A tenured traveler shares invaluable tips on traveling overseas with children in tow.
I just arrived home from a 9 day jaunt to Europe. Paris and Rome to be exact, with a couple day trips to Pompei and Venice thrown in. Many people have asked me if my son enjoyed the trip and wondered if he were too young to appreciate it. I can say without hesitation that he thoroughly enjoyed visiting Europe, and I would highly recommend taking kids over the age of 6 to many destinations throughout the continent.
We saw a lot in 9 short days. In Rome we saw the Vatican, the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, the Forum and Imperial Forum, the Colosseum, and a few other monuments. One day we did a full day tour to Pompei, and another day we spent walking the streets of Venice. In Paris, we saw the Louvre, the Tuileries, the Left Bank, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and took a relaxing cruise down the Seine on the Bateaux Mouche.
OK, so when I arrived home, I felt as if I needed a vacation, but seeing all these sites through my 7 year old son's eyes was unforgettable. Are you considering taking your kid(s) to Europe any time soon? If so, here are some useful tips that really helped me along the way:
1) Read and learn about what you will see before leaving. Take a book out of the library about ancient Rome. Rent a video about Pompei. Read about medieval history and knights and castles. A few weeks before departure, sit down with the kids and start learning about the destination. Trust me-- this will be well worth the time spent.
2) When flying overseas, choose and airline and aircraft that has individual video screens, preferably with on demand entertainment and lots of video games. Many newer aircraft have these, and the small video screen will provide hours of entertainment on an 8 or 9 hour flight. Check with the airline or your travel agent as to which airlines and aircraft have individual video monitors. It may even be
worth an extra change of planes or a less direct routing.
3) Don't nap the first day. Go to your hotel right away, shower and change clothes, then hit the street running. Kids won't realize they are tired until dinner time, and by then, it will be nearly time for bed. Staying up the first day will let the kids get a good night's sleep the first night. (Kids have a much easier time handling jet lag than adults).
4) Your first activity in any city should be an introductory one. In Rome for example, our first stop was the Time Elevator. It was a 3-D experience (with shaking seats and all) that gave a brief history of Rome. In Paris, our first stop was an hour and 15 minute cruise on the Bateaux Mouche -- a great overview of Paris. After this "overview," the kids will want to see certain things in depth and their interest will be piqued.
5) Don't overdo it. Seeing too many ruins, cathedrals, or museums in a day may bore them. Try to mix and match as well. See the Roman Forum, go for ice cream, then visit Trevi Fountain. A little variety goes a long way.
6) Take trains whenever possible. Most kids (and adults) love trains, plus they are a very comfortable way to travel with kids. There is never a problem accessing the bathroom, and there is usually a bar or restaurant car where the kids can go when they're hungry. (With the time change, they will be hungry at odd hours).
7) Bring books, tablets, DVD players, or other entertainment kids can do or watch for the longer train / coach rides. Portable video games are a no-no however, as they may be more interested in playing Angry Birds on your phone than seeing the ruins of Pompei.
8) Use public transport within the cities whenever possible. In many cities, kids under 12 can either travel for free or half price on the cities' trams, buses, and metros which could end up saving quite a bit of money during your vacation.
9) When going to restaurants, ask the server for a smaller portion for your kids. Children's menus are a rarity in Europe, so order him/her anything form the regular menu, then ask the server for a smaller portion. Most restaurants will oblige and will charge you less for their meal.
10) Don't ask your child what he/she wants to do; simply tell him/her, and do it! Get excited about seeing the Louvre, St. Mark's Square, or the Forum, then drag the youngsters along. This may sound harsh, but in my personal experience, my son always told me he would rather stay at the hotel but would love the site once we arrived.
11) Try to stay at a hotel with a pool. After a long day sightseeing, what kid doesn't love going in the pool to cool off and play?
12) Always take advantage of a public restroom. Public restrooms (or toilets as they are called nearly everywhere outside the U.S.) are a rarity in most European cities, and free ones are few and far between. Make the kids use the bathroom at every restaurant and café in which you stop.
Taking your kids to Europe will be an enriching and incredible experience for them. Sure it's a bit more involved than taking them to the beach or Disney World, but it will be an unforgettable trip and an experience that will be both enjoyable and educational.