Travelling to Europe with kids can be fun and also challenging. Whatever you do, don't plan it with the focus on entertaining them. Easy now, don't send me hate mail just yet. Hear me out. Nowadays our lives revolve around our children. Once we pick them up from school, we can be rushing between activities for them, rinse and repeat. Don't tell me that once they are in bed, you don't sit down and let out a sigh of relief. "Now for some me time....", which usually involves laundry, cleaning, and packing lunches for the next day (admit it). Between working and parenting, we often forget about ourselves.
Plan Travel For You
You deserve a vacation. I said YOU. Did I say your kids need a vacation? I'm not saying leave them behind. Although, don't get me wrong, I've done that too, and it was amazing. Really good for the soul. What I'm saying is plan a trip with you in mind too.
My focus here is on traveling to Europe on a budget. You might be thinking, "I can't afford to taking my kids to Europe." or "I want to take my kid to Europe when they're older." Well first off, you can afford to take them if you plan right. Second why wait till they're older? Travelling to Europe is a trip that never gets old. There is something for everyone there. That being said, don't plan your whole trip around entertaining them. Do it for you.
Find things that interest you and that you want to see. From there, planning in the months leading up to the trip you can start educating your kids and building the excitement of what you will be seeing. There are unique stories about every little thing in Europe. Europe is full of so much history, that everything has a story to capture any child's imagination.
" You can shift your pre-trip reading to things related to Europe."
They Really Just Don't Care
I'll give you my story according to my parents. I went to Germany when I was three and five. I say according to my parents because, I remember very little. What I remember comes heavily from what my parents told me I did, and pictures I've looked at. When I was three, I remember nothing. From my trip when I was five, I have flashes of things I remember. I remember seeing a pig farm, in the town my mom grew up in. Vaguely, I remember riding a stand-up scooter down a hill.
My parents would always say things like, "What? You don't remember going to Hamelin and seeing the Pied Piper?" This was clearly a day trip my parents planned with my sister and I in mind. You know the story of the Pied Piper, the dude who lead the rats out of town? Yeah I was there. Unfortunately I don't remember.
My family and I went to Europe a few years ago. Our son was two and a half at the time. My wife was very concerned that we weren't planning anything "fun" for him to do on that trip. She was researching kid friendly activities for him to do. You know what his favourite activity was in Europe? Watch the video below.
Yup chasing pigeons. Well that, and throwing rocks in ponds, rivers, fountains, using a stick as a guitar...you get the picture. Do you think he had any clue that he was in Salzburg, Austria, in the Mirabell Gardens, beside the Mirabell Palace? He also had no clue he was chasing pigeons around the famous statue of Pegasus. Nor did he care, nor does he remember although, it is still a great memory for my wife and I.
We took him into a million churches, palaces and castles. He still liked chasing birds the best. I'm not saying he wouldn't have enjoyed EuroDisney in France. He would have enjoyed it the same and forgotten about it the same, much like I did as a child.
The point is, being with you, passing out in a carrier or stroller by one in the afternoon, isn't any different whether you are back home, Europe or Disneyland. A major difference is that YOU get to see and do things that interest you. Especially if you have younger kids.
Where to Stay
I love renting a vacation home. Especially if I'm traveling with my family. It's generally cheaper than a hotel, and you can really have a great experience for your kids. We stayed on a dairy farm in Germany. There was open fields to run and play, a trampoline, sandbox, and of course cows. My son got to visit the barn and help out a little.
That was one of the few things he remembers about the trip. Vacation homes are a huge thing in Europe and really make a family trip much more affordable. You can read my post on Vacation Home Rental Tips here, or visit my page about accommodations in general on Finding Accommodations in Europe.
" Make your kids your own personal tour guides."
Preparing Kids For the Trip
At about age seven, is when they really start to remember trips, again in bits and pieces. The beautiful thing about traveling Europe with kids that at that age, everything is so different to them. Your time can still be spent in places you want to visit. Now the focus can really shift to educating them in advance about things in. The internet is a great place to preview where you want to go. Europe is full of iconic places.
