inclusive trip in Spain, to explore another family heritage stop and get a better grasp of this beautiful country.
Day 6 Day at Sea
In between all the running around, on our way back to Italy we got a full day at sea. And with that full day at sea we also had the best weather to match. So you better believe we took full advantage of a day to unwind and relax poolside, and also start prepping for part 2 of our trip.
Before we even packed, we found out that NCL also offered laundry service for a flat price as long as it fit in the provided laundry bag. And since we wanted to pack light, we utilized this service to minimize what we packed on this trip and also extend it over an additional week. The day at sea we got our clothes back, washed and pressed and were able to pack for our departure in a few days.
While we handled adult stuff, the kids played. Like most other cruises, there was plenty of activity on the boat to fill both the days and nights. NCL's kids club age policy is 3 so both our kids were old to spend some of their time there, which gave us a chance to enjoy dinner just as the adults on most nights. The kids club also provided great activities by age, including a evening of parades and shows put on by the kids themselves.
Cruising is great, don’t get me wrong. But for us, we felt like we missed out a little. Let’s say those past 4 days were what I earlier called an appetizer of each place. And though without this trip, I don’t think we would have ever just made it over to Mallorca or Cannes, we definitely wish we had more time in the others. And the trade out could’ve been to just discover the places we missed. We also definitely missed out on having the culture and food surround us at night. We got immersed in what we were experiencing we just weren't quite ready to get back on the boat when it was time for it!
Day 7 Naples & the Amalfi Coast
We ventured back to Italy, and into Napoli, the birth place of pizza (though we didn't spend much time in Naples or have pizza). We were there long enough to be picked up again by our guide from Your Tour in Italy and make our way to the Amalfi Coast. We were given a brief history lesson of Naples, discovering that the land we were driving on was created thanks to Mount Vesuvius’ destruction of Pompeii, which at its prime was coastal. We made our approach to Sorrento, where we would get a unique view of the peninsula as we drove the coastal highway. But an accident cut that plan short and we were detoured to backroads. And this was proof in the adage, take the road less traveled. I’m sure the drive down and through Sorrento is absolutely stunning, but we got to explore parts we would’ve never known. We got exclusive peeks at life in these small coastal villages and how beautifully serene it was. How simple life is high up and this far out form the hustle.
We made it to Positano, where we were given time to explore this coastal town by foot. As most small village, its lined with shops, has a central church, and many great places to eat. Its easy to get lost and lose time just exploring here, as life seems so much simpler when there are far less choices. We made it down to the beach, which is covered in dark rocky “sand” and the sea lined with boats. It really is a picturesque location that postcards are made of. After exploring we made our way to La Tagliata, a restaurant built on a cliff where mama cooks in the kitchen and we eat food served family style, with unlimitless wine and a shot of limoncello after our desserts (yes, plural).
After a delicious, hearty lunch and a sleepy ride back to the “mainland” we made it to Pompeii, where we had a guided tour of this city frozen in time. Its quite an experience to first hand hear these stories, and see the monster Vesuvius looming behind us. The city of Naples is still plagued by earthquakes, and Vesuvius remains a dormant but active volcano, which being there in person to see is both fascinating and terrifying. The stop provided to be a little much for the kids, as all they got to see were rocks everywhere, but our guide did a wonderful job of keeping them engaged and entertained. And luckily we had a tour short enough to keep them happy, but long enough to keep us engaged.
Cruising got us but an appetizer of all these places and its really made us long for so much more. To say that cruising here was enough is not even close to the truth. These individual countries need entire dedicated trips to explore them, because even though neighbors, they're truly unique stories on their own. So naturally whats our first thought, how do we get back here soon? Because we caught this Europe bug and we can't help but want more of it!
We also thought cost would make a drastic difference cruising, and I actually don’t think it would. Sure, we got a great deal for the 4 of us to have a floating home for 7 days - guaranteed food, sleep and transportation for a week of our trip. But there are still costs, like the excursions to explore and experience these magnificent places. And most of these are not just managable on foot, so you'd have the residual cost regardless of how we traveled. We also wanted to indulge in the delicacies each of these places had to offer. So there's another expense added to the trip - a very well worth it expense, but one that just made cruising a tad bit more expensive. The food we were given as part of the cruise didn't cut what we wanted to experience.
