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Oct 1, 2011

Parents: Beware of Avis... They don't care about the safety of your kids

I had the most frustrating and scary experience with Avis tonight. We are preparing to take a trip to South California at the end of next week, where we will have our 2 young kids (3.5 and 1.5 year olds) with us. My in-laws will be coming with us as well, they were the ones who made the reservation for a car with 2 child safety seats, from Germany. Through the process, someone had suggested that it might be helpful to confirm that the car seats were really going to be available when we come to pick up our car. I thought it seemed a little but unnecessary since the reservation clearly stated that they had reserved - and paid for - 2 car seats. But to appease everyone before the trip, I went ahead and called Avis.

OMG - What a scary experience. I talked to 3 people, including the shift manager (Andrew Diaz) and got told that Avis can not guarantee that we will have car seats when we come pick up the car. Even though, it's written in our contract, they might not be able to fulfill their obligations at the end! Apparently their systems can take the reservation, but they don't sync up with their car seat inventory. And, these 3 agents were able to tell this to me in a straight voice, without blinking!? There are so many wrong things with this.
1. How hard is it to build a system that tracks car seat inventory? They have to know how many cars they can offer. Can't they do the same for car seats?
2. More concerning, they don't seem to care about breaching a contract that they let customers get into!
3. And most concerning, they don't care about the implications of not having car seats available for parents who need them to drive away from the airport. When I asked Andrew if I might have to drive my kids without car seats if Avis can't provide them, he couldn't deny that possible scenario. WOW! I see a huge legal liability in Avis' future if this policy gets exposed.

Really, Avis, is this what you stand for? Not caring for kids or for the law?
Sadly, it seems that it's not the first time that customers have horrible experiences with Avis and their ignorance of car seat safety rules
Is someone in their Legal department aware of this?

Sadly, we can't wait for the pending lawsuit to happen. I think we will probably just cancel our reservation (since Avis isn't able to fulfill their side of the contract, this shouldn't be too hard anyways).
Does someone know any good rental car agency that is reliable with car seats?

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Aug 20, 2011

Hotel Klopp - CenterHotels: Avoid at any cost

On our way back from our wonderful Greenland trip, we had to spend a short (aka 5 hour) night in Reykjavik. I had booked the Hotel Klopp from CenterHotel in advance and it turned out to be the biggest disappointment in the entire trip.
The management is incompetent and irresponsible. We were expecting to arrive late at the hotel due to our flight schedule. I had informed over email that we would be late, but this wouldn't be a no show. We needed the room to sleep. even for just a couple of hours, before heading to our next flight. I had received a response that it would be no problem and the reception would be open 24/7. We arrived, with 2 sleepy kids and tired adults and the front desk person told us that there was no room for us! They had "upgraded" us to another hotel of their chain, and we had to take another taxi to get to the other hotel. This, in the middle of the night, during Gay Pride! It took us 20 minutes to even get a hold of a taxi, and by then we were so irritated. They had ripped us of 10% of the sleep we would be able to get that night, the kids were so unhappy, and the front-desk manager just kept saying there was nothing he could do. We ended up asking them to book us into a different hotel, where the location would be more convenient (since we had to find another room anyways). I am still trying to negotiate to get a partial refund for this awful customer service, but without success so far. Not a good track record.
I hope this blog article can be useful to anyone who is looking to book a hotel in Reykjavik. Please avoid Centerhotels in Reykjavik if you want to have a good stay.
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Aug 13, 2011

Traveling with kids in Greenland

We recently traveled to Greenland for a week with our 3.5 year-old son and our 15-month daughter, for a variety of reasons. We were obviously not necessarily trying to optimize for a kid-friendly destination, and one of my concerns was how the kids would react on a trip with 3 destinations in a short week, plane, helicopter, boat, jeep rides, etc... and a limited amount of entertainment for them.

The good news is that the logistics was much easier than expected, with high quality hotels and restaurants, punctual flights, etc... So we didn't have any issue to deal with on this front. We also got much better weather than expected, which helped with everyone's well-being. That said, emotionally, this trip could have been - and to be fair was at times- overwhelming for the kids. But overall, the kids did really great and I am sure they grew and learned a lot during that time. Charlotte, 15 months, got completely familiarized with the word/concept of "airplane" after flying in 10 of them in a 2-week period. Talk about learning by experience! And the bonus benefit was that the time difference between Greenland and California was only 5 hours, which helped us readjust to our timing after only 2 days. Much better than dealing with jetlag in Europe.

Daniel, our 3.5 year-old, was required to step up to the task. His baby sister was somewhat uncomfortable with the new environment, and she needed a lot of our attention. She had the benefit of being carried in the baby backpack or in our arms most of the tour, though. So, she had it easy, being able to stay close to us and to sleep whenever she needed. Daniel had to act as a big boy. He had to be self-reliant in a lot of situations and he had to walk everywhere with us, whether it was long and strenuous or right during his nap time. He was a real trooper. He barely complained a few times that he wanted to get more of my attention (this was fair). We never had any issue with him not being up for the physical challenges, and this was a big relief. To these days, he still reminds us proudly how he climbed all the way to the glacier by himself. And he thoroughly enjoyed all the new experiences, whether it was the helicopter ride or seeing the iceberg collapse from the boat.
Explorer at the top of the world

Made it to the top!

Evenings were sometimes a little bit tough with him, probably due to exhaustion, the irregular schedule and the fact that our hotel room, which comfortable and clean, didn't have much to offer to an active kid. Also, given that the sun never set down, Daniel was often confused about what time it was (he had to ask for every meal what type of meal it was to reassure himself) and he often questioned whether it was really time to sleep. We ended up having to deal with tantrums and time-outs a lot more than we usually have to at home, which was so disappointing since he was doing so awesome during the day. At our last destination, Ilulissat, we ended up finding a playground where we tried to go every day, so that the kids could enjoy some unstructured, kid-friendly activities.

Charlotte had obviously a different take on our trip. I think for her the main learning was dealing with new surroundings and a variety of experiences she was not prepared for. The first trip in a helicopter was definitely not her favorite, but by the time we flew back, she seemed to have already learned how to cope with it better. Overall, despite being very clingy, she seemed happy overall. She still tried to do her silly jokes at dinner table like she does at home, and she enjoyed the playground. She also learned a lot of new concepts from seeing new objects and hearing new sounds she hadn't been exposed to before. So, I hope that, despite the difficulties in adapting, she got some positive experiences out of this trip. At least, we have great photos from her to remember it!
First helicopter flight

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Aug 10, 2011

Greenland Hotel and Restaurant review

If anyone following my blog is interested in specific information about our recent trip to Greenland, below are some reviews of the hotels and restaurants we visited. I hope this is helpful.
Hotel Seamen's Homes. Very clean and friendly. I love the view of the harbor, I think this is a key differentiator for this hotel. Our 3.5 year-old loved seeing the cranes lift the big containers. Also, he was excited to see that the dock workers came to have breakfast at the hotel, this was great entertainment for him! The only caveat is that the hotel is 20-30 minutes walk from the center, not necessarily an issue unless it rains a lot (which happened to us).

Restaurant: Godthaab Bryghus. In the city center. Great muskox dishes and good service. Kid menu and crayons. Comfortable settings. Unfortunately, I don't drink beer, so I can't speak to this, but I know that my husband ordered several Godthaab Bryghus beers through the rest of our stay, so it has to be OK.

Hotel Polar Lodge from World of Greenland: The main benefit of the hotel is that it's walking distance from the airport. It's pretty small: 12 very basic rooms with shared bathroom. (We got the biggest room and with 2 kids, we literally had no room to move!). That said, all buildings in Kangerlussuaq, and the other 3 hotels, look like big containers anyways, so I am not sure if the comfort in other hotels is much different... and they are harder to reach. The hotel was still decent. It was very well heated and we got Nutella and fresh bread for breakfast (what else can we ask for?)
World of Greenland also organizes the expeditions to the Russell Glacier (great, but beware bumpy road), the Muskox safari (not worth it) and others.

