In this section I was going to share some of the things we learned along the way. Some of these posts will be added to while we learn new things. Also, just because it worked or didn't work for us does not mean it will do the same for you or your needs, so please use your own judgment for your circumstances.
Before we left Justin and I discussed what we thought would be feasible to bring along. We decided on 5 duffle bags and a carry on for each person. Mine is also my diaper bag. Each child had a backpack and we decided that their personal items, like toys and fun stuff, would be carried in those. They were limited to this backpack and so had to chose carefully. I had little to no vote on what went in this bag, and we felt that was fair. Justin and I looked for a couple of larger duffle bags that had wheels. These usually have 2 compartments. A smaller one at the bottom around the wheel parts and a larger more traditional duffle bag compartment. We found 2 and we also picked up a smaller one with no wheels with the thought that we could attach it to the bag with wheels to carry along. We soon found out that that was a bad idea. Wheels are awesome. If I had to do the bag choice again I would keep the carry on choices the same but I would go with 5 smaller duffle bags all on wheels, and this is why. The larger bags get heavy and are much harder to handle. Although they roll, sometimes you need to carry them up stairs and that can be quite a task. Not all places have elevators and we are rarely located on the ground level. If I had chosen the smaller bag then it would have been easier to maneuver. Also, it would have been easier to arrange them in the car. Our car basically has no trunk space. When we go from place to place we put one of the third row seats down and load the bags there. If they were smaller we would have had more placement options. Another thing, most airlines allow each person to check one bag at no charge if you are flying internationally. We have since shed a few items and we are now down to 4 bags.
Before we left we had come up with a list of clothing for each person that we needed to pack. What I have learned is, my list although reasonable, was too long, so pack light. We always get a place with a washing machine and I tend to do a load every couple of days just so that it does not pile up. I very rarely spend an entire day on laundry. What works for us is to do a load in the morning while we eat breakfast and get ready for the day, hang it up to dry before we leave and voila by the time we get back most if not all is dry. So if I do this routinely I don't waste a day doing laundry and we do not go through all of the clothing. We over packed. I admit that. We have since gotten rid of about 1/3 of the clothing. Also, if you don't have something, worse case scenario is to pick it up along the way. Another thing that we have learned is that the kids have outgrown some items and they will need to be replaced. We have already had to replace Danielle's and Eden's shoes since they have outgrown them. Eden has outgrown anything 3T, so that was left behind. The boys wear the same size and if they want more variety they could share but they seem to prefer a couple of outfits that we see a lot. So pack light, kids tend to wear favorites and outgrow things quickly. You can always find new things along the way. Ladies, dresses are the way to go. They are easy and are more acceptable everywhere than shorts and cooler than pants or jeans. Bring a scarf to either cover up bare shoulders in churches or to wrap around yourself if you are cold. They also work great in a pinch for a cranky tired toddler that needs her lovey when you forgot it. Guys, shorts are definitely more acceptable for you. The only place we have seen issues was at St. Peter's Basilica. Justin and the boys wore pants but we did see a few men being turned away wearing shorts. Younger girls, say 11 and younger can pretty much wear anything, although my girls prefer dresses due to it being more comfortable in warmer weather. They can wear shorts anywhere and have had no problems. Boys can wear shorts everywhere except again in some churches. The only time my boys have worn their pants have been in churches in Rome and when it has been cold. By the way, jeans are just fine. There is this great debate online that I had seen while researching for this trip, about if jeans are appropriate. Well, let me tell you firsthand they are. You can go into churches with jeans on. Probably the only place you should not wear them are in a fancy restaurant, but let's face it we are not going to any place like that with 4 kids in tow. Now as for shoes, wear something comfortable. Women, no heels, unless you want to break your ankle on a cobblestone road. I like sandals, my kids and Justin prefer tennis shoes. I think comfort is the way to go because you will be walking everywhere. Sandals are fine in churches. Toiletries can be picked up once you arrive. Remember not all things are created equal, so if you are really stuck on a certain brand bring it along or get over it, because more than likely you will not find it. Medications, bring those with you. We were able to get our daily prescriptions for the entire year before we left. Bring what you need because if you are someplace where they do not speak English it will be hard, not impossible, to find. Think about bringing a towel. We have been to the beach a few times and were glad to have them. It is frowned upon to take the towels from where you are staying to the beach. They can be used for lots of different reasons, and don't take too much space.
