Budapest, Hungary

Of all of the cities we were scheduled to see on this summer trip, Budapest was the one I (Jen) was least excited for. It’s silly really — I used to have a friend from Romania and if you’re not aware, the Hungarians and Romanians have a complicated, difficult relationship. For that reason, this friend used to regularly tell me how awful Hungary was and basically, without me realizing it, she planted in me a preconceived notion that I would not like Budapest. Which is ridiculous, because Budapest absolutely wowed me!

We arrived at night so it wasn’t until the next morning that I realized what a beautiful city Budapest was. Separated in the middle by the Dabube River, one side of the river is the Buda side of the city and the other is the Pest side. Full of history, the gorgeous architecture along the banks of the river had me surprised at every turn.

We spent one morning on a river cruise with audio tour — one of my favorite things we’ve done all summer long. Typically I’m not able to give my full attention during an audio tour at a museum because I’m busy wrangling Matteo but here he was contained and enjoying just being on the boat so I was able to actually listen to the tour as we cruised down the river.

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Buda’s Castle

Our hotel was in a great location, just down the hill from Buda’s Castle. The castle itself is stunning, but the views you get when you reach the top of the stairs — WOW! Absolutely amazing. We also spent a morning on Margaret’s Island where we rented a family bicycle (which I thought Matteo would love  — and he did, for about 5 minutes and then it was “this is boring”).

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Climbing trees on Margaret’s Island

On our third day in Budapest, Tony picked up our rental car for the next portion of the trip — a road trip from Budapest to Kosice, Slovakia > Zakopane, Poland > Krakow, Poland > Ostrava, Czech Republic > Bratislava, Slovakia and finally back to Budapest, Hungary to return the rental car and fly out of Budapest and back to Abu Dhabi.

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Tallinn, Estonia

Leaving Riga, Latvia, we took a bus for the 4 hour drive to our next stop, Tallinn, Estonia. Again, we booked this trip all with the end goal in mind — Helsinki, Finland for our flight to Toronto. Tallinn was the perfect next location because it is right across the bay from Helsinki.

The bus ride was actually AWESOME! All four of us were surprised by how much we enjoyed it. The bus was new, and comfortable, with wifi and in-seat entertainment — the library of movies/tv was better than many flights we’ve taken! Driving through the countryside to Estonia was as comfortable as it could be, and all three of us were able to get short naps on the way.

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Tony and Matteo preparing to get on the bus to Tallinn

When we arrived at the train station in Tallinn, we grabbed a cab to take us to our next Airbnb. We stayed in a third floor apartment in a new building only 5 minutes out of Tallinn’s Old Town. This Airbnb was PERFECT for so many reasons — not only were we walking distance to the Old Town, but we were right next to a grocery store (so nice when you’re traveling with a child!), and the apartment itself was incredibly family friendly. There were lots of toys for Matteo to play with, and he ended up being so comfortable that he told me “this place is way more better than our apartment.” Um, thanks Matteo.

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Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn is BEAUTIFUL. It quickly climbed to the top of the list when it comes to favorite cities we’ve travelled to. It is beautiful and charming, with its well maintained, yet ancient walled fortress that makes its beautiful, famous tourist area. Coincidentally, we also had a fantastic Mexican meal in Tallinn (if you’re there, check out Taqueria). I was more than content spending all day just wandering the streets of the Old Town, stopping in cafes for a well priced bite, and go back to the Airbnb full and happy at the end of a Fitbit-record step-kind-of-day.

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St. Olaf’s Church — Tallinn, Estonia

It’s not an easy place to get to from North America, but man, if you have the chance to visit Tallinn (especially in the summer) DO IT. The weather was phenomenal — so beautiful that I googled residency visa requirements about 2 hours after we arrived. We were only there for 3 days, but it was enough to make an impression.

When it was time to leave Tallinn, we took the ferry over to Helsinki. Calling it a ferry is deceptive really, because we were on what looked like a huge cruise ship! The trip took about 2 hours from dock to dock. I was excited to arrive in Helsinki because it meant we were that much closer to seeing our family and friends in America.

We stayed just one brief evening/overnight at the Holiday Inn in Helsinki. It was raining when we arrived so there wasn’t any venturing out to explore, but we were okay with that because we knew that we’d have 4 nights in the city on the return part of our trip after our time in North America.

