Big trips with little kids: yes, it can be done

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by Tsh

Tsh is the founder of this blog and is currently traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

The week of Thanksgiving, my family and I went to Paris.  It was the first time we’d ever taken a big vacation together, and it was so much fun.  It was cold, windy, and rainy, and the prices were exorbitant, but we had planned well enough and saved up enough cash to still enjoy our time together.

(By the way, if you’re wondering what this frugal family is doing taking a holiday to Paris, of all places, it happened to be the cheapest flight from our city.)

Quite a few of you wondered how on earth we managed to take two preschoolers to a big European city during the cold and rainy season and still manage to have fun.  With some forethought and a bit of flexibility, we had some simple strategies that really helped us maximize our time in Paris.

So if you’re planning a family vacation to a big place in the near future, here are some tips we learned for successful vacationing with little ones.

1.  Stay in an apartment.

This was one of the smartest things we did.  Instead of messing with set breakfast times in a cafe and early checkout times, we opted for staying in an apartment in a regular neighborhood.  Here, we had a kitchen where we could stock it with our own food preferences, the kids could be loud and run around, and we had laundry facilities to keep our packing to a minimum.  It was cheaper, too, since we stayed for an entire week.  The kids really enjoyed our “home away from home.”

Check places like Craigslist or Home Away for reasonable vacation housing options.

2.  Bring a travel highchair.

travel high chairMany countries don’t have highchairs as a standard policy in restaurants.  We toted this small, lightweight inflatable highchair in the basket of our stroller, and I’m so glad we did.  We used it quite a few times, from street cafes to Disneyland.  It was nice not having to mess with containing a two-year-old over mealtimes.

3.  Pack less; do laundry.

If you can stay in a place with laundry facilities, that saves you the trouble of packing a week’s worth of clothing — a big plus when traveling with kids.  We packed about three days’ worth of clothing for each person, and did laundry halfway through the week.  It made our luggage load quite a bit lighter.

4.  Plan on down time.

tate at the playgroundWe did a lot for seven days — we saw the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame, the Arc de Triumphe, major museums, and topped it off with Disneyland.  But we made sure and sprinkled in some playground and window shopping time between all the sightseeing.  Whenever we passed a playground, we let the kids run around and blow off steam for half an hour.  We visited a great toy store and did some Christmas shopping while the kids had a ball playing with the toys on display.

5.  Lower your expectations — make it a family trip.

My husband and I didn’t take moonlit walks along the Seine.  We didn’t eat a romantic dinner on the Eiffel Tower.  And we certainly didn’t spend nearly as much time as we wanted at the Louvre.  But that was okay — this was a trip for bonding as a family.  We kept our expectations low, and still ultimately did more than we thought we would.  Sure, we wanted to do more in Paris, but we could always go again when the kids are older, or when it’s just the two of us.

6.  Eat at home.

We also ate two out of three meals at home.  We leisurely ate breakfast before heading out for the day around 10 a.m., and then we were home in time to cook a simple dinner before bedtime.  This saved us a ton of money, and the kids could enjoy just being a family at mealtime, instead of being cooped up at a restaurant.  It also made our lunchtime out more special, because it was our one meal out of the day.

reed at the museum

We also stocked up on snacks at the local grocery store, so we carted around crackers, fruit, and other healthy treats on the go.  The crackers were a great distraction for the two-year-old at the museum.  He was more intent on nibbling his cracker in his stroller than he was admiring the Monets.

7.  Plan ahead.

Read quality travel guides, and roughly sketch out your days in advance.  My husband and I enjoy spontaneous traveling, but with kids, it’s not nearly as much fun.  So we made a list of “must sees,” and routed out the best days to see them.  We went ahead and bought a museum card, which saved us money and tons of time in lines (a huge help with little ones).  We researched ideas on things to do in Paris with kids, and then did those things.  And yet we stayed flexible enough to shift around the days based on the weather and our energy levels.

8.  Bring dishes for kids.

This is one thing we didn’t do and wish we did.  Normally, I’m okay with our kids using regular drinking glasses and plates.  But because it was someone else’s home, and because they were really tired, I was a bit skiddish when they ate off of nice china and drank their water from champagne flutes.  Next time, we’ll bring an unbreakable plate, fork, and cup for each of them.

