Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Guide to Traveling Abroad With Kids

Traveling abroad with kids... Is it a good idea or not? Well, I am firmly on the good side for lots of reasons. Many people say wait until they can appreciate it. What exactly does that mean? If you have raised kids that feel every vacation is just for indulgence or 5 days at Disney, you may be doing your kids a disservice. Also, how can you raise good travelers who are flexible, try new foods and can stay in more than one hotel during a vacation? For one, start them seeing the world early! Let them experience the world through others eyes, on trains, subways, by foot and not just on the monorail!

Leaving from an overnight at the island Mont St Michel, Northern France. (Ages 6 and 9)

Let me just say this, if you have kids, do not let that deter you from seeing the world. My whole life I dreamed of going to France and England. It came to pass that I was turning 40 (don't want to say how long ago), and I had never been. My husband insisted we were going for my 40th, though we had young children and no one to watch them. At the time, they were six and three. I didn't know how we were going to do this, and started asking everyone who had traveled what they thought.

At the Tower of London, same trip.

 Most told me forget about bringing kids if I wanted to have a good time. So discouraging. Then a mom from my school to whom I will be forever grateful,  Eleanor, told me that was rubbish. She and her family had been traveling with their three kids from 18 months on and had a ball. Their kids adored travel and had been everywhere! That was encouraging. I then found Rick Steve's online and all the wonderful forums he has for traveling with kids in tow. Trip Advisor was my next salvation. I poured over reviews of hotels and restaurants that travelers had recommended as family friendly. We were going to Paris, but I didn't want to ruin the trip by stressing about being somewhere kids weren't welcome.

The London Eye

Well, the first trip was a surprising hit with us all. We planned well and made sure our kids could sleep on the 12 hour flight over. We took a lightweight stroller with us, so we could hop on and off trains and subways and the the three year old could conk out when needed. The six year old was like the energizer bunny, scanning his maps, climbing monuments and scoping out the next crepe spot in France or Cornetto kiosk in the U.K. The best thing about having little ones, is folks are very kind. In England and In France (yes France) people couldn't be nicer or more helpful with our strollers and crud. In fact, after 3 more trips to Europe with this crew, my husband and I think it was almost easier when they were the smallest! Go figure. Now they have opinions.

 Cappuccino, pommes frites and hot cocoa stop at Tuilaires Garden, Paris

The result of all this is that my two guys love travel and family trips. Even the teenager gets excited about being cooped up with us for a few weeks. I look forward to the times when we are all day together exploring new cities and our make shift picnics by rivers or in parks. I love the nights in hotels playing board games and cards in the lobby or bar together. I am grateful to be able to show and see the world with my children.
Griffin showing improper use of a tea cozy at my favorite store, Liberty of London.

Parents tend to load their kids up on videos and screen things to make the flight time go better. When you are flying I think that is fine. However, we always had a rule, once there you had to have a book with you and no screens. I just wanted them to get a break from all that and be in tune with our surroundings. It worked pretty well too. I admit when the eldest was 9, I did hide the Gameboy in my suitcase, in case of a breakdown, but never needed it. He read his way through 2 novels and thank goodness for the Borders in Paris, where we got the sequel to the first.   Giving kids a backpack filled with a maps and markers, and a keepsake journal helped too. Both boys have small pocket journals from each trip where they stowed post cards and tickets from castles and subway rides where we stopped. It helps to encourage them each night to write a little about their day and paste in their keepsakes. My sons also loved shopping for postcards and souvenirs.

Marveling at the selection at Hamley's 7 story toy emporium in London.

Getting a drink at one of the many water faucets in Rome.

Some things that will make your trip easier:

Gelato in Venice ( ages 9 & 12)

 Plan early and vet out the hotels, apartmants and restaurants you may hit. Family friendly is key and you can find great referrals from Trip Advisor or Rick Steve's graffiti wall.

Waiting for the tube London.

Plan for no more than 3 hotel or apartment changes tops. You can travel out on day trips from there, but 3 spots is usually the max with a family. Kids like to get accustomed to a place and a two week trip with 3 stops is doable. Otherwise, it's just too much transportation and not enough being there.

The boys reading before bed in our "family room" at Hotel Tardiff in Bayeux, France (Normandy.)

Eat early and often to ward off down moods and jet lag. We found eating early (which is usual dinner hour for U.S. folks 5-6) made us less apprehensive about restaurants since most people eat later in Europe. We had places to ourselves and were out before the crowds arrived. Also make time for lot of little stops for gelato, waffles, croissants and crepes and whatever the delicacy is where you are traveling. Kids get worn down and little stops for treats give them a break and the will to keep going! I also brought ritz crackers and peanut butter for my picky eater on the first trip. It helps to have a familiar food for smaller ones handy.

Turn lunches into picnics by buying cheese, bread, sandwiches at local shops and then enjoying the parks and riverbanks of European cities. Kids get some run time and you can rest and relax.

Chocolate crepe break in Paris.

