Last year we had a great idea – we would spend 2 months in Europe this summer (well summer in the northern hemisphere) seeing friends and family in the UK, France and Ireland. We had 70th birthday parties to attend and new babies to meet. And it had been nearly 2 years since we left the UK to move to Mauritius, without one single trip back.
In theory it sounded like a fantastic idea! We would catch up with our loved ones and do all the things we miss doing. Not to mention all the food and wine we would consume whilst in France. Because it would be rude not to.
In reality it was a little (a lot) crazier than the plan. But it was a good test for us because we are planning on spending a year travelling with the girls in the next couple of years, and this trip didn’t put us off.
As loads of you have asked about our trip I thought I would share a summary of it with you, along with some photos and the lessons learned along the way.
Just to be crystal clear – anything I say that I love or hate here is because I loved or I hated it. We paid for everything in full and any shout-outs full of love are because I genuinely loved the product or service. And any links are just so you can see what we got / used / where we went.
The Trip Itinerary
Our trip initially came about because there was a big surprise family get-together for my parents’ 70th birthdays. I knew I didn’t want us to miss out on that one, so that was what the trip centred around.
Next up we found out that Ben’s godfather was also having a 70th birthday bash and we wanted to celebrate that one too, so we added it to the itinerary.
Then a little while later we found out we were going to become auntie and uncle on the French side of the family and we knew we would want to meet that little bundle whilst we were over too.
These three events were the basis of our itinerary.
Next up we listed all the things we WANTED to do to see how we could fit those in:
- Disneyland Paris with the girls
- A few days in Paris
- A week in Haute-Savoie in the French Alps with French family
- A week’s holiday, just us 4, in a campsite on the French Riviera
- Time with our families
- A trip to Cornwall
- Some time in London to catch up with Léna’s old school friends and our old friends
- An outing to see Mamma Mia in London
- Catching up with as many friends as possible
A wonderful catch-up in London, drinking prosecco, with good friends, Sarah from Grenglish blog and Jo.
Then came the great juggling act – COULD we fit everything in?
It’s just as well that I used to be a PA and that my job entailed organising complex travel itineraries for my boss, the company’s global VP, as this was a task and a half! Not everything made the cut but most of it did.
This is how the trip ended up looking
Thursday 22 June (evening) – leave Mauritius
Friday 23 June (early morning) – arrive Heathrow > go to my mum and dad’s in Berkshire for a couple of hours > eat lunch > repack suitcases > go to Gatwick > fly to Nantes (France) > collect hire car > drive for 2 hours to a tiny hamlet in the Loire Valley > stay there for 3 nights
Monday 26 June – drive from the Loire Valley to Disneyland Paris and stay there for 3 nights (a visit to Paris itself got axed as it was just too much)
Thursday 29 June – drive from Disneyland to Caen (Normandy) and stay overnight (this was the only opportunity to see my good friend who lives there, so we got creative about finding a way to see her and her family)
Friday 30 June – drive from Caen (France) to the Cotswolds (UK) via the Eurotunnel (Calais to Dover) and stay there for 2 nights (you can’t take a hire car on a ferry so the Eurotunnel was our only option)
Sunday 2 July – drive from the Cotswolds to Somerset and stay there one night
Monday 3 July – drive from Somerset to Cornwall and stay there for 5 nights
Saturday 8 July – drive to London and stay there for 6 nights
Friday 14 July – drive to Reims (France) via the Eurotunnel (Dover to Calais) and stay there overnight
Saturday 15 July – drive to Haute Savoie in the French Alps and stay there for 7 nights
Saturday 22 July – drive to Avignon and stay there for 7 nights
Saturday 29 July – drive to Fréjus (French Riviera) and stay there for 7 nights
Saturday 5 August – drive to Nice airport > drop off hire car > fly to Dublin (Ireland) > collect hire car > drive to County Wexford and stay there for 6 nights
Friday 11 August – drive to Dublin airport > drop off hire car > fly to Gatwick > go to Berkshire and stay there for 5 nights
Wednesday 16 August (evening) – leave Heathrow
Thursday 17 August (lunchtime) – arrive Mauritius
And here are the many lessons learned in travelling around 3 countries in Europe, for 8 weeks with a husband, a 10 year old and a 4 year old…
Lessons learned from our 8 week Europe trip en famille
I had our whole itinerary printed out with the print-outs of all our e-tickets, booking confirmations and every other thing I thought I might need.
Assume you will not have internet anywhere.
I knew there were some places we would struggle with the internet, but I was surprised at where we didn’t have it. For example we were staying with friends in London and their internet was down the whole time we were there. But I had previously made sure I always had all the relevant information downloaded onto my phone / laptop, and printed out, so it all worked out ok.
Fly to London, even if you’re going to France.