Before we left we purchased a couple of transformers, for voltage conversion, not the robots in disguise. Well, this was a total fail because all of the plugs we have encountered are recessed and the prongs can't fit into the socket because they are not long enough. So you need to place a plug adaptor on the transformer to make it fit into the recessed socket before you can use it. Get extra plug adapters, in this case more is better. In general however, we haven't needed to use the transformer often. All of the power supplies for the phones and computers work at 220V, so all you need is the plug adaptor. The blower for Eden's inflatable bed does require 110V so for that we do need the transformer.
So to recap, I suggest:
- Smaller duffle bags with wheels, but one per person. One carry-on per person.
- Pack light, wash clothes more often
- Get things as you need them. Don't be afraid to replace something.
- Bring along a pair of comfortable and versatile shoes.
- Pick up toiletries once you arrive, unless you can't do without something in particular.
- Bring any medications you may need.
- Bring a towel.
- Buy extra plug adapters so that you can stack then to fit into the recessed outlets
We have decided to stay in places that have kitchens in order to keep food costs down the cost of lodging in general lower. We have had great luck on Airbnb.com and Homeaway.com. Airbnb has worked well in the way of paying for the place. On this site it is required that you are set up to be paid by credit card and that is much simpler and in the long run cheaper, you get the exchange rate of the day from your credit card company. Airbnb takes a 3% conversion fee, but even with that it is less expensive and more convenient. Also, we got a credit card with no foreign transaction fee, so there is no added cost on that end. Other forms of payment are bank transfers. We have done this a couple of times, but have decided we don't like it. First of all, the bank charges us $40/ transfer, the exchange rate is the worst rate you can get, and it takes awhile, several weeks, and much more effort to set it up. If things don't work out you have absolutely no recourse once the money is transferred you can't get it back unless the person who receives it sends it back. With a credit card you can dispute the fee if there is a problem. We used PayPal once and did not like this at all. The exchange rate was bad and they charged the host a fee that he passed along to us.
In each place we stayed we have looked for a few things that we require. I always want a washing machine, a reasonable kitchen (and by reasonable I mean cooktop, sink microwave, ovens are a bonus), internet, non-smoking, and no pets allowed (allergies). If we can find a place with 2 bathrooms that is a bonus, but we have managed pretty well with 1. We have also brought along an inflatable bed for Eden, she calls it her puffy bed. This has come in handy when we were traveling with Rachel. Places for 6 are easier to find than places for 7, but since we had a bed for Eden everyone had a place to sleep.
We have learned a few things along the way. Not all kitchens are created equally. So far we have had no garbage disposal. So everyone has become more aware of not dumping anything into the sink. Refrigerators don't have to be huge. We are only shopping for a few days at a time, which makes us eat what we have and waste nothing. Microwave wattage is adjustable in Europe. It took me a few times trying to heat something up for several minutes and it still being tepid to see that the knob was set at 200 watts and could go up to 800. Apparently even though they eat tons of bread in France, no one has a good bread knife.
Washing machines is a new learning experience at each new place. I get the temp setting and the spinning per second option, but I still can't figure out why some cycles can take up to 3 hours. I am not kidding. In Pamplona, Justin and I waited for over 2 1/2 hours for the eco cycle to end. Every time we thought, ok this is it, it started back up again. By the way, eco does not mean fast, and after nearly 3 hours of filling the machine, washing, spinning, rinsing, and starting that over and over and over again it does not seem very eco. Most places do not have a dryer so we have had to hang our clothes to dry. Some places have the washer/dryer combo in one machine, which I always thought made sense. But after having used a few, have decided I would much rather hang my clothes to dry then use the dryer option on the machine. The dryer takes forever and your clothes don't always come out well, dry.
I have also learned that I do not like wet rooms. Now if you are not familiar with these, they are a type of bathroom. Usually there is not a toilet, only a shower and sink, but the kicker is that it is tiled from floor to ceiling and there in no door or curtain on the shower. Now if only adults who were careful were involved, I could see this working out just fine, but add in a few, 4 to be exact, exuberant kids then this is a disaster in the making. Everything and I mean everything gets wet. The towels the clothing they took off, the pjs they were supposed to put on, any toiletries that are out, all flooring, and walls. What I have learned in this is please give me a shower door or at least a shower curtain. Now I always inspect the shower or tub in the picture before booking and if it says wet room it is a definite NO.
I have yet to find a bed that I think is comfortable. In Europe our experience is that they are hard as a rock. And the pillows are no better. I found one place that had a memory foam bed and pillow that was great, but unfortunately we only stayed at that place 2 nights. Not sure what the deal is here but people need to have a lesson on sleep comfort.
We have enjoyed places that have had a good view. This can be a pretty generic idea. I usually enjoy being able to, in bigger cities, watch what is going on outside on the busy streets, or in the country, a view of nature not neighbors. Luckily for us we have had places with some pretty awesome views.