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Walking vs taking the metro in Europe with kids
Our Big Family Finally Returning to Our Rented Home
in Athens, Greece, after a Long, Hot Walk

The main thing I did wrong when traveling in Europe with my big family was using our feet as transportation when we should have really been in a vehicle (a big one, arranged in advance). In this post we'll explain why the "walk everywhere" plan is not always a great idea when traveling with a big family...

First, I have to say, I'm a big fan of walking. I love to walk when traveling, because you see more. You see things you never could have seen if you were just whizzing by in a car. You have time to stop, see, smell, touch the water, feel the bark of the trees, take pictures, and do anything you want to stop and do, when you're on foot.

Walking Unlocks Travel Experiences
I walked everywhere in Mexico, Central America, and South America. Only when going a long distance between towns would I resort to a bus. But for getting around town, when you're traveling solo or as a couple, nothing beats your own two feet!

When you're on foot, you meet people: sometimes people who change the entire course of the day, people who tell you where to buy that awesome chicken-on-a-stick they're eating, or where to find a clean hotel room for 3 bucks a night, or people who invite you to meet their ancient Aztec grandmother who doesn't speak a word of Spanish.

I once traveled in Europe for 3 months with no car, toting groceries in a backpack once a week (in the rain, every single time). Then some years later, I was joyfully car-free in South America for two years, usually walking a minimum of 2 hours every day, and getting into the best shape of my life. It was absolutely routine to cross an entire city on foot, both ways.

Walking Back Then
During those days in the mountains of South America, one of my favorite outings was to walk for 2 hours to a small independent movie theater where they showed old black-and-white Charlie Chaplin films. Afterward, we would walk all the way back, for a total of 4 hours walking for the weekly movie day. There was a bus service, but, if we had taken the bus, we would have missed the walk! We walked every day, everywhere, every time:
  • Going to the grocery store?  Great!  Let's walk.
  • Got to go out to the butcher shop?  Have a nice walk!
  • Want to see what's on the other side of that mountain? Let's walk up there!
We just walked everywhere.  It was part of the rhythm of our lives. Every plan we made, everywhere we went, the first question was: How long is it going to take to walk there? We better leave an hour before we need to be there.

Walking Today
That was years ago, but I'm still in the walking habit. My friends laugh when I tell them that I walked to the store "because it's only 4 blocks away!" and then I laugh when they tell me that they went the same distance in their 2,500-pound motorized luxury chariot "because it's too far to walk." It seems like most people I know would not consider walking anywhere located further than a block away.

On several occasions, I've had people ask me: "Is something wrong with your car?" When I say no, they seem confused. "Well, I saw you walking, so I thought maybe your car had broken down. I mean, if you ever need a ride or something, just let me know..." When I say that I was walking because it's good exercise and I enjoy walking, they look even more perplexed.

Seriously, I've seen people cross the street using a car:  get in, crank 'er up, drive across two or three lanes of traffic, park again, go get coffee, then drive back. That, to me, is insanity. I can't understand it.

So, yeah, I'm very pro-walking. It's great for your health, better for the planet than any car will ever be, and it's a fun (and free) activity to do while traveling (as described in this post). But this is one of those things where traveling solo, or as a couple, is very different from traveling as a big family with young children.

Trip Preparation
We knew there would be a lot of walking on our trip to Europe, so we trained ourselves and the children for 3 months before going, by taking long walks where we live. We'd all go out in the heat and walk for 60 to 80 minutes, a few times a week, as part of getting ready for the trip. We didn't quite work our way up to doing the walks with loaded backpacks, though that might have helped.

However, where we live, the terrain is flat as a pancake. Little did we realize that no amount of walking in our area could have prepared us for Switzerland's (amazing) hills!

Walking everywhere in Europe with young children in a large family
Our Big Family Walked Most of this Day in Gorgeous Switzerland

Walking with a Big Family: A Typical Arrival
Using your legs as your only means of transport can be very, very difficult, if you have a big family traveling together. This is a typical scenario for arriving at a new city for our recent trip to Europe:

Walk out of a train into a jam-packed train station with numerous exits. GPS says the trip to the apartment we have rented will be just 20 minutes by foot, or 20 minutes by metro, or 20 minutes by cab. So right away we eliminate the metro, since that is always way more complex to figure out than just walking. If it's no faster by cab, and it's obviously more expensive, then why would you want a cab anyway? Why not just walk?

On the other hand, it’s a hot summer day, and we have all our bags and our kids, so we try to get a cab. But 3 cab drivers in a row all turn us down because we are 6 people and they only have 4-passenger vehicles. (In some countries, having more passengers than the vehicle's rated capacity is a very big deal - in others, not so much.) There are no taxi SUVs or vans anywhere in sight.

Taxi Apps for a Big Family
So, using our US-based international smart phone, I open up one of several taxi apps and order a 6-passenger vehicle. But before I can get that request in place, the app demands first to know our pick-up and drop-off addresses, then wants me to clarify the pick-up address because our "location is unclear." I suppose that is understandable, because we're standing in a pedestrian-only area near the train station, hundreds of feet from the nearest street with car traffic.

Then the taxi app asks if I’m paying cash or credit card, then it wants me to confirm which credit card is being used. Then the app says, “Locating drivers…” and I feel a big smile spread across my face, happily watching this little piece of technology solve all our problems.

But, this "Locating drivers..." message is static for 3 to 5 minutes. Then finally the app gives up, saying: “Sorry, we don’t currently service this city.”  Argh!  Why didn't they tell me that the moment I opened the app?

The app had my location (at least the city and country) within seconds, as soon as I opened it. Why did I have to answer all those other questions to be told there was no such service in this city?

