I’ve been going through pictures from our trip to England and Germany last summer and wishing SO much that we could do it all again this year. I’ve since had people ask me questions about travel in Europe with kids, so I thought I’d put all my tips in one place.
So here are 14 Tips for traveling in Europe (or anywhere!) with kids to hopefully help things go smoothly and save money too! (this post contains a few affiliate links but all recommendations are from my own personal experience.)
1 – Plan ahead. Do everything as early as you can: Get passports, book accommodations, tickets to big attractions, etc. Plan, plan, plan. Kids don’t work well with fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. The more planning ahead of time, the better.
2- Let the kids “help” plan the trip. If they feel more invested in where they are going, they’re more likely to be excited about it. I made a list ahead of time of the big attractions we’d be visiting and assigned a few to each kid to research ahead of time. Then when we visited that place they got to be the “expert” and teach everyone else about it.
I also read books and showed my kids movies beforehand the give them context of people, history, and places so they’d appreciate the places we’d be visiting. Some movies suggestions for England (a little something for everyone, depending on your audience) include: Miss Potter (The Lake District, London), Amazing Grace, Young Victoria, BBC Pride and Prejudice, Mary Poppins, Night at the Museum 3, and The Great Muppet Caper. Books I’d recommend for younger kids include This is London, Paddington Bear, and A Walk in London. If you have any other movies or books to recommend, leave them in the comments.
3- Travel light. So many reasons for this! First of all: practical. Houses, cars, everything is on a smaller scale in Europe. It was tricky even finding a car that would accommodate the 6 of us, let alone our luggage as well. We knew there wouldn’t be a lot of luggage space in the car and we’d be on the road a lot. I brought one small roller suitcase for things we needed protected. Everyone else had a simple, inexpensive duffel bag with a few pockets. Not fancy ones. They could condense smaller to all fit in the tight space in our car. And we ended up only taking carry-on items which made it easier for air travel too.
It’s so nice now that electronic devices are so portable and can carry a lot of uploaded movies, music, books, games, etc for those inevitable periods of travel and waiting. I didn’t even bring my lap top – just a tablet and a portable bluetooth keyboard. I also invested in a smaller mirrorless SLR camera so that I didn’t have to lug around my big camera.
Later when we flew to Germany for a couple of days, we each only took a backpack. We left our luggage at a hotel at the London Stanstead airport and picked it up on our return. That was even more liberating to have as little stuff as possible.
4 – Pack non-cotton clothing. I promise you’ll thank me for this one. Doing laundry outside the US is a different experience. Even if you do have access to a washing machine, (and a dryer, if you’re lucky), they will be much smaller than sizes in the US. Cotton clothing – especially denim – takes much longer to dry than polyester or poly blend clothing. We took mostly polyester ‘active-wear’ type clothing. As an added bonus it’s lightweight to pack, doesn’t take up much space in luggage, doesn’t ever need to be ironed, and it’ll dry faster if you’re caught in wet weather too.
Think layers as well: one raincoat, one sweatshirt, a couple long-sleeve shirts and a couple of short-sleeve shirts plus pants and shorts for each person.
5 – Invest in good shoes for everyone and break them in before you go. Bring wool hiking socks. They’re more comfortable and they’ll also dry faster if they get wet.
6 – Transportation: Rent a car off-site from the airport. Knowing we would have to rent a car that could seat six, we found that prices renting at the airport were significantly higher than renting off-site. So we made a reservation at a rental place about 10 miles away from the airport, my husband got a taxi to the rental office, picked up the car and came back for us. We had to wait about an hour (which wasn’t super fun with jet-lagged kids), but it was so worth it for the money that we saved.
More importantly, ditch the car when you can. Europe is so mass-transportation-friendly. We turned in our car when we got to London. For the kids the transportation was as exciting as the city itself. The Underground (Tube) is so handy, but be sure to take the bus when you can! You see so much more of the city itself. The last night in London we took a cab back to our flat just so we could have the London transportation trifecta experience. Most large cities in Europe have great transit systems.
7 – Accommodations: Avoid hotels (unless you’re saving money by using points). Rent an apartment (flat), vacation house, or stay in a hostel. We did some of each. For a stay of more than 2 nights, we rented a small flat. (Above is the handy flat we stayed at in Ladbroke Grove, London.) The rate was similar, but often cheaper for as many beds as we would have needed in a hotel, but the accommodations were much bigger, we had multiple bedrooms, and best (and most importantly) we had a kitchen. Being able to store food and prepare our own meals saved tons of money over restaurant food. In many cases we had laundry access too.
I suggest looking at Trip Advisor, Holiday Lettings, AirBnB, and VRBO for resources. There are SO many great places available with so much more personality and ‘real-life’ cultural atmosphere. Read the reviews and send questions to the owner so that you get the best picture of what you’re booking.
One more tip- search your prospective rental on Google Maps to get an idea of the location, surroundings, and neighborhood. We were deciding between two cottage rentals outside of Manchester. One was lovely but far out into the countryside. We knew we’d be doing a lot of day trips while we were there, so we picked the other cottage that was 5 minutes from the motorway and within easy walking distance to shops and mass-transit.
