Tag Archives: traveling

Travel Woes

train-sleeping

Last night we got home from a long weekend in Stuttgart, Germany and it was really great.  This was our sixth country in the last year and we are all really getting good at navigating unfamiliar places, trying out phrases in new languages, and sampling new foods. 

But we’re also learning that not every trip can go well.  Our weekend in France in May was our first real experience with a major travel snafu, and we’ve been really lucky in the last 15 months that we can point out just ONE time that things got messed up pretty badly.

Last night would be time number two.

Flight delays happen all the time.  We’ve experienced them more times than I can count.  But sometimes they just really, really suck.

Our flight home was scheduled to leave Stuttgart at 8:50PM on Sunday night.  We got to the airport reallllllly early because we wanted to eat a full dinner before getting on the plane, not just an airport snack.  We had almost three hours from the time we had checked our bags and gotten through security to the time we were supposed to board the flight, and that was largely by design so we could sit and eat at a restaurant in the airport without any stress about making it to our gate.  We ate slowly and leisurely, even getting coffees and hot chocolates after the meal, and walked to our gate without incident about 30 minutes before we were supposed to board.  And then, about 15 minutes later, they made the announcement that the flight was delayed an hour and ten minutes, putting our new estimated departure at 10PM.

It’s no big deal to have a flight delayed.  Sure, it’s annoying, but it happens.  For this particular trip, though, we were flying in and out of an airport on the opposite side of London from where we live.  Once we landed, we’d have to take a train from the airport into London, transfer to the Underground to get to Kings Cross station, and take another train out to the station near our house where our car was parked.  In total, it took us about 2.5 hours to get from our car to the airport on the way out to Germany.  That’s a long time to travel tacked on to the time you’re already spending in the airport. 

We bought the tickets from the further airport because the prices were so good — half the cost of flying from the airport closer to our house.  And though we’d never flown out of this further airport, we knew people who did use it and it seemed like no big deal.  Unfortunately, we didn’t take into consideration the toll it would take to travel for so long with luggage and the four kids, transferring trains, waiting on platforms, hoping to find seats, managing bathroom trips, etc.  It was fine, but it meant we basically left home at noon to just make it on time for a 5:40PM flight out on the way to Germany.

Now we were sitting in Germany facing a flight that wouldn’t leave until 10PM and even once we got to London we’d still have 2.5 hours of travel ahead of us to get home.  Suddenly the good deal on plane tickets didn’t seem so good anymore.

In addition, because we’d be arriving so late we had to determine if there were even trains still running to get us where we needed to go.  Matt searched the timetables and found the schedule for the airport express into London.  The last train left at 12:15AM.  We should be able to make that train, then we’d have to switch to the underground and get to Kings Cross to make the final train out toward our house, which would leave the station at 1:35AM and arrive at our destination at 2:50AM.  Then we’d have to drive the 15 minutes home.  At best, we’d get in at just after 3AM.  At worst, we’d have to get hotel rooms in London for the night and then make the trek during Monday rush hour with all the kids and the luggage.  I could almost see Matt’s skin crawling with the thought of that.

To complicate things, the flight was delayed another hour, with a new estimated departure at 10:49PM.  We realized that if we landed by 11:15PM (London is an hour earlier than Germany) and could get through passport control, customs, and get our baggage, plus make our way from the North terminal of the airport we’d land in to the South terminal where the train station was located in 45 minutes, we could get the last train into the city.  Basically we’d have to hope the passport lines were quick and we’d have to run for it. But if we were late at all, there was simply no way to make it to all the connections and get home that night.

As we sat in the airport in Stuttgart after a long three days of walking and exploring and the clock ticked later and later, the kids started to nod off.  Quinn fell fast asleep.  When we finally got the word to board, he was simply out cold and wouldn’t be woken up, so I had to carry him onto the tram that took us across the tarmac and then up the flight of stairs onto the plane.  He never woke up.  In fact, he slept through the whole flight.  The rest of the kids fell asleep within minutes of take-off.  I knew though, that we had HOURS of traveling ahead of us, so although I closed my eyes and dozed a few times, I couldn’t fall asleep because I felt like that would just be worse.  It’s easier for me to power through than to get some sleep and then have to wake up and run again.