We ate most of our meals at the airport cafeteria, which offers a decent range of food, from light sandwiches to muskox burger and hearty dishes... and endless entertainment for the kids with planes coming in and out.

Roklubben restaurant: It's located about 5 miles from the center, by the small lake nearby (they pick up patrons with a shuttle). It was good food and a great view to the lake. That said, the service was very slow and rude. They completely frowned at us when we asked for bread because we had been waiting for our food for 20 minutes and the kids were passing out (this was the day of our big hike to the Russell Glacier and Daniel was really starting to feel the effects of his long hike). This made for a grumpy and stressful dinner, which we would certainly have loved to avoid.

Hotel Hvide Falk: Good hotel with standard rooms, bright and clean. We enjoyed the fact that the hotel was in central location, which was a big plus considering that we were relying on our 3.5 year-old to walk everywhere with us. The other 2 hotels in Ilulissat are much further away. The hotel service was great. They helped us organize a boat excursion on a somewhat short notice; they extended our check out time, so that we could let the kids nap before starting our journey back to the US.
They also have a good restaurant, which superb views to the sea. Breakfast in decent and dinner menu includes a lot of yummy local food (muskox, reindeer and a variety of fish dishes). They also have a kids menu.

Restaurant Marmamut: This is a must-try in Ilulissat. The positioning of the restaurant is modern greenlandic cuisine, and it's really excellent. We tried whale carpaccio and various innovative seafood dishes, that we all enjoyed. Even the desserts could have competed with any decent French restaurants. The restaurant is a little bit of a walk from the city center and it's on a hill, and it has great views of the sea. What sealed the deal for us was that they brought a big box of toys for the kids in the middle of dinner (granted we were the only customers left because it was late). This all of a sudden made such a difference in how we enjoyed our 3-couse dinner. The kids hadn't had the chance to play with real toys since the beginning of our trip, so they had a blast with simple cars and dolls. They had started to become impatient and grumpy and this completely distracted them. This was the best meal in our entire trip!

Reykjavik (Iceland)
Since Greenland can only be reached through Denmark or Iceland, we ended up spending 2 nights in Reykjavik, one at the beginning and one at the end. We stayed in 2 different hotels.
Keflavik Bed & Breakfast. Despite the name, this is a major operation. The hotel is located in an old military house, and it's big. When we arrived at the airport, the shuttle was waiting for 18 people from the same flight (and it had a trailer to put all the luggage in it!) The hotel is really close to the airport, which is a great advantage, and the operations seem to run smoothly. We were able to check in very quickly. The rooms are very standard but clean and large (probably the largest we had for the 4 of us in our entire trip). There is a fitness room, a pool room and a couple of other services.

Centerhotels. Avoid at any cost, please. The management is incompetent and irresponsible. We were expecting to arrive late at the hotel due to our flight schedule. I had informed over email that we would be late, but this wouldn't be a no show. We needed the room to sleep. even for just a couple of hours, before heading to our next flight. I had received a response that it would be no problem and the reception would be open 24/7. We arrived, with 2 sleepy kids and tired adults and the front desk person told us that there was no room for us! They had "upgraded" us to another hotel of their chain, and we had to take another taxi to get to the other hotel. This, in the middle of the night, during Gay Pride! It took us 20 minutes to even get a hold of a taxi, and by then we were so irritated. They had ripped us of 10% of the sleep we would be able to get that night, the kids were so unhappy, and the front-desk manager just kept saying there was nothing he could do. We ended up asking them to book us into a different hotel, where the location would be more convenient (since we had to find another room anyways). I am still trying to negotiate to get a partial refund for this awful customer service, but without success so far. Not a good track record. If this blog article can be useful to anyone, I hope this will be about avoiding Centerhotels in Reykjavik.

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Aug 9, 2011

Greenland trip highlights

Our latest vacation led us to Greenland, a destination we hadn't necessarily thought about until this year, but one that made sense at some point, given that we regularly fly over it on our way to Europe. Since we had a wedding to attend in France, we looked into other countries we could visit on our way back and Greenland became a good candidate. It's actually not an obvious choice for a couple of reasons: the logistics is very complex (it took us several week to finalize our itinerary). Connections to Greenland had to go through Iceland so it was definitely not just a stop over on our way back, oh, and each destination within Greenland can only be reached through planes. It's not known for being the most kids friendly. The weather is, well, cold and rainy most of the time, and mosquitoes are supposed to be an issue (we didn't get too bothered by them).

But it turned out to be a good vacation nevertheless. We were very lucky and got a great weather except for the first day (in a sense even better than what we had gotten in France a few days earlier).
The views of the glaciers and icebergs are magnificent. The sizes are so big, it's hard to imagine until you see them in real life. And I could definitely have gotten used to having breakfast in front of a sea covered by icebergs, big and small, every day.
Ilulissat coastGreenland iceberg
Ilulissat sunset
We went to 3 places: Nuuk (the capital), Kangerlussuaq (gateway to Russell glacier and home to the biggest muskox population) and Ilulissat (known for its impressive icebergs). We used a variety of means to visit these places: a lot of hiking, very bumpy jeep tour, boat tours and a helicopter tour. I was positively surprised about how easy the logistics of our trip turned out to be. The connections with Air Greenland were efficient and easy (little to no passport control or security, flight departing ahead of schedule). Yes, American airlines seem very unattractive in comparison! The quality of the food and the hotels was very strong, definitely above my expectations (specific Greenland hotel and restaurant reviews here).

We only stayed there for a week, but I feel that we were able to see a lot. And given how small the area is that isn't covered with snow, there is only so much to see in each place. We were lucky to see the Russell glacier calve quite a big during the couple of hours we spent there. And we saw the most amazing iceberg collapse off the shore of Ilulissat. These were very unusual events and we just got lucky to catch them. So, we can say that it was a successful trip.
Russell Glacier calving
Russell Glacier calving
Sea off Ilulissat, before the iceberg collapse
sea off Ilulissat
Sea off Ilulissat, after the iceberg collapse.
Notice the ice-covered water? It started in front of us right after the iceberg collapsed and went all the way to the harbor several miles away
Iceberg collapse
ilulissat harbour covered with ice

For the most part, the kids did well in Greenland. It wasn't the relaxing vacation we had had in Jamaica and not quite as kid-friendly as Kapikiri, Turkey. But I think they had a good time, and definitely a lot of memories. Daniel will talk about the helicopter flight for a long time!

So, overall a pretty successful trip. I think it was partly luck, but also Greenland being easier to travel than expected. I am glad we did it!

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Aug 8, 2011

A+ for surviving solo travel with 2 young kids on a 20-hour journey

Sorry for this obvious pat in the back, but I was so relieved after surviving a 20-hour journey by myself with 2 young kids, that I wanted to write about it. Maybe it will help other parents contemplating the same type of trip.

As a background to the 20-hour journey idea, my husband and I had to attend a wedding in France in July, and it was a great opportunity for me and the kids to go and visit family closeby before the wedding (my husband wasn't able to get vacation time during that week, unfortunately). The idea was to spend some time post-wedding traveling to Greenland on our way back. So far so good, sounded like a great idea (and it turned out that our Greenland trip was so worth it). In order to make the trip affordable, though, all connections has to go through Reykjavik (Iceland), so the itinerary ended up looking a little bit like this:
SFO (San Francisco) -SEA (Seattle) -KEF (Rekjavik) - CDG (Paris).
On the way back, the itinerary branched off from Reykjavik to Greenland for a few days and back to the US.

Yes, the first trip included 20-hours of travel with 2 stop-overs. And if you are following my blog, you know that my kids are by now about 3.5 and 1 (with a toddler who just started walking). Yikes, this promised to be challenging. Fortunately, it ended up working out pretty well.

