A journey of
a thousand miles
begins with a single step
We started dreaming up this trip 10 years ago when we were newlyweds and couldn't quite make it to the Aloha State. It came true just a few months ago when we stumbled on some flights deals that were reasonably priced to work with our school break. We quickly jumped on the opportunity and made the decision to visit two islands on this trip, since we wanted a taste of adventure - so we started with Oahu!
Home to Honolulu and famed Waikiki Beach, a trip to Hawaii isn't complete without visiting the most populated island. There's so much to do, it's hard even to say where to start! But you do need a least a whole week to see it all. And we say this after having tried to visit in 6 short days.
Planning a trip to Hawaii and need a road map? Here's our suggested itinerary for a perfect week in paradise - based off things we did, and how we would have planned it for things we didn't get to do!
Day 1 - Day at the Beach
This is what you came for, isn't it? Time for R&R and adventure. What's more perfect that using your arrival day to get some rest & relaxation. It'll also give you a mix of fun on the beach and a chance for you to slowly adjust to the new time zone (without wearing yourself out all in one shot)!
This is also perfect if you decide to book one of those once in a lifetime resorts, like Disney's Aulani or Hilton Hawaiian Village. We detailed our time at both and how we felt it was worth staying put on property for Aulani to take in all the amenities (and get your money's worth). So if you have a day to spare in your itinerary and you want to option to visit a resort that is otherwise too costly, a one night stay is the perfect way to get the best of both worlds!
Day 2 - North Shore
Visit famed North Shore to hit up a few spots for their renowned attraction - the beaches. Though be warned, if you're scouting out colossal waves (even to just look), you're not going to find them over the summer. The waters are calm here seasonally, so you'd be better off visiting over the winter to see surfers hanging ten on some legendary surf.
If you're looking for more than just a spectator sport, and you come when the tide is calm, get up-close and personal with their wildlife! Shark's Cove is a great beach off Highway 83 with tide pools and plenty of reason to snorkel to see schools of reef fish. Laniakea Beach is home to sea turtles, where you can get near (10 feet to be exact) and see these giant beauties in their home. And then head a little further north to Turtle Bay, where you can find accessible parking, great beach access and perfect conditions to do some more snorkeling! This beach is also perfect for little ones to enjoy while the big ones explore.
And a visit to the North Shore isn't complete without a reason to eat! Skip a restaurant though and stop at the food truck park - we had Garlic Shrimp at the famed Giovanni's Shrimp Truck and it was as good as they said it would be! Just be prepared to dine with jungle fowl, as they eagerly await any scraps that fall from picnic tables (or even join you at the table). We opted to eat in the car.
Next head over to Haleiwa and visit the strip of shops and restaurants in this little town. If you're craving something sweet, finish off lunch with dessert at Matsumoto Shave Ice in North Shore Marketplace - claimed to be the best on the island and certainly with a reasonable price to match!
If you want to shop a little while you're up here, stop by Kahuku Farms for farm tours and local treats!
Day 3 - Windward Side
If you're up for it, get up early enough to go chase a sunrise on the eastern shore. We weren't able to, but from the day time views, we can promise it won't disappoint.
We did spend our time here driving through the sacred Valley of the Temples to get to the Byodo-In Temple. A beautiful Buddhist temple, it was the furthest point through the valley, situated at the base of a mountain. It was peaceful and serene, and a little way to introduce the Eastern culture that influences these islands to the kids.
Afterwards, make time for some hikes - there's several here worth noting. Lanikai Pillbox Hike is a little more strenuous and made for the adventurous, but gives you gorgeous views of Lanikai Beach and the surrounding areas. If you want to keep it a little tamer, the paved Makapu'u Point Lighthouse Trail will take you to some fabulous views in an easier hike. Celebrate either hike with a dip in nearby Waimanalo Beach afterwards!
If hiking is not your thing but you're looking for adventure, visit Kualoa Ranch for a few different experiences - you can take an ATV tour through this reserve, trail through on horseback or get aerial view of it while you zipline through. If neither of the above is your speed, you can tour this movie set by bus - and see where the Jurassic Park movies came to life!
If you want to take in more culture while you're on the east coast of the island, make plans to spend a day at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Here you can learn about all the island nations that make up the cultural background of Hawaiians. It is recommended to spend a day touring, as each island has a different village full of activities to participate in. And if you're in it for the long haul, they even offer a luau in the evening (with booking) - for a chance to experience all you have learned through dance!
Day 4 - Pearl Harbor & Diamond Head
Next up, spend a day visiting two icons in Honolulu - Diamond Head & Pearl Harbor.
Wake up early to make the hike up Diamond Head - you'll get a chance to beat the crowds and the heat. The hike up is easy but long, about a mile from base to top, but you get some fantastic views of Honolulu and mountains of Oahu. Before or after your hike, treat yourself to a pineapple smoothie at the starting point - courtesy of Dole Plantation. Served in a pineapple, it tastes as good as it looks and is definitely works the price after the work you put in!
Afterwards, make your way to Pearl Harbor to pay tribute to the lives lost on that infamous day. Reservations are needed to get in, so visit the National Park Services site before you travel to book a time slot! If you rather not make plans and wait, day of tickets can be available, but they're handed out in time increments and based on availability. It is free to visit the USS Arizona Memorial, but there is a small reservation fee made to secure your ticket online before visiting.
Both of these activities shouldn't take up a day, so while you're in the area, stop by Aloha Stadium for their Swap and Meet. Here you can find a place to buy deeply discounted souvenirs and from local artisans. It is not open daily though, so make plans to come on a Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday until 3pm!
... and if you still have time to spare, then revisit an area to finish up anything you didn’t get to do!
Day 5 - Dole Plantation & Waimea Valley
Visit these two gems heading back up towards the North Shore - except devote your day to just seeing these two. You can choose how you want to plan out your day, but you'll have to face crowds either way.
The Dole Plantation opens up daily at 930 and gives you a chance to visit home to their famed pineapples. Take a tour of the farm via train, tour the gardens on a walk, or try out the pineapple shaped maze - all individually priced for admission. Once you've worked up an appetite, visit the grill for a bite to eat before heading out to the rest of your day.
A little further north and you've reached Waimea Valley, a sanctuary of beautiful botanical gardens and exotic animals, accented by Waimea Fall. Your admission here allows you to walk through this peaceful site and take in Hawaiian flora segmented by locale; you'll likely run into the peacocks or wild birds that call this home while you're touring. Once you've reached the end, about a half a mile walk, you're at Waimea Falls. You're welcome and encouraged to take a dip, but not get too close because of its intensity. We skipped as we had days of rain which caused the falls to be even rougher, but it was a site to see!
If you're looking for more to fill your day here, make a stop at Green World Coffee Farm on your way back, visit Wahiawā Botantical Garden or reclaim any part of the island you need a little more time!
Day 6 - Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay
You want the spot to snorkel while also focusing on conservation? Visit Hanauma Bay!
The drive to this spot is absolutely gorgeous, accented by mountains and the treacherous hike of Koko Crater Railway Trail. This is not for the faint of heart, so one look at the railway lining the side of the mountain will give you a chance to decide if this hike is for you! You can also stop to see the Halona Blowhole while you're headed to the bay, a beautiful site to see nature's creation.
Hanauma Bay should be enjoyed should as a half-full day activity. If you can, arrive earlyas parking is hard to find. Also be prepared to either walk a little to the bay or patiently wait until the lot has an opening (as we lucked out and found). Once at the entrance, you pay a nominal fee to see this conservatory operational for years to come. You're assigned an entrance time to view a brief presentation about the bay - how to stay safe while using it and how to keep its inhabitants protected. There is a downward hike to the shore, so if you don't want to walk you can wait and pay for the shuttle - but the walk itself if minimal and easy.
The bay encourages you to use safe sunscreen to not damage the water with toxins while swimming, but you are welcome to otherwise go out and enjoy. You can rent equipment at the base if you did not bring your own snorkel gear, AND snorkel gear is a must while here! The abundance and beauty of fish you will see is absolutely amazing! Make a day of it here as you won't get a experience like this again!
And after you've worked up an appetite and are ready for dinner, head over to Kono's, voted best of Oahu (and to which we agree)! Have the Pork Plate Lunch with an order of P.O.G to drink - the combo was perfectly Hawaiian!
Day 7 - Honolulu & Waikiki Beach
Save the best for last! This is why you came, right? If you're not already staying on Waikiki then here's an opportunity to visit it in a little more depth.
