Cycling Towards the Horizon

Traversing mountains, swimming in oceans, and getting lost in forests has increased our deep commitment to travel with  minimal impact. In an attempt to take it to the next level, our new favourite method of transport is cycling. We now travel with some cycling gear and hire bikes in every town possible.

It all began when we were given the opportunity to housesit on a farm in England, we decided not to hire a car. This was a major decision because our farm was four kilometres from the nearest village and 24 kilometres from the closest town, Taunton . It was a chance to stretch our pedalling legs, so without thinking it through, we made the decision to cycle there from Taunton and use bikes as our primary transport for the next four weeks.

Cass did a lot of research and found a bike shop, On Your Bike in Taunton, who fix up old bikes and sell them for charity. They also train and employ disadvantaged people (people with disabilities, ex-services personnel and homeless) to be bike mechanics. We loved their values, and they agreed to hire bikes for us and the kids.

There were a number of obstacles we needed to overcome. The biggest was working out how to carry our luggage. We travel light (see What’s in our luggage?) with approximately 40kg between four of us, but our bags are not pannier bags and it was too much to ask the kids to ride that far with extra weight. Cass and I would need to carry it all.

On Your Bike had a trailer for hire, but it wouldn’t fit everything, so we decided to buy an additional new trailer to put the rest of the luggage in. After researching all of our options, we decided to buy a 2-Child Steel Bicycle Trailer for our luggage (we successfully sold it afterwards on Gumtree).

We arrived in Taunton the day before our ride, so we could prepare the bikes, buy helmets and some lights and just get organised. We are so glad we did, because it took us the whole day to get everything together and go for a little test ride.

On the morning of our ride, we had a tight schedule. The people we were housesitting for had to leave in the middle of the day, and we needed enough time to learn about looking after their animals. We really needed to arrive by 11:30 am so we got up at 5:30 ate a buffet breakfast, and headed off.

There was a misty rain as we set off but it kept us cool as we rode. Cass had one trailer with half our luggage, and I had the new trailer with the other half, and a bag with all our snacks on my back. The trailer was hard to pull. Hills I could usually ride up with ease were very difficult, and I had to walk up many more than I would have liked.

The first half went well, we rode at a good pace and were enjoying ourselves. Cass and I were nervous about the ride and whether the kids would make it, but being in the open air and seeing the English countryside was a good antidote.

12 kms in and feeling hungry (but good)

After a snack break at the halfway point, the rain set in. The temperature dropped dramatically, and our raincoats were only keeping our top half dry. The hills started increasing (as we expected from our meticulous route planning) and the kids were tiring. We started questioning ourselves. Had we made a terrible mistake?

After a lot of hard pushing, under the dark clouds and heavy rain, we finally reached the last kilometre. We knew this was a continuous uphill climb to our housesit, and we very slowly trudged up feeling tired, uncomfortable and not really enjoying it anymore. We had no choice but to keep going, and much to our incredulity, we finally made it. The kids were amazing, remained positive and were so relieved when we arrived. They nicknamed the last hill ‘Giant’s Hill’ and called it that every time we saw it after that. I told them they were my heroes.

For the time we were away, we only took the kids to the nearest town once as their faith in riding was a bit diminished by the ride up Giant’s Hill in the rain. Cass and I did the trips over the hill to the closest supermarket. With the kids we did small rides down to the creek, or to the nature reserve for a bushwalk, but kept the rides small so they could renew their love of riding.

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You can find secret swings when riding a bike.

When we returned to Taunton it was all downhill without any rain and the kids absolutely loved the ride. We stopped to pick blackberries, look at horses and eat our snacks with beautiful vistas.

When we returned the bikes, the kids were sad to see them go. They lamented it for the next few days. We kept our helmets and other paraphernalia and then hired some more bikes in Cambridge.

We were treated to some lovely weather in Cambridge and cycling was the perfect way to get around (no hills either!). We saw so much more of Cambridge than we would have otherwise, and we were able to ride to the Orchard Tea Gardens in Grantchester, where we drank tea under the apple trees.

A few of my favourite things – tea, apple orchards, sunshine – after a beautiful bike ride.

