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Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Europe 101: Plan Perfect!

Europe is an icon of the travel world. With so many places to choose from and so many details to consider, any traveler can become overwhelmed! Fear not Euro-traveler! We are here to answer the most important questions! Let’s make your trip to Europe plan perfect. If you are just getting started, we highly recommend checking out our first Europe 101 post and podcast to get your basic plans started.

What can I do to make my trip to Europe better?

Hundreds of destinations and thousands of experiences await anyone traveling to Europe and the best advice we have is to go with your gut and create a balance of activities that you know you will truly enjoy. We love to share our ideas to help you decide if an icon or smaller experience is just right for you. With so many details to consider, here’s our list of starting line tips to make your plans work for you!

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  • When considering booking an Airbnb, be sure to check out if the owner is local instead of a corporation that has a resident manager. It puts money back into the local economy. Ask your Airbnb if they have bikes or other equipment to use. Airbnb is also taking donations to help out Ukrainian refugees so, if you can, consider donating a night or two.
  • Driving a standard can be one of the biggest cost savers in Europe (or anywhere for that matter). The reality of rental car pricing means that more efficient cars like standards are cheaper to rent. Learn to drive the standard!!
  • Be mindful of Spring events surrounding Holy week. Many festivities and closures could put a damper on your best laid plans and create quite a hiccup. Conversely, seek them out! They are fun!
  • Be a responsible shopper and always buy local especially when you are looking for travel souvenirs. Check out where things have been manufactured and only reinvest money into the local economy. There’s no reason to make someone on the other side of the world money.
  • Look up and go down! Europe is full of so much! As you make your way through your trip, be sure to check out Europe’s fascination with ceilings. Then again, plan a few excursions to see what’s under your feet. Here are a few examples: in Rome, look up at all the church ceilings, in Edinburgh, check out the cool closes, in Paris explore the sewer museum, in Nuremberg learn the history of the WWII art bunkers, and in London, take a ride on the mail rail.

Are hop on hop off busses worth it?

Yes and no. Hop on, hop off busses are incredibly popular and there are a few cities where we think they are totally worth it. On the other hand, there are quite a few cities where they clog up the roads and make life miserable. We think that so many choices come down to whether or not there is a good reason to take the bus other than just ride around. Here are our picks and why:

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Yay!

  • Edinburgh: Use it to go out to see the Brittania
  • Rome: The bus links all of the major piazzas together in a efficient ring
  • Paris: but only at night to see the uplit magic of the city of lights

Nay!

  • Dublin: they clog up the streets with the Viking tours
  • Athens: traffic! traffic! traffic!
  • Amsterdam: the canals are far better to get around
  • Munich: bikes or a bike taxi are a better choice

What are the best city passes in Europe?

It’s a decision we go back and forth on often. Is it worth buying the big city museum pass or should we skip it? Our rule of thumb is if you are staying for more than three days and you are attending at least three venues that are included in the pass, then there is a good chance that a museum pass is for you. We do, however, have some favorites:

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  • Paris City Pass: It covers hundreds of places both big and small including The Louvre and Versailles. It does NOT cover the Eiffel Tower.
  • London Oyster Pass: Everything that’s not part of the Royal Household including transport.
  • The Vatican: If you want to see anything past St. Peter’s Basilica, you NEED this ticket!
  • Krakow City Pass: Art, archeology, WII sites and more are included.
  • Amsterdam City Pass: Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum are both included making it well worth the price.

What tickets do I need to get before going to Europe?

As much as we would all like to just hop on a plane and wing it, the truth is that some of the most popular venues sell out weeks and months in advance. Here are some of the most popular as well as some popular places that really don’t need pre-planning.

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Pre-plan it!

  • Nueshwanstien Castle, Bavaria
  • Anne Frank House, Amsterdam
  • Sagrada Familia, Barcelona  
  • The Vatican Necropolis (St. Peter’s Tomb) Please see our information on Rome by clicking here.                                

Wing it!

  • Blarney Castle
  • Auschwitz
  • Parthenon
  • Mont Saint Michele

What destinations in Europe need a car rental?

  • Ireland, the Wild Atlantic Way awaits and the public transport in this area is not that great. It’s time to drive on the other side of the road.
  • Bavaria, don’t get us wrong, German trains are super great. But, driving these back roads lets you stay on your own time schedule and, quite frankly, they are super fun to drive!
  • Tuscany, a car is certainly needed to explore this countryside. Use the great trains to get you close then pick up a rental near the train station.
  • Normandy, you can also pick up a rental at the Bayeaux train station and then explore the coastline on your own time. This means that you are not depending on public transport to get you to the most important sites.
  • Scottish Highlands, yes there are trains but like Ireland, Normandy, and Bavaria, a car will allow you to coast through the countryside at your own speed.
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6 last tips about very specific places:

Lots of little tips can help you feel more comfortable as you travel. For example, using “international” words like photo and toilet can be far more productive than saying picture or restroom (isn’t that a room where you rest?!). Here are some more little gems that might apply to your next European adventure:

  • Bullfights in the Azores do not kill the bulls! It’s an ethical way to experience this culture.
  • Worst traffic in Europe is in Istanbul!
  • Royal Ascot tickets may be available through your embassy in London. Google their site because you need to apply.
  • You can river raft on the lochs of Scotland! Just on certain days. Check out our coverage of Scotland here.
  • The Notre Dame is scheduled to open back up in 2024 just in time for the Olympics!
  • Your Louvre Ticket will allow you to leave and come back throughout the day whether you use a City Pass or not.
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We can answer:

  • Where should I rent a car in Europe?
  • What tickets do I need to buy in advance in Europe?
  • How can I decide on what to preplan for my tip to Europe?
  • What are the best travel tips for Europe?
  • Should I use a hop on hop off bus in Europe?
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Travel U for Kids

Travel U: The Great Read Aloud

As I was scrolling through Facebook today, I came across a meme that read: Kids never age out of being read to aloud. I can not tell you how true this is. I sometimes think that older kids enjoy books being read to them far more than younger ones. So, what is it? What is the magic that makes kids enjoy the great read aloud?

When kids are just the receivers of words and they don’t have to decode the print, their minds can focus in on the storyline and visualization a good book brings to life. Kids- young and old- will always need to practice their own reading but they also need to practice these comprehension skills too. Reading develops focused stamina and creates a sense of calm as minds race to construct the setting and characters in their minds. Perhaps this was the idea behind the mom who invented the bedtime story.

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So, how do you choose the right book to read aloud? Well, kids as young as kindergarten can listen to chapters of a book without pictures if the interest is high and the timing is right. An example might be the sweet series, The Littles written by John Peterson. This book of adventure has quick chapters and allows a young mind to soar as the characters conquer on problem after another. Older kids may be more interested in a read like The Book Thief. It’s an essential story to truly understand the world and well worth the time.

So, what do read alouds have to do with travel? More importantly, how can we use them to our strategic advantage while traveling?! Well, to answer both questions at the same time, I suggest that a good book could very well be a lifesaver in a host of travel situations.

  • Airport delays: 30 minutes in an airplane seat can be agonizing especially if you didn’t plan for it.
  • Road trip distractions: Hours in the car can lead to whiny moods and bored attitudes. Reading from a book or listening to an audiobook can be just the remedy.
  • Rainy days stuck in hotel rooms: Let’s face it, sometimes Netflix just doesn’t cut it. Break up the monotony with a read aloud that let’s kids imaginations soar.
  • Waiting in long lines: Whether it’s a theme park or the slow cue at the London Eye, a read aloud may be just the distraction you need.
  • Enjoying a shady tree in a park: Sometimes downtime is just the right time to sit back and enjoy the outdoors with a good book. Kids can benefit from practicing this particular skill now more than ever.

Read on to check out some of our all time favorite picks to spark the travel imagination! Note that some of the links below are affiliate links. I only recommend products & brands I love and that I think you would love, too!

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

London

P.L. Travers’ epitome of literary perfection is Mary Poppins. I know, I know, you saw the movie and it was delightful but, folks, the movie is just the tip of the iceberg! Trust me when I say that the movie is only half of Mary’s charm. Travers books are in-depth, thoughtful, smartly written with a timelessness that needs enjoyment as well as effort. Travers dives deep into Edwardian England and gives one a sense of historical understanding. This book is the perfect read aloud for young imaginations or an addictive bedtime read for the older set. So, go beyond the Jolly Holiday and put away the sugar because a spoonful of the one and only Mary Poppins is practically perfect in every way!

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What to see

Check out the Stanhope Gardens area to see a real life Cherry Tree Lane then head over to Regents Park to enjoy a little Jolly Holiday Time. Take time to explore past the steps of St. Paul’s and take a walk past the formidable Bank of London. While the movie touches on all of these sites, don’t forget to enjoy the London Zoo and dazzling Harrods that are book based. Wind up your practically perfect time with a Mary Poppins Themed tea at Aqua Shard then jaunt out to Windsor for a bit of high speed race course fun.

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Percy Jackson and The Lightening Thief

New York City, Athens

The rest of the first book and, yes, the series, gives a modern take on a very old soap opera. These Greek gods are not infallible. In fact, they could give General Hospital a run for their melodrama money. With too many kids and far too much emotional time on their hands, they often make mistakes and, in turn, create quite the pickle for the kids. The good news is, any reader will walk away with a rudimentary understanding of this twisty family tree!

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What To See

Start at the Met in New York City. The book starts letting Percy in on his real background here. Author Rick Riordan does a masterful job of describing the museum and leading you right to the room where the first battle with the darker side of things occurs. Additionally, a trip to the top of the Empire State Building toward the end of the book may be in order.

Use the rest of the first book and the whole series to familiarize with the mortal homes of the main players. For example, chapter 13 is a perfect reread while visiting the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. While chapter 21 may ring just a little more true on top of the Acropolis and in the shadow of the Parthenon. It’s the closest thing to where the gods would actually meet.

Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone

London, Scotland, Theme Parks

Harry is 10. His family is horrible. He receives a letter and magic ensues. This masterpiece of descriptive literature is the brainchild, literally, of J.K. Rowling. Harry will take you on a 7 volume epic that will have you questioning whether you are more magic than muggle yourself! Rowling used a series of locations that she knew well as the basis for the many magical locations in her story.

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What To See

The queen of describing her self created world of Harry Potter does an incredible job of intertwining fantasy and reality. While Harry may be riding the Hogwarts Express, any visitor to the Highlands can enjoy the magic on the Jacobite train. Want to pop in to Diagon Alley for a new book from Flourish and Blotts? Well, the many alleyways and closes in great cities like Edinburgh and London may have you feeling like you can. Test out Mary’s King Close on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile for what awaits in book 2’s chapters 3 and 4! Speaking of London, King’s Cross Station stands proudly and is ready to ensure that you find Platform 9 3/4 like any good witch or wizard should.

But probably the very best place to read this story out loud is in line at Harry Potter World. That’s right, if you are waiting in line for the Hogwarts Express, read Rowling’s description from chapter 6. In line for the Gringott’s ride? Chapter 5 will keep you entertained. Put these theme parks to the test by searching out each and every detail. It will make the time pass and make the rides even better.

The Book Thief

Poland

A dark read, as the entire passage is narrated by Death itself, the book thief follows the journey of Leisel on Himmel Street. She must learn to live through and past the atrocities of World War II: a life lesson like no other. With a nod toward how important the little things are, like books, Leisel teaches us all to appreciate how to march on after tragedy.

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What To See

Set in Germany, The Book Thief captures a feeling of a generation who lost so very much. This loss often defines the overall spirit of many central European countries. None wear this spirit more clearly than Poland. Visiting Krakow and Auschwitz are moving experiences that will instill a love for the life we live now. Other important sites in Poland include the Warsaw Zoo (read The Zookeeper’s Wife), the Gdansk Shipyards (understand solidarity) and Wawel Hill to see beyond the 20th Century.