It was nearly 1,000€ cheaper for us to fly from Mauritius to London than from Mauritius to Paris, with the same company on the same day. And we’ve seen this time and time again, it is nearly always cheaper to travel between France and London via a low cost airline then long haul to / from Mauritius than to fly directly between Mauritius and France. Don’t ask me why, it just is. Which is why we flew into London then back out to France that same day.
Think outside of the box for modes of transport.
If you are going all over the place like we did, look into hiring a car for a long duration rather than getting planes / trains and hire cars for short journeys. Hiring a car for one week in August with a pick-up in Avignon and a drop off at Nice airport (257km / 160 miles away) would have cost us 1000€, HOWEVER hiring a car for 42 days, with a pick-up at Nantes airport, a drop-off at Nice airport (1,138km / 707 miles away), with an allowance of over 5,000km included and the ability to take the car from France into the UK and Switzerland (we went there on a day trip) cost us just 1,800€. Oh and it was so much easier and great fun too!
Pack wisely and well when you’re living out of a suitcase.
We needed all sorts of clothes and shoes for our trip – we would be going from potentially 13°C (55°F) in Ireland and the Alps to 35+°C (95+°F) in the south of France. We would also be doing hiking, sunbathing and swimming, going out to nice restaurants and attending parties. So we needed to pack a lot of varied items. And this is what worked for me…
Layers are your friends.
We live in a hot, sunny climate so the last thing I wanted to be buying was loads of winter clothes for the girls that we would never use again. Instead I got them a hoodie or a sweater and a thin waterproof jacket. When it was warm and wet they wore just the jacket, when it was cold and wet they wore both and when it was cold and dry they wore just the sweater. And they switched between wearing trainers and flip flops / sandals.
It is probably also at this stage that I should state that I HATE living out of a suitcase, and the first thing I do when I go away is unpack everything and hang it up. I knew I needed to find another way around it for this trip and and I’m delighted to say that I smashed living out of a suitcase by watching lots of videos online beforehand on how to pack the Marie Kondo way (also called Konmari) which worked brilliantly. Even if Ben massively took the piss out of my obsessive folding!
But for Konmari to work for me I had to invest in new suitcases which opened in the middle, rather than my old (and I mean OLD) suitcases which have one big zip and which mean you have to dig around in them to find anything. I bought a pack of 3 hard shell suitcases on wheels and they were fantastic for the trip – they are super light, stayed in great shape, were easy to move and easy to find things in. I do have two complaints though – if you put one on top of the other in the boot of the car they roll around like mad. So we had to be creative when we packed the car. Also there is nothing to hold onto at the other end of the case to lift them in and out of cars, this was a bit of a pain. But other than that, fan-bloody-tastic.
Wash bag tips.
I also treated myself to a new wash bag – the one I had been using (which I LOVED so much) was barely holding itself together by a thread. My old wash bag had been a great one that I got from Boots in 2004 (!) and that opens right out so you can see clearly what you’ve got in two main sections. I looked everywhere online to find something similar and stumbled across Victoria Green – I watched her YouTube videos and decided that it might tick the boxes for me. I ordered a big wash bag to throw everything in and a travel wash bag to hang up and find things in easily. No matter where we went (hotels, friends’ spare rooms, AirBnB cottages, chalets and caravans) I found somewhere to hook my wash bag up and I totally fell in love with it.
Find a way to do some kind of sporting activity.
We ate and drank like we were on holiday. For 8 weeks. I had just one dry day in that whole time. The problem was everywhere we went we were catching up with friends and family, so it was all “We haven’t seen you for ages let’s have some Prosecco!” or “We’re on holiday, it’s aperitif time!” or “We’re 5 minutes away from Chateauneuf du Pape, we must have some cheap, amazing French wine!” I didn’t want to deprive myself but equally I didn’t want to come home a monster so I took a set of hand weights (which I put in hand luggage when we were limited with weight on aeroplanes), my sports mat and my 30 Day Shred video on my computer. I managed to do the workout about 7 or 8 times in 8 weeks (it didn’t require much space or time, just some motivation on my part) which wasn’t great, but was better than nothing. I still managed to put on 3kg (nearly 7 pounds) but it was so worth it *drools at memories of French wine and cheese*
Have sick bags with you.
Even if your kids have never been car or travel sick before, there is always a first time for everything. Neither of ours had even been sick when travelling before but both of them were sick in the car. As it turned out it was as they were coming down with something both times, but it taught me to always have sick bags with me.
Put your kids’ favourite films on an iPad or a laptop.
We didn’t want the girls to be watching TV all the time, but this was a life-saver for us at various times. On the aeroplane we set them up with a film to watch, even on the long-haul flight as then we could control when it started – i.e. the second we sat down on the plane. It was also great for when we were stuck in traffic or sitting in the Eurotunnel train. The rest of the time they had books, toys and games to keep them occupied, but having this to fall back on was brilliant.
