Family Travel Made Simple

My kids are not what you’d call avid sightseers, so news that we were going to spend a summer vacation in Europe had them a little worried.

“Are we going to spend the whole time looking at old churches?” asked my 13-year-old daughter, Alexis, recalling a friend’s family trip described later as “like being in school.”

Let’s face it, while there’s a whole list of reasons we adults want to go to Europe — the museums, the sightseeing, the monuments — teens have an equally long list of reasons for preferring not to go — namely the museums, the sightseeing, the monuments.

In truth, they have a point. I would no sooner drag my husband to a week-long reading of Helen Fielding books than I would agree to a seven-day workshop on perfecting your putt. So it seems unfair to saddle my kids with a “vacation” focused solely on my love for historical ruins.

After a rocky beginning, however, I’m happy (and somewhat surprised) to say that our trip was a success and that my family loves Europe. In fact, we love it so much we can’t wait to go back.

Happiness starts with the right vacation style. I like museums and art. My husband wants to golf. Opt for balance. On the perfect vacation, I’d get my occasional castle, my husband would get some amazing restaurants, and my kids would reap the rewards in retail therapy. Letting your older kids help to choose the activities will have the extra added benefit of getting them more invested in the trip. Be clear, however, that this is a family trip (most parents I know are reluctant to turn kids loose in a foreign country before they’re 18) and that activities will be for the group.

Regardless of how well you’ve planned, a European adventure is still, well, foreign, and it pays to plan ahead, particularly with teens:

Discuss Exchange Rates: Teens are notorious for spending money — mostly yours. Make sure they understand the concept of “exchange rate” and that the price tag in pounds, for example, looks significantly lower than the actual cost in dollars that will appear on your credit card later.

Consider the Language Barrier: Foreign languages turn feeling lost into feeling really, really lost. You may not be ready to turn them loose in a foreign country (most parents I know save that privilege for post-high-school), but it’s a good idea to plan for the possibility of getting separated. Equip the kids with a dictionary, a few important phrases (“Where is the toilet?”) as well as the name and address of your hotel, preferably in writing, in case there’s a need to ask for directions.

Rent a World Phone (or two): As a parent of cell-phone generation children, I’m accustomed to keeping in touch with my kids, and I couldn’t imagine losing that luxury overseas. Just knowing you can contact each other is a comfort, even if you plan to stay together 24/7. Check out Cellularexpressphonerentals.com.

Give ’em Space: After a certain age, kids need their space — and you’ll need the freedom of not having to look at their clothes on the floor. Many companies specialize in apartment and house rentals overseas. Gite.come lists rentals in France; holiday-rentals.com features listings all over Europe.

Let ’em Stay Wired: Thanks to my husband’s computer, Alexis started every morning in London by IM-ing her pals back home. One day, we briefly hit an internet cafe. Many foreign hotels, such as the one we stayed at in Paris, have business centers with computers where, for a fee, you can access e-mail accounts from home. Worth it? Business center computer access: $20. Happy teenager after talking with friends: priceless.

Plug ’em In: The long flight gets longer if the in-flight movie is a dud or heaven forbid her I-pod loses its charge. Most airline websites have details of the plane’s interior details, right down to the power plugs at your seat, so you’ll know in advance if you can connect video players and chargers.

Equip ’em: Having girls, I know the perils or arriving anywhere without a hairdryer, flat iron, and an appropriate adapter. Do not make the mistake of plugging in said appliance without the adapter, or you will be buying a new hairdryer. Trust me.

One final note: Make the trip educational and choose a destination that lets the kids strut their foreign-language skills. Alexis is dying to try out the Spanish she’s been working on in school for seven years. Madrid, here we come!

Lisa Oppenheimer

Photo Credit: Jennifer Trenchard