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Home exchange stories, Intervac, Travel

Disneyland Paris

As parents of two little princesses, we had been dreaming of going to Disneyland for some time.

As we live in Europe, Disneyland Paris, formerly known as Eurodisney, was our choice.Sleeping beauty castle in Disneyland Paris

The problem was the budget for it: Disney tickets alone are not cheap, looking for a Disneyland hotel or even a Paris hotel booking is a nightmare and then there were also the plane tickets.

We live on an island (Madeira Island, Portugal), so avoiding airfare costs was not an option. Fortunately, we found reasonable prices with the low-cost airline Transavia that flies directly to Paris from Madeira, but also from around 40 other locations in Europe.

Disneyland Accommodation

The accommodation problem was the easiest for us to solve. I think most people start planning their Disneyland trip by analyzing Disneyland Paris packages. But not us 🙂 Were we going to look for Disneyland hotel deals? No! We had been Intervac members for many years and knew home exchange was the way to go. We just had to decide exactly where we wanted to exchange to and start sending out offers.

The decision was eventually for the area around Place de la Nation. This was the best for us because using the RER-A train we could get to Disneyland Resort Paris in about 30 minutes.

We could use the same train line or the subway to get to the tourist attractions of Paris, such as the Eiffel Tower, or the Arc de Triomphe in 15 to 30 minutes.

RER-A train map - how to get to Disneyland Paris

So that was the area we did a home exchange too. And that came with the added benefit of being in a residential area. We had several small supermarkets, bakeries and restaurants around our exchange apartment and even a very nice playground right out our door.

Doing a home exchange was a brilliant solution: it allowed us to stay in Paris for 2 full weeks and to go to Disneyland for 6 days. On the other days we explored Paris at the leisurely pace you take when you are on holidays with kids.

Disneyland Tickets and Passes

But let me get back to the Disneyland Paris tickets. If you are considering going to Disneyland Paris for 3 days or more, I highly recommend that you buy their Annual Pass (Passeport Annuel). It might seem an overkill to buy an annual pass to visit for 3, 4, 5 or 6 days, but it actually pays up if you do the math. Check out all the information on the official site Disneyland Paris and please note that the names and conditions for the passes changed on March 29, 2017.

Our Annual Passports were our Disneyland Paris cheap ticketsThese passes all need to be bought inside Disneyland itself. You can get a 10% discount if you have a sponsor (an Annual Passport holder). You can get all the information on this on the DLP Guide website We also used their forum MagicForum to find a sponsor

After getting to Disneyland here is how we got our passes: we bought 1-day tickets at the gate, went to the Bureau Passeport Annuel, met our sponsors there and got our Annual Passes with the discount. The price for the 1-day tickets was fully refunded. The full process took us about 1 hour, but it was totally worth it: we went back in the Summer 2017 and used the same passes again 🙂

After getting in, we got our Disney Paris map (which includes the two parks: Disneyland Park and Walt Disney Studios) and the programme for the shows and parades. They are both essential but the programme is the only one you can check online in PDF format (it changes weekly)

The map can only be checked online in an interactive version (you won’t be able to print the Disneyland map if that is what you had in mind…).

A great addition to the map is the mobile app. Of course, you will need to have a tablet or smartphone with you (and Internet connection). Disneyland Paris mapWe used the app a lot to check the wait time for attractions and decide where to go next

The wait time shown at the entrance of the attractions and on the app seemed to be accurate and that was quite useful.

I have some more tips if you are visiting Disneyland Paris with kids.

Disneyland Shows and Parades Tips

  • Do all the shows in the Walt Disney Studio parkMickey and the Magician in the  Animagique Theater was our favourite, but the Moteurs… Action! car stunt show was also great. Disney Junior Live on Stage is geared towards young kids but it was a bit more challenging because our kids don’t speak English or French. Art of Disney Animation, in turn, was geared towards the adults and we loved it!
  • Disney Stars on Parade in the main park is the new parade that started in March 2017. It is a must see and happens only once throughout the day, so ensure you take note of the time. Great views are available anywhere along the parade route, and additionally from the Main Street USA railroad station. In both cases, you should steak out your spot about 15 minutes prior to the start of the parade for unobstructed views, but any more than this is usually unnecessary.
  • Disney Illuminations is a multimedia nighttime show, featuring fireworks, water effects music and video. Great for both the kids and the adults! It uses Sleeping Beauty’s castle as its projection screen, so is best viewed as straight on as possible. To claim a perfect spot for this, you will need to try at least one hour in advance of the show during high-season. Please note that anywhere on Main Street will provide a good view. Simply check if you can see the whole castle.   

