Every year we take a big trip around Christmas time. There are a few reasons for this – first, the kids’ school lets out for about a month around that time and we have a free travel schedule. Second, if you plan your travel right (and far ahead) and aren’t too worried about methods, you can get some seriously excellent travel deals. Third, and this is probably 75% of the reason for us right here, we live in a climate that isn’t very Christmasy and I feel a deep urge to go somewhere pine trees are an indigenous species.
We all have our priorities.
Our first major overseas Christmas trip involved thirty days, three countries, five major cities, two overnight train trips, several smaller train trips, a bout with norovirus, an anti-austerity demonstration in Spain, and business class travel both to and from Europe for under $5000 (not including food).
It was absolutely fantastic.
We started planning for Christmas in July. Using airline miles, I hit up the United Airlines website and started searching dates. Inputting what we thought would be our best dates, it quickly became obvious that those weren’t going to cut it for prices. I was coming up with costs over 100,000 miles per person for airline tickets, and that wasn’t a price I was ready to pay – mostly because there are five of us and we didn’t have that many miles to spend.
With some jiggling around of days (and a wonderful school that thinks travel is also learning and didn’t give us any problems about the kids missing the three days before Christmas break began), we were able to secure our tickets – business class. The discount we got on miles was due to yet another compromise: we had two layovers and took one of the six segments of travel in economy class.
Given that we were flying that segment on Lufthansa, and their economy class isn’t a hardship, we clapped out a hallelujah and grabbed the reservations – we would be flying in and out of Brussels Airport.
Total cost for airline tickets to and from Europe with five out of six segments in business class travel? $160 per person.
Our next item of business was a hotel to stay in at both ends of our trip in Brussels. Here I spent a few days using Expedia, Trip Advisor, and word-of-mouth. What we came up with was an off-the-beaten-path hotel that could have been dicey, but ended up being absolutely fantastic, and one of our favorite hotels ever – The Theater Hotel.
The hotel is in the Red Light District of Brussels, okay? Does that turn you off? Because if it does, you’re nuts. We stayed there with three of our children for about 100 Euro a night in a two bedroom + living room mini-apartment with breakfast and it was FABULOUS. And safe. In fact, it was more safe and more clean than Times Square in NYC. We’ve since been back. We will go back again.
Just for comparison, the price of another hotel in Brussels within walking distance of all the good stuff:
I’m sure this is a lovely hotel. But it’s three times the price. And price matters to us. It’s not the single most important thing, but it does matter.
Just call us Team Theater Hotel.
Moving quickly now – from Brussels we took the second most expensive train segment of our trip – the TGV to Paris. Remember the cardinal rule? DON’T! USE! RAIL! EUROPE!
We made our reservations in Brussels for the TGV to Paris, Paris to Poitiers (can’t miss Fontevraud Abbey!), and the Ellipsos overnight train from Paris to Madrid. It was a bit touch-and-go with the overnight train, but we were able to secure seats with a 13 day lead time. For all other train tickets there was no issue getting seats whatsoever, and I highly recommend just buying tickets when you get to Europe rather than bothering with online reservations.
So – Paris.
Know what’s expensive? Paris. There’s really no getting around that. We did luck out on finding a one bedroom flat with enough sleeping space for the family and a kitchen (believe me, a kitchen when traveling is a GODSEND. SO much easier than finding a place to eat when your husband’s blood sugar level reaches negative numbers) for 76 Euro a night.
Drawbacks? Fifth floor. No lift. For those of you unused to the way floors are numbered outside the US, this is actually the SIXTH floor. All stairs. Which looked like this:
Okay, that is actually the Arc de Triomphe. But you know what? DEAD RINGER FOR OUR FLAT.
And so I climbed the flat stairs twice a day, and then my husband decided we needed to climb up the Arc de Triomphe as well.
See what we do for love?
Also, the heater did not work our first night in the flat, it was close to zero on the C scale, and French landlords don’t fix things if they break outside office hours.
But still. It turned out pretty well, all things considered. Once we massaged out our frostbitten toes and fingers and got some croissants and coffee into our system, we had a blast.
Final word on Paris – get the Paris Card. For adults, don’t bother with the kids as most Paris museums are free for children anyway.
I feel like I should pause here and say a bit about the overnight train. I know Kate had a good experience, so it is possible. We had an, “I’m glad I did this, but let’s fly next time,” experience. But that was mostly related to our second overnight train ride from Barcelona to Paris. More on that later.
Moving right along…
Madrid – oh how we LOVED Madrid! Could there be a a love of Latin culture ingrained in us from growing up in California? Maybe. It’s possible. But also, Madrid is just an awesome place. It has that perfect mix of laid back and big city – plus, people really love cute little blond girls and there was a lot of free hot chocolate involved (side note: Spanish hot chocolate! EVERY DAY, PLEASE!).
I think the most disheartening thing about visiting Madrid was finding out that I was still going to have to deal with stairs. Blech.
Our hotel in Madrid was absolutely perfect. Also – free. Thank you, Expedia Rewards Points! We were within walking distance of everything we wanted to see, and the staff were amazing. Bonus: washing machine in the room.
Everyone spoke English, which made our visit much easier, and they were full of ideas about things to do in Madrid. Big bonus! Plus, did I mention the Spanish hot chocolate? Because I probably should.
Next up – Barcelona.
Since we returned home, we’ve referred to Barcelona as Barfalona. This has nothing to do with the city itself (two of the three children accompanying us tried to hide rather than board the train and head toward home), but the fact that it was on this leg of the trip that our family succumbed to a nasty norovirus that was circulating Europe in record numbers that particular year.
The first one down was my husband – and it was sudden. Six hours after we checked into our apartment (along with a Canadian family who was staying two floors above us and was concerned about the water quality) it got real.
The kids and I left him to his misery after a few hours of, “Please just leave me to die alone!” and took in some of the beautiful sites of the city.
But it was not to end there. In quick succession the children started to succumb. Luckily the virus struck quickly and was over without much haggling. All in all, on a rotating basis, we missed one day of our time in Barcelona each. Except for my son, who waited to come down with the virus AS WE WERE BOARDING THE TRAIN TO PARIS.
Add in a broken toilet in our section, and maybe this is why I’m totally biased against the overnight train.
One final note – Brussels is a great city to visit. Just don’t expect a lot from Manneken Pis. It’s definitely cute, but I’ve given birth to babies bigger than that, and the crowds that surround him make it kind of hard to see.
Surly was not impressed.
Can you even see Manneken Pis in this picture? Not really.
The trip, I have to say, was marvelous. We got to see the Eiffel Tower, Manneken Pis, the final resting place of Richard I of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the tomb of Goya, and La Sagrada Familia. Plus palmieres. And Spanish hot chocolate. Oh! Pain au chocolat in Brussels!
And our grand total including train fare for a month wandering around Belgium, France, and Spain? Just under $5000.