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Family of four - First Time Trip - Tour Company or No Tour Company?

Family of four - First Time Trip - Tour Company or No Tour Company?

Feb 16th, 2015, 07:32 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Feb 2015
Posts: 16
Family of four - First Time Trip - Tour Company or No Tour Company?

Hello all,
I am new here and hope I am posting this in the right place!
We are a family of four. Two kids age 12 and 15. Kids have never been to Europe. We are not at all comfortable in planning a trip on our own and we assumed we would just sign-up for a tour. However, after reading another post about teens/tweens on a tour, and how much others thought they would hate it, I'd like to get some input on doing this on our own.

Is it really possible/safe for us to do this on our own? We plan to go for around 10-12 days in July. Would like kids to see London, Paris and possibly Rome. (Open to other third city options). Would like to keep trip around 20k. (Is that budget too small?) The only two things I have on our MUST DO list is the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.

Using a Tour company is tempting b/c I like the idea of everything being arranged for us and may feel safer traveling with a large group. However, my kids (and to be honest myself as well) hate getting up early. We didn't realize we would need to be up and out of the hotel so early every day. I don't envision many happy, peaceful days with three out of four of us being grumpy travelers. The idea of having my 12 year old son who is ADHD on a bus for long periods of time each day is also not appealing to me.

However, the thought of planning it ourselves terrifies me. The transportation portion of it especially seems mind-boggling. And not being able to speak the language and having to use different currency and picking the right hotels...Can I hear from others who have done this on their own? Was it a success?

This is a very special trip for our family and I want it to be fun for the kids and enjoyed by all of us. The kids have mentioned wanting to see/explore a castle but that is all they are specifically requesting on this trip.

Sorry for the long post. I would GREATLY appreciate any advice/suggestions/input/opinions!

Thank you!
cmetilt is offline  
Feb 16th, 2015, 07:40 PM
Join Date: Oct 2003
Posts: 32,920
Fly to London, spend a few days, train to Paris for a few days, fly Easy Jet from Paris Orly to Rome for the end of your trip. Does the 12 days include travel to and from Europe days?
kybourbon is offline  
Feb 16th, 2015, 08:00 PM
Join Date: Nov 2005
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If you are mainly going to cities it is really VERY easy to organise yourself. An organised tour can be very tiring and can somewhat be "if it is Monday then this must be Paris" sort of experience. In 2006 our children were similar ages to yours and we had a ball. Get the kids involved in the planning - it is so much fun. With the internet, research is so easy, and specific questions are answered her by experienced travellers.

This is what we did some years ago now, but the ideas are still valid. http://www.fodors.com/community/euro...ris-london.cfm
PRLCH is offline  
Feb 16th, 2015, 08:03 PM
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Yes, travel days are included.
cmetilt is offline  
Feb 16th, 2015, 08:04 PM
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I'd recommend choosing just two cities for your first trip: London and Paris. You can take day trips from there. Fly into one city and out of the other. Plenty to keep you interested and occupied in both places, and fewer places makes it easier on your budget and gives you more time to learn each place. Planning it yourself means you can go exactly where you want to go, no wasted stops. The logistics are not difficult, even it they are unfamiliar to you right now.

All of you can practice a few French phrases (Bonjour, s'il vice plait, merci) and you will do fine in Paris.

You can always take a specific tour - a waking tour of chocolate shop sin Paris, tour of the Tower of London - as you wish.
Kathie is offline  
Feb 16th, 2015, 08:36 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
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Yes, you can plan your own trip, if you want. Have you planned similar trips in the U.S.? I.e., travelling between different cities, or within big cities? If you can do that, you can do this.

For our son's first trip to Europe, when he was 10 yo, we started in London, then took the train to Paris. Picked up a rental car and drove to the Loire Valley for 3 nights - lots of castles! We even stayed in a castle. Then finished our trip in Paris. For us, it was the perfect combination of big cities and the countryside.

Different language - many people in France speak English, though it's always nice to learn a few phrases in French. Different currency - you'll figure it out pretty easily. I usually figure out what easy multiple I can do in my head for most things where I need to know the price. For example, the pound is currently equal to about $1.50. So I look at something that's 2 pounds, add half of that amount, and that's about how much it is in dollars ($3). Same of course with the Euro.