When we landed, we woke up all the kids because they’d have to be able to be awake to get through passport control.  We speed-walked to the baggage claim, got our bags right away, and made our way as fast as possible to passport control, but the lines were already long.  As we stood there watching the minutes tick by, Matt went and checked with one of the agents to be sure we were eligible, and then went online and registered for priority clearance — which we had to pay for — so we jumped out of the long line and into a very short line.  We probably saved 30 minutes of standing in line, but even still, at that point we had less than 10 minutes to get across the airport to the train station, buy tickets, and get on the 12:15AM train that was the last express into the city.  We RAN.  The kids, exhausted and groggy, were absolutely awesome.  We made it literally by seconds, dashing down the escalator into the open train doors just before they closed.

Then we had an hour train ride into Victoria Station, where we’d transfer to the tube, get to Kings Cross, and finally head home.  The kids crashed out on the train, sitting on their luggage and sleeping with their heads leaned up against each other because the train was full and we didn’t have seats.

We made it to Victoria Station, but realized that the Underground had already stopped for the night.  It was 1AM, and we stood outside the station with our four kids and all our bags and saw the taxi line of people in similar situations waiting to get in cabs.  We knew we wouldn’t make it to our train in Kings Cross if we had to wait, so instead of getting in the cab line, we walked out to the main road and called an Uber.  Our driver was 7 minutes away.  When he arrived, we explained that we had to get to Kings Cross to make the 1:35AM train or we were stuck in the city — and he was so great about trying to get us there in time.  I watched the ETA on the Uber app on my phone — it literally had us arriving at Kings Cross at 1:33AM, then went up to 1:36AM — TOO LATE — and back down to 1:32AM again as we drove through the quiet late-night city.  We still had to unload our luggage from the Uber and buy the train tickets, too, so even with 3 minutes to spare we were cutting it close.

As soon as we pulled up I grabbed my suitcase which had been by my feet in the Uber and ran into the station to get tickets as Matt unloaded the rest of the bags and got the kids.  He checked the platform on the departure screens — which was easy because it was the only train still listed, the last of the night — and got the kids running toward the correct platform while I hit the ticket machine.  A guard at the station saw me frantically trying to get the right number of tickets and yelling to Matt and the kids to keep going and I would get there, and asked if I needed help. 

“We just need to be on that 1:35 train!” I gasped.  I didn’t pay much more attention, but I do think he called over to the engineer on the platform.

I finally got the tickets ordered; they printed individually, painfully slowly, and I flat out sprinted through the deserted train station to catch up to my family. 

Matt and the kids were climbing on to the train as I ran down the platform.  I looked up at the clock at the end and it said 1:34:32 as I jumped through the doors.  The engineer on the platform blew his whistle as I climbed on board, and the doors instantly closed behind me.  We had made it with less than 30 seconds to spare.

The kids fell asleep again almost instantly, but I was so adrenaline fueled, it took me a little while to calm down.  We made it back to our station, woke the kids again with some difficulty, trudged out to our car and loaded up the bags and drove home, pulling into our driveway at 3:10AM.

This will become one of those family stories, I think, that we tell again and again — at least this isn’t as bad as that one trip home from Germany! — but it is not something I want to repeat.  We’ve learned that a good deal on flights isn’t always a good deal, because we have to take a lot of other factors into consideration.

We also learned, though, that when we’re in a tight spot, we can make things work.  To be honest, I would probably have given up on trying to get home while we were standing in the passport line with 10 minutes left to get on the last train into London.  But Matt SO did not want to spend a night in a hotel, which would have cost hundreds of extra pounds because we always need two rooms with our big family, and then make the 2.5 hour train trip home on Monday morning during rush hour with luggage and children.  He really, really needed to try to make it home.  So we all rallied and ran and weaved through crowds in the airport and lugged suitcases down escalators even though we were exhausted and the kids were dead on their feet.  At one point on the train from the airport into London, Owen just stood there crying silently because he was so tired he just wanted to lie down and go to sleep.  But he pulled it together, wiped his eyes, and made the last bit of the trip without complaining.  I was really proud of him and of all of us.

Matt and I have learned a lot in the last year, about ourselves, our children, our strengths and weaknesses, about traveling and down time and how we want to shape our lives.  Last night was just another lesson.  Even though it sucked while we were in it, it was also a victory because we did it — WE MADE IT HOME!

