Barcelona 2017: One week family stay at Hotel Catalonia Ramblas

Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.

Home away from home: Hotel Catalonia Ramblas

We didn’t choose our Barcelona hotel. It was selected by the organizers of the conference where my husband was speaking. Sometimes, these choices are a disappointment, but something to put up with graciously. After all, I’m tagging along at little to no cost for lodging in an expensive city.

Hotel Catalonia Ramblas was not one of those disappointments. We were incredibly comfortable there as a family of three.*

Barcelona Ramblas hotel bed - 1Often, location is the single biggest factor in how a hotel stacks up. Hotel Catalonia Ramblas is in a prime location just two blocks from the heart of Barcelona, the Plaça de Catalunya. Leading downhill toward the Mediterranean from the Plaça is the famous La Rambla pedestrian thoroughfare.

It’s hard to beat a hotel location this close to two of the must visit sites in a city.

This is also a major shopping district. The grande dame of Spanish department stores, El Corte Inglés, is an imposing presence across the street. Which street? With more than one location near the Plaça, you can take your pick of all clothing to the south or housewares and toys, etc., to the northeast.

You’ll find anything you might need within an easy walk of Hotel Catalonia Ramblas, including access to public transportation and the starting point for popular tours.

I saw internationally recognizable brands as well as shops with a Catalan flavor everywhere along the Carrer de Pelai, home of Hotel Catalonia Ramblas.

My bank has an agreement to waive fees with a group of other large, international financial institutions, and the ATM I needed to avoid paying fees was mere blocks away.

Location? Check!

Two’s company; three’s a crowd?

We had what I believe was a standard room (i.e, not a suite), albeit perhaps an oversized one since it included a sofa bed for our son at one end. I know there are suites with private pools(!) available in this hotel, but I didn’t investigate any other room types.

Refer to the first paragraph: I was in residence as a beggar, not a chooser.

Barcelona hotel entrance corridor - 1One entered our room from the public hallway into a short corridor with doors at both ends; the bathroom entrance opened from this corridor to one side.

Barcelona hotel bathroom glass door - 1The bathroom employed a frosted glass door, but the presence of the additional wooden door between the private hallway and the sleeping space meant no early morning light pollution when one family member rose early to go to work while his spouse and child lazed about for hours’ more sleep!

I dare you. Just ask my opinion of glass walls in double hotel rooms. These rooms are designed to be shared by more than one person who might have very different schedules. My thoughts aren’t positive.

Entering the bedroom from the hall, the closet separated the bathroom from the sleeping space. This no doubt added some sound insulation. I found it easy to sleep through DH’s early morning routine.

One section of the closet had shelves, including a pull out with electric kettle and instant coffee/tea things; the other two thirds offered standard hanging space. Three thick blankets and an extra pillow were at hand in the closet, proving themselves very useful as we experienced a rare run of freezing days during our week in Spain.

You might notice from my photos facing toward the closet that the pulls on the closet doors could serve as makeshift hooks; I kept our light and dark laundry bags there so my family knew where to put soiled clothes.

The main bed(s) were two oversized singles pushed together in the European fashion. I didn’t bring a tape measure, but I’d judge that each of these was closer to an American double/full size (54″ wide) than our twin (36“) beds.

Continue reading

Barcelona 2017: From Boston to Spain on SWISS… with a Business Class upgrade win

Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.

Travel day 1: Transatlantic red eye

Anyone who’s flown within a decade or so is aware that conditions in Economy Class are cramped and uncomfortable, even for short, daytime flights. Getting to Europe from the USA means losing hours as you jump ahead six to nine time zones, and most flights depart at bedtime with a morning arrival.

Full disclosure: I had never successfully employed the “correct” procedure of sleeping on the plane, toughing it out upon arrival, and staying awake all of the first day in Europe. Before this trip, I had always tumbled into a desperate sleep upon reaching my hotel.

Even as a teen—my first visit to London was led by my high school theatre teacher between 11th and 12th grade—I found jet lag really difficult, and staying awake after a night flight really, really hard.

Barcelona Ramblas hotel bed - 1

Heaven is a big, soft bed after an overnight flight in Economy

I’ve never been particularly good at sleeping in a seat. Now that I have a chronic condition that includes regularly experiencing fairly significant pain, I was downright worried about the seven hour flight to Zurich (ZRH), where we would change planes for our ultimate destination: Barcelona (BCN), Spain.

First, I was afraid my hip arthritis would go into overdrive from all the sitting,* like it did on two domestic cross country flights this summer. Second, I feared I would sleep poorly, if at all, and thus experience increased pain triggered by fatigue. A double whammy, and one that tripled my anxiety in the weeks leading up to the journey.

You can’t fly direct from Boston to Barcelona. I had the freedom to select** our flights, and I opted for a transfer in Zurich with SWISS International Airlines.

I’d read excellent reports about conditions in Zurich airport on FlyerTalk. I always go looking for the opinions of frequent flyers in the FlyerTalk forums when I book airline tickets that include an unfamiliar layover location.

Transfers can be beastly in the world’s largest, busiest airports. I will pay extra to have a quicker, cleaner, or smoother trip through customs and passport control.

My husband did not appreciate the fact that we flew outbound on SWISS with a return on parent airline Lufthansa. They are code share partners, but not the same airline. This made reserving seats more complicated. He had a little angst about having to view his flights on two different websites/airline apps.

After all was said and done, however, DH was pretty happy with the flights I selected. He has even declared Munich (MUC) his favorite world airport. He’d rather stay home, but, if he must have a layover, he’d like to have it in München. He loves the relaxation area with its chaise longues.

Booking airline tickets

Every time my husband has an international business trip, I check airfares to see if I can tag along. Usually, it is prohibitively expensive for an extra ticket, and the second one must be paid for on our own dime.

Sometimes, he’s booking too close to the dates of travel for the best price. DH also tends to make the shortest possible trip (no Saturday night stays, typically flying on peak weekdays) and is unwilling to adjust his schedule or take a less convenient flight to lower the fare into “bring the family” territory.

That’s his right: he’s a busy man, and he doesn’t enjoy travel. He’s going to go where the conference or university is, give his brilliant talk, eat room service, and get back ASAP to our family home and the people that he loves. I wouldn’t want him to change!

Admittedly, though, I’m sometimes a bit jealous when he makes several international trips in a year, complains about them, and doesn’t even get out of his hotel room to tell me what the city of Such&such was like. Or try the famous insert food here. Or see the renowned site right across the street from his hotel. Sigh.

This time, however, all the stars aligned. DH was invited to a great conference in Barcelona, a world class destination by any standard.

The dates fell just after Thanksgiving, so I knew I’d have family in town to watch my kids if I wanted to join him on an adults only trip.

It was a four day conference, a little longer than some, making the transatlantic flight worthwhile even for a jet lag lightweight like myself.

I booked his ticket, then checked prices for my own itinerary if I went with him. For myself, I looked at a return flight on the weekend instead of his preference, Thursday. It wasn’t pricing out in the thousands; the economy fare was under $500. I booked it immediately.

And then I started thinking… At this price, we can afford a family trip to Europe!

I’d paid for the kids’ passports to take them to Iceland years before, but we’ve hardly used them since. Apologies to Canada, but our passport cards are sufficient to visit you by land or sea.

Checking in with my teen, he shocked me by stating his preference to skip Spain. I nudged him a little, but, in the end, decided to respect his wish to stay at home. He’s kind of like his dad—a homebody—and he’s very much entered into the teen period of finding his own way by rejecting, sometimes reflexively, his parents’ priorities.

If he were studying Spanish, I might’ve insisted, but DS1 would remain with his grandparents post-Thanksgiving.

My little guy was a different story. When we travel, he is my most frequent social companion in the evening. On cruises, he’ll accompany me to formal dinners so his dad can enjoy room service in sweatpants. DS2 has danced in shipboard discos, and sipped virgin mocktails in swanky piano bars. He keeps a full wardrobe of bow ties for such occasions.

Son with mocktail in shipboard bar - 1

DS2 aboard our favorite ship, Crystal Serenity, at (rainy) sunset in Alaska.

When I described Spain’s culture of frequent socializing in bars and restaurants, with families dining together into what we consider the wee hours, he was all in. He didn’t object to missing a week of school, either, especially not in the land that introduced chocolate to Europe.

I had to call to book his ticket separately because DS2 is a minor. The website wouldn’t allow me to make the reservation as it looked like a case of a child traveling alone. We traveled with three different ticket locator numbers and e-tickets. This worked out to my advantage as our departure date neared.

SWISS Upgrade Bargain bid for Business Class

SWISS offers a program called “SWISS Upgrade Bargain” in which, if invited by the airline, one can place a bid in an amount of one’s choice within an airline-delimited range to be upgraded from Economy to Business Class. In my case, the price range allowed began at roughly CHF 780 up to an amount more than business class would’ve cost if purchased outright for my ticket. I always check the fare for a better seat, even when I doubt I can afford it!

This no doubt fills the Business Class cabin while providing some revenue for the airline as opposed to their offering those seats to frequent fliers as a courtesy.

In an interesting twist, of the three of us, only I received an email from SWISS offering me the option to bid for an upgrade. The program rules state that children under 18 aren’t eligible, so my son’s case makes sense, but I am less clear on why DH, with his more expensive ticket, didn’t get the offer. There’s some possibility, he admits, that an airline email went into his spam folder.