About a year and a half ago I wrote about more tips on traveling in general with kids.

What are some of your best tips for traveling with little ones?  Have any vacation plans this holiday season?

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Comments

  1. Every vacation we’ve had the last few years has been a blessing someone has given us. These tips are great, and I definitely agree to plan in some down time. Good for the kids and good for us, too!
    .-= Angela @ Homegrown Mom´s last blog ..Parenting Advice from Winnie the Pooh =-.

  2. Thanks for all the tips. We are planning to visit London with our family next year. You confirm me to search for an apartment and not for a hotel.
    .-= Micha´s last blog ..Blog-Geburtstag mit Verlosung / giveaway =-.

  3. Wonderful tips!

    I travel with my son, and have done a fair amount since he was born. I managed to survive the 10 hour flight from our old home to our new home!

    But really, if you’re organised, travelling with children can be lovely. My son (2 years old) and I are visiting England right now and we’re having a great time.
    .-= Satakieli´s last blog ..Oh, Hello Winter! pt.1 =-.

  4. Oh I would love to take my family to Paris. Unfortunately my husband hates to fly. Do you have any tips for long car rides with antsy boys?
    .-= Shannon´s last blog ..Menu Plan: Hearty and Sweet =-.

  5. We were just discussing the Eiffel Tower with our three last night, and making “plans” in our heads for when we’ll go as a family.

    I never really enjoyed traveling with infants/toddlers (maybe that’s because all 3 of ours were in that phase at the same time!), but now we’re at a stage where it’s still very busy, but fun.

    But at the holidays, we like to stay right here!

    Jamie
    .-= steadymom´s last blog ..Accepting the Changes of Motherhood =-.

  6. My parents took the four of us (our sons are six and eight) on a two-week trip to Switzerland in July. Like you, we stayed in an apartment and mainly ate in. My parents made sure to wait on the trip until my boys could walk good distances, as we spent many days hiking/exploring.

    We also made sure to make stops at the playground just beyond our town’s train station.

    It was a wonderful experience for all of us.
    .-= Caroline Starr Rose´s last blog ..A Little Late to The Agent Appreciation Day Party =-.

  7. I completely agree. When our girls were 1.5 and 3.5 we drove from WI to Southern Cal. We were told how crazy we were but with good planning it was the best time ever. Planning is the key though.
    .-= Angie´s last blog ..Momma Bear woke up =-.

  8. Good tips. The one about keeping expectations low is so key, isn’t it? A perfect trip can be ruined just by discontent. I enjoyed reading about your travels; thanks for sharing!

    PS Love that shot with the Monet in the background!
    .-= Aimee´s last blog ..The Beef Chronicles: Steak au Poivre & Sweet Potato Fries =-.

  9. I love these tips. These are the same guidelines we use when staying at Walt Disney World or the beach. Having an apartment/condo/house makes all the difference.

    I have a post on my site about prepping and packing vacation food. We’ve taken food on dry ice (can’t do it when you fly!) and then it’s just assembly only on vacation. I’ve also heard from one of my readers that she used one of my Menus with Complete Grocery List on their vacation in Alaska. The list was already made for them and the meals were simple to cook on vacation.
    .-= Tiffany´s last blog ..Weekly Menu, Grocery List and Recipes – Week 20 =-.

  10. I like tip #4 – the downtime one. What’s a vacation if you come home and don’t feel you’ve relaxed? I bet the kids had a grand time on the playground – did they make any friends there? :-)

  11. Tip #3 is my favorite. When the twins were infants and we traveled I used to pack a ton of clothes, but I realized as long as there are laundry facilities I can pack half as much and our load is so much lighter. I also like the down time we always try to find a park or playground were the kids can run off some of their energy. Great tips Tsh. You sound like you all had a great time. My daughter is dreaming of going to Paris. One day :)
    .-= Rana´s last blog ..We’re Home! =-.

  12. I love reading travel tips… I wrote a post about it awhile ago:
    http://webelfamily.com/iWebel/Blog/Entries/2009/3/3_Talking_about_travel.html
    but it mostly pertains to travel in ASIA… which you can get away with a lot more than other places in the world.
    Paris – what a fun trip that must have been!!!

