Today’s post is written by Ashley Steel who is also the co-author of 100 Tips for Traveling with Kids in Europe.
For many families, a trip to Europe is a dream adventure. Although such a big trip can be an expensive and challenging undertaking, it can also be worth every Euro and every ounce of effort. For us, the goals of traveling have always included education of all kinds, cultural immersion, a global perspective, and family bonding. Here are seven of our favorite ideas for making family travel happen whether you have toddlers or teens in tow. These ideas and more can be found in our new book “100 Tips for Traveling with Kids in Europe.”
1. First Stop? Your Local Library
Preparing for an overseas adventure is more than just logistics and flight schedules. A huge part of the fun is in preparing the kids. The trip will be so much more exciting for them, and for you too, if they know a little about the history, culture, and language of the places you’ll be visiting. Your local library is the perfect, economical first stop on your journey. For toddlers and young readers, look in the juvenile non-fiction section for kid-friendly country guides. Full of glossy photos, these guides usually cover a bit of history, the major icons, and sometimes even a bit about local food, customs, and etiquette. Most often, adults learn something too when reading through. For older kids, ask the librarian for fiction set on-location in your destination.
You might also pick out language tapes, books on CD, slightly out-of-date travel guides, movies, documentaries, cultural craft books, and cookbooks focusing on the specific countries you will be visiting. The more kids know about your destination, the more excited they will be when they arrive. With younger kids, try making a craft they are likely to encounter on the trip or regional food, such as paella or crepes, so they will want to taste the real thing on-location.
2. Encourage Teenage Know-It-Alls
Teens will also be better travelers with a little background knowledge, but they might be not be quite as open to your educational efforts. You can help them rent movies set during the Renaissance or during World War I in your destination, or sleuth out a showing of a current foreign-language film. In the months leading up to your trip, encourage your teens to watch movie documentaries, classics, and independent European films (there are many on Netflix) and to talk with you afterward.
You might also give them a nudge to research some of the topics they found interesting in the films or that you know might engage them en route. For example, ask them to find out everything they can about the Magna Carta and share it with you or with their siblings. Or they could put together a collection of maps of Europe at different times or they could figure out who the Hapsburgs were and how they managed to gain so much power. You could bribe them with a scavenger hunt in which they find as many ways as possible in which ancient Greek society still influences modern day life. Their internet research, YouTube discoveries, unusual movie selections, and fun facts are likely to enrich the whole family’s trip.
3. Pack Even Lighter
A lot of travel tips include essential travel gear but we are a “less in more” traveling family. Although it’s tempting to pack for every possibility, especially on your first overseas trip, resist this urge and remember that there are kids in Europe too. They sell Band-Aids, toys, and spare clothes in every single European country. All you really, really need are your personal medical essentials and a sense of humor. Think through the items you are truly likely to need and be creative about how to stay light and still have it all.
In your carry-on or day bag, you’ll want one change of clothes for each toddler. Pack the outfit in a zip-top bag and suck all the air out. Tuck it at the very bottom of your bag. The plastic-wrapped spare clothes provide a moisture barrier in case you set your bag down in spilled coffee or on a wet park bench. The zip-top bag also comes in handy if there is a big spill or an accident, in which case you can use it to keep the messy clothes contained.
Create a little “Ouch Pouch” in a sandwich baggie with a few Band-Aids and some antiseptic wipes. You might add individual packages of pain killers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen and a small tube of hydrocortisone cream. Compressible rain jackets are worth their weight in gold. Pack extra-light in the toy department and be creative instead—a simple deck of cards can provide hours of solo and family entertainment.
Teens can be difficult to separate from their wardrobe. As much as they promise, “I will carry it myself”, we promise that you will eventually end up carrying much of it. Remind them that they won’t be meeting people more than once or twice and so really don’t need lots of different outfits. Pick things that don’t wrinkle, stain, or turn gray. White shorts, for example, are not the wisest choice. Packing at least one modest and classy outfit will help them (and you) feel comfortable at historical sites, religious landmarks, and nicer restaurants.
4. Prepare to Spend Wisely
Most travelers use a combination of credit cards and ATM/debit cards. Both of these types of cards usually offer the interbank exchange rate, saving you money as compared to traveler’s checks or converting foreign currency yourself. But beware of fees! While you are on the phone telling your bank about your travel itinerary, ask them about their currency conversion fees, foreign transaction fees, and foreign ATM fees. These can add up. Plan to make as few electronic transactions as possible and minimize foreign currency exchanges once you’re on the road. For example, you might plan to put big purchases on the credit card and maximize the amount of cash withdrawn from ATMs with each transaction. Check teen debit cards for fees too. A few banks offer credit cards with no foreign transaction fees at all. If you have a long trip planned, it may be worth applying for one of these.
5. Maps, maps, maps
What’s cheap, ubiquitous, and unique to each city or town you visit? Maps! Every city provides paper tourist maps and these are a perfect (and generally free!) souvenir. Give the map to a kid and have them navigate your family to the museum, back to the hotel, or just around the town. Use a highlighter to record your daily route (different colors for different days), circle museums visited, or even annotate with sketches and notes. Either paste the maps into your travel journal or save a map from every city in a big envelope. For toddlers, consider collecting two sets of maps – one for opening, drawing, and enjoying as you go. You don’t have to worry if these get ripped, turned into origami boxes, or cut and taped into journals. The other set can be saved, in tact, as a long-term souvenir. Once at home, you might photograph each highlighted map and insert into a photobook alongside the photos from the destination; punch holes and file the maps in a big three-ring binder; pin the maps up on a giant bulletin board; or place the maps under a glass table top.
6. Be Advanced
Neither toddlers nor teens are known for their patience and lines at many of the most famous museums can be very long. Luckily, quite a few of the most famous museums sell advance tickets online. This is a fantastic way enjoy a more fun museum day with impatient kids. The Louvre and d’Orsay in Paris, the Uffizi in Florence, the Rijksmujseum in Amsterdam, and the Prado in Madrid all sell advance tickets. Be aware that advance tickets can be limited so it’s best to investigate months in advance or as soon as you have a firm itinerary.
7. Public Transportation for a Sight-Seeing Tour
There are fairly expensive hop-on/hop-off bus tours in many major cities. These usually have audio guides in multiple languages that entertain you with fun facts and historical tidbits. Additionally, professional tour guides are waiting, pretty much everywhere, to take your family for a ride, literally and figuratively. If you are looking for a cheaper alternative, consider touring the sights via strategic use of public transportation instead. Public transportation usually connects all the major tourist hotspots and, in many cases, you don’t even need to get off. For example, the Ringstrasse Tram Line in Vienna traces the path of a former medieval city wall. As such, it loops past dozens of impressive buildings including the State Opera House and Hofburg Palace. You and the kids will want to get out and see some of the attractions but you can enjoy riding by and looking out the window at others for a fraction of the price of a formal tour bus. In Paris, try the #27 bus for crosstown sightseeing or #72 for views of the Seine River. In London, the 11 route passes St Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, the Houses of Parliament, and Westminster Abbey. Bonus, the kids can ride on the top floor of the double decker bus and get a great view! They have double-decker busses in Berlin too, and Bus 100 (red) goes right past Siegessäule (Victory Column), Bellevue Palace, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (house of the cultures of the world), Reichstag (German Parliament), the State Opera House, Bebelplatz, and Alexanderplatz.
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