Now the kids want to ride everywhere, and we hire bikes often. It can be difficult navigating the traffic, and making it all work, so here are some lessons we’ve learned along the way:

  • A strong peloton goes a long way – We ride in single file with one adult up front and one at the back. There’s a number of reasons this works; we are more visible to drivers, the kids feel safe sandwiched between us and we can adjust our speed based on how the kids are going. The one at the front has to navigate and watch for traffic for themselves and the first child, while the one at the back can stay in pace with the slower ones.
  • Teach the kids the road rules while on the road – This seems obvious, but our kids knew the rules in theory before we started. We constantly go over them before we set out, but it is a different thing when they are on the road thinking about steering, pedalling, changing gears and dealing with traffic. It is like everything they know goes out the window. El Chico constantly heads straight into a roundabout without looking for cars, or sometimes even noticing that it is a roundabout. We stop at every corner and wait for everyone to catch up, talk about what we need to do at the corner, then go across in pairs so that we aren’t holding up traffic.
  • It isn’t a money saving venture – For four bikes it sometimes costs more than hiring a car. We don’t have to pay for petrol so it probably comes out even. The benefits outweigh the costs though, as it’s a beautiful way to travel. You are out in the world on a bike, rather than being removed from it inside a car. And your impact on the places you are visiting is diminished.
  • Check your maps – A lot of places have dedicated bike lanes and paths. These are invaluable with the kids because you don’t have to worry about the traffic, you can stop and smell the flowers and go your own pace. Galileo Maps are very accurate when it comes to cycle paths and footpaths, (and can be used offline) and Google Maps has a function where you can show a layer of the dedicated cycle lanes and paths.
  • Gears are best – The kids always find it easier when they have gears. They don’t always use them, and we find it frustrating, but when they have fixies they struggle up the hills.
  • Think about your equipment – Some bike hire shops provide you with lights and locks, but not all of them, so we now travel with lights, locks, helmets and some occy straps.
  • Fuel up – Riding makes the kids hungry (this is good for us because our kids are usually fussy eaters), so we need to have a big stash of healthy snacks in our backpack
  • Bikes + trains = more fun – In our experience, you can take bikes on trains in both England and Spain at no extra cost. This means you can go more places and take your bike with you to ride around at the other end. Many of the Spanish trains have a carriage where you can chain your bike to a dedicated rail. Although a word of caution, we did get in trouble once for trying to take bikes on a long distance train (we were only going to the next stop and didn’t realise it was any different).
  • Water is your elixir – Don’t underestimate how much water you need, especially in hot climates. A good rule of thumb is to have one litre per person per hour of riding.
  • Enjoy it – Riding is such fun so relax, enjoy and explore!
DISCLAIMER: We are not affiliated with any of these towns or attractions and were not paid nor given any free bikes, tours, accommodation or food. We paid for all these journeys with our own money and these are our own opinions. Some of the links to in this article are affiliate links. 
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Europe for €25 per person per day

Now we’ve been away for five months, and our savings are looking slim, I thought I’d have a look at what we’ve been spending and how it compared to our original budget, and it turns out we’ve been comfortably sticking to €25 per person per day. We’ve stayed in 26 towns, cities and villages. We’ve visited the coast, the mountains and the forests. We’ve ridden bikes, trains, buses and driven cars. We’ve been to three countries. We’ve slept in castles, farms, beach houses and a cave. All for €25 per person per day.

Here we’ll share our budget and give you some tips that we’ve picked up on the way.

As a self confessed ‘compulsive organsier’, I keep a daily tally of where we’re spending our money. For the last four years, I have been using the Home Budget app. Over that time it has accumulated a lot of statistical data on our spending and, nerd that I am, I find data incredibly useful. The app has continued to be useful while travelling as it allows me to use multiple currencies.

So looking at the app today, as a family of four, we’ve so far spent just under €100 per day (or €25 per person). Sure, if we were a couple with no kids, the figure would be different, similarly for solo travellers. Actually I believe it could be cheaper without kids. We spend way too much money on bouncy castles at fiestas and ice creams after a hard travel day. Maybe we should have a ‘morale booster’ line in our budget, vermouth included!

Towards the Horizon - €25 per day (pp)

Our original budget has been edited here to reflect our actual spending over the last five months. Available for download at the bottom of the article.

So here’s a rough breakdown of what we spend (per month):

Home/Accommodation

Maintaining our home in Australia – €155

We are renting our house in Australia. This spending includes rates, maintenance on the property and other fees and levies that we have to pay.

Accommodation – €880

When travelling this is always the biggest expense. We’re very lucky that we’ve been able to stay in my sister-in-law’s house when in the south of Spain. When we initially set out, we were planning for it to be our main base. However on the road we discovered that we prefer moving around and seeing new places so we’ve only stayed there a few times. We have found some very cheap accommodation solutions that we have used regularly.