  13. We have many friends and family who travel abroad with their young children. Two of them have toddlers around the same age as my son. I couldn’t imagine traveling with him early on-so colicky, and thought my friends were nuts at the time. But they seemed to do very well.

    He is a wonderful little guy and I can’t wait to travel with him. I think our first big trip will be from TX to San Diego. Thanks for the tips!
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..Where Caramel Meets Pound Cake =-.

  14. avatar
    Jennifer B says:

    We’ve done lots of big trips with our now 8.5 year old, including 3 trips to Europe, one trip to Mexico and 2 trips to Hawaii. We don’t usually get an apartment, but do follow all of your other suggestions. Keeping expectations low is a big one.

    The other thing that has been a lifesaver on the last two European trips is that we haul along our daughter’s scooter. It folds up to fit into a suitcase for travel. It goes into my husband’s backpack when we enter a museum or restaurant. My daughter whines heavily when we do lots of walking, but will scooter all day. Cities well designed for pedestrians are cities that kids do well with scooters in.

    It’s a bit bulky, but we consider it essential to keep our daughter a willing participant in our adventures.

    We also find that the more time we spend outdoors, the better the trip goes. So we still tend to avoid the museums in favor of towers to climb, castles to explore etc. And a daily ice cream treat keeps everyone’s spirits high too!

  15. Wow, I’m impressed! Your tips are great, but I’m still not sure I can imagine taking our 4 and 2 year old kids on an international trip. I totally agree with Tip #5, and this can apply to so many “family” things in life. When you view an activity as great because you are doing it with your whole family, you can lose the pressure/expectations to get something else out of it. And then it can be “just fun” to do!
    .-= Dustin | Engaged Marriage´s last blog ..A Wedding Prayer: What Special Memories Do You Hold From Your Wedding Day? =-.

  16. We just flew/drove to Kansas from Indiana for Thanksgiving with our 2 year old son and the things we found as lifesavers were a strap we got for attaching his car seat to our carry-on rolling suitcase, a ball called the Gertie ball which inflates and deflates in a flash so anywhere we had a few extra minutes and some open space at rest stops or in airports we could get it out and have some great large motor time and then as soon as we were done it deflated flat to fit easily in our backpack. Plus we never travel without our Ergo baby carrier. It is not bulky and, our son at least, would rather be in that than in a stroller. He will still nap in there and loves being close to us and then we are not hauling a stroller around. Not ideal for vacations where there is a ton of walking at your destination but ideal for us in the airport. Although when we went to Guatemala when he was 15 months that carrier was all we took and it saved us. We could wear him in it for hours and not have a sore back or shoulders.

    But we are still learning. We have a child who hates car travel and we are taking an 11 hour car ride to PA for Christmas. We will see how it goes!! :)

  17. great tips that we will be using in the future!!!
    .-= Courtney´s last blog ..this pregnancy… =-.

  18. These are nice tips… We’ve been traveling with Robert since he was 1.5yo. It doesn’t have to be hectic if you plan ahead. From next year on, we might travel to conferences at least once a year around the world and we don’t have to leave our kids (because we are planning on having more kids) behind just because of the hassle! I consider myself pretty organized, specially in terms of traveling. That’s why organization and planning ahead is #1!
    .-= lvlc @ FromMomToMom´s last blog ..<<We got our Christmas tree!!! We cut it ourselves and decorated it with recycled materials and reusing other ornaments>> =-.

  19. avatar
    Crystal Senatore says:

    Thank you for the kids. Have you talked about the actual long flight with small children before? If so, where can I find it? If not, what are your tips for the flight?

    • avatar
      Crystal Senatore says:

      I mean thank you for the advice!!! ooops

    • You know, I actually haven’t written about long flights with kids, but I should. I could write a book on that, we’ve done that so many times. I’ll put that post topic in queue…

      And I knew what you meant about the kids/advice thing. ;)

  20. What a great article! My hubby and I don’t have kids yet but will very soon, and we also haven’t been to Europe yet but would really like to go! It’s pretty definite that the first time we’ll ever get to see the Eiffel Tower will be with a little one in tow…so these tips are will be so helpful! Sounds like you guys had a really great, family time!

    Thanks!
    Kelly
    http://thepursuitofmommyness.com/
    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..Read how this Mompreneur turned Writing Love Letters into a Successful Business! =-.

