Does thinking about traveling with your kids in Europe’s bustling, crowded cities cause you to tremble in fear and curl up in a fetal position? Relax, one of our mamas shares her tips to help you brave a city break with your kids. Here are her 10 lessons learned on city breaks with children in Europe.
Over the past three years, my family has made a public spectacle of ourselves in almost every major European city. And we’re not done yet.
In the name of “taking advantage of our time in Europe,” we’ve been dragging our three children all over the continent, with the hopes of exposing them to Europe’s rich history, culture, and as our kids say, “boring old buildings.”
The learning curve has been steep, but in the midst of mishaps, fiascos, and wrong turns, we’ve stumbled upon a few successful practices, and occasionally even enjoyed ourselves. Here are the top 10 lessons we’ve learned along the way.
1.The Best Preparation You Can Do is Not What You Think
It’s also something I only recently learned myself. For our trip to Italy, knowing our itinerary would be heavy on museums and cathedrals, I ordered some books for children about the places we would be visiting. My kids seemed to enjoy them, but I was still amazed when we arrived and in between the usual whining and complaining there was excited recognition and enthusiasm, even from my usually uninterested ten year-old. It ended up being our most successful trip so far, and that is something I wish I had been prepared for.
Don’t assume that you can take your children to the Louvre, the Colosseum, or Westminster, and expect that they will intrinsically appreciate the experience. So in all your preparations and planning, make sure to prepare your children, by exploring your destination with them through children’s books, movies, and websites.
Best bet: Purchase or borrow both fiction and nonfiction books intended for children, and with plenty of pictures. I highly recommend books from the Magic Treehouse series, all of M. Sasek’s beautifully illustrated books, and the Not-For-Parents Guides. If you really want to pique their interest, pretend to hide the books while saying loudly, “I sure hope the kids don’t find these books and read them.”
2. Things Will Go Awry
All the planning and preparation in the world can’t ensure a stress-free trip, and children add a special layer of unpredictability. Even the best holidays have those moments when you miss your nonrefundable train by minutes, when child A throws up in public, child B wets the hotel bed, child C screams at you in the Picasso museum, or when your partner is absorbed in trying to get that one perfect photo while you save your children from being run over by rogue mopeds. Still, I wouldn’t trade my travels with my kids for anything, even the bad times. I recall an epic meltdown in Munich, complete with tears, wailing, and utter despair— and my children rallied around me, sweetly trying to reassure me while I broke down in the middle of a busy street. Eventually, you’ll either forget about it, or laugh about it.
Repeat after me: at some point, things will go awry. Accept it, embrace it, maybe even videotape it for blackmail purposes in the future.
3. The Three Rules for Itineraries
1. Allow everyone over 5 years old to choose at least one thing to do, within reason.
2. Start things off with something exciting. In Paris, visit the Eiffel Tower first, go for the gondola ride in Venice, or head straight to Castle Rock in Edinburgh. Do the things that give you a good feel for the city, or that will give you a spectacular view.
3. After the big bang, schedule in some down time; the kids and you will need breaks. Learn to appreciate the art of people-watching while your children play at a local park, or even better, take turns with your spouse or partner going out on your own (a little alone time might be appreciated after a few days of non-stop togetherness). When you do venture out to one of those, ahem, less-enticing attractions (read museums), always check their website for any children’s activities, packets, or audio guides that they offer, usually for free or very low cost.
Hard-earned wisdom: You know what they say about Alpha and Omega. Well, when it comes to traveling with children, it's really just about the Alpha, because it’s likely you’ll be too exhausted by the Omega. And while you’re at it, go ahead and order the dessert first.
4. Avoid Lines at All Costs
That is, unless your children are line aficionados, then by all means, stand in every line you can. Otherwise, check the website of each place you want to visit to find out if you can buy tickets in advance, sometimes well in advance (I’m looking at you, Eiffel Tower). If you are not able to buy tickets online, the general rule is the closer you are to opening or closing time, the less likely you will stand in line or deal with crowds. Sadly, there will be times you will be unable to avoid either. For such times, there is chocolate.
Don't forget: to print out the tickets, or to put on your best smug expression as you’re walking past the masses standing in the line.
5. Consider Backpacking
Yes, really! Once your kids are old enough that you no longer need to take the entire nursery, consider packing as light as possible and carrying it all on your backs. Backpacking allows you to keep your hands free, makes you think twice before buying anything, and is the best way to travel. The downside may be occasional sore shoulders, but that beats lugging a suitcase with one hand while you try to corral your children with the other, keeping another hand on your wallet, and- wait, you’ve run out of hands. Laundromats, apartments with washing machines, or even a hotel sink in a pinch, make it easy to make due with just a few outfits each. We have traveled with our simple, everyday backpacks, but if you are going to do an extended trip or a lot of walking with your packs on, consider borrowing or investing in an actual backpacking pack with a frame and lumbar support belt.