At any rate, we had to keep one parent in Economy with our minor child. I suggested we make a relatively low bid and see what happened. If we didn’t get it, we would fly in uncomfortable solidarity in Coach. If we won the bid, I would offer the seat to my husband if I boarded the plane feeling well, but take it myself if I already had pain before we left home.

I didn’t quite forget that I’d placed the bid—I think I offered CHF 810, or about 30 francs more than the minimum possible offer—but I considered it an extreme long shot. Theories online as to how the odds of acceptance are calculated include the notion that one’s initial fare added to the bid might be the determining factor, and my ticket was cheap.

Two or three days before our trip, I got the email: my bid was accepted. I couldn’t reserve a specific seat of my choice under this scheme, but had no qualms about taking whatever SWISS offered. I believed that any lie-flat, Business Class seat was going to be superior to my carefully researched thank you SeatGuru Economy Class window seat.

This should come as no surprise: it was wildly superior. Continue reading

An introvert cruises with Carnival & finds room for everyone’s idea of a good time

Carnival: fun for all, all for fun?

I knew going in that I was not a good fit for the typical Carnival Cruise Line demographic. Carnival bills itself as sailing “the fun ships.” Frankly, I’m not sure I’m an easy match for any commercial demographic slot, but easygoing party animal perhaps least of all.

I am an unabashed introvert. I don’t like crowds, and I don’t like noisy environments. I don’t listen to popular music, I hardly watch TV, and I’m not “fun” in an obvious way. I don’t participate in most of the activities I see online listed as features of Carnival itineraries.

So I came to my first cruise, aboard the Carnival Glory, fully aware of all this, but willing, for several reasons, to go along for the ride.

Childhood fantasy of The Love Boat

First and foremost, I’ve wanted to experience an ocean cruise since I was a very young child watching The Love Boat with my mother. I yearned to travel even then.

Oh, how romantic cruising seemed, hearkening back to the halcyon days of ocean liners plying the seven seas. Glamorous evening wear? Officers in uniform? Exotic ports? Yes, please! Thirty years later, I finally made it to sea with my own little one in tow.2012-carnival-cruise-saint-john-nb-canada-1.jpg

Low prices and good value

Another simple reason I opted for a Carnival cruise, in spite of reading descriptions that made it sound like the least appropriate line for me, was simple economics. Carnival Cruise Lines sells a mass market product at a value price.

After taxes, I paid $83 per person per night, and that was for an ocean view stateroom, not the cheapest inside cabin. This departure left from a city near my home, making it all of $3.50 in tolls to get us to the port, plus 10 miles’ worth of gas, wear, and tear on the car. A four night voyage from my home port was a very inexpensive way to try cruising.

Testing the waters

Finally, I wanted to take a short, inexpensive voyage with my youngest son because I have big plans for grand, trans-Atlantic adventures… but my little guy has been known to get motion sick.

My husband suffers greatly from seasickness, and I feared our son would follow in his vomitorious footsteps. This was an ideal way to test the waters, so to speak. We actually stayed close enough to home that I could have gotten him home via land if he had been constantly and/or violently ill. Thankfully, that didn’t prove necessary.

2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 2

Good times were enjoyed by all

I realized something interesting on this brief journey.

For all my disinterest in the contents of the daily Fun Times newsletter, I found myself more open to appreciating the enjoyment of others than I thought I might be. The overall vibe of the ship was happy and positive, and the revelers were generally inoffensive, even to my different and rather delicate sensibilities.

It was good for me to sail in this particular environment; it expanded my tolerance for living and letting live. It wasn’t even painful.

Early morning solitude

As an example, I am an early riser. It was patently obvious that most aboard the ship stayed up late, and the itinerary reflected that. I enjoyed the quiet and solitude of the early morning upper decks. I found the normally roisterous Lido cafe practically empty when I went searching for my first cup of tea of the day.

The gym didn’t even open until 7 am on our first day at sea. I exercised while it was sparsely populated, taking care of my physical needs and simultaneously recharging my emotional batteries, which are depleted by casual socializing.

The flip side to this was hearing some hallway noise at night, long after I’d retired for the evening. I was wise enough to bring earplugs, however, mitigating the intrusion. I also noticed that, while noisy, the tone of the late night noise remained happy, playful, and relaxed.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 3

Family friendly atmosphere

These were not the boisterous drunks I feared, at least on 2-aft, even-side, this particular voyage. I never heard angry or raised voices on the trip. I never found myself uncomfortably surrounded by people who seemed out of control, which was my major concern before setting sail.

Aside from a few minutes waiting in line to re-board the Glory after our port day in Saint John, NB, Canada, I heard less crude language and profanity than I have on the MBTA (subway) in Boston. People seemed to enjoy their good times in an overtly inoffensive, family-friendly way.

I’m not a heavy drinker, and it was obvious that there was some serious social drinking going on around us. In spite of that, I didn’t need to shield my young son from much of anything—again, excepting the drunk young men re-boarding in Canada. Beer, it appears, is no good for washing out a potty mouth.

Discovering new interests

I took my little guy to All Ages Karaoke and discovered that he loves to dance. He developed his now signature break dancing inspired style by imitating an enthusiastic young man on this trip.

We sat together in a lounge next to a crowd of happy, celebratory, middle-aged ladies with a table full of empty glasses, and everyone smiled at her neighbor, enjoyed herself, and kept up the friendly vibe so we could all enjoy the space together.

I learned a lot about my youngest son on this trip. He was born the most gregarious member of our family, but, until I saw him blossom in Glory‘s atmosphere of non-stop conviviality, I didn’t fully appreciate that his need for socializing was at least as great as my need for solitude. It was a teachable moment for me.

This itinerary on the Glory was a nice cultural melting pot as well. I think my child saw more racial mixing—at dining tables, in the pools, in the bars—than he normally does in our predominantly white neighborhood and school. On this trip, he played simultaneously with children from multiple countries. That was great, and not something I’d expected.

More cruising in my future

I hope to do more cruising in the future, and I suspect I will end up preferring a different cruise line. I’m looking forward to trying a smaller ship with a quieter, more traditional vibe. But, I would no longer automatically discount Carnival as “the least attractive” option for my family.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 4

If I sail Carnival again, I’ll book a larger suite or a pair of staterooms for my family. Three of the four of us would be inclined to spend a fairly high proportion of our time in the privacy of the cabin. We simply need more “peace and quiet” than the Glory’s public spaces provide. I think we could afford to do so on this line, because the prices are relatively low.

If I ever convince my husband to try cruising, it could be aboard a Carnival ship, and I wouldn’t consider it “settling” if it was. I also believe that an inexpensive Carnival sailing can make a good test voyage for novice cruise vacationers who are considering a more expensive trip but reluctant to commit for fear of seasickness or claustrophobia.

You may find, as I did, that you are pleasantly surprised by Carnival Cruise Line.

Adapted and updated from a post I originally wrote on Cruise Critic forums

Cruise report: HAL Maasdam from Montreal to Boston with elementary school aged kids

Our party of three—one adult with two elementary school aged kids—traveled from Montreal to Boston on the Holland America Line (HAL) Maasdam during the last week of August 2012.NS Sydney port

Family travel, cross country, without cars or planes

I opted to make our usual New England to Pacific Northwest summer visit without flying on any airplanes in the summer of 2012. I accomplished this by booking the train across the USA westbound (Amtrak), then a combination of train (Via Rail) and this cruise to complete our voyage home via Canada.

As in the USA, there are vast, gorgeous swaths of undeveloped country in Canada that are simply inaccessible by road. The train travels through some of them. Others are better reached by water.

A traveler who goes by ship, not a dedicated cruiser

I am a traveler who sometimes goes by ship, not an inveterate cruiser. I love the convenience of unpacking once, then seeing many ports. I can sit by a window and stare at the open sea for hours, so I like to travel by ship. The ship’s amenities are less exciting to me than the voyage itself.

If I do book a cruise, the features I find most appealing have to do with smaller crowds, shorter lines, and better access to ports rather than luxurious finishes or extravagant meals. I’d love to find myself surrounded by fascinating companions, but I’m very capable of entertaining myself if I can find a quiet corner in which to do so.

A mom and two boys embark in Montreal

We’d had the pleasure of my husband’s company during the first leg of our Canadian voyage, so, rather than hassle with child safety seats in a taxi, my husband took a cab and drove with our luggage to the embarkation port in Montreal.

Having left home in mid-June with a return to Boston on September 1st, we traveled with more luggage than we could carry. We checked six checked bags at debarkation, but I blame much of this bulk on the cruise’s mandatory formal nights.

I walked with the children from our Vieux Montréal hotel—the spacious, lovely, and very conveniently located Marriott SpringHill Suites—to the port.

Montreal cruise terminal

The port of Montreal was slightly different than our home port of Boston with a security checkpoint at the exterior gate as well as the screening I expected inside the terminal building. That meant I had to show our passports as we walked up, and I was worried that my husband’s cab would be turned away since he had no ticket or other proof of his need to come onto the pier.