Finding hotels - works the same as in the U.S. You can use this forum, guidebooks, etc. to pick an area of the city, then start researching hotels. Note, however, that similar to big cities in the U.S., most rooms are for only two people, not four. So look for hotels that have quad rooms or family rooms (or you can stay in two double room). I can tell you places we've stayed in in both cities, but I don't know what your budget is.

Transportation is the more difficult part, only because it can be just a little complicated - but it's not that bad. Flying or train between London and Paris each has its own drawbacks and pluses. If your kids haven't ridden on trains much, then I would suggest doing that. Though I will tell you that after about the first 10 minutes on the train, my son had lost his fascination. We've always felt that for us, the train between the two cities worked the best (if you're already in the city center, you don't have to travel out to or back from the airport, not quite as much security to go through, and if you would be flying one of the ultra-low cost carriers such as EasyJet or RyanAir, no worry about whether your luggage is too big).

Oh, and yes, planning our own many trips to Europe has been a great success for all of our family. So much so that our son is attending university in Europe as a result (all four years)!
Lexma90 is offline  
Feb 16th, 2015, 09:49 PM
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I agree with Kathie. You only have 8-10 full days in Europe if your 10-12 days includes travel. Pick 2 of your three possible destinations. I would also go with London and Paris as it is easy to train between the two.There is plenty to see and do in both cities. Open jaw into one and out the other. May be less expensive for airfare if you fly into Paris and out of London due to airport costs for the airlines but you will have to check specific airfares for yourselves. Kayak is a good airfare site. Flying into London first however may break you into "Europe" more easily than if you fly into Paris first. Would use an airport shuttle service like "Just Airports" for a LHR transport. Use a Taxi for transportation from/to the Gare du Nord train station in Paris. Buy your Eurostar train tickets as far in advance as possible for the cheapest fares. Buy your airfares a couple of months in advance. Get your cash (pounds/Euros) at an ATM after your arrive at the airport. Now all you have to do is find two hotels and you have all the major steps set up.
20K for 4 is plenty money unless your tastes run to first class airfares and hotels like the George Cing or Ritz. We like apartments or houses in both London and Paris for a family of four but since this is your first time it may be easiest to book two rooms in a hotel for both cities. I would imagine 15K would do quite nicely not including shopping. Could do it for less too.
mjs is offline  
Feb 16th, 2015, 10:33 PM
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What you may find helpful is Hop on, hop off bus tours of each city (google them for both Paris and London). You can see the highlights of both cities, and either get off to spend more time at those that look interesting, or go back later. They are relatively inexpensive, and gives you the opportunity to see a lot quickly. There is a narrative as you go along so that you know what you are seeing, and a map to give you the lay of the land.
burta is offline  
Feb 16th, 2015, 10:44 PM
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City walking tours are great and there is a great variety available. Just google them, and it is usually easy to find reviews of them.
PRLCH is offline  
Feb 16th, 2015, 10:59 PM
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Some people do enjoy the HOHO buses, but teens get bored, and I thought the bus in Paris was extremely boring. London was worse because the bus was often stuck in dreadful traffic. We were stuck and could not get off when we could actually see places we wanted to go. When we finally could get off, we never got back on. The metro in both cities is easy to navigate, but plan on lots of walking, often just as fast and you see things up close.

You can easily plan this yourself. London and Paris are a perfect pairing and a nice contrast of cultures and history. Teens seem to love both cities. Both cities have plenty to keep all of you busy for several days.

Kids can tour Windsor Castle. Google some images.
They might also enjoy a day at Versailles.
Sassafrass is offline  
Feb 17th, 2015, 12:30 AM
Join Date: Nov 2011
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Don't be daunted by the thought of doing it yourself. It is a lot eaier than you think. It also means you can decide what you want to see rather than being tied into a set itinerary which may include places the kids are not particularly interested in.
ESW is offline  
Feb 17th, 2015, 12:42 AM
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As others have said, keep it to two cities. Start in London as the culture and language will be Europe-lite. Us the trains, in Europe trains is normally the right solution and between these two cities is perfect.

Take appartments, the cost benefits and the ADHD control elements are worth it, and if it rains or the kids just want to surf it will be easier.

Castles, either country has multiples, chose between fortress and country house type to get the best idea.

Is it safe? Well compared to most countries in the world, say the US, both are far safer, however both are "the big city" so you need to be sensible, no skulking down dark alleyways

Language, well the French will love to show off to you that they speak English (and in places they will speak it very well) though expect sometimes things go wrong, especially when you hear a "false friend". In England you will have the pleasure of learning that you speak American not English. You can google up differences but I leave you with "pants", "pair of trousers" and "underwear".

