Running a teenager trip to Europe
One couple’s saga
We are a middle aged couple with one daughter. This is the story of our three week high school graduation trip to Europe for her with a group of her friends in the summer of ’05. I tried like crazy to find info of this type before the trip, and I bought several really useless books on becoming a tour operator hoping that they would be close enough to what I was doing to be helpful. This is just our story, of lessons learned and things that worked well for us. All people and groups are different and as they say “your mileage may vary”, but perhaps it will be food for thought. When all was said and done even my skeptical husband had to admit that it was a great trip. It was a lot of work, but SO worth it. It was a trip we will never be able to repeat.
It all started with my Dad really. He always taught me to “dream big”. So, when it came time to pick a graduation present for our only child I suggested that we take her and her friends to Europe. After some discussions between my husband and I, we decided to go for it. We knew that we couldn’t foot the bill for everyone and so we would ask the participants to cover their own costs. What follows is an honest post trip assessment that might prove useful for those of you brave enough… or was that crazy enough to attempt this feat.
We started more than 18 months in advance. (A couple of months before Christmas 2003) The trip would be in the summer of 05 after high school graduation. I wanted to get an early start on telling everyone because I believed that they would need to start saving and working to make the trip a reality. To their credit 2 of our teens earned all the money with jobs and saving. We told our daughter of our plan did a little jumping up and down and started discussing the possible invitees. This is a very important part. Teens that are too wild, hard to live with or uncooperative could easily ruin the trip. We settled on inviting 3 girls and 5 boys in addition to our daughter. All would be 17-19 years old at the time of the trip. All but one would be graduated from high school at that time. We organized a “party” and got everyone over to our house. Then, Our daughter got to break the news. We also asked them to write down 5 things they wanted to see. We got everything from whole countries to “food” as responses. We told them that we were targeting a 3 week European whirlwind that would cost $2500 to $3000. (Okay, so I am an optimist on the cost. See the Money section below).
I was a bit unprepared for a few things that happened next. First of all I thought we would hear from their parents. Something on the order of, “WHAT!?! You invited my kid to EUROPE!?!” But that didn’t happen. Not one of them. Okay, I thought. Surely we will hear from the kids over the next few days…”I can GO!” or “I can’t”. Nope. Not that either mostly there was silence. A confusing start. One boy did say no and one girl yes. So, we knew that we would have a trip even if it was our daughter and that one friend. We had Our daughter call around after a few days and everyone else said yes. OKAY! Now we had a group of 10 including 8 teenagers. So we got another meeting together and asked questions (via corny surveys but at least everything was written down) about everything from what they wanted to see to how important the budget was and how long they thought the trip should be. They were pretty unanimous in their belief that 3 weeks was too short but they were also nearly unanimous in the feeling that the trip needed to stay under $3000. So we settled on three weeks. We didn’t just pull this number out of the air. After years of traveling with our daughter we had noticed that at about 3 weeks she became homesick (even though we were right there) for things like her own room and food she recognized. In retrospect a little shorter might have been better but I wouldn’t go for more than 3 weeks.
We put together a list of many European cities and what we might see in each one and asked them to vote best to worst. On purpose, we omitted Amsterdam. We did this because we decided to take the position that if it was legal to do something in a given location then it should be permitted within reason. For example, the drinking age in many parts of Europe effectively amounts to whether you can reach the bar. We were not prepared to handle the legality of pot or prostitution so we skipped Amsterdam. We also reminded them that Spain and Italy might be uncomfortably hot at that time of year. The votes and the practicality of getting to Spain and Italy in a small amount of time determined that we would see London, Paris, Rome, Siena, Venice, Vienna, Prague and Berlin. I also managed to add a few hours in Florence. We were moving fast, but we assumed that the attention spans of teenagers might benefit from lots of new experiences and these cities are all quite different. The quick pace would turn out to be beneficial, at least in my opinion. We learned from the surveys about patience with art museums, food allergies, sleep and shower habits etc. We were trying to understand them as best we could. We had one little artist that could have happily been locked in the Louvre for a month and a few who would have been pleased to skip it all together. Balance and expectation setting would prove very useful.
As I tried to map out our route and find the cheapest way to do it we began to realize that I had set a very aggressive budget. So, we called another meeting. (The meetings were averaging every month or two) Attendance patterns at the meetings were a little unnerving as many of our teenagers had to be called and reminded after the meeting was 20 minutes old and it was not uncommon for the meeting start time to be an hour and a half before the last participant arrived. We took to starting with build your own sandwiches and a video and the actual meeting would take place after that. I just hoped that when we got ready to leave for the airport we would not have this problem.
At the budget meeting we talked about hostels and bathrooms down the hall. To my pleasant surprise everyone agreed that since the budget was important to some it was important to all and hostels would be fine. We live in an affluent area and most of these kids have not only their own room but their own bathroom. I think some of the parents thought we had set ourselves up for a non-stop gripe fest. At this time we believed that we would have 4 boys in one room and 4 girls in another room. We, of course, would have our own room. I intended to stay in the hostels too as much as possible for convenience sake. This was also a good idea because it was a major hassle to shuttle back and forth to the hostel to pick them up and drop them off.
During subsequent meetings we let them select what sights in each city we would see so that we knew how long we would need. (2 to 6 sights per day depending on the sights was our average for days not involving moving from one town to another. 2 museums make a full day but if it is just go to a spot, like Big Ben, and take a picture or two you can do a lot of different sights).