Kids at this age are also working on their reading. You can shift your pre-trip reading, to things related to Europe. How many kids' stories are about knights and princesses? And where do they live? In castles. The amount of castles to choose from in Europe is more than you can imagine. Seeing one in real life, will blow their mind, and yours as well. Turn this into a learning experience. Read up on castles or palaces you want to visit with them beforehand. Start introducing the history to them.
These books by David Macaulay are fantastic. They have great illustrations, and explanations about Cathedrals and Castles. The books talk about the layouts, how they were built and more. Children can learn about the different parts of castles, so when you go visit it, it becomes a shared learning experience for you and your children. They will start pointing out all the parts and what they were used for. What a great way to learn.
Get Them Excited Before You Go
When you are travelling to Europe with kids, and they have a bit of understanding of what they will see, they start to get excited. Once they are there, they get even more excited because these things that they have read about and seen pictures of are coming alive now. Castles and Cathedrals are everywhere in Europe.
The icon Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, is what the Disney Princess castle is modelled after. Younger children might want to learn a little about it, and then it's not just "another castle." Castles almost always have tours, where everyone can learn something about that specific castle.
Combine that with reading books like the ones above, and your children will have a better appreciation.
How to Involve Them Before You Go
Kids are on computers, learning at school at a young age now. We sometimes fight with older kids to get off the internet. Why not use that to your advantage? Get them to do some research on the countries you want to visit and find something they want to see. You may be surprised what they pick. Get them to read about some of the things you will visit. The more time they invest in learning before the trip, the more bought in they will be into what you are doing.
One of my favourite things to do in Europe is just exploring the old town of a city. It generally involves a lot of walking. Have them help you plan out a walking tour. You can get them to research and create a walking tour using Google Maps (Your Places). Again, using Google Maps, you can get them to plan how to get from your accommodations to the sites you will see using public transit.
Learn a Language With Them
Learn some key phrases in the languages of the countries you will be visiting. Simple things like, hello, goodbye, yes, no, please, and thank you. It can make for great fun before a trip and is appreciated when you can use them during your trip.
Older Kids - Give Them a Job
If you have older kids who can't stay away from their devices, use it to your advantage. Get them to translate things on the way. Signs, menus, anything. Have them to look up things while you travel, about what you are seeing. Make your kids your own personal tour guide. When was the Eiffel Tower built? How tall is it? How tall is it compared to other tall buildings? Once they embark on looking things up, they will continue to be your real-time tour guide, updating you will all sorts of facts. (read my post of Using Your Own Phone in Europe)
Ask older kids to be your photographer/videographer. Tell them they are in charge of putting together a family trip video, documenting all the things you are doing. Even if it means getting a camera/video camera for the trip. A new "toy" might be the motivation they need to be involved. Giving them ownership or the responsibility of a task, like making a video, can give them a sense of pride. Give them a challenge of making a one minute video for each day. At the end of the day, their wind down time is editing the video, adding music, titles, just let them be creative.
After the Trip
You can also get them to make a photo album. They can create it online, and then you get it printed out. When you get home, they get to design and select their most memorable events and make an album. Now when that photo book is lying around the coffee table and people come over, they will feel a sense of pride in their work.
Here's 10 Ideas To Document Your Travels from my friends at Photo Jeepers. I particularly love the idea of a making vintage posters. What kid would not want a poster of their trip on their wall? Better yet, start a collection of family trip vintage posters. Get them dry mounted and start a chronological gallery commemorating your family trips.
Travelling to Europe with Kids - Things to do
One great free thing to do when you are travelling to Europe with kids, are festivals. Each country will have a celebration throughout the year. Germany will have May Day on May 1st, where small towns will raise a Maypole and you'll find the men in Lederhosen and the women in Dirndls. We stumbled across one, and spent half a day taking in the festivities. Sweden celebrates Midsummer, between June 20-25 where you can find celebrations in parks outdoors.
Many places around Europe will have Folk Festivals celebrating cultures from all over Europe, involving traditional songs, dance and costumes. I experienced this in Lithuania for two days, again by accident. What a happy accident. You can search the country you are going to and see what local festivals are on, and it's a great way to experience some old traditions. When you are travelling with kids, consider some of these free activities, they are super fun, a great learning experience, and encourage participation (even I danced).
