500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up

Or, 500 Tacky Tourist Traps it might be better to avoid.

I guess you can tell from my sub title I’m a little underwhelmed with this book. It’s a disappointing offering from Frommer. I’ll cover what I think are the major flaws of the book.

First of all, it’s organised by themes. So chapter one is “awesome vistas’, chapter two is “exploring the scenery” right through “walk with animals” to “budding scientists” to “rides and thrills at the end”. Don’t get me wrong the themes sound great. The problem is that for each theme they then pick one or two highlights from each continent basically. This creates a kind of artificial selection, so that for theme parks we have Lunar Park in Sydney as the major offering (eh?) rather than focusing on the fact that the Gold Coast has a cluster of whizzie woo woo theme parks (and that maybe a park like Wet ‘n’ Wild Water World is more iconic of Australia). There are quite a few choices in the book that felt like this type of token gesture to me. I mean, really did someone pick Lunar Park of wikipedia?  I can’t think of any other plausible reason for it’s inclusion.

The other problem with themes is that it isn’t how you actually travel. You travel geographically. While there is a small  geographical index at the back, it was almost like an after thought. There were maps provided of all the major countries but while the main cities were marked, none of the actual attractions or destinations were. I’m not sure what purpose they thought these maps were going to serve but they certainly don’t help you to work out where to go.

Let’s take an example of a family visiting New Zealand. You want to know what things you must see. It’s a long way to get to NZ from anywhere, so you don’t want to miss out on anything, right? In the index fro NZ the attractions we have listed are: Fiordlands National Park, Mount Cook (ahem, correct name Aoraki or at the very least Aoraki/Mt Cook), Rotorua, Stewart Island and Wellington Cable Car. If you’ve never been to NZ before, you might well wonder where these things are. Well, don’t use the maps in this book, on NZ it has marked: The North Island, Wellington, The South Island, and Stewart Island. Now we have been to NZ several times. In fact Super Gizmo man had to take Beckham across the ditch just a couple of weeks ago. I did the planning and listed all the places they really should visit depending on where they got flights. In the end they flew in and out of Wellington. Not once, not once did it even cross my mind as a merest flicker that they ‘really should go on the cable car’. If you are in Wellington with kids, the places you should make a bee line for are Te Papa which is the fabulous national museum and the Karori Santuary. If you need a bit of public transport excitement, then Wellington has the only public trolley bus system in Australasia.

Another problematic aspect of the book is it’s US centric focus. Now I am sure that the US is an amazing place to visit but the mere fact that a whole chapter is devoted to “Settling America” is pretty telling. Especially when American places dominate the other categories as well. Maybe a better title would have been “Places American’s should consider taking their kids”.

Compounding the disappointing nature of the places selected is the fact that the selections seem to focus on major cities and traditional tourist destinations. I confirmed this with my flick through of their choices fro France and Italy. D’uh oh! We neglected to go to almost all of the places they mentioned. Give me Pienza any day over Rome for an amazing cultural experience for kids. Famous Bridges selected were the historic choices of the Tower Bridge, London and Le Pont Neuf, Paris. Where is the hair raising Millau Viaduct (France) the tallest vehicular bridge in the world? Or the Forth Railway bridge in Glasgow, the first bridge and major structure in the UK to be built of steel ? Instead the choices are those found in any travel agents brochures. There are no hidden gems waiting to be discovered. Instead this book follows a very paint by numbers approach to exploring the planet. Hard to believe this is published by the same company as the brilliant “with your family” travel series. Save your money for those or the much glossier Travel with Kids by William Gray.

Bag Weigh In

Remembering we need 7kg per bag or less:

City Hall: 5.5kg

Beckham: 6 kg

Leonardo: 6.5 kg (after we took out the wetsuit – LOL)

SGM: 9.5kg

Me: 10.5 kg *ahem* *blush* *yes, well, um*

In my pathetic defense I do have things in there that won’t be going to Europe like a full bottle of conditioner and my heavy shoes and.. and… I’m sure there’s more heavy stuff.


The good news is – that’s four of our bags in one very small car boot / trunk. (mine was *ahem* still being packed).

Of course as we are merely going away for a week, not all the way around Europe, so we also have a huge trailer also fully loaded.


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The best laid plans of mice and men

Tax accountant
Image by midom via Flickr

This week we had a discussion with our soon-to-be-former tax accountant. It turns out our tax bill is significantly larger than we expected. I have spent a few days in shock and now I’m desperately trying to save our travel plans. We are determined still to go to Europe, the question at this point is do we forge ahead in August or do we cancel and start again next year? It’s a very tough call. If we do go ahead, then the game plan on the trip will have changed significantly. We will be looking for much cheaper accommodation, transport and sigh seeing activities. It’s not going to be he holiday we imagined at all.

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Books can be Lemons

It continues to be a bazillion degrees here and I’m still Miss Crankypants. I guess not every book I order can be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but I wanted to tell you what not to buy. The book in question is called ” Driving in Europe 101″ [amtap amazon:asin=1599754894] This is one instance where the product description on Amazon is better written and more informative than the actual product. The book itself promises “Your fun and easy guide to planning a driving vacation through Europe” and “Everything you will need to know to take that driving vacation through Europe including planning suggestions, to-do lists, document requirements and conversion tables..” and  “With the clear explanations and expert advice in this friendly guide , you will discover just how easy it is to drive the streets of European countries”.

