Coming from far away New Zealand, we are eager to explore as much of Europe as we can while we are living in the Netherlands. But with three kids in tow (aged 9, 6, and 4) this involves a rather a different way of travelling than when hubby and I roamed Europe for three months in our pre-children days. All our trips during our time in the Netherlands have been on a fairly tight budget, with a lot of planning done in advance, and we have managed to accumulate a lot of shared family experiences and special memories together. Here are some of the things we do when travelling with kids to ensure success.
Preparation. Preparation. Preparation. Forget being impromptu and prepare everything you can possibly think of in advance; you won’t regret it. We normally do a lot of research in advance to find the most suitable transportation options, child-friendly activities and appropriate accommodation that we know will suit the kids. We sometimes order tickets in advance for popular attractions that we know we want to visit as our kids do not cope well with queues, and I prepare a list of important information to have easily to hand for while we’re in transit (which bus to catch from the airport, the name of the trainstop to get off at, accommodation details (names, addresses, phone numbers etc)). Pinterest is great for ideas on how to camp with kids, how to entertain them on long car journeys etc, so I often spend some time before the trip looking through Pinterest for ideas.
We also find it useful to prepare a bag of toys and activities to occupy the kids in times of travel or general boredom (you know what they say about idle hands): a colouring book and felts, a card game, some small toys, a book for the older kids to read. If you’re travelling in the car, an audio cd story is great, as is a spotify playlist with their favourite songs you can normally put through the car audio system. Failing all else, we divert their attention with a family game of ‘spotto’ or ‘guess an animal’. On some trips we have given each child their own backpack with a lunch box, drink bottle, and jumper/hat etc which seems to work quite well, although it does mean you have a lot of bags to remember when getting on and off the train etc.
It’s also crucial to prepare an easily accessible travelling-with-kids survival backpack with a change of underwear and wet wipes for inevitable ‘accidents’, litres of water, a pack of tictacs (to dispense one-by-one to bribe the kids to walk another block), hand sanitizer, disposable spoons, and ALWAYS – WITHOUT FAIL some food.
Go slowly. Kids never respond well to being hurried, and we find a more relaxed pace is needed; we expect to only fit in a few activities during the day. This was quite an adjustment for us, after pre-children days of travel when we could happily roam the streets morning-to-night and fit in several museums, art galleries, cafes, and historic sites in one day. Kids go sloooooooooow with frequent stops and distractions along the way, and if you try to hurry them to the next thing everyone becomes frustrated and it’s no fun for anyone.
We have also found that when we slow down, the kids inevitably find things we would have missed at grown-up speed. You experience the city in a different way – a Belgian chocolate shop they want to see inside and convince the shopkeeper to give them a sample, walking barefoot in a water fountain to cool off, listening to a busking guitar player, or exploring a part of town you might have walked right past. You can also often give the kids a bit of down-time while still enjoying your surroundings, for example we spent a couple of hours sitting on the grass near the Eiffel Tower while the kids played football with a french boy sitting nearby, and we could enjoy the view and leisurely eat some french patissieres.
Choose your activities. Ok, so you don’t have to deny yourself everything you want to see as adults, but balance the more adult-oriented activities with things you know your kids will really enjoy, and that you will get some pleasure from too. This does mean you might end up at a few playgrounds, but you don’t have to limit yourself to only child-focused activities. We have found some really fun things to do as a family that we parents get pleasure out of as well as the children. It might be exploring the castle “where kings and queens used to live”, walking up the dome of the Sacre Coeur, taking a horse-drawn carriage ride through Bruges, or catching the slow ferry back around the Genovese harbour to the campsite instead of the train.We also try to get the kids involved with decisions during the day – counting the number of tube stops till we get off, choosing a gelaterie, or picking out a small (ultra-touristy) memento of their very own. Then they feel part of the whole travelling experience and not just that they’re being dragged around.
Stock up at the local supermarket. Ideally I would love to meander from one eatery to another, sampling the local cuisine. But with a tight budget and children that do not appreciate the pleasure of sitting at a table for longer than 10 minutes, we generally opt for the supermarket as our main source of food when travelling and have a lot of picnic lunches in public squares and gardens while out and about. We stock up on things to carry around with us during the day in a backpack – some fresh fruit, a packet of crisps each, even a pack of ham, some slices of cheese and a couple of baguettes for an easy picnic lunch. Then we also get ingredients to make breakfasts and dinners at our accommodation. For this we try to buy typically local food so it feels like we’re still experiencing the food of the area – for example during our camping trip in Italy one evening we bought a pot of fresh Genovese pesto, a packet of fresh pasta and cheese to produce an authentic Italian dinner over the gas stove back at the camping ground, and another night had an impromptu antipasto dinner with grissini wrapped in prosciutto, olives, local cheeses etc and cheap prosecco (and juice for the kids) sitting on the beach.
We then supplement our stock of supermarket food with cheap treats while we’re out and about, for example pain-au-chocolat or croissants for breakfast in France, foccacia for lunch or a couple of margherita pizzas for dinner in Italy, a quick espresso standing at the bar like the locals, and very occasionally, a proper dinner out together. And lots of ice creams. Everywhere.
Finally, be aware that with all the preparation in the world things sometimes go a bit belly-up when travelling with kids. We’ve had the predictable tantrums in the middle of the street, kids refusing to walk, sibling fisticuffs, whining and complaining, and kids wanting to stay in the airbnb apartment instead of explore the city. But with all the preparation and things I mention above, we have found that you can keep these ‘moments’ to a minimum and quickly get on with enjoying your family trip together. Travelling with kids can be really cool – our kids often respond surprisingly enthusiastically to seeing something iconic, they embrace new foods that are typical of the area we are visiting, and appreciate beautiful views and moments in nature. They also often surprise us with how much they can actually do – walking much further than expected (with the odd tictac as an incentive of course!). I hope you are inspired to travel with your kids and create some special family times together. Bon voyage!