As a few already know, we have arrived back home safe and sound and are enjoying seeing familiar faces again. Our Scotland wedding and our sessions in Italy were better than we could’ve dreamed, and we can’t say how grateful we are for the blessings of these experiences. However, as many know, international travel with children doesn’t always feel like a blessing. Today we’re going to share some of the funny, unfortunate and slightly embarrassing things we’ve #learnedthehardway through our travels. Hopefully this will be entertaining and perhaps even helpful for your future travel adventures!
- Order kids meals when booking an international flight
When making an international 8 to 10 hour flight, it is preferable to be able to feed your children a solid meal before hopefully they fall asleep for a few hours. Somehow, this year we didn’t check the appropriate box when booking our flights for two kids meals. Needless to say, grilled pork sausage with bramley apple sauce, buttered spring onion mash, carrots, peas and gravy was not exactly what our boys were expecting to see sitting on their tray tables. So neither of our boys ate dinner that night, instead snacked on the potato chips and cookies I had packed from home. Thank the Lord for movies. At least they were distracted from their rumbling bellies.
2. Read up on Street Signs – They may be in another language!
If you like the idea of being self-sufficient and want the experience of driving in a foreign country, you may want to consider doing some homework and reading up on the meanings of street signs. Seems rather obvious right? Well… the first time we went to Italy, got our rental car, made it about a quarter mile down the road, we then shrieked upon our first arrival at a toll plaza! We had no idea what lane to enter, what any of the words meant, I’m not even sure we had euros yet… eeeeekkkkk!!!!
Now we giggle a little bit every time we pull up to a toll plaza because it’s relatively simple once you know that cassa means cash and carte means card. Knowing enter & exit signs, road closed signs, & pedestrian only signs is quite helpful. We got a ticket in Florence once because we drove down a pedestrian only road. There are cameras everywhere, and they’re happy to put a friendly ticket in the mail that you receive upon arriving home.
3. Hotel keys give you Power
This is something we seem to forget every year. For most of our trip we stay in houses we’ve found on AirB&B or VRBO, but at some point throughout our travels we’ll stay one or two nights in a hotel. When we arrived in Milan our first year in Italy, we couldn’t figure out why none of the lights were working in our hotel room. We walked around flipping every switch on and off. We then checked all the lamps. The air was on so we knew we had power. The receptionist at the front spoke ok English, but we were a bit afraid to call down and talk to her over the phone! I think it was Paul who finally noticed this small black box by the door. It has a small slit in it but nothing else. Paul slid the key in the slit and voila!! All the lights came on! You see, Italians are very energy efficient so when you leave your room, all the power turns off behind you. Hopefully this will help save you that scary few helpless minutes upon entering your first Italian hotel!
4. Strollers in Venice
I’m going to give you a visual most of you will recognize… you know when you end up at Disney on a rainy day? Parents are in ponchos they just paid $20 for yet are still drenched, kids are in strollers pulling the cover down in front of them, or those super unlucky kids in the umbrella strollers that are soaked and have the most pitiful looks on their faces??? Yep… you all know what tragic moment I’m talking about. We experienced this moment, but worse, one year in Venice. Our youngest was 3 and so a stroller was definitely needed for traveling. But upon arrival in Venice, the sky opened up and a torrential downpour ensued. That year we packed way too much so I was rolling two bags, our 6 year old was rolling a bag, and Paul had a rolling back PLUS a stroller with Brasher in it! In VENICE! There are 420 small bridges in Venice… and no ramps. Venice floods very quickly too so within just a few short moments, the water seemed to have already risen to our ankles. So we trudged through the narrow unfamiliar streets, drug our bags through the rising water, and Paul somehow managed to lift the stroller over the bridges with one hand and rolled a large suitcase with the other. TRAGIC.
Now, the rain you can’t avoid. But too many rolling bags and not being prepared with how difficult a stroller can be, you can. If you must bring a stroller, we suggest you bring an umbrella-style, light weight one that can fold up easily and you can manage lifting it with a child in it over the bridges. If you can bring a baby backpack where the child could ride, this is ideal, at least on the main island.
5. Dropping of rental cars
In the States, if you have a really early flight and need to return a rental car, there’s always a drop box, right? Drop the keys in, get your trash out, and you’re on your way. Not always the case in Europe, as we found out. On this year’s trip, we arrived at the Venice Mestre train station at 6:45am to make sure we had enough time to return the car and catch our 7:30 train. Never did it cross our minds we wouldn’t be able to just drop the car off. The rental office opened at 8am, which meant we were stuck. Paul was able to change our tickets to a later train (for a hefty fee, of course), and we drove around until we found a public park where the boys could run and play. However, being as we left the castle at 5am, I (Kristin) decided to lay down in the back seat of the van and plug in my headphones with my white noise app. Blame it on the pregnancy (did you see that announcement on Facebook?!) or just travel exhaustion, but I couldn’t force myself to get out of the van and join in the play.