If you’re still not convinced: While getting off a boat in Norway, we watched another family struggle awkwardly with their luggage, while we waltzed down the plank, backpacks on our backs (yes, even the 4-year-old), holding hands and singing Kumbaya. And you will be too when you discover the joys of backpacking.
Bonus list of things I absolutely cannot live without: conditioner (often not available in European hotels), a stash of small notebooks and markers for restaurants, and a barf bag (or two).
6. Electronic Devices: a Blessing and a Curse
We almost never travel with our laptops anymore, but find an iPad or tablet to be a life saver with the kids. It’s our all-in-one computer, movie player, library, and white-noise machine (so helpful for sleeping in new places). They can quickly become a headache though, so establish clear rules in advance regarding taking turns, time limits, when they will be allowed (only after everyone is dressed and ready in them morning, for example), and what the consequences are for non-compliance.
Happy memory: I once found myself yelling in exasperation, “We did not come to Morocco to play video games!” An unplugged vacation just might be the best option for your family.
7. Bribery Done Right
I'm a fan of offering incentives; they are your trump card for those times when it will be most difficult for children to behave, such as at museums, cathedrals, and any place you will encounter statues of naked people. The trick is to avoid vague requirements. Instead of saying, “If you’re good today I’ll buy you a treat,” specify the exact behavior you want, in which place, for how long, and for what outcome.
Helpful examples: "We're going to be riding the Metro a lot today, and I’ll give 10 minutes of extra iPad time to any kid who sits quietly on the train.” Or, “I’ll buy an ice cream for anyone who doesn't say 'stupid' or 'poopy' while we're in the Louvre."
8. The Two Items Kids Need to Have Control Over
In Paris, nothing made our kids happier than getting a hold of our cell phones to take pictures. And of course, nothing made us more nervous than our kids having free rein with our cell phones. For our next trip, each child was given an inexpensive digital camera to take blurry pictures to their heart's content. I think it's Newton's 4th Law that a body preoccupied with taking pictures will forget to whine and complain that it doesn't like all the things it is taking pictures of. Can't argue with science, people.
Bonus: Some of their pictures might be better than yours.
Another thing kids need for their own: money. Having a small amount of spending money for souvenirs and treats just might make them realize, miraculously, that they don't actually reallyreallyreallyreallyreally need that 10th miniature Eiffel tower after all, and spares you from listening to constant requests to buy things. “I don’t have money to spend on that, but you have your own money to spend” is a favorite phrase of mine. Decide if they have to earn the money in advance (or along the way), or if you will give them a small amount as an allowance.
Best bet: Grandparents often are willing to chip in some cash if they know they will get a postcard. And it’s perfectly fine to set limits on the kind of things they can buy (e.g. unless you’re in China, you can’t buy anything made there).
9. Best Bet for Souvenirs
The first time that my kids asked for one of those pressed-coin souvenirs, I emphatically let them know what a waste of money they were. You pay 2 euro(!), and then literally destroy a 5 cent coin by getting a picture stamped on it. “You might as well just throw your money away,” I told them. Now that we’ve been to many of Europe’s major tourist sights, and consequently, myriad souvenir shops, I know a little more about throwing your money away. Most of the high priced, low quality chotchkies that we’ve bought have ended up in the garbage. Had I considered that a collection of coins with pictures of the places we’d visited could become a treasured memento from our travels, and that 2 euro is actually a bargain for a souvenir, I would never have been so dismissive. Pressed-coin kiosks are at every major tourist site in Europe, and kids will love searching them out, and adding to their collection.
Hot tip: Look for a nice, keepsake box along the way. As a bonus, you can use the coins as an object lesson in physics.
10. What To Do in Case of a Meltdown
When your child throws a mammoth tantrum in the middle of a crowded World Heritage site, do not acknowledge that you are related to them in any way. Just keep repeating, "Don't worry little girl, I’m sure we’ll find your mother."
Three words: Emergency chocolate stash.
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Donna Bardsley lives in Amsterdam, and is the travel-loving mother of three homebodies who hate to leave the house. You can read about her family’s adventures and misadventures, complete with bad cellphone photos and snarky commentary, at www.bardsleyland.blogspot.com. This article is based on a post found here.
photo credit: Donna Bardsley