Monday, May 21, 2018

5 Tips for guilt-free mom trip (and London itinerary, too)

As we realized I was turning 30, my husband asked me what I was planning to do for my 30th birthday. I immediately said I'd like to go on a weekend trip, without him, without the kids. I might go alone, or I'd take friends along. Destination didn't really matter. At the time of my birthday, our firstborn was 4 and our younger just a little over 1.

I immediately texted my good friend (I'd call her Poppy -although that's not her name, she just loves poppy flowers) to have her joining me. She was in immediately, before even knowing where we're going. If you remember our chaotic trip to Vienna with lots of kids, she and her family were in that trip, too. She's got two kids too, a 4-year-old boy and a baby younger than ours. We started planning strategically. Basically established the rule: the trip is girls-only, and the girls have to be moms. The trip would be a guilt-free mom time.

London came to my mind. Simply because my husband has rejected the idea of us going to London several times now. So I thought I'd use this chance and visit London. If it would've been up to my taste, I'd do Marrakesh, Istanbul or La Valletta; but then he and the kids would want to visit these places, too, so I'd rather not take that from them. I started asking (girl)friends, and two more moms finally joined us: my sister-in-law and a good friend who's also my husband's friend (I'd call her Mary). Each of us got two kids, so we're really entitled to a getaway. Although, to be fair, I get a me-time quite frequently. Just recently Poppy and I and two other friends got a private spa time for ourselves. But hey, we don't get what we deserve; we get what we negotiate for!

The days of London had finally come and the four of us enjoyed ourselves in London. Despite the frequent pumping and swollen breasts (Poppy and I are still breasfeeding) and the fire alarm that went off at our hostel and scared the life out of me, we've got three-and-a-half day free of kids and husbands, three nights of undisturbed sleep (f**k you fire alarm), many rounds of beers and uninterrupted lunches and dinners. We've even got the luxury of going to the National Theater, watching Macbeth in London!

I personally think that moms' getaways are necessary. We need to recharge ourselves to come back fresh to the husbands and the kids, be it a spa weekend of London. I know for a fact that I make a better parent when I'm a happier person. Now for a guilt-free mom trips, these are my tips:
  1. Get your partner on board. You need your partner's support for this. In return, your partner might also need his (or her) personal getaway. Don't forget that it's also beneficial that the kids have one-on-one time with their dad only, as well as with their mom only sometimes.
  2. Build a support system. Create a network around yourselves and your family so they could function well without you sometimes. My husband could easily stay alone with the kids. However, during the week, his long hours at work mean he'd be late to pick up the kids from the daycare. In this case we call my mother-in-law and she'd stay home with the kids for the days we'd need her to. Poppy got her mom to come and help while her husband was working, Mary combined the help of a neighbor and her sister. My sister-in-law lives in the same house with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law so she had a solid support. We even have a babysitter for the times when my mother-in-law is unavailable.
  3. Go with friends, make a group. If you still feel guilty and don't think you deserve a little me time and getaway, call friends to join you. They'd probably convince you to get a little break, and feel they'd join themselves. I made a little group of moms so no one needed to explain themselves why the needed the getaway.
  4. Explain about personal time to the kids. If your kids are like mine, most probably they'd feel sad of not going on trip with you. They love traveling and they're used to the fact that we always take them. Poppy's son asked her whether it's forbidden that kids go to this place called London, when he's wondering why she hadn't taken the kids. Upon arrival, do something fun and interactive to wrap up your getaway. I got "This is London" book by Miroslav Šašek which is basically a London city guide for kids full of classic 60s illustrations. For my younger, I got a board book called Busy London with interactive pages.
  5. Plan well, of course. Pick days that are not too busy. No painting class or french class for the kids during the days I was gone, no business trips for the husband at those days. I made a big pot of beef ragu so my husband and mother-in-law can just cook pasta and heat the ragu when they don't manage to cook proper dinner. I also plan the arrival to be on Sunday, because my kids love picking me (or their dad) up at the airport, so I planned my arrival to be on the day when my husband wasn't working and they made the trip together to the airport.

In the end, this is our three-day itinerary during guilt-free mom trip in London:

First day: we landed in Heathrow in the early afternoon, checked in to our Clink 78 hostel near King's Cross, then we took coffee-to-go and see the Buckingham Palace. We walked through the Green Park toward the Big Ben (that is under reconstruction -therefore is not visible!), crossed the the Westminster Bridge and got to Southbank on the other side of the Thames. Passing the London Eye, we strolled on the promenade and decided on having two rounds of beers and a Mexican dinner at Wahaca Southbank before heading back to rest.

Second day: we started the day at King's Cross station for Harry Potter 9 3/4 Peron, got scotch eggs from a local market at King's Cross for second breakfast (after the one at the hostel), then went to Kensington gardens and saw the Kensington Palace from afar. We strolled across the Hyde Park heading to the Park Lane, where we took our Megabus tour bus (cost only 2 pounds) that took us see most of London. Starving after the bus, we had lunch at Rose&Crown Pub at Park Lane, where we had baked potatoes and shepherd pie and a round of beers. Later we went to the London bridge, and had nice hot chocolates at Rabot 1745 at Borough Market. We walked toward Tate Modern from there, enjoy the view of London from the observation deck, and went see the exhibition at Tate (free entrance!). We settled on Chinese dinner at a restaurant nearby Tate (can't recall the name) where we had warm udon and Chinese beers before heading to the hostel.

