Football-inspired travels led to our discovery of Northwestern Europe and the history architecture, cuisine and cultures found there.

While watching the 2018 FIFA World Cup games this past summer, we prepared for a nearly month-long trip to Europe. Football—the global game, soccer to Americans—was the theme. Our two teenage boys, who began their own technical training at a young age, avidly follow players and European leagues. The ultimate for them is to experience the game in Europe.

As it happened, out of the four countries competing in the World Cup semifinals—England, France, Belgium and Croatia—we made plans to visit the first three. In lieu of Croatia, my husband and I would take our boys to the Netherlands where they would attend a week-long day camp conducted by Ajax (pronounced “ai-yaks”), the professional football club of Amsterdam.

England   •   Netherlands   •   Belgium   •   France

2018 Itinerary

July 8-9 Overnight flight from San Francisco to London (SFO to LHR)
July 9-13 London (Arsenal Emirates Stadium)
July 13-15 Amsterdam
July 15-21 The Hague for the Ajax camp and day trips in the Netherlands (3 rail days)
July 21-24 Brussels (through Antwerp) with day trips in Belgium (3 rail days)
July 21-28 Paris (through Lille, 2 rail days)
July 28-31 Lyon with a day trip, back in Paris for a day, return to London (2 rail days)
July 31-Aug 2 London with day trip to Manchester (Man City Etihad Stadium)
August 2 Morning in London before return flight from LHR with transfer in Montreal, Canada to SFO

The Plan

Flying into and out of London Heathrow, we allocated 25 days encompassing the camp week, utilizing several cities as hubs from which to explore other towns.

After spending 4 days in London, we planned to take the EuroStar, a high-speed express train, to the Netherlands where we would spend the next 8 days. We allocated the first weekend to Amsterdam, the official Dutch capital city; we would then stay the following 6 days in Den Haag (The Hague), home of the UN (United Nations) and seat of the Dutch government, from which the boys would commute to their camp while my husband, Aaron, and I would venture out to explore Dutch towns. We would continue our travels with 3 days in Belgium, 8 days in France (5 in Paris, 3 in Lyon), and the final 2 days back in England.

The decision for where to focus our visit and the length of our stay was based, first on the dates for the camp, and second on airfare. The boys wanted to attend a professional club camp, but it was also important to experience the culture, history and sights. We decided on the Ajax camp, known for its youth development academy. Their day camp left us with free family time, was relatively cost effective, and claimed to be taught in English. Although they had more options through August, we were limited to the week of July 16-20 since, where most schools start back in September, our boys started back up the week of August 6.

Once the camp dates and location were secured, we searched flight options, ground transportation and accommodations.

Transportation

For air travel, Google Flights was a great starting point for checking prices and dates of travel. The site allowed me to compare both round-trip and multi-city options. Ultimately, balancing cost and convenience, we chose round-trip flights from San Francisco to London, along with a shuttle service to take us to and from our home. The non-stop leg over on July 8 would depart midday at 12:20, arriving early in the morning of July 9 at 06:55. To save money on our return trip departing August 2, we would change planes after passing through customs in Montreal, Canada, then arrive that night back in San Francisco at 22:00, or 10:00 pm, where the shuttle would be waiting to take us home.

To get to and from London Heathrow Airport, we booked tickets for the Heathrow Express, the direct train running between Heathrow Central and Paddington Station.

Each of the countries has an exceptional rail system to allow us to travel without a car. Also, given that we would be moving around often, we decided to take only carry-on luggage with us. Although this would limit the amount we could bring, it would allow us to retain our belongings at all times and free us from lugging heavy suitcases between cities. Each of us had a small roller suitcase that could fit into the plane’s overhead compartment, along with a backpack or bag that could slide over the handle and nestle under a seat.

For the trains, we ordered flexible 2-country, 10-day Eurail pass (valid for 2 months) for travel between Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) and France. For some reason England is not part of a multi-country pass, so we had to get separate EuroStar tickets to and from London. The iPhone Rail Planner app allowed us to check train schedules, types of trains (high-speed, regional, local), to predetermine if seat reservations were required, and could be used offline or over WiFi (free on most trains). This app was also useful for checking final destination points, important for boarding the correct regional trains, along with travel time, route and stop locations.

For local travel, metro/tram maps and area maps were studied beforehand to get the lay of the land and optimal routes; upon our arrival into the train station of a new city, we found the information desk to help decide on the appropriate Metro tickets or passes and where to obtain them. (Be forewarned that ticket machines in the Netherlands, as well as certain establishments, did not accept VISA—only cash or local Maestro cards—so we purchased our tram passes from the transportation office.)