If we were staying only one night in a place we looked for Guest House/Bed’n’Breakfast-type places or hostels. Lots of hostels are family friendly now, offering a private room and bathroom for a family, usually with bunk-beds. It wouldn’t have been ideal for us to spend our whole trip in this setting, but was easily doable – and kind of fun – for a night here or there on the road.
My favorite resource for honest, great recommendations in a variety of reasonable price ranges – and full of local flavor – is Rick Steves. I’ve used his recommendations on multiple trips to Europe and he’s never failed me. Look for his books from Amazon, local book stores, or from your local library.
8 –Local budget airlines (RyanAir, EasyJet) are a great way to get from country to country quickly. For our trip to Germany we found cheap tickets on RyanAir and went for one last hurrah. It was SO worth it! They best part of those local budget airlines (be prepared – they are budget for a reason= no frills) is that they fly into smaller, regional airports. Personally, I loved that they were much smaller, less crowded, and easier to navigate. Our favorite was the little Memmingen airport only an hour away from Neuschwanstein castle in Germany.
9 – Look for FREE attractions – especially in big cities. For example, London has multiple world-class museums that are free to the public: the British Museum, National Art Gallery, Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert. Not to mention parks, departments stores, and beautiful squares and public places. Go!
Knowing we weren’t going to have time to see everything London has to offer, we took advantage of many of the free attractions and picked one big attraction that cost – for us it was the Tower of London and everyone LOVED it. We bought our tickets ahead of time and got there right when it opened, beating a lot of the summer crowds. We took the free Yeoman Warder tour and our guide was hysterical. We ended up spending a lot of time there.
Some big attractions that we missed were the London Eye (pretty costly for 6 people), a West End show, and the hop-on-and-off bus tours which I would normally highly recommend (especially if it’s your first time in London.) Because I’d lived there and felt pretty comfortable with the city, we took our own bus tours on the double decker buses on famous routes through the city (Rick Steves has a bunch of recommendations) and I’d point things out. Saved us a lot of money but we still got so see a lot of the city.
10 – Be flexible. Traveling with kids is a different ball game than traveling with adults – or on your own. When I travel I usually I love to go hard and cram as much as I can into one day. But that doesn’t work with kids.
They need a slower pace. I had to be pretty strategic about what we were going to focus on and what we would skip. Also, do stuff that is interesting at their level. I may not have stopped to watch the knight’s sword fight at Warwick Castle if I was by myself, but my boys thought it was the coolest thing ever.
11- Schedule in down time. Let the kids just play at a park, throw rocks in the water, watch local TV – a cultural experience in itself – just relax. Evening doing “everyday” things with kids like going to the grocery store, or a water park, will be new and different in another country.
10 – Let them interact with locals when possible. I think if you asked my kids to tell you their favorite times on our trip last year, they would each bring up times when we let them run around with other kids. We had an advantage for part of our trip in that we were visiting old friends from when my husband and I had each lived in England 20-22 years ago. So our children interacted with the children of some of these former acquaintances. They were shy at first, but warmed up and now look back on those families as their good friends.
But we also interacted with other kids who were new to us. During our 2-week stay in Manchester my husband took our boys to the nearby park and got up a game of “footie” with some local boys. Those boys were just as intrigued and excited to play with some Americans as mine were to play with some real British lads. They also gave us the best advice on where to pick up some great soccer/football gear for much cheaper prices at the local Sport Direct than the bigger tourist destinations.
12 – I’m not above bribery. If there was something I really wanted to see, (and in the end, knew they’d be glad one day too) but knew it would be a push for the kids, ice cream and local treats became a great incentive.
13 – Don’t let the whining bug you – they really will thank you later. We had more than a few: “Why are we here?” “This place smells weird.” “I don’t want my picture here, no one has ever heard of this place.” moments. Now they talk fondly (and like experts) about those very places and post those very pictures they didn’t want to take as throwback pictures on their instagram feeds. 🙂
Make them journal. Here’s this poor child being forced to write in a journal. Truly a hard knock life right? But, once again, they’ll be so grateful (*one day) and so will you.
14 – Make travel a priority. It’s one of the most enlightening and bonding experiences we’ve had as a family. Seeing my kids’ expand their worldview just a little, as well as appreciate what they have a little more, was worth every effort. (Although my husband and I both agreed next time we need to take them some where even a little more foreign where they’ll REALLY appreciate simple things like running water and indoor plumbing.)
Travel isn’t cheap, but there are ways to make it more affordable. My husband and I both found and scheduled ways to work on the road as well, so that we could prolong our stay. Those work days for us also worked well as good ‘down time’ for the kids.
Everyone’s situation is different. For us it was totally worth it to keep driving a 10+year old mini van for a few more years and use that money to travel abroad instead. If you want to go, set a goal and make it happen. Let your kids be a part of that saving too. It will make the experience even more meaningful for them.
If you have other travel tips with kids, please feel free to share and leave them in the comments!
In the mean time, if world travel isn’t in the budget this year, but you’re looking to be inspired by some gorgeous travel photography, my brother just started a site sharing some of his gorgeous images!