It was actually no problem at all! He passed through in the cab and was waiting for us when we made our way up to the second-story passenger entrance. Cars dropping passengers off drive up to the departure level on a ramp, just like many airports.

Arrival by automobile is no doubt much more common than walk on passengers, perhaps explaining the greater scrutiny the boys and I received at the gate from the street. We said goodbye to DH at the curb, and he resumed his taxi for the airport and his own, much quicker, trip home.

Port staff in Montreal were pleasant and efficient, and I had no trouble with any part of the embarkation process though I speak no French. I found the overall embarkation process easier in Montreal than I had on a previous cruise from Boston.

Vieux Montréal

The location of this port is so wonderful for a tourist. It was easy for us to visit a museum festival on the morning of our departure as it was literally across the street from (and in sight of!) the docked Maasdam. If one stays in the old part of town (Vieux Montréal), there is no need for any transport except healthy feet to get from hotel to ship, luggage-depending, of course. To me, this was ideal.

Checking in baggage was done right at the curb, so no need for a porter to move our many heavy bags after we said goodbye to my husband. We arrived exactly at our suggested boarding time of 1 pm, and there was a wait of perhaps one or two other passengers before we were checking in with an agent.  We proceeded up the gangway and onto the ship, and were aboard within minutes.

Welcome aboard

I was taken a bit aback upon boarding that we were given no indication of which way we should go. As a lady coming aboard with two distracting little people and several bulky carry on bags, I expected to be offered directions if not help with the luggage, especially as there seemed to be no queue placing demands on the staff. Since this was the only service issue we encountered during the rest of our week, I mention it only so the reader might be expecting it; I had no significant problems with HAL’s overall level of service on the Maasdam.

We found a deck plan by the elevators and were easily able to make our way to our stateroom after that. I’d booked a reasonably priced inside cabin—Main deck 576—and we were quite satisfied with the size and layout. With three of us sharing a room, our sofa was made up as a bed, and we did not have a coffee table in the middle of the room. I was happy with that since it would’ve been in the way, not helpful.

We went for lunch right away so we wouldn’t miss it, and then visited the Club HAL facility up above the Lido restaurant. While my kindergartener had been too intimidated to spend any time in Carnival’s children’s facility two months earlier, he and his brother were very excited to check out Club HAL. They both ended up begging to spend every possible minute there.

Club HAL

Since HAL is not primarily a “family oriented” line, I’ll speak to Club HAL at some length. I didn’t ask how many children were on our voyage, but it was obvious to an observer that the number wasn’t large. We arrived in Boston four days before our first day of school, and many districts would have already begun, so the timing of this voyage didn’t invite school-age families. For my kids, that turned out to be great.

There were just enough kids that there always seemed to be at least one other person to play with at the Club, but the room was never full. I think the most I saw attending at once was 12 kids. I felt very confident that the counselors could keep all well in hand.

There were three youth staff crew members—Jacob, Alyssa, and… the nice girl whose name my kids never learned! All of them were friendly to me upon drop-off/pick-up, and my kids liked them all quite well.

Maasdam’s Club HAL has XBOX 360 with Kinect for video games. (My sons felt this very important to include in the review.) I was happy that the games available for the pre-teen group—ages 3-12 combined for our cruise—were rated E10 or younger. When I inquired, I was reassured by the staff that kids are not allowed to play video games at all times, but that they have structured activities interspersed with free time when the kids may choose video entertainment.

Club HAL hours were 8am-4pm for port days and 9 – 11:30 am/1 – 4 pm during our one sea day. Evening hours were always 7 – 10pm. I brought my kids into the ports with me and found it hard to imagine leaving them aboard the ship while I walked around town, but that was an option.

The staff orders up lunch if you do leave your kids all day, but, for logistical purposes, they have to be signed in by 11am to have lunch at noon. The staff did a good job remembering my kids’ special—but not extraordinary or life-threatening—dietary needs, though their paperwork seemed less thorough than what I’d filled out on Carnival previously. I wondered if this was because the scale of the program was so much smaller, giving staff more bandwidth to query individual children about their needs.

My kids felt really special when they were each given a Club HAL backpack and souvenirs at the farewell party on their final night. Really, everything about this low-key program was perfect for my kids. If you are introverted or quieter people, a less family-oriented cruise can be a really good fit. Sometimes, it seems like the travel industry definition of “family” is “boisterous.”

Acceptance of kids by other, child-free passengers

I was worried about getting nasty looks or other flak from older or child-free passengers on a HAL cruise. I’ve read comments online from people who don’t think kids belong on “their” ships at all. In spite of that, every word of feedback I heard about my children aboard the Maasdam was positive.

I’m sure it helps that I am a strict parent with high expectations. My kids were never unsupervised. I travel with my children to share experiences with them—I’m rarely looking to send them off to babysitting so I can do my own thing.

What I did hear from about a dozen different guests were compliments on my well-behaved children. That was personally gratifying, but, more importantly, shows that not every “typical HAL cruiser” will be negatively inclined toward a family with reasonably mannerly children.

We did strictly follow the dress code every day, including neckties on formal night, and I’d say we were more dressed up than the average passenger.

Entertainment options: Explorations Cafe by day

As I share my thoughts on HAL’s entertainment options, keep in mind that I am not a party person. Maasdam was more my speed than my previous experience on the exuberantly upbeat Carnival Glory, though I liked the happy atmosphere on the Glory more than I ever expected I would.

I enjoyed a short talk on the geology of the region we traversed, but not quite enough to attend the subsequent port lectures which seemed to feature an emphasis on shopping. I would prefer much more in depth lectures about the history, culture, and geography of every port of call, especially if they went beyond the obvious tourist highlights I’ve probably already read about while planning the trip.HAL puzzle

The Explorations Cafe was by far my favorite spot, and I spent most of our time at sea there doing jigsaw puzzles. My younger son observed that the Maasdam actually had books in its library, unlike the really poorly named “library” on the Carnival Glory with approximately four linear feet of books on a wall of otherwise empty shelves.

I loved having the espresso bar right next to the library and paid the extra fee for one specialty coffee each day. I found the caffè mocha here overly sweet, but my favorite barista (the only male barista I saw on the ship) could make a decent latte.

Entertainment options: disappointing by night

In spite of my low-key nature, evenings were probably the low point of the voyage for me. I am in my 30’s, and my kids wanted to spend their evenings at Club HAL without me. After dinner, I would take the kids to the Club, go back to my room and put on comfortable shoes, then take a walk around the open deck if it wasn’t too windy outside.

HAL eveningSome evenings, I worked on the jigsaw puzzles again, but the light wasn’t as good and it wasn’t as fun in evening clothes with darkness obscuring the magnificence of the sea.

I attended one show, but I prefer serious theater to song-and-dance stuff, so it wasn’t to my liking.

By the end of the week, I was accustomed to carrying my notebook around with my evening bag. I would sit somewhere dim enough that I could see the moonlit waves outside, nurse one drink, and write in my journal until it was time to pick up the kids.

This quiet activity isn’t very different from my typical, and preferred, vacation style, but there was something about being aboard a ship that gave it a melancholy tinge. Alone, watching the moon over the ocean, I missed my husband terribly.

I went to the “Disco Inferno” evening in the Crow’s Nest hoping to relive my youth and dance a little. I never get to dance at home unless you count rocking out with a kindergartener. But the dance floor was literally empty for the hour of my attendance. Too bad!

This assessment is probably most relevant to solo parent travelers, most of whom already know that cruises are designed to cater to couples. I didn’t take advantage of any “singles” oriented options from the cruise line because I wasn’t really traveling alone (I had two little dinner companions), and I definitely wasn’t looking for a Love Boat style singles experience!

Stateroom design

The stateroom was exactly what I expected and fully met my expectations. I will echo every modern cruiser and reiterate the wish for more electrical outlets in convenient places. A clock with iPhone dock would also make my life better; hotels are catching on, so why not ships?

The Maasdam inside stateroom layout was almost identical to my Carnival Glory outside stateroom experience, minus one helpful shallow cupboard and the porthole, of course. It was fine. Even with six suitcases plus three carry on bags, we had no trouble putting away all of our clothing for the trip and tucking every suitcase away out of sight. Our very large bag fit under the bed, which I’d worried about.

For a couple of adults to share a room, more desk or table space would be nice, but, really, the room was exactly as described and held us comfortably. The exception, perhaps, was when we were all dressing for dinner in the narrow standing space between desk and beds.

Sharing with another adult or a teenager who fusses about primping would be radically different, and probably miserable. I’ve heard that some cruisers resort to dressing in the gym locker room when quarters get too tight, and it sounds like a brilliant idea.

Everything in the bathroom was fine, though I’d vote for shelves on both sides of the mirror (not just one.) Putting the Kleenex dispenser on the side of the sink near the door instead of way back by the toilet would make it easier to grab one without going all the way into the bathroom.

Dining

Dining experiences were all pretty good. I prefer the dining room and table service, but my boys love a buffet. In the end, we ate most of our breakfasts in our room via room service for convenience. How I love those cards on the doorknobs that make breakfast appear at just the right time! This is what I miss most when I return home from a cruise.

Breakfast always arrived promptly—even a few minutes early—which is a tiny bit of an oops when I’m still in a towel fresh from the shower. Lunch was usually spent at the Lido buffet, and almost always consisted of sandwiches made by the very kind Apri.

