- Idiots Abroad: Taking Small Kids on a Whirlwind Tour of Europe
- I Flew Ryanair and I loved it!
- Challenges of Vacationing With a Large Family in Europe, and More!
- German Castles, Ausfahrt Jokes and the Sound of Music
- Amalfi Coast, Pompeii and Pizza Galore
- The Long Way Home to Belarus… Literally
- Searching for Bono and Licking Donuts
As many of you know, we recently took our kids (ages 7 and 4) on a two-week trip to Europe. And it wasn’t just about going to one or two places and staying put. Here is a map of our travels:
Map provided courtesy of gcmap.com
And that’s just the flights (all 6 of them). There were numerous long car rides and some train, bus and boat travel too. We started in Fort Myers (Fl) and finished in Orlando (where I felt like kissing the ground when we landed). Majority of flights were covered via miles redemptions (see this post) and lodging consisted of house rentals and some paid hotel stays.
Some of you might be contemplating doing something similar next year. You may have enough miles, but just need the courage to pull the trigger and redeem them. I’m hoping to make the decision a bit easier for you to make. None of the information here is groundbreaking, but rather consists of my personal observations and experiences. Be aware, the post is monster-size. Here we go.
Think long and hard before deciding to take small kids to Europe
Surprised that a family travel-focused blog would say that? Look, I’ve never been very good at sugarcoating things. Taking small kids to Europe is very hard, or as my husband laconically put it: It s$cks. BTW the dollar sign is intentional (more on that later). Of course, it does depend on each individual child and their personality. But in general, prepare for a lot of hard work, lots of frustration and very little sleep in the first few days or even for the duration of the trip.
You will have to deal with your own jet lag and theirs’ as well. It will be 3 in the morning local time, and instead of sleeping, you might be entertaining them instead. Then during the day, you will have to deal with cranky monsters while trying to sightsee after getting almost no rest. After all, you paid all that money to experience Europe, darn it! Well, at least you will get rest when you get home, right? Think again. When you are back in US, they will be up at 2 AM. But you have to be back at work the next day!! Too bad.
None of it is meant to scare you. I am simply trying to paint a realistic picture of some of the difficulties you WILL encounter. Is it rewarding? Yes! But it is darn hard too. So why do I do it then? Simply put, I don’t really have much of a choice. My family lives in Europe. It’s really no different than you flying to another state to visit grandma, it just costs a heck of a lot more. Of course, the side trips were discretionary, but we would have had to cross Atlantic regardless. Also, Belarus ( my home country), is very hard to get to. We would have had to break up the trip and spend the night in Western Europe after outbound as well as inbound flights.
Be aware, in spite of all the effort and money spent, your kids will most likely not appreciate the rich cultural heritage of Europe. Mine were MUCH happier playing at a local playground than touring the ancient site of Pompeii. My daughter did enjoy the whole experience more than my son. For him, the recurring theme was: Go home. I have a feeling that it will not change with age. As I’ve said earlier, all kids are different, so don’t take my advice as gospel.
Make peace with the fact that not everyone will love your children. I know, crazy, right? You may get irritated stares from fellow travelers who don’t appreciate your daughter singing “Let it go” from the movie “Frozen” while in a check-in line at the airport. What the heck? They should be paying YOU to listen to your princess’ glorious voice! How dare they!
That taxi driver may ask several times that you don’t feed the kids in his luxurious, one-of-a-kind minivan. You may even get unsolicited advice from total strangers. I tried to get a bottle of Coke to the airport gate area by telling the officer that it was for my kids (partially true, though, it was mostly for my husband). You should have seen the disgusted look on his face while he unceremoniously threw it in the trash. He told me 3 times I should never, ever give kids Coke. Ever. I politely thanked him for his advice as to avoid *ahem* special kind of search.
The truth is, most people love children and will understand your predicament. You can only do so much to get your kids to behave on such a difficult trip. If others don’t get it, take comfort in the fact that you most likely will never see them again. Let it go. Someday, they may have kids too and will know what it’s really like (guilty!).
Thankfully, my in-laws were in Germany and Italy, so we had family to help us. Which brings me to my next point.
Take along relatives or a friend if you possibly can
I don’t think I could have handed this trip without help. While we were on our own during flights, at least, when we got to most of our destinations, we had people to lighten the load. I could get a peaceful shower while my husband was taking a nap, with the knowledge that the kids would most likely be alive when I go out. This is huge. It really made the trip bearable and even enjoyable at times.
I strongly recommend you bring your parents or relatives along even if you have to cover the cost via miles. You will probably have to take separate flights, but it’s actually not a bad thing, trust me. My kids were at each other’s throats quite a few times. Are your in-laws having a special anniversary? This could be a very nice present…for you .