A couple of things that helped:
1) I had 2 iPads with me, one for each kid, with age-appropriate videos and games. I ended up not having to use them much. But knowing that I had this option in my back-pocket, especially if flights got delayed, helped me feel more prepared. And by the way, the iPads were literally in the backpocket of my brand-new, and now favorite travel backpack. Absolutely perfect for this type of travel:
- a lot of pockets of all sizes to carry passports, snacks for the kids, pacifier, pen, etc...,
- specific iPad pocket, easily accessible
- small enough and light weight, so that I could carry it while carrying the one-year old in a baby backpack. I just loved it.
2) I had briefed Daniel a lot about the trip (we had actually started planning for it in February, so it had been a topic for a long-time, probably to Daniel's agony since he was always asking when it would finally happen). He knew what to expect and he really played the big brother role very well, helping going through Security at the airport, watching Charlotte while I picked up food at the food court, using the plane restroom by himself, etc... It helped making things less cumbersome.
3) I had done research about the airports where we were going to have our stop-overs ahead of time, so I could understand what they could offer and how to navigate through them. We had 4 hours to spend at the Seattle airport and I had found out about their awesome kids lounge, where we ended up spending most of the time. As you can tell from the picture, it was a lot of fun there. Between this playground, having lunch, riding the train to our terminal and watching the planes getting ready, the 4 hours actually went by fast, and none of them felt the need for a nap despite the late afternoon timing.

The one thing I didn't do well for myself was setting my expectations around sleep. Especially after wearing the kids out at the Seattle airport, I had hoped they would fall asleep right at take-off, and give me a break as well as ease into the Europe time. Well, it wasn't their plans. Daniel specifically found so many kid movies on our IcelandAir flight, that he didn't sleep until the last stretch. Charlotte was also over-excited and had a lot to explore as well. So my plans of getting some rest backfired because I got so upset trying to get them to sleep with no success. But once I took a deep breath and just enjoyed the fact that they were quiet and happy, it made it easier to handle. I somehow managed to stay awake the entire trip, since they ended up not sleeping at the same time. Sleep is over-rated anyways, right?

Besides the 20-hour trip, the other challenge turned out to be: working with the kids through jetlag by myself. Actually, it was no surprise. I went through the same jetlag adjustment with the kids last year and I was mentally prepared. Although it got much harder physically, coming out of a sleepless trip. It means that for the following 3 days, I only got a minimum amount of sleep since (again!) the kids weren't sleeping at the same time. Fortunately, our vacation turned out to be a lot of fun and just relaxing because of the different environment. So I got some rest, but I have to admit that I at some point missed the time when it was just my husband and I, and we could sleep in as much as we wanted every single day of our vacation. Good that seeing the kids having the time of their lives helped me withdraw these thoughts very quickly. (and yes, the small kid in the back is Daniel on a huge trampoline, completely excited!)

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Apr 17, 2011

First day of summer weather

We had a great, sunny and warm weekend. This was great timing since it was the first weekend where the tent over the Menlo Park outdoor pool was gone; and Daniel had his swim lesson on Saturday. He did great, by the way. The skepticism of the first week was gone, and in this second lesson, he was really at ease jumping into the pool and trying to swim.
On Sunday, we set up our baby pool and slide in the garden. Daniel had a blast.

Charlotte was a little bit more skeptical, which I was surprised about because she loves baths. The water in the pool was still pretty cold, and she doesn't move much yet. So this could have been the reason. Or maybe just the new surprise and the fact that she was still half asleep from her nap. Anyways, we will try again with her another time!

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Jan 12, 2011

A great review of the Franklyn D. Resort, Runaway Bay, Jamaica

We spend a week of vacation with our extended family in the Franklyn D. Resort, and I can definitely recommend it for families with young kids. It's focused on families with young kids, and yet nice and attractive for adults as well. What sold us most was the nanny service. Every room comes with a nanny that takes care of the kids at least 7 hours a day (more if you pay extra). Our nanny, Althea, was exceptional. She quickly got to know Charlotte and became her primary care-taker. It was great since Charlotte is still on a different schedule than the other kids. We didn't have to worry about waiting for her to finish her nap or bringing a bottle with us every single time we went out. Althea had her covered. Althea taught Charlotte clapping and waiving while we were there. She definitely knew what stage of development she was at, and helped her achieve a new milestone. Charlotte was very happy with her.
The resort itself is pretty small (70 rooms I believe). It means that the kids quickly found their way around the resort. The beach is small (so not for people who hope for long strolls on the beach), but it's perfect for kids. There was no concern about kids getting lost or walking away.

