Think your kids are too young for Europe? Think again…

Think your kids are too young for Europe? Think again…

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Olive oil flavoring in Tuscany

For those of you who know me personnally, you know that I am NOT a fan of staying home, or have some have so lovingly stated, I have “ants in my pants”. For years BC (before children) I (and then my husband and I) travelled often both in the US and throughout Europe.  Once the kids came along, I thought my days of travelling, especially to Europe, were over for a long time. Thankfully that was not the case.  A little planning can make travelling to Europe with kids of all ages can be as great as travelling without them.

So how do you do it? Here’s a few tips that can help you have an enjoyable trip with kids of any age.

  • Start small. Pick one location with a lot to do. Kids, especially the little ones, require a lot of “stuff”. Lugging that stuff between several stops for a night or two at a time can be wearing. Focusing on one location, like a big city, will give you the opportunity to see the highlights without having to move around a lot. Almost every big city will also have nearby day trip locations that will allow you escape the big city without having to lug your luggage. If you still want to see more than one city or country, then it is imperative to…
  • Plan ahead. Unfortunately winging it is hard, especially if you are travelling in high season which is during the summer, spring break or any school holiday.  A little research goes along way in making sure your trip is as family-friendly as possible.  Dinner at a 5-star restaurant, probably not, but maybe lunch there is an option with little ones.
  • Decide how you want to travel. Do you want to plan everything yourself or use an organized tour? Travelling independently allows you flexibility but you are also on your own.  Running to catch a train last minute is a lot harder with strollers, suitcases and little ones in tow.  If you go it alone, book your hotels, planes and trains ahead of time and allow plenty of time to get there. Consider family suites or connected rooms to give you more room to spread out. Rail passes are great but book your seats ahead of time so you are all sitting together.

What about a tour or cruise? Gone are the days when tours were only for old people or school groups following sweaty tour guides holding big flags with hordes of tired travelers behind them.  Today, many small-group, family oriented tours offer a great way to see Europe without having to worry about logistics.  Picking your location is as hard as it gets and the tour guides do the rest.  Travelling with family focused tours like Adventures by Disney or Tauck Bridges not only give you easy access to highlights of the top spots, but can, in many cases, give you unparalleled access that you just can’t get travelling on your own.  On a recent Adventures by Disney Viva Italia itinerary, stops not only hit Italian highlights like the Spanish Steps and the Vatican, but arranged for a private Sistine Chapel visit with only members of the tour (think 40 people instead of 1500).  Other irreplaceable highlights included an unscheduled stop at the American Cemetery outside Florence just as it was closing for the day.  Members of the tour then got to participate first-hand in the flag lowering ceremony and hear the cemetery manager describe the battles that led to Tuscany being freed from the Fascists.

Family tours also offer the opportunity for some couple time with organized “kids nights” where kids get some time away from their parents while parents get a few hours to themselves for dinner or a wine tasting.

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Pasta making is fun for everyone!

An organized tour does still require stops at various hotels. If the thought of packing and unpacking three or four times per trip is not for you, a European cruise may be the lowest maintenance form of family travel.  Several cruise lines of various price points, including Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian, and Princess, offer ocean-based cruises which skirt the entire European continent on different itineraries throughout the warmer months.  River cruises, such as Amawaterways, Viking or Avalon, allow families to experience Europe from its rivers making it easier to visit major cities without long bus rides from ocean cruise ports.    Adventures by Disney has even partnered with Amawaterways to create family-focused Danube River cruise itineraries.  These cruises allow you to traverse the Mediterranean, experience the Norwegian fjords and bike through Amsterdam while only unpacking once per cruise.

3.) Relax and go with it.  Travelling with kids can be unpredictable. Ice cream stops are a must and some museums or highlights will be missed, but so what? Will your 7-year-old remember the Louvre? Probably not. Will your 7-year-old remember splashing around in the fountain outside the Louvre? That’s more likely; and it’s certain that you will never forget it.  Kids have a way of making the most curmudgeonly hotel employee smile and offer you an excuse for ordering that dessert or riding the carousel.

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4.) Let someone else do the work.  Use a travel agent!  Yes, you can spend countless hours researching the best price on that hotel or trying to figure out the best way to get from one location to the other, but why?  Your efforts are best spent enjoying the time with your family, not figuring out what to do now that the French rail employees have declared a strike (and they will, especially on Fridays in the Summer!)

As Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Travelling with your kids, either near or far, will instill in them a sense of adventure that no other experience can replicate. Let us help you give this gift to your children. Contact your Favorite Place Travel specialist today to get you and your family on the road.

Harry Potter, Dinosaurs and Superheroes: A Disney-loving family’s foray to Universal Studios

Harry Potter, Dinosaurs and Superheroes: A Disney-loving family’s foray to Universal Studios

I admit it. I felt like a traitor. I was raised as a Disney fan in a family that is slightly Disney crazy. But then my daughter became a Harry Potter fan and I knew a trip to Universal Studios Orlando was in our future. We finally made it recently and it was well worth it.

