My passion for travel first took hold when my parents took me to Europe when I was just 8 years old, and I’ve continued to jump at the chance to see new countries whenever I can as an adult. Fortunately, my husband also enjoys travel. As a matter of fact, I only decided to marry him after we backpacked through the UK together in college and came home still talking to each other. So for years, we’ve known we wanted to take the girls on a trip to Europe. Someday… Despite several opportunities to make the trip, we kept putting it off because our girls always seemed too young and too whiny, in all honesty. What was the point of making such a big trip when all they’d want to eat was McDonald’s? But this spring when my husband’s job required him to travel to Europe, and my youngest was 8, the same age I was when I first went abroad, we finally decided to take the plunge and try European travel.
Now, if you’re a travel savvy someone who’s already loaded their baby on their back and traveled across the world to live on a beach somewhere without even a reservation, I have no good advice for you. You’re a special breed of awesome. My tips for European travel with kids are more for the, “Yes, but…” crowd, the worriers, the planners, the, “Always pack a snack” crew. My husband and I knew how to keep ourselves going through all the chaos of travel. We knew how to pick hotels, exchange money, and navigate across a city where we didn’t speak the language. But how were we supposed to do all those things WITH kids?
My first piece of advice for European travel with kids: wait.
While travel articles on taking your kids on a holiday abroad advise you to wait until they’re at least five, we delayed traveling out of the country until ours were 8 and 11. For us, their actual ages weren’t that important once they were out of diapers and sleeping through the night. Instead, we decided we didn’t want to travel with them to Europe until they could do three things:
1- Be adventurous eaters
This saved us not only from finding restaurants that served plain pasta in foreign countries, but meant that they were willing to try one of the best things about traveling: the food! On our trip, the girls realized that while they were NOT fans of pickled herring, they loved smorrebrod, Scandinavian open-faced sandwiches.
I did, of course, pack snacks to fuel them between meals and when we got stuck somewhere. Tip: Skip the granola bars and instead pack nuts. Our chocolaty granola bars all melted in our bags. Each morning, I’d load a snack bag up with nuts and dried fruit from the larger bag I’d thrown in my suitcase and avoided many a meltdown.
2- Carry their own things
Trust me, you don’t want to have to carry your things AND their things on a trip that may involve cobblestone streets, gaps between train platforms, and bus transfers.
FYI, many museums don’t allow backpacks. We purposefully had the girls travel light during the day with nothing but a sweatshirt tied around their waist and a hat. We relied on my over the shoulder bag most days for other essentials. Also, as my mother always points out,
They have stores there so you can buy anything else you need!
3- Be able to entertain themselves with a book for an extended period of time
So much of travel is hurrying up and waiting somewhere. We packed some chapter books to enjoy together, but travel is exhausting. If my girls hadn’t been able to read a book or draw for extended periods of time, I would have stabbed myself in the eye.
We sooooo didn’t need as many of the games and activity books we packed, by the way. They would have been just fine with one or two books, a notebook and pencils, and an electronic device for the occasional game. Just don’t rely on the electronic devices because batteries will run out on you at the most inconvenient times.
Long before we were willing to fork over the hefty cost of a European airline ticket, we regularly discussed all three of these requirements once the girls were old enough to want to travel someplace with us. What began as a delaying tactic on our part became a big motivator for the girls. A win-win situation for us all.
Additionally, we decided on the following to make everything smoother for all of us:
Give your children ice cream every day
My girls insisted I share this tip with you. We literally had ice cream every day on our trip and I have zero regrets. Feeling jet legged? Eat ice cream. Feeling tired? How about some ice cream? Feeling overwhelmed? Ice cream will help. Too annoyed with your sister/kid to make it to the next floor of the museum? An ice cream break will fix that.
The girls would like me to add that the licorice ice cream in Scandinavia is disgusting, so make sure you translate the flavor list before ordering. Which leads me to…
Download apps that will work offline
After getting us lost in Hamburg one afternoon, I realized I really did need to download the city map and study the guidebook map a little longer each morning when making our plans for the day. While I often could find WiFi when out and about in the major cities we were in, it wasn’t 100% reliable and we paid the cost in sore feet on a couple of occasions.
A currency converter app is a godsend, especially when your kids ask to order the $60 ice cream on the menu (true story). We also relied on Google translate on numerous occasions. Have you seen the text reading feature on this? It magically tells you if you’re ordering a topping on that pizza your children will eat. (I didn’t say the girls were adventuresome eaters for EVERY meal.)
Finally, I was really glad I had a white noise app on the phone as there were several nights where there was a lot of noise outside the windows of the various hotels and hostels we stayed in.
Make plans to go along with what your kids want to do in the moment
I researched this trip for months. I read my travel books, Googled like mad, and watched a hundred YouTube videos for what we might see in Europe together. I knew we couldn’t see it all, but I wanted the girls to realize how amazing other countries could be. My bullet journal was marked up with a hundred different possibilities of museums, tours, sites, and history for us to discover.
But when we arrived in Stockholm, the girls were hungry.
This meant we missed the 1:00 tour of the town hall. Then, when I wanted to catch the 3:00 tour, the girls wanted to see the changing of the guard. And then their feet hurt. And then they were hungry again. And then there was a street performer who appeared to be sitting on top of another street performer’s head. And then they wanted to buy a present for their teacher. And so on and so forth.
All my best-laid plans were being thwarted by my children! Never mind that the day was sunny and we had a great time wandering along the waterfront looking at the boats. We were missing out on some of the important parts of the city!
When we went to Copenhagen, I happily got us back on my schedule and we enjoyed a free walking tour (these are great!) where we learned all the Danish kings were either named Frederik or Christian. We walked around another waterfront and watching another changing of the guard. (I liked the Danish one better because the hats were woolier and the guards literally march in traffic and stop at traffic lights in formation.)
I had more big plans but my children got involved and insisted on going to an amusement park: Tivoli Gardens. Prepared to be unamused, I reluctantly assented and forked out the hefty entry fee. What followed was a completely charming evening. The girls laughed and giggled on rides, with no lines, while my husband and I watched and enjoyed the park’s architecture and music. We ate an amazing dinner and let the girls ride, “Just one more ride” five times. It was a complete delight, and I’m so glad my best-laid plans were tossed out the window.
Family European vacations are not, I think, for the faint of heart. They are though an incredible adventure your family will remember fondly for years to come.