I have travelled a bit in the almost 11 years since having my first child. Living abroad also means big trips home – a transatlantic flight plus trips all over the east coast and even beyond to see friends and family every year. Additionally, living in Europe is a travel paradise since there is so much to see in a relatively small space. I have taken trips to Asia and Africa with kids as well, so I have a bit of experience in this area. However, I am now returning from a 2 week car trip and realized that I could still learn something from my experiences. Here are my tips from what I have applied and learned from this most recent adventure.
1. Pack light
I realized that on this trip I have packed lighter with each child. With my first, I remember filling up the whole car and packing every space around her. This trip with all four, we managed to fit everything in the back without a car top carrier. This is a true miracle if you consider how small the packing space is in the back of our car. How did I do this? I basically packed only a ‘girl’ bag and a ‘boy’ bag since I knew boys and girls would be in separate hotel rooms at certain stages of the trip. Also, I didn’t take many ‘baby’ things with me – only a pop up tent for sleeping , a very compact stroller and my ergo. I considered leaving all electronics at home but caved at the last moment, and that could have simplified packing more. One thing I probably could have left was my Nikon camera and lenses. I hardly used them since the iPhone is so easy and takes pretty good pictures for most conditions. Finally, we travelled in summer and that is always easier to pack for.
Since we never spent more than 3 nights anywhere, it really helped having fewer bags to load and unload. It also meant fewer things to keep up with as we left each place.
2. Car over plane
In general, I prefer car travel with small kids. One of the most obvious reasons is that you have more freedom in taking things even though I just recommended that it is better to pack light. Most importantly though is that I find the freedom of movement much better with small children. I don’t have to spend time waiting for busses, trains or planes. I can stop when necessary and I can go when I want. All of these are key with little ones. One of the worst things with mass transit and little ones is the inevitable waiting in lines – waiting to check in, waiting for security, waiting to board. Wee ones don’t understand why they have to stay in one place and usually want to run someplace causing you to lose your place in line or cause a security threat. Granted sitting in a car for hours may not but fun either, but the kid is contained and can usually be distracted with some sort of food or fun. If not, then you can always stop and let them run somewhere.
I also find getting kids around at my destination easier with a car for many of the same reasons. I find it stressful to keep up with 3 little ones running every which way on a bus or train and am always afraid someone will get on or off without the rest of us. I prefer being able to control my schedule. Inevitably a child will start screaming and I would rather that happen in the privacy of my car rather than on a bus where 30 people give me the evil eye. So even if I fly, I usually rent a car on the other end and then I need car seats, and THOSE are a pain to fly with, so it is easier just to drive to my destination when possible.
(Obviously, sometimes planes are necessary as one is not able to drive across the Atlantic, so I still have a couple of LONG flights every year, and I ALWAYS buy the seat for the infants and strap them into a car seat so I can eat and sleep when they are asleep. I also find they sleep better in their car seats than in my arms, and I have had little success with bassinets. In 10 years, I think I have only gotten one, you can’t have it for take off or landing, and the child shouldn’t even be turning over yet to use them, so really only the first 3 months….)
3. Rent a house/apartment and stay put
In general I prefer to stay in one place and make day trips as I find the packing and unpacking difficult with little ones. I also prefer to rent an apartment or house so we can put the kids down in a separate room. To be honest, I have never been able to get my babies to sleep with me in a hotel room. During one hotel stay on this trip, our one year old was up past midnight because she was in the same room with us and I don’t think she ever went to sleep before 9 in a hotel room, but she still managed to be up by 6 every morning.
On this trip we changed our usual plans because we wanted to catch up with old friends so every 2 days we went to another friend’s house, but we realized that was not the wisest decision with little ones. In hindsight we should have rented a lake house somewhat convenient to our friends and invited them to each come to us for 2 days instead. Then we wouldn’t have needed to repack the kids so much and the kids would have had a comfortable place to run around rather than us being paranoid about what the kids were gettin into at our friends’ house. For example, the kids were jumping on the couches and throwing down cushions, running through hallways and messing up rugs, playing around breakable objects. If we had rented a place these activities wouldn’t have stressed me out nearly as much.
Also, when you stay at a house/flat you can prepare cheaper and healthier food than a hotel and you can eat whenever the kids are hungry rather than trying to find a restaurant and wait for service.
Finally, one of the most important reasons for us to try for a house is that we can rarely fit all 6 of us in a hotel room. Most hotels in Europe don’t even allow for more than 1 child per room as they usually only have one double bed and sometimes no room for an extra bed.
