Europe with Kids
Many of you will be traveling to Europe or planning a trip to Europe with children in the near future. I thought you might find this excerpt from my book, Come Fly with Me helpful. Europe is really fun at any age and is one of my favorite places to visit. A trip with children is very different than a trip with adults, but can be just as much fun. Bon Voyage!
For Europe, kids need to be able to sit on the eight-hour flight, so I would recommend they be at least four years old for that. Don’t get me wrong; I have done it with younger kids, and it is possible, just not very enjoyable. The age recommendation also depends on what you are doing once you are there. If you are going to see cities with museums, I think seven is the youngest I would recommend. If you are going hiking in the Alps or having picnics in the countryside with a few gardens thrown in, kids can be three or four. If you are just going to museums, the children need to be at least thirteen.
This is the most challenging continent on which to entertain both kids and adults at the same time. The adults want to go to the fabulous museums and castles and eat multicourse dinners in the wonderful fine-dining restaurants. None of that will appeal to kids of almost any age. However, life is about compromises, so this is one trip where both parents and kids need to compromise.
You need to view Europe as a cultural experience for the kids, no matter what they see. They do not need to spend five hours in the Louvre, and they do not need to visit every must-see sight. You do need to take them to wax museums, aquariums, nature museums, or maybe even Euro Disney. Find things that kids like to do and mix them in with things that you like to do. You might go to a museum in the morning followed by a toy store or aquarium in the afternoon. Also, don’t try to pack in too much. Figure out your kids’ interests and plan on doing at least one kid-oriented thing and one adult activity each day. Kids might like:
Modern art museums
Picnics in the country
Biking or hiking
When tackling museums, don’t feel that you have to see the entire museum. Do an hour at most. This gives the kids a snippet of culture without having them hate you. Make sure you get your tickets ahead of time online to avoid waiting in line for an hour. Depending how old your children are, the audio tours at museums are usually very good. You can also check out http://www.sound-guides.com or other audio tours available for MP3 players, iPods, etc.
There are a couple of memberships and websites to check out depending on where in Europe you are going:
http://www.alata.it—Prescheduled appointment for St. Mark’s .
http://www.florenceforfun.com —Membership to museums in Florence.
http://www.freelondonlistings.co.uk—Free events in London.
http://www.royal-oak.org – Membership for entry into castles in Great Britain
http://www.hrp.org.uk – Discounts on admission to five of London’s palaces
Any kind of family can enjoy Europe. If you want to relax, go to the mountains or the sea. If you want activity, try biking or hiking through Europe. If you like to see tourist attractions, go to the cities.
Europe is not the easiest vacation because they have different systems and different languages, and it is far away. The flights are not the easiest because, depending where you live, they can be eight hours or more. Then you have the jet lag that makes you very tired for a few days each way. However, if you gear the trip with your family in mind, you will have a wonderful experience.
Europe is expensive. There are ways to cut costs, but it is among the most expensive of trips. The cities are more expensive than the country. You can cut costs on accommodations, but you still have the airfare. Make your arrangements as far in advance as possible.
Hotels in Europe are often small. If you have three children, it is often hard to fit in a cot. Think about whether you want to find a European-feeling hotel or a newer, more Americanized hotel. There is no right or wrong answer here. The pros to an American hotel would be that children could find food they like and watch American TV, and you could probably fit three kids in a room. If you go with the European hotel, you will get more of a flavor of the culture. Sometimes these hotels are filled with antiques, allow smoking, and serve only European food.
I have visited Europe several different ways. I have gone on our version of European Vacation, traveling from city to city. I have gone on a ten-day bike trip and seen the countryside of France. Many times, I have gone to one city for a week or so. If you have less than two weeks, I would try to stay put with kids and learn as much as you can about the region. It will be more enjoyable and less stressful.
Tips and Suggestions:
Do Europe in chunks rather than all of Europe in six weeks. Spend a week or two in a couple of cities or countries. This holds kids’ attention better and they can tolerate seeing museums for a week. It also immerses them in the culture more than the twenty-countries-in-twenty-days trip. Start with countries that your kids have studied in school or appeal most to them.
Western Europe is a good place for families to start. The food is easy in Italy. Venice, with its gondolas, is really fun with kids. London’s Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, and Big Ben are seen in many movies and are monuments children recognize. The Eiffel Tower is fun because it symbolizes France and offers panoramic city views. The castles along the Loire are good for older kids. If you have outdoorsy, energetic kids, hiking in Switzerland or Austria can also be great.
In general, I think the countryside in Europe can be easier and more relaxed than the cities. You can see how cheese or chocolate is made and have picnics, tour some castles, and get to know the culture.
Most kids are more interested in architecture than art. They really haven’t studied art until college, so the history and prestige of art museums are not as interesting to most kids. They like the culture and notice things you don’t, which makes traveling with them so much fun.
What to do
There are so many fun things to do in Europe that I can’t begin to list them, but here are some suggestions:
France—Paris, Loire Valley, Provence
Italy—Rome, Florence, Venice, Amalfi Coast, Sicily, countryside
Switzerland—Geneva, any ski resort
One thing people seem to worry about is what their kids will eat in Europe. This is not a problem as long as you don’t force things on them or pick restaurants that are not appropriate for kids. In France, for instance, almost every town has a bistro, which is a more casual restaurant that serves pasta, croque-monsieurs, chicken, and beef, etc. The items on the menu may be unfamiliar to your kids, but these bistros can all make grilled cheese and pasta with butter and cheese. Pizza in Europe is different from our pizza, but sometimes it is OK. The other thing to expect in Europe is fabulous desserts.
Don’t stress if for one week your kids eat more desserts than they should. If they don’t eat everything on their plate, don’t worry about it. Move on, and go have a crepe or french fries. Occasionally, you can even go to familiar destinations like McDonald’s and Starbucks, though be aware that they serve different food and are not the same as their counterparts in the United States. View it as a cultural experience—seeing how familiar restaurants and stores are different in other countries. In general, I would just relax and not have strict rules while on vacation. I always try to get my kids to eat some new foods. Sometimes I am successful and other times not, but it is worth a try.
Liz and Mike Kohler