France! Our family visited this past summer and it was lovely. It was the three of us, my boyfriend, my 9 year old son, and me. Some people are wary of travelling with kids, and that’s understandable. Kids are messy and stinky and complain a lot, but despite all of that, my kiddo is one of my favorite travel companions. I was excited to take him to France because he’s been obsessed with it since he was three years old. While the trip was enjoyable overall, I learned a lot about traveling with him and traveling in general on this trip.
I thought I was pretty decent traveler to begin with. I can pack light, I know what should go in a carry on bag, and I try to be considerate and make sure my son is considerate of other travelers. If you’re sitting in front of my kid on a flight your seat won’t be kicked. Getting him to keep his feet on his side on a train though is a little more difficult. What follows are some lessons I learned while on this trip to France.
Lesson 1: Get into tourist mode right away. This may sound weird to you, especially if you want to blend in and “live like a local”. I totally understand that feeling, but here’s the fact, you’re not a local. You are a tourist. That doesn’t mean you are allowed to be obnoxious, and it doesn’t give you permission to be an asshole, but you’re not local. You’re likely staying in a hotel, you don’t know the streets, you won’t know the in’s and out’s of all the places you’re visiting. So don’t pretend like you are a local and go out unprepared.
I did this on one of our first big outings to Versailles. My first mistake was that I brought my purse with my wallet and sunglasses. And that’s it. It was a whole day trip, a 30 minute drive from our hotel, with my kid in tow and that’s all I brought. That was real dumb. I should have brought my medium sized bag with sunscreen, bottled water, snacks, and our pouch with meds, band-aids etc. Because there were no stores with these items inside the palace. I assumed there would be, but my assumption was super incorrect. So we walked into Versailles, got our audio guides then went looking for a bottle of water since it was hot and we were parched. We learned we’d have to exit the palace (which we hadn’t toured yet), turn in our audio guides, buy water then wait in the long line to get in again. Traveler fail. We toured the palace, thirsty and a bit grumpy. Had I been prepared with our mid-sized bag with water and snacks it would have been a better experience.
My second mistake at Versailles was the fact that I insisted on eating at this overpriced, fancy restaurant for breakfast. We arrived at Versailles around 9:30am and there was basically no line to get in, we could have walked right in. But I really wanted to try this place called Ore. So we made a reservation for 10am and waited a bit. At first it seemed like it would be a fun experience (the hostess was nice), but we were quickly proven wrong. This was the only place I experience the “bad french attitude” I’d heard so much about. It was overpriced and the portions were tiny. But mostly the staff was so rude. We spent a little over an hour in this snotty place. By this time the line to get in to the palace was winding through the front courtyard. Unless you want to pay out the nose for a snotty experience, then wait in line for 30 minutes, skip going to Ore and get to Versailles early to beat the line up.
My last mistake was wondering around to find water. This can be avoided if you decide not to be a dum-dum and bring your own water. The audio tour starts right after you receive the device and it follows a pretty distinct path. Wandering around aimlessly will get you lost and you’ll miss large chunks of the tour. It will also take twice as long as you try to find your way back to the starting point.
Versailles was a beautiful experience and I wish we could have gone again so I could fix my mistakes and actually enjoy it a little more. My traveler flubs made it a difficult day and I missed a lot things I would have liked to see, like the gardens, the Queen’s Hamlet and the Estate of Trianon. Had we skipped Ore and brought our own refreshment we might have covered more ground and enjoyed ourselves more.
So don’t be afraid to bust out the mid-sized bag when going to the big tourist destinations. They’re going to be full of tourists anyway, might as well join the maddening crowd.
Lesson 2: Have a discussion about expectations before you go. My kid is obsessed with video games, and my boyfriend is too. It’s their hobby, they love them. I don’t, but I try to be understanding. So it’s natural that on their vacation they wanted to play them. I didn’t realize before I left that I had certain expectations around vacations; especially family vacations. I suppose I had this idea in my head that we’d spend the whole day together then come back to the hotel and chat about what we liked, what was weird etc before we disengaged from each other. The truth of what happened was more like we got back to the hotel and immediately started ignoring each other which bummed me out. Our mistake was that we didn’t discuss how we liked to relax at the hotel at the end of the day. I also didn’t discuss my expectations regarding screen time with the kid before we left, so that was also a mistake.
It got to the point where Jack was bringing a device out with him everyday and pretty much playing it the entire time. He missed our first whole week in Paris because of this. On our Big Bus Tour he didn’t look around and see things and learn things. He stared at his phone and that bummed me out.
I took him out for a walk on our last morning in Paris. As we walked I talked to him about his devices. I told him about how I worried that he was playing on them too much and becoming a one dimensional person at 8 years old. He used to want to try so many things. When we were in Scotland he ran around and played while we were out. He looked around and saw things. He was present on that vacation, because his iPad wasn’t really a thing yet. This is actually a deeper issue for the two of us which I may or may not write about later. But there was an element of that deeper stuff in our conversation.
So basically we had a big conversation about expectations and being present, but it didn’t happen until a week into our vacation, so he missed a lot of it. Things improved a little more each day as we adjusted and did our best to meet each others expectations. But it would have been so much better if we’d sat down and had a family meeting before we left. Going on vacation with grievances on your mind makes for a crappy getaway.