Of course, when you involve other people, there will be conflicts. We had 9 of us sharing one house, and let’s just say, things weren’t always rosy. See the above comment from my husband, it applies here too. Still, having help was a wonderful thing. It also allowed us to cut down on costs. If you take in-laws along, you can rent an apartment, which will be marginally more expensive than a hotel room. Speaking of costs…
Prepare to spend a good bit of money
There really is no way around it. I’ve said many times that travel isn’t free. It’s an expensive hobby, and miles and points simply make it less expensive. You may get award tickets and even hotels covered, but there are dining, transportation, sightseeing and souvenir expenses. It all adds up, fast. Make sure you save up for these things, so you don’t end up in debt. There is nothing worse than making payments on a trip for months after it’s over.
Europe is expensive, especially most popular destinations. Dollar is strong right now compared to what it was few years ago, but traveling to Western Europe isn’t a steal no matter what anyone says. Dining costs are comparable to New York, San Francisco and other large cities in US. Of course, there are cheaper alternatives and mom-and-pop shops in the back of an alley, but here is the thing: Your kids may be hungry and not feel like searching for them. My advice is to just suck it up and spend extra money to make things go smoother. You will probably have to buy toys at every. single. turn. We did. Be flexible and realistic in your plans. Speaking of…
Obviously, this is the case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” We have crammed too much into this trip and everyone was exhausted as a result. Of course, looking back, I’m so glad we got to see all those incredible things. But it really bordered on insane at times. Case in point: The next day after landing in Germany, we had to drive 3.5 hours one-way to see Neuschwanstein castle. Then take a crowded bus and walk in the rain uphill.
To be fair, it was my sister-in-law who came up with this plan and bought the tickets ahead of time so there was no backing out. We spent 3 nights in Germany, and toured the whole region of Bavaria (in a 9-passenger van) and even went to Austria to visit Salzburg. That’s pretty ambitious even for a childless couple, no? I recommend you focus on two, maximum three places when taking your first trip to Europe with small kids.
At least neither one of us had to drive. Which reminds me…
Pick the most convenient transportation options, even if they cost more money
As I’ve just mentioned, we had a rental van that accommodated 9 while we were in Germany. It made the most sense to go with this option given our sightseeing plans. That said, we have no desire to ever drive in Europe. My husband hates driving, period, and gets sleepy at the wheel. Not a good combination for German Autobahn. This is our personal preference, of course, but we avoid going this route.
There are places in Europe where it’s super dangerous, like the Amalfi coast. My sister-in-law got a car to fit 5 and regretted it the entire time. My-laws were stressed beyond belief and were constantly worried about getting in a car accident. Thank goodness I didn’t let her rent a van for all 9 of us. That would be fun trying to navigate super narrow roads. Not.
But what about taking trains, you may ask? Well, this is what we did BEFORE we had kids. Now, when we land in Europe, we simply get a taxi. Sample fares: Naples airport to Sorrento cost us $220 roundtrip plus tip, Dublin airport to hotel was about $140 roundtrip. Yes, it’s expensive, but we find the convenience worth the price. I just don’t have the energy to deal with cranky, tired kids and all the luggage that comes with them, while waiting for a local train or bus, then walking to our hotel with all the paraphernalia. Of course, it means packing a booster or two. If one of your kids is still in a car seat, I recommend you wait to make the trip till he/she is big enough for a booster. Trust me on that one.
We did take my daughter to Europe when she was 18 months-old, so had no choice but drag the “beast’ with us. But I waited till my son was 4.5 years old to see my sister and nephews again. I simply couldn’t imagine trying to control 2 small kids and keep track of a car seat at the same time. For this trip we brought 2 Bubble Bum inflatable boosters with us.
My verdict: It’s a mixed bag. Even though, the booster passed highway crash tests, I never felt that my kids were adequately protected in those things. They were OK, just not great. I seriously considered buying a booster for my son while in Europe, but we simply had no room in our luggage. While Bubble Bum contraptions took little space, next time I will bring a real hard booster like Harmony Literider, and I think you should too. Of course, it will take up valuable space in your suitcase. Speaking of…
Be very selective about what you pack
Overall, I was happy with my packing strategy. We took 2 medium-size suitcases and two backpacks (strongly recommended) that we used as carry-ons. That way, our hands were not tied up when our children wanted to run all over the place. When we landed in Dusseldorf, we had to make a tight connection for our flight to Munich. The kids were both asleep, so we had to run through the airport while carrying two tired munchkins. You might have to do the same thing after your red-eye flight from US, so be prepared.
We also let kids bring a small backpack filled with toys, which they took turns carrying. Be aware, whatever you give them, will become your responsibility when kids get tired.
I absolutely recommend you limit your checked luggage to two suitcases if you have more than 1 child. I didn’t take my purse, but simply packed all the needed stuff into the backpack. When we got to our destination, I used a small collapsible duffel bag during sightseeing tours. Here are some items we packed into our carry-ons:
1) Two iPads for each of the kids and a laptop for my husband, stored in his bag.