General Disneyland Tips

  • Meeting Snow White at the Princess Pavillion in Disneyland ParisKids dressing up seem to get lots more attention from Disney characters. Also if your girl is dressed up as Snow White your party won’t have to queue for the Snow White ride, the group can get in through the exit (or sometimes through the Fast Pass entry). Just speak to the Cast members at the exit and they will promptly let you know how to get in. The same goes for Peter Pan, Tinkerbell and other characters. Another advantage of having your kids dressed up is that they have a good excuse not to buy them the overpriced (but beautiful!) costumes at the Disney stores throughout the park.
  • Queues for the Disneyland Railroad are significantly longer at the entry gates (Main Street USA) than at other stations. If you just want to ride it for the grand tour of the park get on at the Frontierland or Fantasyland stations which even include seating areas (although limited).
  • Use the FastPass for the attractions that allow it and have longer queues like Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast and Ratatouille: The Adventure. You can only have one FASTPASS® ticket at a time per person. Another ticket can only be obtained once the previous one has been used or 2 hours after the previous one.
  • When visiting with small children, always take advantage of the Baby Swap service on rides for which children are too small. This will allow one of the adults to queue, while the other adult waits with the child, and can then enter through the exit or Fastpass queue as soon as the first rider leaves.
  • It is often quicker to meet Mickey Mouse at the Toon Studio (in the Studio Park Backlot) than at his home in the main park. Queues for other characters near Mickey at the Toon Studio are often even shorter. Also, if you are not up to queuing you always take a picture from a distance in no time!
  • Contrary to popular belief, you are welcome to take outside food or drink into the park, and eat there.
    Gazebo at the entrance of Disneyland ParisThe security check will not confiscate outside food and drink. Simply make sure you don’t take alcohol, or drinks in glass bottles. Sandwiches, snacks, drinks can be brought into the park and eaten. Restrictions would only apply to anyone taking up a lot of space in the park for an extended period of time. Our favourites were the pre-prepared salads from the supermarket: there is quite a variety and having the salads at hand meant no queuing for lunch.
    Our favourite area for eating was right at the entrance, both to the left and right you have a green area with several seats with shade and some even with a beautiful gazebo.

What to do while waiting in line in Disneyland?

And trust me, there will be waiting in line… Here are some ideas:

–          Decide where to go next using the app or the map

–          Talk: discuss how things were made or planned, ask the kids trivia questions about the Disney movies or shows they have watched

–           Look: notice things around you together; the details, colours, look for hidden Mickeys

–           Take pictures

–           Games

  1.        I Spy, with my little eye
  2.        Simon says – clap your hands, touch your nose, count to 10, stick out your tongue, stand on your tippy toes
  3.        Animal Charades
  4.        The Alphabet Game – find objects around you (eg clothing and signs) from A-Z.
  5.        Character Alphabet  – list characters from A-Z (villains, princesses, cartoons, etc.)
  6.        Botticelli – take on the persona of a well-known person, give other players the initials. Players ask yes/no questions.
  7.        Sweet and sour – wave at a stranger and see who waves back
  8.        Peruse the Shoes – Count all the shoes they see while waiting in line. How many people have on black shoes, open-toed shoes, gym shoes? Without socks? How many have laces? How many have velcro ties?
  9.        Walk the Line – You need a floor with either lines or stripes. Players have to keep both feet either on or off the lines.  3 chances to misstep before eliminating contestants. Winner gets to be line leader the next time.

Disneyland Attractions Tips

Finally here are some specific attraction tips:

Armageddon: Les Effets Speciaux

Our girls found it a bit frightening due to the loud noise and effects.

