My husband and I have always loved to travel together. During the first eight years of our marriage we were “DINKS”—Double Income No Kids, so we had the time, money and energy to pack up at a moment's notice and fly away. We always felt sorry for the parents we’d see struggling to get a fussy baby to sleep on a packed plane or begging a grumpy toddler to be still. So when we had two children of our own, I decided my traveling days were over for a while. After all, I didn't want to be the stressed-out parent on the receiving end of all those angry stares—you know, from all the other adults who’ve forgotten what it's like to be a normal, wiggly child.
Recently, though, I had a revelation. My children were missing out on the wonderful childhood I had of traveling and getting a worldly education. My father was in the Air Force and stationed in Germany for several years. Every three-day weekend, he’d and Mom would pack us three kids up and head to another country. Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Holland….my childhood was like a dream vacation. Now my husband is traveling the world on business trips, and I'm staying at home with the kids. So when he recently told me he had enough frequent-flier miles to take us all along on his annual trip to Europe, my first reaction was to shrink back in fear of being that mom with the unruly child. Then I thought, I would never let my kids disturb anyone, at least not on purpose—and who am I to not give my girls the amazing childhood I had? So we booked our flights.
I want to share our trip to London, Paris and Barcelona with other parents who may be apprehensive about traveling with their children. After all, along the way we found lots of family-friendly activities, learned a few lessons and had many laughs.
London Zoo: I have never been to a zoo where some of the exhibits have no barriers between you and the animals—amazing! Of course, that's not the case at the tiger exhibit, but we got within inches of some of the cutest primates and lemurs. That's something I've never experienced before at a big zoo. It was fun watching my little monkeys get up close and personal with the zoo’s monkeys. There were also plenty of opportunities to see the animals being fed while the zookeepers gave a lesson on the species. The penguins were particularly fun to watch catching fish under water. Make a day of it, as there are plenty of great little playgrounds all along the walking routes to stop, take a break and let the kids work off some energy.
Natural History Museum: This museum provided us with an awesome day of discovery, for free. We spent the day learning about everything from dinosaurs, to how the human body works, to our solar system. And if you really want to rock your kids’ world, take them to the exhibit where they can experience a mock earthquake.
Hyde Park: A simple stroll through Hyde Park made us feel like we had stepped back in time to a world that is stress-free and relaxing. We took a picnic lunch and found a sunny spot along with all the Londoners on their lunch breaks. If you spend an afternoon here, make sure to bring snacks for the birds and squirrels. Then find a quite spot under a big tree with a good book.
When the kids got restless, we walked over to the Princess Diana Memorial Playground, which my children said was the best playground ever. Little hidden trails through tree-covered pathways will delight kids ages one to 100, making it seem like they're stepping into a magical world. There’s no high-tech equipment here, just amazing wooden seesaws, miniature log cabins, teepees and—the highlight—a miniature ship, which your little pirates can steer. Admission is free, and the playground is only a five-minute walk from Kensington Palace and 20 minutes from the Natural History Museum.
Buckingham Palace: The colorful, exciting Changing of the Guard is always an exciting scene with The Queen’s Palace as the backdrop. My children especially loved the guardsmen on horseback, so after the parade we went down the street to The Mews. That's where we got to see some of the palace horses and carriages up close. The tour included a handheld monitor and audio guides. The kids had their own channel geared towards them. They learned The Queen herself names all the place horses and that the carriages are decorated with real gold. Queen Elizabeth’s newest carriage is not only decked out in 20 layers of real gold leaf but also has many new modern features like electric windows, a heater and air-conditioning. Now that's a royal ride.
Windsor Castle: As a special treat, we hopped on a train for a 30-minute ride to see The Queen’s weekend home, Windsor Castle. They got a special family history lesson, with a guide dressed in period costume sharing the story of the battle of Waterloo.
Bus Tour: No trip to London would be complete without riding on those famous red double-decker buses. There are a few companies to choose from, and we picked one that caters to families. The Original Tour, as it’s named, has an audio channel specifically for kids, and they got a fun pack with an activity/quiz book. However, we soon learned to pick the buses that had a live guide on-board. Ours gave us much more history of London than the audio guides and could also answer our questions. Our favorite stops where Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Hyde Park.
I made sure to take the kids to only one tourist attraction per day. I didn't want to overwhelm them with too much stimuli and send them into a meltdown. Plus I promised them that if they could tell me three things they learned each day I would end the trip to London with a trip to Hamley’s. That's the famous London seven-story toy store. It worked like a charm.
- Bring eye masks for everyone to sleep. In the summer, sunrise is at 4:30, sunset can be as late as 9:30.
- Dress everyone in layers, as cool windy mornings can turn into warm afternoons and vise-versa. So take a jacket that doubles as a windbreaker/raincoat with a hood.
- Bring kids’ water bottle so you won't have to keep buying water from every market. Just buy the big bottles at the local stores and fill-up your smaller bottles from those daily.
- You’ll easily get 10,000 steps on your Fitbit, so if you’re not used to walking that much every day, learn some yoga stretches to ease sore muscles.
- Tennis shoes for everyone, cute sandals won't cut it here. Your feet will hate you!
- When you do need to catch a ride, you can use the Tube. We also used Uber, which we found to be about half the price as a traditional cab. Make sure you download their app and set up your account. It'll let you charge each ride so you won't have to pay cash and you can even request the size car you will need. Larger cars and vans will cost more.
- Take an electricity converter per person so everyone can charge their phones and other devices.
- We rented an apartment, partly because it's more cost-effective than a hotel, but it also gave us a chance to see how the locals live. We shopped at the neighborhood markets to get fresh fruits and eggs for breakfast. That way we could get up at our leisure and have a nice home-cooked meal without rushing to a restaurant before the menu changed to lunch items. Plus my kids prefer more of an American breakfast over the traditional European sliced meats and poached eggs.
- Apartment Tips: bring your own soaps and shampoos, as none are provided. Things to request in your apartment: a hair dryer because even with a converter, American blow dryers just don't work right and get overheated. Also, get an apartment with a washer and dryer so you won't have to pack as many clothes. Keep in mind, the washer/dryer combos are small so it can take a few hours to do a small load. Make sure to pack clothes that dry easily. Oh, and bring your own travel-size laundry detergent, and don't forget the drier softener sheets. Otherwise you underwear will dry as stiff as a board, setting your buns on fire. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Check back in this space for more on traveling to Europe with kids.