Sep
14

96 Days in Europe. Costs For A Family of Four.

This spring our family of four spent a grand total of 96 days in Europe. With my background in bookkeeping and my incessant need to always know how much we are spending, we kept a detailed log of ALL of our costs along the way. We used a handy, dandy app called Trail Wallet to track our spending. With this app you can record spending by trip (super handy) and input all of your transactions in the local currency. Trail Wallet takes the day’s exchange rates and converts to your home currency (super dandy).

Our trip started out in Vancouver. We were able to drive there from our home base in BC and leave our car at my Uncle’s house (thanks again Uncle Jim!!) We spent the night at a hotel close to Vancouver International that had a free shuttle to the airport for our morning flight. From there we grabbed our direct flights to London. We got a great deal on those flights, $2506.44 CAD return for four people.

Once we arrived in London we were picked up by Mike’s Aunt and Uncle and spent the next five days with them in their flat in Portsmouth, England. How lucky are we to have such good relatives? (Big Love to Aunt Laura and Uncle Jimmy!) From there we flew to Barcelona where we spent an entire month in an Airbnb apartment. Next up came Rome for one week, then Budapest for one month. While spending our month in Budapest, a house sitting gig fell out of the sky and into our laps and we housesat for an amazing family in the Hungarian countryside for the next two weeks. After that, we flew back to London, spent four nights trying not to break the budget in that expensive city, then took a train back down to Portsmouth for another five nights at Mike’s Aunt and Uncles before we flew back to Canada. Read the rest of this entry »

Jun
10

London on the Cheap. Is It Possible?

Is it possible to see London with a family without breaking the bank?

Accommodation

I don’t know that it is possible to do London cheaply….unless you can find a housesitting gig or if you have family to stay with.  We found accommodation in London to be RIDICULOUSLY expensive! It is the most expensive city we have every stayed in!

We spent hours scouring the Internet looking for a reasonably priced hotel room. We even looked at hostels and they were not any cheaper than a hotel since we are a family of four. I asked for advice in Family Travel Groups, searched on Airbnb, and asked friends for their recommendations.

In the end, the cheapest place we could find was a Travelodge, all the way out in Greenwich. The cost? Over $160 CAD per night (About $135 USD) for a very basic room. On the plus side, that room had a queen bed and two singles (Yay for not sharing a bed!) and included a decent buffet breakfast. On the downside, it was nothing special and for that kind of money, I expect something really nice! Depending on traffic it took between 40 minutes to an hour to get into downtown London by bus.

Now if we wanted to save time instead of money, we could have reserved a room in downtown London but that would set us back upwards of $250 per night. No thanks!

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Entertainment

After we mourned the loss of our money on our hotel room, we found that London COULD be seen on the cheap if you are not interested in the tourist traps and what we call artificial entertainment. If you are interested in things like the London Eye, Harry Potter World, and the aquarium, take out a loan. 🙂

We concentrated on seeing London for FREE! Walking around the historic parts costs absolutely nothing. We walked, and walked, and walked, seeing sights such as Big Ben, London Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, and Trafalgar Square and we thoroughly enjoyed it! It is a cool feeling to see in person the iconic buildings that you have seen in media your whole life!

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We also went to some AMAZING MUSEUMS. I must express my gratitude to England for making so many of their world class museums free. Yup, you heard me. Absolutely free for anyone! On each of our three full days, we visited a museum. We started with the amazing British Museum, then explored our kids’ favorite, the Natural History Museum, and finished up our days at the Imperial War Museum. All of these museums were incredible and we highly recommend them.

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London also has some beautiful parks. We whiled away an afternoon in famous Hyde Park which was a nice place to sit in the shade and watch the locals. We also really loved the Princess Dianna Memorial Fountain which is open for kids to play in. Next time we will bring our bathing suits!

Food

Nope, food is not cheap if you plan on eating out. We ate out twice (once at a Museum Cafeteria because we were desperate. Yuck!) and once at a Nandos. The rest of the time we self-catered from Tesco Express. Our staple meal was tortilla shells, sliced roasted chicken, shredded cheese, chopped cucumbers (chopped with a plastic knife since we travel with carry-on only), and hummus. Add a pack of blueberries and a bag of popcorn and we were golden. Since our hotel room did not have a fridge, we asked staff to put our leftovers in the staff fridge and they did so with a smile.

So Can London Be Done On the Cheap?

If you don’t eat out and stick to the free activities (which there are certainly enough of) London can be a reasonably priced city. The only issue is the lack of inexpensive accommodation. The farther out from the city center you get, the cheaper accommodation becomes.

We really loved London and we’ll be back!

