For a while now I have been slightly annoyed by how easy my kids expect things to come to them. Now that might seem a little harsh. Surely we want life to be easy for our kids. Well, yes and no. I don’t want my kids to suffer unnecessarily but I want them to develop perseverance and grit. Not too much is known about how to develop grit but I had a sense that we better start doing something about it early.
It was about then that my hubby and I started thinking of booking a summer holiday. Up to this point we had taken the kids on a couple of holidays within the UK, a trip to Florida with the extended family and a very easy all-inclusive trip to Tenerife which the kids had adored. We had also enjoyed it and it was what we needed at the time, a lovely no-hassle week away, but I was keen that the kids didn’t see package holidays as the only option. Before having kids, Steven and I had done a bit of travelling but it’s something I really wish we had done more of. That’s one of the reasons “go places” is on our family manifesto as I really hope the kids will do a lot of travelling in their lives. Travelling brings experiences you just can’t manufacture: seeing how different places and people make different choices in how to live their lives, developing self-sufficiency, perseverance, and experience in handling misunderstandings and when things, inevitably, go wrong. The kids are only 7 and 5 but we decided this was a good time for them to start experiencing some of these things and experiment with a mini-backpacking trip in Europe.
This would be an experiment for many reasons: could we organise everything ourselves (would I have the energy on top of everything else?!), could we do it in a way that the kids would enjoy and wouldn’t start screaming to go on a package holiday next time? Could we do it without internally combusting with stress or getting sick of the sight of each other? That’s what we wanted to find out when we started planning our July trip in February this year.
We learned a lot as parents, and as a family, that I will share with you over the next couple of weeks. In this post, I’ll outline our thinking at the planning stage, which I absolutely believe was the key to our trip’s success (Spoiler Alert! We’re still speaking to each other and even planning our next backpacking trip :))
So we held a family meeting and came up with the following brief:
- The main part of the trip to come in at around half of what we would pay if we were to go back to Tenerife during the first week of the summer holidays (which would have cost us £3,000 – WHAAAT?!!)
- Flying from Edinburgh Airport
- Should include at least two foreign countries – one of which being France as Mischa had just started learning French
- The trip should feel as close to a backpacking holiday as possible so we decided no hotels but also, to reduce the stress factor somewhat, no hostels
- The kids wanted a swimming pool at some point and a chance to meet other kids.
After a lot of research (which is one of my favourite bits of any travelling), we decided on Paris, and somewhere in Italy.
The first thing we looked at was where we could fly to from Edinburgh. Given we wanted to go to France, Edinburgh to Paris was a no-brainer. But where to in Italy? Call me a romantic but I always wanted to go on an overnight train. After a quick search, I found a direct train from Paris to Venice leaving at 19.59 and arriving at 9.35 the next morning. The timings were perfect as the last thing we wanted was to be hanging about a train station late at night or arriving somewhere only having had the opportunity for a few hours sleep. The only issue was that there was no direct flight from Venice back to Edinburgh that we could afford. So we compromised and decided to fly to Gatwick, get a cheap hotel room and then fly back to Edinburgh the next morning.
Now, where to stay? I had been reading a lot about the rise of Airbnb and liked the idea of an apartment in Paris rather than a hotel so we could cook our own meals and cut down on the cost and stress of eating out all the time. Mischa and Jude have both said they would like to be artists so, on a whim, we decided on Montmartre, the artist’s area with its shops and village-like feel (at least that’s what the guides all said about it, we’d never been).
Venice was a different matter. I had been before and knew that it would interesting for the kids in terms of novelty – Jude couldn’t get over the fact that there would be no roads or cars – but it wouldn’t offer what the kids wanted which was a swimming pool and a chance to meet other kids. My first holiday abroad, when I was Mischa’s age, had been to Lido de Jesolo which is just outside Venice. Google is a marvellous thing and quickly found me a multitude of camping grounds on the Lido which was a 40 min journey by waterbus and bus. A waterbus?! Another big tick for the kids so we booked a tent in a medium sized campsite with Eurocamp as they provided linen and towels for a bit extra so we didn’t need to carry these (a big plus for Steven and I as the backpack mules).
Both the apartment and tent worked out around about £80 a night – bargainous when compared to the cost and limitations of a hotel!
The one sticky part was booking the overnight train. By this time, I had read many of the reviews and pretty much all of them were truly dire. I was getting really stressed about what we were letting ourselves in for and so started looking at alternatives for getting to Venice such as flying or getting a train via a different station such as Munich. But nothing stacked up in terms of fitting in with other now set plans or budget. I wouldn’t have done anything that would have endangered us and to be honest, I just hoped that those reviewing the train were very particular and that we could handle the noise of the train making it difficult to get any sleep and be aware of the prevalence of thieves (there’s a constant need for vigilance when travelling anyway which we felt important to teach the kids). After long deliberations, Steven and I decided that to be forewarned is forearmed and so crossed our fingers and went ahead and booked. Unfortunately, between these last minute doubts and a mix up with whether I needed my passport number or not (I was waiting on a new one at the time), we ended up booking late and, I kid you not, got the last available 4-berth cabin with Loco2. I literally had sweaty palms and palpitations trying to get the thing booked. But then it was done and we could really start looking forward to our trip.
One of the problems with booking everything yourself is that you usually have to pay upfront. So we booked different elements over the course of a few months so as to spread the cost of the holiday as much as possible. This is roughly how it went (I’m not telling you prices yet – you’ll need to wait till the last post to see if we hit our £1,500 budget!):
Feb 14 Booked all the flights – we went with Easyjet as Steven and I had flown with them to Reykjavik last November and were very impressed with their service as well as low prices.
Feb 14 Booked tent on the Lido – Eurocamp had a new year sale on and you could put down a deposit of £99 – bonus.
Mar 14 Booked Airbnb apartment in Montmartre, Paris for 3 nights
End of Mar 14 (i.e. on payday 🙂 ) Booked Paris to Venice overnight train
April 14 Pay remainder of Eurocamp fee
May 14 Booked Hampton by Hilton at Gatwick for stopover before flight back to Edinburgh
May to July Saved some spending money.
Then came the packing. We took two 60 litre backpacks (bought a cheap one and borrowed another) and decided on a limit of three outfits each and one “dressy” outfit with a few extra pairs of pants for the kids –kids can never have too many pairs of pants I’ve found. We bought some clear plastic toiletry bags from M&S and Boots which were perfect for rolling up our clothes and keeping them contained (see pic below). We had about 6 of these which only took up around three quarters of one of the backpacks.
We tried hard not to overstuff our backpacks but had to include the usual toiletries, books and notebooks for the kids and our electrical stuff – a small laptop, my kindle etc. We all also had our own small day pack. When 1 July 2014 came, we were ready!
As I said, we got a lot out of this holiday which I think will be helpful for anyone thinking of doing something similar (and for us a reminder for next time!). Next week, I’ll write a post about Paris and the following week will be about Venice. Then seeing how it goes, I might do a “what we learned” round up post with what it actually cost us. This is a scary thought as I haven’t actually counted it all up yet.
Hope you found this useful and I’d love to hear if you’ve done anything similar or are thinking of doing it 🙂