Thanks to my job as a magazine writer, I’ve visited some amazing places around the world. I’ve run a half marathon in China. I’ve glacier trekked in the Alps. I’ve backpacked in New Zealand. I’ve kite surfed in Vietnam. But when it came time to take my kids on their first overseas flight, I’ll be honest — I was anxious. I worried that they might not do well with the long haul flight and late night schedule (we went to Italy, where dinners end past 11 pm). I worried about terrorism. I worried about their stuff getting stolen or us getting separated, because kids are not the most attentive on subways and trains.
My fears were definitely overblown. We had an AMAZING first trip to Europe and I can’t wait to take the kids again.
My jitters did serve one purpose, however — they helped me prepare for the trip. Here are 10 things I learned that helped make taking our kids to Europe a wonderful experience:
1 Pack light. Very light. Knowing we’d be using subways, buses, and trains, I wanted the kids to carry their own bag with ease. I imagined myself trying to juggle two kids and several backpacks and suitcases, and the image wasn’t pretty. Each kid got one small roller bag (22-inch, international carry-on size; we used this one)*. That’s it. No backpack. No electronics. Inside, we packed enough clothes for 7-8 days, their favorite stuffed animal, one chapter book, a deck of cards, and a journal. Their bags weighed about 10 pounds once packed, and they still had room for souvenirs. The kids wore outfits more than once, and we never felt like we were missing anything. Rolling the clothes and using packing cubes helped too.
2 Let the kids research and plan the itinerary I’m not saying they get to decide everything, but letting the kids have some control over the plans will help them feel involved and limit the whining or meltdowns. In our case, several weeks before the trip, the kids read several children’s books about Rome and made lists of what they wanted to see the most. We pulled several activities from their lists: The Catacombs, Coliseum, The Forum, St. Peter’s, Trevi Fountain. Bonus: As we visited each place, the kids taught us some of the history.
3 Tell them about the food ahead of time. We also helped the kids research local cuisine so they could see photos and learn more about what they might eat on the trip. They made separate lists of all the foods they wanted to try. As a result, my 8-year-old son happily ate octopus and clams on the Adriatic Coast. My 10-year-old daughter enjoyed black truffle gnocchi and anything with pesto sauce.
4 Relax about the sugar. In Rome, we walked 10 miles each day. The kids rarely complained, though, because they knew when we stopped for lunch, they could have a Fanta soda or a gelato for dessert. Each morning started with the customary Italian breakfast: Cappuccino (for the adults) and pastries with chocolate for the kids. There were plenty of vegetables at lunch and dinnertime.
5 Take naps whenever you can. There was not a single night we got to bed before midnight. Italian restaurants don’t open for dinner until 8 pm, and dinners can take 3 leisurely hours. We’d always stop for gelato on the way back to our apartment, too. The only thing that kept the kids from turning into sleep-deprived maniacs was the frequent naps. They’d sometimes fall asleep at the table after lunch, snooze on the subway, or many days we’d head back to our apartment for a siesta before dinner.
6 Schedule a couple of no-agenda days. Of course you want to make the most of your time abroad and see as many sights as possible, but it helps to include a couple of down days where you just go with the flow. You’ll still get out and see new stuff, but you won’t be tied to a schedule or agenda. We scheduled our down days in Assisi, where we wandered the cobblestone streets, did some shopping, and came across a medieval castle.
7 Look beyond hotels for lodging. Hotel rooms in Europe are notoriously small, which is challenging when you’re traveling with young children. Look beyond traditional hotels and research apartments, guest houses, and Air B&B. We discovered that many larger guest house suites and apartments cost the same or less than hotels.
8 Teach the kids to read street signs, bus, and train schedules. One of my biggest fears was that the kids would get separated from us on a crowded train or subway and get lost. So, I taught them to read the signs and let them know where we planned to get off and what to do if they got lost in the crowd. Most of the time, we held their hands so they couldn’t get lost. But it helped ease my nerves knowing they knew where to go.
9 Learn some key words and phrases. Saying “please” and “thank you” in Italian wasn’t just good manners. It helped locals open up to us and made it easier to get whatever we needed. We also learned how to order food and a few navigational phrases, which were helpful for trains and buses.
10 Seek connection, not just experiences. Ask my kids what some of their favorite moments of the trip were, and they’ll mention making friends with Italian kids on playgrounds and at the beach. I enjoyed our interactions with the owners of the apartment we rented, getting to know the barista at our favorite coffee bar in Rome, and having conversations with locals who approached us to ask where we were from. A lot of human connection can happen even when you don’t speak the same language.
Coming home, we were exhausted. The trip was tiring, but never really stressful. On the flight home, we started talking about other places we might want to go — Netherlands, South America, Asia. Have you traveled abroad with kids? What are some of your favorite spots?
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