TODDLERS CAN VACATION TOO

I get seasick!  So any type of vacation that involves boats or ships is not likely to be high on my bucket list.  But for the multitude of people out there who don’t suffer like me, cruising is a great vacation option; especially with young children.  Thank you Karolina Shenton, my guest blogger, for giving us all a perspective of cruising with a toddler.

When I decided to have my first baby, lots of people told me that travel would become difficult; if not impossible, and we wouldn’t be able to get around anymore. My husband and I were showered with tales of nightmarish vacations with small children and parents reminiscing about the days when it was easy to pick up and see the world.

Fast-forward two years. My daughter is almost two and a half and she’s the greatest kid you’ll ever meet. Furthermore she’s proven to be the best travel companion I’ve ever had. Not only is travel with her easy, it’s also far more rewarding than it was prior to motherhood. Sure, we’ve had to do things a little differently, but different isn’t bad. Different is awesome, because it’s given my family a reason to try something new.

Sophie and I in the Kiddie Pool Onboard

About two weeks before my daughter’s second birthday we decided to take her on her first cruise. We picked a cruise to the Eastern Caribbean since we hadn’t done it before and the islands had something for everyone in the family. Having cruised before, we knew that the boarding process would be a snap. Cruises make the details so easy; you sometimes forget all the headaches of land-based travel. As we made our way to Florida and then onto the ship, we had no snags or surprises whatsoever. Our flight to Florida was a piece of cake, even for a toddler, and the bus transfer to the ship was a fascinating adventure for our little one. Once on-board, we quickly made our way to our stateroom to drop off our carry-on bags and started our vacation.

The Islands

Our first port was St. Maarten and we scheduled a visit to the famous Orient Bay beach. St. Maarten is a unique island because it’s divided between French and Dutch colonies. Orient Bay is on the French side, thus the beach is “clothing optional.” Since I’m European, this didn’t faze me a bit and because its part of the local culture, nobody really takes notice of the lack of tan lines. It’s beach business as usual. Orient Bay is a sheltered beach, allowing little wave action and superb clarity. As a mom, this was really important to me, since I didn’t want to contend with dangerous surf with my toddler around (like we do at our home beaches). We just popped on her floaties and had a blast at the water’s edge. The water was like a warm, clear pool, except there were loads of cool things to look at (other than the occasional naked person). We ate a great lunch provided as part of our excursion and had a wonderful time.

Sophie at Magen's Bay Beach

Our next port was St. Thomas, which is one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. My husband went scuba diving and my daughter and I took an excursion to Magen’s Bay, another beach. Again, we had a perfect day. The beaches in the Eastern Caribbean are flat, clean, warm, clear and mellow. It’s an ideal place for a toddler to explore the ocean. Magen’s Bay is less commercial than some other beaches and has lots of trees to provide shade and a picturesque backdrop. We met other families on the beach and the kids became fast friends. After a wonderful day, we took a quick 20-minute ride back to the ship and rested before dinner.

Sophie Kissing Clifton the Dolphin

The last port on our itinerary was Nassau, on New Providence Island, Bahamas. Here, we booked the Blue Lagoon dolphin encounter. Let me start by saying that I wasn’t without my doubts before getting to the island. I’m not one to take dolphin captivity lightly, however when we arrived, I was pleasantly surprised. The facility was very nice and well maintained. The animals were in excellent health and were able to come and go from the interaction area as they pleased. Nothing was forced. However, what impressed me the most was the look on my daughter’s face when she saw our dolphin, named Clifton, she was beaming from ear to ear. Some other kids were a bit apprehensive, but not my girl! We all arranged ourselves along a platform and waited for Clifton to approach each of us to interact.

Sophie Exploring The Blue Lagoon

Not only did my daughter watch Mom and Dad rub Clifton’s tummy, she got down there and did it herself! She even kissed Clifton at his request! Now, how many two year olds can say they’ve kissed a dolphin.

To top off the great day, the beach on the island was a perfect place to relax and watch my daughter splash in the shallows, while I caught some rays and relaxed, which is why we vacation.