Autopia- Disneyland ParisAutopia

The official minimum height to drive is 1.32 m, but smaller kids can control the wheel, as long as an adult controls the speed pedal. Long queues, but our girls loved it!

Big Thunder Mountain

Our girls loved this roller coaster and wanted to ride again! The adults also enjoyed it.

Crush’s Coaster

The vehicles spin during the main roller coaster section and it is lots of fun for kids and adults. Even our 4-year old loved it. The wait was quite big, but there is a specific app you can use on the waiting line(wi-fi and instructions available on-site).

Orbitron – Machines Volantes

Not that much fun… a basic ride and quite a long wait.

Plage des Pirates

There is a maximum height to play of 1.40 m, but that is not strictly enforced. Our girls both had fun here while the parents had a bit of a rest (the oldest one was a bit over 1,40m).         

Pirates of the CaribbeanPlage des Pirates at Disneyland Paris

Visitors may get slightly splashed from two small flumes… loads of fun in spite of the “scary” theme with lots of skeletons. We all loved this one!

Princess Pavillion

This always had the longest waits (usually 90 to 120 minutes). We eventually got in when the line was “only” 45 minutes long. The queue is all inside the pavilion, so no rain or too much sun issues. The thing is that in the end, you basically take a picture with one of 2 princesses (you have information on which ones at the entrance). The princess does talk to you a bit, but when you don’t speak English or French that is not of much use. Still, our girls loved meeting Snow White and finding out she has a very high pitched voice! However, we had a much smaller queue to take pictures outside with Jasmine & Aladdin and with Aurora (from Sleeping Beauty).Meeting Princess Aurora at Disneyland Paris

Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith

This features an intense launch and three inversions. Even so, our 8-year old girl liked it because of the music and decorations.

Space Mountain: Mission 2 / Hyperspace Mountain

This features a very intense launch and many inversions. Our 8-year old girl hated it, she found it really scary. This one is definitely geared at those looking for a thrill.

Star Tours at Disneyland ParisStar Tours

Very good motion-simulated flight guided by C3PO. A must if you are a Star Wars fan… but very worthwhile even if you are not. And you get to wear 3D glasses while waiting at your boarding gate 🙂

Toy Soldiers Parachute Drop

Our girls loved this drop attraction. A bit of wait, but having a Toy Story related theme helped.

Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

Our girls hated this drop attraction. It was definitely too scary for them. The toy soldiers one is more kid-friendly.



Home exchange stories, Intervac

Budget holidays in Switzerland

Our family holidays this year made me feel special, lucky (and smart!). In the end, I felt we had achieved something quite against the odds. We were an average Portuguese family who spent 9 days on vacation in Switzerland. Not usually an option.

If there’s one thing you learn quickly as a tourist in Switzerland is that everything is very expensive, and it is not a currency problem. The Swiss Franc and the Euro are almost equivalent. Prices in Switzerland are so expensive that, despite high wages, Swiss who live near the border cross to Germany on weekends to shop because the prices are much cheaper.

A vacation like ours was is possible for tourists on a budget but you will do lots of Internet searching and planning. And you will need at least some of the tricks I want to share with you, so you can also feel special, lucky and smart on your next vacation.

The top 5 items that your travel budget will go for (without any special order) are:

  1. Travel to Your Destination
  2. Local transportation
  3. Food
  4. Tickets to tourist attractions and shows
  5. Accommodation

Travel to Your Destination

To find an economical way to travel to your destination try using one of the sites that group information from the airline’s own sites. Personally, I like Skyscanner and Google Flights.

Be flexible with your departure and return dates (and times!). This helps you to find the best budget options as there seems to be no logic in the price scheme. Sometimes a longer trip will actually save you money! In the case of our recent vacation in Switzerland, our return flight to Portugal went through Milan giving us a 25% reduction in our overall price. For our family of 4 that was serious savings.

Local transportation

Local transportation is the factor that most benefits from really good planning. Everywhere you go the local transportation has its own rules and special prices. There are always alternatives, but with very different costs and it is not always easy to see which is the best transportation option at the first glance. Added to all that is the uncertainty – you never know for sure how long you will want to stay at each attraction and missing a connection can be expensive.