We were assigned “any time dining” because that’s all that was available when we booked our cruise. After we ate at 5:30 pm the first two evenings, the dining room reservations fellow asked if we’d like to take the same reservation and table for the rest of the trip, to which we happily agreed.

We really liked Herdi, our server, who talked to the boys about his own childhood in Indonesia and listened patiently to long explanations of their pocketed toys and daily activities. We loved our table near the aft windows, and the inexplicable sticker on the mirror glass of the server’s station next to us. It said, “You are beautiful.”

I kept wondering if that sticker was meant to be there to perk up single cruisers or overworked staff, or if someone had “defaced” the mirror for reasons of his own. It was one of those tiny delights life sometimes surprises us with, and it made me smile every night.

The food was all cooked properly and to a good standard, though the desserts tended to look better than they tasted. My lactose-intolerant boys were so happy that non-dairy sorbet was typically on the dessert menu. My little son did miss the “disco dancing dinner” as he called Carnival’s nightly dancing waiter show, but he seemed, overall, to like this experience even better than the one aboard the Glory.

Summing up the family experience on HAL

All in all, the quieter ambiance puts HAL above Carnival in my personal cruise rankings—after all of two trips—but I think I am still looking for my ideal cruise line.

The most useful piece of advice I think I have to offer families is to take the label of a “family friendly” cruise line with a grain of salt.

According to conventional wisdom, I should have taken my kids on a Disney or Royal Caribbean cruise because they “cater” to kids, but I doubt that my little family would have had a better time on one of those lines. A smaller ship with a calmer, less crowded atmosphere was a better fit for us, even if we gave up on features like video arcades and water slides that do carry some appeal for my kids.

I’ve heard that the “right” cruise specialist travel agent can really help with sorting out the myriad options of cruise lines, itineraries, ships, and cabins, but I have yet to make contact with an agent of such quality.

I did extensive research on Cruise Critic and other websites to help me find a good fit for my family, and that’s the main reason I wrote this Cruise Report. Perhaps another mom, hoping to plan a great family vacation, will find some of this information helpful in determining if the Maasdam would suit her family’s needs.

St. Lawrence Seaway ports of call, reviewed

Every port on this itinerary met my primary desideration: I love to step off a ship and be immediately somewhere worth walking around, making shore excursions or public transit an option, not a necessity. The cruise ports of Maritime Canada are very welcoming to self directed visitors who like to walk.

Because I had my kids with me and didn’t want to install child safety seats in taxis, we opted for several of the ship’s shore excursions. All of these were fine, though only in Sydney would I pay to do a ship’s excursion again. Having experienced these ports, next time, I’ll just get around on my own.

Quebec City

In Quebec City, the European vibe of the city was a feature in and of itself. Even my pair of disinterested history students noticed how different it was from the modern American cities with which they were familiar. We admired Quebec primarily by walking through it and enjoying the beautiful day outdoors.

Within blocks of the ship, we discovered a little playground with a pirate ship theme and passed almost an hour letting off steam with the place to ourselves. When we were done there, we rode the Old Quebec Funicular from the lower to the upper town. It’s well worth the fare to avoid walking up that hill!

Quebec City has the only extant fortified city walls in the USA or Canada, and the similarity to a medieval castle made them appealing for an active visit by a pair of boys. We saw the Citadelle military installation and lots of intriguing public art as we meandered back down the hill to our ship.

Prince Edward Island

Prince Edward Island was an enjoyable stop for me, but less exciting for the kids. I was happy to see the Anne of Green Gables house in person; the book was unfamiliar to my young boys. I think the bright red soil at the beach struck them the most notable feature of PEI. On a beautiful, sunny day, it wasn’t a bad holiday spot for our family. We enjoyed the natural setting and lots of tromping around outdoors.

Unfortunately, this is also where we discovered that bus tours make my younger son carsick. Moving to the front seat helped, but every time we climbed back into the bus, he and I were both stressed about whether or not he was going to vomit. Thank God, he didn’t, but he looked green and felt bad.

I would suggest a rental car to view the sites of Prince Edward Island if there are sensitive tummies in your party. The rural nature of the small island made the driving look pretty manageable, and I would normally rather ride than drive.

Sydney, Nova Scotia

In Sydney, though it required another bus ride, the Fortress of Louisbourg was by far my favorite experience on this trip. I think it is, in fact, my favorite living history museum in the world, and I’m a huge fan of these historical re-creations.

The Fortress of Louisbourg 8:15am excursion had massive value added because we were allowed entry into the park before it opened for the day. I relished getting photos of everything without any modern tourists spoiling the historical effect.

This was my first major, in person exposure to the French influence on the settlement of the New World, and I was fascinated by how different it was compared with, say, the British colonial reenactment at Plimoth Plantation. It wasn’t just the obviously different needs of a religious colony vs. a military fortress, but the cultural impulses that dictated what was built, and how.

I intend to bring my husband and come back to Nova Scotia for an extended vacation in the future, I liked it so much. I could easily spend a week just exploring this one attraction. Having an historical gem right in the middle of a gorgeous natural setting was icing on the cake.

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Halifax was probably the most industrial and least obviously tourist friendly port, but it was still an easy walk to the part of the city most people would want to see. There was a nice oceanfront boardwalk that seemed to lead directly downtown from the cruise port welcome center.

I had booked another bus tour for this stop, but the HAL Shore Excursions desk wisely allowed us to swap the winding road to Peggy’s Cove for a shorter ride around town in an open air,  horse drawn carriage when I explained the carsickness discovery from the two days before.

We could have skipped the tour and seen the same sights on our own, which is my recommendation for younger families. We’d read about the 1917 Halifax Explosion in a fun series of novels by Cathy Beveridge about time traveling Canadian kids, and it was easy to picture how that event devastated the compact, ocean-front city that hugs its harbor with a natural amphitheater.

Bar Harbor, Maine USA

Here’s a dirty little secret: we skipped going ashore in Bar Harbor.

Living in New England, we’ve been to Maine many times, and we can return whenever we want with a short drive north. When I saw that Bar Harbor was a tender port, where, to get ashore, passengers climb into a small boat to be ferried into port in batches, I gave in to the kids’ begging to spend their last cruise day on the ship at Club HAL.

I was somewhat intimidated by the idea of watching my little guy barf his way into Bar Harbor. That would necessitate either an immediate return trip, probably with more barfing, or spending the day in vomit-stained clothes. That was a good enough reason to relax and enjoy the quiet atmosphere of a ship who’s disgorged the bulk of her passengers in port.

After all, though I love to travel and see new places, a family vacation is about more than ticking off locations from a list. There isn’t really any justification required for taking a day to enjoy life wherever you are, and aboard the Maasdam was a fine location for lollygagging.

 

This is an updated and expanded upon version of a Trip Report that I posted on Cruise Critic in 2012.

Direct comparison of Red Oxx Sky Train and Tom Bihn Aeronaut travel packs to carry on

Online research can only tell you so much when deciding which purchase will suit your needs best. Here’s a case where I bought multiple best-in-class options to do a head-to-head comparison.

I tried two

Actually, I tried more than two bags in this category so dear to the one-bagger’s* heart. Not only have I tried more than two, I own more than two of these versatile bags. Luggage junkies need no excuse, but different sizes and different styles work better for different trips.

Travel packs are basically backpacks, but adapted for modern sub/urban travel with the addition of hiding places for the straps and buckles. They also often open along the long edge, like a book, as opposed to a top-loading hiking backpack or a modern school pack that opens along the sides and top. Once the backpack straps are tucked away, the travel pack looks a lot like a typical rectilinear suitcase: harder to carry, but sleeker, more professional looking, and less likely to become entangled in storage bins or x-ray equipment.

My first travel pack was an inexpensive, no name bag purchased at a discount or received as a store give-away around 1990. No thought went into its acquisition! That bag was a revelation, changed the way I carry on my stuff forever after, and I used it until it literally fell apart sometime around 2012. You don’t have to buy the best, highest quality travel pack up front to get a good feel for whether this style of bag is right for you!

Luggage travel pack Red Oxx Tri Fold Shave Kit diaper bag

The best photo I’ve got of my original travel pack

Essentially, I had a maximum legal carry on size rectilinear bag—boring black—with hide away backpack straps. Aside from the main compartment, it had a shallow (≈1 inch) front pocket containing a few cheap attempts at internal organization covering the full long dimension of the bag and going about 2/3 of the way up the short front side. It was constructed of a single layer of moderately durable material—probably middle-of-the-road nylon—and weighed very little for its size. I learned to use Ziploc bags or packing cubes for interior organization, and I loved the versatility of that bag. The connection between the backpack straps and the bag wore out first, but the corners were also wearing thin when I retired the bag.

Key features of a good travel pack:

  • Rectilinear shape (no wasted space due to curves)

  • Meets carry on requirements for airlines you fly

  • Backpack straps that can be removed or hidden

Having gotten so much from that first travel pack, I knew spending more for a higher quality bag of this type was a worthwhile investment. A $300 bag that lasts for twenty years works out to $15 per year.

