Europe with Five: Gelato, Gondolas, and More
By Mike Chan

 My wife Mae and I decided several years ago we wanted our kids to have a global view of the world. In order to do so, we would need to expose them to different cultures. These cultural excursions would need to be timed just so; if they were too young, they wouldn’t remember anything, and beyond a certain age they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with uncool parents. This left us with a narrow window. Such a window opened up about 4 years ago when Gregory, Kevin, and Lauren were 7, 9, and 11.

EASING INTO IT

We started off slowly with a trip to Vancouver, Canada. Canada had just enough differences (metric system, strange spellings) but was enough like America that the transition wouldn’t be too hard. Vancouver had the right touch of English culture for that first realization that the rest of the world isn’t like home.

Next up in our indoctrination process was a 3-week tour of Australia in 2002. Australia turned out to be the perfect next step culturally since it was like Canada, but more exotic and culturally diverse. The kids were able to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, throw boomerangs at an Aboriginal cultural center, hike the rain forest. It was a perfect precursor to Europe, slated for June 2004.

EUROPE, HERE WE COME!

Since I had spent 3 months trekking through 12 different European countries after college, and Mae and I had honeymooned there for a month, the best choice was to plan this trip ourselves. The trip total was approximately $12,000 or $2,400 per person including food and souvenirs. During our planning process, we narrowed our 3-week timeframe down to the following itinerary:

London – 5 nights
Rome – 4 nights
Venice – 2 nights
Overnight Train – 1 night
Grindelwald, Switzerland – 3 nights
Paris – 4 nights
London – 1 night

AIR TRAVEL

Airfares to Europe continue to be a great bargain. The first time I flew to Europe in 1978, I paid $441 round trip on standby. This year, 26 years later, we paid $590 roundtrip. The base airfare was $504. Most of this additional expense was for the security and airport fees that weren’t as extensive as back in 1978.

Airfares within Europe are also a great bargain and can save lots of travel time. We flew from London to Rome on Ryanair for $18 per person (without taxes and fees) one way. To travel by train would have cost hundreds of dollars more and would have cost us a whole day in travel time compared to our two-and-a-half hour flight. Tourists tend to travel from west to east in Europe so we decided to fly to Rome and go against the grain.

RAIL

Rail travel is a lot better than it was 25 years ago. Our connections from Rome to Venice, Grindelwald, Switzerland to Paris, and Paris to London were aboard high-speed, Eurostar trains. These trains are capable of speeds of 185 m.p.h. but run as smooth as silk. Most feature food service and airline-style seating.

Our only bad experience was the overnight trip from Venice to Grindelwald on an older train. Not only did the trip take twice as long as a daytime rail (did they made the train go slower so we could "sleep" 8 hours?) but the air conditioning was broken. Our kids still cringe when we talk about the "sleep train" where we were soaked in sweat, in stifling heat and were packed in 6 per cabin.

Getting around town was easy using the underground systems in London, Rome, and Paris. Purchasing a Family Travelcard in London and a Carnet of 10 tickets in Paris saved time and money, about 25 percent less compared to purchasing single tickets. In Rome, the subway tickets work on city buses. Maps were simple to decipher so our kids became our navigators.

We made all reservations for air and rail via the Internet at such sites as www.expedia.com , www.ryanair.com and www.raileurope.com . I would suggest locking in your fares several months ahead for the best deals.

LODGING

We also booked all hotel accommodations on the Internet and via email. We had considered staying at youth hostels to save costs but discovered that since you are charged per head, there wasn’t a big difference in price between staying at a hostel versus a budget hotel. Hostels also have strict hours and housekeeping duties that we didn’t want to hassle with.

Our budget hotels were rated 2-3 stars (on a scale of 1-5) and were very comfortable. In Europe, such accommodations run $150-300 per night. On average, our family of five paid $200 nightly. Considering we stayed in some of the most expensive cities on Earth, I suppose that could be reasonable. Still, for our Holiday Inn-style of travel, European budget hotel prices came as quite a shock.

Finding a room or suite for five people was also a challenge. Most hotel rooms are double occupancy, with an occasional triple or quad room. Sometimes we had to request a rollaway bed, other places they had a junior suite that worked well. These rooms tend to go quickly so making advance reservations is very important.

Mae’s favorite hotel was the Bernardi Semenzato ( www.hotelbernardi.com ) in Venice. The hotel is a refurbished mansion that still had touches of the original Venician craftsmanship. We also enjoyed the fact that it is in a part of Venice that still has strong local flavor.