Third day: we got up early and had full English breakfast at a bistro close from King's Cross station which also had vegetarian version of full English breakfast (Poppy is vegetarian). Then we headed to Covent Garden and Jubilee Market. It was too early for English afternoon tea, so we headed to the National Gallery at Trafalgar. We enjoyed the collections (free entrance!), then slowly heading to the National Theater at Southbank for Macbeth. Poppy got us ticket for the play for 15 pounds each and we got upgraded to great seats worth 50 pounds each. We had lunch and prosecco at the theater before the play. In the evening we headed to Camden, bought some souvenirs and sat for rounds of beers at a traditional pub the Oxford Arms at Camden Town. Of course, then we're hungry. We settled on Indian dinner this time, and headed back to King's Cross and eat at the Indian Lounge. To wrap up our trip, we had rounds of drinks at the Water Rats before heading back to sleep, because the next day we've got a very early flight :)

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Do a weekend trip with 6 kids. Because you need chaos in your life.

At the end of last year my husband and I were talking about Metallica concert, they're doing a 2018 world tour. He asked me one brief question: "they'll be performing in Vienna and Milan. Which city would you prefer?" My answer was sure: "Vienna. We can do the zoo too with the kids. They've been dying to see giant pandas". "Alright, Vienna it is" he added. Then we realized that Metallica would perform on Saturday, March 31, and that it was long Easter weekend. All of the sudden I got the urge to invite two other families to do a long weekend trip. And all of the sudden it was twelve of us, out of which six were children.

What the hell was I thinking??

We have been doing long Easter weekend trips for ages. We just always did it. We'd leave on Friday or Saturday, bring the whole Easter breakfast with us and arrange them on the table nicely on Sunday and we'll have nice Easter Sunday somewhere new. But we've never done it with six kids. And there are the other six of big kids adults (read: us, parents).

So the Metallica tickets were sold out already last year. But my husband never has ticket in advance for any concert anyway. He's overly confident that he'll get one on the spot. I was doing the kids-activities planning. All of us have been to Vienna anyway, so I focused this trip on kids entertainment: the infamous Viennese zoo (the oldest in Europe, with giant pandas), the Natural History Museum (dinosaurs, anyone?) and the Prater area for a ferris wheel ride.

I found a big apartment for all of us, a duplex with three bedrooms so all of us stay together. I was initially planning to get us three separate studios, but my husband said, let's go all out and put us in one common space! Thing is, our firstborn is crazy (she's brilliant, but she has the energy of three toddlers). And so is the firstborn of another family which is of the same age as ours. The worst thing is, they're best friends. Since birth. Put two 4-year-old that have been best friends since birth in one roof for three days. Stimulate them with new experiences like dinosaurs, huge zoo, metro rides and foreign language. You know what happens? Super excited and tired toddlers running around up and down screaming to each other, showering each other and makes floods in the bathroom, annoying the other two older kids of the third family (they're significantly older) and resulting in one thing: a neighboring guest knocked on the door on Easter Sunday morning threatening to call the cops if we can't make them calm down. They were up since 6am.

Now that I wrote about the messy part, ask me if it was worth it. My answer is YES. It was definitely worth it. I think we (at least I) do need this kind of chaos in my life anyway. The kids gained experience they can't buy with money. Adapting to other people's habit, synchronizing with other families' rules, and just being in a group that is doing something new together. The zoo was great, the giant pandas were okay, but they enjoyed riding in the wooden carts (that was something new!). They enjoyed being in the zoo together. The dinosaurs were a hit, but my kids did half the museum and they were done, we went out to grab lunch while the two other families did the rest of it. Only one family did Prater in the end, ours didn't because the kids were far too tired.

On the last day we did Bratislava, and we met my friend who has an older son. And the older kids from the third family finally had their peer and it was fun for them. The toddlers? They were just being their crazy selves in another country. We don't do much of touristy things and we don't take many pictures and selfies, but in the end of a trip we always ask our firstborn what she liked the most about the whole experience. And her answers were: the aquarium at the zoo, the time when I made pancakes with her and the other toddler, the times when she's playing with the older kids of the third family, and her ice cream that we ate by the Danube.

Was it a crazy idea to invite so many people? It was. Would I do it all over again? Probably. At the end of the trip one of us said "we should do Prague now. But for a week". Now if you decide that you also need a little bit of chaos in your life, I've got some points to pay attention to:

Go with families with kids with similar age to yours

It's much easier for kids to enjoy each other if they're at similar age. Our firstborn is 4, the other toddler is 4. We have babies too but they don't really play yet. Then the other families have a 7 and 9 year old. Small kids are fascinated with big kids. They like them and they want to be like them. They'd run around the big kids and climb on them and touch them and hug them and, well, some big kids don't think it's cool, which is normal. They also play different kids of games, and they might even have gadgets of their own. Of course it's not a definite no no if you have to travel with kids of different ages, everything is manageable!