  21. Great tips, thank you for sharing these! We have been nervous about going on a big trip with our little guys (4 and 2). I’m sure the tips you shared will be very helpful…we have a big trip coming up soon!!I hope I’ll have good stories to share as well! Thank you:).
    .-= Bomi Jolly´s last blog ..Don’t want kisses… =-.

  22. Whenever we (mom, dad, 5 yo and 3 yo) go on a trip we try to”rent” an apartment. That way we can have breakfast before we head out, make lunches to bring if we need to, and have a low key dinner. Plus, the added bonus of a washing machine and dryer! It has saved us tons of money when we go to Disney World since we can bring lunch in with us! We have had good success with vrbo.com and probably will never stay in a hotel with kids.

  23. We took two 1yos, a 7yo and 10yo to Puerto Rico two summers ago. Had a great time! We stayed in a house for the week for all the reasons you said. We also took along my SIL to help out with the kids, esp for times when the big kids wanted to do something the little ones couldn’t.
    I took my two older kids to Guatemala for a week this summer and had a wonderful trip! They were 12 and 9 and by this age, travel is a breeze! They were flexible, interested, and confident. Wonderful travel-mates!
    And this Christmas we are driving from NC to FL but we’re incorporating fun events on the trip down and back. That makes the travel days not just for travel’s sake.

  24. I’m really surprised no one has suggested doing a home exchange. That’s what we do every year and there are always amazing places in Paris we get offers from (however, thus far we haven’t done a home exchange in Paris or anywhere abroad just because the airfare has been too expensive for us.) Anyhow, home exchanging means you don’t have to pay a cent for your accommodations. We have done 5 home exchanges with our girls ranging from 10 months to 5 years. Often we exchange with other young families who have all the necessary items we need meaning we don’t need to bring our own stroller, high chair or toys, and neither do they. I highly recommend it. http://www.homeexchange.com is where you can get started.
    .-= Melodie´s last blog ..Easy Handmade Gifts: Chocolate Lover’s Sampler =-.

  25. We did London a couple of years ago, when we had five small kids (age 7, 5, 3, 18mo and 6mo) – It sounds insane but we had the most fantastic time… The biggest thing we did to help us travel was practice getting around with them at home first… We went walking everywhere (that’s what you do in London!!!) the little ones had to get used to being in backpacks, the older ones had to learn to stick like glue NO MATTER WHAT, and we had to train at walking around loaded with kids, books, water bottles and so on. Buy the time we left our kids were used to walking with us in crowds and walking a lot… here is a link to our preparations: ( http://www.se7en.org.za/2008/07/07/if-you-were-going-to-london-for-a-few-days-what-would-you-do ) . We found their museums really kid friendly and because of their typical weather there were lots of places to run around indoors as well as outdoors… We mixed our outings with “look at things” and “running about outdoors”… Every museum is close to a park… so museum, park for picnic, museum, park for picnic… We stayed in a bed and breakfast hotel – family room:one double and two single and a mattress or two for the extra kids… breakfast was a vast choice and we stuffed our kids for the day before heading for the local Tesco’s for yogurt and roll picnics… we took a plate and cup for each kid so we could eat in our hotel room as well)
    .-= se7en´s last blog ..Sunday Snippet: Top Tips GiveAway… =-.

  26. Great tips. We are Californians but have lived in Switzerland since our kids were born so we know what we’re talking about. We also do up to four other (non US trips) a year. The biggest thing for us is NOT TO OVERSCHEDULE and to reconcile with the fact that to little kids, the park is just as important (nix that….more important) than the Prado.

  27. Wow, what a wonderful trip! Great tips!
    .-= June´s last blog ..A Little Bit of Christmas =-.

  28. This came just in time for me…we leave on MONDAY for an overseas trip with our two young children. The purpose of our trip is to visit family, yet being stuck in a flat drinking tea for 20 days seems a bit much. I think the idea of planning an outing a day seems perfect.
    I KNOW that I need to pack less and do laundry more, but my kids spill all the time! Also, I think it may be rainy a lot where we’re headed, so that may translate to wet jeans and sneakers.
    Overall, though, I’m excited for our trip.
    Now, if I could just get excited for that overnight flight, in coach, with two kids…
    .-= Melanie at Parenting Ink´s last blog ..The Christmas Beast =-.

