I asked Amie O’Shaughnessy of Ciao Bambino to write a guest post for Have Kids Will Travel. It’s full of great pointers I’ll keep in mind for my family’s summer trip across the pond. You’ll find lots of useful tips for family travel regardless of the destination. Enjoy!
The secret to successful (i.e. enjoyable) travel with kids to Europe is thoughtful planning. Developing the itinerary for a trip is a big part of the planning process and I’ve found that there are specific things to think about when structuring a trip to Europe or any destination that involves a long transcontinental flight and major time/cultural shift.
Things to consider …
Ensure you have enough time
Flights with young children can be painful, but the reality is that time in an airplane is relatively short. The real challenge comes after you arrive. Time change is hard on everyone and many of our clients over the years have admitted to tears of frustration over the first few days when kids are not sleeping and/or are really out of sorts. The good news is that kids are remarkably resilient and after the initial pain is over, they bounce back (in some cases more readily than we do). Leaving enough time means that these first few days don’t matter in the grand scheme of things and you still have plenty of time to explore and enjoy your destination. From the US to Europe, enough time means 10-14 days.
Plan for the worst at the front end of the trip
Assume that things will be tough and don’t schedule or plan on any rigorous or structured sightseeing for the first few days. There is nothing more unpleasant than taking a 4-hour tour when everyone is exhausted. Plan on acclimating after you arrive and do whatever everyone is up for based on the real situation vs. committing to a specific structure.
Keep the overall itinerary simple
For me, this means a maximum of 2-3 major location transitions or accommodation changes during the trip.
Choose the right accommodations for your needs and your kids’ ages
This is a topic worthy of an entire article—the bottom line is that a hotel for 10-14 days doesn’t work for most families. 1) Traditional hotels are more expensive than other accommodation categories. 2) Eating out for every meal is expensive and tiring. Plus, with babies and toddlers, it is much easier to have access to a kitchen where you can easily clean bottles and prepare snack. 3) Adequate indoor and outdoor living space is much more relaxing than being stuffed into a hotel room, particularly in Europe where the hotel rooms are small.
My favorite accommodations for independent families (vs. larger groups) are properties with apartments in a larger setting with shared amenities. We call them “resorts” on Ciao Bambino. You can see good examples of this by using our Extended Search Page and selecting Tuscany and resort. Knowing that kids have different interests and needs as they grow older, we provide age-appropriate ratings for every property featured in our guide.
Think carefully about the mix of urban and rural time
Most of the “best” properties for families per my comment above are in the countryside. I’ve had many parents come to me with a plan that involves only city stops. Many European cities are a blast with kids, however, by nature cities are busy, dirty, and crowded. For me, the level of relaxation that is possible is much greater in a rural environment. Know what you are getting into with an all-urban trip.
Mix it up
The ideal itinerary for most families involves a mix of urban and rural stops. This way, you can get the best of both worlds, and access the best family-friendly accommodation categories. This approach enables you have at least one true “home-base” location in the countryside with living space and apartment amenities.
Plan efficient and appropriate transportation
Trains are a fantastic transportation option in Europe for getting to/from major hubs. They are not always the best option for the rural areas and smaller towns. In Italy for example, you absolutely need a rental car to stay in the Tuscan countryside. This is the only way you can get to the glorious smaller villages that form the heart of this region. Many people fear driving in Europe. True, large city driving can be hideous. That said, countryside driving is for the most part pleasant and in fact, it can be part of the fun!
Look at a map when planning and try to go in one direction
It is increasingly easier to fly into one city and out of another and not pay much more in airfare. Look into all options when booking flights—it’s nice not to have to backtrack unless you are able to do so in a meaningful way from a sightseeing perspective. Note that rental car penalties may be excessive for picking up a car in one country and dropping it off in another; definitely understand these fees before committing to an itinerary that involves that kind of plan (although those fees may be less expensive than flying for a family of 4).
Combine structured and unstructured activities
As kids get older, structured activities like walking tours, cooking lessons, and art workshops are a fun way to expose them to new culture. In fact, more often than not these special activities end up being some of the most memorable moments on a trip. To ensure you are choosing a reliable and kid-friendly option, it is best to book structured activities ahead of time. The key is balance—it is essential to balance free time and structured time so it doesn’t feel like work and everyone can truly appreciate every moment. That goes for general sightseeing too. Create a balance between sightseeing and relaxing time. Everyone that has been to Europe has experienced the “no, not another church” phenomenon.
Do your homework
Enjoy the planning process and leave enough time to thoroughly research all your options. If your kids are old enough, it’s great to involve them in the decisions too.
Amie O’Shaughnessy is the editor of Ciao Bambino, a family travel blog and a worldwide guide to the best hotels and resorts for families.
Great post! We have traveled to Europe twice with small children and have found that all of these are oh so true!
Very useful information for travellers who plan to bring their kids along. This will ensure a harmonious travel between the kids and their parents. We will definitely be passing your article along to our readers. Keep the posts coming!