Take card games.
They take no room (or weight) at all and will keep everyone entertained for hours. Our favourites were Uno and Happy Families (both of which Clémence can play in her own right now), with French game Mille Bornes coming first for the older members of the family. The girls loved trying to beat the grown-ups and it gave us some great quality family time.
Not all car hire companies are created equal.
We hired our long-term hire car with Europcar in France and they couldn’t have treated us better. Getting the car was quick and easy (just what we needed as we were on Hour 26 of travelling at this stage), we got a brand new Grand Scenic which was an absolute pleasure to drive. Then when we dropped the car off, it was quick and easy again – despite us having done over 5,000km in the car, driven it in 3 different countries and collected it from a Europcar agency that was over 1,000km away. Paying for the car and for the safety deposit was no issue at all and the deposit was tiny bearing in mind the car we had and how long we were keeping it for.
On the other hand, our hire car in Ireland with Sixt was an absolute bloody disaster. I cannot urge you enough NOT to book your car with them. We got hugely ripped off, they were totally inflexible and the service was incredibly slow.
So here’s the story – we had booked our car with them via Aer Lingus when we booked our flight from Nice to Dublin. As we only needed the car for one week we decided to go with just one driver – Ben – and we booked it using a credit card in my name on our joint bank account. (We HATE credit cards but until recently our bank in Mauritius only provided debit cards that COULDN’T be used for online purchases, so we have one credit card for our joint account, to buy things online, which happens to be in my name.) There was no problem reserving the car and paying a deposit to hold it for us.
A week before we were due to collect the car we received an email saying the total payment had been charged to this card and we were all good to go. There was a car voucher as a link in the email but because we were on a campsite in France at the time we had patchy wifi and were unable to access the voucher, but as the email stated all was well it seemed we should be ok.
We rocked up to the Sixt counter at Dublin airport, and waited, and waited, and waited. Ben was finally at the front of the queue and we were nearly on our way (while I attempted to keep the girls and our luggage in one place, out of the rain and out of the path of shuttle buses). Well that’s what we wrongly assumed! You see, Sixt have this great policy. You have to provide a CREDIT card in the driver’s name to be able to drive off with your car – even though you’ve already paid for the car using a credit card in someone else’s name or a debit card.
If the driver doesn’t have a credit card in their name then they can either abandon the car and the money they used to pay for it OR they can shell out an additional lump sum on a debit card (non-refundable of course). Our car hire was 407€ and we then had to pay an extra 237€ as we were unable to provide a credit card in the driver’s name!!!! Furious does not come close. And we weren’t the only ones. A French family in front of us received the same “happy” news just before it was our turn at the counter. And for French clients it must be a huge problem as credit cards in France are rare – Ben is in his 40s and this credit card on our joint account here in Mauritius is his first ever.
I got in touch with Sixt when we got back home (via the customer service email address that an employee gave me at Dublin airport which then bounced back, via their customer service online contact form and via Twitter). Sixt – you decided not to bother addressing your customer’s complaints privately so I am using this platform to warn others not to use your services EVER.
Lovely reader – I can however recommend Europcar to you with absolutely no hesitation. They were really wonderful. Just know that if you are going to take a car between the UK and mainland Europe it has to be via Eurotunnel and not on a ferry.
Anyway Sixt rant over.
Nearly 20 years ago I met Kathryn when we were both working in a bar in the south of France. Many years, several countries and kids later we’re still good friends and it was so lovely to catch up with her while we were in London.
Try and remember to take photos.
I went off of social media a month or so before we left for our trip, and this meant I wasn’t on my phone or using my camera anywhere near as much as before. Which was great, but it also meant I totally forgot to take photos 🙁 So there are whole sections to our trip, and groups of people, that I have no photos of and that makes me very sad. The one thing I would re-do is to set an alarm or something to take a quick break from the merriment and snap some pics. Or pay a photographer to travel with us!
We had the most amazing time: seeing the most incredible things and places, not to mention catching up with good friends and family, but we did miss “home” (Mauritius) and it was a bit manic at times, all that travelling and bed-hopping: 13 different beds in 8 weeks in the end.
Would I do it again? Yes, but differently. Fewer places and less rushing around.
What were our thumbs up and thumbs down?
- Loire Valley – big thumbs up! It was beautiful and Futuroscope was fantastic.
- Disneyland Paris – thumbs up despite Léna’s age. I was worried that, at nearly 11, Léna would be over Disney and “too cool for school” to enjoy it. But there’s loads of stuff for older kids and she still loved it and of course Clémence was in absolute awe. It worked for us as we could split into teams when necessary to do older stuff with Léna and younger stuff with Clémence.
