We talk about taking epic trips the same way we talk about going to the symphony together. Friends gathered around the remnants of a delicious meal, sipping our third glass of wine and high on life and someone says "We should totally go to Italy together sometime! You would love Italy." And we all gush and say "Oh my gosh! Yes. That would be so fun." Perhaps you'll talk timelines and hypothetical departure dates, but the conversation really doesn't go much further than that. Buzzed hypothetical wishlists. However sincere your plans and declarations are the odds are really good that life will get in the way. Car repairs, a blownout furnace, dental work, scheduling conflicts will typically arise and waylay those plans to join your best friends in Italy this fall. The odds are good the same will happen for them as well. But, BUT, sometimes the planets align just right and your teeth will resist falling apart for at least a year and you just might find yourself making those third-glass-of-wine dreams a reality.
It is exciting. You will be afraid to exhale too loudly should the Travel Fates decide that your radiator is in need of attention... and at some point, if you are very lucky you will be hovering over a laptop clicking buy now on British Airway's website with your best friend doing the same in the next chair over.
Two-ish years ago we found ourselves in this exact position. We could hardly believe it. My best friend and her family are similar wanderlusty type people, but our adventure plans had never crossed paths since we were in high school. A lot had changed for us in those fifteen years since we spent our spring breaks traipsing around the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We had families now. Kids. Jobs. Time off allotments. After we overcame the first hurdle of getting our schedules and budgets to line up, now we had to navigate the tricky world of taking 2-3 separate families abroad for two weeks and keeping ourselves (and everyone else) sane in the process. Thankfully we were all pretty practical people and we went into the whole thing with the full knowledge that the days would be long and the trip would be short. We knew it would be chaotic and busy and expensive, but when your third-glass-of-wine trip is about to actually happen you kind of stop caring about those things and just jump in and start swimming.
Here is how it went down.
Fly to Paris. Drive to Normandy (D-day Beaches, Mt. Saint Michel). Blast through France to a small no-name town in Northwest coastal Spain for Christmas. Drive to Seville. Boat day trip to Morocco and sail back to Tarifa, Spain. Drive to Madrid where we would fly out the next day. We called it the Iberian Blitz, as we were going to be covering the majority of the Iberian peninsula in two weeks time.
The size of our group posed a variety of challenges pretty much wherever we went. We ruled out the infamous Eurail pass due to the fact that we were traveling with kids and a strict timeline. After pricing out our options we chose to go for the gigantic van that would ferry us to our destinations. The cost was comparative to renting two separate cars and we're assuming it saved on fuel, but who really knows. It turned out to be a great option for us. As much as we loathed navigating that bad boy down the narrow Sevillian streets, it was incredibly nice to have the cargo space to throw our luggage into and not have to play a daily game of Suitcase Tetris.
Again. Size was an issue. Vacation rentals are great for parties of 6. You can comfortably sleep everyone in pretty much any listing and split the cost reasonably. Unfortunately when your group goes over 10 (and you are all adults who would rather not be demoted to couch surfing) your short term rental options go from practical to luxury at an alarming rate... bringing with it luxury prices. After some serious hustling on booking.com and Airbnb we managed to find some very cute places that were a great option for us in terms of size and budget. And bonus: We discovered the delights of French scullery kitchens, kids playing in bidets, and crumbling masonry thanks to a rickety Victorian Spanish beach house. Hey, man, that's Europe.
Itinerary and Expectations:
One of the first things we figured out when traveling with a large group in Europe is to stick with the large monuments. Don't go for gold with some obscure absinthe apothecary that Toulouse-Lautrec once haunted. No. Swallow your pride and see the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and Champs Elysees and call it a day. Especially if you literally only have a day as British Airways ruined your trip. Still not over that. It is important to remember that "big trips with big groups" isn't about checking things off the old bucket list, traveling with the people you love is the bucket list item. So unless everyone wants to visit the chateau where Paths of Glory was filmed, it's best to save those goals for another time.
It was a crazy adventure. In some ways it was harder more than it was fun, but hey you don't ever talk about your best trip to Europe, do you? Nope. You talk about the misadventures, the tears, the foibles, the laughter. There were a lot of variables at play. There was our family and hers. Collectively our kids ages ranged from 3-10 years in age. We had people in our party with special diet restrictions, lost luggage, and knees that had been reduced to a bag of marbles (mine). There were holidays, broken ATMs, eggs covered in chicken poop, grouchy washing machines, public urination, and barf. It required grace and wine more often than not. Yet, I wouldn't trade those experiences for the world... except, maybe, if British Airways could "unlose" our bags. (You can read about Bestie's feelings on the trip here. Plus some fun budget numbers should you want to take on this kind of thing yourself.) To this day when I hear the first few bars of George Ezra's Budapest (the first song on the trip's playlist) it brings back fun memories of gas petrol station baguettes and driving through rolling hills of olive groves.
The main thing I would say about traveling with "non-family" members is be prepared for them to see your underbelly. Bestie has been my best friend for 20 years. She has helped out after surgery and we had been on backpacking and boat trips with one another and the irony here is that I don't think anyone has quite seen the unfiltered side of my life quite like being in Europe with a kid with strep, a husband with a cold, me with a fractured tibia, wearing the same two clothes for a week straight, and all the frantic freakouts that come with it. She is still my friend, by the way.
That's travel, right?
It broadens your horizons in more ways than one.
If you find yourself in the position to see the world with people who love adventure and will reasonably tolerate underbelly exposure, then say "Yes! And... "