Updated: Feb 9, 2019
We’ve been home from our family trip to Portugal and Spain for about two weeks now. I’m not one of those people who can write about an epic trip on the flight home. I feel like I needed to take some time to reflect on our adventure, and let it all sink in. After we arrived home, friends and family kept asking ‘How was your trip, tell me all about it !?’, and all I could respond with was ‘It was amazing, I don’t know what else to say’. It was hard to put it all into words. We did so much in those 3 weeks, and I never knew where to even start to explain it all. So now after having some time to reflect on it, I feel I am ready to put down some details about where we went, things we did and some tips for traveling as a family of 6 in Europe.
Some of you know from my Instagram posts, my husband has been working overseas for the last 4 months. We knew he would only have a few weeks of leave so in order to maximize his time off we wanted to meet him somewhere in the middle. In my search for affordable flights Lisbon, Portugal came up as an option. I’ve never traveled to Portugal before but after a little bit of research I soon found out that Portugal is an often overlooked amazing tourist destination. The climate is favorable year round, there are so many historic and scenic sites to see (ie. most beautiful beaches in Europe) and it is affordable, especially for us comparing costs to our high Alaskan prices.
When we first started planning this trip we considered going to Hawaii, it was a fraction of the distance for the girls and I to travel, and a lot of people from Alaska travel there for vacation due to the easy hop from Anchorage. The shorter travel distance was appealing but tickets were just slightly less for Hawaii, compared to our other options. We considered Mexico and Costa Rica but tickets were more expensive and travel time for my husband would have been days instead of hours. (I did score some great prices for our tickets to Lisbon that I am hoping to share how I did that in a future post). And then there's the high cost for everything in Hawaii. A family of our size, staying for 3 weeks, it was going to add up fast. Instead, we could go to a destination like Portugal and pay a fraction of the cost for everyday essentials like food, lodging, and transportation. Once we decided on Portugal it was just a matter of watching ticket prices and setting price alerts for a few weeks to find the best price for our flights.
(I will share a detailed itinerary in a future post)
To be honest I was a little (ok, a lot) overwhelmed when I realized I needed to figure out an itinerary for a family of 6 traveling to a country I'd never visited before. I also didn’t want to lock us into a tight itinerary, because I knew that would just spell disaster with kids. But then I worried we'd be wandering around, lost in a country where we didn't speak the local language, with crying kids, and frustrated I hadn't planned enough activities ahead of schedule. So I started planning by making a list of the top sites we wanted to see. I realized quickly that Portugal is not a large country. We could drive from the capital, Lisbon, which is situated along the Atlantic Ocean, to the eastern border of Spain, in just a few hours. So I began considering sites in south western Spain. We already had planned to rent a car, a decision again dictated by our large family size, so it was nice to know we had some flexibility on where we wanted to go and when. When I looked at the locations I had marked on the map, driving a loop to connect the places we wanted to see made perfect sense. I planned a few days at each location, sometimes this was dictated by the minimum night stay at the places we were wanting to book. It's also not fun having to pack up every day, and rush off to the next 'must see sight'. I wanted to stay long enough in one area to get a feel for the locations a bit, like visiting the same cafe for breakfast a few mornings in a row because the staff is so friendly and the fresh squeeze orange juice is amazing. Also budgeting plenty of time for opportunities to explore and discover things that would never show up in a google search.
We booked all of our lodging via AirBnB and Booking.com. Most hotels in Europe aren’t realistic for larger families. In most cases we would end up having to book at least two rooms for our family of 6. Also, the ability to shop at the local supermarket and cook for ourselves some days was important, so having an equipped kitchen was key. All but one of our flats had laundry facilities, which was a major benefit to helping us pack light. Booking our stays was just a matter of finding locations in the neighborhoods of places we wanted to see. I made a wishlist on AirBnb of options that would be able to accommodate our family size and then compared things like price, best location, parking options, and also if our host would speak English. It was a little overwhelming at first, but once we established a criteria it was easy to narrow things down.
Transportation during our trip was fairly easy to navigate. We lived in Europe for 3 years when my husband was military, so we were familiar with signage and European driving rules, for the most part. My husband and I both have our international drivers licenses', as they are usually required by overseas car rental agencies. If you plan to rent a car this is an important document to have in hand. If you have a local AAA office, call and ask about the international license service. I was able to walk in to our local office and get mine taken care in just a matter of 10 minutes. All that is required is a valid drivers license, 2 passport photos and a $20 fee. If you don't have a local AAA office, you can send your paperwork in but just plan a couple weeks to complete the process.
We knew the bigger cities were going to be a pain to navigate in fast paced European traffic. Parking is also an issue, as it can be hard to find parking close to your destination and there is not a lot in the way of free parking. While we were in Lisbon and Seville we parked our car and got by with walking and using public transportation. The metro was very easy to navigate in Lisbon, the kiosk at the metro station is in English. In Seville we walked most everywhere we needed to go. We had a rental car for the distance driving but we could have used the train for the entire trip and gotten by just fine. We didn't want to be tied to a schedule and train routes, also it was easier to put our luggage in the car instead of carrying it on the train. Having a car gave us the freedom we were wanting to explore when, where and how we wanted. But for anyone not wanting to brave European driving or just don't want to deal with the hassle of a rental vehicle, getting around is easy and affordable, via train, taxi, metro, bus, and even by trolley. Traffic in Lisbon and Seville is crazy and not something you're going to want to tackle unless you're an experienced EU driver or just feeling brave. Highway and small town driving is not difficult. No matter what you choose for your transportation with just a little preparation you'll be getting around like a pro.
More Travel posts coming soon.
covering topics such as..
-traveling with kids tips
-how we packed,
-things that worked (and didn't) for us
-our detailed itinerary..