You have to be very close personally, and know each other well

It's commonly known that we should never, ever travel with someone we're not that close with. Even friendships break up sometimes during traveling time. It's really hard to find a good match in traveling (I did find my match and I married him!) For some reasons, the chance of a fight is much bigger on the road than at home (yours or theirs). So be prepare for it. If you're close enough with somebody, you actually can fight with him/her. You argue and in one second you fix it and laugh about it. And it will happen again. If you can't manage to fix a problem and sweep everything under the rug, the trip will be filled with lots of awkward moments.

Plan everything well, but be okay if you can't stick to the plan

I did a full three day itinerary for all of us, and it helped us all coordinate and orientate with time. We didn't force ourselves to convoy all the time (we had three cars), but we have some planned meeting points and specific times. We managed to stick to most plans, but we had to give up and made changes for specific needs (meal time, afternoon naps, toilet breaks), which was okay.

Focus on the experience, don't aim too high on the touristy side

The key? I would say don't focus on sight-seeing and see as many places as you want (and document them), focus on your kids' and your family's experience. The dining together, the tasting of local foods, the trying of public transportation, the togetherness. Or as my husband always put it: I just love the act of traveling (read: he hates taking pictures and buy souvenirs).

By the way...

About the Metallica concert? He got a ticket and went in. He went with the other toddler's dad, they managed to find a couple who was fighting and decided not to go to the concert and sell their tickets. The guys bought the tickets at much lower price than they initially were. Sometimes I can't understand how the universe functions.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Train adventure in the Neverland

Oh it's been forever since the last time I wrote a post! I returned to work in January after a year of maternity and parental leave, so I'm basically now juggling between getting back in the game with my job, doing my PhD research (that is more or less abandoned), driving my two kids around (who unfortunately attend two different kindergartens, go to french classes, sport training and painting classes) and co-managing the household (forgotten laundry, overcooked dinners, sticky floors, messy kitchen) with a husband who's on business trips a lot. On top of that, we found out recently that we're moving abroad (hint, hint!) so things have been quite stressful More coffee wine please!

Remember two business trips that happened during my maternity leave, to China and to Azerbaijan? So my first business trip now that I'm officially back at work was to the Netherlands. Or as my firstborn said, to the Neverland (she's quite shocked to find out that I was visiting Peter Pan). Following a 100-hour work on the course, earlier this month I participated in a four-day training on climate governance issue. The problem was, that it was held in a city called Heerlen. They booked me a flight to Amsterdam and I was supposed to arrange my own travel (by train) from Amsterdam to Heerlen to be reimbursed later. I didn't want to go to Amsterdam city central, so I planned my journey directly from Amsterdam Schipol Airport toward Heerlen. Using the official journey planner of the NL train, it seemed pretty simple: Amsterdam Airport to Utrecht, then Utrecht to Heerlen. One train change. It would take me a little over two hours. Well, it didn't turn out that simple, since the NL railway decided to have a massive rail works the day I came to the Netherlands.

My never-ending train journey in the Netherlands Neverland started at the airport. My plane from Zagreb landed in Amsterdam at around 10:30 that day. I was supposed to take the train to Utrecht, except there were no trains to Utrecht operating that day due to rail works. My de-route required me to go to Rotterdam, then to Eindhoven, and then take the train to Heerlen from there. The moment I realized my new route, I missed my Rotterdam train by 30 seconds, so I had to wait for half-an-hour waiting for the next train. Once I got into the next train, everything seemed right. It was a short ride (I believed 20 minutes or so) and I managed to eat a sandwich I got at a little shop in the station and read several pages of Dan Brown's Inferno I was reading.

I hopped off in Rotterdam and change tracks to find my next train to Eindhoven, which was coming in ten minutes. Once the train's there, I boarded the train and found a comfy seat, storing my suitcase on the overhead compartment. Ten minutes into the ride, an announcement was made in Dutch. I asked a passenger next to me what it's about (thanks heavens everyone in the Netherlands speaks perfect English). Apparently the train had technical issue and had to stop in the next station, where passengers need to get off the train and wait for the next train to Eindhoven.

A few minutes later, I found myself  stranded in a small station called Breda. I didn't even bother finding out in which part of the Netherlands I was at, I just remember it was cold and windy. I checked the monitor for departures and saw that the next train to Eindhoven was in half-an-hour, so I sat down on a bench and read my book. It was over 1pm at this point. Five minutes prior to when the train was supposed to arrive, I saw this monitor:

All trains to Eindhoven were cancelled that afternoon
The train to Eindhoven was cancelled. After gathering more information, seems that they didn't plan to operate any more trains to Eindhoven that day. I quickly consulted the NL train journey planner on my iPhone (no roaming within the EU member states literally is the best thing ever happened to EU, isn't it?) and found out that there might be a train to Heerlen going from a station called 's-Hertogenbosch. And since that station is within the route to Zwolle, I decided to hop on the train to Zwolle (I had no freaking clue where the Zwolle was).

Breda station, where the train left us stranded
By 2pm I was on the train to Zwolle. At this point I was pissed with myself for having decided to take a big suitcase.I normally travel really light. I took a tiny light suitcase to Azerbaijan and ended up not having any space for gifts and stuff I had to buy (don't judge, that's what happen when you go somewhere for work and little people are waiting at home); so my husband convinced me to take the big suitcase this time (he'll pay for this!). Half-an-hour later, I hopped off at 's-Hertogenbosch station (try to pronounce that one loudly you!). That was my third train for the day.