This post contains an affiliate link. 🙂

May
28

London And The Kindness Of Strangers

We arrived in London from Budapest tired and a bit anxious to make our way to our hotel in Greenwich so we could settle in for the night. We flew into Stansted Airport which is about an hour North of London. We had pre-purchased tickets on The National Express bus (you pay much less if you pre-purchase) and had everything mapped out on Google maps offline since we were arriving in England without data on our phones. In case you are wondering, we put our cell phone plans at home on “vacation” as the prices to use them in Europe are astronomical. As soon as we get to a new country in Europe we buy a new SIM card and a data plan but this means on the day of arrival we are without Internet.

The bus ride into London was smooth and easy. We took the bus to London Bow station where we planned to take the DLR all the way to our hotel. But, when we got to the station the station was closed for weekend maintenance! What?

With no Internet on our phones ,we were able to sleuth out where the next DLR stop was using offline Google maps and we walked with all of our bags to the next station. We arrived at the second station only to find it was closed too. The entire northern DLR route was closed for the weekend. Talk about bad timing!

By this time we were stressing out. We were tired, in a new city, and had no idea where to go. Seeing we were in distress, an older Muslum man approached us and asked where we were going. He had a very thick accent and a mouth full of beetle nut and was very, very hard to understand! When we could not quite figure out what he was telling us to do he motioned for us to follow him. We did. This kind, old man walked us to the closest bus station, showed us on the board what bus we should take, gave us directions once we got off the bus (we think, we could not quite understand) and then bid us goodbye.

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The correct bus came soon after and Mike talked to the bus driver about our predicament. I went to pay for our fair using our contactless credit card and the machine would not work with my card. We thought we were going to be hooped as we did not have cash on us either (It has been so easy in Europe to only rely on credit cards).  The bus driver told us we did not have to pay and said he would let us know when to get off. When it was time to leave the bus the driver actually took the time to tell us exactly where to go next to get to our hotel.

The kindness of strangers. When you are in a bind, chances are someone will be willing to go out of their way to help you out. What a great introduction to London. 🙂

May
21

Six Awesome Day Trips In Hungary

We have been housesitting in the small town of Erdőkertes, about an hour North of Budapest. While public transport here is still good, it is time-consuming and inconvenient to take busses to explore all that we wanted to see. Because of this, we decided to use the money we are saving on accommodation and rent a car so that we have the freedom to explore the country of Hungary!

Hungary is a small country, especially by Canadian standards. It takes about 5 hours to drive from one side of the country to the other. Since we are situated close to the middle of the country we have been able to explore a lot of things within a two-hour drive from the home we are staying in. We are so happy to have found this housesit, as it has given us such a great opportunity to explore Hungary in an in-depth way. There is so much to see and do outside of Budapest!

Gödöllő

Gödöllő is a town that is easily reachable from Budapest by bus or train. The claim to fame here is the Royal Palace of Gödöllő. The palace is a baroque manor built in the mid 18th century. It was the summer retreat for Franz Joseph and Queen Elisabeth. We enjoyed our visit to the palace grounds although we did not pay to enter the palace rooms as we have seen so many similar things on this trip, including the grand Windsor Castle in England.

 

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Eger

Eger is the largest city in Northern Hungary. We went there to visit the hilltop castle ruins, The Castle of Eger. This castle was ruined and rebuilt numerous times in its tumultuous history. The most famous battle occurred in 1552 when the 3000 occupants held off an invasion of over 30,000 Turkish troops. The entrance cost for our family of four was about $15 CAD. Things are not well signed in English and at first, we wondered exactly what it is we had paid for. But after continuing to explore the different on-site buildings we discovered some really interesting exhibits about the history of the castle and its people. There is even a famous book and a subsequent movie about the battles fought here.

The downtown area of Eger is also worth a visit and it sits directly below the castle hill. We really love how many of the town centers block traffic altogether. It is so nice to stroll down traffic-free streets!

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Esztergom

Esztergom was one of our favorite places to visit. Only 46 km north of Budapest, it is situated on the banks of the Danube river which makes it incredibly picturesque. We loved the waterfront promenade and of course, we had to make the journey across the bridge so that we could say we have been to Slovakia! Esztergom has a beautiful hilltop Basilica and castle with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. We paid to enter the castle museum (about $15 CAD) but in the end, felt that we did not get our money’s worth. While some things had English signs, they were not well done and we did not feel like we learned very much from our visit.