Is it possible, oh yes, you need to sort out currency (2 of), getting around by public transport, food change, electricity change and language change. Get the books, share them out (kids can read too ;-) ) and give everyone a planning job. Sit back and be in charge.

Buy the rough guide for UK and France (two books) will give you most of what you need
bilboburgler is online now  
Feb 17th, 2015, 01:00 AM
Join Date: Jun 2012
Posts: 2,681
Planning a trip like this looks daunting, but what you need to do is break it down into its components. If you stick to Paris and London, you've got:

travel to Europe (does your $20K include airfare?)
travel In Europe (essentially Paris to London)
accommodation - apartments or hotels-an apartment will probably be better given your family size and needs
attractions - decide what you'd like to see in each city

+ any other sections that Fodorites can add without over complicating matters. As you complete each section, tick it off and move on. IMO part of the pleasure of travel is in the planning and once you've done it, you'll not go back to organised stuff needing a morning call at 6:30 to get breakfast and be on the coach for 8am.
Rubicund is offline  
Feb 17th, 2015, 05:12 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Feb 2015
Posts: 16
Thank you so much for all the responses. I'm loving all the ideas and advice and I am beginning to think planning our own trip is actually a possibility, and that's exciting!

-Total travel time, including two days to fly, is 12 days.
-Our budget is 20k. Yes, this includes airfare.

Additional questions I have:
-After looking online I am thinking we should visit a fortified castle in England and a palace in Paris. Suggestions? Is Versailles the automatic choice for France?
-What is a "False Friend?" (bilboburgler)

Thanks again everyone. I'm looking forward to reading more!
cmetilt is offline  
Feb 17th, 2015, 05:38 AM
Join Date: Jul 2006
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A "false friend" is a word that sounds the same in your language but means something different in theirs.

So "embarrassed" and the Spanish embarazada/o, which means pregnant or "gymnasium" means both a gym and a school in German. Trouble is you hear the word half way through a speech in another language and your idiot brain grabs the word and tries to make sense of the sentence, with comic results ;-)

Versailles is a good trip from Paris but there are also other "chateau" (means castle but also grand country house in French) especially in the Loire. Versailles's grounds are big enough to absorb a lot of people so you can take a picnic and relax.

You might like Windsor near London (one of the queen's) or the Tower of London (right in the centre of town). If you do, use the search on this site to find out how to get the best out of it. (Tower, arrive early or do the evening special "keys" tour).
bilboburgler is online now  
Feb 17th, 2015, 05:39 AM
Join Date: Jun 2012
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So you have 5 days in each of two cities, assuming you go with the two city plan. Where are you flying from? That helps in working out what the airfare might be. Try to get quotes that fly into Paris and out of London, known as "open jaw" or "multi city". Once you have an idea of airfare, then you can start planning your accommodation. You also need to look at the Eurostar train from Paris to London, as fares get more expensive the nearer to your travel dates.

First step, sort out your dates, book air tickets after comparing different airlines and getting the best deal you can find.
Rubicund is offline  
Feb 17th, 2015, 07:07 AM
Join Date: Dec 2009
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I have done and am now planning similar trips, but a bit longer (23 days, 18 days). It can take hundreds of hours to plan such a trip, depending on the number of destinations, modes of transport, accommodations selected and how much reading up on sites you want to do in advance. It also depends on how much you value getting the absolutely lowest prices.

We are 5 so using a hotel is mostly not financially possible since hotels always require that we book 2 rooms (and often 3 rooms!). For 4 you have some but limited choices in hotels for one "family room" but they are out there. Fortunately for hotels in the UK you do not have a 16 year old because that may make 1 family room impossible (16 counts as an adult in the UK, but not in France, and I don't think you can put 3 adults in a family room).

You are late to planning since the $1000 round trips to Europe have long ago sold out. Many of the better values in apartments are now also booked, if you are interested in that. Apartments are really the way to go with a family and to keep down costs since you can cook and pack meals. Grocery shopping in Europe is a great cultural experience. Going with apartments you may need to set up a paypal account or learn how to wire money.

I think it is worth the expense of getting a bank account that will not charge you for ATM withdrawals in Europe ($5 + 3% adds up to over $150). Also worth the expense of getting a credit card that does not charge the 3% foreign transaction fee.

Last year we were able to spend twice as long as you did for $13,000, but we had $1000 airfares.

