Happy Box Day to us!

In Homeschooling land, box day is when the boxed curriculum you ordered finally turns up in the mail. Our box day was a little different – all of our Rick Steve’s luggage turned up! It kind of counts as curriculum materials seeing as it is going to contribute to the education of the Applets, right?

We decided in for a penny, in for a pound with the Rick Steves luggage. We wanted to be able to maximise the amount of packing space, while keeping things light. We also hope it will last us a while and that one day the Applets may use it to do their own tours of Europe.

It wasn’t until I had the slate blue bag on my bag that I suddenly realised how very Star Trek the colours of the bags are. How appropriate for boldly going!

A good Atlas is hard to find

In “The Island of Lost Maps” [amtap amazon:asin=0767908260] Miles Harvey documents both the history of maps and the ever increasing value of cartographic collections today. I’m sure the publishers of Atlases have taken this to heart and consider their books as collectors items. Unlike our favourite book of road maps, an Atlas isn’t something you want to upgrade every year. When I was growing up my parents had a beautiful Reader’s Digest Atlas complete with illustrations of space and amazing pictures of the sea floor. Naturally the first place I went to look for an Atlas was Reader’s Digest . Well, it turns out you can’t view the pages online. I weighed up receiving junk mail from Reader’s Digest for the next 50 years and decided surely somebody else must produce a decent Atlas? 

It was at this point my obsession with Atlases became almost like the characters in Harvey’s novel. I scoured bookshops and map shops trying to find the perfect Atlas. I used the South Island of New Zealand as my test case to measure the level of detail in each Atlas. Nothing under $200 seemed to match what I had in mind. Do not even get me started on the whole which “Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World” edition is best debate.[amtap amazon:asin=0007157207]

While we were looking at atlases in a map shop, I suddenly realised that what we wanted was not a World Atlas but simply a road atlas for Europe. For a fraction of the price we could get the required level of detail for route planning, including travel times! In the end we went with the Insight Travel Atlas, which is very similar to both the Michelin and Frommer’s versions. [amtap amazon:asin=2067129953][amtap amazon:asin=0764557823]

A short time after buying the road atlas, I came across a beautiful 1982 edition of the Reader’s Digest Atlas of the World in an Op shop for $5. It has a fairly good close up of the South Island in NZ and the pictures of space and the ocean floor. Admittedly it still has West and East Germany, but that in itself is a fascinating historical detail. If you want to see just how far we have come with maps and Atlases, another fascinating book is [amtap amazon:asin=1582974640]

Digitalk SP103AA Personal Mobile Radio

Adelong Computers Digitalk SP103AA Personal Mobile Radio TWIN PACK With Mains Charger.

We’ve added these to our wish list today. One of the key features of these walkie talkies is the “vox” function. This allows it to operate like a baby monitor i.e. transmission is triggered by voices or sounds. 

We’ve had a much cheaper pair of walkie talkies which we have taken camping with us. Sadly they no longer work particularly well (one of the pair can receive but not broadcast). When they did work they were ideal for using in campgrounds, large playgrounds and also when travelling in separate vehicles. 

These much flasher walkie talkies can be accessorized with throat mics(!) which should bring out the Spy Kids in all of us.
Digitalk SP103AA

Choosing an Airline

I have come to the conclusion that planning a trip is mainly about choosing where not to go. When you first decide to fly halfway around the planet, all sorts of interesting possibilities present themselves. Perhaps a round-the-world airfare? Fly via the USA and Canada one way and Asia on the return trip? I’d even gone so far as to schedule into the calendar the dates when there were fireworks at Niagara Falls. The problem with stop overs is that they cost more money and take more time. Initially when it appeared that SGM might have to fly back early (yikes), we planned a stop over in Hong Kong for the trip home. I figured as I’d done Hong Kong before, we could manage that. Once SGM decided he was staying for the duration, I revisited the accommodation options for Hong Kong. Unfortunately with the five of us, there were not a lot of options. As much as I love Hong Kong, it was simply going to be too expensive to make it worth while this time.

