6 months through Europe with a baby, car and a tent
We have some great news to share with you all!
- First of all, Katja and I got married in Aug 2016. We celebrated in the romantic Germany town of Lüneburg in a very small circle of friends and family.
- In Dec 2016 Katja gave birth to our charming son Alvi, who is now quickly growing up and starting to explore the world with all his senses.
So Katja and I started planing:
- Katja is on maternity leave till the end of 2017 and I was working in a software startup which was beginning to implode, so it seemed like we both had time to go on a longer trip before getting back to “normal jobs”. Six months sounded like a reasonable time frame: beginning of May till end of October.
- For Alvi’s safety we decided to stay in Europe, but to make the trip more interesting, we chose to do a round trip with a focus on the Balkan countries. Except for Bulgaria (where I grew up), all other countries would be new to both of us.
- A trip with this many destinations calls for lots of spontaneity, so it seemed like traveling by car and camping as much as possible would be the cheapest and most flexible alternative.
The map below is “live”: the blue line shows our actual route, the purple line is what we’ve planned for the future. We’ll be updating the map regularly, so check in from time to time to see where we are.
It’s impractical to post many images here, so if you want pictures and regular updates, follow us on Facebook.
Initially this was the end of this blog article, but we received some interesting and important questions from our readers, so we decided that it makes sense to share the answers with everyone. So here we go:
How can you be away for 6 months? Don’t you have jobs?
Katja has a job, but because of the birth of our child, she is on a 12-month maternity leave. We are extremely lucky to live in Germany where parents can get up to 14-months of paid leave and their jobs are safe when they come back.
I at the moment I don’t have a job. I was the CTO of a software startup, but that startup was kind of dying at the beginning of 2017, so it was clear that I’ll need to look for a job. But Katja and I decided that good IT jobs will still be there in November, after we get back to Hamburg.
How can you pay for such a trip?
Traveling is a high priority for us, so:
- At home we live quite modestly and each month we are able to put away some money into a savings account. We try to avoid impulse purchases; we buy only what we really need; we like buying used things and giving them a new life; we love to cook, so we don’t go out on a regular basis. Finally, we don’t have a car back home, which saves us a ton of money each month.
- We sublet our apartment in Hamburg for the duration of this trip so we don’t have any additional expenses (like rent and utilities) while traveling.
- We travel on a very low budget. Our average on this trip (before we reached Italy) was 40 EUR per day which covers accommodation, food, gas, tourism and entrance fees, personal necessities and the occasional splurge. For all three of us. (In Italy we are averaging 60 EUR per day.)
Is it safe to travel to the Balkans?
There is a lot of prejudice against the countries in central and eastern Europe. Some of it was in our heads also, so we decided to see for ourselves…
We visited Czechia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia, and honestly, we felt as in each of these countries as we feel at home in Germany. Of course, we always follow simple precautions like splitting up our money and credit cards in different bags and pockets, have several copies of all important documents, don’t carry flashy jewelry (we don’t own any anyway 🙂 ), being careful with our electronic gadgets, etc.
I was concerned that our car with the German license plate might attract attention, but there are soooo many other, much more expensive cars on the road that I stopped worrying about this pretty quickly. I was also worried about the plastic box on the roof of the car, so we only put things in it with very little value: books, extension cords, pillows, blankets, toilet paper…
And so far – knock on wood! – nothing negative has happened to us or to anyone else we’ve met and swapped stories with.
The biggest danger actually arises from being on the road for so many kilometers (see next question).
You crossed so many borders and drove many kilometers in central and eastern Europe. How was it?
Border crossing was really quick and easy: show all passports and the car papers, wait a minute for inspection, done! No need for a visa anywhere and usually no questions asked. Except:
- On the Greece-Albanian border I was asked about my apparently Bulgarian name in a German passport, but I just shrugged my shoulders, and that was that.
- Our green insurance card for the car lists Serbia but not Kosovo, so when we entered Kosovo, we had to pay 15 EUR for 2 weeks car insurance.
- We crossed the border between Albania and Montenegro 5 times: once it was really quick, once we were stuck in traffic congestion for 90 min, two times there was no border patrol at all (on a footpath in the mountains), and one time they didn’t have any computers so we had to wait for a while for all our data to be written by hand.
Driving on the road has been a mixed bag. Mostly it’s OK, but many guys here drive as if they own the road: they drive in the middle of narrower roads, are very slow to return to their lane after they overtake, they pass shortly before turns, and sometimes they need to be reminded to turn off their high beams. In Italy they love to drive no further than 1-2 meters behind your rear bumper.
Many streets are OK, but some are narrow, some have wholes and others have many curves. Italy’s narrow streets are as bad as any on the Balkans. Highways are rather rare on the Balkans, so plan with 45 km/h average speed and be patient if you want to pass a slow car. Since we like mountains and nice views, we’ve had to drive on many steep streets with many, many, many curves and hairpin turns. Also on various unpaved streets, but that was our decision.
Best of all is that we haven’t had any trouble with traffic police or anyone inventing funny charges or wanting a bribe.
We did have trouble with our brakes in Romania and Bulgaria and with our battery in Albania, but in all cases we were able to find quick, reliable and inexpensive help. We also met a Dutch family who had had a small road accident in Bulgaria, but the police had arrived soon and they were able to get their insurance report filled out and stamped even without speaking the local language. We also met a German couple who had had trouble with their turbo charger and windshield wiper motor in Albania, and they also had no difficulties getting these taken care of.
The locals are proud to be able to help, so ask! If you are unsure, ask twice or three times…
What are your experiences traveling with a baby?