  29. My favorite tip…rent an accommodation with a separate bedroom for Mom and Dad. When we travel our kids go to bed at their same bedtime too. Well rested kids are always easier when we are away from home. We use http://www.myfavoriteresorts.com a lot… a US based company that brokers out unused timeshares. You don’t need to be a member or attend a sales presentation either. The other good economical find… the homewood suites. They have 2-bedroom suites for usually only $20 more…and breakfast is included. Traveling with kids is certainly an adventure. My philosophy before having kids was to incorporate them into our lives in an effort to still do the things we loved…travel at the top of our list. We had some doozy experiences when they were young….but we trudged through knowing it would be worth it when they got older. The pay off is huge, my girls are 6 and 9 and are wonderful travelers, love to fly, pack, explore. I am so grateful we did what we did when they were young.
    .-= Shawn/Lifeatbuttercupfarm´s last blog ..1,000 Expressions =-.

  30. So helpful! We are leaving in a few weeks to go to Disney World with our three boys (4, 2, and 3 months). We are staying in a house (for free!) that it about 25 minutes from the parks. Thanks for the reminder about packing light if there are laundry facilities available. Anybody else have any tips for going to Disney with little ones???
    .-= MVB´s last blog ..More tips on saving on the grocery budget… =-.

    • We went to Disney last year with our son (4yo back then)… There is not such a thing too much snacks… To have enough snacks handy and juices or water will save the day. They will be thrilled enough! If you are planning to eat there, plan your eating times ahead so there is not last minute, ‘let’s eat here’ to then hear, ‘we are booked’. Make reservations beforehand. That will save you stress. For my son, in order to keep him from asking me to buy him stuff, I bought lots of Disney related stuff in the dollar store and left one in his bed before heading out. This way ‘Mickey left him a present’ for him being so nice during the day, by following instructions and not asking for stuff in the stores. It worked like a charm! Have fun.. I find that 4 yo is the perfect timing for kids to go to Disney!
      .-= lvlc @ FromMomToMom´s last blog ..<<We got our Christmas tree!!! We cut it ourselves and decorated it with recycled materials and reusing other ornaments>> =-.

  31. this is such great advice!

    we’re big on staying in apartments as well with our 3- and 4-year-old. the ability to do our own cooking is crucial because of significant food allergies in our family, but we love the added benefit of much more space for the money than a hotel.

    one of our favorite incentives when we’re walking through a city (we’re in europe too so there’s always lots of walking involved) or museum is to give the kids scavanger hunt items to find–certain monuments or paintings for example. we’ve certainly come to value the importance of adding things to our itinerary that are for the kids to enjoy. taking 30 minutes to ride a tram and watch the city go by has often been the difference between contented children and a total meltdown. while visiting some really amazing palaces and castles our kids have been most interested in playing with the rocks in the gravel, so it’s important to keep in tune with their interests and priorities.

    thanks for the post tsh!

  32. I love your tips! thank you so much for posting them.

    I would love to take a trip to Europe with my two preschoolers, but the thing that terrifies me the most is handling jet lag. How do you re-set your kiddo’s internal clocks? I’d love help with this topic!
    .-= Ann Boyd´s last blog ..In the leaves =-.

  33. Oh, thank you for this post! We have a friends wedding in Scotland in June and I’ve been stressing the cost…wondering if we could go. Well, your post gave me the idea to look for a cottage/flat with self catering and sure enough I found a great flat at an AWESOME price. Thank you!
    .-= Maria Urdinarrain´s last blog ..Smackdown!!! =-.

  34. Have to agree, renting a vacation apartment or house is the way to go when traveling with kids. It’s a great option, too, for large families who otherwise would need to get two hotel rooms.

    I find that usually the nightly prices are less, plus, as you mentioned, you can bring food in and save money that way too. It’s also a lot more relaxing for everyone to unwind in their own little spot than making do in a cramped hotel room.

    When we road trip somewhere, I usually bring my crockpot so that after a long day of seeing the sights, we’ve got dinner waiting for us.

    Jen
    .-= Jen´s last blog ..Kid Restaurants San Diego | Where to Eat with Children =-.