Do you need a taxi to get from the airport to the city traveling with kids?
Walking...and walking, and Europe.
Our Big Family Walking across the Westminster Bridge over
the River Thames while out on Foot for an Evening in London

Calling a Cab Big Enough for a Big Family
So, still stranded at the train station, I do an online search for transportation, call up a service on the phone, and they offer a one-hour wait. I try one more service and they just decline the request, telling me they need advance notice for a cab that big.

So, we start walking. Hey, it's just 20 minutes, right? What's the big deal? If we had left the train station as soon as we got here, we'd have been there by now...right?

Evil GPS
For reasons unknown to me, my GPS gives us diagonally-backwards directions for the entire first day after arriving to any new country. If we are walking towards 12 o'clock on the dial in actual reality, the smartphone – and I use that term loosely - shows us walking towards 7 o'clock, or sometimes 5 o'clock, and sometimes it just waggles between those two points. And it rotates 360 degrees at random, spinning the map around like we're lost at the North Pole.

With this GPS as my only guide, it takes 5 to 10 minutes of being lost near the train station (not generally the best place to be lost and from out-of-town) to figure out that we got out on the wrong end of the train station and have been headed the wrong way this entire time (every single time).

Long Walks while Lost
At this point the kids catch on that they are following someone who is walking in circles - long, slow, hot circles - and their first minor complaints ensue.

We find ourselves on city blocks that have 7 sides, with diagonal streets that cut through blocks, and cars that don’t slow down at crosswalks. After wandering around lost another 5 minutes, we start to get oriented with landmarks, believing our eyes instead of the GPS, and I form my mental picture of exactly how to use the backwards GPS.

GPS for Big Families
Then we learn that what the GPS estimates to be just a 20-minute walk is actually only going to be 20 minutes if you are able to achieve a local resident’s walking pace.  Now, this would be someone over 5 feet tall, who knows where she or he is going, and has no luggage. We learned that the hard way!

We’d start a 20 minute walk, and after finally figuring out the correct direction and heading that way for 5 minutes at a good pace, the GPS estimate would say that there were 18 minutes left to go. Let's see, 20 minus 5 equals 18? There's something up here...

We'd walk 5 more minutes, and the GPS would cheerfully confide that we only had 16 minutes left to go. This deal was getting worse all the time!

The walk ends up taking us 45 minutes, with stops for shoe laces and Ineedadrinkkawater, etc., and much longer if anyone needs a restroom stop.

Finding the Area but not the Destination
Finally, we get to the right street and, ta-da, we've made it! Right? No, wait, hang on. Building Number 8 is nowhere to be found. Let's all stop and look around for a moment here: right there is Building Number 4 and all the even-numbered buildings should be on the same side of the street, so let's just keep heading this way. Then a very long way away, we find a Building Number 10.  But there’s just no Number 8, anywhere.

So there are the six of us, walking back and forth along this one block, retracing our steps at least 3 times, all carrying our bags on our backs, and bumping into each other every time we turn around, consulting building numbers and a GPS that is spinning like we’re trying to find an airstrip in the Bermuda Triangle.

Local Host to the Rescue!
So, finally, a light bulb moment:  I call the apartment host! And...there’s no answer. I get a voicemail. So I send a text asking for help, and...there’s no answer.

So I send a message via the rental app, and like magic, wow, he responds nearly instantly. But his response is a copy & paste of the same exact directions he sent us a month ago.

Maybe 15 minutes later, if we’re very lucky, he’s out there looking for us on the street, and brings us to the apartment on foot. "There, you see?" He says. "Number 10." And sure, there's a number 10 about twice as far off the ground as all the other building numbers, not posted at eye-height like every other building but way, way up on top of an arch. We probably could've seen it if we were on the other side of the street. And rather than a black sign with white numbers like all the other buildings has, it's a stone-carved "10" in the color tan on a tan background. I could've spent another hour on that street and would've never seen it. But regardless...

"Yay!" we cheer. We’re tired now, and hot and frustrated, but, we made it! This would be like a typical, everything-worked-out-in-the-end arrival. They weren’t always so good!

Our Tips
There are certain times when a Big Family should really consider booking transportation rather than walking, even for what seems like a short distance.  Here are our tips for big families...

Do I need to get a taxi to get around Thailand with young children?
Crossing the Street in Chiang Mai, Thailand - where old town is surrounded
 by a charming moat, and also a ring of never-ending traffic 
that has no stop signs or traffic lights.
(The secret to crossing is: if you wait for traffic to stop, it never will, so
just step boldly and hope for the best, because: They'll stop...probably...)

  1. Use private transportation on the day of arrival.  Trying to get from the train station or airport to the city on foot or on public transportation can be a big mistake, when you're traveling with a large family.  Maybe you'll save 50 Euros on hiring a car (less than 10 Euros per person), but, how much will it cost you in time, and frustration?
  2. Compare Costs for a Big Family.  If you have to use a metro or bus for part of the journey, subtract those tickets for each person from the cost of a private vehicle. This is where traveling as a big family can really pay off, and make some "luxury" expenses seem perfectly reasonable. Over and over again, in various cities, we often find that renting a private minivan from an online app is cheaper than buying 6 tickets on the subway for the same journey.
  3. Book in Advance.  Our recommendation is to research transportation options for large families before your arrival, book online and prepay with a good credit card designed for international travel. That way you don't have to worry about whether you have local currency, how to find the apartment, or anything else, really.
  4. Relax, you're on Vacation!  It's a wonderful feeling to have a private driver from a trusted, well-rated transportation company, holding up a sign with your name on it, upon arrival. You're on holiday, right? This is one particular expense that is worth every cent.

More on this topic is in this post on hiring a private minivan transfer for your family.

More Soon!
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What About You?
Do you walk all the time, some of the time, or none of the time? Had any experiences where walking turned out to be the worst possible option?