The Ship

Sophie Loved the Towel Animals - The Monkey Was Her Favorite

Our stateroom was also the perfect place for our family. We wanted a balcony to enjoy the view, however we had concerns about the safety of the balcony with a toddler. We were thrilled to discover that the door could securely latch and was too heavy for a little person to open. So we got to decide when she went outside and when she stayed inside. Our sleeping arrangements were also perfect. My husband and I enjoyed a nice king sized bed, while we were provided a comfortable crib for our daughter. She felt right at home since Mom and Dad were so near by and we all had plenty of room to stretch out. However the best part of our room was the service we received from our cabin steward. Each night, he folded towels in the shape of an animal and left them on the bed as a surprise. About half way through the week, we would ask our daughter what animal she wanted, tell our cabin steward in the morning and her request would be waiting for us in our room at the end of the day. Simply amazing! Who knew you could make a monkey out of a towel!

A Napkin Doll for Sophie

Even in the formal dining rooms, the staff was prepared to keep our daughter entertained and engaged in the experience with things to color and games to play. One staff member even made a doll out of a napkin for her. I think one of the things that parents fear when traveling with their kids abroad is not being able to locate enough safe, kid-friendly food. Our ship had so many choices of everything imaginable, feeding my daughter was no problem whatsoever. Most importantly, they had loads of healthy choices for her to eat, not just fries and pizza (although they have that too.)

But the best part of mealtime was the dining room staff. Being two years old, cookies are my daughter’s favorite dessert. At our first dinner, we noticed that cookies were not an option on the dessert menu, however we only had to ask once, and each night the whole week, our waiter made a special trip to the lido deck to bring our little one a selection of cookies. That’s what I call service!

So in response to all the naysayers out there, who are telling people that parenthood marks the end of your traveling days, I say nonsense! Not only is it possible, it’s super easy and super economical and it’s a source of some of the best family memories you’ll have.

THE TRAVELERS LIFE: RUNNING TO OR RUNNING FROM?

As part of a traveling families group writing project, we decided to tackle the tough question of “When we decided to travel, was it because we were running to something or running away from something?  Were we happy in our lives back home or were we just seeking something else?”  If you have any preconceptions that traveling is a mindless escape, you should join this group where you are constantly being challenged to examine your life.

My story begins when I was nine years old.  My parents took my older sister and me to Europe.  It was one of those three week, five country, whirlwind trips, but no matter, I thought it was way too cool.  Back then, nine year old kids didn’t go to Europe with the frequency they do now.  I liked trying the new foods, hearing the different languages, experiencing unique cultures and seeing things I had only previously seen or read about in books.  I remember wearing an Austrian dirndl purchased on the trip to my first day of fourth grade and thinking that I was truly special.

When I got older, I took a number of trips on my own.  I wish I had taken more but I suffered from the same problem that many others suffer from:  I either had time but no money or money but no time.  And being the practical, rational American that I am, I couldn’t seem to work through this dilemma.  During the earlier days of my career, I had a client who decided that he, his wife and their nine year old daughter were going to take a year off to sail.  What a marvelous, adventurous idea, I thought.  Since I get sea sick, the specific idea of sailing didn’t stick with me.  but the idea of taking a year off to travel did.

I held tight to that “Idea” for 20+ years; through marriage and through the birth of my two daughters.  In January 2006, I said to my husband, “If we are ever going to take “This Trip,” we better start planning it now!  These kinds of things don’t just happen; you have to make them happen.  If we don’t do this now, we probably never will.”

Traveling was a way for us to experiment with our adventurous sides.  It was an opportunity to see the world, to meet new and varied people who look at life and live life in a way that is uniquely theirs.  It would be a chance to experience history where it was made.  When you travel you are no  longer reading the book, you are the book.  You are inside a National Geographic magazine.

