Summer travels: the 411

In June, after months of planning, we finally jetted off to Europe.  The last time we were in Europe was five years ago in Paris when Soup-er Boy was just two.  That was a long time ago… and before I had a blog.

This trip commenced in Portugal, where for one week we rented a lovely house 40 minutes northwest of Lisbon in a little town called Colares.  We were joined there by Next Doors, thereby taking the Commune to Europe for the very first time.  Hooray! None of us had ever been to Portugal, which is rather remarkable since between the four adults we’ve covered most countries in Europe.  After Portugal, the Commune headed to France, though we went our separate ways–we headed to the Dordogne as Next Doors (or at least 3/4 of Next Doors) headed to Paris.  In the Dordogne, we met up with my in-laws, with whom we shared a farmhouse for a week in the little town of Montignac.  Lastly, we headed to Paris (as Next Doors left Paris for the South of France) for a few days to round out our trip.  Phew!  It was just as tiring in real life as it sounds in words.  But boy was it worth it!

I had originally planned to post regularly about our meals and experiences but that was clearly overly ambitious as I found myself giving into vegging and sleeping every night.  The best I could do was to post photos on Facebook…

And speaking of travel, in discussing the details of our trip with friends and acquaintances, it became clear to me that many people were rather daunted by the idea of planning for a family vacation outside the US.  Friends wondered how we found the rental houses/apartments; how we chose our destinations; and even tips for child-friendly travel.  Lacking a magical vacation-planning wand and too cheap to use a travel agent, Mrs. Next Doors and I spent hours (probably more than 60) online, researching locations, houses, car rental, airfare, etc.  We tracked airfare and car rental prices on several sites and compared lists of houses/apartments we found on rental websites.  We scoured travel sites for advice on specific locations, activities, and even travel logistics.  At the end of it all, I had so much information running through my head that I couldn’t even sleep at night.  It was a relief to finally get on the plane!

As I recount our adventures, several people actually asked if I would help them plan their vacation.  Some even suggested that I could make a business out of it, which I’ll keep in mind just in case everything else fails.  In the meantime, I’ll share some general planning tips as well as our specific information from our trip.

Vacation rentals: I have used a number if different rental sites and services.  Depending on the location, sometimes using a rental service is a better option.  For rentals by owners I’ve had success with vrbo.com, homeaway.com (which is actually owned by vrbo), and flipkey.com.  The key to renting directly from an owner is asking the right questions both generally and for your specific needs–use a professional tone, but get the answers that you need to make a good choice.  Key things to keep in mind: location (proximity to public transportation/sites/restaurants), street noise, elevator, washer/dryer, crib/high chair availability, air-conditioning, and lease details (deposits, security deposits, final payment.)

A good dose of practicality also goes a long way.  If a property sounds too good to be true then it probably is.  If the owner is slow to respond or does not respond professionally, then that’s a red flag.  Read reviews carefully, just because one review is negative doesn’t mean that there is something amiss.  Lastly, read the lease carefully to understand what your responsibilities.

Here are the two of the three properties that we stayed at on this trip: Colares and Montignac.   Unfortunately, the owners of the wonderful apartment in Paris have suspended their rental property for now.

Airfare: Oy.  Air travel just seems to get more and more expensive!  We used a variety of websites to track airfare over a period of several weeks before making a purchase.  For starters we checked Kayak and Orbitz for general prices but mostly to determine specific routes and airline options.  With kids, we wanted the fewest possible transfers at the best possible price AND on a decent airline. Once we figured out the main carriers that serviced the desired routes, then we monitored prices on the airline websites because plane tickets are a funny business and the exact same itinerary may be priced differently on different sites due to a variety of complex calculations that make the US tax code seem like a walk in the park!

For the most part, simple roundtrip tickets shouldn’t be too complicated.  However, this time around we had divergent itineraries, international flights, and local flights to coordinate.  Once we were sufficiently confident that we were getting a reasonable fare and itinerary, we held our noses and jumped, which meant that Mrs. Next Doors and I sat side by side at the kitchen counter with our laptops and purchased the tickets simultaneously.

Car rental: I won’t insult anyone’s intelligence and tell you how to reserve a rental car online.  However, for European rentals, we were quite happy with both AutoEurope.com and Europcar.com; we used the former in Portugal and the latter in France.  They consistently had the best prices and great customer service.

Travel insurance:  This was the first time we bought travel insurance for an international trip and I’m glad we did even though we ended up not needing it.  For budget conscious travelers, insurance may seem like the straw that might break the trip-planner’s back, but I was quite thankful for the peace of mind.  Honestly, for two adults and two children on a 20-day trip to two European countries, it cost us less than $300 for a whole barge of coverage (that’s less than $3.75 ppd):

– trip delay/cancellation
– secondary medical coverage (including medical evacuation),
– more than $15k in trip interruption/cancellation (hurricanes, natural disaster, terrorist, event or even if there is a death in your family or a host’s family),
– compensation for travel delays and lost/delayed luggage
– hotel coverage for extended stays due to unexpected health emergencies
– coverage for personal items (phones, cameras, etc.)
– and of course, the less glamorous coverage in case of death, dismemberment, and repatriation of remains.

But you get the idea.  Traveling with young children can already be so stressful that I didn’t want to worry about the out-of-pocket costs if one of us gets sick or hurt.  And really, I kept thinking about that darn Icelandic volcanic dust cloud…

If you are interested in getting travel insurance for your next family trip, here are a couple of useful websites: squaremouth.com and insuremytrip.com.  Both sites offer the same insurance companies but sometimes different plans, so check both to get the exact coverage you need.  I also liked these two sites because they provide explanations for all the insurance mumbo-jumbo (i.e. trip cancellation versus interruption) in plain English, and they give you the option to individualize your coverage amounts.

Lastly, a word about medical coverage.  Many US health insurance companies provide some coverage when you travel internationally, so check with your HMO, PPO, etc. before you buy additional coverage.  In some cases, you may want to get some additional secondary coverage to supplement the primary coverage you already have.

Tripadvisor.com: I can’t possibly tell you how much I love this travel site.  This is my go to site for almost any travel-related question.  The site offers a wealth of information on lodging, eating, and sightseeing.  The forums are fantastic for more specific local information, from estimated travel times and transportation options, to hotel/apartment advice and itinerary planning.  As a true addict, I even read it for fun sometimes!

That’s it for the planning information.  Stay tuned for a post about the food from the trip! I’ll leave you with a few pictures:

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One Response to Summer travels: the 411

  1. Danny says:

    Looks like a wonderful trip — hope to one day travel to Portugal as well. 🙂

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