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Aggtelek National Park

Now, we have seen a lot of caves in our travels, many of which have been very impressive but Aggtelek takes the cake in our books. These caves are MASSIVE with chambers that could be concert halls (actually they do hold concerts in one of the chambers!) Aggtelek has Unesco status and it is easy to see why. Millions of years of limestone formations, amazing stalagmites, stalactites, and the largest amount of intact columns we have ever seen.The entrance was well worth the $25 CAD for our family. There is also a cute little playground at the cave entrance. We brought a picnic and spent a good hour at the playground before making the two and a half hour trek back home.

My pictures, taken on my iPhone, don’t do the cave justice and many of them did not turn out. Trust me when I say the cave was truly impressive.

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Vácrátót Botanical Garden

A 27-hectareare park and research center, the Vácrátót Botanical Garden is worth the trip. We enjoyed wandering around the well-maintained pathways through the forest, lakes, and gardens. Our favorite area was the ruined building amongst the trees. Unfortunately, there was no English signage so we don’t know what these ruins are from. The section around the lakes was like a fairy tale forest with these giant trees stretching over the water. So pretty! There are also several large greenhouses that hold plants from different climates. We were not too impressed with these as we have seen many of the tropical and desert plants before in their natural areas.

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Lake Balaton

Lake Balaton is a huge tourist magnet in the summer months attracting hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers seeking some beach time and water sports. We were so happy to have coincided our visit with the hottest day we have had in our six weeks in Hungary. It was so hot that we actually got to have a swim in this gorgeous lake! The lake is HUGE, 77 km long to be exact. So there are plenty of different towns and cities to suit your tastes. We only skimmed the surface (pun intended) of this lake.

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We stopped for lunch in Tihany which sits on a small peninsula on the northwest side of the lake and had a walk around the cute little town. We ate at the coolest of restaurants, Régi Idők, which holds the number one place on Trip Advisor for a reason. This restaurant has so much charm, funk, friendliness, and amazing food!

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By this time the boys were aching for a swim so we stopped to explore the water in Balatonfüred which was lovely. Strangely (to us) we learned that you actually have to pay to go to some of the beaches in this town. Luckily, as it is still off season, the ticket booths were closed and we got to enjoy summer weather without the crowds.

18556970_10154451962382233_5853562326068700041_nThere is so much more to Hungary than Budapest and we are so glad we have been lucky enough to explore some of it. If you have the opportunity rent a car and get out to explore all that Hungary has to offer!

May
17

The Beautiful City of Székesfehérvár

Don’t you just love the name Székesfehérvár? It is one of those typical Hungarian names that people who are not Hungarian look at and wonder how on earth it is pronounced.  After a lot of coaching from our new-found family, I can tell you it is pronounced Say-Kesh-Fair-Har-Var. Easy right?

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Székesfehérvár is less than a one hour train ride outside of Budapest. The train cost our family of four 3200 HUF (about 15 CAD). We were invited here by our cousins on quite a few separate occasions and were lucky enough to explore the city with locals!

At first glimpse, the city seems to be a lot of unadorned apartment blocks, but looking deeper, the city has so much beauty and charm!

The downtown area is simply gorgeous. It is picture-perfect Europe with cobblestone streets, colorful, ornate buildings, statues, churches, and of course what I now equate as a Hungarian National symbol, ice-cream stands! The best part is that the entire area is closed off to cars which makes the streets an absolute joy to wander.

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Of the many statues in the downtown core, the one of “Kati Néni” was our favorite. This statue is of an old lady who lived in Székesfehérvár and would sell her wares in the downtown streets every day.

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One of the most famous attractions in Székesfehérvár is the Bory Castle. While it is not incredibly old (it was built in the early 1900’s) it is a beautiful spot to visit. The castle is filled with statues and artwork and we had a nice time wandering around, despite the cold and rainy weather on the day of our visit.

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Close to the downtown area lies an AMAZING playground that we took full advantage of. This was by far the best playground that we have been to in Europe so far. I think that the trip down to Székesfehérvár is worth it for this playground alone!

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Next to the playground is a peculiar fountain that has people lining up to fill up their bottles. This fountain is quite famous as it spouts a type of water that is rich in minerals like iron. We had a drink…the water sort of salty with a metallic taste. Apparently, it has healing properties.

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Székesfehérvár makes a great (and easy) day trip from Budapest or would make a beautiful destination on its own. Our cousins tell us the downtown area is incredibly beautiful at Christmas time when the area is lit up with Christmas lights and full of vendors. If we ever come back to Hungary, I think this would be a city we could settle down in for a while.

 

May
11

One Month in Budapest

It is hard to believe our one month in Budapest is already over. It seems like we have just arrived and it is already time to leave.

We loved the apartment that we rented for the month with it’s soaring ceilings, large open rooms, enough beds for all of us, and not one, but two couches! Oh, it’s the little things that we appreciate when we are sleeping in other people’s homes for months at a time!

