Tips and Advice for a Family Trip to Europe
You’re planning a trip to Europe this summer, with the kids. Or maybe you’re just at the I-can-dream-about-it-can’t-I? stage, where the spirit is willing even if the wallet hasn’t quite caught up. Either way, you want the trip to be a success on all fronts. Everyone, grownups and kids alike, should have a great time… while appreciating the art and history of Europe… and all without spending a fortune.
We traveled in Europe for four months, when our kids were 10 and 13, and are happy to share some of our best experiences to help you enjoy your trip and save money. Here are five tips for planning before you go, and five more to help with your day-to-day logistics while you’re in Europe.
1. Push-Pin Planning
Your trip will be more interesting if you collect ideas for months before you go. Mount a large map of Europe on a piece of corrugated cardboard, and hang it on the wall in some well-traveled area of your house. Buy a small notebook and a package of push-pins, and number the pins, then invite everyone who enters your house to mark their suggestions on your map, with a corresponding entry in the notebook.
Our son Sam, a Lego-addict, marked the original Lego Land in Denmark. A friend stuck Pin #4 in Oslo, and jotted “great camping and Viking Museum with jumbo boats” next to #4 in the notebook. A neighbor stopped by to borrow a paint scraper, and made suggestions. Both our kids started paying attention to the geography of the map, as the possibilities in each country made the trip more real. By the time we left, we had some great ideas.
2. Think House, not Hotel
You could easily pay $300 a day for two modest hotel rooms at about 100 € each. Or, you could rent a two bedroom house or apartment for as little as $800 a week. Not only will you save money, you’ll have more room, a kitchen where you can do simply cooking and save on restaurant meals, and a special glimpse into local life.
With the internet, renting a house overseas is surprisingly easy. A few of our favorite Europe-wide sites are Flipkey Vacation Rentals (owned by Tripadvisor), www.iha.com, www.homelidays.com, www.interhome.com and www.holiday-rentals.com.
Or, consider a home exchange, and eliminate your housing costs altogether, by trading houses with a European family. Finding the location and timing you want can be tricky, but you’ve hit a home run if it works. Take a look at www.HomeExchange.com, where you can browse for free. (When I stopped by their website today, there were 1658 choices just in Paris!) If you find something you like, you can pay $9.95 for a month’s membership and get contact info for your favorite listings, to start lining up an exchange.
Especially if your kids are younger, staying in one house for your entire vacation can make life much easier – or if you’re staying a few weeks, pick a few different locations for a week each.
3. Hostels have Family Rooms
Maybe your kids are older and you want to see more of Europe, stay a day or two each place rather than a week (the minimum on most rentals and exchanges). Consider youth hostels. No, you won’t be crammed into a giant single-sex dormitory, with backpacking strangers snoring next to you. One of the big secrets of European youth hostels is that around 80% have family rooms.
You’ll have your own private room, usually with two bunkbeds and a sink. A few newer ones have en suite bathrooms, but more often you’ll have to trek down the hall for the toilet or shower. Hostels cost about $18-$20 per person per night, a considerable savings over hotels that can help your budget go a lot further – while also affording you some great opportunities to meet travelers from all over the world, in the hostel’s common rooms. Get info at www.hihostels.com.
4. Camping – without the Bugs and Tents
Our final tip on lodgings is to look at Europe’s campgrounds. While you may associate camping with mud, mosquitoes and cramped tents in the middle of nowhere, Europeans like campgrounds near cities and towns, and fill them with bungalows and multi-room mega-tents, with beds, refrigerators, and lots more amenities. Swimming pools, bistros, and other mix-with-the-locals facilities come along with the lodging. The swankest campgrounds are called holiday camps – check out sites like www.keycamp.com and www.centreparc.com to get an idea of what you can expect.
