Saturday, April 12, 2008

The art of a family trip itinerary

So we leave for Belgium/Netherlands/Germany in about two months...exciting! Here's the latest:

  • JieJie and MeiMei will get to spend a day at their old school, and their teachers are very excited to have them back. In fact, Ms. K emailed me that the teachers have already told JJ & MM's former classmates that they are coming, and the teachers are fighting over whose class they should visit first! We also learned that JJ's favorite classmate, S, is still a student there. S is the beautiful little girl with the big brown eyes and long eyelashes who would wait ouside the classroom each morning to see JJ, then take her hand and go with her into the classroom.
  • We have three weeks there, and are planning to spend weeks 1 and 3 in Belgium/Netherlands visiting friends and hanging out. Week 2, we'll tour western Germany's Rhineland area. Like a blurry image starting to come slowly into focus, a possible itinerary is taking shape. We could take an express train from Antwerp via lovely Luxembourg to Trier, Germany (an old Roman outpost along the Moselle River). There is a hostel in Trier with family rooms, so we could stay there. We could then go by bus, train, or boat along the Moselle to Cochem (another hostel there) and finally to Koblenz, where the Moselle and Rhine rivers come together. There are beautiful rolling hills, vineyards and castles to see along the way, and who doesn't like a boat ride? From Koblenz, we could take a boat or train or bus to Koln (Cologne) and see the beautiful baroque cathedral there before taking another express train back to Antwerp. So that's one possibility. The reason for going counter-clockwise rather than clockwise is that if we do any bicycling along the Moselle cycling route (Moselbahn), we'd be going downhill!
  • Here's a tantalizing possibility: if we time it right, we could take a family boat trip along the Rhine. It's a six-hour roundtrip departing from Koln that I found at, which was recommended in Lonely Planet's Europe on a Shoestring. For a family ticket price of 50 euros (that's for all four of us!) you get a lovely cruise on a boat that is a kid's dream. Clowns, acrobats, a moon bounce, playground, play room, and puppet shows keep kids busy all day on the top deck of this boat, while mom and dad get to have a few minutes here and there to just sit back and enjoy the scenery. I know, I know, the kids should just appreciate the boat ride and the majesty of the Rhine...whatever. That's such a grown-up way of looking at things. Our girls are going to be 5 and 6, and they like to be active and play. And it's their summer vacation, for pete's sake! If we can combine what they like with what we like, we'll ALL have a great day. This is the thing with family travel. Adults and kids have different agendas. It's a bit of an art to find those things that genuinely appeal to each person. I try to find as many of those as possible to sprinkle into the itinerary, so that when we are asking them to adapt to an adult environment, we can point to those "everybody wins" days as something to look forward to. Funny, we don't have a problem going completely to the kid side (a la Plopsaland)!
  • Found a great youth hostel site for Germany: takes you to an interactive map showing where all the hostels are. During that middle week, I'm planning to book exclusively at hostels, for two reasons. First, they are so much more affordable! We are over there on our own dime this time, with no university budget to cover our food and lodging on side trips. We should be able to get all four of us into a comfortable room, including breakfast, for under $75/night after the exchange rate is factored in. Second, the girls don't need a fancy, fussy luxury hotel and we don't need the headache of trying to keep them quiet, keep them from playing with the phones, tv, etc. rooms at hostels are Ikea-casual with bunk beds and in-suite bathrooms, and many of the hostels feature playgrounds, hiking trails, family/children's activities, and other amenities. It's more like a family campground atmosphere, from what I understand, and it seems very common/popular for German families to stay in hostels as well. When JieJie and MeiMei are in college in 12/13 years (time will fly!), John and I will have the rest of our lives to stay in some fussy, lace-curtained little inn...and I bet we'll wish we were with a five and six year old in a funky room with bunks instead. This is the time, right now! The girls are old enough to see the world, yet young enough to enjoy seeing it with mom and dad, who are still the be-all, end-all as far as they're concerned. Excuse me while I grab a tissue.
OK - that's about it for now. Mostly, I'm trying to resist the temptation to keep checking to see whether we would've been better off waiting to book plane tickets. So far, so good...the one time I allowed myself to check, it had gone up about $25. Thank heavens we're on Lufthansa and not American! These flight cancellations are nuts. I really feel for the people whose travel plans were shot to pieces these last few days.

Just think...some of them were traveling with kids. "Just another six hours in the airport, honey, and I'm sure they'll find us a plane to Grandma's house." Not a pretty thought.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Future of Audio Guides

As a major audiophile, and someone who loves audio tours when I visit museums and famous landmarks, I am really excited about the future of audio guides. Soon, it will seem like the Dark Ages when tourists and museum visitors had to find a special kiosk in order to check out (and often pay a pretty penny for) more in-depth information about an exhibit or architectural landmark.

The internet, mp3 players, and mp3-compatible phones with web access are changing everything. At this moment, let's say you want to go to Barcelona, and you have a phone or PDA with internet access. Or better yet, let's say you're already in Barcelona, standing in front of a famous palace or cathedral, and you want to learn more about it. All you have to do is connect to the web, choose one of the many tours available for Barcelona, for example the one produced by the Brussels-based company iaudioguide, download the tracks to your PDA, and then voila! Listen to the mp3's about the different attractions as you stand there in front of them. (BTW, I learned about iaudioguide from my friend A, who just produced their New York City guide. It has 26 tracks covering over a dozen different NYC destinations).

Demand for convenience and customization is changing market conditions for companies like Let's Go and Lonely Planet, too. Travel guide publishers (the printed kind, not audio) have realized that perhaps the 1200-page guide to the entirety of Western Europe is more than most people need, especially backpackers for whom every ounce counts. These publishers are starting to sell stand-alone chapters ready for download to a PDA or other text-friendly device.

An added advantage to both of these developments is that the user can be a bit more discreet about being a tourist. Nothing screams "Look at Me! I'm not from around here!" like brandishing a travel guidebook, map, or wand-like audio guide device with headphones. Listen to your phone, or read the screen of your PDA, though, and you'll probably fit right in!


You can search FTJ for past posts, e.g. China info...