This is part of a series of posts on our summer 2016 trip to Europe, marking our first family vacation outside of the U.S. With passports in hand, we spent nearly three weeks between London, Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam. This post is a general overview.
London was the easiest place to begin, mainly because they speak English, which makes any transition easier without having to consult a Google Translate or recall lessons from a high school language class. We knew we wanted to go to Paris, too, and as I’m one for stretching any trip, I started to look at Amsterdam, knowing it was relatively close and it was a place that neither my husband nor I had been. Finally, when I looked at the train route, I saw that the train stopped in Brussels and decided to stop there for the night before heading into Amsterdam.
The order we traveled – London to Paris to Brussels to Amsterdam – worked best because we went from the most congested city to the least, ending our trip still feeling energized and not ready to return home.
We flew a direct red eye from San Francisco to London (via Virgin Atlantic), took the train between the other cities, and flew direct home from Amsterdam (via KLM). This worked beautifully, was simple to set up, and saved us from flying from Amsterdam to London to satisfy a round trip from SFO to Heathrow to SFO.
We checked two suitcases, and each took a carry-on. We stayed in apartments in London and Paris, making sure that both had laundry facilities, allowing us to wash and re-wear our clothes. We didn’t anticipate that there would be a heat wave while we were there, making us even more thankful to be able to wash clothes.
The washer/dryers in Europe were exactly that: a single, smaller-than-American, machine that both washed and dried clothes. Both were placed in the kitchens and were extremely easy to use, though the one in London took much longer to dry clothes than the one in Paris. Like, hours longer. We packed Tide Pods with us because we didn’t think detergent would be provided (it was at our Paris apartment).
Both apartments had two bedrooms because there is no way we’d all be able to share one hotel room and all live through this trip. The kids shared a room, and we had a room, with both places having one room with a queen or double and two twin beds in the second room. Also, there were two bathrooms in each place because four people with one bathroom leads to many, many fights.
We bought as many tickets as we could from home for both activities and train travel. We bought the train tickets about six weeks before we left, which allowed us to pick our seats in a way that was much easier than picking airplane seats. We were able to get four seats around a table for each train trip.
Some activities, like the Anne Frank House, require a specific time reservation and if we had waited until we were in Amsterdam, it would have been hard to get in and nearly impossible to get in at the time we wanted.
Of course there were places where we didn’t know what time or if we’d even get to them, like Tate Modern, and those places we walked up and bought tickets once there.
We only made dinner reservations for a Sunday roast in London, and for places in Amsterdam because we were firm about wanting to go to those specific places and would not have been able to get in without a reservation. The Trip Advisor forums helped us figure out which places needed a reservation or not. Those forums were indispensable to many things, like apartment rental companies, best times to visit attractions, food, and more.
We brought Euros and Pounds from the U.S. We use Bank of America, and were able to order the currencies we needed and picked it up at our local branch before our trip. It was the current exchange rate, and if ordering over a certain amount of money, delivery fees were waived. In the past, I’ve used my ATM card as soon as we arrived in a new country, but with the kids and my anxiety that our credit cards or ATM wouldn’t work due to a fraud protection, this was the less stressful option for me. (We notified all of our card companies before we left, but last year my husband went to Germany for an extended work trip, and despite notifying his credit card before he left, they froze his card upon the first charge in Germany and it was a hassle to resolve.)
This was by far the best vacation we’ve ever taken and almost every single thing went perfectly. (Other than the heat wave because that was awful.) Every bit of work that went into planning the trip was worth it. All four of us have great memories of it and I know my kids will carry those forever.