Tip Number 1: Leave them at home!
For real. Unless you have a few weeks on your hands, think about it. Do you really want to drag a jet-lagged toddler to the hours-long line at the museum you’ve always dreamed of visiting?
But you have your reasons, you say, and so do we. Since we’re living here in Europe for awhile, when we go on vacation, it’s usually on this continent. And it’s been great fun to explore as a family, although a bit different from how we’d do it as a couple.
On to the real tips. These are a few things we’ve learned to help maximize the fun and minimize the stress. Maybe these ideas will help you.
1) Consider the countryside or small towns over big cities
Don’t get me wrong, we’re not avoiding the biggest cities altogether, but in general we find it’s much easier to navigate smaller towns with small kids. The pace of life is a bit slower, and people seem more understanding of children. It’s easier to find your way around, which makes everything else a little less stressful. And of course, there are fewer crowds.
2) Rent an apartment, or look ahead for family rooms or suites
Can you sleep in the same room with your darlings? Well, lucky you. We can’t. Luckily, there are options for light sleepers like us. We’ve done a lot of house/ cottage/ apartment rentals. These allow more space for sleeping as well as cooking facilities and often laundry facilities, too. This is usually more affordable than staying in hotels, too.
It does take more work to find a rental than to find a well-known hotel. For me, the benefits are worth it. We have had success with the following websites:
This by far my favorite website when it comes to finding rentals because it’s well-designed, easy to use, and infinitely searchable. Covers every country all across the globe. In most cases, you rent directly from the owner.
National Gite Registry
This site used to have an English version, but currently I can’t find it to save my life—maybe it was removed? If you’re looking to rent in France, especially on a farm or vineyard, this site has everything. Google translate, if not completely fluent, is your friend.
Rent-a-Villa in Tuscany
This site/ agency is easy to use and designed for the English-speaking traveler in mind. An added bonus: you can order meals to be cooked in your villa—-so convenient with the kids.
I also hear good things about interchalet.co.uk. It’s another well-designed site, but I haven’t rented through it personally.
Rental options are often but not always limited to rental by the week. If you can’t find an option for a shorter stay, or you don’t need separate rooms, or you want a more full-service experience, look for “family rooms.” Hotels usually have limited numbers of these, so it helps to think ahead.
3) Book a fun place to hang out
Traveling with small children usually means you’ll spend some time sitting around while your kids sleep, whether for naps or at bedtime. We’ve found we feel a lot less trapped if we book a place that isn’t just a crash pad. If we can enjoy a view or sit on a pretty porch or balcony, we don’t mind (so much) having to settle in early for the night. Add a glass of wine and good book and you’re all set.
4) Plan ahead
We’ve found in general here that you’re expected to book anything (hotels, restaurants, museums) well in advance, and you might miss out if you don’t. This is not the land of the last minute. We recently booked a place two months in advance and were told it was a “last-minute” reservation. You’ll have a LOT better luck with restaurants if you make reservations a day or more ahead. Also, many popular attractions have a book-ahead option. You can reserve a time slot and save hours of line-waiting. Totally worth it.
While you’re thinking ahead, try getting the kids interested in the history or artwork of a place before your travel. It goes a long way in keeping their attention. Look for children’s books related to the city or country you’re visiting.
5) Beware safety issues
As an American, I was used to having lots of rules telling me where I could and couldn’t take my kids. You don’t find that much here. Often it’s nice, because you can make up your own mind. However, there have been times when we took our littlest one on an adventure that, in retrospect, probably wasn’t the best idea for him (i.e. high places with little in the way of railing). So, check things out before you climb because chances are, no one is going to stop you from doing something risky.
6) Research the local restaurant culture
Every country seems to be different on the whole restaurant scene, and it helps to know what to expect. In our year in Europe, we’ve found only one restaurant that provides crayons and a coloring page. Definitely bring your own. Some restaurants will have a children’s menu, but many don’t. We’ve gotten good at figuring out how to adapt a menu for children. Most restaurants will work with you on that.
While we’ve found establishments to be pretty tolerant of children, many just aren’t adapted for the under five set. In France and Italy, for instance, we found no restaurants that opened for dinner before 7:30 p.m., and a lot opened even later.
Also in France, you are expected, almost required (by the way the menu is set up) to order four or more courses. It’s fabulous, but it’s a long time to entertain your little ones while you try to enjoy the food. On our vacations we’ve done a lot of eating out for lunch and then making a light supper at our apartment.
Always make reservations. The best places get filled up quickly, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to stroll in and find a table. Unlike American restaurants, European ones often only take one seating per table per night, so once they’re all reserved, that’s the end of them. The nice part is that once you have a table, you can take as long as you like.
In addition to restaurants, make sure to visit the produce markets, which are a wonderful way to enjoy the local food with the kids along.
7) Together, learn (at least) the politeness words in the language of your host country
Not only is it fun, and, you know, polite, but words like “thank you,” “I’m sorry,” and “please” go a long way when your kids are laughing too loudly or diving under the table at a nice restaurant.
8 ) Think outside the tourist attraction
That museum you’ve always wanted to see? It may be a little hard to do with your little ones. Maybe you’ll want to swap off kid-duty with your spouse. Or maybe you’ll want to try what we do, which is to look for attractions that have an interesting outside component. This doesn’t mean limiting yourself to playgrounds and amusement parks, though those can be fun, too.
Many historic sights and even museums have outside grounds that are just as fabulous as the inside, if not more. Having a little space to run around can make all the difference between a great time or a stressful day.
Have fun planning your trip! If you enjoyed this post, you may want to read other posts about places we’ve enjoyed as a family in Europe: