Tour Europe with the Family
In the meantime, the baggage may have doubled or tripled and now includes strollers and diaper bags, snacks and sippy cups. Is it worth traveling such a far distance with kids? What will a toddler gain from the experience, or a teen? Is it worth the money? Will I be able to carry all the stuff?
In one word: Yes! Our family has traveled to Europe, specifically Italy, for 15 years. My husband has distant relatives located in a small village in Lake Garda, close to Verona, and we spent part of our honeymoon there. Two years later, we brought our 3-month-old, and then added three more children in the years that followed. Pregnancies and tantrums did not stop us from our annual summer sojourn and, needless to say, the European adventures are now very different with four kids, now ages 7 to 13. The following tips are from lessons learned while traveling with children.
Financial consideration is important when traveling to Europe, but certain strategies can drastically improve your travel budget. Italy is a huge destination for people from all over the world, and airfares into Italy can be very expensive. Unless there is an airline special, we do not necessarily fly in and out of an Italian airport. Check airline websites for flights into countries near the one you are visiting, especially regions that have less summer tourism. We have often flown into Zurich or Munich in June or July to get a better fare. An added benefit: renting a car from these countries can often be more affordable.
Be flexible with the timing of your trip. Airfares increase in the middle of June when school lets out, and drop at the end of August. One year we returned the day before school started in late August; the price was well worth the jet lag. Other years, we have departed before school finished for the year.
We are now beyond the days of saving a ticket by holding a baby on our laps for flights but believe me, it is worth doing so. Often, a middle seat is available as well, so parents can luck out on a seat for their lap child. If you bring a car seat with you, it is great if you can carry it on and strap it into the airplane seat. The flight attendants love you for keeping your kids locked up and out of the aisles, and your child is encased in her familiar travel chair and will tend to sleep longer and more comfortably.
Consider flying with discount airlines, or using websites that offer discounts for children under 14. For example, both a leading airline and Orbitz.com offered us the same flight, but Orbitz gave us a discount for anyone under 13. AirBerlin is a discount airline that offers tickets at one-third off the price for kids under age 12; they fly seasonally from San Francisco and regularly from Los Angeles. Once, we rented a car one way and drove to Los Angeles in order to catch a better-priced flight with AirBerlin.
Italian railways have offered “kids travel free” specials the past few summers. Depending on where you want to go, train travel can be less expensive and eliminate the need to rent a car.
Where to Stay
I highly recommend renting an apartment when traveling as a family. European hotel rooms tend to be expensive and small, and apartment living has advantages far beyond economics. A kitchen and a homemade meal once or twice a day forces one to explore the local markets and try new things. It is also convenient for storing leftovers, although Europeans laugh at us for bringing food home from restaurants.
HomeAway and VRBO.com are popular websites to peruse, and AirBnB is a rising star. Often, a family of four can utilize a one-bedroom apartment, as kids can easily sleep on a foldout couch or in a portable crib in the living room. Many apartments have clothes washers; take advantage of this to minimize the amount of clothes you pack. Take note of apartment ownership vs. apartment management; owners tend to negotiate and give better prices.
What to Pack
It is easier said than done, but try not to bring a lot. Europe is known for its outdoor shopping markets, where you can buy additional layering pieces, if needed. Of all of the toiletries and first aid you will feel compelled to pack, I would recommend limiting yourself to the following American brands: Baby/Children’s Tylenol, Neosporin and a small bottle of Purell hand sanitizer. Enjoy shopping for shampoo, sunscreen and Band-Aids at any grocery store or pharmacy.
Soak in the benefits of the humid summer air, and keep your thick moisturizers at home. Appreciate minimal makeup and jewelry and let your hair air-dry. Wear pants, skirts and dresses in cities, and save your shorts for the beach. Do bring your favorite bathing suits. I have never enjoyed the minimalist European swimsuit styles – especially for men!