But next time, we’re flying out of the close airport, even if the tickets are 5x more.


Also, our terrible initial arrival in London a year ago.


 

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A Weekend in Paris

Rainy Paris

At the end of May my kids had a school break that coincided with a long weekend for Matt, so we decided to make the most of it and head to Paris for the weekend.  Since we’d done so many tourist-heavy things in Italy, much of not really child-centered, we wanted to make this weekend mostly for the kids and spend two of the three days in Disneyland Paris.

Overall the weekend was fine.  We enjoyed it and all the children want to go back to Paris.  But let’s just say that not every trip can go perfectly.

We arrived late on Friday night and had a car service booked to take us to an Airbnb just outside the Disney park.  Since we arrived so late, the property manager had left our keys and instructions with the host at a restaurant near the apartment.  We arrived, picked up our packet, and followed the directions to the property.  When we got to the correct floor and looked for apartment #222 as was listed in our instructions, we found that the apartment numbers only went as high as 210.  Reluctant to try the keys in multiple doors in case people were in those apartments and thought we were breaking in, we checked #202 just in case that was the typo, and were unable to get in.  Unfortunately, our phones weren’t working either, despite having gone to the service provider earlier in the week to make sure we knew the procedure for getting data and cell service abroad.

It was about 10:30PM, so we found a restaurant with WiFi and emailed and texted the phone numbers for the property managers.  But, since it was 10:30PM on a Friday night, we doubted we’d hear back.  With no other options, we searched online for a nearby hotel.  Thankfully, because we were so close to Disney, there were plenty of options.  We walked to the closest one, paid double what the Airbnb had cost us for a night, and finally got into a room and put down our suitcases at about midnight.  The big reason we always use Airbnb is that, with six family members, one hotel room is usually not big enough.  This hotel DID have a suite that slept us all, gratefully, but we paid a pretty penny for it.  At that point in the night, though, we had no other option and were just grateful the hotel had vacancies.

Sometime in the middle of the night, the property manager obviously got my message and responded saying she was sorry about the mix-up and hoped we had figured it all out.  No correct apartment number included. 

The next morning I saw the message and I was pissed.  My response was that NO, we had not figured it all out, still had no idea what apartment we were supposed to be in, and had had to pay for a hotel room.  Eventually she got us the correct info and we made our way back to the apartment building and got inside.  Unwilling to let the delays destroy our weekend, we hopped on the train at a nearby station and took the 35-minute ride into Paris.

From that point, the day was lovely; the children loved the city and so did Matt, who had also never been.  We strolled the banks of the Seine, saw Notre Dame, toured an underground ruin, and had a yummy lunch.  We walked miles and the kids never complained.

kids at Louvre

Having checked the weather forecast before leaving for Paris, we knew the whole weekend looked very rainy.  We came prepared in waterproof coats, and the temps were only in the 50s.  Paris is lovely in any conditions, so we didn’t let the occasional drizzle stop us.  We walked BY the Louvre, stopping outside to check out the fountains and the pyramid, but we didn’t go in.  We strolled through the Jardin du Tuileries, let the kids ride the carousel and play on the playground, and had a delicious pastry-break at Angelina Paris where we drank the most delicious hot white chocolate imaginable.  After our snack, we caught a ride in a giant, motorized bike taxi (that fit all of us!) down to the Eiffel Tower. 

Standing under the Eiffel Tower for the first time is pretty awe-inspiring.  Nevermind the fact that it’s one of the most famous sites in the world, it’s sheer size is just so much more massive than I ever anticipated.  It’s just huge and incredible.  Watching the kids and Matt’s amazement as they saw it for the first time was even better than seeing it myself.

Gabe at Eiffel Tower

Because we’d planned this trip pretty late, tickets for the Eiffel Tower had been all sold out online for the day we’d be there.  But the rainy, cold weather worked in our favor and when we arrived at the base of the tower, there were no lines at all!  We walked right up, purchased tickets, and started climbing.  We made it to the second level, where there’s a shop and a restaurant and some really cool views, but the line to get all the way to the very top WAS quite long.  With the fog and rain, we also doubted the view would be much better.  Walking up the Eiffel Tower was one of my favorite adventures yet because we’d been so sure we wouldn’t be able to do it, it was a fantastic surprise when we could.

climbing the eiffel tower

Coincidentally, an old friend of mine from high school was also in Paris that weekend, so we met him and his girlfriend for dinner.  As we sat in the restaurant, the drizzle turned to real rain, and the rain turned into a downpour.  We caught a cab to the train station to make our way out of the city back toward Disney, and the rain just kept on falling.