Find the Unique European Experiences
There are definitely things that are typical "kid" activities. They have theme parks, waterparks, just like back home. I prefer to save those for home. If you do want to do "kid friendly" activities, do something that will interest you just the same, but are unique to Europe. Hamburg, Germany has the Miniatur Wunderland which is fantastic. Billund, Denmark has Legoland, or take a Harry Potter walking tour in London.
Want to try something really fun? Try a Rodelbahn or Alpine Coaster. You'll find these in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy, basically anywhere there is some elevation. Think of it as a downhill coaster that you control the speed. Even my 70 year old mother did it. Check out the 360 view video below. It's crazy fun. Grab the mouse and scroll around the video!
Is your child into sports? There's is nothing cooler than going to a Football (soccer) match in Europe. Even if you aren't a fan of the sport, the atmosphere is amazing. The crowd will be singing and chanting the whole time. I go every time I'm in Europe. Even a tour of a 60,000+ seat stadium is fascinating. (Did you know that the grass field in Bayern Munich's Stadium is heated underneath?) Each country has many different divisions, so even if you can't get into a top division match, the second division matches are just as fun and affordable.
Travel Products Every Parent Needs
The tap water in most European countries is totally safe to drink. Europeans love their bottled water and it is expensive. Unless your kids are drinking beer, bring your own water bottles and fill them up.
I love these Simple Modern ones. They are metal, light weight and take a beating. Each bottle can keep cold things cold for 24 hours, and warm things warm for 10 hours. The nice thing is their shape. They fit into most car drink holders, and into any backpack drink pocket.
These ones are affordable, and just as effective as the "brand name ones". Difference being you can get three of these for the price on one brand name one. I recommend the 500ml (17oz) size. The bigger ones are just to big to carry around, and the smaller ones you just have to refill to quickly.
This was a dream to have.
It's a retractable handle and wheel for your car seat. Since we were renting a car, we brought our car seat. Our son was allowed to be seated in it on the flight. It attaches to the seat quickly and easily.
Now you have a stroller for the airport. Traveling in the airports was super easy. We didn't need to carry him when he was tired (especially after a 12 hour travel day). Even boarding and deplaning the aircraft was easy, as we just pulled the seat with him in it.
This made life so much easier. I highly recommend it.
My friend turned me onto this. She has three young kids, so traveling with 3 booster seats is out of the question. Well now she can, with the MiFold Booster Seat.
Great for kids between 4-12. It's compact, and just as safe and very reasonably priced. Watch the video and you will see how compact it really is.
If you need a stroller, this is the way to go. I'm so glad we bought a cheap compact stroller. It was easy to transport, fit in car, and was lightweight. The stroller was inexpensive, so even if it only survived that trip, it was worth it. It lasted much longer and got lent to other people after he out grew it. You don't want to bring a big bulky stroller with you.
This served it's purpose well.
This was a life/marriage saver.
We loved our compact stroller, but we loved our Ergobaby carrier even more.
This carrier was the ultimate thing when travelling with a kid. There were times when a stroller just wouldn't have worked. Keep in mind, you are in Europe. You may visit many castles, palaces, churches and walled cities. All which didn't not consider strollers when designed. You will climb countless sets of steep stairs, and roll on cobblestone.
Enter the Ergo.
Towards the end of our trip, we time and time again chose the Ergobaby carrier. Our son tended to fall asleep in it at his usual nap time, which meant we could keep exploring and not have to head back to our apartment.
What we loved about it was, we could carry him on the front or back. I opted for the back mostly, and then it was just like wearing a really comfortable backpack. There is an extra large pocket for your essentials, and the straps are super thick. This makes it the most comfortable carrier I have used.
This was a worthwhile investment. I don't think we could have survived the trip without it.
Travel WITH Kids, Not FOR Kids
When you think about travelling to Europe with kids, it's exactly that. Travelling to Europe WITH kids, not for kids. Involve them in the process before the trip and they will enjoy anything you do. Give the older ones a job when they are there, like navigator, translator, photographer and tour guide and they will feel empowered and learn something, probably without knowing it. There is something unique around every corner, and honestly, just exploring and discovering is half the fun for them.
So don't stress about planning all these kid friendly activities. See the things you want to see, prepare them, involve them and they will find fun faster than you think.