With the excitement of travel looming ahead of us, it never occurred to us or any of our friends and family to ask the question, “Are you running to something or running away from something?”  In our minds, travel was most definitely about what we were going TO.  However, by the time we were leaving for our one year around the world trip, it had become clear that travel  was also about what we were leaving or what we were going away FROM.  Our lives had certainly become routine and somewhat predictable.  There was comfort with that routine and predictability, but also a boredom and narrow mindedness.  Taking a year off, a year away from our lives, was a way to break our inertia.  It would create opportunities to open our minds and see things from a different perspective.  And it would give us an opportunity to step away from our day to day lives and live a life different from the one we had been living.  A trip like this would require us to step outside of our comfort zone and force us to stretch ourselves personally; we felt we would all grow as individuals and as a family from such an experience.  Clearly I’m not the only one with these thoughts.  I was tagged to write this post by  Gabi from the Nomadic Family.  She wrote in her post “Here on the road, our family has gone through a transformation, a closeness, a growth and maturity that I could have never dreamed of.”

But, remember that wherever you go, there you are.  In other words, just because you’re changing your venue, it doesn’t mean anything else about you is changing, you are just taking it on the road with you.  The same applies to your spouse, partner and kids.  If there are issues between you and your partner, they will come on the road with you – free of charge!  You don’t even have to buy a plane ticket for them.  Your hormonal daughter will still be hormonal in China (maybe more so) and your irresponsible son will still be irresponsible in Argentina.  Long term travel is not one of those things that will “fix” your “falling apart” family, your wounded marriage or your depression with your life.  It can, however, give you a fresh canvas to paint with and a new perspective to paint from.  And sometimes, that’s enough to get a new release on life.

Maybe it doesn’t make a difference whether you are traveling TO something or traveling to get away FROM something – while one or the other may be your initial motivation, the benefits/consequences on the other side will become a part of your life anyway.

The saga continue as  I now tag my friend Lainie who is traveling with her son Miro, at the moment, indefinitely.

THE TRIP YOUR LOVED ONES BEQUEATHED YOU

Settling the estate of a loved one after their death is no easy matter.  First of all, you are grieving, and the last thing you want to think about is mounds of paperwork.  Secondly, those mounds of paperwork often require a skill/aptitude  you have not yet had to master.  Some choose to handle this task by themselves while others hire an attorney who will take care of things for them.  Each family must do what feels right to them.

When my Mother passed away this past November, I received the dubious honor of executor of her estate.  Having been a financial planner in the past, combined with the fact that I had been executor of my Father’s estate six years prior, I chose to do the work myself versus hire it out.  If you can do this, you may save quite a bit of money.  The funeral home sent me a handy “Family Follow-Up Check List” itemizing thirty-four tasks that may need to be attended to.  The list covered everything from sending out acknowledgement cards for donations, food and sympathy cards, to transferring all real estate property.  The list, however, missed a simple item that could give you or your family an unintended gift:  transfer frequent flyer miles!

If the deceased party did any traveling to speak of, they may have had one or more frequent flyer accounts in their name with an account balance that is transferable upon death to one or more of the beneficiaries listed in the will.  And, upon death, the transfer is FREE!  While airlines typically charge you to transfer miles between accounts, that is not the case with someone who is deceased.  If your loved one did a lot of traveling, this could be a windfall – a fully paid ticket for you to a location of your dreams.  Or maybe they only did a small amount of travel but the balance in their account, when added to what is already in yours, is enough to procure a free ticket.  Regardless, it’s worth checking it out and certainly it’s preferable to have the miles in your account than donated back to the airlines.

If you want to transfer the mileage from the account of a deceased individual to yourself, you should contact each airline individually to discover what paperwork they are requiring in order to make the transfer.  Each airline will have their own individual requirements.  It may take a little while before your request is executed but eventually (mine took about 4-6 weeks to complete) you should see the miles deposited into the account you specified for the transfer.  Note that the transfer account does not have to been in your name.  Even though I am the executor of the estate, I had my portion of the US Airways Dividend Miles deposited into my husband’s account where they would be more beneficial to us since I had recently used my miles for a trip to Guatemala.

I’m sure very few people think about leaving a frequent flyer mile legacy to their family; I know my Mother certainly didn’t.  But wouldn’t she be happy to know that her grand-kids will get to go somewhere they might not have gone courtesy of her!

