Travel

Tips for Traveling with Kids in Europe

 

   

Leave the Kids at Home?
   

If you and your partner have 20 days for a family vacation,  are on a budget, and are dreaming of an adult time in Europe, consider this plan: Go for 10 days without the kids and really enjoy Europe as adults rather  than parents — the savings from leaving them at home will easily cover top-notch  child care. Then fly home and spend the other 10 days with your kids — camping,  at a water park, or just playing at home. (If your kids have an adult relative  somewhere else in the US whom they'd enjoy getting to know better, offer to fly  him or her to your house to kid-sit while you're gone.)

 

 

When parents tell me they're going to Europe and ask me where to  take their kids, I'm tempted to answer, "to Grandma and Grandpa's on your way  to the airport."

 

It's easy to make the case  against taking the kids along. A European vacation with kids in tow is much  more about playgrounds and petting zoos than about museums and churches. And  traveling with kids is expensive. Out of exhaustion and frustration, you may  opt for pricey conveniences like taxis and the first restaurant you find with a  kid-friendly menu. Two adults with kids spend twice as much to experience about  half the magic of Europe per day than they might without.

 

But if you can afford it  and don't mind accomplishing less as adult sightseers, traveling with your  children can be great family fun, creating piles of lifelong memories. Moreover,  it's great parenting, as it helps get kids comfortable with the wider world.

 

With kids, you'll live more like a European and less like a tourist.  Your children become your ambassadors, opening doors to new experiences and  relationships. Your child will be your ticket to countless conversations. Some  of your best travel memories may be of your son floating a wooden boat  alongside Parisian garçons in the  great pond at Luxembourg Garden, or of your daughter kicking a soccer ball with  kids at a park in Madrid. Let them race their new Italian friends around  Siena's main square, the Campo, while you sip your Campari.

 

European families, like  their American counterparts, enjoy traveling. You'll find kids' menus, hotel  playrooms, and kids-go-crazy zones at freeway rest stops all over Europe.  Traveling with an infant or toddler can be challenging, but parents with a  babe-in-arms will generally be offered a seat on crowded buses and sometimes  allowed to go to the front of the line at museums.

 

It helps to get your kids enthusiastic  about what they'll be seeing in Europe. Before your trip, encourage your  kids to learn about the countries, cities, sights, and people they'll be  visiting. Even simple Wikipedia articles can provide enough background to pique  a child's curiosity. Read books, fiction and non-fiction, set in the place  you're going, such as The Diary of Anne  Frank for Amsterdam or The Thief Lord for Venice. Watch movies together, such as The  Sound of Music for Salzburg, The  Red Balloon for Paris, or The Secret of Roan Inish for  Ireland. Your hometown library can be a great resource for age-appropriate  books and movies.

 

Get a jump on foreign  phrases. Type out the top 20 or so and put them on the fridge for everyone to  learn. Get a copy of the "10 Minutes a Day" book for your country's  language — they come with preprinted sticky word labels that your kids will  enjoy plastering onto your household items. Capitalize on whatever hobbies or  games your children have that may relate to the history of the places you're  visiting. Give your kids the chance to try out foreign specialties in advance  by eating at ethnic restaurants, or get a cookbook and make meals together at  home. Many US cities host celebrations of different cultures — look for  festivals held by local communities of Greeks, Italians, Hungarians, or  whatever group might be vibrant in your town or relevant to your family.

 

The key to a successful  European family vacation is to slow down and to temper expectations. Don't  overdo it. Tackle one or two key sights each day, mix in a healthy dose of pure  fun, and take extended breaks when needed. If done right, you'll take home  happy memories to share for a lifetime.

 

At What Age Can I  Take the Kids?

   

Family  Travel Resources
   
Books
   

The Single Parent Travel Handbook (Brenda Elwell,  2002). Good tips for making the most out of traveling solo with your kids.

   

Cadogan Guides’ Take the Kids and Fodor’s Around series. Practical advice on making any destination child-friendly.

   

Take Your Kids to Europe (Cynthia Harriman,  2007). Lessons from firsthand family-travel experience, especially good for  kids ages 6-16.

   

Travel with Babies and Young Children  (Fawzia Rasheed de Francisco, 2008). The  lowdown on “painless” travel with youngsters.

   

Travel with Children: Your Complete Resource  (Brigitte Barta with others, 2009). Overall  tips, including especially good advice on traveling with infants.

   

Travels with Baby: The Ultimate Guide for Planning Trips  with Babies, Toddlers, and Preschool-Age Children (Shelly Rivoli,  2007). More baby-centered advice, organized by mode of travel, with a section  on trips abroad.

   
Websites
   

Ciao Bambino  Mom-written,  destination-focused advice and hotel reviews that focus on family-friendly  features.

