Flying over the ocean is expensive. Visiting Europe isn’t cheap either. Lots of people don’t want to waste that type of trip on kids too young to appreciate the adventure, so they wait until the kids are teenagers. And then you can’t go because of band camp, summer jobs, or other schedule conflicts. If you can resolve all that, you find out that your teens aren’t interested in seeing the great Cathedrals of Europe and whine throughout the whole thing.
After dragging my kids all around Europe, I’ve learned a lot about whining and a lot about traveling, and think that it makes a lot of sense to take those kids to Europe before they have boyfriends to leave behind and headphones permanently implanted in their ears. Here’s how to do it.
1. Think East, Not West.
When a lot of Americans think of Europe they think London, Paris, and Rome. These are fabulous cities, but you should also think Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest. The latter three are a lot cheaper and friendlier towards your family. You may have heard of fabulous Parisian cuisine, but the best food I’ve ever had, in my entire life, came from a small hotel in Albania.
When we traveled through Bosnia & Herzegovina, we paid about the equivalent of $0.75 per ice cream cone. The same ice cream cone in Switzerland would run you about $4.50 in US dollars. If your children like ice cream, go East. Restaurants are happy to see you. Hotels are happy to have you. The prices are far more reasonable.
2. Avoid Hotels When Possible
It’s totally easy to book hotels from major chains. European hotels, though, tend to have smaller rooms, frown on putting 4 or more people in one room and cost a fortune. Plus, then you need to eat a restaurants every single day for every single meal. Expensive! And your kids won’t appreciate it anyway. Rent an apartment or a house from AirBnb, or use Booking.com to find a wider variety of places that can fit your family size. HomeAway is great if you’re going to stay a week in one place, but every time I’ve asked them for a shorter time period they act like I’m a freak for asking. Your experience may vary.
A major advantage of avoiding the chain hotels is that you generally get to meet the people who own the place you’re renting. They care deeply about success. They’ll tell you the truly best restaurants-not just the closest ones. And, they often have laundry facilities that you can use to wash your clothes mid trip.
3. Ensure Family Harmony by Bringing a Powerstrip
Most of today’s electronics are built to go from US voltage to European Voltage without much of a hassle. No need for expensive or heavy convertors. But, you do need a small converter so you can plug things in. And no hotel, rental apartment, or youth hostel (often great for families!) has enough plugs for everyone’s phones, kindles, iPads, and whatever else you want to plug in. Bring the power strip and keep everyone happy with charged electronics all the time.
4. Decide on Souvenirs Before You Go
There is stuff to buy everywhere. Your children want all of it. They don’t even know it exists, but they want it. Before you leave home, decide what your plan is. Our family buys a magnet from each city we visit. Friends buy a mug. Other friends give each child a set amount to spend on trinkets and when it’s gone, it’s gone. If you have to argue and bargain with a child at each gift shop, you’ll either spend a fortune or lose your mind. Don’t fall into that trap.
5. Go See the Museums.
Now, you might think your 4-year-old won’t appreciate the Louvre, and you’re probably right that he won’t appreciate it the way you do. He will, however, appreciate parts of it if you let him. Give your kid a camera and let him take pictures of whatever he wants. It’s digital. It won’t cost you anything and your child will love it.
Try to hit less crowded times if possible so that your short companions can see the actual art and not just people’s behinds. (My poor 5-year-old suffered through a 3 hour Vatican tour seeing nothing but rear ends because it was so crowded.)
Check out the smaller and more historically focused museums rather than just art museums. Boys and Girls love seeing tanks and guns. There are toy museums in several towns. And technical museums? Those are the best. Many of these museums have all the explanations in English as well as the native language of the country.
6. Never Miss a Castle
The castles that have been completely redone and have guides are okay, but the ones that are half falling down and are mainly piles of stone are the best. Your kids can climb and climb and make you fear for their lives, but they’ll have a great time. And they’ll figure out that living in your small home with electricity and plumbing is infinitely better than being a medieval princess.
7. Consider Public Transportation.
There are cities you couldn’t pay me enough to drive in. Rome, for one. Athens is another. We’ve traveled throughout most of Europe using trains and buses. Trains are awesome with children because when the little darlings say, “I need to go potty!” you just take them to the bathroom, rather than hoping you’ll find a rest stop.
If you want to go rural, consider renting a car. (We did in Romania and when we traveled from through the Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Albania. Otherwise, we pretty much do public transportation.) In lots of countries, kids travel free with their parents. You may look at the price of train tickets and think, “It would be cheaper to rent a car and drive!” but keep in mind European gas prices can be excessive. Lots of countries have special deals for foreigners, but you need to buy your tickets before leaving home and have them stamped when you arrive at the airport.
8. Don’t Worry about Language
In all my European travels, there have been precisely two times when I couldn’t communicate directly with the person I needed to. The first was a ticket agent at a train station in Bratislava. She didn’t speak English or German or French (my husband speaks French, I don’t) and I didn’t speak any of the languages she spoke. But, another person standing in line jumped forward to translate for me.
The second time was last week in Italy. We ended up communicating over my SmartPhone using Google Translate. Google Translate works very well for basic sentences. (Type: “Where is the metro stop?” and not “Do you happen to know where I might find the closest underground entrance?”) Make sure you have a global data plan or buy a local sim card, otherwise, you’ll go broke.
Once, in Albania, we communicated with a taxi driver by speaking French, he responded to us in Italian, and we all figured it out. He told us all sorts of stories in a language we don’t speak and we still understood. Just throw yourself out there.
9. Geocache Your Way Around Town
You want to see all the churches in Rome. Your kids are so sick of churches, you’re afraid walking inside one more will turn them into atheists. Don’t just go from church to church (or historical site to historical site), treasure hunt along the way. Geocaches are everywhere, and you can pick ones in the general vicinity of where you want to be and your kids get to find and leave treasures and you can make a quick stop into just one more historical site.
10. Finally, Remember These Two Important Rules.
The one problem with Europe is a serious lack of bathrooms. (Except in Warsaw. Warsaw had wonderful bathrooms.) Look for signs saying WC, as that tends the be universal sign. When you find a bathroom, everyone goes. Everyone. Even dad. You won’t know when you’ll see them again. (And it won’t hurt you to keep some extra toilet paper in your bag for the times in which the public bathrooms lack toilet paper.) So, rule one: Never pass up a bathroom.
Rule two: Never pass up a chance to fill your water bottle. Being a tourist is thirsty work. Keep your water bottles full and you’ll save a fortune and keep the whining down. Lots of whining comes from dehydrated kids.
Traveling in Europe with young kids can be great fun. And maybe they’ll develop a love for it, so you can bring them back when they are teens and they’ll enjoy it instead of complaining about it.