HOW MANY RUPEES WILL YOU NEED?

The Cost? Not as Much as You Think!

As we planned our one year around the world trip, the number one question contemplated by all, but asked by none, was “How can they afford this?” The reason no one asked us this is because in America, it’s just not polite to talk about money. Therefore, the question was not asked to us, just about us. Friends would ask this question to other friends. Those who knew my mother would ask her. People speculated about the cost of this adventure and how it was possible we could afford such an “extravagant” trip. Only one friend, right before leaving, was brave enough to actually confront me and ask me to my face, “How much is this going to cost you?” My reply, “Not as much as you think.”

We live in a very nice home, in a very nice neighborhood in the very affordable city of Cincinnati. We drive a twelve year old minivan and a six year old Toyota Matrix. Our children go to public school and my husband’s favorite clothing store is the local thrift shop.  We own only one TV and the number of other electronics in our house is minimal; and many of those are dated.   We are far from poor, but we are hardly what I would call rich. We make very conscious choices about how we spend our money, making sure our resources go to the things in life that are important to us. Travel is one of those areas we deem important.

Taking this trip was not a spur of the moment thing. It was a seed planted in my brain almost 20 years ago. I can’t say we’ve been consciously saving for this trip that long, but certainly, saving is in both my and my husband’s nature. So money had been meticulously saved for years: for retirement, college education, a rainy day, or maybe even a rainy (or not so rainy) year. When in 2006 we decided to attempt to make this trip a reality by June 2008, we knew money was not going to be what would hold us back.

In India, You Can Live Cheap!

While saving is not difficult for us, it became even easier once the goal was set.  A daily latte at $4.00 is easily forgone when you know that a week’s worth of coffee will pay for one night accommodation in Thailand; a bottle of wine, a ferry ride in Tanzania and an iPad will buy you an entire month in India.  I believe most of us would be amazed at how cheaply we can live when the sacrifice is justifiable.

And just as there are different ways to live our lives, there are all different ways of traveling.  We are not the camping, eating take away out of the supermarket kind of family, but neither are we resort type people. We are somewhere in between – and, of course, there is a lot of somewhere in between.  But we travel like we live our lives; frugally, spending bigger dollars on what’s really important to us.

There were all sorts of ways we kept the cost of our travels low.  We found that by planning out the trip in advance, we were able to save a lot of money, being more organized about our travel. We would meet travelers who hop scotched around, back tracking and circling, creating a need for more flights than would otherwise be required to cover the same countries. We were also able to take advantage of air broker discounts by advance planning. We paid for one flight from Auckland, New Zealand to Buenos Aires, Argentina, which enabled us to stop in Tahiti, Rapa Nui, Chile, and Santiago, Chile. I’m not talking about a stop over, I’m talking about anywhere from an eight to a twenty one day stay in each of the three locations, all on one airfare!

Our 3 Bedroom Apt. in Quito Cost Only $180 Per Week

We rented apartments in any country we visited that had one available to rent.  Not only did it give us a lot more space but typically it was cheaper than a hotel, and, it had a kitchen!  Being able to cook our own meals was a huge cost savings.  We packed lunches and snacks for our day trips and carried our own water bottles so as not to have to purchase expensive drinks along the way.  We took advantage of free museum days and other free activities and festivals discovered along the way.

Can it be done for less than what we paid for our year long adventure?  Yes, without even trying really hard. Avoid the splurges, eat in all the time instead of eating in restaurants, take fewer flights and use more overland transportation (which is not always a guarantee of saving money), don’t buy any souvenirs, don’t ship home the souvenirs you’re not buying, stay in less expensive accommodations, camp, spend more time in less expensive countries and little or no time in the expensive ones.

