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.
- Katja is on maternity leave till the end of 2017 and I was working in a software startup which was beginning to implod, so it seemed like we both had time to go on a longer trip before getting back to “normal jobs”.
So Katja and I started planing:
- Six months sounded like a reasonable time frame: start on May 1, 2017 and come back on Nov 1.
- For Alvi’s safety we decided to stay in Europe, but to make the trip more interesting for Katja and me, we chose to do a round trip to eastern Europe with a focus on the Balkan countries. Except for Bulgaria (where I grew up), all other countries were 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 important questions from our readers, so we decided that it makes sense to share the answers here for everyone to read:
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-month paid leave and their jobs are safe when they come back.
I at the moment I don’t have a job. I was part of a software startup, but that startup was badly dying in the beginning of 2017, so it was clear that I’ll need to look for a job. But Katja and I decided that good jobs will still be there November, after we get back to Hamburg.
How can you pay for such a trip?
Traveling is a high priority for us, so:
- Generally we live quite modestly and each month we are able to put some money in a savings account. We try to avoid impulse purchases; we buy only what we 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 to worry about paying rent and utilities while traveling.
- We travel on a very low budget. Our average on this trip is 40 EUR per day for accommodation, food, gas, tourism and entrance fees, personal necessities and the occasional splurge. For all three of us.
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…
So far we’ve visited Czechia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro, and honestly, we feel as safe here 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, be 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 it 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 so far was really quick and easy: show all passports and the car papers, wait a minute for inspection, and continue. 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. And then we crossed 5 times the border between Albania and Montenegro: once it was really quick, once we were stuck in line 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 other hand has been a mixed bag. Mostly it’s OK, but many guys here drive as if they own the road: they are very slow to return to their lane after they overtake, they drive in the middle of narrower roads, they pass shortly before turns, and sometimes they need to be reminded to turn off their high beams.
Many streets are OK, but some are narrow, some have wholes and others have many curves. Highways are very rare, 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 reported filled out and stamped even without speaking the local language. And we 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 way with
- 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 or complemented by a buggy,
- doing Baby-led weaning (BLW) instead of feeding him 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 mostly on a plant based diet.
Having been on the road for a while now, we can tell you that YES, traveling with a baby is exhausting and lifeblood sucking, but it also provides many possibilities and experiences.
- Katja and I are happy when traveling, which means that our little one is also raised in a joyful environment.
- Alvin smiles a lot and is a great company, which makes us smile and even more happy. By smiling at others Alvin also makes their days and 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 (and lots of other people, too) play with Alvin for a while, so we can set up the tent, eat or relax for a moment. At home our relatives live far away, so we 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 mostly plant based we need to offer him especially nutritious and various food-combinations.
- we decide for hostels / hotels / pensions / appartments more quickly and more often and don’t mind swapping tent and apartment for a bit more luxury, like a clean floor for our toddler, a kitchen to cook healthy food for all three of us and keep food in a fridge, air con instead of sweating in the tent and a dry place in case of bad weather.
- 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 with the baby, so we can’t change drivers and I have to drive almost the whole route.
- 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 do “our thing” anymore and stick to a “plan”, but it lets us perceive places in a different way, see other things, etc. and made us more patient. The needs of the baby are priority and may destroy the “plan”. When Alvin is hungry, needs to pee or poo or just wants to play and move around after a long hike or car ride (toddlers need to explore and investigate EVERYTHING and to train any new acquired skill as often as possible), we have to meet his needs.
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 our whole food plant based diet when travelling and our experiences on this trip. But here are already a few strategies that work well for us:
- We brought all the basic kitchen equipment from home in order to prepare cooked and raw food ourselves.
- We also brought the essential supplement Vitamin B12 as well as the algaes Spirulina and Chlorella for the basic supply of nutrients from home for six months and a small stock of vegan products like seitan, spreads or yeast flakes to “survive” bad days.
- We regularly buy lots of fresh vegetables and fruits on local markets or small market stalls next to the street. Travelling in summertime gives 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 (TVP – textured vegetable protein) or seitan from time to time. Soy products can be found quote often and for lower prices compared to Germany. Seitan powder on the contrary is not very common.
- For breakfast we usually eat wholegrain 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 polish with flax, sunflower and pumpkin seeds and if fresh or dried herbs. From time to time we also add cooked whole grains, 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 (if available wholegrain) topped with vegan / vegetable spreads, tahini, Ayvar, Ljutenica or Kyopolou. 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, stuffed wine leaves or vegetable soups for example.
The most vegan/ vegetarian friendly country so far was Romania, and surprisingly Bulgaria was not that bad either.
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 we eat stuffed peppers, which contain small amounts of meat, and Banitza or Byrek, which contain cheese, from time to time. And when we occasionally get invited to a local home we accept meat and cheese, too, because the animals here have a much longer and happier life without antibiotics etc.
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…