I would have settled for a simpler bag similar to my old one for around $40 (sold by discounter Campmor at the time) if I hadn’t found features that made the more expensive bag more appealing. These including water-resistance, superior construction/durability (functional) and pretty colors (aesthetic preference, plus easier to find in a sea of common black bags.) I’ve also discovered that a sternum strap and a waist belt are requirements for my comfort; not everyone agrees on these features, but most people who’ve worn a heavy backpack will be familiar with their utility.

My two strongest contenders were the Red Oxx Sky Train and the Tom Bihn Aeronaut (now Aeronaut45 as they added a second, smaller version.) You can see what I thought I would choose in my 2011 review of an iPad-compatible shoulder bag. Both of these brands produce top quality products with carefully thought out features geared toward frequent travelers who prefer to travel light.Table comparison Tom Bihn Red Oxx

One glance at my two current travel packs, and you’ll immediately note my preference because each brand has such a distinctive aesthetic. My bags of choice are the Tom Bihn Aeronaut and a Western Flyer I bought about a year later. The Aeronaut or Sky Train would be “maximum legal carry on” size bags for typical US domestic flights on larger planes as of this writing (2017); a Western Flyer will fit under the seat in front of you, or fit easily in the overhead bins on smaller, regional jets that require gate checking typical roll-aboard wheelie bags.

Compare Aeronaut 45 and Western Flyer side

Black 400d Halcyon Western Flyer sitting on grey 400d Halcyon Aeronaut45

Weight turned out to the primary factor for my choice of bag.

I do own several Red Oxx accessories and two bags, but they are simply too over-built, and therefore too heavy, for a woman my size with my habits. Our Red Oxx bags are used more often for family trips and land-based travel because they weigh a lot for their size (compared to other non-wheeled bags; wheelie bags are always heavier.) I’m not hard enough on my equipment to warrant that level of construction at that cost in weight.

Beyond the fixed constraint of the bags’ weights, a few other design decisions “weighed” in Tom Bihn’s favor.

I prefer the quieter, lighter weight plastic buckles on Bihn bags to the heavier, noisier metal hardware used by Red Oxx. I freely admit that plastic will likely fail before metal, but I’d be shocked if that happened within the usable life of my suitcases. My oldest Tom Bihn pieces have been in use for four years, and the only blemish on any of them is a spot of ink from a leaky fountain pen.

It’s worth mention here that I consistently choose Tom Bihn’s least durable, lightest weight Dyneema/Halcyon outer material to save precious ounces. Less durable than bulletproof turns out to be sufficient for my needs.

I prefer having my travel bag open along the short-long-short sides, like a book. The Red Oxx Sky Train opens along the long-short-long sides, like a steno notepad or a typical school backpack. The Western Flyer opens in my preferred configuration.

The Aeronaut is a totally different beast, packing somewhat more like a duffel bag with three sections. The large, square, center compartment of the Aeronaut is large enough that my ladies size Medium/Large clothing can stack, neatly folded, inside without wrinkling.

Compare Aeronaut 45 and Western Flyer smaller inside larger

Western Flyer stored inside center compartment of Aeronaut45. Observe that my yellow Red Oxx Travel Tray fits perfectly in the top flap pocket.

Another issue I’ve found with every “wearable” Red Oxx bag I’ve tried so far is overall size. I’m not a tall woman, and I have a short torso to boot. I felt dwarfed by the Sky Train… and the C-Ruck backpack… and the Rock Hopper sling bag when I tried that, too. Red Oxx fit models probably aren’t petite women. I think they might test fit on Navy Seals. These bags are big! My Aeronaut is also longer (between the top of the backpack straps and the waist belt) than it should be to fit my torso, but it doesn’t feel ridiculously so.

Tom Bihn’s other frequent feature is a little D ring sewn into most pockets on most bags. They also sell matching straps—like colorful leashes—to attach accessories to these rings. Any bag with a loop can be tethered inside your Bihn bag. You don’t have to purchase the company’s admittedly expensive organizers and pouches. If you’re a luggage addict, you will probably want to, though. Red Oxx does offer a nifty Pin Mount Key Clip that lets you add similar functionality to any bag, though you have to pierce the bag’s fabric to attach it. I used one on my everyday purse before I traded that for a Tom Bihn Café Bag…3-1-1 bag clear packing cube

The most obvious problem solved by tethering your interior organizers to your bag is the 3-1-1 liquids pouch you need to present to TSA screeners at the airport. You can pull the bag out of your main carry on but leave it attached. You won’t forget it after clearing security; at worst, you’ll leave it dangling outside your bag as you stagger, shoe-less and half dressed to the post-security benches to pull yourself together after your assault inspection.

Western Flyer with 3-1-1 bag out for inspection by TSA

Yellow Tom Bihn 3-1-1 bag tethered to Western Flyer

There are many detailed, photo- or video-enhanced reviews of these popular bags on the Internet, but I didn’t find any directly comparing the two head-to-head. I’m sorry that I didn’t take photos of the SkyTrain before I returned it, but I made these purchases years before I created this blog.

Find reviews of Tom Bihn bags here or register and ask questions in the popular Tom Bihn forums here.

Reviews of Red Oxx products can be found here.

Let me know if I helped you compare these two bags, or ask away if you have other questions about their differences that I haven’t answered yet.

*One bag travellers aim to pack everything into a single, carry-on sized piece of luggage. Visit Doug Dyment’s onebag.com to learn more.

Waldsee family week for parents: what to expect, with pictures!

This post will avoid almost everything that makes Waldsee really special (i.e., the German immersion experience) and instead focus on little details about the practicalities of daily life for a family in a summer camp environment. Knowing this stuff up front would have helped me plan and pack for my first Concordia Language Villages stay. I wrote more about my top concerns before first attending family week at Waldsee here.

Please excuse me for pictures recorded on an old iPad by an unskilled photographer. Hopefully a little bit of pictorial advice, however amateurish, will go a long way toward showing a newcomer what to expect.

Concordia Language Villages transportation

It’s about 215 miles, or 3 ½ hours of driving time, from Bemidji, MN to MSP (Minneapolis St.Paul International Airport.) Will you—or your child camper—be making this trek on an old yellow school bus?

Not in my experience! We rode in a comfortable, air conditioned charter bus from BJI (Bemidji Regional Airport) to camp, and again from camp to MSP. There was a staff member aboard responsible for paperwork and supervising the kids traveling alone, distinct from the professional driver. The bus even had seatbelts.

Where will we sleep?

As an adult with a health issues that sometimes affects my mobility, I was a little nervous about the sleeping arrangements. I went to summer camp, and some of the beds were  iffy even for a kid. I knew I wouldn’t have to climb into an upper bunk because I could insist my son do that if we were sharing one bunk bed, but everything else was a potentially miserable question mark.

CSV Waldsee bunkbed nook

Two sets of bunk beds in each of two walled nooks in Schwarzwaldhaus

The beds were fine. The mattresses were about six inches thick and covered in utilitarian but hygienic vinyl, and they were supported by solid wooden bunks that didn’t squeak, sway, or sag. I wouldn’t have said no to an egg crate topper, but the firm, simple bed didn’t cause me any pain. The provision of a reading lamp above every bunk was an unexpected luxury we sure didn’t enjoy at my childhood camps.

Privacy was provided, in our case, with a set of bed-sheet curtains hung to partition a set of four bunk beds in a walled nook. This space was entirely ours as a family of two, mother and son. There was another mom with two kids (one boy, one girl) staying upstairs in the same room. I felt I had total visual privacy for changing, and sufficient privacy overall for sleeping, but I do wear earplugs when I travel. We went to bed earlier than the family upstairs, and I hardly even knew they were there.

CSV Waldsee Schwarzwaldhaus sleeping room

Schwarzwaldhaus two story bunk room, shared by two small families

These arrangements will vary a lot based upon how many members are in your family and their genders. I didn’t go inside anyone else’s sleeping room, but I saw peeks of very different set-ups through open doors around camp. Definitely, some families had private rooms with doors, so inquire with CLV about your own situation if you have questions.

Will we have to bathe in the lake?

There is hot running water at Waldsee, and the facilities were adequate for parental hygiene. There were even electrical outlets near the sinks for those dependent upon electric hair-styling appliances or toothbrushes.

The showers are about as primitive as modern plumbing in America gets, but they are separate curtained enclosures. I recommend bringing shower shoes, though the facilities were quite clean for a summer camp.

CSV Waldsee bathroom4CSV Waldsee bathroom3

Where can I get my morning coffee?

This was a particularly terrifying unknown for me. Summer camp villagers don’t have access to the staff coffee corner in the dining hall, but family week parents do. I believe coffee was available at every meal, not just breakfast, but I’m a once a day drinker, so follow up with CLV if you need reassurance. Tea things were here, too, but they ran out of English Breakfast during our week, so bring your own if you’re tea dependent like me.

CSV Waldsee dining hall coffee1

In the dining hall, close enough to sneak back for another cup during announcements, if necessary

Another great perk unique to family week was an early riser’s cafe with fresh baked pastries available before breakfast. I do wake up early, and I prefer to have a cup of tea right away, though I’m comfortable waiting for breakfast proper. Rising at five o’clock then waiting several hours before caffeination to share Frühstück with hoards of Villagers bellowing cheerful songs would be painful. Thankfully, there was no need. Parents of young children who get up with the birds should also hear this with glad hearts. There were even German cartoons playing on a laptop at the cafe to distract the little ones.