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On the right, Tony sleeps on the ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki. On the left, Tony sleeps on the train from Toronto to Windsor.

We left Helsinki and flew the brief 1.5 hour distance to Amsterdam where we had a long enough layover to get some food and relax. The next leg was Amsterdam to Toronto, about 8 hours. We were blissfully in KLM’s business class, which meant lay flat seats and the opportunity to rest. We all got several hours of sleep.

When we landed in Toronto, we cleared passport control/customs, gathered our bags, and grabbed a taxi to the hotel room we booked even though we were only going to be there for about 10 hours. We landed a little before 8 pm and although the hotel wasn’t really that far from the airport, traffic meant we didn’t arrive until after 9 pm. Still, we were tired enough that when we did arrive, we all crashed and ended up sleeping until 4 am the next morning (remember, we were working with an 8 hour time difference at this point, so sleeping till 4 am was GREAT!).

Our train left Toronto at 6:45 am and from there it was an easy, enjoyable 4 hour ride to Windsor, where Tony’s aunt and dad were waiting to pick us up. We were so excited to start the American part of our summer trip.

Not Just a Travel Blog

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Happy Matteo outside our building on the walk to preK

I realized recently that while I love writing and traveling, I don’t love writing about traveling. At least not exclusively. This blog was originally intended to be a journal of sorts to remember the travels we take as a family, particularly during our expat years. And while I still want it to include details of our trips here, I also want to open it up to include other information about our lives. I want to remember what this time in Abu Dhabi was like beyond just our travels.

While we are nearing the end of Tony’s initial 2 year work contract, we are not planning to move back to the USA this summer (we are visiting). About a year ago Tony and I began the “what if” conversations and decided that as long as he had the option, we wanted to extend our time here at least one more year. Planning beyond that is difficult, as much depends on how the next year goes. For now, the three of us are very happy here and the benefits to staying another year are clear — the continued opportunity to travel, save money, and have quality time together as a family. Tony remains very happy with his job and so will extend his contract for the 2017-2018 school year.

Matteo is doing well. He is enjoying his class at preK and has a “best friend” — a little boy from Peru who shares his love for superheroes. Tomorrow is his preK graduation ceremony, though the term continues through most of June. I’m not sure yet when Matteo will take his summer break — for now, I plan on him going as the time with the other children really benefits him. This boy — he is our pride and joy. He brings us so much happiness ever day of our lives and we feel so grateful that we get to be his parents.

In Abu Dhabi, children begin kindergarten when they are 4 (by September 1st). That means Matteo (my baby!) will be going to kindergarten in September. Kindergarten spots in Abu Dhabi are incredibly competitive, but we are happy that he has spots at two great schools. We are leaning towards one over the other, and will have to decide in the next week where we want to send him. Will share more information about that soon :).

We’re getting very excited for our summer travel plans. Tony has outdone himself in planning a summer packed full. Want to feel dizzy with me? Here’s a bulleted list of the places we will be visiting this summer (please don’t hate us):

  • Riga, Latvia
  • Tallinn, Estonia
  • Helsinki, Finland
  • Livonia and Traverse City, Michigan (USA! USA! USA!)
  • Cincinnati, Ohio (USA! USA! USA!)
  • Toronto, Ontario
  • A few more days in Helsinki (where Tony will be running his first marathon!)
  • Budapest, Hungary (we will pick up a rental car to road trip the rest of our time in Europe)
  • Kosice, Slovakia
  • Zakopane, Poland
  • Krakow, Poland
  • Ostrava, Czech Republic
  • Bratislava, Slovakia
  • Back to Budapest for our flight back to Abu Dhabi

I am equally excited and nervous for the summer ahead. I guess Tony decided that in case this is our last summer as expats, he needed to pack the travel list FULL. I’d say he succeeded.

So thats our brief update from Abu Dhabi. I hope we can see as many family/friends as possible when we’re in the USA this summer. More to come!

Food Delivery Apps

Traveling with kids can be difficult. From my limited perspective as the mother of a very opinionated 4 year old, I know going in to a trip that there are only going to be so many “golden hours” each day during which we can freely do the things we want to do. Tony and I look at the trade off like this — we could wait a few years until Matteo is “easier” to travel with, or we can go now and know going in that we will won’t be able to go go go as we would if we were traveling just the two of us.