We planned to walk as much as possible since a city is best seen on foot. Of course, we didn’t want to take all of our belongings with us. Before heading out to explore a new city, we planned to go directly to our accommodations, either to check into our room, or if we arrived early, just to store our luggage. We also planned to visit a couple of cities between destinations. For these occasions, luggage would be stored in lockers found in most (but not all) train stations. Be sure to check first. We also later discovered that most locker areas were typically located at the far end of a station, taking some time to find.

Accommodations

Hotel reservations were made through booking.com by narrowing the search based on fully refundable options, preferably without prepayment, within our budget, in the preferred area of town, with decent overall ratings, and able to sleep four people comfortably. Reasonable, right? The map view allowed me to check prices to find our desired central location relatively near a metro/tram stop. I looked through photos of the rooms and read reviews (with a grain of salt).

In London and Paris, we opted for comfortable, but older hotels with small rooms, and in optimal areas: in Bayswater of London, near Kensington Gardens, and in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, between the Opèra and the Louvre. We found a one-bedroom apartment in the canal ring with a canal view in Amsterdam, and selected a modern hotel in central Den Haag that was located on the direct tram line to the boys’ camp. Conveniently located one-bedroom apartment-style hotels were reserved in both Brussels and Lyon. For the final leg of the trip in London, we chose a hotel near St. Pancras Station where the EuroStar train would be arriving late in the evening.

Technology

Since maps were an essential tool for us, we downloaded offline area maps in the Google Maps app to view without using data, and through which our location would still be tracked with GPS. I also used the maps in conjunction with the iPhone Rail Planner app to determine which train station was closest to our destinations.

As for data coverage, we had decided that each of us would bring our respective iPhones, opting for an international “day pass” data plan with AT&T that would charge us a flat rate of $10 per day, but only for those days that we accessed data coverage. In general, our phones could be switched to “airplane mode” while only utilizing offline information or accessing WiFi. Most establishments provide free WiFi to its customers. The plan provided peace of mind in the case of an emergency or needing to contact each other. With some forethought, it is definitely possible to not require any data.

We stored documents in iBooks and e-tickets with QR codes in Apple Wallet to maintain hotel and plane reservations, train tickets, metro maps, discount codes, and copies of our passports. The AllSubway app also provided metro maps for all cities; however, since it only the showed the Metro lines In Amsterdam where we would use mainly tram lines, I used the City Rail Map app for that city only.

Other helpful apps, for research, organization and travel plans: Google Trips and TripIt were both useful for planning and determining excursion dates, syncing with my Gmail Inbox and Google Maps. I created a packing list in the AnyList app to organize essentials, basic mix-and-match clothing items, accessories and shoes, toiletries, soccer gear, and comfort items. Lonely Planet continues to expand their Guides app for global cities with information and suggestions for visitors. UNESCO World Heritage app allows me to track the historic sites that I have visited and those on my wish list.

And finally, I decided that my iPhone would serve as my camera so that I didn’t need to bring my large SLR and lenses. Google Translate would assist when English was limited or when my French speaking ability betrayed me (which was often). To use this app offline, key phrases could be searched beforehand, trying to anticipate communication challenges; it could also be used with WiFi. Many people speak English, but it always courteous to address them in their native language and ask if they do.

The Journey

With our necessary reservations made and a general plan set, we made note of certain recommendations for places and things to eat, do and see, creating a list of priorities, along with hours of operation. Each city has certain points of interest that appeal to tourists. We had a few of them on our list, of course, but more importantly, we wanted to get a sense of the culture and architecture, eat great food, experience each district. We did not want our days too planned, leaving us little room for discovery. And at the same time, we wanted to make the most of each day.

Within each city and country are distinct cultures and regional sub-cultures. Many large cities can be divided into neighborhoods or districts (aka. boroughs or arrondissements) to make excursions manageable. Evident are rich histories, unique architectural styles, distinct geographical features, climates and cuisines that all represent these cultures.

We wanted to discover as much as possible while finding plenty of time to really experience each locale. And while football is such integral aspect to much of the European culture, we would all watch the remaining World Cup games and visit a few stadiums. Ultimately, we would see what made each place unique, enjoy the sights, taste the local foods and get a sense of their cultural heritage. Join us on our journey. May it inspire your own adventures.

Northwest Europe

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