Cruising with kids is absolutely, positively, 100% the way to go. They had so much distraction on the ship once we got back, and the energy to spare, that dropping them off to play was not even a question. They delighted in so much that they did that we have no regrets in taking this kind of trip just for providing a true break from them from touring. The pouting leaving the ship should say it all!
But if you and yours have an adventurous spirit and taste buds to match, then stay off the boat. You'll get so much out of having a guide that knows and prides in their home country shuttling you around on YOUR schedule and being able to navigate these countries down your own path.
The experience was great and it definitely left us wanting more - to explore more courageously and take the road less traveled next time. But on the other hand, man, did we love these views ...
A Rome Adventure
Our first big international trip was just this past summer with a 3 & a 6 year old on a 17 day trip from Orlando to Rome, around the Mediterranean and ending in Paris. We've done trips out of the country before, but never to this caliber.
And if I'm being completely honest, I had some reservations - let's call it the fear of the unknown. I started to make up reasons why we couldn't or shouldn't do this for an unrealistic moment. They're too young, it's too far, it's too long, it's too much. But then the spirit of adventure and logic set in. We got on our first flight, and I left any worries stateside - the adrenaline of travel is form my liquid courage.
We were flying Delta with a connection domestically to start the trip. I chose to do this as opposed to connecting closer to Rome, just so we could limit going through immigration and booking a long layover to match. We also chose to fly Delta because we found an excellent rate, in Basic Economy though. It was our first time flying on this entry level fare - no bags or prior seat selection included - but we also knew we'd have perks being Medallion members (like free bags) that eliminated the cost. Lucky for us, Delta offers family seating, so in the weeks prior to our trip I called and requested assignment as I was traveling with two young kids. The seating is in the very back of the plane, but it worked out perfectly the day of our trip. Both kids were up extremely early and both had outgrown the trick of a rocking plane lulling them to sleep, so I only had to graciously apologize to one row of people for E's pint sized punch. She actually fought it all the way through our dinner time lay over in Atlanta, until take off to Rome; where after a minor screaming fit ensued, she was no longer able to fight sleep.
Our arrival into Rome was pretty self explanatory and not at all complicated. The airport is very immaculate and the ease of getting around is a dream. Really, it was the arrival you'd want in a new country and such a welcoming start to our trip. We hired a driver for pick as opposed to waiting for public transportation or a taxi, since we wanted a secure source to get us to the hotel upon arrival. The service was fantastic and efficient; we were greeted with a sign with our name and led to a Mercedes minivan for our trip through Rome to our hotel, Best Western Hotel Spring House. Both of which I'd highly recommend.
Best Western Hotel Spring House is located right next to the Vatican, a quieter part of town, but still busy. We chose it less because of proximity to major sightseeing hubs, but more because of location - my parents were staying at a nearby B&B and we wanted to be nearby to get together during our trip. Also, there weren't many hotels available to accommodate a group of 4 (in one room). After some in-depth research, the hotel proved to be *perfect* for families. We had to book a family room/suite because of our size, which in this case consisted of dual-level room with two beds and a bathroom not of European size. The top floor loft had one king bed under skylights for some incredible morning sun when we woke; while the bottom floor had a queen, closet space, in-room safe, mini fridge, and a bathroom big enough for a family (with shower only though). Because our rooms weren't ready at arrival and as an act of hospitality, we were comped breakfast during check-in, which was a great added bonus. We prefer to book hotels that serve breakfast when possible, as morning food varieties don't matter much with kids, so we want the option to eat where we're at.The hotel including it for us was a generous gesture that makes recommending them all that more worthwhile. And for anyone questioning the Best Western brand, its not at all what I expected.
Our arrival day was made up of a LOT of walking (10+ miles) and self guided tours! We strapped on the toddler carrier for E and prepared J for a lot of standing, as we purposely left the stroller at home. We made the decision early on in our planning process to bring a carrier and started the research for one with a a higher weight limit that could also be easily be packed. We went with the Ergo, and actually found a reseller on Facebook Marketplace where we paid saved a good chunk of change on a excellent condition carrier that had been lightly used. It would have been worth every penny of full price though because it definitely getting around manageable and traveling with one less items a dream!
We created Google Maps prior to our trip, dropping pins of sites we wanted to see and then mapping out walking tours according to our pins for each of our 3 days there. Rome is very walkable - I knew it was a major city and expected traffic, but major roads are very avoidable if you want to trail down cobblestone paths. We even made it fun for the little ones by providing them with scavenger hunts in the city that the could do. J was equipped with an old iPhone to take pictures (and load games as necessary), scavenger hunts - both city specific and generic, and a notebook, both for doodling and writing his adventures. The combination of activities definitely made the trip unique for him in how he'd see the city.