Get up early and start your day with the Malasadas from Leonard's Bakery. If there's a line, wait in it - we promise its worth every bit of your time to have these warm deliciously fresh sugarcoated donut goodness. Spend the rest of the morning exploring downtown Waikiki and walking streets lined with shops. Visit the International Marketplace or Royal Hawaiian Center to pick up a souvenir or two, and if its around lunch, definitely stop to grab a burger from Mahaloha (we highly recommend the Loco Moco or Banzai BBQ).
Finish off your lunch with a walk down the historic trail to read up on Waikiki and get a prime view of the hotel landscape as it changes by the water. Once you're done, make your way back to famed Waikiki Beach to enjoy all its known for. If you have a chance, head to the lagoon at Hilton Hawaiian Village and enjoy a chance to relax in this manmade haven. The beaches and lagoon are all public access so feel free to utilize any of these while you're on vacation!
Looking for eats in and around Honolulu? Here's more of what we enjoyed!
... and there's so much more! Our short 6 days there did not allow us to experience it all, but we got a good portion of this done! We were also itching to see another Hawaiian island, so ventured over to Maui for a few days.
If we had a few extra days, this is how we would have written up our itinerary, and maybe added a few more days in to explore a few more treasures this island had to offer - and hope it can help to plan you trip out there too!
We had the amazing opportunity of getting to stay at these two gems in Hawaiian family fun! Both resorts are highly revered by families with little and big ones alike because of its diversity in venues, array of amenities for all ages, and the convenience that each of these mega resorts provide to cater to all.
So how did they stack up against each other and which one is better for you and yours?
Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa
Disney's Oahu based property, is everything you expect from a Disney hotel - and not just one in Hawaii. Aulani is located in Ko Olina, just west of the airport and heading into a drier, more industrial part of the island. But the resort area of Ko Olina is also home to a variety of high end properties for vacation goers looking to escape the traffic of Waikiki. And driving up to it, Aulani is everything you'd expect from Disney magic.
On arrival, you're greeted with infused waters and fresh flower leis for women, kukui nut for men and kids receive Menehune necklaces, which are the famed characters of Hawaiian folklore that "lurk" around property. While you're on property, you're welcomed "home" as Aulani does sit as part of the Disney Vacation Club portfolio - and they even have designated showrooms to showcase with anyone interested in learning more about becoming a member. For us regular guests, being welcomed home was definitely just a nice touch to make us feel even more welcome here!
The resort is very accessible with two towers connected by the main entry building, where you can find shops and the flagship restaurant offering character dining. Walking through the lobby, you can head outside to the lanai and get a full glorious view of the resort. And you'll see that once you're here, you're here - restaurants line both sides of of the property, the pools are centrally situated with the beach in the horizon, and the parking garage and main roads out of sight, so you really have no reason to head back to your car!
We booked an entry level room - garden pool view and were granted a low floor request we made. This was perfect because we ended up being situated right by the lazy river. And with a separate patio entrance that led out to the pool area, we enjoyed our easy accessibility to the fun at this resort, especially since we were going to be spending ALL of our time here!
When we booked our trip to Hawaii, we knew we'd want to stay a few days at Aulani on our pursuit of visiting as many Disney properties worldwide! The per night cost became a matter of how much time we spent here, because we didn't want to lose any time away, but rather enjoy what we paid for. Disney's price is steep in comparison to other properties in Hawaii, especially if you plan to spend most of your time exploring the island. But when you compare the cost of Aulani to other Disney resorts, you'll see that their Hawaiian sister hotel is priced no higher than staying at some of the premier Disney properties all over the world.
So what does the price include, outside of room?
The price does not include:
Other things to note:
Hilton Hawaiian Village
Location, location, location!
I think the one thing that could sell this place alone is location. Not only is it centrally located in Honolulu but it also is quite honestly the only resort on Waikiki with prime beach access. This is where you want to stay if you want to be in the hustle and bustle of the city of Honolulu, but not on busy Waikiki itself. The resort is closer to the marina, but from the beach you have postcard views of Diamond Head in the distance.
On arrival, you drive through the Rainbow Bazaar, a small through street with a marketplace of shops and restaurants on either side. You pull up to the open air lobby building where you can leave the car on idle while you get yourself checked in. They aren't greeting you with the leis like Disney did on arrival, but the guest service was just as superb. Once checked in, you're given a full map of the property, which is lined by 8 towers, 5 pools, and various shops and restaurants (even beyond the Bazaar). Like Aluani, parking is not include - you have the option of valet for $52/daily or self park at $45/daily. If you opt to self park, the garage is back at the entrance to the Bazaar and once you're situated, you do have in/out privileges.
The resort feels and is massive! And is only matched with the number of people you see everywhere. It's definitely a different vibe than the "quieter" Aulani as there is a lot of movement here - but it only makes you want to get in on the action. The lobby really is the central point to the resort, but there isn't a spot that grants you an overall view of the resort. Each tower is like a world in itself, each with its own pool, bar, restaurant - but best of all, you have full access to the whole village while you're here! Beyond the Rainbow Tower, you will find the strip of beach that is designed for Hilton guests - though the chairs do come at an extra cost to rent for the day. Also good to note, all beaches are public and aren't just limited to hotel guests (same goes for Aulani). Next to the beach is the manmade lagoon for someone wanting the feel of the ocean but with the calmness of a pool - this is also home to water activities like paddle boarding and paddle boat rentals.
We booked a room without a particular request here, but they upgraded us to a high floor and view of the water. This was a nice change of pace since there really isn't a ground floor room option, and with the sheer magnitude of this resort, I'm not sure I'd want to be so close to the noise. Our room was generous in size, larger than Disney's with room to spare - but the bathroom could have used more square footage to make it easier for a family to utilize!
For this leg of the trip in Hawaii, we wanted to book a place that we could come back to and enjoy but also not feel burdened leaving for the price, as we wanted to see the rest of the island! The price point here made that comfortable to do. We considered other options but all lacked the proximity to the beach we wanted - so we fell for the idea that this was a great resort for the family to relax at after a busy day out. And it really is - there's so much to do & was a great place to wind down at after full days! And on top of that, its in Honolulu - so if your list of things to do include checking off spots on Waikiki, you're right here! Leave the car behind and go for a walk to discover what the city has to offer - that's what we did!
So what does the price include, outside of room?
The price does not include:
Other things to note:
Which One’s for You?
We wanted to start our vacation on a lighter more relaxing note to catch up with the time change, so we enjoyed all we could out of Aulani. But we definitely would not have stayed here if we were leaving to go sightseeing - unless we were DVC members or got an unbelievable price per night. We enjoyed two nights to settle in and get some R&R before our adventure started. It is also not conveniently located to much on the island beyond the North Shore. You may avoid the traffic of Honolulu (which was not that bad), but you would be driving a little farther because of where it is situated. Stay here if you plan to stay PUT here. And if you're even toying with the idea of staying here, do it for at least a few days of your trip. It's definitely a place to visit and you won't regret it - we loved our times to unwind with Disney magic before we visited the beauty of Hawaii!
Hilton Hawaiian Village felt like great place to leave and come back go to. It was a great resort, but I could not imagine spending all my days here just because of the sheer magnitude of the resort. It was a nice place to retreat to after days of fun because we were still able to take in all the amenities without feeling like we missed out, because it did lack some of the magic Disney has. And the price made it even easier to leave - since it was at half the cost of what we paid at Disney. If you want a prime place on Waikiki beach, with ground level pools and a village all its own, this is the place for you! It was a nice way to get wrapped into what Honolulu had to offer and not feel like we were missing out on any magic - because we made what we wanted out of our days when we returned!
Either way you can’t go wrong! But it’s all a matter of what you want from your time in paradise!
Still undecided? Check out our Highlights on Instagram for more information about our time at either resort!
We just got back from Hawaii, and what a trip it was!
But getting there from the east coast is a journey in itself - AND not always cheap or easy!
So we decided to make the most of the long haul and planned a trip out there that wouldn't feel like just travel - but an adventure all its own!
When we were booking our flights to Hawaii, we used the Google Flights matrix to find a price and time combination we were comfortable with. The one stipulation we had was that we wanted to book with Delta for the SkyMiles perks, like free luggage & upgrades, priority access, and the miles we'd inevitably earn. There wasn't much of a price difference between Delta and the carriers, so opted to choose loyalty over anything else. The only thing was, the only flight/price combo we liked was telling us to "Book with a Travel Agent". And knowing that an agent wasn't just going to find that deal for me (some work with air consolidators and this wasn't the case here), I decided to do little research myself.
