When friends and family heard that my husband and I were planning to take our nine-month-old and three-year-old along on a trip to Europe for a wedding, the reactions were mixed. Most fell in the are-you-serious camp, with some genuine looks of concern and a few conspiratorial go-for-its, too.
Here’s the thing: this was not a “family” trip, as it wasn’t designed around children at all. We’d accepted an invite to a wedding in Bordeaux back when we only had one child, and we had planned to stash her with my brother’s family for the weekend. But things evolved, as they tend to do in families.
With a still-breastfeeding infant on our hands and a new case of extreme clinginess from the toddler, my husband and I waffled around a lot on the planning but ultimately decided to book the trip for our family of four and hope for the best. Spoiler alert: it was the best!
We had a few bumps in the road (if you call a baby crying for 85% of an overnight flight a ‘bump’ — at the moment it felt more like a torture sentence), but most of the trip went off without a hitch. Weeks later, scrolling through our family photos and talking to the toddler about it, my husband and I wouldn’t trade these memories for anything — even a romantic week alone in Paris, or a full night’s sleep for that matter. So from one mom who’s done it, to you: the why’s and how’s of taking your littles to Europe now:
1. Seeing how other people live, eat, and speak is not only fascinating for little kids, it’s important.
I noticed a marked difference after just a week in Europe in how my toddler pays attention and opens up when she hears strangers speaking foreign languages at the supermarket or in the park. In the moment, watching her eyes (and the baby’s, too) fill with wonder at busy London streets, historic architecture in the South of France, and even an airport chocolate croissant, was worth every tantrum and missed hour of sleep.
2. Bringing the children encourages you to stay longer and settle in.
We’ve done a weekend in Paris before and it was lovely, but unpacking the suitcase and pretending to live in a chateau for a week was the stuff dreams are made of. And forget a weekend: many parents of young children don’t go on big trips during this stage of life at all, because the guilt of leaving them behind is too strong. Our lengthy stay afforded us the chance to do more than just tourist things — we shopped at the local markets, took little hikes, and explored at a leisurely pace.
3. Discovering new places with your children can be even more magical than doing it on your own.
Don’t get me wrong, I love spending time alone with my husband, and hope to travel with him solo again once Baby #2 is off the boob. But there was something so uniquely cool about hearing our three-year-old’s narration of the trip as we experienced it. I would never trade our afternoon spent puttering around Saint-Émilion with her tiny voice pointing out stone paths and “big big super big hills” for one spent without her there. And never will I forget the joy splashed across her face as she heard every single person we met in London speaking just like Peppa Pig does. Priceless!
4. Europeans are generally really cool about families and kids.
Re-read that sentence if you need to, but it’s true. Now, to be more detailed, we spent a full day and night in London and the rest of the trip stationed in a chateau in Bordeaux. During our stay in the South of France, we got out and about every day, traveling to both small towns and larger cities, and had the same experience that we had witnessed back on our honeymoon in Italy a few years ago.
Forgive me for generalizing, but this is what I’ve observed: European parenting is more laid back than American parenting, thus children are viewed less as a burden and more as a joy. No one batted an eyelash when we had our young daughters out at dinner at 11 PM on a Wednesday night. Nor did they glare, stare, or comment during any tantrums throughout the trip. I only wish the same could be said of New Jersey.
1. Pack as lightly as possible.
With little kids, we tend to bring everything under the sun, but lugging children, suitcases, and baby gear in airports and public transportation in a foreign country is not fun. Also, in France we found that fewer liquids were allowed in carry-ons than we’re used to in the US, so make sure you research this ahead so as not to end up relinquishing your products at security. (RIP: hair shine oil).
2. Be informed about your flight and airline choices.
I never knew that bassinets were available in bulkhead seating on international flights, nor that lap infants tend to cost a fee even though they’re free when flying domestic. Do your research, work with a travel agent, or ask to speak with a supervisor when booking your flight to ensure everything is set up in advance for maximum comfort.
If I had it to do again, we would have sat in the bulkhead and reserved the bassinet. My baby could not get comfortable sleeping in my arms overnight en route to London and it was a loud flight for us all. Also, gluten-free, kosher, and other special meals are usually available, but need to be reserved in advance. (Side note: wine and beer are typically free on international flights but the staff doesn’t make a point of advertising that. You’re welcome).
3. Make an informed decision about gear.
We decided not to bring our car seats for a few reasons: they’re clunky and uncomfortable on planes, especially if you’re in coach; they’re heavy as hell if you are toting more than one child plus luggage; checking them at the gate (or prior) means leaving them susceptible to damage in transit and we’d never know. Instead of bringing ours, we rented some with the car. Be prepared that European car seats and car seat safety laws are different than those in the US. My husband had to flag down another family with young kids and ask in his broken French if ours looked right. (They did).
Wearing the baby and pushing the toddler in an umbrella stroller won out for us, but my best advice is to try a few different ways of getting around with your little ones solo (even if you’ll have an adult travel companion), for the weeks leading up to the trip to see how you can best manage. Again, packing light is key!
4. Do a date night on vacation.
I know it sounds crazy, but it can (and should!) be done. Were it not for the wedding, the reason for the trip in the first place, we probably never would have thought to hire a nannying service to watch the children for a night. But I am so glad we did. There’s something incredibly exciting and unique about a date night in Europe. While laughing, clinking champagne glasses, and whispering to each other at the dinner table, a friend leaned in and said he hasn’t seen us that happy in a long time.
Are we happy? Yes. But having two little kids on top of jobs, bills, and the other stresses of parenting has sucked some of our sparkle out — for now. I didn’t know how badly we needed that extreme version of a night out. Hire a reputable service or tap into your friend group to see if there’s someone who can take the babies off your hands for the evening. I promise, you will feel like you are outside of your body, watching a movie of your best life.
5. Have an itinerary, but don’t become too attached to it.
My husband is an awesome planner, and we had a loose concept of how we wanted to spend every day of the trip. But unlike our last European vacation pre-kids where each meal, museum, and shopping excursion was planned in advance, we went with the flow this time.
It’s good to have a hit-list of sights and meals in advance, but remember that children are still children even on vacation, and jet lag can lead to weirdly timed or completely skipped naps. One of my favorite memories from the trip, actually, is when we ended up skipping dinner in a nice restaurant for our last night and hitting up the grocery store for a picnic with our girls on the lawn at the castle.
6. Take as many pictures as you can.
You don’t need me to tell you how fast the years whip by, or that you’ll want to look back and cherish this trip immediately and forever. But one thing I wasn’t prepared for was how much I actually needed the photos to fill in my memory gaps. The sleep deprivation of parenthood paired with tag-team activities on some days meant that my husband and eldest saw and experienced some things that the baby and I didn’t.
I’m so grateful he carried the camera up to the top of the tallest dune in Europe with them for that perspective, and that I took pictures of them from down below. Two pin-pricks in a mountain of sand, unrecognizable to the “big big super big” world around them. But absolutely unique and beautiful to me. Just one of the incredible memories that will never leave us. Not even when we’re old, gray, and back to traveling just us two.