Seven Tips for Traveling Europe with Kids

We’ve been lucky to live first in France and now in Italy, so my list could be much longer than seven, but these are my most important when traveling while living here.

Oh and by lucky I mean the military had a job opening. 😉

My list was inspired by 10 tips for travel bliss with kids.

1. A kid* is a kid, not a short adult

Kids might need naps, they’ll definitely need to eat regularly, and bathroom breaks are a must. Adults can sometimes go for hours without eating, and while a good nap is a nice thing, it’s not really a requirement to go about our day. But take a kid to a new city and plan to be out and about from sun up to night and you will not be happy. Pack a few easy snacks and you will not have to stop to buy something completely unknown or worry about finding a grocery store.

Taking a break during the day can be as simple as a long lunch at a restaurant, or a stop at the park. Do something to sit and recharge so you do not end up with a grouchy kid who has no desire to sit during dinner. That long walk from one location to another might be seen as this lovely stroll you are taking, but to a little one it can be the worst thing ever. Oh and be aware that not every park with grass is for anyone to play on, it’s simply for looks, thank you very much. (I’m looking at you Paris.)

Your child will love being with you, but they might not love not speaking while you tiptoe around a museum. Depending on their age, let them help decide what to do and what to see on the trip. We love the Big Red Bus tours and take one in every city we visit, something our kids love and it might be our youngest son’s favorite thing. And who knows, that walk from place to place could be the best thing about their day.

*kid = human child, not baby goatfeet in the water

2. Plan your trip

We all love to be spontaneous. Scratch that – the idea of being spontaneous is fun, but when it comes down to it, traveling around Europe calls for a plan. Take the time to figure out what you want to see and where you want to stay. A lot of cities are very easy to walk so a car is not necessary, and many cities have really great public transportation.

Once you have a place to stay, take the time to read a few reviews for local restaurants so you aren’t disappointed with your first night out. Look up the closest grocery store so you can buy a few snacks to have in your room. Restaurants in Europe open much later than in the US so you can decide if you want to venture for dinner at 8PM with your little ones, or if you’ll have a great lunch and cook dinner at the Airbnb place you are renting. While you are at it, check the times that things open. Often restaurants will open for lunch from 11-2, and close again until dinner at 7. And if your restaurant is very popular you might need to make a reservation because they only have room for 20 people. Keep in mind that European restaurants do not have you in and out in an hour. Once you sit down, that table is yours until they close. You are, of course, free to leave when you wish, but no one will rush out so you can sit down.

Taking the time to plan your trip will make the time be that much more fun. If I have things I need to print I use a folder that is organized by date based on what we are doing. Tickets to various things can often be bought online, which can no only save you time but sometimes will also give you a discount. I also use the TripIt app, and I have various airline apps downloaded as well. I don’t know about every airline app, but few I’ve used recently show the boarding pass on the app.

I am reminded of a spontaneous stop to go up the Eiffel Tower. Since we didn’t plan we ended up having to stand in line – for over an hour. However, you can buy a ticket online and by doing so, you can typically walk right up to the front and go up the tower. We also waited in the (light) rain, which doesn’t drive away nearly as many people as you think it does.

Which leads us right to number three:

helsinki

3. Schedule one thing a day

Yep, I said it, one thing. “ONE thing! Only one? How can I plan one thing when I am taking my family to visit {insert name of your favorite or dream city here}!” I didn’t say do only one thing, I said schedule one thing.

When you schedule that one thing, you know you will do it. You can have breakfast and leisurely walk to the museum and maybe you pass a hole in the wall restaurant with great reviews on the way, or maybe you turn a corner and see a street market. You can take the time to walk through the market since you just have one thing scheduled and not four things. Maybe you decide to go down the narrow street with a small shop every ten feet and find your favorite souvenir. If you have a schedule to do six things a day, you could miss out on the fun stuff. Walking from place to place is at least half the fun.