Hoot and The Case Of The Missing Manatee

The Everglades and The Florida Keys

With a movie scored by none other than Jimmy Buffet, Hoot has a South Florida vibe like no other. Main character Roy is a transplant from Montana who befriends a local boy determined to help the endangered ground owls. On the same note, The Missing Manatee is a mystery that Skeet needs to solve. But middle schoolers don’t necessarily have the chance to investigate unless…. Skeet’s tarpon fishing boat is his prized possession and comes in quite handy.

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What To See

Both books completely capture the Everglades ebb and flow of water and land perfectly. And in real life this is most evident in the Keys. Take a road trip over bridge after bridge and island after island. Stop and enjoy the mangroves. Learn from the locals who know the waters better than the streets. Explore Everglades National Park. Take time to understand why humans need to do a better job for our planet.

Katie In London

As a bonus, I’m throwing in this delightful read for the younger set. Katie is a curious girl ready to explore all kinds of art and all kinds of places. She is the perfect introduction to the world of travel for any young mind.

Music is a read aloud too!

I often think that good read alouds have all of the qualities of good storytellers. Whether we hear those stories from family members, whether we seek out professionals who can spin a good yarn, or whether we invest in the lyrics of great songwriters, storytelling surrounds us in so many ways. But stories that travelers connect to, often take us through the setting and inspire us to understand a location like no other medium. Take for example Paul McCartney’s ode to childhood: Penny Lane. Listen at the 2:20 mark as the master of songwriting takes you right through his hometown. It’s like a map!

Travel and books are partners.

There’s something about learning as you travel. The experience is real. Sometimes awe inspiring, sometimes overwhelming, other times- though not as often- disappointing. There is something about reading a sign in a museum or church rather than a caption in a book. Then again, buying a copy of Alice in Wonderland in Oxford probably has a joy that can’t be quantified. It is this sense of wonder-this carpe diem attitude- that inspires me to be an educator. And it is this relationship that makes me strive to create global citizens.

Learning and travel go hand in hand!

A generation of curious minds who strive to learn how others take on their daily life. I find even the youngest of students have that same natural curiosity to connect to places they haven’t been. And there is always that one spirit, that one child who looks at a book of maps for the very first time and has a feeling that they just can’t identify, the feeling of wanderlust. And just like that, with those little hands exploring that globe… Another gypsy is born, another global citizen hatched. Witnessing that life changing moment is priceless. And that my friends, that’s the ticket!

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Babcia and Yia Yia!, Notes on Planning and Packing, Study Hall: Essays On Travel

Plus Size Travel 2.0

It’s us! We’re back! Yep! We are back for another look at how the plus size traveler can conquer any challenge that comes her way. Whether it’s trying to find the best spot to sit on a plane or the challenge of streamlining your suitcase, we are here to make plus size travel just a bit easier for anyone who carries just a little more with them than the clothes in their suitcase.

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Plus Size Travel Writers That Are Keeping It Real!

Mary Fran is a plus sized woman who keeps the humor in day to day life as well as travel. She’s become so popular on TicTok that Good Morning America featured her in one of their human interest segments. Meet Mary Fran by clicking here to the original GMA article.

In A Letter To My Thin Friend by Lacie-Jade Christie, the author takes some time to give her friend her perspective on how a plus sized traveler feels dealing with big moments like hiking and little moments like sitting in an airplane seat. Read A Letter To My Thin Friend and link to more stories in this series by clicking here.

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Looking at our clothes

What are you self conscious about when you travel? For us, we are constantly striving to fit in and not impose on others. For us, embracing our size not only means caring for ourselves but also blending into the group we are with or the place that we are spending time. This balance may start with our mindset but always, always, finds its way to our wardrobe.

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Taking our clothes on a test drive.

Recently, we’ve been working really hard to make sure every single thing we put into our bags has a good reason for being there. To test out our ideas, we’ve been giving our travel wardrobe a test drive. Here are some of the results! Note that some of the links below are affiliate links. I only recommend products & brands I love and that I think you would love, too!