One of those concessions ends up being dinner time. Matteo does best on our trips if we do our sightseeing in the morning/early afternoon. We typically head out for 4 or so hours in the morning, have lunch and then can squeeze in another few hours. By the time evening comes around, Matteo’s mood will only be stable if he can relax and play in the comfort of our airbnb/hotel.

That means we end up limited when it comes to dinner options. Room service is always an option if you’re staying in a hotel, but that can get expensive fast. What we’ve depended on (and loved) for the last several trips, are food delivery apps. UberEats, Deliveroo, Foodora, Postmates, etc. allow you to browse local menus, make your selection, and pay all from your phone.

The apps available to you depends on your availability. Many include a sign up bonus such as $10 off your first order, or a discount when for referral sign ups. Tony and I take advantage of those situations by one of us signing up and then immediately doing a referral sign up for the other which often means saving $20 over two meals. These apps mean you can still explore cuisine in your area without having to actually go out.

We look forward to the time when we can take advantage of the evenings on our vacations as well as the morning and afternoon, but for now we’re okay with this compromise.  If you’re traveling with kids, or considering it, definitely take the time to download a food delivery app or two in your area to give yourself a Plan B when it comes to dinnertime.

Arriving in Paris

Bonjour from Paris!

Christmas vacation is here! That means we get to spend ten days in Paris and three in Geneva!

Before the vacation could begin though, we had to get to Paris. Fresh off of practically 24 hour travel days getting to/from Malaysia, I was so relieved that this time we would only have to deal with one direct flight Abu Dhabi to Paris. Utilizing our American Airlines points, Tony was able to secure Business Class seats for the 7.5 hour flight.

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Frequent Flier

When booking an Etihad flight with American Airlines points, you don’t get to choose your seats and so while we ended up with two seats next to each other, the third seat was four rows up and on the opposite aisle. Up in row 8, Tony got to relax, sip champagne and watch movies while back in row 12 with Matteo, it took me 4 hours to get through a 1.5 hour long movie, and I ended up logging about 1,000 steps according to my Withings watch with only 2 steps between my seat and Matteo’s.

I kid, I kid. Honestly, Matteo was great on the flight, but he was busy; wanting/needing snacks, distractions, the iPad, his headphones, his batman toys, activity pack, stickers, all at different times and then back out again once I had put them all away. Oh well, he still does GREAT flying and for that we are so grateful.

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Matteo outside the beautiful Notre Dame

We arrived in Paris at around 2 pm local time. Getting through passport control and collecting our bags was a piece of cake. My favorite part of flying business class with Etihad is their chauffeur service — a ride to/from the airport. By the time we left the airport in Paris, we were beginning to hit rush hour. It ended up taking almost 2 hours to get to our Airbnb apartment in the Opera district but we just got to sit back and relax.

The Airbnb we’re staying at is a first floor, 2 bedroom apartment with a kitchenette and tiny bathroom. We’ve been very pleased with the location. The only negative is that the washer/dryer isn’t working — which is a bummer as when packing as lightly as possible, we factored in being able to do laundry at the 2 Airbnbs we’re staying at on the front and back end of the trip. For what it’s worth, Matteo’s doing his part to lessen the dirty laundry pile by insisting on wearing the same superhero shirt for the last three days.

Each day, we choose a “big” attraction to see in the morning (when Matteo’s at his best) and then “secondary” sightseeing for the afternoon. So far we’ve been able to visit the Sacre-Coeur, Notre Dame, and we’ve taken a river cruise down the Seine as well as vintage shopping, visiting the Lego store, shopping at Galeries Lafayette, and browsing the shelves at the beautiful book store Shakespeare & Company.

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View of Paris from the Sacre-Coeur

The food we’ve sampled so far in Paris has been wonderful! One of the ways we save money when traveling is by only eating two meals a day (a late breakfast or early lunch + dinner) and thanks to the Airbnb, we’ve been able to grocery shop in order to avoid eating out every meal, but what we have had, we’ve enjoyed. Of note was a beautiful breakfast/brunch near the Sacre-Couer at a restaurant called Hardware Society. YUM. We’ve also indulged a bit in street food — there’s a crepe stand about a block away from our Airbnb. We also walked through the Christmas market at the Champs Elysees, and each sampled a treat along the way (Tony ordered mini pancakes with fresh strawberries, I had a beignet).

