Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Travel 'Must-Haves'

Along the wall in Dubrovonik, Croatia
I have been feeling rather nostalgic lately for travel, especially after looking at all the pictures from my friends' travels overseas. I was talking to a friend still stationed in Germany, and we got into a fun chat about all the places we have visited and the things we were sure to bring along every time. I thought it would be fun to respond to my nostalgia by putting together a list of those things we were sure to have with us on our adventures - a short list of 'must-haves', if you will.

Big R and I share a passion for travel. I am convinced it is something that drew us together. So our travels started long before we were living in Europe, but being there definitely upped the ante and solidified our must-haves list.

Arriving in Hallstat, Austria

First and foremost, we travel light. By light, I mean truly down to the minimums. We spent a week in Europe together with a small backpack each. True, it was May, but when we took a November trip to Normandy, the story was the same. Life is different when you travel - you wear less and your priorities are different on an hour to hour basis. I have to mention, too, adding kids to the mix was a huge game-changer and required us to add a few more items to that list of must-haves.  So, I added a couple items at the bottom that we make sure to bring along to keep our sanity in check while we travel with kids in tow.

1. Favorite Guidebook. Our favorite guidebook, hands down, is Rick Steves. Backdoor travel is our game, and he is the pro at every turn. There are many great guidebooks out there though, and to save money, I would always plan a visit to the library the week before our trip and grab the best guidebooks available for our destination. You can download guidebooks onto your kindle or Nook as well, but we found that it was better to have an actual book in hand to look at the maps and find resources quickly.

2. Reservations. This is a BIG one. By this, I don't mean a reservation for every meal or anything that ridiculous, but definitely have hotel reservations taken care of way before hand. We did this MONTHS in advance using our favorite online booking (e.g.,,, tripadvisor, etc.). Not only is this the best way to ensure you don't blow your entire budget on accommodations, it relieves a ton of stress especially if you are traveling in a foreign location. We did our first backpacking trip to Europe without a single reservation and I immediately decided I was getting far too old for that kind of stress. It's not worth it. Just always be sure to know the cancellation policy, and pay a little extra for flexible fares. If you are traveling with babies, most hotels will have baby cots, and it's worth the extra cost for that as well!

Also, reservations are often needed for popular museums, political buildings, etc., so check ahead to be sure you don't miss out because you didn't know you needed a reservation months in advance. Lastly, many locations are great to see with a tour. We booked a bike tour of Rome and it was one of our favorite ways to see a city. Yep, RESERVATIONS are a must.

3. GPS / Directions. If we were renting a car or driving to our destination(s), we never left home without our GPS with addresses already pre-programmed in. We also brought maps when we could print them off because the GPS was notoriously wrong (e.g., our GPS kept wanting us to drive through the Alhambra to get to our hotel in Granada - clearly that was not going to work).

4. Small travel bag. We always made sure to bring along a bag for day trips. Whether it was a small backpack, messenger bag, or large purse, we always made sure to have one. That's where I kept our wallets, camera, snacks, guidebook, etc. I finally found the perfect bag that worked for us while we were living in Germany. I still use it all the time.

5. Two pair of shoes. Shoes are always a huge pain on vacations because they are awkward and bulky to pack. Despite that, I brought two pairs on every trip, and this is why: regardless of how comfortable your shoes are, if you wear them every day for 4 days of constant walking, you will get blisters no fail. I would plan my "outfits" to alternate with my shoes each day. This saved my feet every trip.

6. Sunglasses. NEVER leave home without them regardless of what time of year it is. We forgot them for a trip to Copenhagen because it was supposed to be cooler and it was overcast when we left Germany. That was a HUGE mistake. Nothing worse than a headache on your trip from squinting. Believe me, make sure to pack your sunglasses in that extra bag.

7. Cords for charging electronics / Adapter plugs for international travel. These are an easy thing to forget, and not having them can be a huge problem (especially if you have kids!). Be double sure to pack at least one cord and adapter plug every time you travel.

8. Water bottle. We take our camel back water bottles with us everywhere we go. My bag has a slot on the side to carry it, and it has saved us on numerous occasions. Tap water is safe to drink in most countries (although, double check that carefully before drinking it). My friends also use their Nalgene bottles to store things they don't want to have spill or break (i.e., peanut butter, granola bars, shampoos and soaps) - such a great idea!

The last few items are extensions to our list since we expanded our family. I can't encourage you enough to travel when you have kids. Do it. I agree, it's a lot of work, but it gets easier with each trip (here you can read a few pointers I have about traveling with kiddos).

9. Carseat / stroller / favorite child carrier. If we were renting a car at our destination, we always brought the carseats. We found out early on that renting a carseat through a rental car agency is painfully expensive, and you never know how safe or nice the carseats will be. It's a pain to lug them along, but there are ways you can carry them. (If you use a roller bag, here is a great device I discovered to help carry that carseat.) Also, several airlines (primarily in Europe) will let you check them for free or at least cheaper than it will cost to rent one at your destination. We were not big stroller users. It never worked well for us, so we never brought one on our trips. I can only recall one trip where I wished in hindsight we had brought it along because it was hot and the city would have been easy to navigate with a stroller. I have friends that never leave their stroller at home because their kids are well-behaved in them and they use them to visit museums. We felt the same way about our child carriers. For little r, it was my Moby. Super easy to pack in our bags, and he would sleep in that carrier instantly. We used it to carry him until he was 3! For baby c, it was always the Ergo. I still bring that everywhere we go.

The Moby was a comfy place for little r to sleep

baby c will let me take him anywhere in this carrier

10. iPad or other electronic device loaded up with your child's favorite shows and movies. I have absolutely no shame when it comes to traveling with kids and using an iPad to keep them quiet. We were able to enjoy many a meal in peace because of having it in tow. My day bag has a slot that fit our iPad perfectly, so we never left it behind. Our friends used it with headphones to keep their kids quiet in museums as well.

11. Favorite go-to snacks. There is nothing more impossible than trying to travel with a young child who is hungry. Bring a handful of their favorite snacks on every trip that won't make too huge a mess. Gummy Bears were always our go-to. Snack bars also work well. My friend brings peanut butter on her trips and a plastic knife so they could grab bread at a local store and keep the girls happy. Whatever works best, just be sure to bring it with you!

12. Blankets or lovelies for the kiddos. Both of my boys have blankees. As much as I never wanted to bring these around on the streets of Rome or walking the city wall in Dubrovnik, I refused to leave them behind. It was an instant way to keep them calm and help them feel secure in a scary place. We guarded them with our lives, but it was totally worth it to bring it along.

And finally, the most important thing to bring on every trip, adventure or vacation, is a good attitude especially if you are traveling with kids. Our best trips were always the ones where we were flexible and let things slide off our backs. We had our accommodations reserved in advance, we generally would know where we were going and what we wanted to see, but we felt out our moods, the weather, and the environment to find the best food and the greatest city walks.

Did I leave anything off? Definitely let me know if there's something you can't leave behind when you go on vacation, if it's not on our list!     

P.S. Those of you that know me, also know that I NEVER go on a trip without my travel yoga mat. Literally NEVER. 


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