If you are traveling to a major city such as Paris or London, you need to work in travel time from museum to museum and check the schedule to determine if it is quicker to walk versus taking the metro or tube. The maps will have walking travel time to help you decide. Sometimes there will be closures so be sure to double check this! Also check for strikes because that can shut down major transportation as well. And the person selling metro/tube tickets will not always volunteer this information. We had this problem when we finally went to see the Palace of Versailles – part of the metro was shut down for work, yet we were not told by the attendant. However, in Glasgow, we were told about the subway issues. Glasgow has a much, much smaller system, but it was still really appreciated that we were told versus having a surprise waiting for us.

Also keep in mind the times of opening and closing for a museum, or whatever attraction you are interested in visiting. If something closes at 5 pm and you are leisurely walking to the location, stopping at the hole in the wall restaurant, and walking through a market, you may arrive only to be told you can stay for one hour.

We visited London with a list of places to see and while we checked most (or maybe all) of the boxes on our list, it felt like we were walking or taking the tube for most of the trip. The mistake we made was staying too far outside the city. While it is cheaper to stay on the outskirts of London, versus staying in the city, it might be worth it to spend a little more to stay closer.

market

4. Entertainment

One of the hardest things for my family is figuring out any extra things to bring with us. We all read voraciously and it’s natural to want to take a book (or seven) on a trip. But that leads to heavy luggage, something we’ve dealt with while standing at the check in counter. For our trips this summer, I’ve given in and downloaded books to my Kindle app. I am also finding books for the kids and made a note in the calendar to download them to kindle the day before we leave. Download before you go, you never know the state of wifi where you will be staying (or if you’ve made a mistake and booked a place with no wifi like we did one time).

helsinki

5. Check the weather

If you are traveling Europe from October to May, pack a rain jacket. If you are going to Ireland or the UK, pack it regardless of the month. Packing for a trip is difficult – you want comfortable shoes, will you and your partner sneak away to a fancy restaurant that says no to jeans and sneakers? How much do the airlines let you bring? What about room for something you buy to take home? We go for casual because it’s vacation, no extremely fancy restaurants, and remember to layer our clothing. It’s easy to have little kids wear a shirt and a sweater, and take off the sweater once the weather warms up. The Big Red Bus tours will give you a poncho in case of spontaneous rain.

starbucks mugs

6. Admire the touristy stuff in the store

My kids are lucky to have Grandpa Dan in their lives. And Grandpa Dan once told them, “don’t buy the junk you see in the stores, it will be wasted money, buy something you will use.” I’m paraphrasing, but that has been really great advice. My husband likes to collect the Starbucks cups that have city names on them, yes even if he only stopped in the airport. I like to get a tea towel. It is so hard when you are young because you want everything – you want a keychain, and maybe a button, and oh look at this mini Eiffel Tower it is only one euro that isn’t much! It’s hard to not buy stuff because it really is everywhere.

But when our daughter took a school trip to the UK and came home with chocolate, I knew that Grandpa Dan was proud of her. She brought something she could use, something she could share, something she knew we would all appreciate, and it was edible so it didn’t collect dust on a shelf.

So look at the stores and smile at the touristy stuff. Laugh at the fact that you will see the same thing seven different times, with just slightly different prices depending on the area of town you are in. Remember you can buy that Eiffel Tower keychain at every tourist stop in town. And then stop in at the corner bakery and buy a box of treats to take back to your hotel. Take a selfie with the Eiffel Tower, or pretend you are holding up the Arc de Triomphe. It’s the memories we make, not the one euro toy that matters. Of course if you are somewhere like Quimper, France, and you need to buy pottery, I say buy two. We’ve also bought tshirts, which can scream tourist, but do get worn in our house.

chocolate

7. Relax and have fun! Traveling with kids can be stressful. Plans can change, metros can be closed, the weather can be just too hot/cold for you to want to enjoy anything. During a trip we will sometimes have packed days and other days we have little to do, either way it ends up being fun.

