When you get pregnant with your first, you often hear, "Well, life is over as you know it." While that is true in some ways (like you can't go and get blackout drunk with your spouse, because have you ever cared for an infant with a hangover???), it's a really crappy way of welcoming someone into parenthood by dumping sand all over their picnic. The fact is, yes kids change everything, but not in the negative way that that phrase would have you believe. Different doesn't mean bad...it just means different.
We recently took our 18 month old on a huge family vacation to Europe. We went to Paris, London, Lyon, Grenoble, and Torino for two weeks, just the three of us. When we told people about our plans, the reactions were all basically the same measure of disbelief- "You're taking a TODDLER to Europe for two weeks?!?!? Isn't that a waste of money? He won't remember anything! It's a such a long flight, won't he fuss?" And so on and so forth. We politely said it would be fine, and privately rolled our eyes. We'd worked hard all winter and we deserved a nice reward, one that we wanted to share as a family.
Plan Accordingly for a Smooth Ride
So off we went. We flew into Paris on Air France, and let's start there. AF was AMAZING to us! Our son was just barely too long for the complimentary bassinet, so they booked us in a middle row, and made sure NOT to book anyone with us, essentially giving us a free seat for our little dude. Now, MOST OF THE TIME, when you fly to Europe, your flight out of the US leaves in the afternoon or evening, so the bulk of the flight is while you are (hopefully) sleeping. The best advice is to plan your flights (domestic or international) around the same time as your child sleeps, and so for an international flight, this can be easily accomplished. We flew out of the US at about 9 pm, which meant that our tyke fell asleep a few minutes after takeoff and woke up about an hour or so before we landed in Paris. BEAUTIFUL.
As we were going to be bouncing around a bit, we chose to fly from Paris to London, and then from London to Lyon, to cut down on travel time (don't worry, we let Baby Bear enjoy European rail travel too!). Again, just like we said, plan around your child's sleep schedule. We flew from Paris to London at about 8 pm, and even though he didn't sleep on the short 50 minute flight, he had a bottle and a diaper change, which was more than enough to distract him. Heading to Lyon, we chose an EARLY morning flight (6 am, anyone?), and thanks to the hour, he was still in sleep mode, so he fell asleep right after take off and woke up as we touched down, refreshed and ready to charm the border agents with his sparkling smile.
As the saying goes, you are the expert on your child. No one knows them better than you do, so plan accordingly and choose a travel plan that will work with their personality.
Kid-Friendly Doesn't Have to Mean Theme Park
Look, Disneyland and Universal Studios are great places to take your family, if you're into that sort of thing. But your kids aren't necessarily going to be bored by anything that isn't a giant mouse handing out balloons. Kids like adventure, it's in their programming, and anywhere they have the freedom to get the wiggles out is most likely going to be a hit.
We have been to Europe several times, and before baby, the plan was a simple one- museum, walk, museum, drink, museum, food, museum, museum, museum. This time around, we knew that our little traveler was not going to want to spend all day in the d'Orsay with Mama (and frankly, neither did Dad). So, again, we planned accordingly. We focused most of our sightseeing on outdoor activities and parks, and guess what. It was the most fun we've ever had on the continent! The Jardin des Plantes in Paris was free, beautiful, and we all had the best time, running around the paths, meeting frogs and ducks, and napping under the cool trees (well at least for Baby Bear). We spent a whole day walking through the city along the Seine, stopping here and there to play in this playground or the other, and finishing with a sunset picnic at the Eiffel Tower, where our son was extremely satisfied with stepping over the curbs on the gravel paths and feeding the sparrows who would land on his knee. And what kid doesn't love a ferris wheel?! I know ours certainly loved his trip up the Roue de Paris, as we wound our way through the City of Lights!
Once we got to Lyon, we were well into our vacation groove and, well, I mean I could write an entire blog just on how cool Lyon is! But the highlight was absolutely the Parc de la Tete d'Or, Lyon's main city park that boasts a train ride for the littles, botanical gardens featuring plants from all over France and their (current and former) territories worldwide, and a zoo...ALL FOR FREE. Let me repeat that- there is NO entrance fee for any of the activities, except for the train which is a whopping 2 Euros. When was the last time you went a zoo in the US for free? I'm guessing the answer is NEVER.