I finally found Heerlen in the monitor for the departures. I found the track and waited. In half-an-hour a double-decked train came and I hopped on. I went upstairs and settled myself. It was a two-hour ride after all. A lady-officer came by to check my ticket (which was not checked the whole day by the way) and I told her that it's my fourth train since Amsterdam. She gave me a sympathetic smile and said "I know, it's been chaotic today. But now you're in the right train finally!". The train took me to Heerlen, where I got off at around 4pm. Over five hours adventure from the airport. I took a local bus to get to the hotel I was staying, which, by the way, is run exclusively by volunteers who are retired people. But that's a topic for another post. As for now, my never ending train journey in the Netherlands Neverland was finally over.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Business trips are my vacation

It's pretty often when I see memes on my facebook timeline with similar phrases to "vacations with kids are basically business trip". And in my personal opinion, it's also the other way around: when you have kids, business trips are basically vacations. Well don't get me wrong, I enjoy traveling and vacationing with kids. As you might have noticed from my previous posts, we travel and vacation a lot with kids. However though, like most moms with babies, once in a while I wish I could just have a night away from the kids to just sleep for eight (or even six!) hours straight. And business trips, for me, are the answer to this.

Of course I could easily have a night out with the girls, or with my husband, and leave the kids for a night to the grandma (or a sitter). And I do that, now and then. However, my needs sometimes extend beyond the need to sleep alone. I also miss being just by myself sometimes. Not being someone's mother, or someone's wife. I used to travel alone when I was much younger. This nature changed when I met my better half who's also a travel addict, so we started to travel as a couple. Now with two kids, we travel as a family with young children. Business trips, are basically my excuse to not only get more sleep, but also experience solo traveling again, now and then.

In June I went to Beijing, China, for a conference; leaving my then five-month-old and three-year-old at home. I wrote about the dilemma here. After the post, I received mixed responses. Half of it judged me for having left such a small (and exclusively breastfed) baby for work reason, and the other half saw it as an empowering decision. Honestly, I was glad I chose to go.

Last month, in November, I was invited to hold two lectures for two days in Baku, Azerbaijan. I immediately said yes for three reasons: I needed a little break for myself, I have never been in Baku, and we needed the money. My mother-in-law agreed to stay at our place to watch the kids while I'm gone, because my husband wasn't able to take day-offs.

I left Zagreb on Saturday morning, although my lectures were only on Monday and Tuesday. The organizer wasn't able to get me flights on Sunday so I had to fly earlier. Which was a good thing for me, of course. My husband and the toddler drove me to the airport, and I left the baby with grandma at home. Like when I was leaving for Beijing, this time I also left expressed breast milk in the freezer. Although, now that she's 10-month-old, she preferred mostly real foods to breast milk.

Above Istanbul, landing for a stopover

With three hours of layover in Istanbul and three hours of time difference, I only arrived in Baku at around 9pm. It was cold and raining when I went out to the bus stop after exchanging some money. Five or six taxi drivers approached me to get me hire one of them, for 50 Manat (around €25) to my hotel. I was a little stunned (and honestly afraid) so I turned on my phone and search for Uber. There was an Uber 3-minute away so I ordered one. It offered me a drive for 10 Manat (€5), a fifth of the price the guys wanted me to pay. 5 minutes passed and I didn't see any car coming. On the GPS I saw the car was right there. An official for the airport parking asked if I needed assistance, so I told him I'm looking for my Uber. He went around the lot to find the car by the license plate, and finally found my Uber, empty, with no driver. Using his own cell phone, he called the phone number provided by my Uber guy, but  he wasn't answering. I had no other choice but cancelling my order, which cost me a penalty of around €2.While still figuring out options, an elder guy took my suitcase from my hand and put it into the trunk of his car, while saying "I'll drive you for 15 Manat (€7.5)". The price sounded okay, he knew where my hotel was. The problem? He wasn't a taxi driver. The car is not a cab. He was just there. I know I should've ran and just find a cab, but a little adventurous part of me told me to just go into his car. And I did.

We didn't talk much. In fact, not at all. He knew no English, and I don't know a word of Azeri. We drove for 20 minutes and I didn't have any bad feeling about it. Then I saw my hotel and he dropped me off in front of it. I thanked him and handed him 15 Manat, and safely got to the hotel.

I had the whole Sunday to myself. It was a beautiful sunny day in Baku, although a bit windy. After breakfast at the hotel, I headed to the city center with the free shuttle bus provided by the hotel. The shuttle bus left me in front of Park Bulvar, a shopping center nearby the Port, at the beginning of the Promenade along the Caspian Sea. I walked along the promenade, saw several interesting architectures and saw the famous Fire Towers from afar (three towers shaped like a flame together). I headed to the Old Town and started my journey at the Maiden Tower, that was built to worship the fire by the Shirvanshahs, who ruled in this area between the 9th and 16th centuries.

The view of Baku with its Fire Towers from the top of the Maiden Tower
I climbed the Maiden Tower after paying for 10 Manat for the entrance. I would've paid half price if I had my student card with me, but of course I left it at home. Don't judge, I'm legally a student ;) Each floor of the tower is part of the museum with historical collections and stories, and from the top I had a 360 degree view of Baku.