Before you dismiss the whole idea as a financial impossibility, you need to consider all the things you are not spending money on over the course of the year while you are travelling.  I’m talking about the cost of living at home. In our case, this included: food, eating out, vacations, entertainment (movies, theater tickets, ball game tickets, concerts, etc.), summer camps, clothing, violin rental and lessons, dance classes, skiing lessons, gasoline for our cars, insurance for our cars, phone, cell phones, utilities on the house… Have you ever really thought about how much it costs to live? If you add up all the expenses you won’t have for a year and subtract it from the cost of life on the road for a year, you will discover that your year abroad is just not as expensive as you think; it may even prove to be cheaper!

Some people figure out a way to take their jobs on the road with them.  We, however, quit our jobs in order to travel.  Therefore, our biggest expense was not what we were spending; but what we were not earning by being gainfully employed for the year.  Keep in mind you are not giving up your whole salary, only that portion you actually get to keep. You have this gross salary figure (what you would tell someone you make if they were rude enough to ask). But you really don’t get to keep all of that, do you? Federal Government gets some and the State Government and even your City Government gets a piece of the action. Social Security wants their share as does Medicare. And, if you are paying for a portion of your health insurance, you don’t get to keep that money either. You end up with a net figure – the amount written on your paycheck. That is the amount you are giving up. Still a huge loss, but maybe not as big as you first thought when you were thinking in gross terms.

In the end, the numbers can’t even begin to determine the value of such an experience.  If this is something you want to do, you can make it happen.  And, of course, you will discover the adventure is PRICELESS!

MORE THAN FRENCH FRIES

Having traveled around the world for a year with my children, I will be the first to tell you that if your expectations of travel with children are the same as those of travel without children; then you shouldn’t venture any farther than your own backyard  with your kids.  That said, I would also be the first to tell you that Elaine Ee’s article in CNN GO, 5 Rules of Traveling with Kids, is nonsense.  Maybe the essay is meant to be “cute and sassy,” but she definitely gives the impression that if you don’t plan a vacation around the kids’ wants and needs, you are heading for disaster; and that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

While I could make a case against any and all of the five of points in her article, the one I take the most exception to is the one titled “Travel to a Destination that Serves French Fries.”I whole heartily agree with this statement, if your original intent was to go to France.  But if you had your mind set on someplace else, I wouldn’t let the lack of French Fries, or for that matter, any other typical American Kids’ foods, stand in your way.  The reality is, your children will do just fine wherever you go.

You may beg to differ.  What could I possible know about your children?  You’re right; I know nothing of your children, or anyone else’s.  But I know mine…

Lots of Options but My Child's Not Eating Here

I was blessed with a daughter who is a picky eater.  Trust me, I use that term loosely.  I’m talking a child who is a vegetarian who doesn’t eat vegetables and only a limited number of fruits; a girl who won’t eat pizza since she doesn’t like red sauce; someone who doesn’t eat rice because it has a funny texture.  I mean really, no rice?  You won’t find any food more benign than white rice!  I believe Avocet (my daughter’s name) is in my life for having committed the sin of judging other people’s parenting habits with respect to food, prior to being a parent myself.  Paybacks can be hell!

Eating in a restaurant is a challenge with Avocet.  No hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken nuggets or pizza are going to work for this girl.  So if eating in a restaurant here in the United States is a challenge, whatever made me think we could travel around the world for a year and not come home with a malnourished child?  Nothing!  But I knew I wasn’t going to let my daughter’s eating habits keep us from making our dream come true.

Avocet & Her Peanut Butter - Zanzibar, Tanzania

The first trick was to relieve her of her fear i.e. that of having nothing to eat.  As we researched our itinerary, I would read about the foods of the regions to Avocet.  Invariable there was one food per country she could hang her hat on:  pancakes in The Netherlands, pierogi in Poland, empanadas in Chile etc.  We would also tell her about restaurants we discovered that served “American Fare.”Of course, that wasn’t a huge comfort since American restaurants were a stressful and often unsuccessful dining experience here in the U.S.  Still, her tensions started easing; but not completely until we presented her with her security blanket – a large jar of peanut butter.  Avocet carried a jar of peanut butter with her around the entire globe.  She wouldn’t finish up a jar until a replacement had been purchased.  We learned to say peanut butter in quite a few different languages and were able to find it in every country we visited with the exception of Argentina.