CSV Waldsee morning cafe

Cafe seating is outdoors so bring a sweater. That’s the coffee machine by the wall and those red things on the counter are mugs, ready and waiting. No photos of the pastries because we were too busy eating them!

Is there anything else you really want to know before you register for—or attend—Waldsee for the first time? Let me know in the comments and I’ll try to help!

Take your children to Iceland

…and bring your rain gear

Iceland reinvented itself as a hot tourist destination after the financial meltdown of the late aughts left their economy a mess. It’s so cool to visit Iceland that you might hesitate to go as a family. How can a hipster paradise be a good fit for kids? I was surprised by what a perfect match it was.

Traveling to Iceland for ten days in 2014 on my own with my early elementary aged kids was actually inadvertent. Suffice to say we’d purchased affordable, non-refundable, tourist class tickets with Icelandair via Keflavík to join DH on a European business trip. His schedule changed leaving him unable to travel on our dates. Rather than cancel altogether and lose the money spent on plane tickets, we persuaded Icelandair to drop the connecting flight to Europe without voiding our Boston – Keflavík legs and I put together a last-minute vacation for three in the land of fire and ice.

Even though I love to travel and am confident enough to go it alone internationally , I hesitated before I made this trip. Aside from Canada—which is awesome but comfortably similar to home—this was the boys’ first voyage abroad. I was taking on a new country about which I knew little and in a language I’d never heard spoken. It was a much bigger stretch, culturally and linguistically, than our 12 day trek across Canada from Pacific to Atlantic two years before, and DH was with us for part of that trip.

You will find better travelogues and more stunning photos elsewhere on the internet, but here are some ways Iceland was a uniquely perfect introduction to global travel for our family.

Children were graciously welcomed everywhere we went

Admittedly, I didn’t attempt to go bar crawling with the kids, but we did alternate between museums, group tours, and wandering around on our own. I felt welcomed everywhere we went, and was amazed by the ready provision of family friendly amenities in public places. A museum had a little potty standing ready in the WC, presumably trusting users to clean it properly after use. (Frankly unimaginable in the US.) Children’s areas in museums were comprehensive and present in both the smallest and the most rarefied establishments. Not only were there accommodations made to entertain and educate children in most establishments, but they also had English language versions of kids’ materials. Families were never made to feel like afterthoughts, even families of tourists.

Iceland potty in Museum Reykjavik 871

Little red potty, there in the museum if you need it

Icelandair goes so far as to feed children—gratis!—on their flights while adults in Economy class buy their food à la carte. I believe this extends to other extras like headphones and blankets, too. These are little things that are very supportive to traveling families, and likely make for a quieter, more pleasant trip for all passengers. That kind of thinking is everywhere in Iceland.

Icelandair kid meal

Icelandair child’s meal

Our favorite site in the country was Ásmundarsafn, one of three buildings that comprise the Reykjavík Art Museum. This former live-work space of pioneering artist Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982) is a beautiful building full of amazing works of art surrounded by an outdoor sculpture park. A museum guide told us that the artist himself specified that a sculpture of a famous lady troll from Icelandic folklore should be accessible for children to climb upon. I think that sums up the regard given to the value of children in Iceland.

Iceland statue Ásmundur1

If you sculpt it, they will climb…

I saw little groups of kids, maybe seven or eight years old, taking the city bus short distances together or playing on a playground conveniently placed outside of a large supermarket. It was clear that no adult was actively supervising these kids. I commented about this to our favorite tour guide, Steinthor, and he readily agreed.

“Of course,” he said, “because everyone is looking out for them. No adult would let these kids get into trouble.”

The prevailing attitude in Iceland, perhaps due to the small population and citizens’ high degree of inter-relatedness, is one of community support. It’s a really nice feeling for any visitor, but an outstanding one for a parent.

Children’s discounts abound, and they are significant

Yes, Iceland is expensive. Isn’t it crazy to bring the kids to one of the more expensive places you might ever visit?

Surprisingly, the kids were something of a bargain.

Make no mistake, you will feel physical pain from the size of the bill every time you feed the kids in an Icelandic restaurant, but that’s mostly a result of servers earning a living wage. Supermarket prices are also high, but nowhere near as stratospheric as the cost of a sit down meal. If you stay in a rented apartment or have a kitchenette in your hotel, you can keep these costs comparable to “nice vacation” costs back home. We ate breakfast for free at our hotel, ate out for lunch, and made sandwiches or add-hot-water soup for dinner in our room. Easy, healthy, portable snacks like baby carrots and cherry tomatoes could be found even in convenience stores.

Iceland hotel breakfast buffet

Breakfast might be included at your hotel, but kids may experience culinary culture shock at the buffet when they see fish instead of Cheerios

Low children’s admissions prices at public institutions such as museums weren’t surprising, but even commercial tickets, like seats on group tours, were half price. On one popular airport shuttle, adults cost around $40, teens get a 75% discount, and kids ride free. City bus tickets for youth (12-17) are 36% of adult fare; kids aged 6-11 pay 16%. Compared to our family trip to similarly remote, expensive, tourist-centric coastal Alaska in 2016, these price breaks added up to huge savings and they didn’t take any extra work like clipping coupons or booking ahead. Affordable prices for families seem to be part and parcel of Icelandic culture.

Products sold in Iceland are often made… in Iceland!

The high cost of imports to a remote island nation means you see a lot more products on Icelandic shelves that are actually made in Iceland. Where else have you gone as a tourist and seen that? Consistently, when my kid nagged me to buy a wooden sword or a game in the gift shop, I found the item to be of good quality and locally made. I’m usually a tough sell for souvenirs because, unless I’m in China, I don’t want a Chinese bauble, but I found it harder to use that excuse in Iceland. For once, the souvenirs felt like real pieces of the culture we were visiting. While not inexpensive, most items did seem to be a good value considering their quality.

Iceland Viking Hotel outside

Viking Cottages at Hotel Viking, Hafnarfjordur

Against my usual type, I opted for a hotel with a theme for our trip, and I didn’t have very high expectations. I did some TripAdvisor research, found a good area for us, and the price was right, so I figured I would give the kids a thrill and choose a cottage at the Hotel Viking in Hafnarfjordur, about midway between the airport in Keflavík and the capital, Reykjavík. The decor was a bit over the top, and the theming extends almost everywhere, but the “Viking Cottage” interiors were full of natural, hand carved wood and whimsical touches based upon Nordic folklore. It felt the opposite of Disney-esque. It felt authentically something, if not exactly full on Viking. The kids loved it, and, actually, so did I. It was also a really comfortable space for a family with sleeping loft, bunk beds, and a dining table. We made excellent use of the electric kettle for our modest, in-room dinners every evening.

Nature’s playground for the whole family

When I mentioned earlier that you should bring your rain gear, I wasn’t kidding. We visited Iceland in March, and we experienced snow, rain, fog, sun, sleet, mist, rainbows, warmth, bitter cold… all in the same day! Dressing appropriately will make or break your enjoyment of a long day touring this gorgeous country. Once you’ve got wet jeans, you’re going to be uncomfortable back on the bus, so wear technical clothing or layer inexpensive rain pants over your everyday trousers.Iceland weather cold wet walk

I would actually recommend visiting during the less crowded off season, like we did. Tourists outnumber native Icelanders now, at least at peak times. That’s not what I want to see when I go somewhere new. Less crowded tours and attractions make me happier, and they are better for families. We enjoyed our small group tours even more because only one of them was fully booked.

In Iceland and everywhere else, I would always recommend taking a minibus tour (or smaller) instead of the big bus lines. Getting a dozen or so people in and out of a minibus is pretty manageable and costs a lot less than a private tour, but waiting for 50 tourists to unload at every site wastes too much precious vacation time.

I’ve heard that car rentals are a good option in Iceland. Certainly, roads were in good condition and traffic seemed manageable compared to the gridlock of major American cities I’ve navigated. As a mom alone with a pair of kids in early spring, however, I felt more comfortable sticking with a group and a guide. We took three tours during our ten day visit: the Golden Circle, the South Coast, and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

Even in March with poor weather, the Golden Circle sites were pretty crowded. Gullfoss was almost completely obscured by fog, and Geysir was interesting, but mobbed. Thingvellir National Park was the highlight for me, and I will definitely go back there when I return to Iceland someday. Walking through the literal gap between two tectonic plates is awesome.

Iceland weather sun waterfall rainbow1The South Coast tour gave us our day of wildest weather, but was a great overview of some different elements of the Icelandic landscape. It was a long day, but with plenty of stops with lots of room to roam and run by glaciers, rivers and the sea. Throwing rocks was really popular with my boys, and there was plenty of room to do so without hitting any other tourists.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula presents more variety and makes a nice complement to the South Coast tour, though it was a day with even more driving time. This can work out well when your younger one naps in car! Snaefellsnes seemed to show us more birds and fishing villages and yet more interesting geological features. The long tunnel beneath a fjord was fun in and of itself for my engineering-oriented kid.