Plan your long flights overnight if you can. I'll never forget the advice from that first mom who told me to make sure we fly to Europe overnight and leave late in the afternoon or early evening. That is a genius plan. You keep your kids up all day, (no naps if they are young) and fly a few hours before bedtime. Kids will be able to sleep a few hours at least since it's usual bedtime. You arrive late morning and it's easier to adjust to the time zone change. I also don't let them have caffeine before.

A zipline at the park in London.

Look online to find out what you want to see and some special spots for the kids. Do a mixture of both. For example we loved taking the kids to the parks in Paris, but also brought them to the Musee D'Orsay. The kids loved the crazy ziplines at all the parks and also had some fun at the museum with headsets, and in the gift shop and collecting postcards.

 We had picnics in the park as well as fancy dinners. It's important to do things you want as well as your kids and it helps them learn how to behave at these places. Vacations are for parents as well as kids. Remember that.

Jackson at the steps of Montmartre, Paris.
 Our first trip to the England we were near Blenheim Palace and I really wanted to visit, but felt like it may be silly to bring two small boys to a stuffy palace they would have no interest in. We did it and they did the tour of all the rooms and then had a blast on the grounds seeing falconry and watching a regiment that was visiting for the day. You never know what your kids can do if you don't try. They still remember that as a very fun day and I was happy too.

Blenheim Palace agreed with the 3 year old.

Passing the time with Daddy while waiting for the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

Griffin making the most of a rainy day in Venice. ( People are like, who is that crazy child?)

Your kids do not need to be, "older" to appreciate a trip abroad. I am all for leisure vacations, but why not inject some culture in their lives too? Can you alternate these kind of trips? I truly believe the earlier kids are exposed to other countries, rituals, food unlike their own, the better.

It's also okay to get some education and appreciation squeezed in there. We took our boys to Normandy at 9 and 6. Though they were a bit young to understand the full scope of WWII, we visited Omaha Beach and the American Museum there. We talked about what has happened and given up for them. They get it. Veterans Day means something to them. I'm glad we did it and I think that kind of thing balanced with kid stuff makes a well rounded and more thoughtful person.

Pont du Hoc in Normandy

A warm day in Rome.
Remember holidays are what you make them. As they say, vacations are only perfect in hindsight. Vacations are however, an opportunity to share your love of travel and the adventure with your kids.

Hiding in the ramparts at Mont St. Michel, France

Sweet shop in Italy.

 Planning a trip can be more affordable than you think. Italy in particular, is pretty inexpensive. That was our last trip and we stayed at 2 great family friendly hotels in Venice and Rome and a wonderful old monastery up in the hills above Florence that had a great family space and a pool.

In Tuscany

One of my favorite hotels, built in the 1700s, Hotel Tardif in Bayeux.

Jackson trying a bambinoccino -(frothy milk basically.)

Getting some relax time to eat a croissant in the park while my then 3 year old took a nap.

Who says 6 years olds don't heart Paris?

Some hotels I personally love and would return to that welcome families:

I Parigi in Florence

Hotel Lancelot in Rome

Hotel Antiche Figure in Venice

The Malt House in Chipping Campden (the Cotswolds) England

Hotel Tardif Bayeux, France (Normandy)

Paris Address, -Wonderful apartments to rent in Paris and someone to greet you & transport help.

Georgian House- A short tube stop out of the London city center. This luxe apartment was perfect for a family of 4. Run by a lovely owners of the main manor, you arrive to a kitchen with fresh bread, butter, jam, tea and milk. A washer/dryer was a treat too.

I'd love to hear any places you recommend and answer any other questions that families consider traveling might have!


Update! We have gone again last summer to Belgium, Holland, Germany and England. Some great spots for families we loved:

The Hotel Adornes in Brugge, Belgium has wonderful family rooms and breakfast. We fell in love with this Rick Steves' recommendation! Lovely people and location cannot be beat.

In London The Cumberland has larger rooms for families and a good location if you can't do an apartment. The proximity to Marble Arch Tube Stop, Hyde Park and a Pret-a-Manger bakery almost built in by the lobby, made it a perfect base for hitting the ground running and seeing all we could in a short visit.

The Westin in Frankfurt, Germany is another nice choice with a good location if you need a spot to crash when flying in or out. Two rooms are mandatory for four persons in Germany, and the prices for adjoining rooms surprisingly aren't bad here. Great restaurant, service, and a rooftop pool for the kids- a treat after many small boutique hotels. Even better, they could binge on Sponge Bob in Deutsch in their own room!

In Amsterdam our stay was just okay. I'm not recommending it here, but if anyone has suggestions for family friendly lodging that would be super.

I know friends with two young boys used Air B&B and had great success.

Photos are all mine. Please link back or use by request. Thank you!


  1. OK, Kim, first of all your kids are ADORABLE! It is so awesome to see how much fun you all had on your trips. I love seeing families traveling with kids when I am abroad. It takes more work, sure, but I agree with you that it is so good for the kids. I love all your tips, too. Another might be to look into renting a house or exchanging homes with another family. I like A whole other way to experience another culture. Great post!