Italy's Version of Bread & Cheese - Rome

Given the fact that almost all countries have some form of bread and cheese:  grilled cheese, cheese toasty, Panini, cheese empanadas etc., Avocet became a connoisseur in this area.  She also learned how to order pizza without sauce (pizza sin salsa in Espanol) in multiple languages so she could order a white pizza; another form of bread and cheese.  Pasta with only olive oil and garlic, know in Italian as Pasta Aglio Olio, was another standard and once again we learned to order this in a number of languages.  Frankly, I was completely bored with her diet, but she was just thrilled to be eating!

If we had to eat three meals a day for 365 days in restaurants, I don’t know if we could have done it.  Fortunately, eight out of the twelve months we traveled, we stayed in apartments, which enabled us to cook our own meals.  It is much easier to find a variety of healthy (or semi-healthy) foods for a picky eater in a supermarket, than it is in a restaurant.  If we were willing to splurge, we could often find American products, like cereal, which we bought when it wasn’t too great of an expense.  Since we were saving money by not eating in restaurants, we could justify the luxury a little more readily.

Dinner: Papas Puree - Valparaiso, Chile

At a minimum, we knew Avocet could obtain her calories from sweets.  She has almost never met a dessert she didn’t like.  And, after all, cake is just bread with a little added sugar right?  For the most part, we didn’t have to sink that low, but there were a few Nutella and bread meals here and there.

In the end, we made it clear around the world with a healthy and still growing daughter.  She even picked up an appreciation for additional food items along the way, like cucumbers in China.  Avocet learned she could venture out of her own backyard and not starve and we reinforced our belief that our children’s needs should be considered when making our travel plans but not control them.  Everyone came out a winner.

And, it was all done without a single French Fry!

When it comes to a difference of opinion with Elaine Ee’s CNN GO article, I am not alone.  See what others have to say…

ADIOS LA ANTIGUA

Este blog es para mi sobrino Arik. 

Mi tiempo en La Antigua es asodo.  Yo fui en La Antigua aprender Espanol y Yo aprendi Espanol: no una cantidad inmensa pero mucho.  Mi gusta Guatemala mucho.  El pais es muy bonito y las personas son muy simpaticos.  La Antigua tiene mucho proponer y yo creo cualquier personas les gusta aqui mucho.  Adios La Antigua.

FACEBOOK AT ITS BEST

I’m not a big Facebook user.  I’ve only searched for a “friend” once, mostly relying on others to find me.  And if they don’t, that’s OK too.  I enjoy popping on now and then to see what’s going on or to post a status, but I find Facebook to be a big time sucker, so I do try to avoid it most days.  But sometimes it’s priceless.

I belong to a Facebook group called Families on the Move.  It’s for families who have, are or will be traveling long term.  It’s a wonderful group where families support each other in their travels, offer tips, create joint venture writing projects, ask questions…It’s a wealth of information rolled into one neat customized package.  Prior to my recent trip to Antigua, Guatemala, I placed a post in my Families on the Move Group:  “I’ll be in Antigua from January 5-23, if anyone will be traveling through, would love to meet up.”And sure enough, there was a reply.

Marina

Marina lives in Antigua as a US expat.  She is married to a Guatemalan man and they are raising their two children here in Antigua.  She is an expert on travel in Central America and maintains a blog and website on the area as well as offers travel services for those seeking help in planning their Central American trips.  (www.travelexperta.com).  And, she responded to my Facebook status regarding meeting up in Antigua.

On a cool Wednesday night, Marina met up with me at a restaurant here in town.  She brought along three of her friends (also expats) to join in the “festivities.”For three hours we shared food, wine and “women talk.”It was like having a mom’s night out, Guatemala style; it was a delight.  And, it was all possible because of Facebook!

In the past, I met many people when traveling, but it was all by chance.  Never could you plan on meeting up with a person somewhere in the world unless you already knew them.  With Facebook, you can create encounters before you even know someone.  Clearly you have to be careful, but the opportunity exists for amazing adventures.  Facebook is helping to make the world a smaller and friendly place.