Life in Italy has taken some time to get used to and we’ve decided that we will make the most of our time here, but sometimes the best part is being able to travel to another place.

Observations on a French playground

When the days are warm we head to the playground after school. Every parent, or whoever picks up the little toddler from school, has the same idea. Our favorite playground is enclosed with a short fence, there are two gates, and it has three large areas to play and four small areas. I just mean there are seven playground things for kids to be on. There are green metal benches all around the fence, for parents to sit on and a few trees around.

French children usually dress impeccably. And by that I mean if you can imagine what French children dress like based on a movie or book you saw or read, you will probably be correct. They all wear scarves, Mary Jane shoes or what I call a loafer, shirts on hot days, skirts with a shirt and sweater, sometimes a hat, and they are set free in the playground to do whatever they wish.

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JW pushing his friend

The slides have that soft playground padding surrounding them, while the slide/climbing set for the big kids has rocks underneath. Not hurt you rocks, but small gravel, sufficient for padding and for the little ones to throw happily in the air.

Parents will gather on the benches and visit, I think they are gossiping but the French speak fast and in groups like this more than one is speaking, and I listen slowly. I just like to imagine they are, and not in a malicious way, but just visiting excitedly. On occasion a child will run to someone, to complain, to ask something, to get a snack.

The fence feels secure. My son knows not to leave it and he will usually find someone he knows to play with, though on a school day the playground is full of children from another nearby school, not his. The kids chase each other until it’s time to leave, they play touché (which is basically tag), they take turns following each other down the slide.

Older kids are outside the gate usually playing soccer, but occasionally riding a scooter. The entire park takes up the space of a city block so there is a very large gazebo, more benches, and a merry go round in the same space, all of that outside of the fence of the playground. The park is named after the U.S. President Wilson and there is a memorial for the Second Infantry Division.

A Family in France

I finally had the chance to listen to the Americans In Paris episode for This American Life. I was waiting for my husband to be around so we could listen together, because the beginning was so great. David Sedaris is the main interview for the show and he starts by saying they (he and Ira Glass) are at the Louvre, and he’s never been inside. I really wanted my husband to hear this because though, yes, we have been to the Louvre, I so wasn’t interested in going when we went last fall. Am I interested in art – sure, some of it, but the Louvre is just massive, and always crowded, and there was even a time (not that long ago) that they shut down in protest of the pickpockets in the area. And my husband wanted us to go? Um, okay I guess.

So we went. And it was super hot and the weak air conditioning did nothing to help that. At one point we found a vent and the five of us fought to stand over it to have a brief moment of relief.

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The baby will always win.

And the crowds – yuck. I don’t have a lot of issues with crowds, but if it is a case of do or do without, I’ll take without. I’d rather go to a specific place for a specific reason than wonder around a crowded area.

Oh and the Mona Lisa – tiny.

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Tiny and in a protective case (totally understandable and I think for theft/destructive reasons more than anything else if I remember right) and roped off, with people seriously shoving you to get to the front of the line to hold their camera up for a picture. Unless you are handicapped, they did let someone in a wheelchair go beyond the rope to look, which I really appreciated. But I was elbowed and shoved and in general on high anxiety alert because I was like okay I’m done, this is ridiculous. Oh and check out the expression on some faces.

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Do you see the awe and wonder and amazement at seeing this piece of art? No? Yeah, me either. Okay maybe in Chris.

We did get a couple of audio guides, but didn’t use them well, they were mostly for JW to have something to listen to and play with because we knew he wouldn’t be engaged.

My experience here has been fairly normal. The lack of language is of course a barrier, or it was, but now I understand enough to cobble the context together. I still struggle with how to respond, but I’m practicing every day. What David did during his time in Paris sounded familiar though, going to the same store over and over because they are nice, and being annoyed (I think it was annoyance) at the person selling the newspaper not recognizing him. There are a few people that recognize us, and I am surprised every time. But do we go back to that sandwich shop – yes we do!

