To some, traveling to Europe with a passel of kids sounds crazy, to others— a dream come true. For almost everyone, a large scale vacation requires years of saving and planning, but I’d argue Europe costs no more than DisneyWorld, a cruise, or a dream trip to the Super Bowl. And for us, it’s a matter of priority, because of our heritage, love of history, art, music and languages we’ve always wanted to share Europe with our kids.
In our travels we’ve done some things right and made plenty of mistakes. Here’s everything I’d like to remember for (hopefully!) the next time:
Stay in one place. Few can resist the temptation to skip from country to country when visiting Europe, but you’ll experience more joy and less stress if you limit your travel days. If you try to see it all you’ll visit a lot of train stations and hotels and simply feel exhausted when viewing the world’s wonders. Ideally– spend two weeks in one place and take day trips from there. A good alternative is staying a full week in one city and skipping from town to town the next week. On our recent trip to Italy, cityhopping was unavoidable– we wanted to visit every area Ben had served in on his mission. But we tried to alleviate travel stress by staying at least two nights in each place. It worked out, but I won’t lie– we were exhausted. While walking through the streets of Milan we decided to cut Rome out of our itinerary because we couldn’t keep up the pace. It’s hard, I know, we want to see everything. But you’ll sink deeper into the culture, enjoy your visit more if you’re not rushing to and fro.
Try VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) for apartment rentals anywhere in the world. You can usually find an apartment for less than the cost of a hotel and the kitchen will save you a fortune on food.
We are all human. Even while walking through the streets of Venice, gazing at masterpieces in the Louvre or whispering in St. Paul’s Cathedral we are ruled by the basic needs of food, drink, a bathroom, a bed (air conditioning is nice too). Everything readily accessible at home (water, snacks, a relatively clean toilet), becomes scarce while traveling. Prepare, plan and just acknowledge our common humanity. Pack drinks and snacks, sleep in when you can and don’t make anyone feel badly about needing yet another bathroom break. I’d thought this was a large family problem until friends who went alone, with their spouse or just one child echoed the same truth. One friend told me she skipped out on Notre Dame in favor of McDonald’s, another got in a big fight with her husband over when to go back to the hotel to sleep and another admitted visiting the Louvre for the clean bathrooms rather than the Mona Lisa. We are not capable of enjoying every minute, all the time, so don’t feel guilty when you feel lousy. You’re only human.
The best time is when you have the time. You can study airfares, hotel rates, weather, when the crowds leave the city, etc, but the best time to travel is whenever you can. Grab the brass ring. Go when you can. And if you have all your children at home and can possibly make the trip– GO!
Carefully plan/leave plenty to chance. Some portions of travel need to be carefully orchestrated, but if you orchestrate everything, you might make everyone miserable. Among the basic human needs (but harder to list) resides personal autonomy. ie. Plan to be in Florence, but let everyone choose whether to wander the city or visit the museums. Allow room for choices, cancellations, whims… life. Search for places/activities kids will enjoy: the crazy archbishop’s water palace in Salzburg, Harry Potter Studios, Salt Mines, swimming pools, castle ruins.
The most important items to plan: arrivals and departures, travel between cities, lodging (and most hotels allow last-minute cancellations, reservations). It usually doesn’t cost any more to fly into one city and out of another. Planning a departure from your furthest city can save you a small fortune in travel costs. I learned this one the hard way– to the tune of about $1000– on our trip four years ago. Ouch.
Which segues beautifully to my next tip: plan on an unexpected expense. No matter how much you plan– and I love to find the best deals on museum passes, transportation deals– something will go wrong. That’s life. Don’t let it ruin your trip. (But you can whine about it to me later. I know all too well the pain of budgeting every dollar and seeing all my efforts blown in one silly mistake.)
Mom will cry at some point during the trip. It’s normal.
Educate yourselves before you go. Chances are you’re planning this trip a year or more in advance. Over the next year choose novels, movies, histories based in the country you are visiting. If you have high schoolers, make sure they take AP European History and AP Art History. YouTube bulges with fabulous history videos. I’ve already professed my love for Duolingo, but a simple old-fashioned German/French/Italian travel dictionary will help you navigate a foreign language. I loved walking through Florence while my boys traded bits of knowledge about history, art, architecture etc. Knowledge magnifies your experience in any city. Note: most European museums offer free or greatly reduced admission to 18 and unders.