We alternated busy days with quieter ones.We found plenty to see in Hafnarfjordur, including its small museum, culture center, and the Elf Walk tour in Hellisgerdi Lava Park. We visited the local library twice (they have books in English as well as Icelandic and several other languages) and found time to select a favorite bakery. A short city bus ride into Reykjavík let us access two out of three branches of the really excellent art museum I mentioned earlier, Reykjavík 871±2 Settlement (archeological) Exhibition, National Museum of Iceland, the sculpture court of the Einar Jónsson Museum, and the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church. Aside from a little bit of shopping and rather more bakery-induced nibbling, we spent very little on excursions outside of the costly—but worth it—group tours.

Looking back, what stands out about this vacation was how extraordinarily good everything was. I say that as a mom who routinely blows her top when things go wrong, who dwells upon her own oversights, and who often gets more out of planning a vacation than actually taking it. While, yes, there was the incident where DS1 left his iPad behind at the Hafnarfjordur library and my heart stopped until we ran all the way back several blocks and retrieved it, safe and sound, from a librarian who seemed surprised I was so worried, and, of course, there’s the funny (now!) story of how the FlyBus whooshed right past us and I thought we would miss our flight home until the Hotel Viking receptionist saved the day by calling a taxi and arranging for the FlyBus company to cover the expense because we had a reservation and we were standing by the road in plain sight…

These little hiccups—which always happen when we travel, which can be the germ for great stories later or the strain that spoils a trip—are also the very key to why this adventure was so amazing. The people I met in Iceland seemed almost uniformly inclined to help, and welcoming to a stranger. There was a sense of people “all in this together” that pervaded situations as mundane as riding the bus and grocery shopping, but has been more eloquently displayed in times of trouble during Icelandic natural disasters at home or when they sent the first search and rescue team to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there.

Iceland is a place you want to visit for its natural beauty and unique culture; it’s a place you’ll be glad you brought your family because of its people.

Packing for a train trip

or

sleeper car compartments require different solutions

You may be the world’s most experienced traveler, ready to fly on a moment’s notice with a super-organized one bag solution that works every time… but you may not be ready for your first overnight in an Amtrak* sleeper compartment.

Train travel isn’t like most other modern trips. Yes, the train provides for your conveyance from point A to point B, just like your bicycle, the SUV in the garage, a Greyhound bus, or a Boeing 737. However, unless you customarily hit the road in a small RV, your typical ride isn’t also your home away from home for a night or two. I’m not familiar with any other type of travel where every inch counts for so much.

Cruise passengers may be the closest commercial counterparts to travelers enjoying the train compartment experience. A ship will take you from place to place, and will provide for your sleeping and toilette accommodations along the way. Even the tiniest interior stateroom on a modern cruise ship is palatial when compared to Amtrak’s sleeper car offerings, though, and knowing what to expect can make or break what may be a once in a lifetime trip through some of America’s most spectacular scenery.

Before I frighten you away from the train—one of my favorite modes of travel!—let me assure you that you will have more personal space than you endure enjoy on any commercial flight. An average- to plus-sized American will fit comfortably in every seat on the train, including those in the smallest sleeping compartment. If you can fit yourself and your belongings in a domestic first class airline seat and overhead bin, you are more than prepared for the daylight hours aboard the train.

The difference comes once the beds are “made down” in your sleeping compartment, prepared by your sleeping car attendant for the night’s repose.

The cozy dimensions of spaces on the train are never more obvious than during the transition from day to night (and back again, come morning.) Unless your attendant gets your bed made down while you are in the dining car, you will have to step into the hall while s/he performs this task. There simply isn’t room for an extra body in the compartment during the transformation. They are that small. Luckily, it only takes a skilled attendant a few minutes to accomplish the task.

Once back in your private compartment, the under seat areas you could reach easily during the day become difficult, if not impossible, to access with a bed stretched from wall to wall. You might be able to reach the bag, but not get it past a metal leg that now blocks the opening. Even if the bag can slide under the obstruction, if it has a rigid side, it may not have room to come far enough out to lift it up leaving it halfway in and halfway out of its under seat dungeon until freed in the morning.

Happily, solutions are easy! Forewarned that your wheeled carry on is not the best bag for a train trip, you can plan ahead to have a comfortable and convenient journey.

1) Rigid-backed, wheeled bags will be hard to access under seats, and heavy to stow in upper storage bays in Viewliner cars. It will also be hard to find room to open them for access at night. Soft-sided bags are a smarter choice on the train.

Your wheeled luggage is a fine choice for checked bags. On the bi-level Superliner trains out west, rigid bags can be conveniently stored in the luggage rack you pass upon entering your sleeping car. They won’t be in your compartment, but they will be accessible during travel. You would still face the inconvenience of finding a large, open space to open an inflexible bag, like the floor in the middle of the hallway by the toilets. Ugh.

Better choices for overnight bags to access in the privacy of your compartment include soft-sided luggage and simple duffel bags. Backpacks are the easiest to carry aboard, but use caution when stowing bags with loose straps under seats. I’ve had bags get hung up on the bed transformation mechanism underneath. A travel pack with self-storing straps is probably ideal, but not a necessary purchase if you won’t use it again.

2) Hanging bags are space- and sanity-savers in small compartments.

One utterly unique piece of luggage that seems a perfect option for use in a train compartment is the Rolo soft, rolling, hanging bag. I wouldn’t purchase one for a single trip. It isn’t a requirement for a good journey. If the organization of this bag appeals to you, it worked better on my most recent rail journey than anything I’ve used before.

Rolo bag empty roll hang suitcaseRolo is unique because it hangs up like a garment bag, which would also work well on the train if still own one. Unlike an old-fashioned garment bag, Rolo has zippered pouches more suited to folded or rolled casual clothing. Larger men’s sizes might not fit, but it was the perfect size for a change of clothing plus nightwear for one of my kids and me.

Every Amtrak compartment has at least one coat hook as a legacy of an earlier era when people dressed up to travel. This little foldaway hook is the perfect place to hang a long, flat bag. Garments stored in such hanging bags will be accessible even when the beds are deployed.

Another option would be to use a lightweight bag with long handles to temporarily store just you want for the night and early morning and hang that bag from the coat hook. You’ll need to plan ahead before bed, but this cost effective option can keep your belongings under control and accessible overnight.

In spite of half a dozen overnight journeys on Amtrak and reasonable planning and packing skills, I invariably end up sleeping with a lightweight bag on the bed near my feet. I’m not very tall, so this is comfortable for me, but it might not work for every passenger. If you are petite, it can be easier to sleep with yesterday’s laundry than contort into position to stow it after dressing for bed.

3) Toiletries should hang up, too.

Only the sleeping compartments known as “Bedrooms” have full en suite baths on Amtrak, but all sleepers have access to toilets and showers. Your toilet might be in your compartment (all Bedroom compartments, Viewliner Roomettes) or down the hall (Superliner Roomettes, Family Bedrooms.) Showers are en suite in the Bedroom compartments, and down the hall for all Roomettes and Family Bedrooms.

It’s a good idea to bring a robe or other quick-to-don garment for modesty during trips through the corridor if you are staying in anything but a full Bedroom.

Whether you will be sharing the facilities or using your own in a Bedroom, it can be handy to have a hanging strap or hook on your toilet kit. The train moves, shimmies, and shudders on rough tracks, and anything that isn’t fastened down can shift, sometimes suddenly. I always hang my toiletry bag on the coat hook (yes, there’s one in each toilet and shower room, too) lest it take a tumble into a sink or onto a floor that’s been left less than immaculate by the user before me. Your Bedroom or Viewliner Roomette sink will be as clean as you’ve left it, but it won’t pitch any less from side to side. An unsecured bottle can roll into an inaccessible corner under the bed pretty quickly, leaving you without your favorite toiletries. It’s safer to tuck them back into your hanging bag as you go about taking care of your toilette.

Particularly in the shower compartment, I take great care to place all of my clothes into a securely hung, water-resistant bag before running the water to wash. I managed to drop my clean pants into a puddle on the floor during my first Amtrak trip, and it made for an uncomfortable morning. Now, I wear yesterday’s clothes into the shower room and only bring my fresh undergarments to put on there (beneath my old clothes.) When I make it back to my sleeping compartment, I change out of yesterday’s outfit and into my clean, dry clothes for that day.

4) Eyeglasses and bedside necessities

In case I haven’t made this point clear enough yet, the train is moving, and sometimes that movement is abrupt. You might have a shelf or ledge next to your head while you sleep in your compartment, but important items you place there may not stay still through the night. If you wear glasses, use a travel alarm clock, or have other items you’d like to access in the night, a soft bag with a strap that can disconnect to wrap around or hang from a hook or bar is a very good idea. I use the same Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder Bag for this that I use for comfort items on a plane. It’s about the size of an average ladies’ purse. The key is the strap that can disconnect so it will work with either a hook or a fixed arm/bar.

Bags on hooks Waldsee

Green bag at left is my expensive and perfect Tom Bihn Packing Cube Shoulder Bag, but the cheap white mesh shower organizer on the right has its uses

The upper berths (top bunk beds) always seem to have a built-in pocket for personal items, but I’m very reluctant to use them. I’d say that these pockets are likely about as clean as the seatback pockets on an airplane—not very! If you do plan to put your things in here, consider bringing an empty gallon size Ziplock bag to line the fabric pouch with first for hygiene’s sake. I’ve seen a wad of used chewing gum, for example, in a seatback pocket.

5) Cash

This final suggestion may be ridiculously obvious to some, but caught me off guard on my first cross-country Amtrak trip. It is wise to make sure you have enough small bills to last throughout your journey. There is no ATM on the train.

Food is included with Amtrak sleeper car fares; full service, sit down meals in the dining car were included in the price of your ticket. Since tipping is customary in American restaurants, and service charges have not been included in your fare, it is usual to leave a cash tip for the wait staff after every meal on board. Traveling as a family of four, we typically leave $5-10 at breakfast and lunch and $10-20 after dinner.

We had cash with us, but not enough small bills, during our first trip. If you are in a sleeper, you may not spend any other money during your trip, so you won’t be getting any more change. Drinkers who purchase alcoholic beverages in the Diner or the Café Car would be an exception to this.

Traditionally, one would also tip the sleeping car attendant who makes your beds and keeps the facilities tidy. Amounts vary—and Amtrak’s service is known to range from exemplary to downright awful—but I budget up to $20 per compartment per day for this. The only time I didn’t tip the attendant at all was when I literally didn’t see him the morning I left the train. That was an unusual case.

* Commentary applies about equally to Amtrak trains in the United States and ViaRail trains in Canada, though I can’t remember if there were as many coat hooks in the Canadian sleeper car. The ladies’ room in the ViaRail sleeping car was the nicest train restroom I’ve ever seen, and was both larger and cleaner than any other. That was the one train washroom where I didn’t feel compelled to corral my toiletries in their bag at all times.

I haven’t traveled on any other nations’ overnight trains to make additional comparisons.

3 top tips to consider before attending Waldsee family week at Concordia Language Villages

My top three concerns before our first trip to Waldsee, and some advice for new family Villagers

Two years ago, I registered DS1 and myself for family week at Waldsee, the German language immersion camp at Concordia Language Villages in Bemidji, MN. For those who’ve never heard of it, CLV is a language-learning program put on by Concordia College. It is a highly regarded program, and there are few foreign language immersion options like it in the United States. They offer summer camps for kids in fifteen different languages and have done so in some form or another since 1961. Family week is one of the year-round additions to the program that allows adults to participate with their kids in this effective way of studying a foreign language.

Though I scoured the Internet in the spring of 2015, there was hardly any information available about the family sessions aside from official CLV content. I found enough camper reviews from kids and teens to take make an educated guess that this would be a good fit for us, but I registered with some trepidation.

I was very excited about the camp—and I can now recommend it highly!—but I’m not the sort to blindly trust the word of someone who’s trying to sell me something. I wanted to hear from parents who had actually made the trip to Waldsee with their offspring; I wanted to know what to expect, preferably from a mom like me. I took the plunge two years ago because DS1 is educated at home and it is hard to find great local options for studying German below the high school level. Waldsee is a great supplement to any German learning program, but perhaps uniquely valuable to autodidacts and others who learn without speaking partners.

We are returning to family week in 2017, this time adding DS2 to our party. Our time at Waldsee was so much fun, it seems unfair not to include the other kid, even though he’s never studied German before. I’m positive he will have a great time, and I really want to share the experience with him. Ideally, DH would join us, too. It seems wrong that he has to miss out on all the fun, but his vacation time is just too precious and Minnesota is too far afield.

Having dispensed with the exposition, here are a few reassurances that I wish I’d heard before my first trip to Waldsee.

1)    During family week, adults have plenty of fun options provided by the camp, but families are also free to spend their time as they choose.

In many ways, I’m a happy camper. I love cheesy camp songs. Though I’m an introvert, I love to be nestled up alongside, if slightly apart from, the cheerful camaraderie of others. My experience at Waldsee was just about perfect in this respect.

I was always aware of a fun activity I could join. I think something was on offer every waking minute of the day! The overall feeling at Waldsee is exhilarating and joyful.

I never felt like I was being forced or bullied into participating when I didn’t want to. Every activity was an opt-in.

In this vein, I also felt supported as a parent to allow my child to join in—or not. DS1 found a group of compatriots on the very first day, choosing most often to hang out with them for the rest of the week. This was a real shocker! DS1 is not a joiner, and I’d expected to be constantly nudging him into participation. Whether this was the magic of Waldsee or simple good luck, we’ll see when we return this year.

If my child had shown signs of over-socialization stress (introverts know what I mean), I would’ve pulled him out and taken him back to the cabin for some alone time. It was pretty obvious that the program allowed for it.

This is also a good place to mention that our party of two inveterate introverts felt we had sufficient privacy to unwind and recharge, even though we were sharing a room with one other family and a house with many others. Specifics of one’s personal space will vary depending upon who attends camp any given session, but we had curtains for physical privacy and enough space not to feel physically or aurally crowded.

2) Though the official policy is cautious, a family with some physical special needs can expect to enjoy Waldsee

We have some dietary needs that aren’t mainstream (but nothing life-threatening.) I was also diagnosed with a serious autoimmune condition in 2015. I was mildly concerned about having good food options, and I was pretty nervous about my own comfort and physical health at camp.

For food, my concerns were mostly unfounded. There was one meal where the kitchen assumed a lower lactose option (based on hard cheese) would be safe for my severely lactose-intolerant son, but they were able to give him the vegan option when I expressed concern that it wasn’t. He could’ve survived on bread and vegetables for one meal if it had been a bigger problem.

Family week makes this a bit easier than standard sleep-away camp weeks at CLV because we retained the option to keep well-wrapped/sealed personal food with us in our cabin. I had safe, supplementary food that we never needed, but it gave me peace of mind to know my son would never go hungry. Food from home would be considered contraband during sleep-away camp weeks, and it would be confiscated upon arrival.

As far as my concerns about staying comfortable as an adult with health problems staying at a kids’ summer camp, everything worked out pretty well. I never felt pressured to join an activity that would cause me physical problems. The bunk beds, while far from luxurious, were comfortable enough that I could sleep using standard bedding. Sharing a bunk with a family member made this easier since I could insist DS1 sleep on the top. There are days where climbing a ladder is simply out of the question for me.

If your family requires medication, consider bringing a suitable locking container for it. During family week, you keep and dispense your own family’s medications. Because there are no locks on the doors, I kept all of my pills locked up in a medication bag and secured in my suitcase all of the time. I never felt that my belongings were in any way compromised, but I didn’t want to risk a child getting into my medication and being poisoned.

We are making some different choices for our second stay at Waldsee, primarily due to my physical needs. The biggest change is driving to Minnesota instead of flying. My one major discomfort during the 2015 family week could have been alleviated with camping equipment I already own. The thing I missed most was a cushioned chair with a back. At camp, you sit on hard wooden benches most of the time. Young backs and bones manage this very well, but my arthritis made it painful. I was only really comfortable at Waldsee lying down in my bunk. This time, I’m going to pack a folding camping chair to use in my cabin and possibly also at longer activity sessions.

I had a lot of concerns about what would happen if my condition flared at camp. Upon arrival, many of these fears were allayed. Our T-Mobile and Verizon wireless phones both worked in the parking lot, so we weren’t cut off from communication with family or physicians. The drive from Bemidji wasn’t too long, and the road was in good condition. It seemed likely that expert help could arrive quickly if needed. The camp buildings were mostly pretty refined structures. These weren’t the very primitive cabins of my childhood Camp Fire experience. Mosquitoes were mostly outside, the furniture was of sturdy household quality, and I could flip on an electric lamp if I needed to find my way at night.

3) The best way to arrive and depart Bemidji, MN

In 2015, we flew into Bemidji (BJI), flew out of Minneapolis (MSP), and we used CLV transportation options (charter bus) to get between Waldsee and the airports. The transportation staff was professional and everything went as planned, but one lesson learned is that you lose too much time from the last day of a short week by flying out of MSP. You leave camp before breakfast to make the multi-hours drive to Minneapolis. If you are paying to attend this moderately expensive camp, make the most of it and enjoy every hour you’ve paid for!

Flying into Bemidji was easy, and I suspect that flying out would have been equally satisfactory. We arrived Sunday and stayed overnight at a hotel to acclimate to the time zone before camp, and also to give me a comfortable night’s rest before what I feared would be a week of roughing it. The hotel night was pleasant, but I would only suggest it if it saves you a fortune on airfare to or from BJI. Some of the local hotels have free laundry facilities that might make an overnight before heading home very productive.

The biggest issue with flying to and from camp is the quantity of stuff you can carry by plane. We rented a set of bedding from CLV so we could check only one suitcase for the trip. The bedding was adequate, but bringing my own from home will make me more comfortable this year. If you fly, I’d suggest paying the airline fees to check a second bag full of bedding over renting linens.

A great deal more can be said about who might enjoy the Concordia Language Villages experience and how much one can learn in a week, and I intend to expand upon this in future posts. For now, I’m beginning with the few points that gave me the most angst as I planned my first visit to Waldsee, and offering the advice I think a newcomer should hear first.

Have you ever attended—or considered attending—family week at CLV? Feel free to share your best advice, or ask your most burning questions, in the comments!

Here’s a link to another mom’s blog series about attending family week at the CLV Russian site, Lesnoe Ozero. I was looking for exactly this information back in 2015.

Here’s my next installment in what I’ll call Waldsee family week for dummies, this time with more pictures.