My point is, your kids aren't going to be "bored" if you show them that a good time can be had anywhere. And you won't be bored either.
Carting Them Around
Now, in terms of how to take your kids around, this definitely comes down to a personal preference. We brought our Osprey hiking carrier, as well as our Maclaren travel stroller, and to be honest, Baby Bear spent most of his travel time between activities in the stroller. Looking back, had we known what we know now, we would have left the Osprey at home. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE our Osprey. It is sturdy, comes with a sun shade, and has pockets galore, which makes it super easy to pack for a day out. However, I swear to Michael Palin, every time we are in Europe, they are having a heatwave and this time was no exception. Carrying anything extra and heavy on your back during a hot day is just not fun, no matter how you spin it. In fact, we were told that we were in London during the first sunny bank holiday in 50 years! Thank goodness our dude was cool to chill in his stroller while we navigated the cobbled streets of the South Bank.
We did bust out the Osprey in Grenoble, though, for a hike through the Parc Naturel de la Chartreuse. If hiking is your jam, I literally cannot recommend this carrier enough. It is absolutely amazing for hiking, and it gives your little a really nice vantage point to check out their surroundings. And if you're out and about during nap time, the gentle bouncing of the carrier will make sure that your kiddo doesn't miss that all-important sleep that they need!
Packing, To Bring or Not To Bring?
Okay, so let's be real. When it comes to packing, we all strive to pack as light as possible and then inevitably end up looking something a bit more like Princess Vespa with her industrial-sized hairdryer that she can't live without.
But hey! Let our experience help guide you! First of all, we brought far too many clothes for the munchkin. Most parents can relate to the idea that if you don't pack enough, your kid will soil all of their clothes for the entire trip in the first day. But really the concept boils down to packing enough of the right clothes. Socks, underwear (if they are old enough), and enough clothes to last a week, and that should be sufficient. No matter where you go or for how long you're away, odds are there is a laundromat available nearby (if you're in a city) or a washing machine in-house. We stayed at an AirBnB that had a washer in the apartment, so we really didn't need the amount of clothes that we brought. AirBnB (and the like) will list these amenities on their website, so if you're going to be away for longer than your suitcase can carry, definitely pay attention and choose a place that can offer these features. Also, think about the kind of clothes you're bringing. Certainly, one nice outfit for a night out at a fancy restaurant may be in order, but that should be more than sufficient, as in reality, you will probably be stopping in for food as you go along, and your kids do not care what they look like.
Second, things like diapers, creams, and toiletries are pretty universal, so pack enough for your flight, and maybe the first couple of days, but then just buy it when you get there. We brought a sleeve of diapers with us, and frankly, it was totally unnecessary and just took up extra room in our suitcase. Hats and babies are like crepes and Nutella- you don't need them to be together, but they're better when they are. But you don't need to bring tous les chapeaux pour bébé. Souvenirs like a cute sun hat that says I Heart London can serve a dual purpose and keep your packing down to a minimum. What I'm trying to say is, if you can buy it there, do. It will make packing much, MUCH easier, and give you less crap to keep track of.
Finally, speaking of souvenirs, if your kiddo is young, like ours was, they don't care at all about souvenirs. Toys that you buy today will be forgotten tomorrow, so don't waste precious space on a big stuffed animal or t-shirts they will only wear for another month or so. Use that space for your camera gear and take lots and lots of pictures. As so many of our acquaintances pointed out, our son will not remember his big European vacay...but Instagram will, so make sure that you capture as much of it as possible. If you like to bring gifts to friends and family, grab a few magnets at a souvenir shop! They are small, lightweight, and easy to transport, and they will convey the same sentiment as a heavy bottle of wine- wish you were here!
So there you have it. Don't let the naysayers influence your travel plans. You can absolutely take a toddler to Europe, or a teenager to Asia, or a preteen to Australia. It's all about your approach- if you think it will be cool, they will too. Probably. :) And speaking of Asia, we will be heading off next year to Japan with our little world traveler, so stay tuned to hear all about how Baby Bear went seamlessly from Bonjour to Konichiwa!
Bon voyage mes amis!