We also let them suggest hostels. I, then, went back and looked at what they had suggested and adjusted it. I used hostels.com. They have scores on cleanliness, fun, security, location and many other categories. I was most interested in cleanliness and location. We also wanted where possible to stay in a different room in the hostel, but I am not happy sharing a room with strangers. Nor did I want strangers in with the kids. We ended up in the same hostel in all but 2 cities (Rome and Vienna) and they ended up in a hotel in Sienna because I thought that air conditioning was advisable there for comfort and a little break from the Spartan lifestyle.
My husband and I chose that we would all travel by rail and not rent cars. (We would have needed two huge cars and navigating strange roads with a car full of noisy teenagers didn’t sound like a great deal of fun.) That was the right answer I think. The train trips allowed us some down time as we had quiet time in a nearby cabin or seats and gave them some time away from us too. We also incorporated 2 night trains (Paris to Rome and Venice to Vienna) into our itinerary. This provided an added fun experience, efficient travel and was much enjoyed. There were a few parent concerns about the security of night trains so we chose cabins that held 2 or 3 where we had booked all the berths and could latch the door.
We did not ask for any money up front but we did provide a budget to the parents in the mail and a note saying that we might run slightly over budget due to poor exchange rates for the dollar ($1.21 /Euro and $1.74 / Pound at the time we left for Europe down from $1.33/Euro and as much as $1.89 /Pound during the planning phase.)
Then we started getting drop outs. One boy dropped out because he realized that he needed the money to pay for school. A few months later another boy dropped out because he was dating one of the girls in the group and they broke up. This necessitated a change in our room structure. We decided, for cost concerns, to put all 6 teens in a room for 6 as much as possible. I think they liked it best when they could all be together, and if there were issues with people staying awake or whatever, they worked it out between them.
We knew where we were going, for how long in each spot and (thanks to more corny surveys when would be best for all concerned.) I expected that they would opt for right after graduation but they opted for closer to the end of summer. That turned out to be a really good idea. Graduation is very hectic and by the time it was over they were all sick or nearly sick and had spent loads of time together. They chose about a month after graduation. Many of them didn’t see one another much during that time because of family vacations, work schedules or whatever. So, when they got together again they were happy to see each other.
Now it was the Fall of 04. We started in earnest looking for a good airfare. Summer is peak season and moving a big group was not easy. While great deals were not completely unheard of it was doubtful that we could get 7 tickets on such a fare on the same plane. So, we decided to concentrate on price, directness of the flight and refund or change costs. We knew that to minimize jet lag it helps to get there in the late afternoon preferably on a direct flight. We found such a flight on British Airways from LAX to LHR leaving about 9pm Friday night and arriving about 4pm Saturday afternoon. That was perfect. We also wanted to return from Berlin. It would have been cheaper to return from London but not if you included what it would cost to get from Berlin back to London. So we scoured the net and asked our favorite travel agent to keep an eye out for us. We ended up using the travel agent for two reasons. First of all, each person could take their money directly to him and secondly it gave us someone to talk to in case of emergency. Besides, his rates were competitive. We ended up paying $1056 per person. We chose a fare with a cancellation fee of only $200 because we were still nervous about changes in plans on the part of our teenagers. Of the 8 reservations made 6 would be ticketed. Two teens would take an alternate route that added a side trip to Sweden to visit relatives on Air France. (only about $100 more)
Now it was January ’05 and I wanted to start making reservations at hostels and getting the rail tickets etc. I am the nervous sort and I really didn’t want us to end up with a mess because I was too slow. So, we decided to start collecting $300 per month for each of the first 7 months in ’05. That would make the trip total $3156 if we were able to stay on target. Bear in mind that this included all flights, train trips, hostels, transportation in cities and to and from the airport, meals and entrance fees into all the museums and sights that they had picked. We set up an account at a credit union with free checking and got an atm card. Money started coming in (although it was at times like pulling teeth) and I began making our reservations.
We were into the middle of March with all the hostel reservations made when yet another boy dropped out because he got a summer 05 job offer his parents thought he should take. He had paid in $600 and had his air ticket. We tried to add another boy into his spot but it was now pretty late and with each dropout we had tried unsuccessfully to add people. Ultimately, we had to just let him get out of his air ticket for the $200 and we had to rebook some of the hostels and the hotel to keep from having it cost us or the other participants’ money. I calculated that I might be able to give him a few dollars back but I didn’t want to do it until I could be sure that the changes to the accommodations had really worked.
So now we were down to 5 teenagers. (4 girls and 1 boy). We called and spoke with this only boy’s mother. We didn’t want him to have a room by himself because of cost and security. She agreed that it would be best if we saw to it that he was in a room with at least 2 girls at all times. All the girls’ parents had already agreed to room them all together. We had chosen to put all 6 into hostel rooms for 6 as much as possible to save money. Those rooms we left alone. Where I had made reservations for 3 double rooms for the kids I changed it to a room for two and one for three. It turned out to be a nice change for the kids to alternate between the mass pandemonium of 5 in a room and 2 or 3 in a room.
I guess we are natural worriers but we could imagine kids sneaking out at night, getting drunk, getting pregnant, getting arrested, losing their passports or rail passes, bringing six large suitcases, losing expensive jewelry, getting their purse snatched or getting mugged. We thought hard about each scenario and how to prevent it. These were all good kids too, without histories of such behavior to my knowledge but most of those scenarios spelled disaster for our happy little plan. By the very first meeting we had thought of all of this so we stated clearly up front that if you snuck out or got drunk (by out definition of the term) or were uncooperative we would not hesitate to put you on a plane home. Of course we would have tried EVERYTHING not to have to do that but as long as they didn’t know that maybe we were somewhat protected. That, of course, didn’t prevent me from worrying. Only when we had finished our van trip home from the airport and everyone had been picked up did we breathe a sigh of relief that not once had we seen the inside of a police station or emergency room. Not once had we needed to call a parent and tell them that we had not seen their son or daughter since we all went to bed last night. I felt very grateful.