It is possible to get reservations for the Eiffel tower and save you the 2 hour wait. The Louvre is impossibly crowded and very unpleasant but we were able to keep a 12 year old in good spirits for 4 hours. The layout is maddeningly complex with unlabeled staircases and level changes on the maps they hand out.
tom_mn is offline  
Feb 17th, 2015, 07:40 AM
Join Date: Nov 2004
Posts: 7,156
Rick Steves is much disdained here but you might want to read his book Europe Through the Back Door. It helps you understand European travel can be easy as well as fun. He gives lots of practical details, about public transportation, laundromats, etc.

I agree with everyone to limit your trip to London and Paris and to take the train between. A train will be a novelty to your kids (probably) and one that goes under the English Channel even more of a novelty. Plus it's the quickest way between the two cities.

You can always do day trips out of cities for a change of pace. A good one from London is Hampton Court Palace; kids will love the maze. Also good in London are the London Walks walking tours. Here's the link: walks.com. Many choices, no need to commit ahead of time, just show up at the meeting point. They do some Harry Potter tours. Oh and go to a play in London. There are a number of choices appropriate for the kids.

You can do this, but it does take some planning time. Get your plane tickets first, into London, out of Paris, and then start looking for places to stay. Since you're nervous first-time independent travelers a hotel might be best -- for help with directions, restaurant recommendations, etc. Otherwise an apartment is roomier and more comfortable, with a kitchen for snacks and take-out meals. And maybe even a washing machine.

And do get your kids involved in the planning. You will all remember this trip fondly.

Good luck!
Mimar is offline  
Feb 17th, 2015, 07:55 AM
Join Date: Feb 2003
Posts: 7,561
Considering you haven't been, go to just London and Paris. London is catnip for t(w)eens and has a ton to do. DO NOT ESTIMATE LONDON'S SIZE. Paris is smaller, but that's like saying Chicago is smaller than NYC - they're both large.

Stop worrying so much - London is relatively easy to navigate because the local population speaks some form of a language equivalent to English. The French will speak some English in touristic Paris because: American tourists, English tourists, some slight recognition that English is the lingua franca (HAHAHAHAHA) of Europe.

London's attractions are either very expensive (Tower, Hampton Court Palace, Churchill War Rooms) or have no admission charge (each Tate, each National Gallery, V&A, Imperial War Museum, Brit Museum, Brit Library, Nat'l Maritime, Museum of London, etc.).


Go to www.daysoutguide.co.uk and print off every 2for1 voucher that looks appealing and take it with you to London. And bring passport-size photos for everyone. Once in London go to the ticket booth at a national rail station (e.g., St. Pancras if you're arriving on the Eurostar), present your passport-size photos and get 7-day PAPER travelcards for everyone (yeah, yeah, you'll be there less than 7 days but more than 4, and a 7-day card breakeven point on day-to-day cards is about 4 days). The trouble is worth suffering to save $45 on the Tower alone (Family admission is 59 quid, two adults and two kids with the 2for1 deal is 33 quid, which would you rather pay?).

Be prepared for disappointment at the Louvre. The Mona Lisa is only 30" x 21" and that's really small behind plexiglass from 20 feet away and peering over the gawkers. Also Versailles is perpetually mobbed - we were there in late April on a rainy day and it was congested. A day tour to Chenonceau and Chambord would more than hit your sweet spot for French castles.

Consider small tours within the cities themselves. See www.walks.com for a LARGE menu of walking tours in London. Fat Tire Bike Tours (founded by American collegians a decade ago or so) has offerings in both.

Avoid HOHO buses like the bloody flux. Paris and London are congested. London has NO grid street layout in the center of the city so the buses crawl. And in London, you can see whatever you want with a ride on a combination of the 9 or 15 "heritage lines" or the 136. Your kids are kids, they'll be able to find whatever accompanying podcasts exist.

The number of available vacation rental apartments in London and Paris is slightly smaller than the number of sand grains on Normandy. Check vrbo.com or various others. Oakwood is a "hotel" for corporate travelers who need apartments - it has a dozen or so outposts in London. Citadines is a British apartment hotel chain. Paris will have its own.
BigRuss is offline  
Feb 17th, 2015, 08:02 AM
Join Date: Feb 2003
Posts: 7,561
Read this too, so you can understand what the bloody Brits are going on about:


The UK and America, two countries separated by a common language.
BigRuss is offline  

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