We at Holidays with Kids have received a lot of requests for articles on single parent travel. So sit back and enjoy the ride as Sandy Guy takes her two kids around Europe on a shoestring budget.
Backpacks on our backs, my children and I gazed at the train timetable at the Calais Ville railway station in France. There was a train departing for Nice in the south of France in 10 minutes. What the heck: we had two months at our leisure, three crisp new Eurail passes, and the idea of heading to Italy. We jumped aboard.
My son had been 14 years old and daughter 11 when we left Australia nine months earlier. During the week I worked at the University of Bristol while the kids attended local schools, and every Friday night we hit the road, driving to Wales, Devon, Cornwall or London. For months we had crawled over castles, wandered through stately homes, and discovered some fantastic youth hostels – including our all–time favourite, a moated thirteenth–century castle in the village of St Briavels in the beautiful Wye Valley.
Two travel bargains well worth considering prior to leaving Australia are membership to the National Trust (www.nationaltrust.org.au), which saves a packet on visits to historic buildings in Britain and Europe, and membership to the Youth Hostels Association (www.yha.com.au). There are hostels everywhere, and most have family rooms. Always phone ahead to book a family room – they’re very popular commodities.
Although some relatives in Australia raised their eyebrows at the idea of this single mum backpacking in Europe with two kids on a shoestring budget, our unforgettable experiences travelling through Ireland for a month, combined with our UK travels, made me confident that we would be fine. We had become pretty good at this travelling caper when we boarded the ferry from Dover to Calais.
After a week on the French Riviera we made our way by train to Milan in Italy, and from there to Venice. Good discounts can be obtained by purchasing Eurail passes in Australia through Rail Plus (www.railplus.com.au). A Eurail Select Pass, for example, lets you choose three, four or five countries (from the 17 countries it covers) for between five and 15 days within two months, starting from $462 per person.
The kids loved travelling by train, particularly overnight: wealways travelled long distances on trains with sleepers, thus saving accommodation costs as well. We met loads of people and shared on–board picnics with friendly locals. Try to avoid using a Eurail Pass for a short trip. It’s better to catch local buses – generally reasonably priced – which we did when we travelled from Venice to Rome via Florence. You can hop off at any village that takes your fancy and savour a few days of local life whenever you feel like it. My kids were a hit in the Italian countryside, endlessly spoilt by café owners and hotel and pension proprietors alike.
It was no different in Rome. One Friday I poked my credit card into an ATM machine and, to my horror, it spat out a message saying there was no money available. I had the equivalent of $7 to last the weekend – and two children to feed. While my mother in Melbourne sorted out the drama (money paid into the wrong account), I worriedly asked the owner of the small pension we had checked into the previous day if I could pay her on Monday. The woman immediately fished $50 from her purse. “You must enjoy your weekend in Roma,” she said. She then ushered us into the kitchen and dished up huge plates of pasta, and continued to feed us for the next three days. It was one of the many magnificent acts of kindness this single parent family experienced as we ambled contentedly through Italy, France and Spain.
I would encourage anyone to backpack with teenage children. My kids like to call our trip a “school without walls.” From wandering amid the ancient ruins of Rome’s Palatine Hill and viewing the yachts of the rich and famous in Monaco to riding a donkey across mountains in Spain, it’s an experience that has left them with a priceless legacy – a love of travel.