9 Tips for Taking the Kids to Europe

Posted by Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb on May 11, 2010 at 10:53:15 AM EDT | Post a Comment

Fodors.com Contributor

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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

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  • ajc67 on Aug 21, 13 at 05:39 AM

    I recently took my family to Santa Eulalia in Ibiza (Summer 2013), we were only there for 7 days but had a fantastic time - the only downside was the cost, it was expensive and in some cases it was more expensive than being at home in the UK!
    We are tempted to go back next year (2014) and would like to go for longer (10 - 14 days), however, yesterday I received a brochure from a company called Bolsover Cruise Club - http://www.bolsovercruiseclub.com and I found a 12 night Western Mediterranean cruise visiting 5 places including Palma & Lisbon which works out (cost wise) a cheaper option! I would have never thought that a 12 night cruise would be cheaper than a 12 night self catering holiday!

  • WTnow on May 23, 10 at 10:38 PM

    Families and Europe- what a perfect combination & there has never been a better time! We've been traveling all around Europe for the last 4 summers & it's been an amazing education. Love your tips about going slow and using books & movies to help prepare kids. Do Pack light too!

    Here are some tips that have helped us:

    http://www.soultravelers3.com/2010/02/15-best-tips-for-family-friendly-travel-airplanes-airports-vacation-roadtrips-long-term-family-trave.html#more

    And one of the best secrets in seeing Europe luxuriously on a small budget is Camping! We love it by RV, but every campsite has charming rental bungalows with every amenity. It's a fabulous way to meet other Europeans!! :

    http://www.soultravelers3.com/2010/05/camping-europe-in-a-motorhome-rv-5-best-sites-roadtrip-europe-family-travel-budget-best-price.html#more

  • lsdourte on May 14, 10 at 02:10 PM

    Great tips! My grandchildren have traveled with me to Europe, Southeast Asia, and New Zealand. We try to base ourselves in one city and do day or even overnight trips from the main city. I do use public transit, as you get to meet so many wonderful people, but we are VERY light packers, so it is not a problem to carry our luggage. All of our clothes must fit in one carryon, then the kids each get a school backpack to bring their toys, favorite stuffed animal, books, etc. This backpack also hold their souvenirs. I carry our electronics (camera, netbook, etc) in my daypack.
    Also, to save money, and to allow the little ones to run off steam, be sure to picnic with food bought at the market. Beside a river, in a park, or even in the garden next to the museum are all great spots where grownups and kids can unwind, relax, or run out their energy before heading off to their next amazing adventure.

  • mhgbrooklyn on May 12, 10 at 05:43 PM

    We've now taken two near-month-long trips to Europe with our son - first to Italy when he was two, and then last summer to northern Spain when he was four. We shared some of the strategies you suggested - especially #2 (avoid the urge to cover everything) and #8 (embrace the slower pace). We have a few other suggestions:

    1. Rent a car if you want to travel around and not stay put in one place - we found it much easier than using trains or buses since our little boy unfortunately does not help carrying the luggage.
    2. Don't drive for more than two hours, three at the most, in a day.
    3. Ice cream (or gelato) is the key
    4. Embrace the history and the details - our four year old in Spain loved to hear stories about the castles, Roman bridges, and old churches.
    5. Playgrounds - they are all over Europe, and you meet interesting people. We spent many hours in playgrounds all over Italy and Spain.

    You can read about some of the places we stayed with our boy on our website, http://www.darngooddigs.com, a guide to the world's best independently owned accommodations for budget-minded travelers. We pay attention to kid-friendly too.

  • Simthy20 on May 12, 10 at 06:37 AM

    Recently we went on a cruise to the Mediterranean the kids loved it so much that we have already booked the next one. WE booked a a great cruise deal for four with http://www.cruise.co.uk with P&O Ventura and the kids had this play area assigned to the kids ages and they meant so many more kids and even tea was arranged for them. So it made a great break for us as we didnt have to worry about what the kids are doing and they had lot of fun as well

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