Sunday, August 28, 2016

Tips on Traveling Internationally with a 7-year old

A.k.a:  Lessons We Learned the Hard Way

By no means is this a sanctimonious "We know everything there is to know about traveling with children" post. Most of the tips included here were learned by doing exactly the opposite - and facing the consequences. Many of them we wished we had learned much earlier. And still they do not always work - even with these efforts, our last major trip was not perfect. But for what it's worth, here's my advice.

Before you begin: Think carefully about this.  I know that sounds horribly cynical. It's a great idea to expose a child to fabulous works of history, artwork, architecture and culture, right? Well, maybe. I'm sure there are kids who are mature enough to truly gain new insights and understanding from European travel. However, before you begin, consider your own child. What are your kid's favorite things to do in the summertime?  If the answers are: go to the playground, swim in the neighborhood pool, and ride bikes, then these will be the same things she will want to do when you go to Europe.

Weigh the risks v. reward carefully. If you think that your child would truly appreciate the experience and it would truly broaden her worldview, then great - go for it. However, if you travel with a young child, you will spend a lot of time looking for a toilet for someone who must have a bladder the size of a peanut. And you will spend a lot of time trying to reason with someone who has decided that she will not take "one more step" - right in the middle of a hike. Traveling has its own share of stressful moments, so you should know that you will compound them if you travel with a child.

We had some wonderful trips as a family, and posted many lovely pictures. But we also had some not-so-great trips, which had their decidedly non-photo-worthy moments. Many have commented that my daughter "will have such fond memories" of this time when she gets older. We hope so. We were living in Europe so we had no other choice than travel with her, but if I were planning a trip and considering the costs of transportation and lodging for an extra person who may or may not appreciate the experience, I might think twice about this. Traveling to Europe might be a wonderfully enriching, culturally-broadening experience for your child, or she might be just as happy staying home with some extra pizza money.

OK - If you're up to challenge, bon courage, and here are my best pieces of advice.

#1: Lower your expectations.

And then lower them again.  And then one more time. No seriously, I remember when I went backpacking through Europe in college with my friend Hannah. We were living on a Spartan diet of bread and peanut butter, but we made sure to visit every single museum, gallery, or cultural highlight we could. We were going to squeeze every cent out of that Eurorail pass. We were tireless; we were determined to do it all. If you are traveling with a child, you will not be doing it all. You will be lucky to do a fraction of these things. And more often than not, she will be bored. As much as you hope that your child will soak up all the wonderful cultural experiences surrounding her, if she's an average kid, her most vivid memories will not be from the Louvre, or a Roman arena, or the architecture of Sagrada Familia. More likely, she will remember the playground with the really fast slide, or the alley cat who was tame enough to allow her to pet it, or the delicious lemon granita. This is normal - remind yourself of this.

#2: Break the rules.

Yes, get the lemon granitas, and the gelato, and the popsicles. This is not the time to worry about tooth decay, or "spoiling" your child, or spikes in blood sugar; this is the time to coax her along so that the entire family can have a decent day.

This is now the time for perfect parents to respond: "Oh no, we never use bribery for our children. We rely solely on intrinsic motivation."  Right. From this, I can presume that either:

     1.) You're lying.
     2.) You've never done extensive international travel with your child.
     3.) You have unrealistically perfect children and therefore have no need of this post.
[Note from Eric: I've seen your kids. Number 1 it is.]

On the subject of "spoiling" your child, you're already traveling in Europe, so it's kind of late to worry about that now - one popsicle isn't going to tilt the balance. And remember, it's for the good of the family.  One rule that we try to keep is that we don't reward whining. As expected, this only makes the whining more painful and prolonged, and sometimes another family member might join in. But at least this will discourage future whining. (Or at least that's the theory.) It's best if you can anticipate the whining and stem it. If you're all hot, and somewhat lost, and a drink sounds really good, be proactive. As long as you overlook the fact that her Orange Fanta costs twice as much as your beer or glass of rose, the whole family is happy. When it was about 95 degrees in Barcelona, I bought her one of those cheap souvenir fans. (At first I thought these were strictly for tourists, but I actually saw a sizeable number of locals using them to cool themselves down, which I found quite charming.) At this, her eyes lit up as she exclaimed "You bought this for me without me even asking for it?  Oh thank you mom, thank you!" Then she proceeded to fan herself like a Southern belle. That's one euro well spent.

#3. Pick your battles.
As our daughter often reminded us, we were making all the decisions, and she didn't have much say in what we were doing. That's true. So often you do have to let your child make choices in the itinerary. Even if this means spending enough time in the gift shop to shake each and every snow globe. Or spending a half hour trying to coax the kitty from out of the shadows. Or playing on the playground. There is no use trying to convince your kid "But we have playgrounds at home!" Though this is frustrating, remember - this may be precisely why she wants to do it.

#4. Give your child some ownership.
In addition to making decisions, allow your child to remember the experience in her own way. Find that old-but-perfectly-good point-and-shoot digital camera and let your child document her own experience. 

I remember when I was a kid, each vacation my father would let me take only one or two photos (which were admittedly quite awful), merely because film and processing were expensive. What a blessing digital cameras are. Let kids take as many pictures as they'd like. Resist any urge to suggest changes or improvements in their pictures. Their view of the world (and what's interesting in it) will be different from yours, and that's ok. Plus, it's helpful to remember from time to time that your kid's view of the world looks like this:

Also acknowledge the things that cannot be captured on film. The first time we went to the Calanques in France, we all realized that even with a wide-angle lens or a panorama, the true splendor of this area could not be captured on film. At this point, my daughter looked at me and said: "I think I just want to remember this one with my mind camera - that's the best." Then she proceeded to mimic shooting a picture with her hands, saying "click" "click" click".