  35. I have to concur regarding the laundry.
    We stayed in Maui for 10 days with a 10 month old….and having our own laundry SAVED us! You can pack less, and kids are always getting dirty some how!

    We also stayed in a house, which was so much more comfortable…..kitchen to eat in, seperate bedrooms, close to a grocery store……definitely the only way we would travel with children for more than 2 nights again.

    I suppose it depends on where you are traveling too….but I just bought diapers and wipes, etc…..at the destination. Saved on packing. Make sure your destination has the products your children usually use before you plan on that.

  36. Great tips!

    We recently traveled to Italy and Greece for 10 days with our 9 month old and she did really great. We planned down time for sure but I also took lots of freeze dried fruits for snacks on the go. This really helped when we were out exploring all day and I could just pull out something that was clean and easy for her to eat.
    .-= Courtney´s last blog ..Thanksmas =-.

  37. These are all great tips. One of my additional favorites is to educate the kids about your spot before you go. Get books from the library (fiction and non-fiction), look up pictures on the internet, visit museum websites and tell them wheat you are going to see. They will be so much more engaged and get so excited when they recognize things they learned about before going. We even did this with Disney so they knew what to expect and had pre-picked the rides they just couldn’t miss.

    Happy Travels!

  38. Hi! I’ve loved reading about your adventures with young children. I have nine children and have shared many travel adventures through the years with them. They are great memories for them and as my youngest are both 8 now, our travel has changed from taking preschoolers and toddlers to 5 teens and and 3 others, 11 and two 8’s. Paris has always been an interest for three of them, we’ll have to explore our options there!
    When I first started “mom’s adventures” as the kids call it, I had three preschoolers and was expecting, I was traveling from Oregon to Idaho, a 12 hour drive, on my own to see family. My husband, had to stay in Portland and work and I had decided to make little craft kits for the three in the back, one boy and two girls. They were all three very accomplished at preschool crafts, scissors, drawing and such. I put in the ziplock baggies, one mini stapler,(they loved to staple paper),washable markers, one pack of yellow sticky notes, stickers etc… along with some other snack kits they could enjoy. We left early in the morning as I was hoping to drive basically straight through to arrive around supper time. The first few hours with the craft kits went well, lots of fun and a quiet morning. We stopped at a playground for lunch, reorganized and headed off again.
    Three hours later, another stop, then off again. On about the ninth hour, we stopped with three hours ahead of us and I realized when getting the kids out of the car, that they had all given each other hair cuts! The daughter in the middle received a complete right and left, and the two on the outside, they had the asymmetric style. There were staples in the car-seats, lots of washable marker tattoos and sticky notes everywhere! We were a sight when we showed up! A beginning of a continued adventurous life with a load of kids and a naive young mom. ( I’m a bit wiser now.)

  39. We have the summers off and instead of putting our traveling off for yet another year until our kids get older (that is always the excuse) or cutting the trip short and leaving the kids behind, we are convinced it is time to live in the now and are considering spending the summer of 2011 in Europe. Our kids will be 6 and 4. We have considered Spain, France, Italy or Italy, Switzerland, Austria over the course of 2.5-3 months. We’d like to go to Greece but it’s so far from the stuff we’d like to see in western Europe. Is there a way to plan Greece and western Europe? Would you recommend any books on traveling with kids? Not so much about how to do it although that would be helpful too, but what sorts of things to see and do that would be fun for everyone. Do you have any other recommendations on finding lodging for 2week + time periods? My husband has been trying to convince me but you have inspired me further. Thanks.

  40. Will definitely keep these in mind since our family will be traveling to Paris, London and then Africa this spring!
    .-= Jenn @ Beautiful Calling´s last blog ..Comparison = Discouragement or Pride =-.

  41. We have lived in Asia and are now living in Europe with 3 young children. These are all very good tips – we practice all of them. I can’t say enough about staying in an apartment vs hotel – often apartments are cheaper, and with fire code rules in Europe, we couldn’t all stay in one hotel room anyway. Thanks for sharing – I cannot imagine giving up travel just because we have kids. The experiences they get from traveling are unparalleled. I hope your travels with your kids are just beginning.

  42. We took our kids all over the EU for six weeks. The trip was awesome
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    Another website that is helpful both in the USA and abroad is vrbo.com
    for stays in homes.

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