We stopped for pizza at a cafe by our hotel, gelato by the Pantheon, marveled at Trevi, watched street performers in piazzas, got lost various times which all ended up being beautiful detours, and finally ended up in the Jewish Ghetto around dinner time. I had received a recommendation to dine at Ba'ghetto Milky -it looks like a dimly lit small cavern upon entering and was fairly empty, which was a welcome sight for hungry & exhausted travelers. The restaurant is meat free, offering minimal fish options, which was a bit of a surprise but also a fun change of pace (to not force our traditional selection). I ordered a fettuccine with truffle sauce and have been dreaming of it ever since; European portions are not nearly as generous as American but not was the perfect amount! Chris got a local fish dish which was delicious but quite honestly not as impressive as my pasta. And the kids ordered an eight slice pizza to share - and finished it themselves if it’s any testament to our day! Yes, we were famished, but the food was more impressive than our need to devour it and hands down we will recommend this restaurant over again. Plus, the neighborhood is up and coming district, full of rich history and stories you don't always hear about Rome - if you can carve time to get to know it personally, absolutely do.
We didn't mind the walk now that we had indulged so opted on the two mile venture back to pass spots we hadn’t yet. It was also an excellent excuse to pack in more calories in the form of dessert cannolis, a first for the the kids (and which they loved it)! We also had some beautiful views of the sun setting in Rome and a chance to enjoy the carousel in the square by the Castel D'Angelo. The unique beauties of this cities, how do I even start to explain the emotions they evoke? Rome by foot was worth every blister and leg cramp we had after the first day.
We decided to book both our tours of the Colosseum and Vatican in one day, since we had the unpredicatability of travel on our other two days there. We booked both with Angel Tours, off a recommendation, and the tour operator easily accommodated our requests and made two tours in a day feasible. We started on what ended up being a private tour at the Colosseum and ventured to the Roman forum before ending slightly before lunch. We hopped in a taxi and grabbed a bite to eat near our hotel, so the boys could change into pants (no knees for visiting the the Vatican) and headed back to meet our guide for our small group tour.
Were back to back 3 hour tours a lot? For exhausted travelers it could be. But was it worth it? Even more so. Both our guides were very knowledgable and attentive to our kids, keeping us engaged and sharing the treasures of these gems. Having an actual person to guide versus an audio recording is also the only way to go. We could ask questions to learn as they explained; and many times we were surprised with how much more we learned. Best of all, they save you a lot of time, which is worth the extra money. Otherwise, you face lines to buy tickets and lines to get in and lines for just about everything else. And this was at the end of May, which isn't even their peak holiday season yet.
We ended our day of tours with dinner in Trastevere, a neighborhood off the beaten path. We wanted to explore Rome like a local and only wish we had a little more time here, but an evening stop made up for a whirlwind day. We had fantastic dinner outside at Trattoria da Gli Amici - or Restaurants of Friends as it literally translates to. It was a cute little cafe with outdoor seating in a lively piazza. The restaurant next door even provided music for us to dine by - along with a few street musicians who came by our table to perform for spare change. The food was superb, as we ordered just about everything off the menu to build a family style meal of sharing. Bread is always served on the table and the bottles of wine at the price of American glasses were refreshing on this warm evening out. And if you need any more of a recommendation here, the restaurant does incredible things with its staff - they employ veterans and those with special needs that typically can't get jobs anywhere else. What charming people to meet and humbling to know you crossed their path & gave their job a purpose. We were the lucky ones that evening which was simply stated, perfect.
After arriving back from cruising for a week, we had one more full day planned in Rome. We scheduled this purposely so we could explore any new parts we missed, or go back and see the things we loved one more time. We opted to move hotels this time, and stayed near their financial district at Best Western - Hotel Artdeco. Though the room was spacious and the bathroom generous, this one fell short of the family feel we had at the previous hotel. We were fortunately near many shops to pick up groceries as needed. Which came as a blessing in disguise, as J had a stomach bug manifest that very morning. So after we checked in, Chris offered to stay behind (since he had a chance to explore Rome in a past life), so J could rest. E and I made way with my parents to have lunch in the city center and then walked over to visit the Spanish Steps. E, in traditional Italian fashion, ate a pizza on the steps as we took in the sights and sounds around us. And after a few hours of exploring and a scoop of gelato later, we headed back to check on the boys.