Bring an umbrella stroller, even if your child is 5 or 6 years old. The walking will get tiring, and it is great for naps while you are dining in the evening, al fresco. Plus, you can hang your purse and bags from the handles. Use the stroller as a chair for your child at meals if there is no highchair handy.
Keep your screen-time “babysitter” for emergency use only. Don’t whip out the smartphone or iPad to quell every complaint. A small bottle of bubbly water or a gelato will go a long way in luring a kid to behave. Europe loves sweet treats, and I find myself adapting to the candy culture when I’m there. This is beneficial not only to distract a child from heat, fatigue or boredom, but also to encourage speaking in a foreign language. My kids must ask me in Italian when they want a treat, and as their Italian has improved, they must ask the server directly.
Tips for Sightseeing
A visit to a monument or museum takes on a different dimension with children. Try to see big, outdoor tourist attractions early in the morning before the hot sun screams down on you, and enjoy the European long lunch and afternoon repose.
Be aware of the differences in endurance. The “best laid plans” adage is true; perhaps have one or two sightseeing ideas per day and then celebrate when (if) you accomplish them. Decide what to see or do (or eat), and then incorporate how to best include children.
As our kids have grown, they have become more involved in the planning. A quick Wikipedia search on the topic at hand has been invaluable, and child-friendly sightseeing blogs can be found with a quick Google search. Our middle-schoolers were wide-eyed with the realization they have been visiting a formerly fascist country all their lives. We talk about the Marshall Plan when we go through mountain tunnels from the post-war Reconstruction era throughout Germany, Austria and Italy, and we laugh about how long it has taken to build the fourth bore of the Caldecott Tunnel.
Europeans tend to interact with children more than Americans. Use this opportunity to watch your children like a hawk, but also to teach them to socialize, in your presence, and to learn international courtesies. By navigating the fine line of protection and sociability, you can successfully make many lifelong friendships.
Pickpockets are very real and very present in many European cities. While it should not deter you from traveling to Europe, it’s important to be aware of your surroundings, especially around train and metro stations. Bring a purse with a zipper and keep it under your arm. Do not pass your luggage to anyone offering to help you get onto a train. They could take the luggage and pass it to a person at the end of the train car, who can get off with it. If your children are old enough, make them aware of anyone suspicious. Stay empowered and teach empowerment.
For those who are museum-inclined: I did insist on going to Florence’s Uffizi Gallery about five years ago. (Be sure to make museum reservations online; most are closed on Mondays). Our eldest was in second grade and had studied Leonardo da Vinci, and I wanted him to see the Grand Master’s original works. When we arrived at our scheduled time, the kids could have cared less about Leo; they preferred lying on the museum floor, sketching Botticelli paintings with the colored pencils and paper I had stashed in the stroller. My heart melted. It’s my best Florence memory ever.
Tips for Having Fun
The more open you are to sharing experiences with your child, the more fun you will have. Years ago, my husband and I were invited to a late dinner with Italian friends … at 1 a.m. We arrived, with a 4-month-old in tow, and he slept the entire time.
Use the jet lag to your advantage. Europe stays up later than we do, especially in the summer. Throw the nap routine out the window and let the kids nap in the stroller, train or car. Keep your kids up a bit later than normal and explore after the hot sun has gone down. One year, we couldn’t handle the midday heat of Rome and its sights, so we toured the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps at midnight. The kids had a ball, running around and splashing in the fountains without the mobs of people. The children have become pleasant companions because they know we are learning and enjoying as well.
The greatest part about traveling with my children is the life lessons they have learned. They have gained patience from long flights, train rides and bus waits. They stay safe by staying alert, holding hands and sticking close to us and to our belongings. They make friends easily, read maps, walk long distances and haul luggage. They apply what they have seen in person to the subjects they are learning in school, and they are now great classroom participants. They are flexible, they eat what is placed in front of them, and they don’t limit our adventures.
Best of all, they have become explorers, and the world is now a smaller place for us all.
Elaine Weigand Murphy is an Alameda freelance writer and mother of four.