Traveling in Europe with kids and without losing your mind

So you are going to Europe with your kids …

First of all, good for you!

It has always been our experience that travel adds somthing wonderful to your life. It broadens your horizons (and your palate), leads to great memories and is just plain fun. Europe is a fascinating, varied and historically rich place to visit in particular for people of all ages — and contrary to what some people say, having kids is no reason to give up on going there. While you can’t expect a trip taken with little ones in tow to be exactly the same as your pre-kid adventures, there is no reason it can’t be just as exciting — especially when you are seeing through your kid’s eyes.

Straight off the bat, I’m going to say we don’t believe in the “what’s the point of taking them to X when they won’t remember or appreciate it anyway?” First of all, you can say that about anything — why bother take them to the park or the zoo or the community pool, then? Second, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast most mornings, doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it while it lasted. Seriously though, my kids might not remember every detail of our trip to France, for example, but I will remember how excited Owen was while running through the Catacombs or the sound of Fiona trying to moo at the cows we saw near the Cliffs of Moher during our trip to Ireland.

Or Owen being really shocked by the concept of a subway. 

So, this is to be the first in a series I’m planning to share everything we’ve learned in the last nine months of trips (which have included Rome/Naples, France and Ireland, as well as a few weekend trips.) I’ll be adding to this list frequently as we learn more in the coming years! As can imagine, much of our advice will be centered on traveling with younger children since that is our experience, but I hope some of it can be applicable to those with older ones kiddos too. Also: I’ll get into more specifics of planning a trip as far as plane tickets and such at a later date.

So without further ado …

How to travel in Europe with children without losing your mind (1st edition)