There are a handful of pools, which also cater to different levels of interests. The baby pool was perfect for Daniel to learn swimming (he could stand in it, which increased his confidence level), and even Charlotte who loved to splash in it.
That said, this resort is also great for adults. There are 2 excellent adult-only restaurants. The food in general is pretty good by the way (I think some of their pastries can compete with the best bakeries in France). Every day, the hotel offered adult-only activities, which ranged from bike tours, yoga, fitness and a lot of games.
The service is really top-notch. The nanny is such an integral part of the family that she understands our needs and makes sure they are all met (from replenishing the fridge to finding the right toys for the kids and advising on excursions). We ordered a "birthday" party for Daniel since his birthday was going to be the following week. We got decorations, a gift and a mouth-watering birthday cake at no extra charge (love the all-inclusive)! And by the way, if you were thinking that people in Jamaica were not punctual, think again. Everyone in the hotel was good at staying on the expected schedule! The birthday party was ready before our family was!

For full disclosure I would also add that the facilities are starting to age a bit. The accommodations are still very comfortable. But it's not luxury, and the resort could benefit from a new layer of painting and some better paved paths in some areas. The reception area is quite underwhelming: a couple of chairs in front of a desk under a roof. Nothing to compare with some of the more luxurious hotels we saw in the areas. That said, we didn't come to be in a 5-star Las Vegas hotel. So it didn't bother us much, and the kids definitely didn't care. Definitely a hotel I would recommend for a relaxing vacation.

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Jan 11, 2011

Jamaica vacation

This year, we started what we hope will become a tradition. Because we didn't have a lot of vacation time, we didn't want to go all the way to Europe over the holidays, since the kids' jetlag negates a lot of the benefits of a vacation. We suggested to our families to meet "in the middle" in the Caribbean. Pros: less travel, less jetlag and warm weather! Cons: nothing really, except some health concerns and the question whether everyone across our families would enjoy the vacation.
We met with my parents, my in-laws and my brother in law and family. It was a first in many ways: first time with all family members, first time in the Caribbean. It turned out to be a great idea!

We picked a wonderful hotel in Jamaica, the Franklyn D Resort, which I describe in detail here. It was so family-friendly that it took away any issue that could come from traveling with young kids.
I have to say that I had some health concerns going to Jamaica with 2 young kids. But they proved to be completely unjustified. The hotel even had drinking tap water for Charlotte's bottles. Yes, really! No mosquitoes, clean facilities, healthy food. Really, nothing to complain about. We even got to check the quality of the medical support in Jamaica since we brought 2 sicknesses from home (I got strep throat and Charlotte had bronchitis). The doctor we met was really knowledgeable and got us back on our feet really quickly.

Outside of 2 of us being sick, everyone had a great time. The grand-parents got to do tours around the island, and they saw jungle, local animals, nice beaches, etc... Daniel loved being able to swim, build sand castles and get ice-cream on demand.

He had a lot of new experiences, from going down the huge water slide to taking the glass boat and taking a few first steps at swimming.

Charlotte seemed to enjoy herself despite the bronchitis and being thrown into a new environment with a lot of new people. She loved splashing in the pool and learned how to clap her hands. This made her very proud.

My husband and his brother went all the way to the other side of the island to check out Pelican Bar, a shack in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by diving pelicans. Very unique! As a family, we went to Dunn's Waterfall, which was fun climbing. I wish I had seen more of Jamaica, but unfortunately, my strep throat came in the way. It was still wonderful to be able to know everyone had a great time, and not to worry about the kids needing more attention.

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