Why and How We Took Our Family to France

I’ve had the goal of traveling to France with my family to France for six years, since completing my doctorate. My dissertation featured St. Therese of Lisieux, and I wanted to take the trip as a way to celebrate its completion, to visit St. Therese’s sites, and to share my love of the country with my family.

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Nathan and our girls in front of the Basilica of St. Therese in Lisieux.

So much about France sparks joy for me: its rich spiritual and cultural heritage, its lovely language, and its tasty food. Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary have appeared there, numerous saints have walked its soil, and the Catholic faithful have raised lacy cathedrals, sung sublime music, and lavished works of love and mercy in that country, creating an Catholic culture that has proved enduring.

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Nope, not lace, just the stone North Tower of Notre Dame de Paris.
Stained glass windows in the Cathedral of Chartres,
Stained glass windows in the Cathedral of Chartres.

Plus, it has castles!

Sully-sur-Loire
Sully-sur-Loire

So, I’d liven days of drudgery spent mining mountains of laundry by reading French children’s books to mes enfants, or teaching them the difference between an assiette and a serviette at lunchtime. When taking the girls to the library for children’s books, I’d check out a few travel guides, or perhaps a coffee table book with glossy photos of the 100 most charming villages in France.

In the six years since we set that goal, our family has seen a lot of changes. We talked about going to France “someday” for so long that it seemed like it might never actually happen. But it did! We really did it!

Winged Nike of Samothrace back in Louvre

The whole two and a half weeks our family of six traveled through France, I kept thinking “We’re really here! I can’t believe it! This is actually happening!” It was incredibly satisfying.

Cecilia playing with the toy wooden sailboats at the Luxembourg Gardens. Nathan and I had seen a little French toddler exclaim delightedly over his "bateau" here fifteen years ago, when we were first married. Bringing our own toddler here was a dream come true!
Cecilia playing with the toy wooden sailboats at the Luxembourg Gardens. At this spot, Nathan and I had seen a little French toddler exclaim delightedly over his “bateau” here fifteen years ago, when we were first married. Bringing our own toddler here was so sweet!

In this post, I’d like to share some of the things that helped us achieve this goal. I want to encourage you, if you have a big, crazy dream, that you can do it! And, if your dream happens to be taking your family to Europe, I’d love to share what was most helpful in making that happen for us.

  1. Share your dream with your spouse. The first thing I did, which was essential, was to share my dream with the love of my life, my good and fun husband. He was on board, though we did have to mutually decide to delay the kitchen remodel he has been itching to do until after the trip to France. For which I will be ever grateful to him. (Plus, should we be blessed with more babies, better to go to France now when we only have six tickets to buy, right? Whereas a kitchen remodel’s cost basis does not go up as your family size increases.)
  2. Tell other people about your goal. The more you talk about it and share it, the more it becomes real to you. We mentioned our goal to our immediate family members and to some close friends.
  3. Write your goal down. I actually made a collage on a bulletin board in which I included pictures of places I wanted to go in France. I wrote on the collage the amount I thought it would cost us to get there (I was waaay under!), and the date I wanted to go (2012–hah, didn’t happen until four years later!). While those concrete details needed some, ah, refinement, having a visual reminder of my goal really helped. It was inspiring.
  4. Research. I looked up what it would cost to rent a car in France, started searching typical airfares, and gathered information about travelling in Europe with kids. The most helpful source of information I found was the book Take Your Kids to Europe: How to Travel Safely (and Sanely) With Your Children. Reading that really motivated me and excited me, and it was through this book that I learned that renting houses directly from owners was cheaper than staying in hotels. When I read that you could rent an entire house for $500 a week, I was hooked! (True story: you can!)

    Our stable-turned-guesthouse at La Ferme de La Caleche, 2o minutes south of Lisieux.
    Our stable-turned-guesthouse at La Ferme de La Caleche, 2o minutes south of Lisieux.
  5. Savings. We experienced significant financial upheaval in the past six years. Events included four moves, four career changes, one period of unemployment, doubling our quantity of children, and an expensive post-partum health crisis. (All better!) We completely credit our ability to stabilize our finances to Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. We have had windfalls in the past, such as gifts, tax returns, bonuses, or a big Craigslist sale. Until a few years ago, lamely, we used them to enable our terrible tendency to spend more than our income (gulp!), or to pay down student loans, or to pad our anemic retirement accounts. When a windfall blessedly blew our way last year, however, we knew our debts were all paid off (except the house, which we now plan to pay off ahead of schedule). Our retirement accounts were healthy and our lifestyle spending was in control. We had an emergency savings account that could float us for five months if disaster should strike. Green light for France! Since getting fired up and focused through FPU, we have quit going out to eat, except for the very rare occasion. (Tell me I’m not the only mom who had ever found herself rolling a minivan through the McDonald’s drive through more than once a week?) We cut clothing expenses by shopping at thrift stores and dressing the female members of the family in hand-me-downs. We live on a budget (snappy software courtesy of YNAB), and we’re very selective about what we spend our money on.
  6. Frugal Travel. We also planned a very frugal trip to France. We managed to take all six of us there for the same amount it would cost us to send one of our children to the local Catholic school for a year, to eat out for two and a half years, at the rate of the average American household, or to join the local Y for six years. We scoured the internet for low airfares for months. We never ordered meals at restaurants just snacks at cafes, twice.
  7. Who misses the $960/year in McDonald's food we gave up? Baguette sandwiches in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower taste so much better!

