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Moorhead family takes trip 'for the record books'

Vacation and travel, a huge pile of things for the holiday1 / 5
The Elmers say visiting the Colosseum in Rome was "easily a family favorite." Special to The Forum2 / 5
Retro Baggage Tags. Vector Illustration. Luggage Label from Rome, Paris, Frankfurt, London, Sydney, Berlin, Moscow and New York.3 / 5
The Elmer family traveled 3,330 miles by road and visited sites like Stonehenge in England. Special to The Forum4 / 5
The Elmer family of Moorhead includes, from left, Christian, 16; Corey; Blake, 9; Jack, 13; and Brenda. Special to The Forum5 / 5

MOORHEAD, Minn. — When Christian, Jack and Blake Elmer of Moorhead return to school on Tuesday, Sept. 5, they'll have quite the answer to "What did you do on your summer vacation?"

The boys — ages 16, 13, and 9 respectively — along with their parents, Corey and Brenda, went on a nearly four-week driving trip through Europe. They visited 10 countries and traveled 3,300 road miles and 145 by foot.

"We were a pretty much the embodiment of the Griswald Family from "European Vacation," Corey says.

The Elmers made plans to keep the trip as economical as possible — they got a discounted off-season flight out of Winnipeg and chose to travel when the American dollar was strong. Other than that, "we flew by the seat of our pants," Corey says.

"Other than the return flight from London later in the month, our plans were wide open for driving across Europe in our small, rented car. We'd book our accommodations each day once we decided where to go next," he says.

Elmer agreed to share the family's travel diary with The Forum in hopes that it would encourage more families to plan a getaway "for the record books," he says.

(Editor's note: Corey Elmer provided this recap of their travels, which we edited for style.)

Week 1: England

We arrived mid-morning at London's Gatwick Airport after an overnight flight from Winnipeg, Canada. We were tired but excited to begin the European family adventure that we'd long talked about. We felt a real sense of adventure as our trip began.

The two-bedroom flat we rented near Tower Bridge was a great launching pad to seeing the city. We walked throughout London to sites including Big Ben, Parliament, Winston Churchill's underground War Cabinet Room and the British Museum. The treasures in the British Museum were fascinating, but since the patience of a 9-year-old boy goes only so far, we hit highlights like the ancient Greek and Egyptian artifacts to keep it interesting.

We traveled to the English countryside to visit Stonehenge, Oxford and Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Left-side driving proved easier than feared, and our cell phone GPS guided us to our destinations without much trouble. Our kids marveled at the mystery of Stonehenge, although tourist cars are parked a good distance away, unlike in "European Vacation".

At Dover, we boarded the ferry for a 90-minute trip across the English Channel to France. The white-chalk cliffs didn't disappoint as we sailed from the coast.

Week 2: France and Germany

We drove along the French coast to reach the D-Day landing beaches at Normandy. American flags flew from homes throughout the small villages, a stirring reminder of the sacrifices made 70 years earlier.

On Omaha Beach, we remembered the American soldiers who landed and died there — many only a few years older than our own children. It's impossible to visit the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach and not be moved by the rows and rows of graves where 9,000 Americans are buried.

Our travels took us to the lights of Paris with its Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Louvre museum (with the Mona Lisa), and then into Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.

Near Munich, Germany, we walked the grounds of Dachau — the Nazis' first concentration camp where more than 60,000 people lost their lives. Dachau made a lasting impression on all of us.

Week 3: The Alps

Austria and Switzerland were everything we hoped for and more: outstanding natural beauty, historic heritage sites and warm hospitality. And, both were great places to catch our breath after two weeks of busy travel. We hiked high into the Alps, greeted by the clangs of cow bells on mountain trails. An impromptu roadside stop at Lake Wannsee became an afternoon of swimming in its turquoise-colored waters that remains a favorite memory.

Week 4: Italy

We broke up the 10-hour drive from Switzerland to Rome with an overnight stay in Milan at the home of a kind woman whose prized possessions included an autographed picture with actor Steve McQueen. We found her home through Airbnb, which gave us authentic homestays throughout our trip, rather than yet another indistinguishable hotel room. Our accommodations themselves made for great memories.

Rome is steeped in history and grandeur — the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican and its museum. We were in awe of St. Peter's, which was only a block from our rented flat in the heart of bustling Rome. Michelangelo's restored paintings in the Sistine Chapel were a sight to behold. The visit to the Colosseum was easily a family favorite of the trip. After Rome, we drove along the Italian coast to France again, from which we flew back to London and then to Winnipeg for the drive home to Moorhead.

We returned home exhausted, but filled with incredible memories. Our European adventure was one of the best times that we've ever spent together as a family, and a time that we treasure like none other.

5 tips for planning overseas family travel

Taking a family vacation overseas can be daunting — and one of the most expensive trips you'll ever take with your children. Because of the cost, many Americans won't get a second chance for a European vacation with their children, so it's important to do it right.

1. Consider the family tree and history class

First and foremost, how do you know where you should travel with your children? It's a big, wide world out there. Where should you go? Some experts suggest looking no further than your family tree. Consider visiting the place where your ancestors lived. Go back to Great Grandma's farm in Sweden or the small factory town in rural England where Great Grandpa once worked. It's not only interesting, it's a chance for the entire family to learn a little more about themselves.

If you know you'll be visiting historic sites, like the Elmers did, have kids read about what you'll see. Knowing the specifics of D-Day, for example, will make the visit to Normandy all the more meaningful.

2. Weigh your airline and airport options

It's nice to fly out of your hometown airport or favorite airline when you can. But when it comes to a trip this expensive, look for deals out of as many cities as possible. Corey Elmer says at the time they were looking to fly, flying out of Winnipeg to London was half the cost of flying out of the Twin Cities or Fargo. They also chose Expedia for discounted flights.

If you're willing to fly at odd times, you might get great deals. Travel agents suggest either booking your tickets as much as 22 weeks early — when selection is best — or just three weeks before you go when airlines slash fares to fill the seats.

3. Be flexible

The Elmer family planned when they could but also decided to improvise — trusting in themselves to figure things out as they went. Having everything figured out might seem like a way to alleviate stress, but sometimes watching your trip unfold without preconceived ideas for how you'll fill your day can be freeing. If you choose an international plan for your cell phone, you'll be able to make many travel arrangements on-the-go.

4. Taste test

It's not a bad idea to expose children to the kinds of food they might be eating on the trip. Go to ethnic restaurants in your town to familiarize your children with the foods from the countries you'll see. This holds especially true if you have young, finicky eaters. How crabby will everyone get if you're in constant search of chicken nuggets wherever you go? Have your children find at least a couple of foods they might like.

5. Live the culture

Hotels are great, but staying in a home will help you better understand how people in that culture live. People from all over the world rent out their homes with Airbnb and other vacation rental businesses. Not only will you get a better idea of the country, it's often more economical than a hotel.

Tracy Briggs

‘The Great Indoors’ with Tracy Briggs appears every Thursday in The Forum. For more information go to her blog at thegreatindoors.areavoices.com.

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