2) Change of clothes for the kids and an extra shirt for me. After all, they could throw up or spill a drink and pick me as their victim. I also put my son in pull-ups during an entire trip. He is toilet-trained, but I felt it’s better to be safe than sorry. Indeed, he had a couple of accidents and pull-ups saved the day.
3) Wipes, several packs of tissues, lip balm, moisturizing creme, medicine, snacks and sippy cups. Once again, both kids use regular glasses at home, but this cut back on the mess substantially. Don’t worry about other passengers staring at you, nobody cares.
I strongly recommend you get spinner luggage. It’s easier to maneuver and doubles as a stroller for a kid when you are standing in a check-in line. Here is the one we have: Olympia Luggage Skyhawk 26 inch
We’ve used it on numerous flights, and so far, it held up well. Plus, it’s relatively inexpensive. Whatever you do, don’t buy super cheap luggage. It could turn into a nightmare with your stuff strewn about airport carousel. Side note: There are no affiliate links in this post, but you can choose to buy these stuff through my Amazon link in Support Me page if you want to.
The biggest challenge was the fact that we had to pack clothes for 2 different climates: Coats for Germany and Belarus and light clothes for Italy. Not to mention, two thirds of one suitcase consisted of presents for my family. So, basically, we had to stuff most of our junk in one 26- inch suitcase. And so we did.
I simply had to do laundry every single day. Fortunately, our rentals in Germany and Italy had a washer, and the first one even had a dryer (a rarity in Europe). It did take some effort, but was the best solution for our situation. Our village in Italy had a laundromat, but I simply hung the clothes outside. Thankfully, the weather cooperated. Here are some packing tips for your trip to Europe:
1) Avoid cotton since it takes a long time to dry. Try to stick with synthetic fabrics. Simply pack a light sweater for cool evenings.
2) Pack extra socks, underwear and shirts. Those are essential. Pants are bulky, but can be worn two days in a row as long as the weather isn’t super hot. We did just that, and it’s really not that big of a deal. No one commented on our smell or cared that we wore the same clothes from the previous day.
3) Use local laundromat if you need a dryer. Most towns in Europe have one, and it could make for some interesting interactions with locals. Plus, it would give you an excuse to leave the kids with your spouse at the hotel or rental, and get some quiet time all to yourself. #Winning
4) You will probably forget some things, and that’s OK. Half way to the airport I’ve noticed that instead of sneakers, my kids were wearing clogs (my oversight). They were constantly falling off their feet. We had to get expensive shoes in Europe. Don’t sweat the small stuff. That goes for everything in life.
The only items you absolutely can not forget are your passports and prescription medicine. Everything else can be replaced.
This trip was worth it… to us
In spite of all the difficulties, this was one of the most amazing and memorable trips we have ever taken. It was intense, crazy, frustrating and exhilarating two weeks of my life, that’s for sure. Life on steroids, just the way I like it!
Ironically, it’s the little/insignificant things that are the most memorable. When I asked my husband what he enjoyed the most on this trip, he said it was watching our son eat a donut and drink chocolate milk on the steps of a gas station in a small village of Dalkey, Ireland. He had a huge grin on his face in one of his rare moments of happiness. We called a taxi because we were way too tired to make our trek back to hotel. So we bought kids some snacks while waiting for our ride. My son actually ended up with 3 donuts. Why? He licked them inside the store. You lick, you buy!
My husband’s favorite memory was riding a bus in Sorrento where an old lady took a liking to my daughter and put her on her lap. Italians love children. If yours happen to be blond like mine, they will be treated like movie stars. My kids constantly got hugs and kisses from complete strangers. Oh, and when my daughter sang “Let it go”, they clapped and asked for her to sing some more. It’s Italian culture, where the concept of La Dolce Vita is a way of life and not just a tourist cliche.
To me, one of the highlights was visiting Pompeii, something I’ve dreamed of since I was a little girl. I’ve always been fascinated by history and archaeology, and Italy is filled with those. That said, we had to cut our day short and get back to our rental. The kids were exhausted and simply refused to walk any further. We didn’t feel like carrying them (or rather physically couldn’t), so we had to leave. It’s the reality of travel with small kids, something you just have to accept.
My favorite memory, though, was staying in a fancy hotel in Warsaw, an unexpected treat that I got for only $13 due to Orbitz coupon. The room overlooked a glass-enclosed garden that had an orange tree. An orange tree in Poland! My mom and daughter shared a room and both were wearing matching bathrobes. It was a little time for just the two of them, precious time together.
When we got back to Orlando, my daughter was crying. It wasn’t because she was tired or hungry. She told me she was sad that the trip was over.
Are you planning to take small kids to Europe? Any additional tips you can offer?