    1. Kim, thank you! Hey that is a great site. I have checked it out via your blog I think. We may try that one Summer. Great reference for others too.
      Thanks so much!

    2. Just this week I have had exchange offers for France, Amsterdam and NYC. Not bad!

  2. Fantastic post. I am bookmarking this one. I wholeheartedly agree about taking kids on trips and I commend you for it. Hubs and I don't have children yet but if and when we do, we will definitely be taking them on vacations. Both of our parents did with us. Besides going to Europe with my parents when I was a teenager, we also did regular road trips and flights to the US and across Canada. They did the same tricks you did - take overnight flights or they would drive during the night so we would sleep (or at least rest) - particularly on the long long road trips to BC from SK to visit my grandparents. I was one of those kids who got motion sickness quite often (I still sometimes do) but that didn't stop my parents from taking me and it doesn't stop me from travelling today. Some days are better than others, though! :)

    You are doing a wonderful thing by exposing your children to travel and experiencing other parts of the well as showing them how to handle themselves in different situations, trying new foods, languages, customs, learning about history (they will absorb FAR more by actually being in a historical place and taking in the information than learning about it from dry textbook) and also giving them a little freedom too.

    And there's the cool factor. How many kids (and even adults) can say that they've been to all those cool places in Europe and around the world?! Hubs and I were having a chat about this the other day. I firmly believe travel and exploring new places opens your mind and makes you a more interesting person. Having a sense of adventure and an open, excited spirit makes all the difference.

    I'm a sensory person and one thing I do for vacations is make a vacation soundtrack. I'll burn some CDs if we are doing a road trip or only download certain songs on my Ipod (i.e. if we are going to LA - choose songs from bands based in LA or songs about LA) and listen to them on the trip. It makes the songs come to life. Whenever I listen to those songs now, I remember snippets of previous trips and the feelings you had then. You're creating a memory and the music brings you back to that place.

    1. We are so on the same page about all of this! I know I think my kids are very fortunate. I wish I was able to travel when I was younger. The farthest I had ever been was to Wisconsin where my mom is from. You were very lucky to have parents who could do that with you.

      I also think they like history more from their experiences. It really makes it so much more interesting than just reading about it. Being actually there where things happened is pretty cool.

      Making a playlist for the trip is such a great idea. I did that for the last few trips. I love replaying it after and all the places and memories come back! I bet you have great ones with your eclectic musical taste!

      Thanks so much for your note.


  3. Wow!!! I honestly can't believe how much you did with your kids in tow - how many countries was that. And my fave photo was Griffin in a tea cosy - what a character (and BTW love that name) . We've had mixed vacays with the kids - the two worst were Hawaii and New York. in Hawaii where the boys were not so good - they don't read and they love bigger waves and loads of activities. Spoiled. The good news about my kids are - they are always ready to go to Kids Club or join in with other kids...

    1. Jody, Always love seeing what you and your family are doing on your holidays. I'm really impressed you can do what you do with four! Wish my kids were into Kid's Clubs. but they never were good about that. We got one to go once in Hawaii, but not the other...So what is the point? I think it's great some the activities they have. .. We have been to 3 countries, but different areas. Griffin is a funny kid. Maddening at times, but he makes us laugh...That tea cozy pic I forgot about until I wrote this!


  4. Fabulous post, Kim. I love that you have exposed your kids to so much. We've not done Europe with them yet, but they are experiencing travels at an early age, too.

    1. Leigh I bet your kids will be great travelers too with all your getaways! Lucky kids!


  5. Kim,
    Love the photos of your kids! Like a little scrapbook on your blog. We've always traveled with kids and that's what makes them great travelers. I think it is so much fun to see the world through their eyes. We've been to playgrounds and parks that we would have never experienced in the same way if we didn't have our kids with us. Your family is beautiful!

    1. Annie, Thanks so much. I totally agree. Can't wait to her more about your upcoming trip to France!


  6. All that blond hair makes me want to run the hair colourist, your family are stunning.
    I've always thought it looked horrendous hard work, but then I don't have kids so I just can't imagine, I suppose it depends a lot on the children too and their temperament. I went away all the time with my parents but it was just me, I'm not sure what they did with the other three it was way before my time.

    1. Tabitha, Funny how they are so blonde. I was a dirty blonde much darker as a kid. My black haired husband is all British and was a tow head as a child, so I suppose that's where it's from. Wish I could bottle that color!

      I always love your travels with your mum. She seems like a adventurous type. You are lucky. It seems they raised you like that!


  7. You are just the cutest family ever Kim. I can only echo what Tabitha says, I have serious hair envy I cant bear it. I'm off to buy some lemons! Have a lovely weekend.

  8. Beautiful family Kim. You made the right decision to travel with your kids. Who else would they best see and learn about the world but with their parents? My brothers and I grew up traveling with our parents and it gave us the travel bug and never ending curiousity about the World. Enjoy every moment.