In the case of Switzerland, we decided to do our traveling always by train. Swiss trains are very reliable. In all the time that we were there, we only saw 2 delayed trains. On the first occasion, the train was 3 minutes late (which in Portugal wouldn’t even be considered a delay), and it was announced in the train station panels. On the second occasion, on our way to Italy, the train had to wait twice for trains coming from Italy that were late… This made us reach the destination in Italy a full 7 minutes late… quite out of the norm for Swiss trains!

But, Swiss trains are not cheap. A simple trip can cost 5 or 6 times more than we would expect to pay for the same distance in Portugal. The value is that quality, timeliness, tranquility, silence, and cleanliness of the toilets are guaranteed, even in second class. Some trains even have special carriages for families with a small playground on the second floor … our kids loved that! Parents find it especially easy to miss the Swiss trains, in spite of their price.

Some trains even have special carriages for families with a small playground on the second floor ... our kids loved that!

Tips for Train Travel in Switzerland

  • Round-trip tickets are valid for 24 hours. One-way tickets are only valid for 2 hours.
  • In Switzerland, certain train tickets include the bus service on your destination. That is worth checking in advance.
  • The good news is: Children under 6 years ride for free!
  • If you are traveling with young people between 6 and 15, you can buy an annual pass called “Junior Karte ” for just CHF 30 (Yes, an annual pass for under 30€!). This pass is valid as long as the youngsters are accompanied by an adult.
  • And if you are traveling with 3 or more children in the 6-15 age group, you only need to buy 2 passes. After that, your accompanied children can ride for free.

As you might expect the options for adults are not as easy. There is an annual pass called the “Halbtax ” which costs CHF 185 (around 160€). With this pass, adults pay 1/2 price for all tickets. The problem is that for a 9-day vacation the price is too high. We would have had to carry out trips costing more than 320€ per adult…Supersaver tickets are available for the following month and can be bought in advance through the train company (SBB) website or their app. Supersaver tickets are often a good option as the discounts can be as much as 50%.


In Switzerland, a perfectly normal meal in a perfectly normal restaurant costs what we in Portugal would expect to pay per person for a wedding party. On our holiday, we opted for healthy meals (salads and juices) which we bought in the supermarket and ate in one of the many parks, (preferably next to a playground…). Yet, even that cost the equivalent of a meal in a normal restaurant meal in Portugal …

We also cooked and ate many meals at home, in “our” garden… more about that later!

Tickets for Attractions and Shows

Plenty of fun to be had even in the valley

Your family knows which sorts of attractions make memories on your trips. For the most part, we crossed museums and cable cars off the attractions menu because of the price. In Switzerland, there are breathtaking views and plenty of fun to be had even in the valley.

The Rhine runs along the border between Switzerland and Germany and we decided one thing we could not do without was a boat ride! We got a good deal on a RailAway offer and did the boat trip from Stein am Rhein to Schaffhausen. By going downstream, the trip takes 1h15 instead of 2h05, and is still done at a leisurely pace.

In Schaffhausen, we visited the Munot, a round fortress that dates from 1564. It can be reached by stairs and has a covered footbridge across the moat. The views from the top are great and admission is free.

Returning from Schaffhausen by train we stopped over at Schloss Laufen where you can see the Rhinefall, it is the largest waterfall in Europe (in terms of water flow). You can see the waterfall for free from the landing point of the boat trips to the center of the falls. Taking boat trips or viewing the falls from other points will cost money.

Also not to be missed is the journey by train through the Alps to Italy on the Bernina Express. This train trip from Chur to Tirano is in itself UNESCO World Heritage and takes you through bridges and historic tunnels, reaching over 2000 meters above sea level. Right by the train you see mountains (up to 4,000 meters high), with snow even in July, glaciers and beautiful lakes.

Money Saving Bernina Express Trick

Super trick for the Bernina Express

Buy your tickets as if you are starting your trip in Freiburg (Germany) with Deutsche Bahn. This is quite a bit cheaper than booking your tickets through the Swiss railways… 29€ instead of about 80€ per person. Then, you board the train halfway through the trip. I learned this from an online blog and can confirm it works.