- Caen – we spent just 12 hours visiting friends here (and that was overnight), it was a huge detour but it was the best, catching up with one of my besties from my Nice days 🙂
- Cotswolds – we stayed in an incredible, ginormous house/cottage for a big family bash. It sleeps 20 and has extra smaller houses right next to it if there are more of you. The weather was beautiful for us and we had a delicious hog roast in the garden / field out the back, and the more sporting family members played cricket and football. Huge recommendation for family gatherings. Spending time with my extended family here was so amazing, I’ve got numerous brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, aunts, uncles and cousins and it was great to get to see so many of them at such a fun occasion.
- Somerset – we needed one night somewhere between the Cotswolds and Cornwall and found just the thing on AirBnB in High Littleton. The house was fab and the owner couldn’t do enough for us – he even picked up some cider for Ben to try when he heard Ben was keen to try some local cider.
- Cornwall – another AirBnB, perfectly located near Liskeard. Driving down the tunnel-like two-way lanes, with greenery on either side and nowhere to pass another car was a little daunting – especially as we were still in our French left hand drive car. But the house had an incredible garden which we all loved – with sheep at the bottom of the garden, wild strawberries ready to be picked and some great places for hide and seek. 5 nights in Cornwall weren’t enough at all, although we did manage to see Land’s End, the Eden Project (well Ben and Léna did, I was stuck behind with a poorly Clémence), Pendennis Castle and the house / village that my Cornish-born and bred dad grew up in 🙂 I think we’ll need to go back though as there is still so much we didn’t get to see / do.
- London – Léna and I were so torn by London. We LOVED seeing our old friends there – Léna went back into her old school and we even made it in time for the summer fair, and I got to see my lovely lovely friends who I do miss when I’m here in Mauritius – but it no longer felt like home, and neither of us had any regrets leaving the place, just the people. (Ben and Clémence were never as attached to London as Léna and me.)
- Reims – this was an overnight stay as we made our way from London to the French Alps, and we didn’t expect much from the place, but we LOVED the city. The hotel was perfectly located for an overnight stay, and the light show on the cathedral facade at 11pm was outstanding. Also it was fun drinking Champagne in Champagne.
- French Alps – Ben has been going on holiday to this hamlet in Haute-Savoie since he was 3 years old. We have been there together 5 times and it is such an incredible place, with breathtaking views, beautiful walks and food to die for (hello cheese and charcuterie)!! It was Clémence’s first time and Léna’s third (but the only one she can remember) and they can’t wait to go back. The Alps in the winter are something, but in the summer I think they are even more out of this world.
- Avignon – at my in-laws’ house and it was so nice to feel warm again; it is safe to say that I am a lizard, and that I don’t function well at any temperature below 20°C (68°F). We had a lovely time here, seeing good friends and various family members, oh and sampling the local Côtes du Rhône as well, it would be rude not to.
- Fréjus – and it was my turn for nostalgia. We went to the campsite that I went to every year on family holidays from the age of 8 to 16. The place where my life took a turn onto a new path as I fell in love with France and the French language. The place where I decided I would do a French degree and probably live in France (and marry a Frenchman). Well it didn’t disappoint. The girls LOVED it and I was choked with emotions and memories at various moments. With its water slides, evening entertainment and Kids Club, it was just what the whole family needed and wanted. The girls especially loved their first foam party!
- Ireland – what a beautiful place but bloody hell it’s cold and windy there. And that was in August. It was wonderful to catch up with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and to meet our new baby niece, and we had some incredible moments altogether with Ben’s family. The local area is really picturesque but the cold was just a bit too much for me – sorry, I just can’t cope with sub-20°C these days! We stayed in a fab cottage there that had deer in the field nearby which we could watch whilst eating breakfast.
- Berkshire – and back “home” to where I grew up, to my mum and dad’s house. I managed to catch up with two siblings whilst there and even pop over to Brighton to see my cousin who has recently had a baby too. We even got to squeeze in a trip to London to see Mamma Mia with my mum and both girls. I wasn’t sure how the girls would be for a whole West End show that is not aimed at their age group. But they both love the film, know the story and all the songs so I was hopeful. It was a 7.45pm performance, which is about the time we normally put Clémence to bed, but they both stayed awake throughout the whole thing, LOVED the show and even got up to dance at the end. It was a gamble taking them, especially Clémence, but I’m glad I did as she’s not stopped singing the songs ever since, and a woman in the row in front told me at the end that she was so impressed at how well both girls behaved, especially Clémence (cue Proud Mummy Face!).
So there you have it the good, the bad and the ugly of our trip to Europe. We’re now back on our island, in a new house, back to school, back to work and we couldn’t be happier. Our trip to Europe was incredible but there really is no place like home at the end of the day 🙂
Thanks for reading if you made it this far.
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