Ways to make it cheaper:
House-sitting

We have house-sat the equivalent of 2 of our 5 months. Some of this has been through previous connections, but some has been using house-sitting websites. Our two preferred sites are Trusted Housesitters and Nomador. Both cost money to sign up, but the €30 or so is worth it when you get a few free weeks of accommodation. There are obvious other benefits too, such as getting to know a new place like a local, or spending some time on a farm. The kids especially enjoy having time with animals.

Share economy

Airbnb is a great way to stay somewhere comfortable and cheap. If you’re happy staying in some out-of-the-way places, you can get some apartments really cheaply. Our two favourites were in small towns, Porrua and Lleida, where we stayed for only €19 per night for all four of us. Being flexible with your destinations is key to getting these amazing deals.

Workaway is another good option, we’ve only done it once so far, but for working approximately 5 hours per day, you are provided with food and board. It is a lot of fun on a farm, which is what we did, but some people want help with child care, or with teaching their kids English.

Loyalty programs

Hotels.com, Booking.com and hotel groups have loyalty programs that offer major discounts. Booking.com give you 10% off all bookings after you’ve booked with them five times. This can save you more than €80 in a month.


Utilities

Phone and Internet – €65

When doing our research when we arrived, it quickly became clear that our cheapest and easiest way to access the Internet when wifi was unavailable was to use the hotspot on our phone. We both work online so Internet is vital to our income. We bought a pre-paid SIM with 3GB included per month. Over summer there has been a deal where they give you 3GB extra per month for free, so that has worked well. Sometimes we have to spend some extra money for data if there are a few video conferences chewing it up.

Our Spanish SIM is fine for France, as it costs us €1 per day for each day that we use roaming, but we tend to keep it off most days and use wifi where we possible. In England we bought another new pre-paid SIM.


Ways to make it cheaper:

Filter accommodation choices by availability of wifi, and only use your phone when required. Cass and I bought the same brand of SIM card so we can call and message each other for free.

Use Whatsapp. Not as common in Australia, but very common in Europe. You can message, call and video call using data instead of your phone credit. This has saved us a lot of money. Almost everyone in Europe has it, so it is good for contacting accommodation hosts or people you have been put in touch with.


Food

This is one place where my budget really didn’t match what we have ended up spending. Eating out is so cheap in Europe and we don’t have to do the dishes, so we do it way more than we would in Australia. Culturally, people always meet out of their home too, so it is easier to catch up with people. On the flip side we’ve spent much less on groceries than we expected so they have cancelled each other out.

Groceries – €340

We try to shop at markets, fruiterias and panederias wherever possible. Partly because it keeps the cost down, but also because it is fresh and delicious.

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Markets have the freshest and the cheapest food.

Eating out – €495

This also includes breakfast but it is rare for us to buy it out. We tend to eat breakfast at home most days.

Other (coffee, ice cream, beer etc) – €205

An important part of any budget.


Ways to make it cheaper:
Eat like a local

Get off the tourist route and find a restaurant or bar two streets back from the places touting menus in English. They are usually a couple of euros cheaper for the same plate of food.

Menu del dia

Most restaurants offer a menu of the day for a very cheap price. In smaller towns you can get a three course meal with drink included for €8. In more touristy areas they can be up to €15. We love eating this way as we try traditional local dishes and the choices are limited, which is easier than staring at a menu. Most places can accommodate someone who doesn’t each a lot of meat, but you have to ask.

Tapas

In many parts of Spain, particularly the north and in rural areas, tapas come free when you order a drink. In some places this can be enough food for a meal. Ask around for a good tapas bar in your area.

Pack your lunch

A no-brainer really, but when we pack our lunch (in Spain bocadillos of course), it costs us €5 for a meal.


Goods

Clothing – €30

Kids grow, so this is a necessary part of our budget. Thankfully clothes are much cheaper in Europe than Australia so we don’t spend a lot. Also, our limited luggage space means we can’t buy anything unnecessary.

Books – €10

We don’t want the kids’ education to suffer so occasionally we buy books. Cass and I both love to read too, so we are often on the lookout for second hand bookstores. The deal is that we each only carry one at a time, so for every one we buy, we have to donate or swap our old one.


Ways to make it cheaper:

Book swaps are excellent and can be found at most major cities in small cafes. We are starting to branch out into Spanish-language books now so it’s getting easier to find free or very cheap books.


Work items – €5

Sometimes it costs a little to maintain our work. It could be an app subscription or some printing. It doesn’t add up to much.

Entertainment

Movies, shows, museums, galleries, bouncy castles etc – €70

We usually prefer the free or low cost museums the most, so they don’t add up to much. We splashed out in London and went to see Matilda the Musical and we’ve been to the movies a few times (good Spanish language practice). Wednesday is cheap-day at the movies here and it costs €16 for all four of us.