Traveling with 4 teenage girls we had a chilling vision of a stack of luggage about 10 feet tall. Knowing that this would not be a trip replete with Bell Boys or cab rides we had our last meeting on the subject of packing. There, we outlined what we thought would be a reasonable amount of clothes etc to take with each person. We let them know that it was our expectation to go to a Laundromat and wash up every 4 or 5 days. We told them that they would need to carry all their own stuff sometimes for maybe a mile or so at a time over many stairs into subways and train stations. We asked that they use backpacks. One for clothes and toiletries and one for a light jacket, book and anything else you needed on the plane. We also followed these recommendations. (See our packing list below)
That was all theory. In practice only the boy completely followed our suggestion and his bag was very light. The girls ranged from the sin of a few extra outfits for clubs and such to two girls who brought large unwieldy rolling bags and a backpack. They struggled up every staircase and train entrance. One had used a cheap bag and it came apart in almost every way imaginable. The other had her bags so full by the second city that she had to mail some things home half way through the trip because she just couldn’t fit another toothpick in them. Even these girls though said that they usually packed MUCH heavier so at least we had some impact if not as much as we would have liked.
It turned out to be a hassle to get everyone reminded and all the money collected and deposited but in the end we got through it. In retrospect, we would have tried to collect everything a couple of months earlier or start the payments even sooner than that but this way they could see why we needed it. We were very glad that we chose to collect and hold all food money. Getting change in a foreign currency and language is not always easy and it would have been a nightmare saying “who had the fish? Etc.” We were also concerned about someone seeing a must have souvenir and spending food money on it only to run out at the end. This way at least theoretically they could have shown up with their backpack and not needed anything else. Rather than keep 5 sets of books to meticulously charge everyone exactly what it cost, we decided to average the teen expenses. So, if it was free to get into the Louvre for the 17 year olds then it just made it a little cheaper for all of them. We were careful to take our expenses off first for hotels or entrance fees and then divide by 5. At meals we simply divided by 7 unless we had ordered something expensive. We treated them the same and stipulated that if they chose something significantly over budget (like steak or lobster) we would ask them (on the spot) to pay the difference just as we were doing. This turned out well. We put together a form with the itemized budget on it and room to write in each expenditure (see a copy at the end). Every time we paid for a meal, entrance fee, hostel or transportation we wrote it down. At the end of every day or two we compared what we were spending with the predicted on the list. We really didn’t want to come out needing to collect more money so we watched it carefully. Most days we were surprisingly under budget, although the effect of exchange rates that the credit cards and atm machines were giving us were not figured in. That would have to be done at the end after we got home. We had taken the exchange rate listed on Yahoo and used that. So, it was optimistic. Calls to our credit cards before we left told us that they vary from market plus 1% to market plus 3%. It doesn’t sound like a big difference but might be the difference between making and missing the budget.
We had a rocky start with funding when we got to England. Our Visa card was accepted for the kids’ room at the hotel and then refused 5 minutes later for ours. Our ATM card didn’t work either. I found this embarrassing because the kids had entrusted us with their money and I thought that this didn’t look good. I called the credit card and ATM companies from my handy cell phone and after answering about 20 questions to prove my identity (I think this is a good thing) they agreed to unfreeze things.
When we got back, my husband called and confronted them about the freezing. We had told them we were going. They said that the people who freeze accounts are not the same ones that you talk to when you call in and the freezing folks don’t read the notes. So, the people with the note go through the frozen accounts each morning and see if there is a note that means that the account should not be frozen. Then they unfreeze the account. Obviously this can take 24 hours (maybe longer on the weekend). I don’t really see a way around it other than to take some currency for your first city with you and then use your card immediately so that you can start the freezing and then either wait for your note to get read or call them and get it restarted. It is a bit difficult because you need SO much money to keep 7 people going (even when you are traveling on a budget). After we got it straightened out we never hit another snag but I would have liked to be aware. This seems to have gotten worse over the last few years and companies try to deal economically with identity theft.
THE UPS AND DOWNS OF TRAVELING WITH TEENS UNDER 18
Although there are very few real differences in someone 17 ½ or 18 there are a few notable other differences. First of all, the US is so nervous about child abductions that they require a notarized statement on the part of the parents saying that you are allowed to remove their child from the country. Although no one ever asked for this document, it might have created a big mess if we didn’t have it. Furthermore, if the parent has sole custody then a copy of the custody arrangement needs to be there as well. Unfortunately that may contain some rather personal information. We chose to ask the parent to send it in the teen’s care and not in ours to try to keep from getting our nose where it didn’t belong.
On the upside many discounts on entrance fees exist for those under 18 (for instance the Louvre is free!) All you need to do is show your passport and in you go. Also on the discount front students with a student id card under 26 years old can get in for less in many places. There is an official student id that costs $22 and one of our girls got it but it didn’t work any better than the high school student id. One of our girls forgot hers and it cost quite a bit more so I would suggest that you collect them and just keep them but we let them hang on to their ids, passports, rail passes etc. We had advised that they get an inner pouch around the waist and keep it and their passports, ATM cards etc in there. That worked fine except for the time when one kid put it in an easy to remember place in the room in the hostel and then didn’t remember until we walked into the train station. Oh well, it could have been worse. Also left behind, at one time or another, by other teens were transit passes good for more than one day, jackets, umbrellas etc. They weren’t lost for good but shivering, dampness and extra subway fares were an almost daily reality.