Credit Card Tolls are the default
Image by erik jaeger via Flickr

Well, obviously it sold me. I am just a little bit nervous about driving in Europe. What with driving on the opposite side of the road, different signs and road rules. I am quite keen to follow those road rules. I don’t  want to pay large fines or get arrested, in fact it’s a rather high priority. I was really hoping this book was going to put my mind at ease. One of the things I was a bit nervous about was how the toll road system would work in Italy and France. I’d really like to be prepared to deal with it before we get there. I flipped through this  book to the pages on France and here’s what it had to say about the tolls in France,

“Tolls are Levied on most Highways (autoroutes).”

Ooooooookaaaaaay. Not as informative as I’d hoped. How about Italy? The book says,

“Most of the limited access roads (Autostrada) are toll roads. You pay with cash or with a major credit card. Like an ATM , you will have to read or hear instructions from the tollbooth credit card machine in Italian. Unlike an ATM, there will probably be a long line of impatient people behind you. Cash and a pleasant smile may get you through the toll gates most expeditiously, but plastic is always an option if short on cash”.

So after reading that I basically went from mildly anxious to completely petrified at the thought of enormous queues of irate Italians piling up behind us while we desperately try to figure out mysterious spoken Italian instructions. I think in this case, denial was actually better. 

Just as a comparison, here’s a sneak preview of a completely different series of books. These books are written to give kids “fascinating facts and stories” about different countries. The one on France has this to say about toll roads,

“Many of France’s motorways are “toll roads”… On some you get a ticket and have to pay at the end of the motorway., on others you pay several times along the way at barriers. Epect your driver to frequently whinge about how much it costs! If you have the correct money you simply throw it into a type of metal basket by the side of the toll booth. This is the fun bit and should definitely be tried if your hot, cross driver will let you. The machines are very sensitive and weigh the money, so they know if the wrong coins (or something that is not even a coin)are thrown in, in which case the barriers will stay firmly locked down”. [amtap amazon:asin=1860111556]

You know, I hate to knock the little guys but “Driving in Europe 101” is a self-published type book and it really shows. It really needed much better editing and there simply isn’t enough worth while content in it. Despite the translations into European languages of obscure excuses used by drivers involved in unusual accidents, the humour of the book fell sadly flat in my opinion. At first I thought the book was a bit on the smarmy side but then after going back and reading it from the beginning I decided it was down right patronising. For example on the very first page of the introduction, Bowman says.
“Pull your son’s globe of the shelf. That’s the big-ball-thingie you purchased thinking your son would absorb geographic knowledge by osmosis if you simply put it by his bed”.
If I’d read that first page in the book store I would have put the book right back on the shelf where it belonged. Save your money and make a donation to Wikipedia instead.

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The Holy Grail of Family Travel Guide Books

After Christmas I went and did the rounds of our local libraries, I have to confess I was hoping to find a guide book along the lines of “Where to Stay in Europe if you Accidentally take Your Children”. It became painfully obvious that our local libraries are not inundated with families travelling to Europe, hmmmm. One of our libraries had a copy of the excellent Take Your Kids to Europe, 7th: How to Travel Safely (and Sanely) in Europe with Your Children

This is a fantastic book which I can’t recommend enough. After I finished reading through the library copy I realised I had bookmarked every second page and so it was necessary to buy our own copy. It is absolutely loaded with information and is a fantastic resource in planning a trip in general. However, there are a few areas where I wanted even more specific information. Although Harriman encourages families to travel “off the beaten track” because of the scope of the book, she does not go into details about specific locations. There are recommendations scattered throughout the book but for the most part, the book is about managing the trip. Also Harriman’s emphasis is on going for as long as you can rather than squeezing as much as you can into a short space of time.

Young Rick Steves convert
Image by eugene via Flickr

Another guide book series that is excellent in terms of getting off the beaten track are the books by Rick Steves and Co.  These are great in that he is all about travelling very economically without necessarily backpacking (and you can find location specific advice). He does include information for families in each book but overall his target audience are “mature travellers” and those requiring standard accommodation for one or two people. Plus guidebooks for specific locations.

The best guidebooks for details about sights to see are the Eyewitness Travel Guides by DK.  These are stunningly beautiful books with illustrations of all the best sights and loads of historical information. They are like having a tour guide on tap and I think particularly helpful in deciding which sights you want to see in a particular area. However, I wouldn’t rely on them for affordable accommodation or even eating recommendations.

All of these guidebooks are great and I’m using all of them, however none of them could be classified as Family Travel Guidebook Nirvana. But I did not despair. Well, ok, actually I did despair, quite a lot. But I did not give up and my intrepid searches on Amazon were finally rewarded by finding the Holy Grail of Family Travel guide books. Frommers have just published an entire series of books for families and they are brilliant!!!

You can find the list of Frommer’s with Families guide books here:

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.