After enjoying the view from the top, I took off and decided to get lost in the old town with no map. The old town is the part of Baku inside the old wall, with a palace complex, mosques, and several museums. I walked alone in the small quite alleys and realized that this, was exactly what I needed. I needed to be alone, somewhere new, somewhere I've never been at, just to get myself recharged.

Souvenir stands along the small alleys of the old town
I bought a ticket for the Shirvanshah's palace (would've paid half price too if I had my student card with me), and started exploring the palace. Too be honest, I wasn't too impressed. The palace complex was quite small and empty. I sat down a little bit looking at the ruins of hamam (the bath house of the royals) and went out. I walked along the city wall and stopped to buy passion fruit fresh juice from the street seller. I remember it was a traditional thing in Istanbul, so I assumed here it's a thing too. I decided to walk toward the Fountain Square to find a restaurant.

Inside the Shirvanshah's Palace complex

I found a small restaurant with authentic interior and glass wall with full view to the square. I had to order lamb pilaf since it reminded me so much of my life in Istanbul. Pilaf is rice cooked in seasoned broth, served with stew, mine was with lamb stew caramelized onion, dried apricots, raisins and chestnuts, it was traditional Azeri and recommended by the staff. It was delicious! Most importantly, I was enjoying my meal ALONE! I know most people hate eating alone, but eating alone is one of the things I enjoy the most. I had been missing this!

My pilaf and a glass of draught local Xirdalan
I went back to the bay area and decided to walk back to the shuttle stop to get back to the hotel. I went back to the city that day in the evening to grab dinner, but back to the hotel quite early to enjoy my spa bath. I didn't want to tell you this, but I had a personal spa massage bath tub in my hotel room. Yup, no kids, big bed, and a spa bath. It was heavenly break.

On Monday I had to work, so I spent the whole day in the conference hall of the hotel. I met two new colleagues with whom I was working, so we went out the evening to buy some souvenirs and eat dinner at a restaurant nearby the Maiden Tower. Tuesday was similar, except one of my two colleagues had already flew home. I took the other colleague to have dinner at the restaurant I had lunch the first day, then we decided to visit the Aliyev center. Heydar Aliyev center is a gallery and a conference center with a museum inside. But that wasn't the reason we wanted to visit it. The main reason was because this building was built by the famous architect Zaha Hadid, who also built the spectacular train station in Naples and the port terminal in Antwerp. She almost built Zagreb airport, too, but she didn't win the tender.

Heydar Aliyev center was, ladies and gentlemen, spectacular! It was breathtaking to see. We wanted to go to the museum but it worked only until 4pm, so we were just standing there in front of it, and made two rounds around it. The curves and the flows, the building was magical seen from every angle. The roof flows all the way to the floors around it where we were all standing. See it yourself:

That night for the last time I had my private spa bath. I slept very tight in my king-sized bed. On Wednesday morning I had late and slow breakfast, then headed to the airport. I watched a movie during my first leg of the flights (The Circle with Tom Hanks and Emma Watson), had a good coffee in Istanbul airport during my short layover, and finished a book in the second leg of the flights (Veronica Henry's A Night on the Orient Express). By the time I arrived in Zagreb at 10pm, my toddler and my husband were waiting for me on the arrival gate with the biggest smiles. I kissed them both and handed her a red Lego suitcase with Lego Junior horse farm in it. She happily said "I want you to go to a business trip again soon so I get more gifts!" And just like that, I was rested, had a vacation, they got their well deserved break from (annoying) mommy, we're happier reunited, and soon we were driving toward home where my baby and mother-in-law waiting for us.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Cruising on budget

On my previous post about our story of cruising with little kids, I promised to write a separate post for tips and tricks for cruising on budget. I mentioned how we took the cheapest cabin available in the ship. The price also covers all meals and access to most facilities like pools, gym, theater, library, etc. Of course, you'd have to pay extra for spa and its services like massage. The good news is, kids don't pay until their 18th birthday, and they get their own beds in the parents' cabin.

So if you're not crazy about private balcony or windows with sea-view, take the cheapest inside cabin for your family and spend most of your time on the outdoor deck. You'd literally just sleep and shower in the cabin. Apart from the main price of the cruise, these are our tips to keep your experience low budget:

Research well to avoid taking their official shuttle

Most cruise ports are located a little far from the city center or the old historic port of the town. Because of that, most ships offer their official shuttle to get you to the city. Their prices are usually pretty high, so research well whether you can find another way before deciding to take their shuttle. In Marseilles we took Costa's official shuttle for €11 per person round-trip, only to find out later that Marseilles cruise port has a free shuttle for cruise passengers. In Ibiza we took public bus for €4 per person round-trip, much cheaper than Costa's shuttle for €12.

Avoid falling for the water scam package

Before the departure, if you have an online booking or account, the cruise company will send you e-mails, to remind you to pre-book beverage packages. One of the packages was the water package, which was offered at around €30 for 13 liters of still bottled water. I had to dig into lots of forums to make a decision whether it's necessary to take the package. The answer is NO, it's a scam! During meal times, cold drinkable water and ice cubes are available from the dispensers, and you can drink unlimited. In case you're really thirsty in the cabin, the minibar isn't that expensive. We took a one-liter bottle for €3 from the minibar. If you like, you might take the alcohol packages though. Although my husband prefers paying by a glass in the bar (€5 a pint), or buying in the shops in the city and take 'em back to the ship. Contrary to most beliefs, they're not strict at all about taking beverages from outside to the ship.