One of the major factors in working out where you can have a stop over, is choosing which airline to fly. If we’d really wanted to stop over in Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific would have been the logical choice. While they were ok to fly, I wasn’t exactly overcome with rampant euphoria at the thought of flying with them again. So it was back to the drawing board to look at the options we had for flights.

Most airlines release their “earlybird” international airfares about 11 – 10 months in advance. A month or so ago my friend who is an ex-travel agent, strongly advised me to start looking online and visiting the local travel agents to see what airfares were available. Well, don’t ask me how travel agents these days make any money but they certainly weren’t any help to me.

“Five of you? Five? Right, you’ll need at least two hotel rooms”

That was about as helpful as it got. I did however pick up a brochure for the Flight Centre “Discover Europe Travel Show”. The travel agent informed me that I would might be able to book flights on the day of the expo (our return date was at that stage eleven months out).

Dutifully a few weeks later I turned up at the Discover Europe Expo. Wow! No sign of a recession here. The place was absolutely packed. Considering this was a travel show organised by one travel agency, I was fairly impressed. Still, a quick look around confirmed that families with school age children are not the target demographic. Backpackers, students and retirees made up 99.9% of the people in attendance. In fact, it was so crowded I decided the best plan of action was to grab as many of the brochures and fliers as possible and then take them home. If there was an amazing airfare deal I decided we needed, I would drive back into town.

Once I got all the fliers with the airfares back home, I compared them with the airfares being offered by the airlines on their websites. Now, one of the not so insignificant advantages of booking with a travel agent is that you only have to pay a deposit to start with and presumably you can make changes to your airfares. What I discovered was that the airfares for the expo had to be booked on the day and paid for by the end of the week. They were also pretty much in line with the prices on the internet. In other words, there was no real benefit in booking at the expo. I also discovered that online, most of the airlines now included right through to October on their booking calendar. This meant the pressure was on to make a decision about airfares.

There are a couple of search engines that let you compare prices for different airlines. Webjet and Zuji are two popular ones. Once I’d got the general idea of who were offering the best deals though, I found it easier to use the individual airlines’ websites. I also at this point did something very daft. I looked at reviews of airlines. Don not ever bother with this. They all score abysmally. I think the highest any major airline scored was 4.3 out of 10. You could spend a lifetime reading the horror stories of airline travellers but this has to be one instance where reading the reviews simply doesn’t help.

When we had been considering flying from Melbourne to Paris, we’d seriously considered flying with Air France. Something we discovered about Air France is that their children’s airfares are 67% of the adult fares (as compared to 75% of most other airlines). However, we changed our mind and decided we were going to fly into Italy instead. This would mean only having to drive through France in one direction instead of doing a circuit of the entire country.

The airline that offered the cheapest airfares to Rome by a country mile was Emirates. I was all set to book with Emirates when my Dad asked me what their cancellation policy was. Ah, the fine print. The following day we had friends over for lunch. When we mentioned we were planning to fly into Rome they were aghast. They wanted to know if we were going to pick up our rental car from Rome. We explained that we knew the driving in Rome was bad, but we would be going straight from the Airport, and really it wasn’t going to be that bad… was it?

That night I went back to the Citroen Drive Europe web site to check where we could pick up our car from. I realised that Milan was an alternative. When I checked the airfares, I discovered it was $1,000 cheaper to fly into Milan with Singapore Airlines than it was to fly into Rome. So now Singapore Airlines was a serious contender.

Even though it was cheaper to fly into Milan, Singapore Airlines still wasn’t as cheap as Emirates. So now we had to work out if we could justify the extra dollars to fly with Singapore Airlines.