Thankful for some well heeded advice and medicines to match, J was feeling better and was ready to explore. So our long awaited trip to Villa Borghese was our next stop. We booked our hotel here, due to its proximity to the park and the fact that we had mapped out a day to check it out exclusively (obviously plans had changed). So we made the 20 minute walk over, exploring Italy on foot again, and arrived to the Italian version of Central Park. It was full of life, with skating lessons being taught, a playground full of children laughing, a train passengers to explore, and visitors strolling the tree-lied park on a mild June afternoon. We spotted tandem bikes for rent by the hour and we knew we had to explore in this fashion.
The park is full of pathways that lead everywhere - beautiful fountains, a gallery, another hidden nook or even right to the zoo. Due to our late afternoon arrival and to our kids' dismay, we were not able to visit. But had plan A worked out, we would've spent some time exploring to indulge in this park even a little more. Once we rode every crease & crevice and realized we were ending in the prime spot for the kids, we returned to the playground and let them run more energy out on the playground and play some arcade games situated nearby, with some county-fair like rides.
Our dinner plans took us back to Trevi fountain to the twice recommended Vineria Il Chianti. We gathered that the proximity to the tourist hot spot to may take away some of its local charm, but the raving reviews were enough to lure us in. There is a small courtyard on arrival where you can dine and people watch in the piazza. But if you prefer a more intimate setting, the restaurant itself is situated in a charming villa with dim lights and hidden rooms, including a tea light lit hallway that resembles a runway to the bathroom. The menu was full of amazing feasts that it made it hard for us to decide on just one, so we didn't. We had a beef steak with enough servings to feed 4, a pasta with Bolognese sauce, and the kids had the most fantastic wood-fired pizza for our one last goodbye to this Italian deliciacy.
We ended our evening's adventure with another goodbye to gelato and a trip to drop off some postcards for friends back home. We couldn't find a more loving souvenir for the kids to give then sending postcards back got friends. We tied it in with the objective of getting J to practice his penmanship and spelling by sending mail to his friends back home - a thoughtful souvenir for them, a fun activity for him, and a wonderful memory for all of us. And before we departed Trevi's sight, we hopped back over one more time, with coins in hand and wishes to be sent. We kissed our metals, threw them over our shoulders and hoped we'd soon be back to make more of these memories.
How do I even start describing how amazing this place is? It was mentioned Italians are proud people, hesitant to speak to you if you don't know their language and relatively inhospitable once they realize you are a foreigner. I didn't find any of this to be true. We had nothing but wonderful, warm interactions with everyone we met. It's everything you see out of a movie, with big boisterous greetings and dinner tables full of love. No one ever felt like a stranger and these welcoming gestures left us wanting more. From the gentleman working in the gelato shop giving E candy as she patiently waited for her cone to be filled; to the reserved waiter having a staring contest with J until he laughed. These people have left an impression on my kids and have so much more on me.
Italy has been all I dreamed of and more. There's not a magical age to do this nor know when to start. Too young? There are families literally everywhere, so no, we're not the only crazies walking around with a sleeping tot on our back. We decided what was right for us and now was perfect. Plus, now that we started, we have opportunity to keep coming back; there will be no "what if" dialogues, because we have and now we're on for more. We love this place already and if we didn’t, our last couple days have solidified our desire to adventure more.
NYE with Kids? Smooth Sailing!
It sounds a little early to be discussing plans for the new year, but as vacation plans go, it's just one of those weeks that book up before you even start to think about it! Build in extra time for planning if you're traveling with kids, as it's difficult to narrow down what to do that can be age appropriate for all. But if you're looking for our best suggestions, cruising into 2020 is the only way to go!
For us, in 2017 we decided we would usher in 2018 with a long coveted first - a New Year's cruise! It doesn't sound that complicated, but when you live in Florida and 5 ports are in your backyard, it's not the first resolution for a unique new year, only because you likely have already cruised! The decision really came to us as a solution to the debate on what could we do that the kids will also enjoy? And after having cruised with kids for a few years, it felt like the perfect compromise. And actually created THE best start to a new year ever!
1. The timing is perfect - NO SCHOOL and an excuse to escape winter blues. So you're getting an off period where you don't have to pull the kids from classes and you likely have vacation time to burn too!
