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Family Travel with Children in Europe

Bring Leashes and Plenty of Valium

Family travel in Avignon, France can involve singing on the famous bridge.
The Pont d'Avignon is the topic of a famous children's song and a place to visit as a family.

My wife, children, and VW van have traveled with me from Norway to Naples and Dublin to Dubrovnik. It's not hell, but it's not terrific travel, either. Still, we'd rather change diapers in Paris than in Seattle. And an international adventure is a great foundation for a mountain of family memories

Young European families, like their American counterparts, are also traveling, babies and all. You'll find more and more kids' menus, hotel playrooms, and kids-go-crazy zones at freeway rest stops all over Europe. Babies are great icebreakers-socially and in the Arctic.

Here are some of the lessons we've learned from whining and giggling through Europe with our kids.

Baby Gear

Since a happy baby on the road requires a lot of gear, the key to survival is either to have a rental car or stay in one place. Of course, pack as light as you can. But if you figure you'll need it, trust your judgment.

Bring a car seat, borrow or buy one in Europe, or see if your car rental company can provide one. If you'll be driving long hours while the baby sleeps, try to get a car seat that reclines.

A stroller is essential. An umbrella model is lightest, but a heavy-duty model with a reclining back works better for naps. Ours served as a luggage cart for the Bataan death march parts of our trip when we had to use public transportation. Carry the stroller onto the plane-you'll need it in the airport. Big wheels handle cobblestones best.

A small travel crib was a godsend. No matter what kind of hotel, pension, or hostel we ended up in, as long as we could clear a 4-by-4-foot space on the floor, we'd have a safe, clean, and familiar home for our kids to sleep and play in.

If a baby backpack works for you at home, bring it to Europe. (I just use my shoulders.) Rucksacks are great for parents who wish they had the hands of an octopus. Prepare to tote more than a tot-a combo purse/diaper bag with shoulder straps is ideal. Be on guard-purse-snatchers target mothers (especially while busy and off guard, as when changing diapers). Thieves aside, in most of Europe a mother with a small child is given great respect. Europeans love children. You'll generally be offered a seat on crowded buses and allowed to go to the front of the line at museums.

There's lots more to pack. Encourage bonding to a blanket or stuffed critter and take it along. We used a lot of Heinz dehydrated food dumped into zip-lock baggies. Tiny Tupperware containers were great for crackers, raisins, and snacks. You'll find plenty of disposable diapers, wipes, baby food, and so on in Europe, so don't take the whole works from home. Before you fly away, be sure you've packed ipecac, a decongestant, acetaminophen, and a thermometer. For a toddler, bring a few favorite books and a soft ball (easy on hotel rooms). Buy little European toys as you go. As our children got older, activity books and portable video games kept them occupied for what might have been countless boring hours. Also, a daily holiday allowance as a reward for assembling a first-class daily picture journal gave our children reasons to be enthusiastic about every travel day.

Parenting at 32,000 Feet

You'll pay 10 percent of the ticket cost to take a child under the age of two on an international flight. The child doesn't get a seat, but many airlines have flying baby perks for moms and dads who ask for them in advance-roomier bulkhead seats, hang-from-the-ceiling bassinets, and baby meals. After age two, a toddler's ticket costs 70 to 90 percent of the adult fare; from age 12 on, kids pay full fare. (Railpasses and train tickets are free for kids under age four; those under 12 ride the rails for half price.)

Gurgling junior may become an airborne Antichrist as soon as the seat belt light goes off. Ask your pediatrician about sedating your baby for a 10-hour intercontinental flight. We think it's only merciful (for everyone involved). Dimetapp, Tylenol, or Pediacare have also worked well for us.

Prepare to be 100 percent self-sufficient throughout the flight. Expect cramped seating and busy attendants. Bring extra clothes (for you and the baby), special toys, and familiar food. Those colored links are handy for attaching toys to the seat, crib, highchairs, jail cells, and so on. The in-flight headphones are great entertainment for flying toddlers.

Landings and takeoffs can be painful for ears of all ages. A bottle, a pacifier, or anything to suck helps equalize the baby's middle-ear pressure. For this reason, nursing moms will be glad they do when it comes to flying. Remember, crying is a great pressure equalizer. Bring earplugs for nearby passengers.

Once on foreign soil, you'll find that your footloose and see-it-all days of travel are over for a while. Go easy. Traveling with a tyke is tiring, wet, sticky, and smelly. Your mobility plummets.

Be warned — jet lag is nursery purgatory. Our kids took it hard. Luckily, we settled in good hotels and most of the guests were able to stay elsewhere.

Family-Friendly Accommodations in Europe

We slept in rooms of all kinds, from hostels (many have family rooms) to hotels. We weren't charged for the kids' accommodations until they turned five. While we always used our own bedding, many doubles have a sofa or extra bed that can be barricaded with chairs and used instead of the crib.

Childproof the room immediately on arrival. A roll of masking tape makes quick work of electrical outlets. Anything breakable goes on top of the free-standing closet. Proprietors are generally helpful to considerate and undemanding parents. We'd often store our bottles and milk cartons in their fridge, ask (and of course pay) for babysitting, and so on.

Every room had a sink where kids could pose for cute pictures, have a little fun, make smelly bubbles, and get clean. With a toddler, budget extra to get a bath in your room-a practical need and a fun diversion. Toddlers and campgrounds — with swings, slides, and plenty of friends — mix wonderfully.

Self-catering flats rented by the week or 2-week period, such as gîtes in France and villas in Italy, give a family a home on the road. Many families prefer settling down this way and side-tripping from a home base.

Kid-Friendly Food in Europe

While Europeans are warm to children, we found European restaurants and their customers cool to noisy babies. Highchairs are rare. We ate happiest at places with outdoor seating and at the many McDonald's-type, baby-friendly fast food places. Outdoor or hotel room picnics work great. In restaurants (or anywhere), if your infant is making a disruptive fuss, apologetically say the local word for teeth and annoyed locals will become more sympathetic.

Nursing babies are easiest to feed and travel with. Remember, some cultures are uncomfortable with public breastfeeding. Be sensitive.

We stocked up on munchies (fruit, pretzels, and tiny boxes of juice-which double as squirt guns). A 7 a.m. banana worked wonders, and a 5 p.m. snack made late European dinners workable. In restaurants we requested extra plates for the kids, who just nibbled from our meals. We ordered "fizzy" (but not sticky) mineral water (call it "pop"), and the many spills were no problem. With all the candy and sweet temptations at toddler-eye level in Europe, you can forget a low-sugar diet. While gelati and pastries are expensive, our kids' favorite suckers, popsicles, and hollow toy-filled chocolate eggs were cheap and available everywhere.

Plan to spend more money. Use taxis rather than buses and subways. Hotels can get babysitters, usually from professional agencies. The service is expensive but worth the splurge when you crave a leisurely, peaceful evening sans bibs and cribs.

We arranged our schedule around naps and sleep time. Well-rested babies are worth the limitation. Driving during the kids' naps worked well. As they became toddlers, however, the kids stayed up very late, playing soccer with new Italian friends on the piazza or eating huge ice creams in the hotel kitchen with the manager's kids. We gave up on a rigid naptime or bedtime, and we enjoyed Europe's evening ambience as a family.

OK, you're there-watered, fed, and only a little bleary. Europe is your cultural playpen, a living fairy tale, and a sandbox of family fun and adventure. Grab your kids and dive in.

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and radio. His 50-plus books on European travel are available at bookstores and at

Related Topics
Back Door Travel with Rick Steves
Family Travel

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