Special Events

We were lucky enough to be able to go to the “Züri Fäscht” in the city of Zürich, a festival that takes place every three years. Everything seemed to be happening at the same time and throughout the city – fairground, bars and restaurants with music of all kinds, air show, circus shows, sports, diving, and more! We opted for a peaceful (and free!) ride on a solar power boat in the “ Zürichsee” (Lake Zurich), also one of the festival’s attractions.

If you are interested in visiting Zürich during “Züri Fäscht ” the next one is July 5-7 2019!


None of the previous tricks makes me nearly as happy as my accommodation trick. During my family’s nine days in Switzerland, we spent eight nights on a home-exchange holiday with Intervac. We also spent one night in a hotel in Chur, just before boarding the Bernina Express at 8:32 in the morning.

Breakfast at home in our garden

During our home exchange, we lived in a fantastic house in Winterthur. It had 4 floors, garden, swing, toys, and books for the girls and everything else a family needs in a home. Staying “at home” provided some unexpected opportunities for fun, such as catching large snails for a snail “race”!

So, for eight nights of accommodation, we paid only the annual cost to be a member of Intervac. Of course, we also provided our exchange partners with good conditions for a fantastic vacation at our home in Madeira.

The last night, the one we spent in the hotel in Chur? Oh, that cost us €157 – which was more than double the cost of our annual Intervac membership! But, this is Switzerland. Our €157 entitled the four of us to one room, with 2 single beds and a bunk bed, on the 3rd floor of the hotel. The price included electricity and internet (essential!) but there was no elevator, no private bathroom… And there was a notice in the common bathroom to let us know: “broken shower – use the 2nd floor “. They suggested we each paid €5 to rent a towel.

We did miss our home exchange house on that last night in Switzerland. We missed the space. We missed the comfort. But most of all we missed feeling at home.

Home exchange stories

How about a non-simultaneous exchange?

I started doing home exchanges for my holidays in 2005. I love any kind of home exchange and now that my family has grown and I home exchange with kids… even more so! It is great to feel at home when we’re traveling with our kids.

Enjoying our own balcony in our last exchange


Sleeping in late on our last home exchange

The problem is that, when you have school-aged kids, you need to stick to school holiday dates. And finding an exchange partner can become a bit more difficult. That is what got me doing non-simultaneous exchanges more often. A non-simultaneous exchange is simply an exchange in which the dates do not overlap.

Actually, my first exchange back in 2005 was a non-simultaneous one: I went to New York for the 4th of July and the New York couple I exchanged with only came to my apartment in Madeira Island in August. The problem for me, back then, was that it meant that when the New York couple came, I had to temporarily move to my parents-in-law’s home… If you have a second home, like I do now, it is even easier!

I have just completed my 6th non-simultaneous exchange. My exchange partner, Rosemary, came in October 2014 to Madeira, and my family and I visited Torquay, in the English Riviera in August 2015.


In Torquay’s harbor, with our exchange home showing in the backdrop

This way, we both got good weather, Rosemary got a better price for her off-season flight tickets and we got to go during the school holidays… All in all, it was simpler to get to the perfect dates for both exchanging parties.


We had a beautiful balcony to enjoy… day & night!

Apart from the dates, the other great advantage of non-simultaneous exchanges is that it is easier to get to meet your exchange partners which a great way of cultivating international friendships. We love to make new friends while we’re busy seeing the world and enjoying the benefits of home exchange!

This time, we had the pleasure to meet Rosemary and her friend Jennifer both in Madeira and in Torquay. We are reaching our 20th exchange, but Rosemary is an even more experienced exchanger than we are. So, we talked about past exchanges, about each other’s country and about life in general.


Meeting our exchange partners was great

We even got to watch a video of an English TV show that aired in 2011 that featured an exchange to Rosemary’s house. The program focused on how home exchange can allow your holiday budget to be as low as £50 for a family of three… If you are curious, you can watch it too here.

To sum up, if your holiday dates don’t match the ones of your exchange partner, consider doing a non-simultaneous exchange. If you have to, consider (temporarily) moving to your parents-in-law’s! But do not miss out on all the great non-simultaneous home exchange opportunities Intervac has to offer you!