Lesson 3: Packing is an art. I’ve been traveling for some time now. Our first international trip as a little family was back in 2014 when Jack and I went to Scotland. I totally and utterly over packed for that trip. I brought clothes that never saw the light of day, because although it was summer, it was also Scotland, so those shorts and tank tops stayed packed away in our gigantic suitcase. Now that Jack is a little older, he can handle pulling his own suitcase through the airport, which is helpful when it comes to packing. The reason we took such a huge suitcase to Scotland was the fact that I put both Jack and my clothes in the same bag. At the time I didn’t think he could handle taking care of his own bag so it made sense. But here’s what might have made more sense, pack a rolling bag for me, a duffel for Jack and utilize the space in our backpacks better. I think that would have made train travel less stressful.
For France I did things differently. I packed enough undergarments and socks for the duration of the trip, but only packed a little over a weeks worth of clothes. We were going to be gone for about two and half weeks. The idea was to pack pieces that could be mixed and matched easily. The thing with France, Paris especially, is that they are bit more dressed up on the regular over there. Casual wear in France is more like business casual in the US. And I only have so many business casual pieces. I only purchased two new tops and one new skirt for this trip. It worked out pretty well. I was more careful when eating knowing I was going to have to re-wear a lot of my outfits, but that wasn’t too bad. My sister and boyfriend will tell you, I can afford to be a little more careful when eating. I packed the same way for Jack, of course he dribbled stuff on his clothes often. But usually a scrub in the bathroom sink took care of that.
Additionally, many hotels offer laundry services. They can be a little pricey, but if you’re desperate for a clean shirt or pants it could be worth it. Personally I’d only utilize that service if there’s a huge stain or if the garment is getting really stinky, which after only two and half weeks wasn’t a problem for me. At three or four weeks though I would absolutely toss everything in the laundry bag and say go to town! There were a few backpackers we came across that would have benefited from such a service.
Lesson 4: When it comes to train travel, just relax. I admit it, I have some bad travel anxiety. It’s sort of weird because it’s not the act of traveling that stresses me out. Planes, trains, boats, and automobiles don’t make me nervous, I don’t get motion sick, nothing reasonable like that. It’s the thought of missing my plane, train, or boat that stresses me out.
So I usually arrive hours ahead of time and then end up ridiculously bored waiting for my plane to board. But I always thought it’s better to arrive and wait were you should be then arrive late and panic through security.
Train travel in France, however, does not follow with this. We left Paris for Marseille on a Sunday. Our train was leaving around Noon so I insisted we get a cab to the station around 10:30am, which felt a little late, but I was trying to be chill. We arrived at the train station around 11am and our train was listed on the board but there was no gate letter yet. In fact the place it told us to be, had no access to trains at all. We printed our tickets and wandered around staring at monitors that all told us the same thing, hang out in Hall 3. But there were no train gates in Hall 3 my brain screamed at me. We found an employee and he told us Hall 2 Gate O. So we went up to Hall 2 and found Gate O but there was no train. By this time it was nearing on to 11:30am. My boyfriend told me to try to relax, the train wouldn’t leave without us because it wasn’t even here yet, just give it time. I thought that sounded insane, but tried to relax. Hall 2 was wicked hot so we got in line at a Starbucks for some iced teas. After we got through the line and got our iced teas our train finally arrived at 11:50am at a gate that was most definitely not O. Everyone gathered and pushed through the gates, scanning their own tickets and going through no security at all. We got on the train and settled in. I learned that day that trains don’t operate like planes do. They arrive minutes before they’re set to leave and then once the crowd is mostly on the train they leave. What’s funny is there was several people on our train that didn’t have a seat assignment, so they sat in the luggage areas. I wondered if they snuck through or if they actually sold tickets like that, ‘here’s a ticket on, but just ya know find a place to put your booty’…it was weird.
So I guess I learned to be a little more laid back, which later bit me in the ass the next time we went to the airport.
Remember how I said I relaxed a little bit. Well on the day we were set to return to Seattle I think I relaxed too much. I discussed with my boyfriend the night before when he thought we should head to the airport. Our flight was leaving at 10:20am and to my surprise he said we should leave around 8am, which is when I was thinking. I should have taken that as a warning to leave earlier, alas I did not. We aimed to leave by 8am and we actually managed to get checked out and calling an Uber close to that time, but the problem was very few Ubers operate at 8am on a Thursday morning in Paris. So we had to ask the front desk for a taxi which cost us 8 extra minutes. There wasn’t too much traffic on the way there, but then we arrived at the airport only to discover the driver only takes cash. So my boyfriend left us with the bags and the driver and ran into the airport to get Euros. We paid the driver then discovered he’d dropped us off as far away from our airline as possible. Check in was alllll the way at the other end of the terminal. We finally checked in, got our boarding passes and printed our bag tags for checking our luggage. We were directed to the Delta bag drop where we waited in the wrong line for 5 minutes and in the right line for 3. We dropped our bags and the checker made a comment about us needing to hurry. We finally get to the first security check and we wait for about 47 years. I’m starting to get super duper stressed. We get through the first border check then dash to the train (of course our gate is one of those ones you have to tram to) just squeezing in before the doors close. We have Sky Priority (good choice past Staci/Pouya) so we get to skip the intimidatingly long line of security to a less intimidating line. Finally we’re through security and we go jogging to our gate. It’s not a full out run because boarding for our flight only started about 10 minutes before but I’m full of adrenaline and stress so we jog through. We make it onto our plane catching our breath, getting comfortable, settling in, when the captain comes on the speaker. He says that due to Bastille Day practices there’s only one runway, so we’ll be pushing off about 30 minutes later than planned. After all that, it was a bit delayed. I’m sure it’s still better that we got on the plane on time, but still, that was frustrating.
So that taught me, hang on to your anxiety a little bit, so that next time there are those little 8 minute bumps in the road (which add up quite quickly) you won’t be so pressed for time that you’re running through the airport to a delayed plane.