   

      Travel for Kids  Fun things to do with  kids in locations worldwide.

   

Travels with Baby Companion online  resources for book of same title (above).

   

Minitime  General resource, with tip sheets  and printable packing checklists for babies and children.

 

My children are young adults now, but, after taking them to Europe every year for their first 20 years, it's fun to think back about our European  trips during different stages of their childhood. When they were  grade-schoolers, our trips were consumed with basic survival issues, such as  eating, sleeping, and occupying their attention. By the time they entered their  teens, the big challenge became making our trips educational and fun.

Some parents won't take  their kids abroad until they are old enough to truly enjoy the trip. My rule of  thumb is that children should be able to stand a day of walking, be ready to  eat what's in front of them, and be comfortable sleeping in strange beds. They  should be able to carry their own daypacks with some clothes, a journal, and a  couple of toys. We found that a child is ready for an international trip at  about the same age they're ready for a long day at Disneyland.

Grade-school kids are often  the easiest travelers, provided you schedule some kid-friendly activities every  day. They're happiest staying in rural places with swimming pools and grassy  fields to run around in.

High-schoolers feel that summer break is a  vacation they've earned. If this European trip is not their trip, you become the enemy. Make it their trip, too,  by asking for their help — give each child who's old enough a location to  research. Kids can quickly get excited about a vacation if they're involved in  the planning stages. Consider your teen's suggestions and make real  concessions. A day of shopping or at the beach might be more fun than another  ruined abbey.

Precautionary  Measures

 

Even if you have the most well-behaved kids in the world, things  happen: Kids wander off, or they get separated from you in a crowd. Whenever  you're traveling with children in an unfamiliar place, it's good to have a  go-to procedure in place in case something happens. Be sure to give each child  a business card from your hotel so they have local contact information.

When using public  transportation, make sure everyone knows the final stop and have a backup plan  for what to do if you lose each other (for example, plan to meet at your final  stop or reconvene at your hotel).

In a crowded situation,  having a unique family noise (a whistle or call, such as a "woo-woop" sound)  enables you to easily get each other's attention. Consider buying  walkie-talkies in Europe to help you relax when the kids roam (don't bring  walkie-talkies from home, as ours use a different bandwidth and are illegal in  Europe). You can also purchase a cheap pay-as-you-go mobile phone in Europe  (see Using Mobile Phones in Europe); this can also be helpful in case of emergencies.

Europe is not the United  States of Litigation. Europeans love children, but their sense of childproofing  public spaces is vastly different from ours. You may find a footbridge across a  raging river has child-sized gaps between the railings. Windows in fourth-floor  hotel rooms may be easy to open and unscreened. The hot water may scald you in  about 30 seconds. Pay attention.

Reflecting and  Connecting

 

Help your kids collect and process their observations. Buy a  journal at your first stop, and it becomes a fun souvenir in itself. Kids like  cool books — pay for a nice one. The journal is important, and it should feel  that way. Encourage the kids to record more than just a trip log: Collect  feelings, smells, tastes, reactions to cultural differences, and so on.  Grade-school kids enjoy pasting in ticket stubs or drawing pictures of things  they've seen.

It can be hard for kids to  hang around grown-ups all day, so help your kids connect with other children.  In hot climates, kids gravitate toward the squares (in cities and villages alike)  when the temperature begins to cool in the late afternoon, often staying until  late in the evening. Take your children to the European nightspots to  observe — if not actually make — the scene (such as the rollerbladers at the  Trocadéro in Paris or the crowd at Rome's Trevi Fountain).

Just a few phrases spoken  by your kids will open many doors. Make a point of teaching them "thank you,"  "hello," and "good-bye" in the country's language. You'll find nearly everyone  speaks English, but small phrases out of the mouths of babes will melt the cool  of surly museum guards or harried shop clerks.

Older kids will want to keep in touch with  friends at home and European pals they meet on their trip. If you're not  traveling with a mobile device, from time to time buy an hour of computer time  at an Internet café to placate your teen. Or, for a few euros, kids can  purchase an international phone card and chat cheaply with friends back home.  If you're traveling with a mobile phone, your kids can use it to text or send photos  back to their friends in the US (but be sure you know the charges for  international roaming; see Roaming with Your Own Mobile Phone).

 

During the trip, your kids  may complain about being parted from their friends or having to visit yet  another museum. But don't lose heart — sometimes the pay-off comes years down  the road. Your child may surprise you one day by mentioning a painting in  Madrid's Prado or recalling a fact about Rome's Colosseum. Besides building  memories, your investment in a trip now is a down payment on developing a true  citizen of the world.

Updated for 2013. For lots more tips, check out our best-selling Europe Through the Back Door travel skills guidebook.