Emirates Pros:

  1. Very cheap
  2. Dubai stopovers
Emirates Cons:
  1. Dubai Stopovers
  2. Children’s airpoints program impossible to sign up for online. Some kind of form would have to be printed off and faxed to the headquarters in Australia
  3. Cancellation fee about $500 per ticket
  4. Very strict dimensions for carry on luggage – Economy Class passengers are permitted one (1) piece of carry-on baggage, subject to the following size and weight limitations:22 x 15 x 8 INS (55 x 38 x 20 cm). Weight must not exceed 15 lbs (7 kg). What is important to note there is the width of 8 inches. Almost no carry on luggage (suitcase style) is that narrow. Most are 9 or 10 inches wide. 
Singapore Airlines Pros:
  1. Singapore Stopovers
  2. Check in up to 48 hours before flight, by SMS, or online, or downtown Singapore – so less queuing
  3. Carry on luggage dimensions must be 45 inches or less (w + h + d)
  4. Singapore Airlines was also much clearer about what could be brought on board the aircraft in addition to the luggage allowance
  5. Arrive at a better time of day (morning rather than late afternoon)
  6. Ticket cancellation fee about $300 per ticket
Singapore Cons:
  1. More expensive
Once we’d looked at the check in options for Singapore, we were sold on them. When you have small kids, the less time spent at the airport standing in queues the better. 

Travel Gurus

One of the most influential travel guides I have read when researching this trip, is Rick Steves’ Europe through the Back Door. [amtap book:isbn=1598801082] Rick Steves seems to have a huge fan base and I think it’s entirely justified.

One of the key concepts is being less “touristy”. This means travelling off the beaten path, viewing the main sites – but doing it efficiently, and taking more time just to experience everyday life in Europe. This has really influenced our decision making process. It’s a terrible confession but we may not do every major monument in Europe! What’s more, we are trying to reduce the number of each type of tourist attraction. I suspect where we will bomb out on badly will be the theme parks and the museums, but the rest will be strictly rationed. We will be saving our sight seeing for a few select castles, and a few select cathedrals etc. I am thinking we can do without an hours journey each way just to see the leaning tower of Pisa. I know! I know! Total sacrilege! But I also figure the kids will get bitten by the travel bug, and that there will be plenty of time for them to come back and see the big monuments.

The other influential concept is to pack light. Rick Steves’ heavily promotes the idea of only taking carry-on luggage. I will talk some more about this in later posts. What we did decide very early on is that we were also going to be committed to taking over only carry-on luggage. Note: I did not say there we will not bring stuff back. I think this is an important distinction considering the last time we flew back from the UK I had several rolls of wallpaper border and a Winnie The Pooh lamp shade from Mothercare tucked into my suitcase. Or rather, taking up most of my suitcase.
Winnie the pooh lampshade
I just put that in there as I was having a nostalgia moment and so that you can see how smuggle worthy Winnie the Pooh is. Luckily for SGM, we now have entirely halogen lighting, which diminishes the need to bring back random light fittings. The rest of this however, I consider fair game…

Mad as Pants

You’d have to be mad as pants to fly from Australia to Europe with three kids in tow. Completely bonkers. I mean, it costs a serious amount of money. 

“Contestant number two, would you like to take a five minute family vacation to Europe or own a small African nation?”

This is not helped by us having three kids, which these days seems to count as a whole tribe.

“No seriously, I think you should consider the African Nation – you’ve got most of a tribe yourself after all.”

And so on revealing to people that we are planning to go to Europe next year, we are often met with some very startled glances. Most people are very keen to know what made us decide to do that. Have we in fact secretly won the lottery? Nope. But we have discovered a very unusual method of paying for things – it’s called saving. Oh all right, we aren’t financial geniuses but an auto savings plan does make a huuuuuuge difference in our case. The money that we don’t see doesn’t get spent on gadgets.

But why go to Europe at all? Well, the number one reason is that we have family over there. And a sprinkling of friends we’ve been meaning to catch up with as well. Apparently after three trips by the rellies over here, it is now our turn to visit. And the lure of Europe is strong. The wonderful mind stretching adventure of travel, with the added bonus of culture. language, art and shopping. Seriously there is no greater educational experience than travel. 

As Jean Luc Picard said,

“Time is a companion that goes with us on a journey. It reminds us to cherish each moment, because it will never come again. What we leave behind is not as important as how we have lived.”

We might be mad as pants, but we will have lived.