Indeed, the mind camera is sometimes best.

#5. Do your homework.
On the subject of itinerary planning, it definitely is helpful to get your kid involved in the planning process. One of our best trips was to the Netherlands and Paris, mainly because Beatrice was so invested in what she was going to see. She was fascinated by the Anne Frank story, so there were virtually no complaints in the very long line at the Anne Frank House. She also wanted to see the Eiffel Tower - probably so that she could brag to her friends. And she had read a book about Louis Braille in Ms. Muller's class back home, so she very much wanted to see his grave in the Pantheon. The more background you can give to your kids about the places they are about to see, the better. Find some books about art, architecture, or history at the library. I highly recommend Lonely Planet's "Not For Parents" series. We got Beatrice the Not For Parents - Paris book before our trip, and she loved the fact that she had secrets about Paris that we didn't know.
Nfp paris 1 rs

Our daughter was also surprisingly interested in the audio guides at museums.  (Apparently the same information that we might have told her was far more interesting read by someone else.) Some museums even have specially-designed versions for children. When we were at the Chagall museum, she loved comparing notes with us to see how our information was different than hers. 

One other helpful method of preparation I found was visiting the gift shop first. Granted, this allows your kid to ask for all the things before you even enter the museum, but at least it exposes her to a overview of what she will see. I learned to look for  the kids table - there always seems to be one 'A Day in the Life of the Artist' book.  Open it and shamelessly read it cover to cover with your child. This will at least give your child a brief introduction to the artist's life and work. We did this at the Picasso museum, and Beatrice got a quick lesson in the evolution of Picasso's artwork and his use of dual perspective. Later, when she walked into one room, she said, "These must be from his blue period."  A few tourists gawked at us, impressed.  I smiled smugly.

#6 Make friends with Rick Steves.

Yes, Rick Steves is both a blessing and a curse, but my daughter loves him. For virtually every place you want to travel in Europe, there is likely a Rick Steves video to be found. Look it up and let your child watch it as often as she wants, sometimes until she can quote it verbatim. We've now gotten used to hearing "When Rick Steves was here..." or "Rick Steves says..." One caveat is that if your child is a somewhat literal thinker, you might have a hard time convincing her that Rick Steves didn't mean it literally when he said that the mountains of Montserrat were "carved by angels with golden knives."  Good luck with that. Rick Steves has now jumped to the top of my daughter's list of 'People on the Internet Who Know More Than My Parents.'

Here's the two of us looking at the handiwork 
of the knife-wielding angels in Montserrat. 

#7. Buy advance tickets.
Oh my, yes. Buying advance tickets online may be one of the best things about the internet. This holds true for everyone, but especially children. Anything to reduce the risk of whining is a win-win.  If we had planned better in advance, we could have avoided the 2 hour, hypothermia-inducing wait outside the Anne Frank house in the cold wind and rain. We were lucky that we hit low tourist season when we went to the Eiffel tower and the Louvre, but by May or June, advance tickets are almost a necessity. Think of all the time saved and whining averted. This also works for spouses.

#8 Try to find unusual places to stay.

This may depend on your individual child. If you live in a quiet suburban community, your child might find it exciting to stay in a downtown hotel with a balcony looking out onto the busy city life. Since we have a noisy downtown apartment in Marseille, my daughter wanted something different. There seems to be a growing trend in "agriturismos" - farms which have been turned into cabins or B&Bs. This is the official name in Italy, but there are also a number of "farm stays" in France and Spain. Some of them have farm animals, or activities like biking or horseback riding, some are just places set in the beautiful countryside. This does require renting a car, but if you were planning to take some day trips to places off the beaten path anyway, this is a great option. We had a very simple little cabin in Italy in the Tuscan countryside which Beatrice loved. For her, Florence paled in comparison to that place. It was peaceful, beautiful, and serene - we didn't want to leave.

We also stayed in a castle in Catalonia, Spain. The tower dated back to the 12th century, but the owner explained that the rest of the castle was "only about 400 years old." After pointing out that our 98-year-old house is considered "old" in the United States, our daughter was noticeably impressed by the history of the building. 

The owner took us on a great tour, showing us the places that were used for defense and the dungeon where the prisoners were held. He explained that originally the tower didn't even have a door on the ground floor - instead, the monks climbed up rope ladders to reach the window. Beatrice was fascinated. Plus, it had a pool. Who can say that they've stayed in a castle, much less a castle with a pool?  (Almost every kid loves pools, though the difficulty is getting them to ever leave the pool.  This goes into category #3: Pick your battles.")

This post will probably seem overly cynical, but that is not my intent. I simply want to prepare people for what they may encounter. Traveling with kids can work - it can even be great. I'm sure that time will help edit some of the more painful moments from our travels. Like a facebook feed, we will capture only the best memories and our time in Europe with a 7-year-old will seem like a blissful experience.

With that, bon voyage!


  1. Thanks, Anne. I love it. So honest! But also fun to imagine introducing a child to such glorious opportunities.

  2. I learned I have a lot in common with my kid, too. I love fine art, but I hate being in a place in which I think I need to see everything, especially in a city where I want to see everything outside, too. Give me a small museum. We both loved l'Orangerie and Chagall but hated the Louvre and Uffizi. Plus the most famous art loses its charm when it's surrounded by selfie hogs.