We spent the next two days soaking wet right to the bone in Disneyland Paris.  We made the very best of it — we went on tons of rides and had lots of fun — but that kind of weather makes it hard to really enjoy the scenery.  I don’t think I could tell you what most of the park looks like, because I spent the whole two days with my hood up and my head down as we walked between rides.  We laughed and splashed in puddles and tried to remain positive, we hung our wet clothes to dry overnight, and we did it all again for a second day, but it was certainly not the trip of our dreams.

Disney Paris

By Wednesday, after we’d been home a few days and the rain in France continued to fall, we watched the news report historic flooding in Paris as the Seine crested its bank and the Louvre and Musee D’Orsay were forced to move art from certain parts of the museums to save it from the rising waters. 

In the end, it was a good trip and it proved that conditions don’t have to be ideal for us to have a good time.  Not every trip can go smoothly from start to finish.  Now we just need to go back to Paris and enjoy it in the sunshine!


Also, a weekend in Edinburgh and a girls’ weekend in Paris!


Italy, Part Four: The Amalfi Coast

Amalfi Coast with kids

Of all the traveling decisions we made on this vacation, hiring a car service to get us to the Amalfi Coast was the best one; the ride is gorgeous, but harrowing.  Extremely narrow roads skirt cliff edges all along the coast and the guard rails leave a bit to be desired.  Local drivers speed along these tiny roads and pass anyone going too slow — we saw cars overtaking slower drivers even while going through the narrow tunnels cut into the cliffside. 

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Giant tour buses have to make three-point turns at certain switchbacks where the buses can’t make the 180-degree turn in one go.  It was terrifying.  I white-knuckled it through the entire trip and had to close my eyes a few times as we wound around the hairpin turns.  Our driver though, thought nothing of it — he lived there his whole life and this was simply second nature for him. 

The scenery was AMAZING and the destination was well-worth the drive.  My absolute recommendation though is to leave that trip to the experts and hire a car!

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We stayed in a beautiful Airbnb apartment in the lovely village of Praiano, which is situated on the coast right between Positano and Amalfi.  We were there just before the real tourist season began, so Praiano, much smaller and more residential than it’s two more well-known neighbors, was very, very quiet.  In fact, it was almost too quiet — during the high season I would DEFINITELY stay there rather than in Positano or Amalfi, which are packed to the gills with tourists, but in the off-season, very little in Praiano was open.  Live and learn.

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Praiano is an absolutely gorgeous village though, and we loved our apartment — the view from the porch was pretty hard to beat.

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While on the Amalfi coast, we wanted to relax a bit, do less touring of important sights, and just take in some of the natural beauty of the area.  We spent a day on the beach in Positano, which was gorgeous, and although the water was way too cold for me, the kids got in and loved it.  Positano was such a lovely town — there were great shops and cool restaurants and all the pretty pastel-hued houses are built into the side of the mountain, some practically hanging out over the water.

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On our second day there, which happened to be Quinn’s 6th birthday, we hiked the Path of the Gods, an amazing and famous walking trail that winds along the top of the ridge from Amalfi to Positano and offers breath-taking views of the Mediterranean and the rocky coast. 

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There is a path the intersects the long hiking trail in Praiano, so rather than go to Amalfi to start, we simply walked up the mountainside from our little house and joined the trail about 2/3 of the way through.  In order to get to the trail, though, we had to climb 1,000 steps from the road in Praiano up to the hilltop where we joined the official “Path of the Gods”.  The steps were steep, unevenly spaced and of irregular height, and some were crumbling away a bit.  And, as with everything in Europe, there were no guardrails or handrails. 

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About twenty minutes into our climb, I began to seriously doubt our decision-making; I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to make it all the way up with the four kids.  My legs were burning from all the stairs, some of which were tall for even me to step up to, so they were really tall for the children.  And I was nervous about the kids’ lack of fear — I didn’t want to scare them so they weren’t enjoying the hike, but I did want them to understand that caution was required.  Since we didn’t know how far we’d really gone and how far ahead the stairs joined the walking trail, I was hesitant to suggest turning back in case going on was a shorter, less precarious route.  Although neither Matt nor I actually mentioned turning back during our hike, we both admitted afterwards that we considered it.