Unless you want to be extra convenient, don't take their excursions offers

Plan your own excursions. Find itineraries online, research what you want to see, buy a map and take public transport. Don't let the cruise company rob you by organizing a city tour at €50 per person. Or if you're like us, just walk with no plan and let destiny brings you to places.

Read the daily journal thoroughly

To maximize your experience of living in the ship, read the journal delivered to your cabin every night. The journal lists all of the events and activities for the next day, so you can plan your day well. It also lets you know the breakfast, lunch and dinner options, so you can plan what kind of meal you want. There are free seminars, dance classes, music programs and shows in which you can participate. Don't miss the competitions and quizzes which win you prizes like free spa treatments!

Pack for different outfits

They don't give guidance for clothes to pack prior to sailing, but we needed different kinds of outfits throughout the journey. Make sure you have formal/gala outfit if you plan to choose the formal sitting dinners. Formal outfit is also necessary for the cocktail party with the Captain (usually held on the last night of the cruise). Other than that, you can be casual in the ship, but they organize different events like "La Notte Bianca" in which all of us was expected to wear white for one night and there was an open show of ice carving on the deck. Don't forget warm clothes, even if you're sailing during summer like we did, it gets quite windy and chilly in the evening on the open deck.

Bring basic medicines, and mind sea-sickness

On-board doctor visits are expensive. You can check the detailed prices on the daily journal, but I'll tell you here one single visit would cost €136 and that doesn't include the medicines. Unless it's an emergency, avoid it. Bring your regular medicines for the whole family. Our toddler got a fever during our trip but I had her rectal paracetamol with me. I also packed probiotics, rehydration salt, painkillers, rash cream, sun screen and insect repellent. None of us had problem with sea-sickness, but if your kids (or yourself) had had car-sickness before, anticipate that they might also have sea-sickness, so bring their usual medicines.

Last but not least, basic safety

One thing: do not miss the emergency drill. Some might think it's just a waste of time, but no. Big no. You need to participate on the emergency drill. Usually it's organized on the departure day, but it was also organized on the second day for those who missed the first drill. You need to know where your meeting point is in the event of emergency (the ship is huge, there'd be several of meeting points, know yours!). You need to know where your life vest is, and how to properly put it on. You need to know where your emergency stairways and where your lifeboat would be. For those cruising with kids, don't repeat our mistake, put on their bracelet with their names and cabin number on it, in case you lose them on board.

Have en enjoyable cruise, safe winds and following seas!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Cruising with little kids: Our story

Two years ago we planned to go on a cruise. After a couple of years of saving and planning, we booked to sail in late summer of 2016. But then I got pregnant with our youngest and we had to delay sailing until I give birth. We re-booked for late summer 2017 and we finally sailed last week with Costa Pacifica, with two little kids instead of one.

The ship departs from Savona, Italy, 800km from Zagreb, where we live. With the toddler and the baby, we knew it would probably be the drive from hell, so we decided to drive during the night, when both of them are asleep. We left home at 3am on Wednesday, and got to the port of Savona only at 1pm with five breaks from driving. Someone was hungry, someone needed the restroom, someone was crying, and all that.

The deck where we spend most of our time
At the port we were welcomed with valet parking, handed them the car key and our suitcases. We walked toward the terminal and were given priority boarding (yay!) and walked directly into the ship. Tons of crew welcomed us warmly, and they're all obsessed with small children. Each of us (including the baby and the toddler) was given the Costa card which served as a key to the cabin, an ID card to embark and disembark the ship, and the mean for payment while on board. We were directed to our cabin on deck 2, and our suitcases were waiting for us in front of the door. Mind you, we paid for the cheapest cabin available in the ship, and that means that our cabin was at the inside of the ship with no sea-view (my husband said we're like rats). We didn't mind that we have no window because we'd just sleep in the cabin, most of the time we'd be actually somewhere outside the cabin, mostly on the outdoor deck. At only €300 per person all inclusive (kids don't pay!), we basically had the exact same access and facilities with the ones paying over €1,000 to get windows with sea-view or private balcony. So we said, screw the window. (I'll write a different post on tips and trick for cruising on low budget).

We went straight to the restaurant for lunch (the cruise price covers all the meals -no additional cost) and started to explore the ship. Deck 11 was our favorite, with the Jacuzzi, a pool and water slide. A thematic kids pool is located nearby, so we spent the afternoon on this deck.

Our favorite deck 11
Our toddler at the Peppa Pig kids pool
An emergency drill was obligatory before departure so we participated in it, to learn the procedures we'd need to take on the events of emergency. The ship was set to sail and leave the port at 5pm, with Andrea Bocelli's "Con Te Partiro" played out loud (the song is played every time we leave a port). We soon went to dinner to the same restaurant we went for lunch. All passengers could choose between a formal three-courses sitting dinner or informal self-service dinner, and because of the kids, we opted for informal dinner for the entire cruise.

The baby was extra sleepy the entire dinner and I knew she wasn't herself. I had a feeling she was getting ill, so I chose to get back to the cabin with her after dinner, while the toddler and my husband went to see the show at the theater. During the whole night the baby's temperature's rising, and we had to managed it with paracetamol, which, thank goodness I had with me.