Save with a Multi-City Ticket
If you're unable to find the ticket price you're looking for, jump over to the airline site and do a multi-city search to see what options you pull up. We ended up going over to Delta's booking system and kept finding the same round trip ticket Google Flights was showing for $200 more each! So we decided to book a multi-city flight instead, only meaning that we told Delta where our layover would be rather than having the system do it for us (and marking it up along the way).
The tickets I found had us flying from Orlando to Seattle with an 8-hour layover and then flying Seattle into Honolulu later that same day (arriving 8pm Hawaiian Standard Time). So instead of searching roundtrip form Orlando > Honolulu and then Maui > Orlando, I chose "Multi-City" and entered the same information for all legs of the trip and searched. And you know what? It gave me the same exact flight but with the prices Google Flights told me I needed an agent to book! Try this trick when booking on your own, to even customize the flights you want.
Except I wasn't comfortable with an 8-hour layover. I mean, it was long enough to leave the airport and do something but it wasn't long enough to do a lot. So I did one last search to see if there was a better option of flying out of Seattle the following day. I stumbled on a morning flight that let us leave Seattle for Honolulu at 8am, rather than try to pack it all in by 5pm that same day. The ticket price was exactly the same, but let us fly out after a day of fun and a full night of rest. So instead of having a tiring almost 24 hour travel day to Honolulu, we took a day for ourselves in Seattle!
And let me tell you, it was the best thing we could've ever done! We took a portion of what we saved and used it to pay for a hotel night in Seattle instead of a plane ticket. Did we feel like we lost time in Honolulu? Not at all! Because now instead of arriving at 8pm HST (which is 2am EST mind you) and losing that time exhausted, waiting to rent a car, getting to a hotel only to go to sleep, we "saved" by staying in Seattle! Not to mention, a hotel in Seattle is SIGNFICANTLY cheaper than a hotel in Hawaii.
Make the Most of your Time!
Anything over a 6-hour layover is technically considered a stopover, which is the time that an airline won't transfer your luggage to the next flight in your segment. This worked just fine for us as we needed our bags to get ready for the next day.
But if you don't have the option of having a place to stay, most airlines offer to hold your baggage for a small fee until you return. That way you can leave the airport to explore and make it back in time to take your next flight. Utilize that long layover to leave and explore and burn off any energy so you will actually sleep on an overnight! Since that wasn't the case for us, as we'd be gaining 6 hours after arriving at our final destination, we booked a hotel for a good night of sleep and made plans for a full day of exploring!
And if you had to hang out at the Sea-Tac Airport for a few hours, it couldn't be a better place to stay! It was fairly easy to get through (though busy, so make sure you have plenty of time for security) and had great dining and shopping options. Added bonus for the littlest ones - a play area all their own!
Where to Stay?
We chose to stay by the airport only because proximity to catch our 8am flight the next morning mattered more than prime location in the city. We booked at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Seattle Sea-Tac Airport which offered free shuttle service to & from the airport AND free breakfast - both essentials on our list since we'd have an early wake-up call! We landed in the Sea-Tac Airport, grabbed our luggage, phoned the hotel and within 15 minutes were picked up by the shuttle and dropped off at the hotel.
The hotel was undergoing some work while we were there, but the front desk agent was extremely apologetic about it and even friendlier on top of that. Our room was (obviously) not ready at our 9am arrival, so they offered to hold our luggage until we returned. We had arrived before breakfast so they invited us to enjoy after check-in and before we went out exploring for the day. We used this time to plan our time there while the kids stocked up on snacks for the road!
When we arrived back later that night, the front desk agent quickly got us checked in and upgraded to a suite. Our keys were ready, our bags set aside for taking (no bell service, but carts available) and an extremely friendly agent to ensure we were set for the night. We appreciated all the extra attention and the generous upgrade offer even though we wouldn't get to use the space as it should have been - but it was a nice perk of booking through a travel planner!
The Holiday Inn Express & Suites Seattle Sea-Tac Airport is also only about a 10 minute walk from the Link Light Rail station that will take you straight into the heart of Seattle for less than $3/adult & $1.50/child (6-12) and after only 30 minutes. You board near the airport hotels at the Angle Lake Station which overlooks a beautiful Angle Lake surrounded by woods. The ride is very smooth and uneventful, and we hopped off at the Downtown Tunnels Station which put us right near the Monorail that would get us to Seattle Center.
The Seattle Center Monorail was originally constructed for the World's Fair and now still serves as a connector between the city and its more known region of Seattle Center (home to the Space Needle). And it makes for a fun ride for kids to get through the city itself in its open-air window filled cars! Worth the $2.50/adult & $1.50/child (5-12) ticket to ride this icon in the city.
Our first stop off the monorail was to the Space Needle, since that was top on the list of things to do in our less than 24 hours in Seattle. Little did we know that the Seattle Center is also home to a host of other great attractions too, including a massive playground that greets visitors on arrival.
The Seattle Center is a gathering place of entertainment, food and events in the heart of the city. This hub is not only home to the Space Needle, but also the Chihuly Garden & Glass, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center, Seattle Center Armory, Museum of Pop Culture, Pacific Science Center, and Seattle Children's Museum to name a few. Had we had more time to spare, we would have definitely used our reciprocal benefit with the Orlando Science Center at the Pacific Science Center since it allowed all of us in for free!
We let them run their hearts (and full stomachs out) as we planned out our day with the next stop down towards the harbor to check out Olympic Structure Park. The walk is a less than a mile from Seattle Center and takes you through some of the most charming neighborhoods. Olympic Structure is a free, open to the public park created by the Seattle Museum of Art and a gorgeous way to use green space right by the water. Taking in the view from here was enough to make you want to venture to the outskirts of the city and see what there is in the beyond.
We returned to take a trip up the Space Needle to get a full view of the city from above. We booked mobile tickets while the kids played, and since they were stamped with a return time, we were able to make other plans in-between. When our time came up, we simply approached the line for a quick security check and then took the spiral up to the elevators. The wait included a visual history of the Space Needle's construction and stories from its inception. Once you've loaded up the elevator, you're taken straight to the top for some breathtaking views! We unfortunately didn't have the clearest day so couldn't fully make out Mount Rainer from up high, but did get to appreciate this city in its full glory!
Once we finished our hours of playing in and around the Seattle Center, we hopped back on the monorail to its original stop and took a small walk to see Pike Place. It was on our list of things to do, but be warned, its overrun by people and traffic so made our time less than enjoyable. But we're happy enough to say we've been there, done that - and even attempted to get a drink in the original Starbucks! But no Starbucks is worth a line of that length - so we just opted for a Starbucks in Seattle instead (it counts, right?!).
We instead walked over in the direction of Pier 53, home of the Seattle Great Wheel to have a full seafood dinner at Ivar's Acres of Calms on Pier 54. The service at this beautiful restaurant on the water was fantastic, only to be topped by how great the food was! We enjoyed our last few hours in Seattle with with a dinner of chowder, scallops and freshly caught King Salmon before preparing to head back for a full night of sleep!
We would’ve loved to explore Seattle a little more but appreciate that we even got a little taste of it! Now we’re itching to go back - to see more of the actual PNW region that Seattle calls home! We’ve started imaging plans to include to hiking to Mt. Rainer, visiting waterfalls and wineries and whale watching off the shore!
Now it's only a matter of when - and what else can we pack into to visiting this incredible place!
Is a Pacific Coast Highway Trip on your bucket list?
It was on ours and so we decided to pack our bags, book a plane ticket, and make our way from SoCal to the Bay Area and explore in between. We didn't nearly cover the vastness of this beautiful stretch of coastal road, but we chose stops that worked for us with certain goals in mind. And we loved every bit of what we saw, and what we wish we had more time to see.
What did our week+ in California look like winding the up the open highway? Read on!
Some prefer to start further south in San Diego but started our trip in LA for reasons all our own!
1. Flight - we flew Delta and wanted a direct flight. Plus, with our Companion Certificate and Skymiles, we only ended up paying about $400 total for the 4 of us to go to west.
2. Location - we wanted to start south and watch the hills turn into cliffs and dramatically change course. Some may argue a trip from north to south would be better since you ride along the coast (rather than the inner most lane), but for us that didn't make a difference on the drive.
3. Disneyland - we wanted to start the trip with a treat for the kids! Capitalize on all the energy they had and use it for something they would truly marvel over.