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Dodgem Cars at the Fería.


Ways to make it cheaper:

Seek the cheaper places, they’re usually better anyway. While everyone else is going to the castle with guided headphones, choose the more run-down one that has a lower entrance fee.

Note: don’t skimp too much on this budget. This is one of the fun parts of travelling. When I travelled around Europe in my 20s, I missed a lot of fun things because I was so concerned about paying for them.


Transport

Flights – €60

This doesn’t include our original flight to get here, but we’ve spent some on flying to England from Spain so this stays in our budget. If you want to include your original flight, your budget will be much higher than €25 per day.


Ways to make it cheaper:

Try comparison websites such as Skyscanner. If you are flexible on dates you can get some very cheap deals. Make sure you pay for your luggage at time of booking though, as it is much more expensive to have to pay for it at the check-in counter.


Trains, buses, cars and bikes- €500

Depending on how you travel and how often, this can blow out. We have rented a couple of cars, but we’re trying to limit our impact on the environment so prefer trains buses and bikes.


Ways to make it cheaper:
Rail passes

Eurail passes can save hundreds of euros in your first trip and Children Travel Free.

In England our friend suggested that we buy a Family Railcard, where we received 30% off when travelling during off-peak periods (after 10am). It cost £30 and we saved that on our first trip. It lasts for 12 months so it’s definitely a good investment. We saved hundreds of pounds over our two months in England. Train companies don’t advertise these deals well so it is worth asking and doing your research.

Travel slowly

Travelling slowly and less often is the key. We try to stay a week or more in one place to reduce our transport costs.

Relocation deals

Many car and campervan hire companies have cheaper hire to relocate the vehicle to where they need it to be. We’ve done this a few times. Hunt them down, they’re very cheap.


Travel Insurance plus other medical expenses – €205

This is one area you don’t want to take the cheapest option, but you can do your research and find a great deal. We opted for travel insurance that was linked to our credit card (note: we don’t use this credit card for anything other than car hire and accommodation deposits, that way we don’t pay any interest or fees. We don’t believe in funding travel using a credit card). You can decide how much cover you feel comfortable with, but with kids we opted for one with excellent coverage so we don’t ever have to worry about it.

This line also includes the insurance on our house in Australia.


Ways to make it cheaper:
Do your research.

Take the time to really understand what you are getting and for what price. Compare the deals without the help of a meerkat tool, use your own brain. You need to keep in mind that the comparison websites get paid to promote certain products.

Know how much excess you are willing to pay. This will help inform what product to choose, and make sure you have the equivalent of your excess saved up somewhere safe at all times. The higher the excess you can afford, the cheaper your cover.

Know your policy.

When in the middle of a crazy situation (you travellers know what I’m talking about) it’s nice to know how your policy works. It brings a sense of calm to a potentially difficult situation. Also, knowing that you’re travel insurance covers certain vehicle hire insurances means that you don’t have to opt for the more expensive option at the car hire desk.


Miscellaneous – €25

This is where we put odd expenses, like a donation to charity, paying a busker, a birthday present, or the cost of sending postcards home. It’s good for random things that come up.

The budget listed above is based on what we are actually spending each month. Sure, some months we spend more than others but this is a total of all our expenditure for the five months divided by five (to arrive at our monthly figure). It is possible to travel Europe for €25 per day per person. We’ve been doing it for five months now. We’d love to hear more of how you save money on your trips, please make a comment below.

If you want more help creating a budget for you and your travels, you can purchase one of our budget products below. (We’ll be adding a customised version soon).

Get your copy of our budget here

We'll send you an excel document you can customise to your own budget.

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What’s in our luggage?

This is a question I thought a lot about before we left. Reducing our ‘stuff’ was part of why we were leaving. We wanted to live with less and travel light, but still have everything we needed. Anyone with kids knows how much stuff suddenly appears the moment they enter the world. How were we going live comfortably without ending up with way more than we could carry?

Recently I read an article by Robert Moor, about MJ Eberhart, known as Nimblewell Nomad, who had been walking for 15 years. Moor said of Eberhart:

Shaving down one’s pack weight, he said, was a process of sloughing off one’s fears. Each object a person carries represents a particular fear: of injury, of discomfort, of boredom, of attack.

 

This is definitely true of what we have in our luggage. We’ve got clothes to prevent the cold, toys to prevent the boredom and gadgets to prevent losing touch with our loved ones. We don’t have a lot, but what we have is important to us.

