Consider these expert tips for planning happy family trips to Europe.
By Dina Harrison
What you loved about Europe as a twenty-something backpacker won’t be what works with your family: Museums, shopping, bars, long meals, people watching – these activities are the bane of most children’s lives.
We’ve been lucky to visit many of the most popular European destinations over the past few summers, with San Sebastián, Barcelona, Portugal, Italy, and Croatia ranking as some of our favorites. Along the way, we’ve come up with some tips for what works – and what doesn’t – when crafting an itinerary and a long-term plan for visiting The Continent with your kids.
- You Choose the Destination… Figure out what countries you want to visit and what appeals to you. Then work on drumming up interest with the kids. If you’re happy, they’ll be happy.
- …Then Involve the Kids Show your children photos, books, and maps about where you’re going. After a few trips, my kids now read the Lonely Planet children’s books about the countries we’re aiming for. I ask them to pick one spot that interests them, and sometimes I have to say “sorry” when a cool spot is too far away.
- Alternate City and Country We typically spend 4-5 days in a big city where there is a lot to see, then move to a beach or mountain town for relaxing and recharging. In ten days, we did Barcelona and then Costa Brava for some beach time, which was a perfect mix. If that’s not possible because of the destination, think about access to local parks, a hotel or apartment with a pool, or what other amusements are nearby for the kids. Something like a carousel could keep the little ones happy for an hour or two and buy the parents some time at a museum in exchange.
- Minimize Travel Days During that Barcelona trip, we were tempted to add Northern Spain but that would have burnt most of a day traveling. To Americans, everywhere in Europe seems so close that it is tempting to add more and more cities to the itinerary. Consider how much time you’ll spend traveling to the place vs. being in the place. Ideally, stay 3 nights in one place, minimum, and keep travel days to less than 10 percent of your trip.
- Minimize “Climate” Changes Beach + fancy city + mountains = too many clothes to pack. If you’ve got to slice something from your itinerary, consider sticking with two “climates.”
- Adjust to Local Schedules Try to assimilate to the time as soon as you board the plane. If it’s midafternoon when you take off but bedtime where you are going, try to go to sleep. (We do give a little melatonin to our kids to help them get sleepy, but that’s a personal decision.) In “night owl” places like France and Spain, we tend to sleep until late morning, return for a midafternoon siesta, and stay up well past midnight. If you can immediately match the schedule of the locals, you won’t miss out on any of the fun (and what kid doesn’t want to stay up past midnight?!)
- Don’t Bite Off Too Much A real European vacation is not Chevy Chase driving around London saying “Big Ben…” “Parliament…” and checking off boxes. There is no prize for checking the most boxes – but there is a real chance you will burn out and your kids won’t develop a love of traveling. Pick your top 3-5 things you want to see in each city. Then see just those – and don’t jam them all in one day, either!
- Turn on Your Phone Even though it can be expensive or a hassle, Eruope is one destination where it makes sense to consider activating your cell service. I use our cell phones all the time for photos, Google Maps, transport schedules, and dinner reservations. You can also buy museum tickets on the fly in many places. Which means you’ll need decent coverage even if you don’t have WiFi. You’ll also need an external charger you can throw in your bag so you don’t have to head back to the hotel when you hit 20% battery. My cell phone has let me book museum tickets while standing outside a museum in Madrid, get directions using the train in Barcelona, and find a dinner reservation in Prague. It’s also let me book a private guide within minutes in Rome!
- Buy Advance Tix for Big Stuff The main sights in Europe are mobbed with tourists all year long. So, for example, as soon as you know which three days you’ll be in Rome, book the Vatican Museum tour (but avoid Mondays; most other museums are closed Mondays, which makes the Vatican super crowded that day.)
- Structuring a Day of Adventure After grabbing a bite of breakfast, we try to do our most “adult” (read: potentially boring) activity first. Whether it is a museum, church, or historical site, the kids will be most awake, least whiny and not yet have tired feet. Then we usually grab a late lunch and a siesta – just like the locals. In the early evening, we rally and head out for a walk, a cocktail for the adults, some sidewalk or park for the kids, and then end the day with a late dinner. Rinse and repeat.
- Tour by Bike If your kids crave movement when trapped in a big city, take a bike tour to see the best sights and keep them moving and happy along the way.
- Track Steps Get your kids a smartwatch that tracks their mileage. My kids both get so excited when we end up wandering about 6-10 miles a day! And they always want to beat the previous day’s record. A tracker can keep the kids going and let you take a turn around one last block, church, museum, or shopping street.
- No Plans? No Worries I’ll be honest. Though some of my friends book months in advance, we tend to book our summer travels at the last minute – up to two months in advance, max. (Keep in mind, however, that Europe in August can be impossibly full, and even June and July seaside spots tend to fill up by May.) We watch for the best deals and stay flexible about where to start our trip and how we’ll move around. It’s Europe – it’s all good!
Dina Harrison – July 2019
Like ambassadors of adorable, Dina’s two-of-the-cutest-kids-you’ll-
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