Another advantage of a house is that you often have laundry facilities which are very useful with kids.
For those in Northern Europe, center parks have reasonably priced bungalows that sleep up to 12 in kid friendly parks. However, here are limitations on the days. Eurocamp offers vacation bungalows and tents with more flexibility in vacation spots in southern Europe. Elsewhere, Homeaway.com has info on renting houses all over the world.
4. If you must stay in a hotel, then:
- Look for family hotels near parks and with play area
- Make sure you can get breakfast
- Look for triple, quadruple or family apartment rooms
- If you must get multiple rooms, Rent rooms next to each other. My husband took the boys in one and I took the girls in another as our kids are too small to be on their own. With neighboring rooms we could easily put all the kids together so one of us could go running or to load/unload the car
My new favorite place to find hotels is Booking.com because they give lots of good information like: how many beds are in a room and may be added to the room, is there wifi, what is the parking situation, is breakfast included, etc. I think it is the only website I could search for rooms for a family of 6 and actually get results! I used it for all of my hotel bookings on this last trip with great success.
5. Car/plane bag
Every parent knows the necessity if these, but what I have found is that my younger children rarely play with the items in their bags and items often get list along the way. I suggest only bringing a couple of engaging activities like a coloring book or travel game and looking for new toys along the way. In general, I don’t like to add any more toys to our collection, but kids always prefer the new toys, even a happy meal toy. Alternatively, shop smart for good travel toys and pull them out along the way so that things are new and exciting rather than things they are used to. When traveling by car, we leave each child’s bag in the car as they usually find things to play with in homes and other places
6. Healthy snacks
One of my biggest annoyances while traveling is all the junk my kids are exposed to. It seems that vacations revolve around french fries and ice cream. So I try to load up on a bag a healthy snacks and let the kids eat as much as they want from that. The best would be fresh fruit, but I find that difficult to manage on the road since it doesn’t keep well and can be messy to eat. Instead I rely on rice crackers and dried fruit. I also splurge on fruit purée and fruit bars from DM since it adds variety and isn’t something I normally buy. Ideally you will actually pack lunches as well and eat those at road stops, but I am usually too lazy….
7. Stop to play
My kids seem to eat constantly in the car, so when we stop for ‘meals’ they aren’t really interested in eating what they really need is to run and play it seems that little ones cant last much more than 2 hours so I plan a stop with a playground for every 2 hours, I also limit driving to 6 hours/day and try not to travel 2 days in a row by alternating travel days with active days. For example , on our way back from Hungary, we split the drive with a day at playmobil fun park. These restrictions I find most useful with the under 3 crowd. By the time kids are 3 they can entertain themselves longer and handle longer drives (especially if you hand them an iTouch or iPad!). However, I haven’t traveled without younger kids in 5 years so I just add an hour for every 2 and limit driving to 6 so that the little guys don’t have to spend too much time locked into car seats and get a chance to use their muscles.
If you are in Austria, I recommend stopping at Landzeit or Marche as both have a large selection of fresh food and large play places. They also have neat carts to sit kids in that also hold 2 trays.
8. Take a laundry bag
I always take a nylon bag to collect dirty clothes in since kids attract dirt and I don’t want it contaminating all my clean stuff. It also makes it easy to when you have a chance to do laundry.
9. Always be prepared for rain and cold in Europe.
We looked at the weather forecast for this trip and saw 90s and sunny so we figured we didn’t need to worry about long pants or rain jackets, but we were wrong on both counts. As I write this in July 21 from Germany the low today is 47 and it is raining. We spent many days underdressed and damp and would have been more comfortable with even one pair of long pants and a rain jacket for each
10. Apple OS devices/electronics
I am torn on this one. My kids have sat on these for an entire transatlantic flight, so it certain keeps the kids sedate for much longer than normally. The only time they made a noise is when I tried to take it away. So why NOT rely on these devices? Well, dang it, I never had one when I was a kid and I was just fine! Honestly, there is something to letting the kids experience the ‘boredom’ of the trip so that they are forced to bond with the family. After all, one of the points of a trip is family time. To get a good illustration of how traveling together can bond a family, watch ‘Little Miss Sunshine’! The other problem with smaller kids is that mine won’t catch up on sleep. Normally driving/traveling is a great time for my kids to get naps, but if they have an apple device in their hands, they will NOT sleep or do anything for the entire time said device is in possession.
Hope my lessons learned help you. Happy travels this summer!