      Who misses the $960/year in McDonald’s food we could have been spending? Baguette sandwiches in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower taste so much better!
  8. Pray, and put it on your calendar. This should actually be first, but this just shows how I still need to grow in my discipleship that I didn’t actually do this until a friend shared her example. However, when I actually DID do it, things really started moving! I have a super faith-filled friend from our parish who told me that when she wants to do something (big), she puts it on her calendar and then asks God about it. So, last fall, pre-windfall, I took out my planner and pencil, flipped to the month-at-a-glance spread for June, and picked two week on which to write “Family Trip to France.”  I prayed with the confidence of a child who knows her daddy likes to spoil her, and I asked God my Father, “Can we please go to France this June?” I figured it was a pretty long shot, but lo and behold! Our vacation dates ended up landing just two or three days off from the dates I’d blindly penciled in last fall.

In case you’re interested, here are things that did NOT work:

  1. Earning airmiles through United Mileage Plus Visa credit card rewards. Boy, I was so sure this was going to be the golden ticket to family travel to Europe that I signed Nathan and I both up for rewards credit cards. Fool that I was! Over the three or four years we had those credit cards, we did rack up a lot of airmiles, maybe enough for two or three tickets to Europe. We also paid steep yearly membership fees, and we bought our gas, groceries, eating out (shudder), and household sundries on plastic. Which means, as we later found out, that we were spending at least 30% more money than we would have been had we been paying cash. We’d have been better off chucking those cards and saving the bloated 30% in spending, not to mention the membership fees. And those airmiles? In order to use them, we would have had to buy the rest of the family’s tickets at full price through the same airline, or finagle a scenario in which we split our travelling family onto two different sets of flights, with different carriers. (Double shudder.) The prices for United were always much higher than the lowest prices sites like Expedia could show us, plus, finding dates available even just to use the rewards miles was really tricky. I know that the credit card airmiles route does work for some families, though.
  2. SmartyPig Savings Account: I had opened one of these early on and started chinking electronic coins into it now and then, but until we gained control of our entire household’s financial health (see #5 above), this was pretty futile. I think I saved about 1/20th of the amount needed this way. We ended up draining the SmartyPig account once we got on board with Dave Ramsey’s program in order to work our Baby Steps. I still like those cute pink piggy graphics, and now that we are working our plan (Thank you, Dave!), I could see SmartyPig working out better in the future.

Once the planning kicked into full gear, I found the following travel website helpful:

http://mylittlenomads.com/

Oh, wow! Okay, before, I had merely come across his recommendations for what to do in Paris with kids and used that to help with planning.

The whole family is glad that I knew to stop for gelato at Amorino, thanks to My Little Nomads.
The whole family is glad that I knew to stop for gelato at Amorino, thanks to My Little Nomads.
See this girl? Glad. Her gelato is not only utterly delish, it is in the shape of a flower.
See this girl? Glad. Her gelato is not only utterly delish, it is in the shape of a flower.
As many flavors as you wish become the petals of your gelato flower.
As many flavors as you wish become the petals of your gelato flower.
Glad dad.
Glad dad.

Just now, however, I read the manifesto on the author’s homepage. It expresses exactly what I want to communicate: You can do this! It’s amazing! It’s hard, but it’s so, so worth it! Nathan and I may have stayed up until midnight most nights in Paris to plan the next day’s logistics. We may have driven on obscure country roads in the dark looking optimistically for signs of our nights’ lodging, ruing the errant time estimation that made us think we’d sail into our next rental well before, say, 10 pm. We may have even started looking longingly at the menus outside restaurant doors as we frugalled our way through family feedings in France. But, but, but . . .  we picnicked in front of castles!

Sully-sur-Loire. I asked the kids to follow Daddy's Good Example eating his vegetables (cherry tomatoes). He unveiled his other Ninja trick: throwing cherry tomatoes in the air and catching them in his mouth. They followed his example, all right!
Sully-sur-Loire. I asked the kids to follow Daddy’s Good Example eating his vegetables (cherry tomatoes). He unveiled his other Ninja trick: throwing cherry tomatoes in the air and catching them in his mouth. They followed his example, all right!

Clare and Kate climbed castle walls!

Chateau Gaillard
Chateau Gaillard

Kate rode a pig!

 

Did I mention that Kate adores pigs? This was a dream-come-true for her.
Did I mention that Kate adores pigs? This was a dream come true for her.

We herded dwarf goats!

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It was magical. And I wouldn’t trade one second of it for ten year’s worth of drive-thru feedings.

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I'm so glad it didn't rain that day.
I’m so glad it didn’t rain that day.

2 thoughts on “Why and How We Took Our Family to France”

  1. Hello Sarah! What a blessing your sharing is to every one who dreams of taking their family on an adventure! And also for those of us who – ahem – just want to tackle our pesky family finance situations. I’m looking forward to putting your tips to work, with your enthusiasm to light the way when things seem dark. Mille mercis!

  2. The only way I’ve seen credit card air miles done effectively is by using a business card for a small business owner, paying it off every month. It seems like a bad idea otherwise.

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