What to do in LA? What is there not to do?!
After you pick up your rental, head towards Hollywood. You want a picture with the iconic sign and there are some many good spots to get it from, including the Griffith Observatory, which also includes panoramic views all around. If you're heading down to Hollywood Blvd to check out the sights there, head to shopping complex Hollywood and Highland for great views! While you're there, the iconic Hollywood Walk of Fame and Mann's Chinese Theater (where these days you can watch new movie releases at) are within sight.
Hungry? Visit Pink's Hot Dogs for this staple in Hollywood since the 1930s. The giant loaded hot dogs of all varieties were delicious and worth the wait at this counter service restaurant with outdoor seating. Just be warned, parking may be hard to find!
Then make it a point to cruise around greater LA County - from driving down Sunset Strip to admiring all the luxury of Beverly Hills to hitting up the pier in Santa Monica for some fun or even just checking out another city along the shoreline. There's so much to do in LA, you can easily spend a few days here!
This was *the* destination for us on arrival - to spend a few days at Disneyland California! The parks are nestled in the middle of Anaheim and really a world all their own. We highly recommend spending at least two days here, as there's enough to do without feeling rushed.
The resort itself has 3 Disney hotels (Disneyland Hotel, Grand Californian, and Pacific Pier), 2 theme parks (Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure) and the entertainment complex of Downtown Disney. Each park deserves a day all their own to fully immerse and explore AND because there's just that much to do! Promise. They have more attractions per park than the sister parks in Orlando!
There’s so much to cover here we have an article all their own for the parks! Read all about our time at Disneyland and why it quickly became our favorite Disney parks - this alone may be the reason you want to come out here!
Make your way past Malibu and the stunning beach communities of So Cal as you head north up PCH. You'll venture into the beautiful city of Santa Barbara nestled along the coasts and the hills, and upon our arrival, covered in smog. It was such a beautiful piece of real estate as we traveled the highway as, we slowly witnessed the change from relatively flat southern Cali.
We also stumbled up on the mission trail here, where we made a bit of an adventure within one. El Camino Real is a collection of 21 missions from San Diego to Sonoma, each spread out about 30 miles from each other. The Spanish missions, from a time when Spain held strong in California, are the oldest piece of history in the state and a captivating game to play while you're on your road trip. Look for the bell markers to signify the trail of missions as you travel el camino.
We only had time to explore the mission in Santa Barbara durinfbour short stop here, but wish we had spent even more time in this stunning city on the sea.
Does the name sound familiar, 90s babies? Well it should if you're a Clueless fan. It the namesake for the "Pismo Beach Relief" that the movie was fundraising for. And for us it was such a welcome surprise! Just when we thought we left everything So Cal had to offer, here's this little beach town that just exudes everything you want from California.
We spent just enough time here to park and play in the sand, bit could easily have spent hours more. From the beautiful shoreline to the relaxed surfer vibes, this is definitely the place you want to go to when trying to escape the hustle of the big cities and the bustle of Hollywood. It was the quintessential beach town on the California coast and a welcome stop for us to stretch as we made our way to our next stop!
Here's another name sake for you! Finding Dory, anyone?
With the name dropped so often in the movie, once we saw signs that we were approaching, we made sure to make a stop to just say we've been! Morro Bay was a seaside village lined with shiplap buildings and the sea painted with an iconic rock. We stopped to check it out just because our curiosity got the best of us, and we're glad we did!
We drove to the inlet that approached the famous rock and were greeted by a sea of otters sunbathing in the bay! What a fun surprise to encounter and certainly a place that made us want to stick around long enough to see what this town had to offer.
San Simeon is best known for Hearst Castle, and though we would've loved to spend a day there, with two little ones our plans led us elsewhere. Seashore - to be exact - to watch the elephant seals. This detour on our trip was a treat, because what a neat experience it was to encounter these giants literally feet from us. Sparring and barking in their own environment, doing just what nature taught them to do. The kids delighted in getting to see animals in the wild and we loved the chance to get to teach something up close and personal.
For this roadtrip in 2017 though, this was as far north as we were able to go on PCH. The road was shut down in Big Sur due to mudslides, so we were forced to diverge inland ... which ended up being a fortunate accident.
Paso Robles was our serendipity on this trip!
We would never have planned a stop here on our way up, as its not on the PCH. But since we had to diverge because of Mother Nature, we got to explore such a beautiful part of the state! This central California wine country is filled with beautiful rolling hills and fields of wineries in between hills. We even spotted a black bear as we drove these rural areas, making his way around home.
We made a stop on arrival at Four Lanterns, a family-friendly winery offering outdoor seating, live music and space to roam. Once we finished our visit and by the time dinner rolled around, we head to downtown Paso. A quaint town made up of a main city block and with some chic restaurants and an adorable Central Park. We had a wonderful dinner at Artisan, a contemporary concept with fresh meals and delightful drinks. A welcome reward after a day of driving!
Our drive was a shorter one, but to a very anticipated destination! MONTEREY!
Yes, home of Big Little Lies, where we had just dived into in 2017, so we anticipate seeing what this stunning location had to offer. It was a beautiful coastal city, with a downtown to match its charm, and lined with mountain and boats.
The attraction here, beyond the show that mapped it, is Monterey Bay Aquarium - where we spent an afternoon discovering with the kids. Just the fact that at times you're staring at the sea while looking at exhibits is a fascinating concept all its own! The experience was only topped by the visitors we had at the dinner that evening - seals and otters splashing under our prime view table at Domenicos on the Wharf!
The only thing we missed doing in our short stop here is going whale-watching - we would have loved the chance to see these beasts in their natural home!
It wasn’t initially on our itinerary but we made another trip back and hit up this beautiful beach village. Adorably lined with pristine local shops and eats, Carmel was a wonderful find on our second trip out west!
For wine lovers, this is also a smaller wine region. Though the vineyards are few and most require reservations to tour, the town has plenty of wineries to taste what they grow!
We NEEDED to see Big Sur, so before we continued north, we quickly headed back south to see how far we could go before being turned away. And we did not once regret this decision. This drive is absolutely beautiful - more than words can even paint to life. We made it as far as Pfeffier State Park as we drove the winding coast to see the beauty of it all. Only to be turned around and do it all again! We certainly didn't mind.
On arrival back, we made sure to take the 17 Mile Drive which would inevitably take us to world famous Pebble Beach. We completed this trip with a visit to the chilly shore, but feeling every bit much accomplished that we were able to see this gorgeous piece of California real estate on our trip!
We heard so much about Santa Cruz from others that we wanted to check out this beach town and see what it was about!
For starters, the homes lining the cliffs with prime view of the ocean were stunning. All were quintessential California homes as we would imagine them. But we also used this stop to let the kids have some of their kind of fun again. We spent the evening playing on the Boardwalk as a way to wind down the trip.
Carnival food, rides, games and even local beer is exactly what we needed after so much exploring. And as an added bonus, we had the perfect sunset to top off our stay. We would definitely recommend this as a stop for kids of any age!
On the skirts of Silicon Valley, this city felt like a perfect blend of SoCal meets the Bay. This stop was intentional on this trip, to visit a very dear friend and meet he mr baby boy. And she welcomed us to her home to spend the 4th of July by the pool, grilling out, and living like locals!
The day ended with us heading downtown for official celebrations, including fireworks and eating hot dogs from street carts. It was the cherry on top for a way to spend this holiday!
This wouldn’t have been a stop we picked out on our own, but we’re so glad we were introduced to Filoli. The beautiful garden situated in city limits, this places is absolutely worth a detour to see.
The drive there is tree lined upon rolling hills. On arrival, you’re greeted at a majestic house beckoned by acres of beautiful topiaries. Breathtaking is the least of word I could use to describe it! An afternoon spent exploring these wonders is enough but you could easily get lost here for a whole day!
Half Moon Bay
Imagine a picturesque coast washed away by the sea, where the only thing more impressive is the crashing waves offshore. That’s Half Moon Bay. We stopped here to check out the views, and get a little bit of that California sun & sand. We finished the day with lunch and drinks at the Ritz Carlton where we sat at fire pits to take in the breathtaking views
Our final official stop on this trip didn’t come without a little mishap - reminder to always check your safe before leaving your room! We made it all the way to San Fran to get an early morning cable car ride (without the lines) when we realized our mistake.