Thankfully the boys had a good time!
6. Not all adapters are created equal
Not all power is equal. When you travel to a new place, it’s always good to research what their power voltage is. Otherwise, your appliances could end up like my curling iron on our first trip – fried. Rick Steves has some excellent info on adapters and voltages, and here’s a link so you can read up on it!
7. Public verses Private Beaches
When we first saw the Ligurian sea a few years back, we were so excited! We grabbed bread, prosciutto and fruit from a market and headed to the beach. We took our shoes off, the boys were splashing in the water, and we started eating our sandwiches. It was so beautiful. Then we were chased off by a burly lifeguard yelling at us “No public beach!!” We quickly learned that most beaches in Italy are private. All that means is that you go into the main entrance of the beach club, pay for however many beach chairs you would like, and then you have access to food and lifeguards and sometimes even swimming pools. There are public beaches that don’t cost anything, but you have to look for them. They are usually small stretches of sand, and are usually pretty full of people not wanting to pay for the beach!
8. Washing your Clothes… by hand?
There is this tricky balance of trying to pack light when traveling abroad while knowing you may not have access to a washing machine for quite some time. Luckily, if you stay in an AirB&B or a VRBO, you should have a washing machine. What you definitely won’t have is a dryer. However, over the past couple of years we ended up needing to wash clothes before we made it to an actual machine. One year I bought a bar of detergent soap thinking it would travel better than liquid. Bad idea. I also didn’t have anywhere to hang the clothes after. This past year we (Sally!) brought powdered detergent that dissolved in water which worked MUCH better and also a sink stopper, which was Rick Steves handy piece of advise. Bringing roll of clothes line and some clothes pins is a must too. You may not believe me, but taking the time to wash clothes is SO much better than lugging around an additional suitcase. If you don’t believe me, I guarentee you’ll remember this post as you drag an enormous suitcase up the concrete stairs at a busy train station!
9. Ordering sea food
Something you may not know about Italian cuisine is that Italy is known for it’s seafood. Makes sense because it’s an island, but it’s not something I expected our first year here. When you’re on the coast, I highly recommend braving to order seafood, but what you should know is that you’re likely going to get the whole animal. Ordering fish? Be prepared to see a whole fish. Ordering prawns, yep, still a prawn not a small little round bite that doesn’t resemble the animal. This may not bother some people, but I (Kristin) am one of those that likes to pretend it’s not an animal. You can ask the server to break it down for you if you don’t mind the snickering. Or if you see the world “fillet” that likely means the fish has been deconstructed. When I do order sea food and it comes out very much in tact, I gently slide my plate across to Paul and he breaks it down for me. It’s not that I don’t know how, I just can’t bring myself to do it.
10. Parking Garages 101
(this one is written by Paul) A few notes on parking garages. First, take your parking ticket with you. Most of the time you will have to pay at an automated machine when you are returning to your car, not when you exit. Second, if you’re driving anything larger than a Fiat 500, just know you may not make it back out of the garage. The garages are small. Really small. Quick story – we were in our passenger van (which dwarfs most of the vehicles over there) and pulled up to a parking garage. It had a sign that said 2 meters max height, so I knew I was ok. It even had the height bar that hung down, and I went under that no problem. The problem happened once we got into the belly of the garage. There was a water pipe that ran along the ceiling that made it just low enough that we couldn’t fit. About 2 inches too tall. Understand I had just gone up several levels of super tight circular tunnels to get here. There was no reversing out of this pickle. Fortunately the exit tunnel was on our side of the water pipe, and with some James Bond type maneuvering (picture James Bond driving a minivan really slow in a parking garage) I was able to get to the exit tunnel. With inches to spare on either side, we descended towards the exit. With literal light at the end of the tunnel, the exit gate only 50 feet away, I heard something go thump. Thanks to the 2 meter max height sign, we were now wedged in the tunnel. The top of the van was hitting the top of the tunnel, and this was the only way out. Long story short, I had the boys climb to the back of the van, and with Kristin and 2 large Swedish men on the back bumper, we slid that puppy out to daylight.
Enjoy watching as we realize it’s about to get tough. The noise you hear is our antenna hitting the roof.
We hope this was a fun and helpful post for future international travelers. We are big Rick Steves fans and anytime we travel abroad, we buy his corresponding book. Our clients have asked how we’ve learned how to navigate Italian cities the way we do… well, it’s mostly thanks to Rick. And of course… many trials and lots of errors!