BALANCE AND EXPECTATION
Although it may seem totally obvious to some of us that a budget trip with a big group would involve a fair amount of not getting your way, we came right out and told them that just because you don’t care for a certain type of food (like Indian or Pizza) that doesn’t mean that we won’t choose a restaurant of that type from time to time. We also mentioned that even though art museums or weapons museums or whatever might not be your thing you should expect that at least part of the time you would be seeing those things if it was what the majority wanted. We did say that we thought you should mention it if it seemed like all we were eating or doing was not to your liking. We also mentioned that we would be eating to live (not living to eat) and that a supermarket visit before a train trip or as a picnic should be expected. Our goal here was not to be mean but to set expectations. If you have not thought about it and you get there and things aren’t fitting the perfect image that you had in your mind you are bummed. We were trying to head off complaints before they started, and while there were still complaints from time to time it was not nearly as bad as I had feared. I believe that this strategy was partially responsible but no one will ever know for sure.
MAPS AND DIRECTIONS
It is very difficult to describe just how much pressure you can feel when there are 6 sets of eyes staring at you, waiting for you to lead the way only you don’t know which way to go. You all just exited a subway station in a town you have never seen before. Which way do we go? It was my job to know. Where is the Hostel (who’s sign may be dwarfed by a 3X5 card)? Although hostels.com provides directions on some of the pages some hostels give you an address and that is it. So, here is what we did to make that all flow smoothly. First of all I printed out the information pages for each of our chosen hostels or hotels. It seems silly to do when you have daily access to a computer but when you are standing weighed down by baggage outside a tube stop you most definitely need the paper version. Next, I plugged the address for the hostel into maporama.com or maps-de.com ? and zoomed in and out until I got a good view of the nearest subway stop and the blue ring indicating the street address’ location. Then, I printed that out. I also printed out the reservation showing how much was owed. I added a list of the hours and prices of the sights we were interested in seeing and the train schedule from this city to the next (from raileurope.com). I put these things in a tough white 9”x12” envelopes that I sealed with Velcro. I made one of these for each city. If we had tickets for something that we would need in that city I put it in that envelope. Lastly, I added cut up guide books. It pained me terribly to cut up perfectly good books but the result was a tiny fraction of the paper we would have carried, disposable sections after we had left a city, and being able to carry the wisdom of 4 guidebooks in less than half an inch of paper per city. I carried a day pack with this envelope in it and a jacket, umbrella, cell phone, digital camera and a few over the counter remedies for headaches or bellyaches. We came to call it Mary Poppins magic bag.
Getting on and off of a crowded subway car can be a disorganized experience. So, we took to doing it this way. I got on first. They had gotten used to following me because I could read maps and walk at the same time. My husband brought up the rear and made sure that everyone had gotten in before the doors closed. We never left anyone behind. Although they were all supposed to know where to go if we got separated but in reality it is too easy to forget odd sounding names in foreign languages and so even if you knew 2 minutes ago it may be gone now. We did tell them that if they got lost they should know where we were going and get off at the next tube change or end point but I doubt that they could have done it more than about 70% of the time. Like I said it is tough to remember. We thought of having them call us on our cell phone or something but the cell phones were out of batteries a fair amount and didn’t work just everywhere. So we didn’t need but probably should have had a worst case backup plan meeting spot in each city.
Once they figured out that drinking was legal in Europe for people of their age the question of clubbing (going out dancing) came up. We agreed to do it even though after a day of sight seeing we were usually quite done up for one day. It panned out fine and we didn’t have to dance the night away every night for the following reasons. In London we all were simply too jet lagged to be interested in activities that didn’t start until 11 or midnight. In Paris we were staying in Montmartre. My husband was nervous about taking them through an area spelled out as a bad area at night by the guide book and once we showed them the passage in the guidebook that called out the subway stop just outside our hotel they agreed to skip it in that city. We only had one night in Rome and the hostel had a bar so they went there. We tried to go out in Siena but it is a sleepy little town, especially in the summer, so our attempt involved the 7 of us being most of the 10 people in the bar. Venice is not really a clubbing town and evenings in Vienna went to laundry or exhaustion. We tried to go out in Prague but guidebooks don’t do a really good job of selecting places for teenagers to dance so the club there was all wrong and we left and went back to the hotel. In Berlin we finally got smart enough (and had enough common language skills) to ask the Hostel about where to go. They sent us to a club on the river with a really gorgeous view called Watergate. It opened at 11pm and we showed up at 11:20 only to be the only ones there. Slowly over the next hour people began to arrive. Most of them were significantly older. Still there was no dancing. The kids asked the bar tender about it and he said that in an hour or so the dancing would get going. They were all getting really tired and so to our happy amazement they asked to quit and go back to the hostel. So, we got back safely and breathed a sigh of relief. We don’t usually venture out in foreign cities at night and it made us nervous to do so.
One of the things I like about London is the West End theater district. So, as the trip approached I looked into finding some plays that we could go see there. Ticketmaster.co.uk was very helpful for that. We filtered out any that we didn’t want to see. “We Will Rock You” for instance might have been a natural choice, but we had seen it on a previous trip and we thought it was awful despite our love of the music of the group “Queen”. Then we voted on the plays at one of our meetings.