We are really enjoying our time in Paris so far. The good thing about being here for 10 days is knowing that we can take our time — our days don’t have to be packed from morning to night in order to see it all. And that slower pace is nice for Matteo too, who definitely needs a break now and then in order to stay happy as we travel (that, and a stready diet of Goldfish crackers and McDonald’s chicken nuggets).

Tomorrow we check out of the Airbnb and in to the Park Hyatt. It will be fun to get to see another Paris neighborhood and we know from experience that the Park Hyatt amenities will be second to none. I’ll be looking forward to sharing more of our trip over the coming week.

Au revoir!

p.s. Thank you to Tony’s high school French teacher, wherever you are. He retained enough knoweldge from his two years of French to do quite nicely ordering food and asking simple questions. I am so impressed!

Langkawi, Malaysia

I am so behind recording our travels since this summer. Last I left off, I was writing about our time spent in the US — we spent several weeks in Michigan, Arizona, and Ohio before leaving and stopping in Amsterdam on our way back to Abu Dhabi. While I still want to write about those trips, I want to record our Malaysia trip while its still fresh in my mind.

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View of the beach at the St. Regis from the main patio

Tony read about the St. Regis in Langkawi, Malaysia while working on some travel hacking research. He searched the dates for time that he knew he would have off at the end of November/beginning of December for the UAE’s National Day. The rates for this 5 star property were dirt cheap and Tony was able to find a good deal on flights as well. The caveat on being that our travel day would have 3 legs both on the way there and back — Dubai to Doha then Doha to Kuala Lumpur and finally Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi.

Knowing my own limits and those of Matteo, I was hesitant to book simply because of the worry of that travel day. Typically, for shorter trips (week or less) we try to avoid complicated, long travel days, but this was one of those times when the opportunity presented itself and it felt like now or never — so we went for it.

The travel days were hard. I’ll state that clearly, right out front. We flew overnight, and while we slept better than we had over our summer economy overnight flights, it was still not enough rest. That said, the flights themselves (our first on Qatar Airlines) were as comfortable as you’re going to get in economy. Purely from a parent with a small child perspective, they were great — Matteo had a child’s meal provided quickly and it was food that he would actually eat (well, part of it) which was a first for us. They also had a great inflight entertainment selection and provided a Monopoly themed activity kit that we had so much fun with.

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When we arrived in Langkawi, we were met right outside the luggage area by our driver and escort from the St. Regis resort. They showed us to the BMW 7 series that was waiting for us in the parking lot, complete with refreshing towels, cookies and chilled water. What a relaxing way to end a loooonnngggg overnight of travel. The drive to the resort was about 30 minutes. As soon as we pulled in to the St. Regis’ private driveway we began to enjoy the beauty of the resort.

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Tony and Matteo at the entrance to the St. Regis

As gorgeous as the St. Regis is, I admit that this was not a perfect trip. There were several hiccups at the beginning of our trip, things that are not becoming of a 5 star resort. Tony addressed his concerns with the property management though and they were eager to make things right, starting with upgrading our room to a pool suite.

We were disappointed in the weather while in Langkawi, as the rain and clouds prevented us from doing some of the items on our wish list. Still, we had a blast spending a day at the Wildlife Park — where Tony and I each had a parrot on our shoulders, and we fed birds straight from our hands. I wish I had photographs of this, but they would only allow their photography (which they then charged outrageously for prints) so just take my word it was neat!! Matteo in particular had SO much fun feeding the animals and learning about the displays.

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View from the Westin property on Langkawi

The St. Regis’ sister property the Westin is right next door so one day we spent the morning over there, enjoying their pools and beach. They also had very cheap kayak rentals which Tony was able to enjoy. The Westin property wasn’t as new or lavish as the St. Regis but the property’s multiple pools and outdoor activities would make it a GREAT choice for families. The St. Regis definitely had more of a romantic feel, though there were several families with young children staying there.