  1. Plan extra time into your itinerary. When Chris and I went on our honeymoon, we fit three countries into about 11 days. We crammed a lot in during that time (including a lot of alcoholic beverages). If you are traveling with small children, however, you should plan on taking things a little slower. Two major attractions (this does not include meals) in one day is a nice pace, three is generally managable and anything more than that is probably madness. Whatever seems like a reasonable amount of time to spend in a city pre-kid, you probably want to add at least a day.Plenty of time for leisurely chats, right? 
  2. Have a plan for what you want to do each day. This advice is somewhat at variance with our former “we’ll figure it out when we get there” ideology. But having done it both way, I’m now a big advocate for having a plan. This doesn’t mean having a rigid hour-by-hour schedule so much as having an outline. Mapping things our ahead of time means that you can organize things logically in terms of location and that you are aware ahead of time when certain places are closed. Without preparation, you end up not realizing that you need tickets to buy tickets ahead of time for the Kilmainham Gaol, for instance. You also end up wasting a bunch of time in the morning debating about what to do and Googling to make sure it is open.
    Le Sommet, La Tour Eiffel, Paris
  3. Feel free to toss out the plan. Be flexible. Sometimes you are going to run into something that makes you want to throw out the plan and investigate. Do it. For instance, in Spain with my parents in 2011 we abruptly ditched our plans to go to the Prado Musuem because my mom hurt her leg and we stopped at a bar to check it. We ended up having drinks, talking to a bunch of people and having one of our most fun nights in Spain. Don’t be so married to your schedule that you can’t ditch it for an afternoon to follow an impulse.We ditched our tour group in Kilkenny and had drinks and dinner instead.
  4. Sandwich things you want to do with things you know the kids will enjoy. When you are making these plans, consider organizing your day with an activity you are sure the kids will like with one you want to see that might be less interesting to them. For instance: we planned on going to the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris after a morning at Napoleon’s Tomb and the war museum there. In general, I’d recommend familiarizing yourselves with parks or greenspaces near where you are staying in any city because letting them run around at a park for an hour or so is a great break from the go-go-go of traveling.
  5. Don’t go into any activity with the assumption that your kids won’t enjoy it. Even if you inwardly think that probably the kids are going to think X Activity is dumb, don’t say so in front of them. Don’t bribe them beforehand to “just be good and we can do something fun after.” Basically, don’t say anything that is going to have them walking into a place expecting to be bored and you might be surprised. For example: my kids loved the War Museum in Paris. Go figure!Art can be interesting for everyone! We won’t talk about the fact that FIona flipped over that white railing shortly after this photo, taken at Musee d’Orangerie… 
  6. Do bribe them though. Be prepared with some bribes though as needed to get through something you want to see. I highly recommend bringing a bunch of snacks in your daypack, and in particular I recommend packing suckers if your kids are old enough to eat them. They are light weight and a kid can’t really whine when he/she’s eating a sucker. Victory.
  7. Be willing to bend the rules. This is vacation and it is supposed to be fun, damn it. Our kids end up staying up later and eating a lot more sweets on vacation, and I think that’s OK. Frankly, it is giving yourself a break as well from the usual restrictions.Granita for dinner? OK then. 
  8. Make (financial) concessions to your sanity. It is possible that renting an apartment is going to be more expensive than the cheapest possible hotel room, but if it means you can all get a little more sleep then I consider it money well spent. Likewise, public transit can often get you into cities cheaper than a car service but if you are walking off a 10-hour flights with a couple cranky kids and a giant suitcase, we think it is worth it to have a car (with car seats) arranged to take us to our hotel or apartment.Nicest AirBnB ever (Kilysdart, Ireland)
  9. Consider putting the kids in “training” beforehand. Chances are that you are going to be walking around more than you normally would at home. Before our France and Ireland trips I made a concerted effort to take frequent walks with the kids to get them in shape in hopes of reducing the chorus of “I’m tired.” Obviously this has the added benefit of getting you ready too!This sort of thing might still happen.
  10. But also consider babywearing. I’m going to do a whole post on this later, but I highly recommend you consider carrying your baby in a sling or carrier instead of lugging around a stroller. It can be way easier to get around and you don’t have to worry about parking your stroller anywhere. It is also a perfect nap spot for tired kids in the afternoon! I wasn’t babywearing yet back when we were in Rome, but after that trip I invested in a toddler-size Tula and it has seriously been a game-changer. Update: I did a post about this here.
  11. Remember that this is their trip too. Yeah, it can get annoying if they want to stop at the millionth fountain or stay at some boring attraction long after you’ve lost interest, but hey — this is their trip too. Cut them some slack.
    Owen and Fiona ran through this maze at Chenonceau approximately one million times.
  12. Remember that it is YOUR trip too. That said, do not spend your entire trip catering to your kids’ wants at the expense of your own. Your kids might not love visiting that art museum and they might get bored at a two-hour dinner. Tough shit. It does not kill a kid to be bored once in a while. Along those same lines, try to take it easy on yourself as well. You and your spouse are sitting at dinner and want to linger, but the kid is whining? Give yourself a break and let him watch videos on your phone (or whatever) even if you never do this and but what will people THINK? Seriously, cut yourself some slack and enjoy your cappuccino (or cocktail) in peace.Here’s to you, fellow parent-travelers. You’ve got this. 

Happy travels! 

11 Responses

  1. The Husband

    Ref #5: Nothing like being in the Musee d’Orangerie where everyone is being super quiet and then your daughter falls over and screams louder than a bomb exploding, which echos throughout the entire museum…good times.

  2. Jan Holzhauer

    vicarious thrills for me. Thank you!! oh and sending much love your way.

  3. Kacie

    Great post! Also, <3 the toddler Tula! Gosh, I kept the lollipops flowing during one flight just to help keep 'em from yelling. They were organic, so it's fine. uh

  4. Michael Schuch

    My simple recipe for a less chaotic vacay is PlusPlus (for the uninitiated, think flat lego pieces you put in a Ziploc bag and take out at restaurants) and bringing a/your babysitter so you and your significant other can enjoy at least a few moments of conversation or even a night out 🙂

  5. Sarah

    Great post and tips – a lot of them applicable for someone who doesn’t even have kids! 🙂

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