2. It's not hot! I mean, its still warm, but it is not the unbearable heat you get over the summer. It is also the perfect time to exchange boots for flip flops and sweaters for cover ups.
3. And let's talk perspective! I woke up on January 1st to pristine waters and umbrella drinks on the gorgeous island of Grand Turk. I can't think of a better to welcome a brand new start (you know, if you're into that stuff)!
And it goes without being said, it gave the kids something to do with a PG rating. We got caught in the monotony of having an early New Year celebration or spending it at home since being out was too much work. But the ship is your home away from home, so you're going out without all the nuances and worrying about the details. Add the bonus that the celebration by no means comes lack luster - you'll be sailing in comfort with a "couple thousand of your closest friends," so the celebration is even brighter than it would be watching the ball drop on your couch. The walks of life you get to surround yourself in such an occasion with; it brings perspective to your place in the grander scheme. This trip sure put a highlight on the "lonely years" of bringing up kids; not knowing what to do with them and not wanting to do it without them.
For this particular trip, we sailed on Carnival Magic out of Port Canaveral for 7 days, though we recommend itinerary and timing over any ship. The kids had the first week of January off, so we used the week after the holiday celebrations started to taper off to keep our spirits bright and this itinerary met our needs.
The ship itself highly promotes the celebration, particularly highlighting whatever sponsor was taking care of them for that sailing. New Year's Eve fell right at the beginning of our trip, which was deemed the ship's “formal night”. Having the celebration on a night where cruise goers were directed to fancy up a little more made the event feel extra special; everyone dressed to the nines and knowing that the party wouldn't even really start until closer to midnight.
During the day, the crew had guests write their "New Year's Wishes" and place them in a balloon which we filled with air. Around 11pm, a party in the atrium featuring a balloon drop in the atrium began. The net holding these wishes were released from a top deck and our wishes would be free to float and where the crew chose a few lucky wishers to win celebratory bottles of champagne. The party continued on the pool deck where the night was lit with excitement as we counted down to midnight. It could not have been a more perfect way for us all to celebrate, together most importantly.
Carnival has been known as the "Fun Ship" and I think at times a little too rowdy for more conservative crowds. But we find that their longer cruises do a better job of having a great mix of people. There were a great mix of people on board - from singles to families so we it was never a situation of feeling out of place. Add the slew of things to do that the longer itineraries feature, we all found ways to unwind for the new year.
The bigger ships feature a whole water park at WaterWorks, which makes cruising a blast for kids! Seuss at Sea themed activities bring a week of entertainment, including character greetings, a passenger story time production, and a brunch featuring foods like Green Eggs & Ham! Our youngest is now old enough to enjoy the kids activity drop offs, Camp Ocean, so we could partake in some alone time to enjoy the spa, go to the gym, or just not have to watch a toddler outdo herself - all of which we gloriously did. Parents designate who have sign in and out privileges so they're not just being released; there's alarms at the gates that will sound if someone comes in without permission; and there's a good ratio of counselors to children so the littlest ninjas (ours) are never out of sight. Plus the kids each get their own pretty cool wrist band to designate them to a muster station should something happen and parents were on the opposite end of the boat. We found that the time after dinner was *perfect* to get their energy out at camp and be able to crash right when we were ready to too. For New Year's they had their own pre-midnight celebration which made it a little extra special for just them too.
For the big kids (adults), we love the eclectic mix of venues we can spend an evening at, whether it be grabbing a drink, listening to live music or watching a show. All have been updated to keep with the changing times, so the thought of dated ships is a thing of the past. And if we don't feel like enjoying an adult beverage, there's a variety of activities from sports, movies, shopping or classes we can take. On this particular trip we decided to upgrade ourselves into a spa level room and capitalize on spa access for the whole week. So while the kids were playing in the kids club, we got to relax and rejuvenate with hot tubs, saunas and treatments. It was definitely a welcome way to end one year and start the next!
The itinerary on this cruise was similar to one we had done before; but this trip we were taking for the experience not the locations. We had the opportunity to unwind in Grand Turk on New Year's Day; discover Amber Cove, Dominica the day after; and explore a little more of San Juan, Puerto Rico. We also got three total days at sea, a nice break that allowed us to rest after the rush of the holidays and recharge as we embarked on a new year.
Looking for a better way to start the year? I couldn't think of a better one than this, especially with kids! We came into January, refreshed, in good spirits and with a (sun)kiss of extra color. What more could you need to feel rejuvenated to tackle a new set of 365 days?!