To prevent ourselves from bringing anything unnecessary, we committed to limiting our main bag size to 45L each, and the kids to 30L. In addition we would each have a backpack for smaller items and as day bags.

In our pre-travel thrift, we made a decision not to purchase too many new items. We bought new luggage, good quality drink bottles and some packing cubes.

Well, I had good intentions with the drink bottles, but it wasn’t our best purchase. Within our first month of travel, we had lost all three of our new drink bottles. One got left behind before we left Australia, one got left in a taxi and we think the other one might be hiding in our friends’ house but hasn’t turned up yet.

On the other hand, our bags have proved a success. Cass and I bought a 45L Osprey Sojourn each, as they can be wheeled or used as a backpack. (Osprey no longer sell this size of Sojourn, but their Ozone is similar – see previous link). Three months in, we have not yet used them as a backpack, but we are still glad we have the option in case we ever need to.

For the kids we bought smaller 30L Kathmandu hybrid cases. All our suitcases have proved to be a good size for lifting onto high luggage racks on trains, or for wheeling down the cobbled streets of Spain. But for many people, the bags might seem small. So, what have we got in them?

Clothing

Underwear

  • 7 pairs of underwear for each of us – this reduces laundry pressure a little. (I only have 3 bras.)
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 1 set of full length pyjamas

Tops

  • 1 long sleeve collared shirt – the kids have an extra t-shirt instead of this one.
  • 1 long sleeve top – mine is a marino thermal because I feel the cold.
  • 1 x short sleeve top
  • 1 x t-shirt
  • 1 x sleeveless top
  • 1 x jumper
  • 1 x cardigan/hoodie

Dress – for La Chica and I

  • 1 x dress

Bottoms

  • 1 pair of jeans
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 skirt and a pair of black leggings (for La Chica and I)
  • 1 pair of tracksuit pants

Outerwear

  • 1 raincoat – for Cass and I this doubles as a coat when we go out, but the kids have an extra coat.

Shoes

  • Thongs (Flip flops for non-Australians) – I can’t live without these
  • Sandals
  • Closed in shoes
  • Running shoes (for me only).

Other bits & bobs

  • Pashmina/scarf
  • Light scarf
  • Sarong – we use this as a picnic blanket, a bag, an item of clothing, a sheet. So handy.
  • Hat
  • Bathers
  • Goggles
  • Travel towel

Running Clothes (for me)

For me the biggest struggle is fitting in all my running clothes and accessories, without them, my bag could be much smaller, but I love running while we travel so they are here to stay. They also need laundering more often (because I get pretty smelly on a run), so I have to bring more items than I would like.

  • 2 x running bras
  • 1 x pair shorts
  • 1 x pair 3/4 length bottoms
  • 1 x cotton sleeveless top
  • 1 x technical shirt
  • 1 x hydration vest + bladder
  • 1 x pair of trail running shoes

Surf Items (for Cass)

Cass travels with a wetsuit and a rashie and a couple of spare fins so he’s always prepared when there’s surf. He decided not to travel with a board as it was too cumbersome when trying to get up escalators and the like with the kids in tow. It’s been a good decision, but he has to be extra resourceful when we arrive at a surf-side location.

Toiletries

I only have a small bag of toiletries. The biggest items are first aid (band-aids, sting cream, etc). Every time I pack, this is the item that annoys me the most because it’s the last to go in and everything looks like it fits so nicely until it goes in.

Other items

  • A journal
  • Small pencil case
  • Phone – we have a Spanish SIM for continental Europe and and UK SIM at this stage.
  • 1 x book (when we buy one we donate, swap, or exchange the old one)
  • Portable hard drive – Cass & I have one each with our work, photos and music on it. They add weight to our luggage but they are worth it.
  • Passports (!)
  • Wallet

Toys

The kids each have one of those insulated lunch box containers that they are allowed to fill up with toys or activities. When they buy something new, it has to fit in there, or if not, they have to remove something else. I actually think we haven’t had to get rid of much because we lose more toys than they buy (read fidget spinners).
La Chica has a kindle because she can easily read a book a day if she has the time, and El Chico has an iPod for listening to music when he needs a break from the rest of us.
Each of them have a camera that they received as Birthday presents.

