How to Plan European Travel with Kids
Some of the biggest arguments against taking kids on vacation at all are convenience and cost. And depending on the age of your kiddos, your pace will vary, along with your tolerance for zoo admissions prices and never-ending ice cream cones. But European travel opens kids up to amazing cultural experiences they don’t get in American life, and is worth the planning burden it takes to do it right.
It’s true that taking kids along slows your itinerary and adds to costs.
But where have you been? Slow travel is all the rage anyway. It’s ideal for parents who can swing it, and adds to the experience for all. If you can’t, c’est la vie — seeing the sloths at the zoo never hurt anyone, and adults can soak up culture as they figure out how real families live in the places they visit, not just how museum admissions lines are structured. So much of traveling with kids involves controlling adults’ attitudes and going with the flow, making sure they absorb your positivity and sense of adventure. Even when you’re racing, there are some good tips that will help you get the most out of your experience.
Before you go, start here.
Europeans are great travelers. EU countries are guaranteed 4 weeks paid vacation each year. Spain and Germany offer 34 days of paid holiday, and France and Spain come in close with 31 days. August is notoriously under-productive as families take off to enjoy their beach time.
What this means is that family accommodations are ubiquitous in European holiday destinations. Hotels are used to cribs and chains will always have kids’ menus, in spite of the cultural myth that Europe has no children’s menus. Children do eat what adults eat, but picky eaters are often accommodated by healthy offerings. In Italy, thin, non-greasy pizza with fresh ingredients makes many happy. Plain pasta is available at any restaurant. Juices, cheese, and baguettes are in the cases of all the chain offerings in train stations. If they can live on it at home, it’s certainly no shock to the system to live on it in Europe.
Even in grab-and-go coffee places, my vegetarian made do with Capresi sandwiches in many countries. It may not be “adventurous,” but it was a little branching out, and we survived.
Very picky? Croissants. Or grocery stores. Everyone gets a carrot, an apple, and a roll. Restaurants are more difficult, but much of Europe is very piecemeal, with deconstructed food kids generally love at home anyway.
Comforts of Home
For some, it’s the lure of McDonalds. Perhaps you’re stuck eating hamburgers and salads at that awful Hippopotamus place that mirrors American Applebees. For us, it’s Starbucks.
One option is to limit these options to avoid crankiness and recharge without wasting precious time in a beautiful place hiding in American booths with fries.
We quickly learned that Starbucks wasn’t the bit of home we were craving anyway — wifi is not a given, and is often more easily found holding up one’s phone and wandering from local storefront to local storefront. When there is internet, it often requires a text confirmation (in other words, we’re left in the technological dark).
Further, there are no bagels in European Starbucks. So disappointing. Other chains are likely to have changes that make the trip not worth kids’ while anyway — take advantage of these shortcomings to try it out, then explore the local! We learned so much from the sub-par Starbucks choices! (Except the UK; you guys rock. We suggest bagels).
Hotels are often small and need to be contacted ahead of time to make sure they’ll have kid accommodations, for example, if you need a roll-out crib to fit in the room with you.
Build hotel breaks into the normal hotel routine — swimming pools are great, and in the summer, many world-class hotels have family activities like films, face painting, stargazing, and kids’ clubs.
If the hotels are wearing thin (and sleep is hard to come by), consider a home rental or housesitting. If you plan ahead, these gigs (not all of which accommodate families with children) can offer all the comforts of home, including the space kids have to stretch their legs in the yard, plus kitchen facilities and a built-in pet you can sit. Check out Housecarers.com (not always big on Euro offerings), Mindmyhouse.com, and trustedhousesitters.com are the big players in this game. All have annual membership fees and different levels of user-friendliness. Trustedhousesitters, for example, is easy to use, looks professional, and costs the most. It also has the most offerings. Using sites like these means keeping travel flexibility and planning way ahead, however.
Europe is big on renting apartments, and with small rooms, it may be less expensive with far more perks to check out renting. They come with kitchen and sometimes laundry facilities, which can be a lifesaver and a time saver on long trips.
They’re all different, but many options cover families traveling together. Make sure everyone will be covered before choosing a plan — not all families count as families in the eyes of all insurers. However, many will cover children free with a paying adult.
There are two primary choices: the single-trip policy (generally short) and the annual policy (for multiple trips, this is the most affordable option).
Trip insurance typically covers baggage and cancellations.
Your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance should cover personal items that are stolen so long as they are with you (not at home in storage, for example).
Renting a car? Your home insurance is typically best, and supplemental insurance can even leave you less covered. It’s tricky, so research your policy or call your agent.
Health coverage is another monster. U.S.A. policies typically prefer you get to the nearest emergency room, and pay for admissions and reasonable treatment. However, you need your paperwork and should know ahead of time what kinds of services are not covered. For example, if you come down with a sore throat, can you access a physician? Would insurance pay for the emergency room? What about antibiotics? Typically, only true emergencies are covered if you believe your life is in danger. Any additional care abroad, following that ER trip, would not be covered. Expect you will have to pay for services at the time they’re rendered and seek reimbursement back home, even if you do believe you’re covered.
For travelers who depend on Medicaid, you’re out of luck, including children.
Transportation: Getting there happy
I’ve mentioned before that travel by train is ideal with kids. They get to stand up, walk the cars, go have lunch, come back, stand, dance, look out the window, and basically have a lot more freedom than they would cramped on airplanes. Kids also have shorter eustachian tubes that can make them more uncomfortable on flights than adults, so train rides minimize the pain while making the journey an experience in itself. All this freedom of movement comes with another benefit: friends are easily made on trains.
You aren’t going to be able to take a train from North America, sadly. There are plenty of tips out there for long-haul flights and kids, but I’ll share two of my favorites:
1. Stop-over! New York City is a lovely midpoint where, if time is no object, you can minimize the pain of a long-haul flight as well as its ensuing jetlag. Iceland is another one, with stopover buddies at the ready to help you enjoy the sites of this charming country that’s kid-friendlier than you think.
2. Stay longer! You never know how well they’ll sleep on the plane and what kind of jet lag everyone will be facing when they arrive, so take it easy and make sure your schedule isn’t packed the very first day. In order to make it to Europe and back with children under the age of 10, I think your vacation needs to really be at least two weeks long. Don’t push it.
European Travel’s Kid-Friendliest Sites
This is the best part of planning, isn’t it? There are plenty of spots your kids can help you plan, and I’m sure bloggers and neighbors alike will have suggestions for you, too. In Europe, we love the pastry-filled streets of Prague, the carnival atmosphere of Monaco, and the zany but culturally familiar Scots. Older kids may like Northern Ireland’s popular Game of Thrones tours while that same kid at 7 may prefer the Roman and Parisian catacombs.
As the chief planner, a lot of time is eaten up figuring out where to and what next — and this takes a toll. If you can involve the kids ahead of time and are on a short itinerary, let everyone have a chance to visit their preferred attraction or city. It’ll make your job easier as well as making everyone feel they have a stake in the trip. Even small kids can get involved — “castle or pie this afternoon?”
Above all, get as much planning as possible done ahead of time and enjoy the ride once you are traveling. After all, it’s not as glorious to be walking the streets, pushing a stroller, looking for non-existent bagels, and scrolling trip advisor on roaming data!