We did go to the Musee d’Orsay and that was such a better experience for us. We loved that place. It also helps to have a plan and not try to see *everything* in one day or one trip. The museums are just too large for that.

Choosing a School Overseas

When it came time to finding a school for the kids, we were lucky to turn to the same couple that helped us find a place to live. And this was after, once again, I couldn’t find much online. You can find the basics of what a French education is – kids can start school at 2 years old in some places! Two! As long as they are potty trained. And it’s not daycare with singing the alphabet song once in a while, it’s legit school with finger painting and singing and naps after lunch. Okay, is that legit school? 🙂 And so we arrived not thinking that our youngest would actually attend, but not knowing where the older kids would go.

Our friend called two primary schools for us, as well as the secondary school for our oldest. One primary school was full and not accepting more students, but the other had openings. The other school is the one both of our sons attended last year, it is a private school that is for ages 2 up through the equivalent of fifth grade. After meeting with the director and filling out a bunch of paperwork, the kids started school about two months after school in the US started. No one other than a few teachers speak English at the primary school, but we figured after some time it would be easier for the kids. And it’s true, all three of the kids are – well, I consider them fluent. Sure their vocabulary can always be added to, but they are speaking very well.

The secondary school we were led to is also a private school, but it’s an international school. This means that a lot of students attending speak English, okay maybe not “a lot” but if they are in the international section at school then yeah, they do. This just means our oldest took a little longer to be able to speak the language as well as the youngest kids.

The school year schedule here is pretty awesome. There are two week breaks about every six weeks. This means school runs through June, to the very beginning of July actually, but we love it. It didn’t take long to get used to those breaks. The first school break last year had the kids staying up really late and sleeping in really late and it just threw everyone off for the first week, but after that they were fine. Some families go visit their relatives during the breaks, but we have yet to go anywhere.

I’m happy with the education the kids are getting here. Our youngest writes letters the way the French do so we work on that, and sometimes the older kids will come home and say they are studying something they learned at a different school, but we just keep plugging along. Oh, and despite the schools both being private schools they are no where near the cost that private schools are in the US. The primary school is only 225 euros a year (about $280, as of today). The school the older kids attend this year is around 1400 euros a year (about $1750), and only because they are in the international section. The regular school is around 500 a year (about $625), the international section an additional 900 (about $1125), with discounts for multiple kids. We also have to pay for various things such as the school trips, lockers, the school offers insurance, books they are reading for class, and of course school supplies (school supplies deserve their own post, they are long and complicated).

There will be a DODEA person you can talk to for the region you’ll be in, but if no one has been stationed in that town or if they didn’t have kids, you might not have help picking a school. They will recommend schools that others previously attended, which can be nice and make your decision easier.

One year down, one year to go!

After the Hotel, Finding a Home

We have lived in a great apartment, with extremely close access to the tramway system, walkable to so much, close to grocery stores and the kids schools, for one reason – because someone else helped us find it. It’s another thing we had to have help with, and we had to trust someone else. Finding housing overseas, at least in France, is so different compared to the US! When we previously moved it was easy to find a place to live – get online! Get online and do a search on a few main websites, ask your friends and support system on facebook, and you can find a new home.

 

But overseas – you need to walk around and look at pictures hung up in windows at the real estate offices, and be sure you are looking at the right side so you don’t look at the houses for sale (unless that’s what you want of course). This is such a big change from what were used to. When you are a military family, you don’t have a lot of control over things. You don’t get to pick the town you live in, you don’t get to decide to stay in the same school until your kids graduate high school, you don’t get to not move. Okay, you – the family, the kids – can do all of those things, but the active duty military person – they go where they are told to go. And with that lack of control, I take what I can get! I plan and prepare for our moves, I find places to live and schools for the kids. So giving it up when it came to France was just what I had to do.