I’m so glad we didn’t.

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We made it up the stairs and joined the Path of the Gods, and walked the next few miles along the ridge line overlooking the terraced farms of vineyards and lemon orchards and the impossibly blue Mediterranean. 

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The weather was perfect.  The views were amazing.  And not once did any of the children complain.  I have had quite a few proud moments as a mother, but this day, this hike, ranks high on the list.

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The following day we took a boat trip to Capri.  Boarding from the little beach in Praiano, we spent about 2.5 hours cruising across the Mediterranean on the way to, and then encircling, the island of Capri.  It. Was. AMAZING.  IMG_1379

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The water is ludicrously blue, the boat went straight into some of the caves and grottos around the island, and I could happily have spent the entire day on the boat just cruising around. 

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The island of Capri was beautiful, as well — and all the cabs had convertible tops! We didn’t do many of the recommended tourist attractions there, though.  All we did was take a stroll through the adorable and quaint main part of town, have some lunch and, of course, gelato.

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Then we walked down the hill to a lovely beach where Matt and I plunked down on the smooth rocks (no sand on this beach) and the kids joyfully plunged into the (freezing) sea. 

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The Amalfi Coast was by far one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited and if we had planned correctly, we’d have flown straight home after our relaxing few days there. 

Instead, though, we headed back to Rome for one more night.  While it was lovely, we were all quite over the tourist-ing.  The kids didn’t want to see another single sight (although we did force march them to the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, both of which were very cool but ridiculously crowded).  We were done with restaurants (although we did head back to Trastevere and have one more amazing meal).  We were tired.  We were ready to go home. 

Our trip to Italy was, in a single word, epic.  It has now moved into first place on my list of favorite countries, and I can’t wait to go back.


Also, read about our other Italian Adventures: Rome, Florence, and Naples!


 

Did You Miss Me?

climbing the eiffel tower

Climbing the Eiffel Tower!

I didn’t set out last month to take a blogging break, but that’s what happened.  Nothing major occurred, just a lot of everyday stuff that took precedence.  Life is busy this time of the year and something had to give.  Hopefully I’m back up and running now.

This has been a month of chilly, wet weather, cricket matches, a bit of travel, and lots of end-of-the-year school events.

We traveled to Paris for three days, which was…interesting.  I’ll go into more details later, but let’s just say that not every trip can go smoothly.

Bridget had her final exams in school — although she’s only in the equivalent of American 6th grade, they had the whole month of May homework-free in order to study.  Then she had an exam week right before Memorial Day and took a total of something like sixteen exams; it was remarkably similar to a finals week in American high school, except with MORE tests than I ever remember taking in one week.  It was intense.  Although she had a few freak-outs over the course of the month, overall she handled the added responsibility just as she has handled everything else throughout the rest of this school year: with remarkable maturity and impressive organization.  She ACED the exams, coming back with the 3rd highest overall exam average in her year.  To say I am proud of this child would be a laughable understatement.

The children had an awards day at each of their schools.  Bridget earned the Academic Achievement award for her class.  Gabriel was given the “Most Improved” award, and Quinn received the Effort award.  Matt and I were basically popping with pride.  I think Owen felt a bit badly that he didn’t get any awards, but we assured him that we were proud of him anyway (and possibly may have reminded him that he has to actually, consistently, put his best effort in if he wants to be rewarded in school).  The awards ceremonies were followed by champagne and canapes at the Castle (which, remember, is the central building of the school). ‘Cause that’s how we roll here.  American schools are going to feel so lame after this.

west lawn cocktails

The British spring has been grey and cold, but the sun is shining this week and it finally feels like the end of the school year is nigh and summer might be here.  Our last day is July 6th, obviously late by U.S. standards, but a full two weeks earlier than British state schools.  I am looking forward to summer vacation.  I’m looking forward to a more relaxed schedule, and I’m looking forward to getting back to writing.


Also, I may be busy, but at least I’m not 20+ hours-per-week-at-the-baseball-field-busy


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