We stayed on property during our visit which is highly recommended. Like Disney, guests staying at the Universal resorts get into one of the Harry Potter sections an hour earlier than everyone else. If you are visiting during a busy time it’s worth getting out of bed a bit earlier to avoid some of the worst of the lines. Universal has four resorts currently open, Cabana Bay, Royal Pacific, Portofino Bay and the Hard Rock Hotel. A 5th hotel, Sapphire Falls, opens later this year.

Of these hotels, all but Cabana Bay, the value resort,  and the new Sapphire Falls include the Express Pass feature (more on that later).

Two different Harry Potter “lands” are incorporated into the two theme parks. In Universal Studios, Diagon Alley, the London base for the books’ wizards, is a fully immersive experience that goes beyond the typical ride based attractions to incorporate restaurants, shops, shows and, of course, butterbeer. Diagon Alley’s main ride, Escape from Gringotts, takes riders into the wizard bank, complete with the trolls who run it,

and on a high-speed race to get Harry, Ron and Hermione away from Voldemort. When you’ve had your fill of Diagon Alley, be sure to take the Hogwarts Express train to Islands of Adventure. On the train, you will ride with Harry, Ron and Hermione to Hogwarts but watch out for Dementors! The ride is different each way, so make sure to ride it both to and from Universal Studios. You can only ride Hogwarts Express if you have a park-to- park pass though.

In Islands of Adventure, the second Universal park, visitors find Hogsmeade, the town where the wizarding school Hogwarts is located. There you can journey through Hogwarts and compete in a match of quidditch, the wizard game. The ride’s line winds through Hogwarts itself going through the dining hall, green house and even Dumbledore’s office. Warning: the ride is intense, I mean very intense, so if you are prone to motion sickness think twice. Dueling Dragons, a family coaster, is a tamer, less intense ride in Hogsmeade. Both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade have a location for Olivanders, a shop where you can purchase your own magical wands. At Ollivander’s, you can go through a wand selection process and one person out of every group gets to have their wand selected by the wand itself. It’s a fun process but can have a long line for the show. Visit the Diagon Alley location where the line is typically shorter than the Hogsmeade location.

If Harry Potter isn’t your thing, maybe the Minions, Shrek, Transformers or the Simpsons are. Each of these favorites has one or more interactive rides or experiences. Minion Mayhem in particular is sure to please everyone in the group. Over at Islands of Adventure, your family’s favorite superheroes and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park find their home. The youngest (and shortest) members of your party will love the Pteranadon Flyers were they can hang glide through the treetops, but be sure to get there early as the lines can get long. A revamped Hulk coaster comes to Island of Adventures this Summer.

Which brings me to the lines. One thing that Universal is really lacking, in my opinion, is crowd management and how it handles wait times. Universal offers the option for the Express Pass in its attempt to manage its crowds. It works in a similar manner to Disney’s Fast Pass, letting you go through a shorter line than the regular queue. However, there are two HUGE differences between the Express Pass and Disney’s Fast Pass. The first is that you have to pay for it, and it’s expensive (almost as much as the cost of the ticket). If you stay at one of Universal’s premier or preferred resorts, the pass is included in the hotel rate. The second biggest difference from the Fast Pass is that it doesn’t work on the most popular rides. While we were visiting the wait times for both the Gringotts ride and Hogwarts ride were over 90 minutes, yet the Express Pass wasn’t valid on it. This is why the Early Admission benefit offered by all of the Universal resorts is so valuable. Visit these popular Harry Potter rides before the parks fill with people and then spend the rest of your day on the other rides with Express Pass and enjoying the shops and restaurants.

Overall, Universal Studios Orlando will definitely appeal to the movie lovers in your family. For a Harry Potter fan, it’s an absolute must do.

Several of Favorite Place Travel’s agents are certified Universal Studios Resort Specialists. Contact us today to learn more about the options to make the most out of your Universal Studios visit.

Keeping it weird (with kids) in Austin by Susan Glover, Favorite Place Travel

Not too long ago, we had the opportunity to take a quick trip to Austin, Texas on the same weekend as the Austin City Limits festival. The bad news: we had the kids in tow.  Austin City Limits (ACL) is billed as an “End of the Summer” music festival which takes place in Zilker Park, the Central Park of Austin.  Drawing acts from around the world, it ranks as one of the top music festivals in the nation.  Being from Chicago, I had visions of Lallapalooza-size crowds and not the most kid-friendly atmosphere (i.e. drunks wandering the streets). However, despite its unofficially tag line to “Keep Austin Weird” we were pleasantly surprised to find lots of kid-friendly (and adult-interesting) activities.

We were lucky enough to stay with family in the area saving us both money and lending their local know-how to the trip, but if you aren’t that lucky, hotels are plentiful, but book in advance, especially if there is a festival in town.  The downtown Austin area had all the major chain hotels while many boutique hotels can be found in South Austin.

