OK, so you've decided to fly your family across the pond. Now what? Well, if you want to avoid National Lampoon-style pitfalls, read on for advice about where to go – and what to do when you get there – from a mom who has done it all...
1. In travel, as in real estate, location is everything. So it clearly helps to pick the right one from the get-go. If you check national tourism sites [http://www.towd.com/] you'll notice certain countries (Switzerland being a notable example) market themselves as child-friendly destinations. Ditto for some cities: for instance, the official websites for London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Rome all have dedicated sections aimed at families.
2. Avoid the urge to cover everything. It is tempting to try cramming in the entire continent, but a "This is Wednesday, it must be Belgium" tour is too exhausting. Instead, pinpoint one or two spots to serve as home bases; then explore the surrounding areas on daytrips. Search for ones offering a mix of indoor and outdoor activities, iconic sites, hands-on attractions, and plentiful parks or play areas.
3. When sketching out your itinerary, remember to build in time for rests and for running off steam (particularly early in the trip when jet lag may be an issue). Leave ample room for spontaneity, too. One of my best-ever memories involves an impromptu stop at a Sicilian circus complete with Don Corleone look-alikes and a rogue ostrich. It was unplanned – and absolutely perfect.
4. Prep your brood for the trip. Try teaching them a few foreign words ("please" and "thank you" go a long way in any language). It's also smart to stock up on books or movies set in your chosen locale. "Homework" for a French foray might include reading Ludwig Bemelman's Madeline books and watching Disney films like Ratatouille, The AristoCats or The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
5. Splurges like Legoland or Disneyland-Paris aren't the only ways to score points with kids. In Austria, we stumbled on Burg Mauterndorf: a castle with a tri-level playground built into the battlements. In Germany, we discovered Salzbergwerk where visitors don miner uniforms, slide down giant chutes and boat across an underground lake. Keep an eye out for your own ed-ventures.
6. Natural History museums and aquariums are perennial favorites, but don't underestimate your offspring's tolerance for art. Although mine thought Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum was a snooze, its vibrant Van Gogh Museum turned out to be a sleeper hit. And in Pisa, they found the Camposanto's gruesome frescoes depicting the Plague more enthralling than the famous Leaning Tower next door.
7. Take advantage of freebies. European museums usually waive entry fees for children (London in particular has a surfeit of free sites and there are loads of complimentary events on tap. Whatsonwhen.com is a handy resource for sussing out the latter: it is a database of festivals, spectacles and celebrations that lets you search by destination and date or browse by categories – including "Kids & Family."
8. Children do slow you down, so you might as well embrace the pace. To appease ours we have fed pigeons in Piazza San Marco, collected seashells on the Costa del Sol, played hide-and-seek among Malta's megaliths, and stopped to smell the roses (both proverbial and otherwise) in Paris' Jardin du Tuileries. Did we miss anything by lollygagging? Probably. Do we have regrets? Nope.
9. Don't forget your own needs. When you want a little peace, have the kids make a scrapbook from "found" items like brochures and tickets stubs. TV-viewing is fine too: after all, watching Kalle Anka (Donald Duck) in Swedish or Spongebob Schwammkopf in German is a cultural experience. For a real break, swap childcare duties so each parent gets some alone time or arrange a sitter so you get out as a couple.
Photo credit: istock/Acky Yeung