We woke up to the sound and feeling of shaking of the ship being moored at the port of Marseilles at around 8am. I've got to tell you that as much as some people hate the swaying of the ship, and get sea-sickness of it, I kind of loved the feeling my bed being rocked all night long :D

We didn't want to spend too much money on excursion packages offered by the cruise, so we decided to only take their shuttle, which cost €11 per person round-trip per person. We got off the ship after breakfast to take their shuttle, only to find out that the cruise port of Marseilles actually provided a free shuttle (yup, we just lost €33 to three tickets) for cruise passengers to get to the city! Putting that aside, we had fun in Marseilles. We walked from the main cathedral along the narrow alleys of the historic part of the city and ended up at the old port. Both my husband and I love Alexandre Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo so the old port of Marseille is quite special for us.

View to the old port of Marseille
I knew the baby was ill because she was sleeping a lot. I had her in the ring sling so she was sleeping on me the entire time we were walking around. We decided to take the bus to the ship at around 3pm, so we had lunch on board. We went back to the cabin to rest and we found an invitation in our mailbox for the toddler. Peppa Pig invited her to hang out at the indoor pool on deck 9 at 8pm. The baby was hot again so we had to give her medicine. We were thinking to take her to the on-board doctor but I was pretty sure it was common cold so we waited for another day.

With the invitation, I also received a notice for myself. It said that I didn't have the visa and/or resident permit in the European Union (EU) so I need to come to the reception at deck 3 as soon as possible. I knew it was a confusion because I'm a citizen of the EU, why would I need a visa? After waiting in line for half-an-hour, I got to the counter and showed my Croatian passport (which I also used for checking into the ship). The officer apologized for the mistake and let me go with my passport. Someone must have overheard when I said to a crew that I'm from Indonesia and they confused my heritage with my citizenship. 

After dinner we went to see Peppa. It was a little early so we decided to check the play room on deck 10. Then the baby needed a diaper change so I took her back to our cabin. She nursed afterwards and fell asleep, so I transferred her to the ring sling and went back to deck 10. When I arrived there, Peppa was already there and lots of kids were around her. I found my husband and he was pale "Oh my gosh I lost her. I mean, I found her now, but I freaking lost her" he told me. So when I left, they were in the play room on deck 10. My husband then realized that it was time and they needed to go to deck 9 for Peppa. They both started walking when my husband realized that he left his cellphone in the playroom, so he told the toddler to wait right there while he take the cellphone. When he was back, of course, the toddler was gone. She was nowhere to be found. He started to look for her on the whole deck and scream her name. He panicked and started to ask random people if they see a little girl by herself. Having asked more than five people, he decided (probably sweating like a pig) to get down to deck 9. There was Peppa there, and, you guessed it, our toddler dancing to the music. He ran to her and asked here (probably screamed) "where have you been???" to which she calmly (and still dancing) answered "well, here. Why?". So, yes, she actually went down from deck 10 to deck 9, by stairs, by herself, got to the other side of the pool because she saw freaking huge Peppa there. So the thing is, each child got a bracelet when we embarked, which has to be worn by every child, on which her name and her cabin room are written, and it's the festival-kind-of bracelet that a child can't get rid of. And what happened? We actually lost her bracelet. Yes. We're probably the worst parents on earth.

The toddler is the little girl with the hand holding Peppa's hand
The night went better than the previous one. We needed to give one paracetamol to the baby, but she woke up like new in the morning. No more fever, and she was back to her ultra-active self. We were due to arrive in Ibiza only at 2pm, so we spent the morning in the library, at the pool and at the gift shop. We played it smarter this time so we didn't buy the shuttle to Ibiza from the cruise. We disembarked the ship after lunch with no plan, and immediately found a public bus that took us from the cruise port to the city for only €4 round-trip (compared to €12 that the ship offered).

We had a summer holiday this year, so we didn't plan to go to the beach. We headed to the heart of the city and learned that Ibiza (or Elvissa) was the center of European hippie community long before it was now famous for the party people. We had rounds of drinks, walked around and enjoyed the view of the iconic white houses of Ibiza, and took the bus to get back to the ship at around 6pm.

Strolling around in Ibiza
At the cabin we found out that the toddler got another invitation from Peppa for treasure hunting at the discotheque at 8pm, so we headed for dinner, to the deck for the sunset while we were sailing away from Ibiza to Barcelona, then to the discotheque. All kids were dressed and face-painted as little pirates and they played treasure hunt.

The toddler on the open deck while the ship leaving Ibiza during sunset
Peppa-Pirates disco night, it was super fun!
The toddler and my husband went to the theater again after Peppa, and I got back to sleep with the baby to the cabin. We were scheduled to be moored in Barcelona the next day at 9am. The sea was quite rough (they notified us about that) so I was rocked to sleep like a baby.

The next day we woke up in Barcelona port. We headed out after breakfast, not buying the official shuttle of course. We found a public bus that took us to the city and back for €5, and left us at the end of the famous Las Ramblas by the port. We didn't have much time because the ship should sail by 2pm already, so we strolled on Las Ramblas and took a metro to Sagrada Familia. There was a nice children playground right in front of the basilica, which reminds me of the children playground right in front of the Parisian Sacred Heart basilica in which the toddler also played last year. We let the kids spend some time playing and walked to the back of the church and rested in Gaudi square.