And it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. It was enough for me to have to move (again) and say bye to our family and friends, moving overseas was emotionally exhausting. Giving up what I had to give up wasn’t as nearly as hard as I thought it would be. I embraced the adventure.

 

So we had a friend look for three or four bedroom apartments for us. I was really hopeful for a four so I could have a space to sew. I’ve always had a space, a make it work space, but I was nervous because everyone says how small European/French apartments are. But when you look for a four bedroom, you find the larger apartments and we lucked out! We found four places to see, but only three were available within the day or two that it took us to make appointments, and of those three only our apartment interested us. One was really dark and when you looked out the windows you just looked at other apartments or a tiny street. This apartment is full of light, has so much space, and though it isn’t technically a four bedroom there is a large space for me to sew. I have a sewing room.

The military and finding a house not on base or not with the embassy overseas is a different thing, you have to follow various rules. You may have to make changes to the house, and even if it feels annoying and stressful, just give up and embrace the adventure. Get the keys to your place and when your kids are in school, go sit on the hard wood floors and be happy that you are not stuck in a hotel room for that much longer. It’s just one more thing we have to do when we trust others, know that they will help us find the best place to live. I have come to love this apartment, with the black out the light blinds and the loud parties that start on Thursday nights, and the tram right out the front door. I recently had a feeling about not liking that the apartment isn’t as decorated as I would like and I am looking forward to the next year and to what I can do to make our second year here even better.

Upcoming for France

Sewing at the park

Sewing at the park! Just one of my many “just one more thing and then it’s finished” projects. Since this picture I’ve finished two small projects!

We have passed the mark of living here for a year. Not quite a year in our apartment, but we’ll get there soon enough. Last week I was sick and dropped the ball on writing about life overseas and in France, and now I wanted to move on from getting here to services provided here. I am going to write about finding a place to live, picking a school for your children, doctors, dentists, and eye doctors (oh my!), as well as what it is like to navigate making friends and new friendships.

And so you can catch up on the previous life in France posts here –

Living Here
You Will Need A Huge Van
Hotel As Home
Laundry and Industrial Dryers
Farmer’s Markets

Please let me know if you have anything you are interested in learning about France. And in case you didn’t know, I started a facebook page for the blog. Currently it is all about my sewing, quilting, and creating, and as I move toward creating patterns there will be more news about that. I’d love for you to like the page and comment on a picture or ask a question!

Anything avec fromage et jambon

Ah fromage – cheese in France is delicious. It is so good and of course so widely available. We live in a region that created the salted caramel, the crepe, and maybe the cider, but maybe not and even so it is very good.

When we first arrived, we frequented the market every week. On Easter Sunday this year we got a really great piece of ham from one of the food vendors. We’ve been buying our holiday meals at the market just because it is easy to do. Luckily for us, market was open even though it was Easter. Unluckily for us, we went after breakfast but before lunch, which meant we were shopping on a not quite empty stomach.

Good for the vendors, bad for the wallet! I didn’t find turkey around thanksgiving last year, so we didn’t have any of that, but there is always good chicken and ham available. There are a few vendors that roast chicken right there at the market. They usually cook the potatoes directly under the chicken so the flavors get mixed together.

I have discovered that the view of France being extravagant, romantic, Paris, wine, cheese, bread, and walks along the river is just a little off. Meals are simple and it’s not the amazingness of a meal that you enjoy but the company you are in. A favorite of ours is a halved baked potato, topped with chopped gam, cheese, and garlic butter. This is such a super simple meal. Of course this is easily made at home, but the line up of the various options at the market makes it too tempting to take home.

My tip is this: you will probably not find your favorite junk food or snack in the store. But that’s okay. Embrace the experience and try new foods. Enjoy new combinations of foods. I love pickles but here there are cornichon’s, which are small not sweet pickles but not the “regular” pickles in the US. It didn’t take long for me to love them.