We moved to the UK when our oldest child was 4, our middle child was 2, and our youngest was, unbeknownst to us, a mere 9 ½ months away. We love to explore new places and we were determined to travel every chance we could, children in tow. We were told by many that we were absolutely crazy. Perhaps we were, but travel we did and eleven years later, we have no regrets. We do however, have a lot of hard-earned lessons that we will happily share with those equally demented souls that want to travel with young children.
The first and foremost rule of traveling with children, for us, was adjusting our adult timetables. This sounds easy, we know, but it is not always so. The following list will spell out a few of the reasons why this is critical, and some of the methods we used to successfully tour most of Europe.
1. Know your location limitations – food
The UK, as well as most of mainland Europe, does not have eating establishments open 24/7. We found that we had the lunch window (approximately 10:30 am to 1:30 pm) and the dinner window (around 6:00 pm to 10:00pm). If we were out exploring castles and the countryside or driving a long distance and missed stopping at a restaurant, pub, or gasthaus during these times, we would be out of luck for a place to eat. If we insisted on our children having a certain naptime, we would often miss out on the food windows.
Our solution was three-fold. First, we bought a small collapsible cooler and ALWAYS had heavy snacks and drinks on hand. Often, we would pack enough for a full-lunch as well, which gave us the freedom to explore throughout the lunch hour. Second, we shifted our schedule, as necessary, to be able to stop and eat at the appropriate times. That meant that we were often on the road to one place early, explored, ate lunch, and then hit another traveling goal in the afternoon. Our kids learned to nap in the car, so we could feed them and then drive and it worked out well. Third, we learned how to scout out small grocery stores. Small shops in small villages or towns would have decent fruits, breads, and cold cuts/cheese that would make a decent snack or lunch (and more than a few times – dinner). These stores don’t always stand out like American markets, so we had to learn to look for a name, or the locals carrying their market bags & baskets.
2. Know your location limitations – local traditions
The first time we went to Italy, we spent a leisurely morning eating breakfast, playing on the beach, and throwing rocks. By the time we got our train moving, we were dangerously close to missing the lunch window. We did find an open restaurant where we enjoyed a lovely, long lunch. Imagine our surprise when we left the establishment to find all the shops closed, windows shuttered, and the streets empty. We had totally underestimated the impact of siesta. People didn’t just go home for a post-lunch rest, the town shut down!
On future trips to Italy and Spain, we embraced siesta. We adjusted our schedules so that we could have our own down-time in the afternoon. The kids were told they could read, sleep, color or daydream as long as they were on their beds and quiet for a while. It worked, even with our little one, and we found ourselves rested and ready for the rest of the day. On days where we couldn’t get back to where we were staying, we would often find parks to play in. Parks in Europe are worth their own post. We met more people and saw more of “everyday life” while hanging out in parks then we can accurately describe here. Suffice to say, they are a great resource for families.
3. Know your children’s limitations – plan accordingly
Children get tired, both physically and mentally when they travel. They are out of their comfort zones and without their usual routines. Be realistic in what you expect of them. Long, leisurely European meals will quickly become miserable if you expect your little tykes to sit through two or more a day. If you visit a museum, they will take interest in classic art for a small moment, if you are lucky. Traveling in Europe generally requires a lot of walking, even if you are taking public transport. More than once our kids fell asleep on our shoulders while exploring London.
For us, we chose to see what we could, but with a family-oriented approach. We minimized our visits to “controlled” locations (like art museums) and maximized the child-friendly locations (such as natural history museums and castles). As mentioned above, we found parks, playgrounds, and attractions where our kids could be loud and rambunctious if they needed. We took time to rest, even if it meant sitting on a park bench with an ice-cream cone twice in one day. Most importantly, we allowed our kids control. If we went to an attraction they were excited about, they got to pick what we saw first. When we were in parks, they got to pick the games. And while walking through city streets, we often let them set the pace. These small considerations of their needs paid huge dividends when we did need them to be quiet, sit longer, or walk further.
So, traveling with kids is possible, it is fun, but it needs to be with their needs in mind as well as yours. How you think about time is critical- whether for reasons having to do with location or those dealing with the limitations of a small child. Last thought, children will flex and bend to amazing degrees; our job as parents is to also bend so that the trips we take together result in fun times and happy memories.