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Tony heading out on his kayak

Our room rate included two meals a day, breakfast and either lunch or dinner. With the time change, we tended to eat breakfast late in the morning and would then chose to eat dinner. We also had a $100 USD equivalency daily credit that we could spend on food or at the spa. Typically, we used it on drinks at the pool but the $100 credit was quite generous with the prices at the resort and we never spent the full amount.

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No sun but a break in rain meant we went to the beach!

This was our first trip to Asia. Some of our assumptions played out as expected — neither of us loved the more traditional food, which I know will cause some who enjoy Asian cuisine to want to throttle us, but we tried, I swear! The one thing that kept this trip from being a home run was honestly the weather, nothing we could control. Had we had sun and clear skies, the beauty of Langkawi would be unmatched. We’ve been so fortunate, on our travels, to have great weather. That streak had to end at some point. Matteo sure had a blast though. By the last day, he was begging us to live at the hotel!

Now we’re back in Abu Dhabi with just enough time to adjust back to this time change and prepare for our Christmas trip. We leave next week for Paris!

The Copenhagen Card

If there was one takeaway to give you after our trip to beautiful Copenhagen, Denmark last week, it is this: GO THERE.

We loved it. We have been incredibly fortunate over the last year of purposefully pursuing travel to visit some really cool locations. In the US, we visited Austin, San Antonio, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle and since moving to the UAE in September we’ve added Muscat (Oman), Istanbul (Turkey), Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck (Austria), Munich (Germany), Ras Al Khaimah (UAE), London (England — just Tony) and now Copenhagen (Denmark). While we loved just about every location on that list, Copenhagen has pulled forward as both Tony and my favorite place to date.

It’s just a beautiful city. It was very “toddler travel” friendly with super high walkability/public transport, as well as being easy to navigate. Tony and I will take turns writing about some specific parts of the trip, including our top list of sites to see, but for now I wanted to start with how we travelled to an expensive city without blowing our budget.

Scandinavia in general is considered an expensive place to visit. With the help of travel hacking, we started this trip ahead of the game. The 7 day hotel stay was covered with a credit card award earned last year — the only hitch was we had to stay at the same hotel property for the full 7 days. Typically, we like to hit more than one city on a stay that long, so we wanted to pick a city where we felt like we wouldn’t run out of things to do and see. Copenhagen delivered on that front. Our flights were booked on points, although we had to deal with a less than ideal route to make that happen (we flew Abu Dhabi > Rome > Paris > Copenhagen). Because we stayed at the Marriott Copenhagen with elite status, we had access to the hotel’s executive lounge giving us free breakfast each morning, as well as afternoon snacks and a hot hors d’oeuvres each evening. This bonus alone insured we could easily keep our spending in check on our trip.

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The other big cost saver for us was the Copenhagen Card. Benefits of the card include:

Tony purchased the cards for us at the Copenhagen airport. You choose the card based on the length of your stay — options include 24, 48, 72, and 120 hours. With Matteo under 10, and thereby covered by the purchase of an adult card, we only needed to buy two adult cards. The cost came to just under the equivalent of $245. I know that might sound steep at first glance, but don’t forget that it includes our transportation (including to and from the airport) for 5 days and admission to so many museums and attractions!

By using the list of attractions covered with the Copenhagen card, we were more easily able to narrow down what we saw and did each day. We visited both Experimentarium City and the Zoo — without the Copenhagen card, entry to those two places would have cost $65 and $66 respectively. That’s nearly half the cost of the Copenhagen card right there. We also visited three different castles, and the Viking Ship Museum with free entrance under the Copenhagen card. Adding all of the entry fees to the costs covered, we ended up saving about $40 overall buying the card rather than paying admission charges upon arrival. That savings does not take in to account the public transport we used — mostly, because I can’t remember all of the buses/trains we took, and charges varied depending on where you were going (i.e. more expensive to go to the airport than to the center of the city). Had Matteo been a little older and able to handle longer days, the savings would have been even greater as there were several museums we didn’t get to visit due to him holding us back (kidding! well, not really, but that’s travel with a  three year old).

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Glad to have the option for public transportation when the wind made walking feel too cold to our desert sensibilities

So that’s the Copenhagen Card! They can be purchased online at http://www.copenhagencard.com/buy-copenhagencard or do what we did and pick one up at the airport. How you get the card isn’t important, what is important is that you GO TO COPENHAGEN. You’re going to love it!