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  • The jumpsuit solution: jumpsuits are in style right now and plus size women can seize upon this great wardrobe choice to make going out comfortable whether its day or night! Jumpsuits can look sporty or give just the right glam vibe no matter where you travel.
  • Raincoat regrets: There’s always one item that makes its way to the top of the should or shouldn’t I list and that’s our raincoat. It can be a waste of space or the best thing in our bag. I went to Victoria Falls and never pulled it out even though it was recommended and was in the sunniest part of Germany wishing I had one! Take it or leave it, it’s awfully hard to find one in a plus size when you are out and about.
  • Leggings: Whether you use them to work out or to keep warm or comfy, leggings pack small and find so many ways to be part of any capsule wardrobe. We confess! We fell into the rabbit hole of LuLaRoe and we apologize for even thinking this was a good idea. These days, you can find leggings in our wardrobe that don’t include tacos or palm trees. Some of our favorite leggings include great finds from LuLuLemon and Lane Bryant.     

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The classic V-neck: Plus size tops can be so very difficult. They stretch across our boobs, hang too low or act like an unsightly crop top or simply make us look far larger than we are! We are always on the search for V-necks that compliments our neck line so we don’t look like we are strangling ourselves and are just the right length to cover without shortening our legs so we look like oompaloompas. Call us when you find them.   

Bra Basics: The girls always need a lot of attention when you are plus size. Traveling brings a whole new set of challenges to lift, separate, and flatter. Bras need to be super supportive as well as washing and drying easily. It’s not an easy task! We love these super cheap strapless bras (with no clasp to break) as well as our Third Love bras. TL does a great job of fitting you correctly. Not always something that is done well.  We are hoping that plus size bras become more readily available but we don’t expect this to be something that  to be any time soon.    

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  • Scarves or pashminas: One way that we can save room in our luggage is to forego a jacket during fair weather travels. I mean, in the end, we barely use it especially when we’re ducking in and out of shops and museums. And when we do commit to the whole jacket thing we wind up in a sweat juggling a jacket with packages while my mother looks on in disdain. Can we say overheated?! Lately, our jacket alternative is a pashmina and a light scarf that both have a multitude of uses. It’s a blanket on the plane and a jacket that easily wraps around the handle of our handbag. A lighter scarf is a great accessory and a great way to add a little variety to a capsule wardrobe. Both pack small and both do a better job than a jacket.
  • Plus size swimsuits: Ugh. Can we just say this is one of our least favorite topics? We have, however, over the years picked up a few ideas that help. First, no matter what size you are, there is a two piece swimsuit for you. Two piece swimsuits offer plenty of coverage while being far easier to get on and get off whether you are dry or wet. Trust us! We’ve both been dealing with the swimsuit wriggle for far too long, we know what we’re talking about! The next thing that we highly suggest is to have a dedicated packing cube just for your suit. It will always be ready to go and it will take up hardly any space at all! Our cube is small enough to even fit in our bag.
  • Compression socks: This may be our favorite trip saver! Compression socks are known to help with swelling but did you know it also helps with fatigue which could aid in jet lag!? We’ll take it! Unfortunately, not all socks fit plus sized legs! Check out some of our picks below.

How Do You Streamline Your Luggage?

Pop quiz! If you raise your hand if your suitcase is always bigger than everyone else’s even though you have the same amount of stuff. We’ve come up with a few ways to help streamline the amount of stuff we pack up and here are just a few of those thoughts.

  • Staying Make up free is a great choice we’ve made to keep our skin fresh and our bags just a little lighter. Between both of us, we carry one gloss, a brow pencil and mascara. We are done.
  • Compression cubes shrink things down and can be a life saver when trying to stay organized. We use them for everything especially the “just in case” items like swim suits and rain jackets.  
  • Laundry options including where the laundromats are where you are going and Tide sticks is a huge piece of the puzzle for the “my boobs catch a little of everything I eat” crowd. A few dryer sheets in our shoes are not such a bad idea either.
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What technology do you truly use when you travel?

Let’s face it: travelers need their technology to do double duty. We need items that earn their keep in our bags. In fact, even though we podcast and we have definitely committed to leaving the big camera and computer at home. Instead we focus on making our iPhone earn its keep!           

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