Shared items

  • Computer
  • iPad – we brought this in case we wanted to both work at the same time. So far we haven’t really needed to, and I think we could easily live without it. It becomes useful on a 9 hour train journey to entertain the kids, but if it breaks, we’re not going to replace it.
  • 2 maps – We mark where we have been on each of these maps. It’s really fun to sit down together and see how far we’ve gone. The kids always have some really great questions too, and we learn a lot about Geography.
  • A small travel set of container of watercolour paints – We’ve only used this twice, but I like the idea that I will use it more… maybe….someday.
  • Frisbee – we’ve used this a lot.
  • Hackey sack – haven’t used it much (the kids find it difficult and lose interest).
  • Travel monopoly
  • Deck of cards
  • Travel washing line
  • Travel adapter & plenty of charging cords
  • Knife – for cutting up delicious Spanish cheese at our picnics, and also because Airbnb hosts often have terrible knives.
  • Tea towel  – We bought this while travelling because surprisingly most of our accommodation has not had a tea towel, and it is frustrating.
  • Travel sewing kit
  • 2 x lunch boxes for travel snacks

So far this has got us through three months from the 10˚C mountain cave districts in spring to the searing 45˚C in Andalucía to the summer rain of London. We’ll have to stock up on woolies and boots as we head into colder climes, particularly when we head to the snow, but for now this is everything we need.

Having a small amount of clothes means we need to launder more often (4 times a week to be precise). But that is a small price to pay, and is evident when we watch travelling families with suitcases much larger than ours struggling to lift them onto the luggage racks on a train. We always offer to help them, but are secretly glad we don’t travel that way.

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Eurail Passes; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Fifteen years ago I travelled Europe for two months on a Eurail Pass and it was one of the best ways to get around. I found it so easy to hop on and off, and didn’t need to book ahead. For this trip with the family, we were very unsure about whether it was going to be a good option for us. We wanted some flexibility, but also wanted to be able to get around as easily and as cheaply as possible. A quick Google search brought up a lot of articles bemoaning the cons of the Eurail pass, and TripAdvisor is brimming with reports of negative experiences. We read Nomadic Matt’s article, which weighed up the pros and cons, but mostly looked at it from a single person’s point of view. Given my previous experience with Eurail, I was pushing for it all the way. Cass was a little more wary.

We had promised La Chica that we would take her to Paris for her Birthday, so we knew we would have some expensive travel coming up – we had to explore all our options. The cost of train travel is not necessarily cheap, but it’s a fantastic way to travel. You get to see the countryside, there’s no pressure of negotiating traffic and you can get up and move about when it’s  a long journey.

The Good

fullsizeoutput_1cd0The best feature of a Eurail pass for family travel is that kids under 11 years of age travel free.  That makes family travel cheaper than all other transport options by far.

We also waited for a Eurail sale where they were offering 30% off the usual price. We ended up buying a Three Country Family Pass with 6 days of travel in 2 months. Here’s how the costs worked out (all prices in Australian Dollars):

Usual cost of pass for two adults & two children (under 11) $1182.00
Minus 15% discount for travelling together at all times -$177.30
Minus sale discount of 30% -$301.41
Total cost of Eurail Pass $703.29
Price per trip (6 trips) $117.22

Barcelona to Paris without pass for two adults & two children one way is $724.95 (as at 15 June 2017). So we knew the Eurail pass was going to pay for itself just on this one trip.

The Bad and the Ugly

Hurdle number 1

Our first experience trying to book a Eurail seat reservation (required in Spain) was a challenging one. We were in Guadix wanting to book a trip to Sevilla, and we were staying 4kms from the train station without a car. Cass and Los Chicos walked all the way there, only to be told that they couldn’t make Eurail reservations at that station as it was only a small one: we would need to call or go to a bigger station. We tried calling Renfe (the Spanish train network). We called 10 times. Each time, we were on hold for half an hour. When we finally got through and started asking in broken Spanish for our reservation, the operator would cut us short and put us through to an English-speaking operator. While being transferred, it would hang up. Every time.fullsizeoutput_1cd3

On the eleventh call, after the usual hold time, the first thing I said (in carefully rehearsed Spanish) was ‘Please don’t transfer me, I’ve called 10 times and it hangs up every time. Please help me in Spanish’. He tried to transfer me but I managed to convince him not to. We finally muddled our way through the Eurail reservation in my limited Spanish and his limited patience, and got to the point of payment. My travel debit card wouldn’t work. I tried my credit card. No luck. It turns out that foreign credit cards and debit cards don’t work with Renfe.

So. We ended up paying full fare for a ticket to Sevilla (where we were going anyway) and then booked our next trip at the station there.

Hurdle number 2

After our previous experience, we thought we would get more clever about booking our trip from Spain to France. We did some more research on reserving Eurail tickets on the Eurail website. We even downloaded the app.

It turns out that you have to book more than 7 days in advance if you want to book using the Eurail website or app, and then they will post it to you. Wait…what? We don’t have a fixed address, how will they post it to us? We’re travelling on our Eurail pass!