It was our suggestion that two plays get chosen and that we schedule them for the last two evenings in London (to allow the jet lag to lift at least a little). The group chose “Woman in Black” a thriller with minimalist staging that had run for more than 10 years, and “Phantom of the Opera”. We saw these in that order because we thought it might be tough to follow Phantom. They were very different and were a very nice addition to London. These were to be extra costs and so as our graduation present we bought the Phantom tickets for the whole group. I found the “Woman in Black” tickets for a reduced price on the internet and ordered and received them all before we left.
CATHEDRAL BURN OUT
My first trip abroad was to Europe when I was 19. I was lucky to get to go but there were a few things that struck me about that trip that I wanted to avoid. You can’t throw a rock in Europe it seems without hitting some fabulous ancient cathedral. If you walked into any one of them without ever having seen any of them you would be in awe. During a 3 week whirlwind through Europe it is probably possible to see one a day without too much trouble. This creates a problem though in that you begin to see them more or less as all alike and they don’t excite you anymore. Similarly there are many themes that repeat themselves. Art museums, armor museums, torture museums, castles, river cruises, local dance displays, flea markets etc. My goal was not to skip great cathedrals but to balance the different types of sights so that the very best ones got visited and there was great variety.
TRAIN CLASSES AND EUROSTAR
Traveling on the cheap meant second class rail passes for our teenagers. This is not a big deal since the second class trains are not really that different from the first class ones. One little detail we missed was that Eurostar trains must be reserved. So we were traveling along happily on a Eurostar train when the conductor came by and said that it would be 16 euros per person to reserve the seats we were in. It would have been 12 but we were doing it after the fact. Our budget was SO tight it made me sick to think that we might have to lose our budget battle this way. I told the conductor (in a pleading tone) that if it was just us we would pay it no problem but that we were traveling with 5 teenagers and that they simply couldn’t afford that. I asked if we had another option, for instance to get off at the next stop and take another train later. He very nicely agreed that this would be fine. He even told me when the next train came through. So, instead of 16 euros it cost us 45 minutes in the Bologne train station and a warmer less deluxe ride the rest of the way to Venice. I will never know if he was giving us special treatment or whether this was just one of the standard options in this case but it helped to keep us on budget. I am very grateful to him for his understanding.
This brings up an interesting point. In order for this budget thing to work everyone needs to care about it and show that they care. We needed to drag our feet on spending extra money for things like the reservations. We needed to talk about finding a good restaurant that was within budget etc. If we had not mentioned anything about it then of course we would have overrun by miles. It is possible to over run any amount but making that up can quickly become impossible. Our teens for their part would frequently ask “what is the budget for lunch” while looking at the menu. We were very proud of their commitment to it. Many times we exchanged the lunch ($10/person) and dinner budget ($15/person) because we had postponed lunch to finish a sight and we were all starved. On those days it worked well because we tended to eat a big lunch and not really need a big dinner.
WHEN TO SPEND 45 MINUTES IN THE LOUVRE
I know that there are people who think that it is a travesty to pass through the Louvre and not spend days. I have also learned the wisdom of something I read in a Lonely Planet guidebook on traveling with children. The quote went something like “don’t get upset if they don’t like the solid gold Buddha”. I took that to mean that there are no rights and wrongs in travel. Each traveler brings to the journey their tastes, personality, energy level, patience and experience. The more one traveler differs from another, the more different their ideal trips will be. So, when faced with just one more afternoon in Paris and a daughter that LOVES Picasso we opted to break into two groups. Three of us spent 45 minutes in the Louvre and left for the Picasso museum, while my husband stayed in the Louvre with the other 3 for another two hours and then they spent 45 minutes in the Picasso museum with us before departing Paris. This strategy, of splitting into two groups when there were two strong opinions, served us well even though we only used it a few times. Having two adults on the trip was - in my opinion - necessary. It allowed us freedom for many things like this and having one of us hold everyone in one place while the other went and gathered data. It made it more of a team effort and also gave us someone to consult with if we became lost or there was a problem.
GUIDE BOOKS WHICH ONES AND HOW TO TAKE THEM
We have been buying guidebooks for years. We probably buy more of them than any other type of book, but I never studied the differences between them as thoroughly as I did in this case. Here is what I learned.
Rick Steves knows how to live. His restaurant choices are tasty and if not budget minded at least a good value. His hotel choices are reliably good (clean and not too ugly) and he always strives to find those that are centrally located. I like the fact that he includes his opinions about how worthy a sight is. If we had three weeks in a town we might find that we disagree with him here and there but he is usually right on the money I think and it helps to choose good things to do if you are there for a limited time. He is a real art museum nut so if you are not into art museums then you need to factor that into his ratings. If I only bought one guidebook I think this would be it. The maps are hand drawn and that is fine but you need a good detailed map as well (which you can usually get at a good hotel or travel info booth). One interesting detail is that his books on a single country are the same info as the Europe book but the Europe book is printed on thinner paper. I compared many pages to discover this.
Frommers also provides opinions which as I said we like. I love their section in the front of most books with 10 best this and that’s. The restaurants that they suggest need to appear on their maps to be more useful. Their maps also need supplementing as they may not show all streets, but are usually more detailed than Rick Steves’. This is a good addition to the Rick Steves’ data.
Lonely Planet is heaven for Maps. Particularly if you are staying in a hostel and maps are not easy to get without going out of your way, you may be able to do it all on just what is in the guide book. Their maps show the restaurants they suggest with wonderful cross-referencing to the page with the description. That way if you are hungry and you know where you are on the map you can quickly see what is close and read about the restaurant to see if it sounds good. The shoestring guides are particularly budget minded and are printed on the thinnest paper so you get a lot of info for a small amount of weight. If you are over 40 take your glasses because the type in these books is very tiny.
