Photos courtesy Travel with Kids
ET: How many times have you taken your kids along with you on a foreign trip, and where?
The kids have been traveling with us since before they could walk (they are 10 and eight now), so on many, many trips to places like the British Isles, France, Italy, Greece, Peru, Costa Rica, Alaska, Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean.
ET: At what age do you feel it’s worthwhile for children to be taken on an overseas trip to Europe? Please explain your reasoning.
I think each age has its own benefits and drawbacks. When they are babies they are easy to travel with (before they can walk) and babies seem to open up a whole new door with the locals…you will meet other parents and talk about universal issues and be introduced to a whole different world than a typical traveler…people love babies! The drawback is babies come with a lot of gear and long overseas flights can be tough with a crier. Toddlers are fun to travel with because you see things entirely differently. They are fascinated by everything and leave nothing unexplored. What we might see as a famous monument a toddler might see as a cool worm inching its way across a stone surface. It gives perspective to things and adds a playfulness you might not get with older kids. However, toddlers can be unpredictable, and you still have to deal with added gear and schedules. My favorite is school-age kids. They still see things differently: our boys spent a good 20 minutes watching an ant carrying a toothpick across the Parthenon last summer, but they are more able to comprehend the historical and cultural significance of destinations. They are learning about the places in school and they bring that with them as well. Plus, they don’t have as much stuff, and are able to carry their own bags and they actually want to spend time with their parents still. The drawback is that they are in school, so homework has to become a part of their trip as well. Pre-teens and teens, depending on what stage they are in, can still be excited by exotic destinations, especially if you put an adventurous spin on it (i.e., zip lining through the Amazon, hiking the Inca Trail), but they are harder to impress and a mopey teenager can put a damper on the vacation for everyone. But, don’t let this stop you, as they will appreciate it later, and it gives them a global view on life that many kids their age don’t have.
ET: Language differences may or may not be a big barrier to children on a trip to Europe when accompanied by their parents, especially when the children are younger. At what age do you recommend children study the language before they travel overseas, and how might they best learn a language, say, when they’re going over for only a week or two?
I always encourage travelers of every age to learn at least a few words in the country they are visiting. Saying “s’il vous plaît” in Paris will get you a much warmer reception than instantly assuming everyone knows English. And its fun for kids to practice the language with local kids. It is by no means necessary. There are very few places on earth that you can’t find at least one person who speaks English. However, if you plan on getting far off the beaten path, I would suggest a phrase book. There are lots of smart phone applications available as well now. We usually download one of those and practice a few key phrases in the weeks before the trip and while we are on long plane or train rides.
ET: Are there some things that are vitally important to take with you when you take younger kids along, that you may not find in Europe?
For the most part, you can find anything in Europe that you will need supply-wise. If there is a specialty item that is unique to your child, you may want to bring that…for example, a certain diaper rash cream for kids with sensitive skin, or a formula that your child needs. Also, any prescription medications. But don’t be afraid to try local things as well. Europe has lots of independent companies producing natural kids’ items that you can’t find in the States.
ET: What about the added expense by taking kids with you to Europe? Does it cost a lot extra to travel around, lodge and feed them?
Airline tickets are the main extra expense. Big hotels will be able to accommodate most small families in a regular room without additional expense. Booking a condo/apartment helps save on lodging costs and gives extra room for the while family to spread out. Plus, the kitchen can help save money on eating out. We usually do breakfast and sometimes lunch or dinner in the condo, but we like to eat out as well to get a feel for the local cuisine.
ET: Food. What do you suggest about finding “kid foods”– good, nutritious food at reasonable prices when overseas?
Go where the locals go. You don’t need to spend a lot to taste the local cuisine. The kids love street stalls. too. Just make sure to ask for guidance from locals to avoid getting sick. Crepe stands in Paris, panini cafes in Italy, pasty shops in England…all these foods let you get a taste of real local foods at a fraction of the cost of a sit-down restaurant.
ET: Can you recommend some special “kid-friendly” hotels in Europe, or cities or attractions that seem to especially cater to kids?
