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2014 Feb

Europe with Kids

Never again, my husband, Peter, said when we returned from a month-long trip to Europe with our three sons a few years ago. I cringed when he said it, thinking about the thousands of dollars the trip had cost, and wondered where we had gone wrong.

Happily, after a short recovery period, Peter and I both agreed that the trip had been an amazing experience for all of us, but we learned a few lessons—the hard way—that have made subsequent trips abroad much more pleasurable. If you’ve ever wondered about visiting Europe with your kids, I say, “Just do it!” But before you go, here are a few tips that will make your trip less stressful and more fun!

PLANNING YOUR TRIP

First, a month-long trip to Europe is just too long. My family held up pretty well until that last week, when frayed nerves, tired bodies, and homesick feelings turned us all into grouches. Three weeks, we decided, would have been perfect.

Make sure you plan your European trip well in advance. I thought booking our plane tickets in March for a June departure was early enough to get the best fares. Turns out the cheapest seats had already been sold. My travel agent said savvy travelers scout out good summer fares as early as January.

When you book your tickets, you’ll decide which arrival city in Europe to fly into. Consider this choice carefully. We decided on Paris, having booked a hotel there the first two nights. While Paris is a beautiful, vibrant city, one everyone should visit, we were suffering from major jet lag during our stay and found ourselves sleepwalking past some of Paris’ most beautiful sights. Next time we’ll choose a relaxing destination where we can become acclimated to the time change in a peaceful setting.

Try to plan your trip to Europe in June. Since European children as a rule attend school through the end of June, you and your family can avoid the July and August holiday season. Prices are often lower, too, which is an added bonus.

WHERE TO GO

Next, try not to plan too much while in Europe. Granted, the countries all seem close together and the temptation is great to cram as much culture into your visit as possible. But it’s impossible to get to know a place if you breeze through it in a couple of days. We visited six countries during our month in Europe, barely skimming the surface of the places we visited, and ended up exhausted and overwhelmed by it all. In retrospect, we should have chosen two or three countries to try to get to know.

If it’s your first trip to Europe, consider visiting Great Britain or Northern European countries, such as Germany, Holland, Belgium, and Scandinavia, where most people speak English. And if you’ve never driven in Europe before, make sure you learn the basic road rules. Better yet, consider using rail passes if your children are old enough to carry their own knapsacks.

Do your research. Of course, it’s impossible to absorb everything you read online and in guidebooks, but try to learn basic historical and cultural background on the cities you plan to visit. Your children can be involved, too. Go to the library and check our books about the countries you will visit. Request literature from tourist bureaus. Soon large envelopes bursting with colorful booklets and helpful information will arrive in your mailbox, and your kids will share in the excitement of the trip.

WHAT TO TAKE

Here are a few essentials for a family adventure in Europe.

  • An iPad loaded with games and music can be invaluable. Just outside of Paris, Peter and I enjoyed an elegant lunch at Restaurant Fournaise—it’s the same restaurant captured by Renoir in his famous painting entitled Luncheon of the Boaters—highly recommended! As we relaxed on the terrace beside the River Seine, Scott and Jasper immersed themselves in their electronic games. Without those, I know our boys would have gotten fidgety fast.
  • Don’t forget your video camera. Many cameras are now equipped with video capabilities and are easy to use. Even our kids took videos during our travels.
  • Bring comfort foods from home. Of course, space is limited, but if your children have a propensity for pretzels, stow some in your bags. Stock up on drinks and fresh fruits as you travel. Kids’ needs are immediate, and you might find yourself in a pricey area with very thirsty kids. We paid $7 for a liter of orange juice at a late-night convenience store in Paris. Expensive, but our kids needed it. In fact, we all did!
  • Pack a backpack with some of the kids’ favorite things, but don’t overdo it. We had every kind of coloring and activity book imaginable for Scott and Jasper, and what did they want? A pad of plain paper to draw on. Luckily, we didn’t have to pay $7 for that!
  • Pack warm clothing even if you plan to visit in the summer. Most hotels in Northern Europe  don’t have air conditioning, and there’s a reason for that! It can be downright chilly even in the middle of the summer. We had to buy sweatshirts, jeans, and socks because we just weren’t prepared for the cooler temperatures.
  • If you have small children and can afford it, ask a teen you know to come along. Any young adult would welcome a chance to visit Europe and you’d have an extra pair of hands to help with the kids. Plus you and your spouse could enjoy an evening out now and then. Peter and I decided that not having a minute to call our own was one of the reasons our trip was so stressful.
  • Lastly, bring a sense of humor. Our family became separated while touring the Eiffel Tower. Scott, Jasper, and I hiked to the second story while Peter and Ross stayed on the first. While we had agreed to meet back on the first level, the older boys and I ended up going all the way down to the bottom because we hadn’t found Peter and Ross on the first. Well, two hours later after waiting expectantly as elevator after elevator emptied out, we saw Peter looking down from the first story. We shouted, “Peter! Peter!” He looked up, thinking we were calling down from the second level. We said, “Down here!” He said, “Stay there!” And finally we reunited as dusk fell. We were all starving and cold, but happy to be together. Now we laugh about it, but at the time it didn’t seem so funny.

ONCE YOU’RE THERE

One important element of any vacation—especially a trip to Europe with children—is balance. Make sure you arrange quiet time along with kid-friendly outings to balance out city-centered jaunts. During our last frazzled week, we found a lovely beach on the Belgian coast, where the sun and the sea helped restore our sanity. Include quiet activities, such as going to a beach or hiking along nature trails. Just checking in with Mother Nature does wonders for your spirits.

Picnic to keep costs down. Meals in restaurants, especially in touristy areas, can be prohibitively expensive. And children’s menus are a rarity! Plus, if your children are young and/or slightly rambunctious, eating in a restaurant can be an ordeal. Try to stay in hotels, hostels, or rental homes with kitchen facilities. One of our most memorable meals was eaten in our Paris hotel, where we dined on groceries bought at the supermarket a block away. We enjoyed a green salad, French bread, cheese, fruit, and paté. A delicious, inexpensive bottle of French wine provided the perfect accompaniment.

Renting an apartment or bungalow while visiting Europe is probably the single-most important advice I can give. Compared to staying in hotels, rentals can actually be less expensive and offer so much more to traveling families: a place to call home.

Expanding our children’s knowledge of the world around us is, of course, the primary reason for undertaking this kind of adventure. One poignant memory I have that in itself made our trip worthwhile is Jasper standing outside an ancient cathedral in Bremen, Germany, and saying, “Can we go in there, Mom?”

We’d already toured a lot of historic buildings on this trip, including many churches, yet here was Jasper, asking to go in another one. My precocious young son, who dotes on video games and rough-and-tumble antics with his friends, found something magical in the quiet stillness of these ancient cathedrals. They awakened a sense of peace and spirituality in him that he never knew he had. It was a magical discovery for all of us and one of many that made the trip worthwhile.

Bon voyage!

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and co-publisher of Tidewater Family and Tidewater Women magazines. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com