The South Congress Area, located just past Lady Bird Lake, named for the former First Lady, is a great spot to get a flavor for the local people who are working hard to keep the unique, artsy vibe to one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S.  This area’s great mix of unique restaurants, boutiques, and independent shops kept not only the adults happy, but also the kids.

You can smell the leather of Allens Boots a store-front away and this huge store is filled with every type of cowboy boot imaginable, including ones emblazoned with the orange T of the University of Texas.  Once you’ve had your fill of shopping, there are plenty of family-friendly eating options including Home Slice Pizza, where they give the kids pizza dough to play with while waiting for their food.  Once you’ve filled up on pizza, be sure to check out the Big Top Candy Store, an old-school candy store filled with nostalgic, old time candy favorites and unique candy from Texas and beyond.

During the warmer months, the largest urban population of Mexican Free-Tailed bats hang out under the Ann Richard’s Bridge.  Around dusk, these bats leave the bridge to feed for the evening.   While normally this sounds like an area to avoid while 750,000 bats coming flying out of one spot, visitors and locals alike swarm to the spot to watch the bats take flight every night.  You can take a boat tour which cruises Lady  Bird Lake until they take off and then position themselves directly under the bridge (BTW, bats stink!) or watch from above on the bridge.

For history buffs, the Bob Bullock State History Museum is just a few blocks from the state capitol and tells the story of Texas from the Native Americans to today.  Also scattered around the city are signs of the city’s revolutionary past, which laid the groundwork for this city’s independent spirit. Replicas of the “Come and Take It” cannon which figured prominently in the Texas war of independence from Mexico and the “Come and Take It” flag depicting the cannon, the Lone Star and slogan, appear all over the city’s shops and galleries.

While we never made it to the ACL grounds, there was plenty to keep us busy and enough to hope for another trip to Austin soon.  The independent cowboy spirit mixed with an artist’s soul makes Austin the perfect place for everyone in your travel party. To book your trip to Austin or for more information, contact your favorite travel agent at Favorite Place Travel or call 404.409.4174.

Susan Glover with Favorite Place Travel Talks About Traveling with Kids to Europe

Susan Glover with Favorite Place Travel Talks About Traveling with Kids to Europe

“You’re nuts!”
“That’s crazy!”
“No, you’re not!”
These were many of the reactions we got when we told people that we were going to Europe and taking our 20 month old daughter. (And those were just the reactions from my mother.) My friends who also had small children thought we were crazy for other reasons, most specifically taking a 20 month old on an eight hour oversees flight to Paris and then a 5 hour connection to Sicily. I must admit I had my own doubts. Our daughter wasn’t yet potty-trained so we had diapers to deal with. Would we be able to find everything we needed for her? How would she do on this flight? Would she sleep? Would we sleep? What would she eat? Despite these doubts, the pros outweighed the cons-the biggest pro being she still flew for free. So we bit the bullet, booked our tickets and never looked back. With hindsight being 20/20, it wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t hard, and we never regretted the trip for a minute.

Having been to Europe a few times already, my husband and I had seen the sights of Paris, but we’d never seen them through the eyes of a toddler. Yes, we’d seen Notre Dame, but we never chased the pigeons in front of Notre Dame while flinging a stuffed dog that traveled with us, and on every trip before and since. Never before had I noticed how kid-friendly Paris was- parks everywhere, Merry-Go-Rounds, puppet shows and sailing boats abound. And the people were fantastic-forget the stereotypes of rude, reserved Parisians. Give them a toddler with curly red hair and they were baby-talking, cheek-squeezing mush balls. Free sweets, “cuts” in line, and smiles were everywhere (and anyone who’s ever been to Paris knows how stingy Parisians are with smiles.) Sleep was sparing, but that was nothing new from being at home so why not not sleep in Paris?

Samantha on carousel in Paris

After gaining our sea legs in Paris, we moved on to visit relatives in Sicily. The Italians, as expected, love kids. Squeals of “bella bambina”, “bellisima”, and more free sweets marked our way through Taoromina, Caltigirone, Palermo, Agrigento and Siracusa. Did we see every tourist site on our list? No, but did we have the ultimate ice breaker to meet and interact with Sicilians? Absolutely. In our prior trips, we never felt like we really interacted with the locals. Now, we had no choice- we needed diapers, wipes, and snacks, just like every other parent out there. Thankfully, the locals were more than happy to help.

I’d be lying to say it was easy, but we had the trip of our lives and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. As for our daughter, no, she can’t remember the trip, but whenever I see her looking at the photos, or asking to go back so “she can remember this time”, I just smile.

For resources on taking your kids to Europe, check out the websites below, then call Favorite Place Travel and let us make it a reality for your family.
http://en.parisinfo.com/
http://parisvisitorsbureau.com/
http://www.travelwithyourkids.com/
http://sicilytravel.info/

Contact your travel agent at sgross@favoriteplacetravel.com or sglover@favoriteplacetravel.com or call Stacey at 404.409.4174, or Susan at 708.479.4693.