We’ll write a separate article about this topic, so here we give you just a quick overview:
First of all we have to admit that we didn’t choose the easiest ways:
- having no experiences with a baby before (refers to Katja being the main caregiver)
- mainly going camping – also at cold temperatures and in rain,
- using a baby carrier instead of a buggy,
- doing Baby-led weaning (BLW) instead of feeding Alvi pureed baby foods,
- practising elimination communication (with a backup system of cloth diapers for 70 % of the time) instead of using disposable plastic diapers, and
- Alvin being raised primarily on a plant-based diet.
Having been on the road for a while now, we can tell you that YES, traveling with a baby can be stressful and exhausting, but it also provides many possibilities and experiences.
- We are happy when traveling, which means that our little one is raised in a happy environment.
- Alvin smiles a lot and is a great company, which makes us smile and be even more happy. By smiling at complete strangers Alvin also lets their heart melt.
- Walking around with a baby breaks the ice and makes contact to locals much easier. This way we already got a few recommendations and once even an accommodation with freshly cooked local food.
- Many of our hosts (or other travelers) ask if they can play with Alvin, so we can set up the tent, eat or relax for a moment. At home our relatives live far away, so we thoroughly enjoy these breaks.
- The playground “Europe” offers an immense amount of variety – there is lots to see and lots to explore in nature, cities or in the various accommodations. Alvin is a very bright and curious little fellow, so we’re sure that at home it would have been too boring for him.
- It’s exhausting, especially for mommy. Alvin needs lots of attention and is in high spirits regularly due to the many new impressions each day. Also Katja doesn’t get enough sleep and not only has to function and be there for the baby but also helps taking decisions, setting up the tent, prepare food etc. (most of which is done by me, but sometimes Katja needs to have different tasks than “babysitting”.
- We have to think of proper food for our youngster, where to get it and how to prepare it. In addition to breastfeeding (which is btw. extremely practical while traveling) we do BLW and because Alvin is raised primarily plant-based, we need to offer him especially nutritious and varrying food-combinations.
- We’ve started to prefer hostels / hotels / pensions / apartments rather than our tent for a bit more luxury, like a clean floor for our toddler, a kitchen to cook healthy food, keep food in a fridge, have air conditioning instead of sweating in the tent and a dry place in case of bad weather. We probably camped about 50% of the time.
- We are not as spontaneous as we used to be. We even prebook accommodations more often to spare the time of the search on site and risk not getting anything suitable and affordable.
- Katja has to sit in the back of the car next to Alvi, so we can’t change drivers and I had to drive almost the whole route (close to 15 000 km).
- There are no friends around with other babys.
Positive & negative:
- We (have to) travel slower and make more and longer breaks during the day. We can’t travel fast and “do our thing” anymore, we have to make several breaks each day and also take a day off once or twice per week. But this is actually good, since it lets us perceive places in a different way, see other things, etc. and made us more patient. The needs of the baby are a priority and often conflict with “the plan for the day”. When Alvin is hungry, needs a toilet or just wants to play and move around after a long hike or car ride, we have to meet his needs. (Toddlers need to explore and investigate everything and to train any new acquired skill as often as possible.)
You mentioned you are vegan, what do you eat on the road?
The Balkan countries pride themselves on their meat dishes, so spending time here is tough for vegetarians, let alone vegans. We’ll write a separate article about this, but here are a few strategies that work well for us:
- We brought some basic kitchen equipment with us in order to make salads and cook for ourselves.
- We also brought a 6-month supply of vitamin B12, spirulina, chlorella, seitan and dried aronia berries from home.
- We regularly buy lots of fresh vegetables and fruits on local markets or small market stalls along the road. Traveling during the summertime gave us the chance to purchase or pick very ripe and extremely delicious fruits and veggies, which are usually free of pesticides. This feels like heaven for us and eating fully “raw” would be easy here.
- When we cook, we add soy “meat” (textured vegetable protein, TVP) or seitan from time to time. Soy products can be found quite often and much cheaper compared to Germany (especially good was Romania). Seitan powder, on the other hand, is not very common at all.
- For breakfast we usually eat whole-grain cereals with chia seeds, different nuts (brasil, hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds), dried goji, aronia and cranberries, fresh fruit and plant-based soy or rice drinks, all of which you can find quite often on the road – sometimes even in the tiniest corner-shop.
- Due to the heat we usually prepare one or two green salads per day, which we round up with flax, sunflower and pumpkin seeds and with fresh or dried herbs. From time to time we also add cooked whole grains like rice, bulgur, potatoes, amaranth or quinoa. Beans, chickpeas, lentils etc. are also great supplements to salads.
- As a quick lunch on the road or a supplement to our green salads we eat bread (wholegrain, if available) topped with vegan or vegetable spreads like tahini, ayvar, ljutenica or kiopolu. Surprisingly, we could even get wholemeal bread very often. For the worst cases we always kept a packaged wholemeal bread as a backup.
- Some food and tinned products are vegan by default like beans, lentils, stuffed wine leaves or vegetable soups for example.
The most vegan / vegetarian friendly country was Romania, with many vegetarian and vegan spreads and tons of soy products. Bulgaria was not that bad either due to the omnipresent ljutenitsa (a tomato-paprika spread like ayvar, but much better).
And last but not least we admit that we also want to try local specialties, so we are not strictly vegan all the time while traveling. So occasionally we ate stuffed peppers (which contain small amounts of minced meat), and banitsa or burek (which contain white cheese). And when we get invited to a local home, we accept meat and cheese too, especially because the animals here have a much longer and happier life than back home.
Why did you choose to travel with a car and a tent instead of …?
This was not a very obvious choice. We considered several possibilities: car and a tent, car with a roof-top tent, a camper van, a caravan trailer and a motor home. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages, which we will be discussing in our next blog article, so stay tuned…