Take time to play.
Straight out from the Louvre lies the Tuilerie Gardens, just behind the Tower of London lies a small but fabulous playground, Italian fountains practically beg to be waded in. We play a LOT on our trips. Because Europeans don’t litigate like Americans, they have the most fabulous (and somewhat dangerous) playgrounds. Search out the enormous slides, crazy swings, zip lines and wildly spinning merry-go-rounds, spend an hour and you’ll be more than ready for the next cathedral.
Public transportation fuels adventure.
When traveling, the morning commute isn’t mundane, but part of the European experience. Subways, buses, streetcars, trains… embrace every ticket, turnstile and crowded platform. Through a kid’s eyes, everything fascinates (unless we grumble and teach them otherwise). Check the internet for deals. Seven of us traveled to Dover for the price of two
. Kids often ride free on buses, trains, subways etc.
Sleeper trains rule. We still reminisce about the ride we took from Paris to Munich four years ago. The cost compares to a train ticket combined with a cheap hotel room and it’s a great way to travel and rest at the same time. I’m NOT a fan of easyjet, Ryanair and the other cheap flights taking you from one city to the next. These services might be great for individuals, but for a family the stress of security checks, extreme (and I mean extreme) luggage regulations and making it to the airport on time, reduce any sense of convenience. While train stations tend to be right in the center of European cities, the small airports servicing easyjet and such are often a three hour commute from city center. You can arrive at the station minutes before the train leaves and you’ll be just fine; with an airline you need two hours for processing and security. And these airlines are completely unforgiving if you miss your flight. Another lesson learned the hard way.
Eat out of the grocery store. Of course you’ll want to dine out here and there, but European markets are full of delights. Browse the cereal aisle, cheeses, deli meats, sample the bakery, drool over the incredible yogurt selection. And because they allow produce to ripen on the vine, European fruits and vegetables are revelatory– nectarines, sweet peas, carrots, even basic salad greens made us swoon. Canned soup in France bursts with vegetables, sophisticated flavors and exquisite broth. London markets feature ‘meal deals’ where you can sample a sandwich, side dish and drink for 2 pounds.
Read guidebooks; ask for advice.
Checking out several books from the library is always wise, but Rick Steve’s guidebooks
are the ones to buy. Case in point: Fodor’s and Frommer’s scarcely mention the Churchill War Rooms in London while Rick Steve’s rates it as the #1 must see in London. Ask any of my kids, even (especially) Mary what was their favorite site in London: Churchill War Rooms (Christie: you practically owe your WWII scholar boys a trip there).
Steve’s also seems to have a better grip on the budgets of real people and his restaurant and transportation recommendations reflect his close to the ground knowledge.
Still, some fabulous places never make it into the guide books. When we went to London last year the Harry Potter Studios were too new to be listed and Dover Castle only hinted at. If you have a particular interest, Google it. Also, listen to friends. When the Dudley’s heard we would be in Austria on our Paris/Munich/Austria trip four years ago, they insisted we visit Halstatt- a gorgeous little town
built on a steep hillside above a lake. I’ve never seen it mentioned in any guidebook, but it’s a spectacular, magical town.
Plan on washing your underwear in a hotel sink.
It’s an important life skill. Don’t forget bars of soap.
Photograph each other, not the sights. Of course you can’t resist a shot of the Eiffel Tower, but the sights won’t change, your family will. Take two cameras if possible (a phone camera counts) and make sure your family’s primary photographer is in a least a few photos (this is always a struggle for me; my family’s pretty content to let me take all the photos).
Be prepared to walk six to ten miles a day. Unless, of course, you have Stefan to carry you.
Put those photos in an album when you get home. Our two Europe photo books are the most thumbed through in our house. Well, maybe we’re not opening the London book as much these days because it makes us miss Stefan so much: his laughing face, arms casually wrapped around his brothers or Mary on his shoulders… those are times, the love we want to remember.