One side benefit of having a British husband is that we are assured of having at least one trip a year to see the grandparents. For the cost of a train ride, we can add on other European cities. Last year, we added Paris and Amsterdam. Many people ask me whether my kids, who range in ages from 5-10 were too young for the trip or whether it’s worth the effort. It definitely takes planning, and it's not always easy, but these are 16 key ideas that made our European trip a truly bon voyage.
1. Plan in advance: WAY before you go. I can’t tell you what a difference this makes. A lot of museums and sites let you avoid long lines by buying tickets in advance. Eiffel tower, the Ann Frank House, the Fondation Vuitton. These all had long lines we breezed right past. (But be warned, when we looked weeks in advance for Eiffel Tower tickets, there were none available. Checking back repeatedly revealed they release them as they go along.)
2. Get books from the library: We got books about Paris, London, and Amsterdam before we went, so my kids had specific things they were looking forward to. The repetition helped them get more out of it when they were there and to remember it after they left.
3. Rent an apartment: We love hotels, so this was a hard one to give up. But with a family, the ability to make dinner on your own, to have extra space to move around, and to live like locals is key. And if you’re willing to do an apartment exchange, as we did, you slash the cost of a vacation. Most folks know about Airbnb and VRBO, but if you want less culling, the apartment we rented through through Haven in Paris was amazing. We were even able to get two in one building when we traveled with another family. We lived like kings for free near the Arc de Triomphe through a house-for-house exchange we did with Exclusive Exchanges.
4. Take the subway, have your children count out the money, teach them some key phrases to say hello and thank you, dare each other to eat one new thing a day. You don’t need to be in a museum for them to take in the differences and joys of a new city. The grocery store or a good pharmacy can be a great learning tool (not to mention, the best bargain shopping for gifts!).
5. Don’t reinvent the wheel: This is what social media was made forl: Everyone loves telling you the places you have to go when you travel, so ask them. Or find some good instagram sites (we love @hipparis for cool local spots--and she's now covering several European cities.) There are also tons of terrific child-friendly travel sites. We’ve loved browsing the on-line journals from the new site Passported. David Leibovitz has a great list for Paris. This great Conde Nast Traveler article about avoiding lines in Paris with kids saved us multiple times.
6. Put 'em to work: When kids have a job, whether reading the map or choosing a restaurant, they feel more invested. And lord knows, you need help with the map reading when you’re also looking after little ones.
7. Make restaurant reservations before you go: You can make reservations through open table and other similar European services, or you can e-mail the hotel or the restaurants directly.
8. Check openings and closing times: Many restaurants are closed on Sunday in Paris. Strangely, many places we wanted to go were only open Monday-Friday. Some museums have odd opening times. You only make this mistake once.
9. Reserve some adult time: If it’s at all possible, reserve a little time for an adults-only dinner, shopping excursion, or just exercise. Check with your Facebook friends before to see if anyone has sitter recommendations or find a service when you’re there. You’d be amazed how much your mood improves when you’ve scored a great pair of flats or an adults-only dinner or a spa appointment!
10. Consider buying a museum card: If you possibly have any museum contacts, you will want to join the International Council of Museums. This card gets you free entry (sometimes with a guest) to most museums and sites. More importantly, it lets you jump the queue. Many US museums have partnerships with museums overseas, too, so check with your local institutions.
11. Get the travel deals: Often knowing to buy a carnet of tickets or a day-pass can pay for itself with the first couple of trips.
12. Choose lunch spots before you set out: Look in advance for restaurants close to where you’re going to be site seeing. It helps to have specific places in mind. We went to com and picked out some so we weren’t wasting time trying to find a place when everyone was hungry or just settling for a bad meal because we didn’t have another place to go.
13. Buy an international data plan before you go: You’ll be amazed how quickly you use it up. Save social media checks for when you’re on wifi. Make sure your data is switched to “phone only” so you’re not using data for apps loading in the background. But you’ll be so happy to have the maps for directions when all the street names are in Dutch and too long to remember!
14. Take advantage of apps: Assuming you have limited data on your phone, download apps for local subway maps or street maps that work on airplane mode. Or, map out your route before you leave, and then screenshot the route and list of directions when you’re in a wifi zone. Then, you’ll have a ‘hard copy’ on your phone that won’t depend on data to access it.
15. Reduce your expectations: Ok, I admit this is not my comfort zone. But it is key to traveling in cities with children. The most memorable thing to my kids is often getting ice cream somewhere or running around in a park. They get a ton from just being in the new place, so don’t worry that you can’t hit as many museums or neighborhoods as you used to. And if you go to a museum, they often enjoy the building more than the exhibits, and it's ok if you're there for 30 minutes. Also, remember with kids, usually the kitschier, the better, so don't discount sites or museums that you might on your own.
16. Give yourself a break: I’m a big fan of subway rides and of doing things the way locals would. But sometimes it’s worth it to spring for the taxi or Uber or a nice meal or the more expensive ticket that lets you skip the line. You’ve probably spent enough on a trip that the extra money to make you actually enjoy it can seem like small potatoes.