5. Travel Light
Limit each person to one carryon-size suitcase. If we did it for four months, you can do it too! You’ll see different people every day, so they’ll never know you’re wearing the same clothes over and over. We also recommend bringing:
• a small album of photos of your home and neighborhood, for making friends
• a few small presents – state pins or badges are good
• versatile toys, like Legos, that can be used over and over in new ways
• a small notebook, for each person, to use as a journal
• a small daypack for each person, for snacks, water bottle etc. on the road
Once you’re on the ground in Europe, the planning continues, from day to day. Here are five more of our favorite tips:
6. Follow the Leader
Allow each person in the family, in turn, to choose the day’s activities. On Tuesday, Dad picks the science museum, and everyone goes along, even though it sounds suspiciously educational. On Wednesday, 9-year-old Steve chooses to rent bicycles to the dismay of his parents, who haven’t biked in years. Mom opts for a cheese factory on Thursday, and the samples turn out to be delicious. On Friday, 13-year-old Beth calls for sleeping late, then visiting the flea market.
With this system, everyone gets exposed to new interests, you avoid the paralysis and lowest-common-denominator tendencies of group decision making, and everyone shares the work of planning – instead of all of it falling on one person’s shoulders (often Mom’s).
7. Art is Everywhere
Art appreciation can happen lots of places besides in stuffy museums where the kids have to be quiet. Walk down a canal in Amsterdam, and see how many types of gabled roofs you can spot. Make a photo collection of gargoyles. Visit an outdoor sculpture garden – preferably one where climbing is allowed!
If you do visit an art museum, try starting with the gift shop first. Have each person choose a few postcards of artworks that appeal to them, then set out to find each person’s “own” art. Some museums have Treasure Hunt guides for kids, too.
8. Everyday Life is the Best Entertainment
Don’t get caught up in doing everything in your guidebook. One of our best days was spent at a small school fair in rural France. We loved the hotdogs, served with bearnaise sauce instead of ketchup, in a hollowed-out baguette instead of a bun. Sam won a prize at archery, and we marveled at the families vying to win rabbits… who would one day end up on the dinner table. We never made it to Euro Disney – in fact, we avoided most places with an entry fee.
Exploring a toy store in Germany, or a hardware store in Italy, can be fascinating. Vying to find the most unusual snacks in the supermarket (shrimp-flavored potato chips, anyone?) can open everyone’s eyes to differences in local foods. Street fairs are everywhere, and it’s commonplace to pull along the side of the road and freely explore the ruins of a castle or a Roman aqueduct. Some of your best memories are not listed in any guidebook, and they’re often free.
9. Picnics Save Money
Plan to eat just one meal a day at restaurants, and you’ll save hundreds of dollars. If you’ve rented or exchanged a home, that’s easy – eat breakfast and dinner at home, and have your money-meal at noon, when you’re out sightseeing. If you’re staying at hotels, breakfast may be included; if it’s not, stop at a bakery for juice and a cheese-filled pastry, or grab yogurt and fruit from a convenience store. Have a big lunch out (restaurant meals are often cheaper at lunch, too) then picnic on a park bench at the end of the afternoon. Bars sell ready-made sandwiches, or you can enjoy the adventure of exploring a grocery store.
10. If your Kid’s Picky – How to Avoid Micky
Kids can be picky eaters. So how do you get them to try new foods – and how do you counteract the magnetic attraction of McDonald’s? We found it useful to allow Micky D’s once in each country – we’d stop in, and make a game out of finding out how McDonald’s in Spain, for instance, is different from in the States. (That said, McDonald’s and other American fast food restaurants are a godsend when you need a bathroom in a hurry, so appreciate them for that!)
Most restaurants in Europe post their menu out front. Check to make sure there’s at least one choice that everyone could enjoy before picking a restaurant. Once inside, order a few “safe” choices and a few “adventures,” then share everything. After living on French fries for the first few days, our kids soon started branching out, and I have fond memories of Sam (then 10) trying snails one night, poking with his tiny fork into the shells and saying, “Come on out, little guy!”
The Author: Cynthia Harriman, author of Take Your Kids to Europe