Ok, so then you can book an e-ticket up to 2 days before your departure. Good. But only for travel within Spain or Italy. France not included. That rules that out.

So. We ended up going back to Sevilla and booked our next two trips in person there. We waited in line for over half an hour but it all got sorted and the Renfe staff were very helpful. It did cost an extra €90 to book all our seats, but financially we were still coming out ahead by a long shot.

Hurdle number 3

So now we realised that the only way to book tickets was going to be to go in person to a big train station. In Paris we went to Montparnasse station to book our departure from Paris and the queue was ENORMOUS! It was a ticket system and they had 5 tables operating, but it took a long time. There were a few chairs but nowhere near enough for the number of people waiting. We waited for over an hour and a half with tired, hungry children. I think that our children have relatively long attention spans, and we entertained them as best we could, but it wasn’t easy as there wasn’t much room to move or muck around. When we finally got our turn, it was all very easy to book. But by then our patience had waned and we weren’t feeling very positive.

Hurdle number 4

We hired a car for a few days in the north of Spain and made a special stop in Burgos to book our next Eurail trip, as it was a big station. The Renfe staff told us that there were no seats left. I couldn’t believe it as we had allowed plenty of days before departure. It turns out our Eurail pass is a first class pass, so automatically pulls up only first class seats. This is the only type of Eurail pass available to people over 28 years. I asked if we could book second class seats with our first class pass? Turns out you can. Thankfully. And there were second class seats available. Good. This was an easy hurdle to jump. Good to remember to ask for second class seats (the difference between first and second is pretty much negligible on Spanish trains anyway).

The Finish Line

Eurail passes are definitely not easy to use. Fifteen years ago they were simple, but that was before online bookings were the easiest option. If you could book online with foreign credit cards, it would be the perfect pass.

We’ve only got 2 more travel days left on our passes now, and we feel like we’ve finally got the system sorted out. There’s been a lot of stress and annoyance at how difficult our Eurail passes have been to use, but they’ve already saved us somewhere around $1000, so ultimately it’s worth the hassle. Hopefully some of you can benefit from our mistakes.

We’d love to hear about other experiences with the Eurail pass. Leave us a comment below.

DISCLAIMER: We were not given this product nor were paid to review this product. We paid for it with our own money and these are our own opinions.


Let the journey begin with Rail Europe

Maps

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a thing about maps. They fascinate me. I’ve been hooked from the first time I ever opened an atlas as a youngster and saw all those lines and dots and names of exotic faraway places. It was an almost overwhelming introduction to a world of possibilities that fired my imagination and lit my desire to find out what was in those places with the strange, evocative names.

My new favourite cafe, the Owl and the Elephant in Uraidla, South Australia, has earned this title because it is filled with tables upon which maps from across the world have been affixed. I call in there more than I should (we are saving money for an overseas adventure, after all) and paw over the tables, imagining myself on a ferry between Denmark and Norway, or once again standing atop the gorge bisecting Ronda in the midddle of the night, while a lone borracho wails plaintive flamenco tunes into the abyss.

Perhaps it’s the unknown quantity that I find so compelling; the mysterious pull of the unfamiliar and a curiosity to find out what lies around the next corner, over the next ridge or beyond The Horizon. But there’s also a strong compulsion to use maps to gain greater insight into the familiar. I have spent hours plotting my movements across a high resolution map that charts the landscape of my childhood, topography that I know almost as well as the features of my own children’s faces.

When I was younger, maps were objects of paper, the best of which expanded in a complex puzzle of folds to reveal their secrets. Early on I learned the value of deciphering this puzzle – the maps lasted longer and I avoided both the wrath of my parents and the scorn of my older brother, who was always a couple of steps ahead, cognitively. The legacy of these days can still be found at my house, where book shelves and car glove boxes are stuffed to capacity with dog-eared charts from past adventures and times from my youth spent dreaming of distant lands.

These days, with the advent of the Internet, smart phones, apps and platforms like Google Earth, Open Street Map and Galileo, access to maps has never been easier, and you don’t need a Masters in Origami to get your geographic fix.