The toddler and my husband at the Rambla de Santa Monica, one part of the Las Ramblas
Due to the limited time we didn't get into it, but we enjoyed the view while the kids resting
Once we were back on the ship, we went to the late Spanish lunch that the cruise offered, we had paella, and churros for dessert. At 5pm we were invited to the cocktail party with the Captain in the theater so we dressed up and headed there. They took a family picture of us and later gave it to us for a free souvenir. We toasted with the captain and and headed to the open deck to the pool. By this time we're already sailing back to Savona. We spent the evening in the play room (no more Peppa Pig today!) then the toddler and her dad headed to the theater.

We had to pack and leave our suitcases with special tags in front of our cabin door by midnight, because they will be delivered to us together with our car in Savona. In the morning we had to leave the cabin by 8am, although we can stay in the ship longer if we want. We disembarked after breakfast, at 10am, directly to the valet service that handed us the key of the car and the suitcases that were waiting for us there.

Some people made comments on their way out how the cruise was too short, and we couldn't agree more. It was such a different, special experience to be cruising in the ship. The toddler enjoyed it very much. Of course the baby is too small to even understand anything, but she had a good time despite her being ill the first two days. We all did. If we save up enough, we might sail again in a few years! I'll be posting soon about tips and tricks on cruising on low budget!


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Our best family summer vacation: a camp!

Growing up, my husband's and my family were not camping families. We never stayed in a camp for a summer holiday. We had always stayed in a hotel, a hostel, or a private rented apartment. But both of us had always, always wanted to try camping for summer vacation. Now with two kids, for some (stupid) reason, we had been always delaying this plan. This summer finally we decided to at least try to be at the camp. To reduce the shock for the kids (and for ourselves), we took a mobile home. We thought, once we're used to the life in a camp, we'd do tent next summer. Although technically we did sleep in a tent already during one festival we attended recently.

Mobile homes are relatively expensive, so we chose a short four-day beach break. We'd always loved the Istrian peninsula, so I booked us one mobile-home in Medulin Camp, at the most southern part of the peninsula.

The mobile homes within the camp
When we got our little house on Saturday, the toddler was ecstatic. She checked every corner of the house, picked a room where she'd sleep with grandma and helped me arrange our stuff. The mobile-home is designed for six people, with two bedrooms, one bath, a kitchen, a dining table with a sofa bed, and our favorite area, the porch looking out to the sea.

Our little house with our favorite porch
The other area of the camp is the are for the parcels for the tents and RV campers. The camp is located on two little attached islands so the beach is nearby wherever you're located at the camp. Common toilets and showers, and a common kitchen are available for the campers and they're extremely clean and well maintained. Common barbecue area is very close from our house, and so is a car wash facility. Many coffee shops, restaurants, pizzerias and a shop are all over the camp, and most importantly, playgrounds and an organized kids' activity club.

The camping area for the tents and RV campers

The toddler in the pink float, at the beach steps away from our house
Our days went like this: the baby wakes up first in the morning. Then my husband takes her in a carrier to take a morning walk around the camp to give me some extra sleep. When they come back to the house, the rest of us (meaning the toddler, my mother-in-law and I) wake up. I fix breakfast for everyone and we have breakfast and coffee on the porch. Then we put on our bathing suit and off we go to the beach. We'd spend time at the beach until noon, when we come back to the house. I fix lunch so we all eat lunch at the porch, then the kids and my mother-in-law have their nap. When they wake up we'll be off to the beach again until near sunset around 7pm. We come back to the house, take turn for shower while grandma fix us dinner. Once we have dinner, we take the kids to the playground to play with other kids campers, take a long walk along the sea, and finally, take them to the amphitheater where the evening kids' entertainment goes on: games, mini disco, shows, workshops. The toddler enjoyed them so much.

The toddler (the little girl handing a ball to the boy) playing the group game at the activity center

Having spent four days at the camp, we've decided to try camping in a real tent next year, with the real gears and for a longer period. Here's the reason why we think a camp is the most perfect summer holiday for families, better than rented apartment or hotel:
  1. We were constantly outdoor, in the woods, in the nature. I can only imagine, had we been camping with a tent, we'd been 24/7 in the nature, which, is the best way to do it with the kids. Salt water, pine trees, bright sun, what else do you need?
  2. We, especially the kids, were socializing with other campers and their kids, non stop. Different languages didn't even matter. They played together, around the houses, parents were carefree. Adults share grilling area (mostly ended up eating together, which is beyond nice), car wash facility, and common kitchen, toilets and showers.
  3. We didn't need to go anywhere with the car. Everything we needed was in the camp. No traffic, no stress, no city hassle. The beach was a few steps away from where we slept, and we were literally in bathing suit the whole day.
  4. Something interesting was constantly going on. Kids' activities were organized every evening, and sport activities for adults were held every morning.
  5. In the end, we felt much more rested, relaxed, and disconnected from the outside world. No one cared about time, we did stuff as we wanted to, and after many summer vacations in the past, this one finally did feel like a vacation.
Afternoon walk on our last day at the camp. See you next time!