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And although we loved the apartment, we did not fall in love with the area we were in. We were right in the ruin bar district which made things rather loud at night, especially on the weekends. But it was within walking distance to a lot of sites and the metro, bus, and tram stops were all super close.

We loved a lot of things about Budapest. We found that prices were quite reasonable there. Eating out was not too expensive (much less expensive than Barcelona). We could have sit-down meals for about $8 CAD each, and street food like Gyros for $4 CAD each. We also loved the weekend markets and would often go to one each weekend just to try new Hungarian foods.

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May
04

May the 4th Be With You!

From our family to yours, we wish you a very Happy Star Wars Day!

May the 4th be with you!

Star Wars Day is an important holiday in our family. Usually, we are home from our Worldschool Adventures by May the Fourth and we always dress up in our Star Wars costumes and post fun pictures to FB. Today we celebrated it in the city of Budapest by walking around the city to take photos of our Star Wars mini figures. Enjoy!

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May
03

Public Transport In Budapest

Budapest has some of the most efficient public transport we have ever experienced. Virtually the entire city is accessible by trains, trams, buses, metros, and boats. There is no need at all to take a taxi anywhere and the public transport is on time and inexpensive.

Our family of four ended up purchasing a one-month pass that covers all of the public transport within the city. The cost of this was approx. $45 CAD each (30 USD). The unfortunate part about that was that our children SHOULD have been about half of that price, however, since we homeschool and had no student ID cards for them, the ticket ladies REFUSED to sell us student tickets. Trust us when we tell you that we tried, we even had three amazing ladies from Budapest go out of their way to argue on our behalf! But alas, no discounted tickets. If we ever come back we will make up some fake student ID cards because paying an adult price for a child because of an arbitrary rule is just plain ridiculous.

Anyways, rant over. We really love the transport here, especially the above ground yellow trams. They are so cheerful and are a fantastic way to see the city. Indeed, many days we just hop on a tram without really knowing where we are heading. Then, when we see something that looks interesting, we hop off! We have found many a playground with this strategy!

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Apr
24

One Of Our Best Travel Days Ever

We specifically chose to come to Hungary because of our ancestry. Or rather, Mike’s ancestry, although I am equally as interested. You see, Mike’s father was in born in Hungary and he immigrated to Canada when he was 25 years old. We were keen to come to Hungary to see where Mike’s father was born and to get a feel for the country he grew up in.

Now, being that Mike’s father was an only child, we did not have too much family to visit. There are a few cousins we knew we would get in touch with but none of them speak English which meant that communication was going to be difficult. Mike also had a Facebook friend named Zoltan in Hungary whom he had friended years ago but did not have much contact with. We share the same last name so we knew we were related to him but we did not know how we were related.

That is where things start to get interesting. When we announced our next stop on our European itinerary was Hungary, Zoltan asked us if we would like to get together while we were here. Of course we said yes! Zoltan and his wife took the train from where they live to Budapest and we spent the day together trying to figure out how we were related. After much searching on Zoltan’s part through old family trees and talking to relatives in Hungary, Zoltan has traced our routes back to the 1700’s when two brothers came from Poland to Hungary to the small village of Madarász where they worked to build a church. They stayed in Hungary and started families. We are the descendants. Zoltan figured out that we are actually 5th cousins!

Even before we knew for sure how we are related, in a shining example of Hungarian hospitality, Zoltan invited our family to our ancestral village of Madarász to his Grandmother’s house for an Easter lunch. The whole family was there to celebrate Easter together and we were invited into their family home with open arms and open hearts. I don’t know that I have ever felt so welcomed or so loved by strangers!

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Apr
16

Visiting the Vatican Museum (Without buying tickets online)

OK, OK, you have heard me tell you this before. We are cheap thrifty. We are here in Europe for three and a half months and we need to be careful with our Euros! That is why, against all online advice, we decided to not pre-purchase our tickets for the Vatican Museum in Rome. In what seems to me to be a ridiculous money grab, if you purchase your tickets in advance to avoid the huge lines you have to pay an extra 4€ per ticket for an online ticketing fee. That is 16€ for our family of four so we decided to take our chances and wait in line onsite for our tickets.

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Yes, there were long lines as you can see above but it wasn’t too big a deal for us. We decided to go after lunch so that our bellies would be full and there would be less of a rush to finish (visiting anywhere on an empty stomach is a recipe for disaster). We waited in line for almost exactly one hour. Or you could say we paid ourselves 16€ to stand around for an hour. Well worth our time in my books. Read the rest of this entry »

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