It’s not always the cities you would think that are exciting for kids. There doesn’t have to be an amusement park to interest kids. Our kids were fascinated by Venice, a city many people would not think of taking kids to. They loved taking the boats up and down the canals and wandering the tiny streets. Big cities are fun for kids, too. Paris and London are on the top of our kids’ destinations list. They love riding the tube and double decker buses and visiting big time attractions like the Eiffel Tower. Really anything can be interesting to kids if you prep them for it. Learn about a destination before you go. The kids learned about gladiators and Rome before we went to Italy, and it really came to life in Roman ruins all over Europe. They had a blast pretending to be gladiators in colosseums from Wales to Rome. Walks Inside Rome had a great tour with history on a kid’s level and a visit to Gladiator School…the kids learned from “real gladiators” how to fight with swords and defend against wild animals. Very fun! Many attractions have kid versions of audio tours, scavenger hunts, or something to engage kids. Just ask. If they don’t, you can always make your own. When the kids were younger (ages 5 and 7) we visited the Louvre. I was worried about keeping them interested, so I printed out pictures of some of the more famous exhibits and sent them on an art treasure hunt. They had a blast, and even enlisted the security guards to help them, and we enjoyed extra time at the museum.
As far as hotels go, apartment rentals are always great with kids. The apartments are often in local neighborhoods, so you get a better feel for local life. We rented apartments from Frenchy Rentals in Paris, a villa in Tuscany from Italy Perfect and apartments in Rome from Parker Villas. When we are staying in a hotel, we try to stay in family-owned, smaller hotels. These are usually located in the more culturally rich or historically significant parts of town. A lot of it is also about location. We don’t want to have to take a 20 minute taxi everytime we want to go into the old part of town. We like to be where the action is.
ET: Teenage tensions can be a problem. How do you handle this on a long European trip?
Lots of luck. Just kidding. Teenagers are a different breed, and since I don’t have any yet, I can’t give too much advice here. What I have noticed with my niece and nephews is that when they are out of their element (like you are in a foreign culture), some of that attitude fades away. I went on a trip to New York with my 15-year-old niece last year, and we had a blast. I asked for her input on everything we did, and I think that helped a lot. Let the kids (of all ages) help plan what you are doing. That helps them feel invested in the trip ahead of time and keeps them engaged while you are on the road.
ET: What foreign trips/areas might you not want to take your kids on and why?
I don’t think there are any areas I would say don’t take kids accept for areas I would not go myself because of dangers or violence. I guess there are some third world countries for which I would want to edit the itinerary. It would be very hard for the kids to comprehend such abject poverty. I might also stay away from long trips in which passengers are contained and there are no breaks. Kids who are cooped up and bored for long periods of time can get irritating fast.
Many people ask if I am scared to travel because of coverage they see on television. Fortunately, I have never felt any hostility from locals stemming from my being an American. In fact, quite the opposite. I have always been welcomed with open arms. When we traveled through the Middle East I was not sure what to expect, but everyone was very warm and welcoming. What you see in the news is not always how it is in real life. I would be cautious, of course, as things can happen when you travel, just as they could at home. Be aware of what is going on around you, ask the locals for perspective and trust your instincts.
ET: What do you suggest on a European trip if the parents want to occasionally go out alone in the evening and the kids need to go to bed. Who watches the kids?
Many hotels offer babysitting service. I have never used them as I would not feel comfortable leaving my kids with a stranger. However, I hear stories from other people who did this, and it turned out just fine. I would say that for me, the point of a family vacation is to spend time with your kids. At some point, they won’t want to hang around with us anymore, so I try to cash in on all the time I can with them now. Schedules are a bit more flexible when we travel. So, the kids stay up later which is just fine as the town squares in the evening are packed with families strolling and kids playing. It’s a time where we really get to know the locals, and the kids love it!
ET: What do you think is the most important thing to remember when going to Europe with your kids?
Take time to absorb it all. Often times when we travel (and I am just as guilty of it as anyone else), we pack in as much as we can. There’s so many wonderful things to see and do in Europe. And we end up moving so fast that we don’t take time to just sit and soak it all in. Sitting in the town square, watching life go by, is a great tradition in southern European countries, and it’s a great time to reflect and just spend time with your kids…time bonding and re-connecting with one another, which is really what it’s all about anyway.
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