My favorite places were the Somerset Roland in London ( www.the-ascott.com ) and Chalet Wartstein in Switzerland ( email peter.kolb@surfeu.ch ). The Somerset is in a stately, non-touristy part of London called Kensington. For $260, we rented a 2-bedroom apartment that also had a kitchen. Chalet Wartstein, at $85 per night, is a Swiss farmhouse occupied by a family who lived on the first floor while we rented the spacious upstairs. The chalet had a kitchen plus a gorgeous view of the Alps.

DINING

Eating out in Europe can be an expensive proposition. Besides the ubiquitous crepe stands in Paris or the pizza places in Rome, hunting down a reasonable restaurant often was difficult. However, there are some things a family can do to mitigate costs. If your hotel or apartment has a kitchen, this can save you substantial amounts for breakfast and dinner.

For example, eating a modest meal out in Paris cost us around $70 for our family of five. However, we bought our own ingredients and made stew with rice in Switzerland for $15. Many hotels provide a filling continental breakfast as part of the room rate. Pubs provide sustantial meals in London for around $5. Paris has many "Asian bistros" that offer good quality Cantonese dishes, even dim sum, at all hours of the day.

The pizza and pasta is so good in Rome that our kids didn’t mind eating these dishes over and over. Our favorite respite from the heat in Rome was gelato and there was no place better for us than Il Gelatone on Via Serpenti, also near the Coliseum. The variety and intensity of flavors was amazing. Some of our favorite flavors were nocciola, stracciatella, bosco, and melone (hazelnut, vanilla chip, berry blend and watermelon respectively). We had gelato everyday while in Italy, sometimes twice a day.

LOOKING BACK

When asked what she learned from our trip, Lauren, our 15-year old, said she was surprised how OLD things were in Europe. One hundred years old, ancient by our standards, is nothing compared to places like the 2,000 year-old Pantheon in Rome.

Kevin, 13, enjoyed the peaceful beauty of the Swiss Alps as well as the laid back lifestyle of the Swiss. "It seems like a giant farm" was his way of describing Switzerland as well as the chalet we stayed at.

Gregory, 11, the inquisitive one, still remembers the history of each place. Since he is the family gourmet, he also learned to appreciate how good the food was: gelato, pizza, sausage, pasta, croissants, even the lunch meats were better in Europe.

Mae said that her idea of "big" is different now after seeing the immensity of the Coliseum, Forum, and monument to Victor Emmanuel. This was her first trip to Rome. She also noticed the innovations in each country that have yet to hit the States: toilets with a #1 and #2 button, showers with a temperature knob, and heated towel racks.

I wanted our kids to come away from our trip with a greater appreciation of different cultures and to teach them a fun and economical style of travel so they could do the same thing on their own. Most importantly, I wanted to instill in them a curiosity about the world around them. When I recently asked Gregory, "Would you like to go back to Europe?"

Greg’s response was: "Not until I’ve seen the rest of the world". I think we’re making progress.

****

BEFORE YOU GO, REMEMBER TO...

  • Respect the reality of jet lag. Don’t plan to do too much the first few days..
  • Pack as light as possible. Most of the stuff you think you need, you don’t. A backpack works well since many subway stations don’t have elevators, and you have to deal with lots of stairs.
  • Have a good itinerary, but be flexible. Museums may not be open, markets closed, and the weather may be nasty.
  • Wake up well rested and travel until the kids are tired.
  • Remember that pickpockets are a serious problem. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t underestimate the ingenuity of these professionals. Mae had her watch stolen while still on her arm. I had a digital camera stolen from a fanny pack that I wore in front. Train stations and subways are particularly dangerous. Use a neck or waist pouch under your clothing for your valuables.
  • Catch up on your email via local Internet centers and many McDonalds. The cost is about $1 for 20-30 minutes. We actually found an Internet laundry in Rome.
  • Carry a shawl or lightweight pair of jogging pants. Many churches require men to cover their legs and women their shoulders.
  • Try to speak the native language; even a few phrases can open doors.
  • Bring a diary and record your thoughts. Give one to each child.
  • Let the kids decide where to go and what to do on occasion. Plan at least one special activity/event based on each one's interests.

NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES:

Mike and the Chan clan live in Sunnyvale and are already planning a trip to Asia in a couple of years. This is his first article for BAFT.

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