So we came back later (on a family reunion) and finished this stop. We hopped on cable car at Hyde & ___ and rode it into central San Fran! Goal accomplished. We visited the Painted Ladies, Drive down Lombardi Street, watched the sea lions bark at Pier 39, walked Fisherman’s Wharf and ate at Boudin Bakery - all the iconic SF things to do!
If you want a quick overview of the city, hop on a double decker! It’s the easiest way to get a lay of the land and figure out the areas you want to explore more! We recommend a stop in the Japanese Tea Garden for some serenity in the city! If you want something a little different to explore (and you’re a fan like us), the Walt Disney Museum at the Presidio is the perfect place to learn about his legacy and see his dreams come to life. Bonus, you get some scenic views of the Golden Gate Bridge!
But make sure your finish your trip with a visit to Baker’s Beach for the most spectacular view of the Golden Gate! If you come at sunset, you can watch the day fade to night while your backdrop is painted all sorts of lovely colors.
Need dinner plans? Cliff House is at land’s end, where San Francisco begins as they proclaim! The spot is perfect for a seafood feast and great views. Sweet tooth? You can’t forget Ghiradelli’s - because what’s a visit without a stop!
If you’re headed across the Golden Gate to Sausalito, you can’t skip one of the best things on this side of the bay. Take time to explore Muir Woods and the glory of these fantastic creations of God. The forest will leave you speechless, and if you time out coming at the right time of day, you’ll have a special experience.
We arrived after the park office closed but before the park did, which granted us free entry and plenty of spots to park on site. The best part of this though was the stillness that overtakes the park when it’s not run over by crowds. It truly makes you feel at one with nature and in deep respect for it. On your way down, take in the views of the ocean meets the mountains, it’s another moment that can stop you in your tracks.
And if you’ve worked up an appetite from all that exploring, make sure to make a final stop at In-N-Out if you haven’t yet! There’s something special about this place with the simplicity in its food, burgers and fries with a sauce all their own that you’ll be dreaming of for years to come! Take it up a notch and get your order Animal Style for a truly unforgettable experience. Best off all, there’s always an In-N-Out en route to satisfy your craving!
If you have time, add in Napa and Sonoma to your plans! This region is so different from everything else there is out there and worth a post all it’s own about the places to check out - with or without kids!
Summer is here, and that means this season brings on all the road trips!
Whether you already have one planned or you're counting on making plans on the whim, the dog days of summer are the perfect time to do it.
Road trips can be as short and easy or as long and thought out as you want them to be. But most of all, they need to fun!
So what makes it work? We just had a few of our friends come back from their own adventures so we teamed up with them for extra advice on what made for smooth sailing, as close to perfect as possible!
1. Have a plan. Or at the very least know what you intend of this trip. It doesn't mean you have to have every minute scheduled, but knowing things like when you want to arrive, help to decide when you want to hit the road. And with that, plan accordingly to help make the drive as smooth as possible. The map may say you'll get there at one time ... but traffic, pit stops, and a barrage of other diversions say another.
Knowing when you're planning to leave can also help as you prepare for the trip. Getting the car ready is half the battle when leaving - the other is getting the little ones well-rested for an ungodly hours wake-up call. If you know you're going to hit the road for an early morning drive, have the car loaded the night before. It'll save you the trouble of waking up the lightest sleeper (and forgetting something while you meander half asleep). If you're planning to leave during the day, run out your little ones so they nap on the road. And if your plans involve a meal time departure, make sure you have food thought out - either pack a meal to-go OR make a special stop to start the trip. Nothing can ruin a road trip like hangry people - of all ages and sizes!
When talking about her drive up the east coast, Kristin H. also made the great suggestion of planning drives around traffic patterns. Ideally avoid rush hours in major cities so you're not wasting any precious time, energy or gas! Make it a point to stop during those hours so that everyone can stretch rather than sit in extra long traffic lanes.
2. Bring ALL the snacks! An essential part of road trip success is food - it can make even the hangriest person human again. Just like we mentioned when planning for a trip with little ones, you will be saved with having this one crucial item. Kids especially are never going have an appetitie when its convenient and a pit stop for food may not always be in the optimal location. While packing, make a few intentional grocery store trips and pick up a mix of snacks that can get you through a car trip.
And make it a point to find stuff on sale to stock up on We love Publix and their weekly Buy One, Get One sales and always grab extra to stash when we find unbeatable prices. Wholesale stores can also make all the difference when it comes to this - especially if you're going to be gone for an extended time. Head over to Costco, BJ, Sam's Club or the like and see what you can grab in bulk with savings at your fingertips. Best of all, make a special trip out of it with the kids once you grabbed all the essentials and let them pick out one special treat for the road!
What do you pack? For us, our non-negotiables are:
We load a cooler in the trunk and easily inventory what we have. We try to bring very little of anything that needs to be refrigerated and load up along the way. We also bring a little bit of each snack to the front of the car in a collapsible cooler bag so we can have easy access when anyone gets the munchies. The smaller cooler is also great to transport food in and out of hotels when you don't need or want to bring the whole cooler in.
A collapsible cooler is also worth investing in for a road trip you're flying into! We've done trips where we're eating out of the grocery bags we shopped with, but to have a cooler makes a huge difference in keeping the mess down! We love our SOMMAR cooler bag from IKEA from a few seasons back - the size is great and the price even better. It's currently out of stock, so if you ever come across it, snatch it!
3. Essentials to pack? Just like planning for a trip, we have our list of items that make the trip a little easier. We keep a running spreadsheet that we clean up and edit every time we learn something new and try to allow ourselves an easier system when packing.
Beyond the usual stuff that you'll bring, here are some of our tried and true suggestions that help make trips a little easier.
4. Activities & Entertainment. Once you made a trip for food, make sure to make a special shopping trip for activities too! Or in my case, two trips - one where I'll get some things I know can easily distract and one where the kids pick out something shiny and new.
The Dollar Store and Target are heaven-sent for these trips, as they both have the greatest variety of delights and greatest bang for your buck! Having a small box of crayons and coloring packs for each child is the #1 item to have on the road or for going out to eat. That way, they each have their own special loot that can (hopefully) eliminate fighting.
Books are always a hit with us, so we make a trip to the library to get a few to have. It will continue to spark their love of reading when the book has a theme to match your special trip, so try to look for some specific to what you're doing! Want to try something else fun? Check for a Little Free Library in your neighborhood before you go - "the leave a book, get a book" concept fuels a global community of readers to share what they love. So if you "check" one out from a local box, if you find another while you're on the road and you're done with said book, return it for a new book, from a new city/state! Want to make it personal? Leave a little handmade bookmark for the next reader in the book your return - write down where the book has been on to encourage the next to do the same. I'm sure any bookworm would delight in knowing that they're spreading their love of reading all over (and finding it too)!
Games, whether the store bought kind or self-generated, are the greatest ways to keep everyone in the car happy too! Kristin H. says she loves playing eye spy or how many "cows, flags, trucks, etc" counting games. License plate and find the sign games are also fun, and engage their curiosity to ask more as you talk. Open the dialogue to teach them about where you are and learn something new together! For when you stop, pack a good age appropriate, family-friendly game for nights in. Make sure they are tried & true so you know it was worth taking! Monopoly is our family favorite - easy to play at any age because just the newness of pulling stacks of cards and wads of money keeps our youngest entertained. Trivia games or Uno are also fun to pair off for some fun parent/child team competition. I promise whatever you decide to do will make for an unforgettable evening!
It's also not beneath us to let the kids watch some movies or play some games on the iPad. It's a nice treat during road trips and definitely a welcoming resource, particularly near nap times. Just let the rocking of the car, a good show (or movie) and a tired kid combination allow for a little shut eye. All of you will need some quiet time so if you're willing to allow even a little screen time, it's a break - for all of you!
Lastly, we always like to make sure to have a notebook/pen on hand for journaling/doodling about our trip, and stamps ready to send out postcards from our destinations. Sending postcards to friends has easily beomce our greatest delight on our trips - from picking out something special for that person, getting to practice writing to them, and then hearing about when they received. And knowing we'll get our own in return - it's the sweetest gift that keeps on giving!
5. The drive itself. Try to break the drive into smaller segments to make sure that no one is going to go stir crazy. This particularly helps with any road trip longer than 4 hours. Make it a point to find something at the 5-6 hour mark to stop at, whether it means stopping for a meal, to do some quick sightseeing, or a break for an overnight. This is the whole point of the road trip! Its not only cheaper to drive but it so much more fun to have a journey full of exploring!