Let’s Go was my least favorite. There was no at a glance opinion (like the stars or triangles of Rick Steves or Frommers). They included the restaurants on their maps ONLY if it got a thumbs up. This left me wondering if the others were any good, and there was no cross referencing on the maps unlike lonely planet.
Europe for Dummies was not something I would buy again. Maybe it was because we were not part of their intended audience, having traveled all over the world. I bought it because I agreed with many of the assessments like Spain is a hidden gem. I was hoping to find more info like that. I may have found a tip or two but it wasn’t worth it for us. It might be useful if you have not traveled outside the US but I would get Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door first.
Fodors is more upscale and that didn’t apply to this trip so we didn’t use it. In general something about their format feels drudgerous and these books are not my favorite.
Insight guides present beautiful pictures but only sketchy information in the very back. This is a personal preference but I find that places are a lot more interesting if I have not seen it all in a book first. So, I think these are fine in a very quick look to get a feel for the place if you are the trip planner but in general I would buy these for places I would not get to visit. It spoils the surprise.
We traveled with the Lonely Planet shoestring Europe, Rick Steves’ Europe, Frommers Europe on $70 per day, and Let’s Go. All the books were chopped up to allow us to bring only the part the pertained to our trip as described above. In retrospect, I would have dropped Let’s Go.
GETTING AROUND THE LINES
Traveling in Europe in the peak of the tourist season as we did can mean a lot of standing in line. There are tricks to many of the difficult sights and we used what we could. Here is a list of what we did.
For the Tower of London you can buy your tickets from the guy at the underground ticket booth. Then, you just walk up to the place where they take the ticket. Westminster Abbey, the Eiffel Tower and the Vatican Museum had no way around the line other than getting there early. The Louvre sells tickets over the internet which allow you to use a different entrance (Richelieu) that has no wait. If you have people under 18 they don’t need a ticket they just need to show proof of age there… BUT they do think of a group as anything over 6 people and my trick was nearly spoiled by us being a group of 7 so if you do this break up and walk up as separate smaller groups.
To pass the Colosseum ticket line pretend you are going to Palatine hill and use their ticket window. The ticket covers both sights and although there is a bit of a hike it is worth it to miss the hour line in front of the Colusseum. (This tip courtesy of Rick Steves’ guide and the ticketbooth in question is on the map in the Rome section).
To pass the wait at most Hard Rock Cafés invest in the All Access Pass and they will seat you next. Our teenagers loved this because it was a lot like home and the places were always well air conditioned and the memorabilia great.
In Florence there is a phone number that allows you to make a reservation for the Accademia (where the statue David is) and the Uffizi. We were behind some people who were early for their reservation and they were told to wait while those that were late went right in. I don’t know how much late is too late but we were about 30 minutes late with no problem. The reservation makes your ticket cost a little more
( 1.55 euros) but it is worth it.
In Venice, the Doge’s Palace tickets can be purchased ahead of time on the internet (cool dungeons and getting to walk across the bridge of Sighs). The cathedral on St. Mark’s Square takes reservations on the internet and the reservations and tickets cost nothing.
In Vienna, Schonbrunn Palace takes reservations by phone and runs like a Swiss watch. I don’t know what happens if you are late. We were about 10 minutes early and had to wait those 10 minutes but then you got to a holding area and they were letting people in with the exact minutes on their ticket.
At Prague Castle skip the big line to buy tickets and enter St Vitus Cathedral and there is a ticket window there where you can get everything.
I know all of this is extra effort but I wanted the memories of Europe to include more than waiting in lines. As it was we waited 2 hours for the trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower (worth every minute), about an hour for the Vatican Museum (also worth it) and very little anywhere else.
ADDING A LITTLE COLOR IN THE FORM OF STORIES
On professional tours local guides talk for an hour or more about a sight. Teenagers have spent too much time in school getting lectured to and have no patience for such things, but if you don’t know what you are looking at it is hard to get excited. So, we tried to put (into a few sentences) the most interesting things about a given place. The Beefeater guides at the Tower of London were colorful enough to hold their attention as was the audio guide of Schonbrunn Palace short tour (included with the ticket).
In the surveys we asked if anyone had ever experience jet lag and all but our daughter responded “no”. Now, one of the girls had never left North America so her answer was not that surprising but what about the others? Having traveled with them all to Europe I watched them all have jet lag. Teenagers in general I think just don’t believe in admitting to something that sounds like a weakness. It was mostly noticeable in the morning during the first week when they all moped along until after lunch. I would have thought it just part of their personality but it got better as the trip went along. Still none of them were Mary Sunshine in the morning. I tried to be sensitive to this while at the same time not allowing them to lay in bed until all the museums closed. Here is what we did. The first morning I asked that they set an alarm for 8:30am. Not too unreasonable. Then we told them to meet us up at our room as soon as they were ready. It amounted to over two hours later. We were frankly beginning to wonder if we would ever get out of the hotel. It was at that point that my husband pointed out that I had said that I was going to measure to see how long it took to get ready and each morning we would subtract that amount of time from when we needed to leave for the alarms. It was a small threat. Excuses abounded and so we decided to re-measure tomorrow. It settled into about (at least) an hour and a half from the alarm. Alarms were another problem. They were perfectly capable of sleeping right through it. So I took to tapping on their door 15 minutes after their alarm went off to be sure they were up. Over the course of the trip they gradually learned to do it themselves so that at the end of the trip I was not checking to be sure they were up except for the day we needed to get to the airport.