For our upcoming adventure we will be relying in part on these digital options. We have our iPhones, for which we’ll purchase European SIM cards with data allowances to enable access to whichever online resource best suits our needs. To date, Google Maps has proven far more reliable than the proprietary Apple Maps app, other than that one journey I took, back when the Google Maps app was still in beta testing, when I ended up on a remote back-woods road in rural South Australia, banjos ringing in my ears as I passed rundown farmhouses with fox carcasses hanging from the fence. But that’s another story for another time…

Back in 2000 I spent three days walking one of the northern routes of the Camino de Santiago, el Camino Primitivo. I’m really keen to retrace at least part of that adventure, and to show my loved ones some of the places and sights that I remember with such clarity and fondness. Because el Camino goes well off-piste in some places, mobile reception will inevitably get a bit sketchy along the way, so to ensure we don’t get lost (well, not too lost, anyway), I’ve downloaded the Galileo app and a number of camino-specific maps. Galileo is “a map browsing app you can use offline. It makes life easier, when traveling (sic) without any Internet connection, because you can use previously saved offline maps on your mobile iOS device”.

I’m no expert when it comes to technical details and anything I tell you would most likely be at best innacurate, and at worst completely misleading, you’re much better off visiting their site and getting the good oil straight from the source. But suffice to say, with the .gpx maps I’ve downloaded, I’ll be able to keep us on the path when we venture beyond the reach of modern mobile communications. And the sooner we do that, the better, as far as Mem and I are concerned. Because, really, this whole journey is in part about freeing ourselves from the routines and habits that bind us to our current conventional lives. And a big part of that will include disconnecting our online IV tubes.

But when it comes to charting our adventures, we’re not going to be completely reliant on technology. In a burst of nostalgic inspiration, last week Mem and I visited our local map shop and bought the kids an old-school paper map each for Christmas. One was a world map, the other a chart of Spain. The idea is that this will both hone their origami skills, and also provide them with a fun way to keep track of our unfolding journey.

In reality, they’ll probably either completely dismiss the idea, or embrace it for a couple of days then leave the maps folded shut in the bottom of their packs for the rest of the trip. But hey, it excited us and made us feel like we were doing something fun and “out of the box” to prepare them for the massive change that this adventure represents.

Staying Organised until Departure – Keeping the Kids Involved 

There’s a lot to do before we head off in four months and with both of us still working, we need to stay organised. (As I’ve said before, I’m a die-hard planner and organiser so I couldn’t have it any other way).

I’ve got lists for everything, it’s how I keep my brain clutter-free. If it’s on a list, it doesn’t need to stay in my head.

So to relinquish some control (a difficult feat for me) and give the family a bit of ownership over the list, we made a chart for the fridge this weekend.

We’ve created a weekly check-off at the top so we can easily see how long to go, then divided our tasks up into the remaining months. I’ve still got the master list in my notebook, but this way we can all see it and tick things off as we go.

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It was great letting the kids decorate it as we talked about all the things we need to do to get ready. They are starting to get really excited!

The trip is looming, and it’s not long now until we set off towards the horizon.

Useful travel resources

Knowing where to find the right information is key. Here are some of the sites we’ve found useful so far. We’ll keep updating this list as we go.

Accommodation:

Airbnb – (if you click this link you receive credit on your booking, as do we) this is our first port of call when booking. Most of our stays have been with Airbnb because staying in people’s homes is excellent with kids, as it feels more homely, and prices are much better than hotels. We’ve also found some of the best out of the way places, like Porrua where we stayed for €22 per night for all four of us.

HomeAway – (affiliate link) book some incredible homes for a very reasonable price. We’ve found some very good deals on this website.

Hostel World – great for finding hostels. Can be filtered to only include hostels with family rooms. So far I’ve found the cheapest Paris accommodation here.

Nomador – For housesitting

Sabbatical Homes – house sitting, exchange or rental for travelling academics, but non-academic users can subscribe too for an increased price.

Transport:

<a href=”http://Avis ES Home” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Avis – (affiliate link) car hire, good discounts for cars in Spain and Portugal.

Go Euro – compares flights, trains and buses in Europe all in the one search. This one struggles a bit with trains but is good for flights and buses, and opens accommodation options in a separate tab.

Logi Travel – compares flights, trains, buses, skiing holidays, packages and offers all in the one search. This one gave us the best search results for trains in Spain.

Kayak – compares flights. We also booked a car through them and it was by far the cheapest option we found and the car was nicer and bigger than we expected.

Trainline – the best one we’ve found so far for train travel. It is the easiest one to search and purchase tickets within Spain as the Renfe website can be particularly difficult, especially with foreign debit or credit cards.

Information:

Lonely Planet – (affiliate link) these guides are so useful, and you can now buy them in e-chapters. We like that you can buy just the Asturias chapter, or just the Catalunya chapter if you are travelling in a specific area of Spain.

Money Changing:

Travelex – (affiliate link) buy currency, travel credit cards, order currency online.

Please note: we only have affiliations where stated. The others are all companies we have found and used ourselves.