Need some guided suggestions? Download the app Roadtrippers to find random things along your route to make the drive even more fun! Others plus in local attractions that can easily make a detour worth it. Social media forums are also a great place to ask questions and pull fun ideas from what to see, things to do or places to eat while you're on the go! And if all else fails, rely on your friends! Nothing beats a suggestion from a friend you trust - they will have your best intentions in mind!
What else should you count on? Not making any plans too close to your tentative arrival. Don't hard schedule something time sensitive as anything can come up. Don't make the trip a race against the clock - this means anything that can't be flexed should not be done on arrival. You could run into too many factors you can't control so allow yourself time to relax, unwind, and then if you have must-do plans, save them for the next day!
6. Pack Patience. Patience is a virtue and it really can be tested on the road. Don't get frustrated in the midst of planning, because something will always pop up. Just control what you can and roll with the punches. Don't let yourself get unhinged if something doesn't go to "plan" - make the best of what came up and turn to plan B. Sometimes its better than A!
Our trip up the Pacific Coast Highway had a unfortunate encounter as we were planning it the weeks leading up. Mudslides shut the most gorgeous part of the highway off forcing us to move our trip inland to head north. As much of a fork in our plans this was, we did our best to research and came up with an alternative. And you know what, it ended up being better than we imagined! We were able to see a part of California that is beautiful in its own right (and does not receive enough credit) AND we still get to visit the monumental parts of the highway that were unaffected. And we know we can pick up from where we left off AND have a few other places to see in a little more detail!
Remember, its the journey not (always) the destination when you're planning to hit the open road. Make the best and enjoy every moment - the smallest ones will sometimes turn into the brightest memories without knowing you're actually making them!
Feel a little more ready for your trip? We sure hope you do! We know we didn't possibly cover everything that could to make these trips work. So if you have any suggestions you want to pass on, we'd love to hear - comment below!
Otherwise, happy and safe travels!
So you’ve decided to scrap the toy gifts and gift an experience ... but now, where do you start?
There’s really not a right or wrong to what to get, but you have to make sure that the gift is genuine and coming from YOU! Make sure that the gift of choice is something you’re willing to carve out the time to do, and that its the perfect gift for the child receiving.
Consider these points when making a gift choice -
1. Make it reasonable. Shopping for a toddler is very different than for an older kid, so make sure the experience is appropriate for the child of choice. There are places some kids can't enjoy because they don’t meet the age or height requirements, or it’s just no longer a right fit. Make sure whatever you’re planning on doing, it something the receiver would enjoy doing too!
2. Cost doesn’t matter! And by this, we don’t mean you have to splurge to make it special. The gift could easily be FREE! Bottom line, there isn’t a minimum or maximum to spend to make it the best gift ever! It’s the experience, not the price – DO NOT break the bank trying to get the right gift. Make it right for them and you!
There’s also an unspoken pact that you’re also picking up the child’s gift only. So if your child still needs parent accompaniment, don’t worry about picking up the parent or other siblings’ cost (unless you feel called to). There’s an understanding that sometimes we just need to be there but it’s not for us, it’s for them.
3. Make it memorable. Most of all, make sure that it’s something that will last forever. There should be no burden in the gift, only happy memories! And memories that fit the children at play.
Here are some of our favorite ideas that have either been given or received that we can recommend as a great starting point when shopping! I’ve outlined activities by price categories and at prices (current as of May 2019). The cost is for a single pass for the gift receiver (or a promo deal when noted), so remember the cost of your own and your child’s ticket too. And that all these can change - visit each particular companies website for current pricing.
Never underestimate the benefits you’re already paying for! Most annual passes have some kind of complimentary pass program, where a few will be handed out for use throughout the year. Use those perks to gift a priceless experience, especially for a child that doesn’t get to experience it!
And these are just a handful of what there is out there! Orlando has a lot more to offer that is popping up and can make an amazing experience gift (for adults too). We've only been able to get so far, but plan to keep searching for more one-of-a-kind dates!
Any big ideas we missed? Let us know so we can add to our list of gifts to give someone that wonderful experience!
When you're some of the biggest Disney fans, you've seen 2 of their 6 international locations, and you're an hour away, what do you do? You go,of course!
But how does Disneyland Paris stack up to the stateside parks? And how do you make the most of your time visiting a place that has to compete with the majestic history you're surrounded with in Europe.
Here's our take on getting the most of your Disneyland Paris visit!
Where to stay?
We chose to stay at a Disney hotel to capitalize on the on-site perks - proximity and Extra Magic Time. Disney has a plethora of properties, including 6 Disney hotels within walking distance of the parks and 2 Disney Nature hotels which are set further out and require a car to access. Disney also has a variety of Partner Hotels in the area that provide shuttle buses to the parks and may offer a little lower price per night of your stay.
We wanted some place that we could maximize our time at the resort and at the same time feel like we were getting an experience worth the price. We chose to stay at Disney's Newport Bay Club, a hotel right onsite and walking distance to Disney Village. Anyone familiar with the Walt Disney World set of hotels, Newport Bay is the equivalent of Yacht & Beach or Boardwalk, taking you back to a time of living on the water and enjoying the luxuries of full scale seaside resorts. The hotel is beautiful, just as her sister properties here in Orlando; and massive - we stayed on a wing that was quite a hike to get to, but that was located directly next to the indoor pool.
Deciding what you want out of a hotel is what works for your family. All Disneyland Paris hotels offer all-you-can-eat buffets and adult lounges on property, but not all have a quick service option for dining. We would have loved to have some of those conveniences, like an on-site restaurant for snacks on-the-go and a fridge in the room to store leftovers (or in our case, milk). Closest proximity to the park is the Disneyland Hotel, which would allow easiest access to the two parks and Disney Village. If you rather skip on big meals and have a fast option for food, then Disney's Hotel Cheyenne and Disney's Hotel Santa Fe both offer Starbucks on property, but are a little further out from the parks. Hotels with moderate pricing but with proximity to entertainment, Disney Sequoia Lodge & Disney's Hotel New York (currently rebranding to the Art of Marvel) should be considered. And if neither of those are in your price range, there are a host of offsite options, but you lose the perks that Disney gives you, like Extra Magic Time to enjoy attractions before the general public.
Disneyland Paris has also already started to implement extra security measures like scanning all bags (and people) before entering the hotel, which I applaud. It was our first touch of reality with the world we live in today; but it was welcome to see a proactive approach to make sure the magic isn't compromised.
Amount of Time?
This is all up to how much you want to do. We wanted the experience so we chose to end our trip here and wind down with some fun Disney days. We booked two nights because we wanted to enjoy two full days in the park. We arrived early enough to enjoy one park, leaving our bags with the porter and able to get settled in to our room after we finished our day.
The parks are located a walk away from the hotel, passing through Disney Village complex and then with a fork in the road to decide which way to go. The set up is very similar to Disneyland California and very convenient for anyone wanting to experience everything in one day. They have some of the big name restaurants they do stateside, like Rainforest Cafe, Planet Hollywood and McDonald's, but also have unique concepts like Annette's Diner (ode to the original Mouseketeer) and a character filled Wild West stage show at Buffalo's Bills.
If you want to spend any time checking out the night-time entertainment, there warrants an extra night just to enjoy a dinner show - and use that extra day to book an excursion to the surrounding area. Disney offers tours to chateaus and small countryside villages to get a taste of the beautiful region outside Paris that hosts their parks.
Disneyland Paris also offers great package deals that may also be worth skipping a stay in Paris and opting to make the commute to the city instead. We had considered this option when we found a package that would allow us to stay on property for 5 nights for the price of 3. The package also included tickets and granted children free admission - so ultimately we'd be getting a 5-day ticket & 5-night hotel stay for the whole family for the price of two adults on a 3-day package. One rate also included club level room, which would give you exclusive check-in and access to the club lounge, with refreshments and light appetizers served all day. In hindsight, the offer was too incredible to pass up - but we did, because we also knew we wanted to indulge in our first time in Paris. But someone wanting to shop savvy, it is every bit worth searching for a package like this!
Which Ticket to Get?
Absolutely buy tickets ahead of time and snag them on a deal, as they'll also be cheaper online than at the park. We had pre-purchased tickets off the Disneyland Paris site as they were running a deal that got Adults in for the price of Children tickets and we couldn't pass that up!
There are two parks to choose from, Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios. We opted to purchase a 1 Day Ticket for each park and completely immerse ourselves in that park. And personally, we felt like a day in each park was more than enough time!