SLEEPING ON THE PLANE
I hate flying but probably not for the reason you think. I am not afraid or nervous I just hate to be sandwiched in between strangers, fed generally awful food, in a noisy annoyingly dry environment. I have a secret weapon…sleep. As soon as the lousy meal is served I take 2 Dramamine pills (the drowsy kind). It can be lunch time and I am almost guaranteed 5 hours of blissful sleep even if it is interrupted by people bashing into me or pulling on my chair. I keep my light jacket handy and put it on backwards as a slip proof blanket and out I go. We encouraged sleeping on the plane at the packing meeting and I was really pleased that all of my teenagers got some sleep both coming and going on the plane! Tempers would have been much shorter without it.
Another question on my oh-so-thorough questionnaire was about culture shock. None of them reported that either, but on this trip we didn’t really see too much of it. Of course, we weren’t in Bangladesh either.
We had been gone about 2 weeks when the subject turned, at dinner one night, quite unexpectedly to Mexican food. That is not too surprising; we live in Southern California and it is a very prevalent thing. As the topic wore on about what kinds they missed, other things that they missed about home came up and the mood took a turn for the worst. This was to be expected but not a really good thing given that we had another week and half to go. We were in Venice and try as I might I could not find any Mexican food. The homesickness may have been exacerbated by our hostel. We had a great location but 14 of us shared one shower and 2 toilets. Their room came complete with Santa Clause wallpaper which had been partially ripped off the wall and a chain attached to the bookcase. The heat was wearing on everyone too. Luckily after we caught our night train to Vienna and things started to look up. The hostel was a big improvement, the heat was gone, and we even found some Mexican and Chinese food. It may not have been up to the standards at home but all of this together helped us to leave the homesickness behind.
We usually travel without our cell phones. It is a hassle trying to charge it everywhere and it is expensive, but in this case it was a Godsend. This gave the parents a way to get a hold of us, a way for us to contact each other if there was a problem. (we took 3 identical cell phones) and a long distance call with a known cost ($1/minute). No one abused it and it worked great. We are AT&T customers with GSM phones already so our number didn’t even change. We added the international plan for about $7 per phone per month to bring the rates down from $1.30/minute. This even allowed us to use US 800 numbers when our credit card companies paniced at the overseas charges.
To navigate you need a good compass, especially if you are using subways. They often have many exits (sometimes blocks apart) and so you come out not really knowing where you are or which way’s north. A compass and a map and a marked intersection can put you right in a hurry. The subways themselves (electric rails) seem to throw off the compass reading so take a few steps down the street before you try to read it.
Being from Southern California, we think of summer as hot. While this may be the case at times in the summer in Europe, it is not the rule by any means. We found that zip off pants, a light (windproof if possible) jacket and a folding umbrella took care of everything mother nature threw at us.
When you are handling as much money as you do for 7 people for 24 days each you need to watch things that might not matter much at other times. Exchange rates can change the final total a great deal. We took a lot of traveler’s checks because we knew that if there was an ATM failure or our credit cards were stolen we would still have money but the exchange rates with the travelers checks quickly caused us to push most purchases off onto credit cards and ATM withdrawls. The problem with ATMs is that most accounts will only allow you to take out $300 per day. In our case, that was about $40 per person. That wouldn’t cover all the meals, transportation, hostels and entrance fees in a day. We actually had two ATM cards which helped but mostly we counted on our credit cards. Be aware that American Express and Discover are very rarely used there. Call your banks as the rates vary from market + 1% to market + 5% (a big difference on large sums). ATM rates were…
After watching the participants straggle into the meetings for the last year and a half I began to worry about a painful race to the airport. So, as we got closer, I planned a departure party. We bought a bucket of KFC and some biscuits and the kids and their parents were invited to drop by and have a bite. This also gave us a few minutes to check on passports and anything else that might have gotten left behind. It worked like a charm when one participant got stuck in traffic and had only a few minutes to eat before the van picked us up.
EMAIL AS A BACKUP
I have a yahoo email account. I used it as a holding place to keep everything from email confirmations of reservations to the travelers check and passport numbers I emailed myself. We figured at worst we could beg or borrow some money and print things out from an internet café and we would be moving toward getting back on track.
HAVING AN ACE AT HOME
Another thing I did was to give an entire copy of all my reservations and research (except guidebooks) to my Mom here at home. If other methods failed me I could ask her to fax things to me in a pinch.
PARENT CONTACT AND PERMISSION TO TREAT
Something that we should have done much earlier than we did was to get all the parents’ emails, addresses, phone etc into one place. Also, for the minors we had the parents sign permission to treat forms because we didn’t want to have any problems in case there was a car accident or something. This may be unnecessary because the US is probably the only place where anyone would ask, but we would have hated to find out that we needed that and not have it.
Another thing that we did, but put off longer than we should have, was getting a liability waiver. As you can tell by now I am a worse case thinker and sometimes despite your best efforts to prevent it things happen. Some people are the kind that will sue over anything. You never know. So, just to be on the safe side, in case despite everything that we did to watch over them something happened to one of the kids we got a liability waiver and had all the parents sign it. We were told by a lawyer to even make sure the kids signed it so we did. SIGH
Something we didn’t do but thought about was putting down our expectations in the form of a contract so that there would be no trouble if we had to resort to sending someone home. I was afraid of sounding too threatening and so we didn’t. We didn’t need it so it was the (in retrospect) the right answer for us but had someone turned into a lush mid trip we would have been wishing we had it. I am not sure what I would do if I had it to do all over again but with unknown kids.