The tickets are sold on an attendance calendar so depending on when you visit, the cheaper it is (weekdays early in summer run cheaper than weekends or late summer). The parks also operate on hours depending on season, with Walt Disney Studios Park closing earlier than the original. During our stay, Walt Disney Studios closed at 8pm on weekends and 6pm on weekdays, so we opted to do the newer park first to maximize our weekend day at the park. Disneyland Park remained open until midnight either day. Since we had one park tickets and we wanted to capitalize on our energy and the late hours, we opted to save Disneyland for last.
Walt Disney Studios Park
Walt Disney Studios is the newer park, and reminiscent of Hollywood Studios in Orlando. It houses two of the newer attractions, Crush's Coaster and Ratatouille, which were our main objectives to see. Just like Disneyland, Paris still has the old FastPass distribution system - you don't have a limit to how many you get in a day and you can get your next one after the distribution window on your ticket opens up (which is usually at the ride time). So if you're lucky and get a FastPass for the exact hour you're in (which is possible), you can also get another pass within a few minutes and ride back to back line-free rides.
We made our way in and went directly for Ratatouille since we wanted to all get on a ride together and this one was it. We got our FP and proceeded to ride other attractions in Pixar Place, an ode to Disney-Pixar films like Cars and Toy Story. There we spun on Luigi, had a Slinky Dog Dash and then made it back over to experience Ratatouille. The ride took us on a 3-D adventure in a mouse's point-of-view through the restaurant featured in the movie and the streets of Paris - it was adorable and left the kids squealing!
We caught a few other attractions we didn't have back home, including Disney Junior Live which had different cartoons featured than they do in Orlando, which was exciting for the kids to see! We also rode the underwhelming attractions of Armageddon and the Backstage Tour. The one thing we had high on our list to see before we left for the day was the coveted Mickey and Magician show, which was fantastic! Housed in a theater, this is a production including live singing and stage effects - it was amazing to see the caliber of show that Europe delivers and really can speak to the level of performance this culture relishes in.
The park itself is overshadowed by the Disneyland Hotel, so upon approaching it, you see the beautiful grounds of their flagship property, but no sign of the iconic castle. You pass under the hotel into the ticket turnstiles and only after crossing the official entry of the railroad station do you see Sleeping Beauty's castle.
The park is very reminiscent of Disneyland California, in its simplicity, attention to detail and accessiblity of attractions. It goes back to a simpler time when things weren't as rushed and the experience was greater than the exposure. It had all the classic rides you expect at any of the flagship parks, with enhancements like HyperSpace Mountain (which was unfortunately closed for maintenance during our visit). The park had also just celebrated its 25th anniversary, so it had a sense of grandeur still in the air to celebrate such an event.
The details are so clean and crisp, but it did lack a little of the magic you find back home. We tried to pinpoint what, and couldn't place our fingers on it until after we left - atmosphere music. We're so used to having music ushering us along and making the pace for our walk, that we failed to notice that the parks didn't have much. You heard the faint music from the attractions as you passed by, but as you walk between lands, taking in the park and existing in the moment, there's no soundtrack to live by. Us spoiled Disney kids really fail to see how wonderful something so simple as this is.
The parks also operate on the classic FastPass distribution system, much like Disneyland California. They do have limited attractions offering passes so waiting in lines may be inevitable. But the parks do not nearly have the waits that the stateside parks do, outside the more popular attractions which beckon visitors. It's absolutely worth waiting in line for those, and even more so for waiting for the shows. The performances here are all live and it is incredible to see the magic of that experience come to life. It is also worth noting that all shows are done in a mix of English and French dialogue, so it makes for a truly memorable experience to get a bit of each culture combined.
I could go on for days about our trip there, but I will let the pictures do the talking instead. If you ever have the opportunity and are even a bit of a Disney fan, take the day trip out here. You can take a metro from central Paris which will drop you off at the end of Disney Village and within a two minute walk to either park.
Any other tips?
Any Disney fan will agree, it is definitely worth the experience to see how cultures influence each of their parks worldwide. The parks are very similar but yet so unique in their own way. It brought us so much perspective to ride the Small World an ocean away and listen to the words with true relativity to our time here.
There is just one moon
And one golden sun
And a smile means
Friendship to ev'ryone
Though the mountains divide
And the oceans are wide
It's a small world after all
If visiting Disney is on your bucket list, make a stop here, its worth it. It's incredible to see what one man with a vision was able to create, all with one little mouse - that has changed the way the world experiences happiness.
So when you're taking a whirlwind European vacation and you're already 11 days in, what do you do?
Stay another 5 days in Paris.
Paris has been a dream of mine to visit. There's something about the city of love that just seems so appealing, and I jumped in to all the hype. And reality is that traveling within Europe is cheap! For the 4 of us to board a one way to Paris on a reputable airline with no strings attached (Air France) cost us $200 dollars (not Euros) TOTAL. We looked at possibly taking the Eurorail but the cost would've been relatively the same and the trip 4x as long. So we pulled out our passports and made our way to Fiumincio and prepared for another half day of travel.
Rome to Paris
Traveling out of the airport in Rome was one of the easiest experiences I've had in my entire life. We got dropped off at the part of the airport for "domestic" travelers - going in and abound Europe. We found the neatly lined desk with the Air France branding and promptly hopped in line for our Delta Medallion perks. Finding an airline that has partnerships and shared benefits is ... amazing! Our section already didn't have a long line, but in true European fashion no one was in a rush. It's not a horrible mindset to live by but we had two little ones in tow that had not had breakfast and standing in line to drop off our luggage was not how we wanted to spend more time. So our nice Medallion line had us seen right away, got our luggage priority boarded, and even got us special access to a security line that was minimally evasive and very quick. Ultimately, from the moment we arrived to the airport through security was no more than 20 minutes. Ah-ma-zing.
We had plenty of down time though, because we always planned with more time to spare just in case. And I'll say this, FCO is not a horrible airport to spend extra time in. It is absolutely immaculate and very kept up with! We found a bistro upstairs and grabbed ourselves a brunch with a mini bottle of wine each as relaxed & discussed all the possibilities in France. This leg of the trip we not planned to a tee, yet. We wanted the flexibility to change our plans, but we also knew there were certain things we wanted to do - like a champagne river cruise of Paris at sunset the night we arrived. Otherwise, we didn't have anything else set in stone (except our final stop)!
Our arrival to Charles De Gaulle was uneventful and very efficient. We were picked up by our driver, slightly late, but quickly escorted to the car. We were on the outskirts of the city so for the most part, the drive was relatively bland - we felt we could be anywhere else. But approaching the Paris proper and seeing the buildings age and become more detailed and ornate was ... breathtaking. We anxiously awaited spotting *the tower* for the first time, which we knew was going to be a sight in itself. But unfortunately, we didn't spot it and knew we'd have to wait until that night.
Our home in Paris was an adorable boutique hotel off Champs Elysees, Hotel Balmoral. We were two blocks from the Arc de Triomphe, so we always had prime view of its towering glory. But best of all, we were only a block from a metro stop. Once again, based off the size of our group, we got a suite on the top floor. But even by hotel room sizes, it was generous. We walked into living space with a flat screen TV, espresso maker, bistro table and with a loveseat that was turned into a bed every night. The substantial sized bathroom was right off the front door and had enough room for a family to utilize; so we could shower and get ready at the double sink all at the same time. Then to the left of the living room was a bedroom with closet space and another flat screen TV. Both main rooms had a little terrace to overlook the neighborhood, and it was as perfectly Parisian as you'd imagine.
We left the hotel to grab and early dinner/very late lunch and start some of our exploring. We ate at Le Vin Cœur, a bar/bistro right near our hotel and ordered anything traditionally French off the menu. Who would've known that steak sandwich (aka hamburger) was a French staple? But sure enough, the kids wanted to try and that's what they got ... with appropriately enough french fries (steak frites)! Chris and I decided on sharing escargot and a cheese platter. And of course have a glass of French wine to accompany all our delacies. The bistro was as French as it came. The waiters vaguely paid attention to us, patrons dined on their own and read the paper, and very often wines paired perfectly with cigarettes. It was so unlike anything American and I was loving it. Paris was so far off to a great start.
After our meal, we made it to the metro after a short walk down Champs Elysses to take the train to Port de l'Arsenal, where we would board our Seine River Cruise. With time to spare, there was a playground near by where we let the kids frolic for a bit before we did a little walk of the area to get our barings. The port is pretty standard with boat docks, many of them private and not much to see. But there was a lively bar/restaurant next to our dock where you could grab drinks as you waited, and though we would were inclined to partake, there were no other kids in the outdoor crowd, so we weren't going to invite ours.
We boarded our champagne cruise with drink in hand and opted to sit outside with prime views of left, right, straight ahead and up above. We learned that the water levels throughout the water ways in Paris vary, so we'd have to go through a lock system to start our tour. It definitely took a little time to go through, but what a fascinating process to teach the kids about, watching water levels officially change before making your way out to the main river.
Paris by boat is stunning, consuming and something I'd absolutely recommend doing to anyone. Especially at sunset. We didn't bank for night falling closer to 11PM though, despite summer hours. Our cruise boarded at 9, so we were in it for the long haul - but when 9 looked more like 5 we started doubting how soon we'd see the City of Lights shine. I won't divulge too much about the sights we took in, as words cannot explain how glorious it really is.
I mean, take a look for yourself -
But there are two things you have to note and the rest experience yourself:
1. Capturing that first view of the Eiffel Tower, regardless of how or where you are, is breathtaking! There's no way to explain the mix of joy, astonishment and true appreciation for where you are until you see such a monument firsthand.
2. Paris looks like it was hand-painted and you're walking through it, like a scene straight out of Mary Poppins. There's no way a city can be this beautiful. And I hope every single Parisian wakes up and appreciates the true beauty their city possesses and cares for it like a new toy for many years to come.
Our first night ended in a perfect way just by hap and circumstance. We left our river cruise with two sleeping babes in our arms. We knew we wouldn't make it with a walk back to the hotel, so we stood in line for a taxi. We were in line no longer than 5 minutes when a cab appeared and the family in front of us proceeded to enter. The driver called our attention in French, yelling "bébé" and motioning for them to leave and for us to come. We were by no means needing a cab based of our short time there, but his gesture warmed our hearts - taking care of our young kids to make sure they got home in the witching hour - there was not a more beautiful way for love to transcend language barriers. As slightly embarrassed as we felt to take someone else's cab, the ride was perfect - we rode with windows down with a slight chill in the air, gently playing classical music as we drove the immaculate streets of Paris. Nothing felt more Parisian than taking in the city of lights than with my two little loves in my arm being taken straight back to our abode by the sweetest Parisian we'd meet all trip.
Paris Day 2
After a good night's sleep, we were up to do more exploring, this time headed to Montmarte, the highest point in the city to take a bird's eye view of Paris. We decided to walk there, since we were only a short two miles from our peak, and we wanted to feel like locals and take in the sights up close. It was an experience to see the city slightly change as we changed neighborhoods but still continue to have the charm and appeal that beckons its visitors. We passed dated metro signs that you see in the Paris of old; we encountered street musicians playing the sounds that we will remember our trip by; we walked by street cafes in full Parisian style - drink in one hand, cigarette in the other; we walked quickly past patisserie that beckoned us in, but after a breakfast full of croissants, hazelnuts, and sugar we had to pass (for now); we basked in front of iconic Moulin Rouge in all its former glory (be warned though its neighbors aren't as glorisous); we hiked (literally) up stairs as we rose the elevation to get to the highest peak. We finally made it Montmarte where we were welcomed by Basilique du Sacré-Cœur and turned around to find a full view of Paris. It was exactly what we hoped for after the 3 mile walking tour we took ourselves on. If walking isn't for you, there's a Metro gondola right at the bottom of the hill that takes you all the way up; and your Paris Metro pass get you with a swipe!
From there, we decided to delight the kids, since they had yet to encounter an operating carousel and take them on a "train" ride through Montmarte. The trip would take us back down to the main strip near Moulin Rouge for an opportunity to get to learn about this region and all it had to offer. It was truly a cute way for us to delight in Paris and get to do something a little different and very relaxing; traveling with kids is about this. Compromise. You have to know when to cut your losses and do what can keep them engaged as well. After finishing our tour it was time for lunch, a late one at that - and we decided to head towards Jardin des Tuileries to delight them a little more.
We took the metro to the Madeleine district, where we decided on Café Madeleine for lunch before the park. It looked like an American diner met a Parisian cafe and its animated atmosphere called us in. We were quickly and tightly seated in a booth made for two (but that's everywhere in Europe) and had the liveliest of servers. He kept the kids entertained with his antics and broken English questions to them, and we ordered a fantastic meal of more steak sandwiches & frites, French onion soup and I got the tastiest raspberry meets strawberry adult drink you could ask for!
With a quick walk to Jardin des Tuileries, we passed the Opera and the glorious sites that this side of town hosts. This definitely an area of elite and it was beautiful. If you need a recommendation of where to consider staying, the 1st or 8th arrondissement are both in locations prime for sightseeing; and especially with kids, you are in the proximity of lovely parks, full of delights to allow them to run off any energy. That's what Tuileries brought to us on arrival, a chance to let them run around a play. The gardens line up to the Louvre (but not the iconic pyramid that sits in front of it), so we got a look at the museum in all its glory. It wasn't on our list of things to do, because frankly, with kids we couldn't. But I have no regrets, especially after our experience at the Vatican and how crowded it was, it was a welcome blessing to be able to say we were okay without it.
Jardin des Tuileries has carousels and playgrounds for climbing, along with being dotted with cafes and full of people strolling. While they burned their energy, we decided we were going to have a picnic on Champ de Mars for dinner and make it a point to see the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night. Nothing sounded more enticing than to pack our own bag, bring our own wine, and enjoy a quiet night sprawled on the grass as the tower lit up. So we hurried the kids up and headed back to the hotel for some down time and quick naps, because tonight we were going to stay up until midnight. We had to - the night before it only lit up, and we missed it twinkle. And tonight the tower would sparkle every hour on the hour starting at 11 and we needed to see it!
Timing couldn't have been better - a quick trip to the corner grocery store and we packed up meats, cheese, bread, and bottles of very good (& very inexpensive) wine for us! Then at around 8pm we hopped back on the Metro with the Eiffel Tower as our final destination so we could enjoy play time in the park and have a relaxed evening while we waited for her to glow. And that we did have. We stumbled on a playground right next to Champ de Mars where E made a friend, who spoke zero English, while she spoke no French. But they played together nicely and you wouldn't know that language was even a barrier. We easily lost track of time around 9 because the night just throws you off with its showing off. When out of nowhere we hear the roar of the crowd because the tower lit up! And to our surprise, it was sparkling! The night before we were told it wouldn't do so until nightfall, and here we were at 10pm sitting on the Champ and watching this magnificent tower glitter with the most magical sunset to paint the sky. This was breathtaking. And more than anything we could've dreamt of.
Paris Day 3
We used the next morning to sleep in a little and have "breakfast in bed" to wind down from the late night. Today we were off to see Notre Dame and spend the day exploring Luxembourg Gardens. The day started off cold, cloudy and rainy, but it didn't stop us. We had dealt with this and we had more exploring we wanted to do. So we walked to see Our Lady where we did our own guided tour of the cathedral and relished in all its beauty. It was overcrowded as anything else we experienced, but it didn't make it any less of an honor to be there, standing inside of history in all its glory.
After touring Notre Dame, we headed over to get the one coveted meal I wanted on this trip - crepes! We found a place in Quartier Latin, Le Creperie which was perfect more than just by its name. I got as I wished - a Nutella crepe with strawberries accompanied by a mimosa; Chris ordered a savory ham & cheese crepe to balance out our meal, and if I could, I would have ordered more! We decided to burn those much needed calories with a walk to Luxembourg Gardens, followed by some play time.
Luxembourg Gardens is similar to Tuileries in that its an immaculate garden with public access but a lot more family friendly. Upon entering the gardens, we found boat racing going on in the Grand Bassin duck pond - we needed to join in! So for about 5 Euros your kids can rent toy boats for 30 minutes and enjoy sailing them against each other. After racing, we ventured around and stumbled on to a playground, but unlike Tuileries, this one was not free. A cover charge of 1 Euro per person (adults included), got you access to a gated playground - the Mecca of all playgrounds! This place was massive; from sand pits to swings and slides, every corner there was a different set of playground equipment to be devoured by kids. Ours were in heaven!
And quite honestly, this became the best way to end the trip. We decided to call it an early evening, have another picnic dinner at the hotel and prepare for an early wake up call for the last leg and probably the most anticipated by the kids - Disneyland Paris!
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!
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 ...