It is one thing to have food preferences. We all have them. It is quite another to have issues with foods like allergies or lactose intolerance. We had one participant who was lactose intolerant (which made pizza night little more than ketchup bread) and another who had a delicate stomach and struggled with spicy food. These only caused minor problems but my budget friendly bread, cheese and wine picnic was prevented by this. It pays to know as much about your teens as possible and try to think about the practicalities of the trip so that you can head problems off before they start.
TO MEET OR NOT TO MEET (WITH PARENTS)
At a number of junctures in the year and a half of planning we toyed with the idea of getting all the parents in one evening and talking to them about everything that was going on. We decided against it. Not because they seemed to know what was going on from talking to their kids. They didn’t. We simply didn’t want to insult the kids by making them feel that this was not their trip. Before it was over we had one on one conversations with all of them anyway. Usually when the parent hit the sudden realization that we were going to take their son or daughter out of the country for almost a month and they didn’t know us or whether we were capable people. As you can tell we are organized to a fault and it didn’t usually take long for us to put their mind at ease and fill in lots of details too.
A LITTLE FEAR IS A GOOD THING
One totally unfortunate thing that happened this summer is that a young girl on a graduation trip went missing in Aruba. We were determined that nothing was going to happen to my charges. Granted, we had a much higher ratio of adults to teens but we also made it a point to let them know that this demonstrated that you should stick together and not leave the hostel or club with strangers. I think it was a sobering thought for them. The tricky part about this age is that you don’t know what pieces of wisdom are missing and neither do they.
Even with all of that two teens disappeared one night at dinner time. It was our last night in London and everyone seemed to be feeling picky about what they wanted to eat. Our daughter wanted to try Indian food because there are so many people from India in London. My husband, two of the other kids and I wanted that too. The remaining two were not interested in Indian food. So, we found a nice looking Indian place right next to a nice looking sandwich shop and I suggested that we break into two groups and eat right next door. It seemed that everyone was okay with it. So, in we went and enjoyed our Indian food. I was a little surprised when we finished and they had not come in to join us but I thought that they might have added ice cream or something. So, we went into the sandwich shop to get them. It wasn’t a very big place so immediately we realized that they were not there. We checked the bathroom… nope not there either. So, I stayed put out front and the others fanned out to check other restaurants in the vicinity. No, no, not there either. It had been probably ten minutes that seemed like an eternity. We tried one of the missing teen’s cell phone but she had gotten a new one and the number was different. Just about the time that we were thinking about calling their parents here they came. Before I had a chance to react, our daughter and one of the others that ate with us (tortured by the story about the girl disappearing from Aruba) ran up to them screaming “where the hell have you BEEN!!! You scared us to death!!!” I think they got the message and I didn’t even have to deliver it. It never happened again but then again we didn’t break up into separate groups for a meal again either.
GROUP SHOTS, IPODS AND THE 10 BEST THINGS TO TAKE WITH YOU
One fun thing we did was that at most major sights we took a quick group picture of the kids. They posed in silly ways and sometimes got really tickled at eachothers’ faces or poses. After looking at the pictures I wish I would have thought to fill flash the stark shadows in very sunny places but Photoshop is a blessing.
Ipods are all the rage and although I hate things with chargers to deprive teenagers of their music must fall in the cruel and unusual category. Two things got a great deal of use in addition to the ipods. One was speakers for the ipod that allowed them to supply music to their room. It also allowed the alarm on the ipod to wake them up through the speakers to music. The other gadget came from RadioShack. For about $20 you get a little thing that splits and amplifies so that more than one set of headphones can be driven by one ipod. Then, on a train or waiting for something they could share the experience of some of their favorite tunes.
Many of these top 10 things are obvious but oh so helpful.
10. Language cards (see below) or a few key words in a language. I know most people who deal with travelers have an amazing grasp of the English language, but they greet you with a very honest smile if you greet them in their language. Teens especially should be encouraged to be good ambassadors and at least attempt their language.
8. Guidebook sections.
7. Tickets for hard to get into sights, plays, trains, planes and rail passes.
6. Med kit including generous numbers of Band-Aids, Neosporin, chewable Pepto-Bismol tablets, Benedryl, Tylenol, Motrin or Advil.
5. An alpine sweater (thin, light, nearly windproof jacket)
4. A small folding umbrella.
2. The budget (3 copies) in a day by day, meal by meal, sight by sight format. Space should be available to fill in each expense as it occurs. One copy for each adult and one to make a master copy as the trip goes and to compare predicted with actual expenses.
1. A sense of fun, adventure, flexibility, and the willingness to skip sights or early morning trains for the happiness of the group. Another thing in this category is patience. Most of us have forgotten the dumb things we did when we were teens. The job interviews we forgot all about or the important dates we simply didn’t make a note of because we were used to everything being done for us. This is a time of great change and teens (even bright well meaning ones) don’t have the good habits in place never to forget anything.
I feel very pleased that we were able to make this set of memories with these kids (they told me it was okay if I called them that and they didn’t even call me the old lady to make us even). I can honestly say that if I had to do it all over again not only would I make the trip but I would invite each and every one of them all over again. There was a lot of singing and dancing and skipping and laughter. I enjoyed watching them work like a big family doing each other’s makeup or giving backrubs to each other. I enjoyed sharing sights that I knew were good and new experiences too. We shared bites and sips of new foods and sometimes gave unpopular flavors fitting descriptions that got us all chuckling. We (I think) had a pace that was balanced between Napoleon’s march into Russia and laying in bed all day. We got into a rhythm that minimized friction while still allowing an impromptu visit to Starbucks. In short, there is not much that I would change. It was a GREAT trip. You only get to go through life once. Making happy memories is what it is all about and we made a bunch of whopping fine ones. Don’t forget to “dream big”.