Taking your first trip to Europe with kids can be quite intimidating. After traveling taking our daughter to many European countries including England, Iceland, France, Italy, Spain, Austria, and Hungary, we have learned quite a bit over the years to help my family’s trips to Europe run smoothly. Plus, my years as a travel advisor crafting custom itineraries for family travelers didn’t hurt!
Tips for Traveling to Europe with Kids
Some of these tips come from lessons learned the hard way and others from the successful planning and execution of multiple European family vacations. I hope you find them helpful in planning your first trip to Europe with kids.
Before you go…
- Check the expiration date of everyone’s passport and ensure that each passport will be valid at least six months from your departure date. If you need to renew your passport before you go, be sure to leave plenty of time (at least 8-12 weeks.) Trust me, I have been that parent that showed up to the airport with my kid’s passport that expired a week earlier and we had to go get an emergency passport and missed our flight but these days even securing one of those last-minute emergency appointments is extremely hard!
- Make a plan. I know it was easy when you were young and didn’t have kids to just go with the flow and figure things out on the fly, but it is a lot harder with kids. So make it less stressful by creating a daily plan and making sure you have bought the tickets that need to be reserved in advance, know the opening/closing times and dates, and any other entrance rules. If you don’t have time to plan your trip, reach out to me and I’ll be happy to connect you with an experienced travel advisor.
- Do not overbook! I know how tempting it is to pack an itinerary, wondering if this will be your only chance to see a place and the desire to see it all. Kids need downtime and surprisingly, teens need even more. You know your kids best and their best times and worst times so plan accordingly. Often, that is a structured morning activity (not too early for teens) and open/flexible time in the afternoon.
- Private tours are best. Yes, I hate to pay for them too but those big group tours are just miserable with kids. I always look for a family-friendly guide that knows how to connect with kids. Sometimes that is with a scavenger hunt, augmented reality technology, or just really good stories. If you can’t book a private guide, make sure you book a small group tour (ideally <10 max) and do it at a time when your kids will be most attentive.
- Prepare, prepare, prepare. Before our family’s first trip to Europe, we did everything we could to get our daughter excited about the trip. We watched shows about the food, we read books, we looked at maps, and we learned some language (Duolingo or podcasts are a great way to do this!) It made the trip so much more meaningful when we arrived.
- Get them involved. It is great if you can get your kids involved in the planning of the trip by either having them research things to do or giving choices and letting them decide on a few activities.
- Don’t schedule heavy sightseeing for the first day. After an overnight flight, everyone will be tired and need a rest. Plan to just unpack, relax, and explore the local area.
Getting Ready to Fly
- Book connecting flights when at all possible to minimize the risk of missed connections or lost luggage. Keep in mind that some European airports (like Paris CDG, London Heathrow, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt) have notoriously long lines for passport control. I wouldn’t risk anything less than a two-hour layover. If booking your own connecting flights involving multiple carriers remember that a delay in your earlier flight may result in you missing your connecting flight. Airlines are not always very accommodating so it’s best to book your entire itinerary on the same airline and be sure to allow for plenty of time between connections.
- Avoid the very last flight of the day as they are often delayed (especially during the winter season where there are often canceled flights due to weather). If you are on a late flight, you might want to get to the airport early enough and request to be wait-listed).
- Pay extra to book seats together. These days airlines want to nickel and dime you over everything and I would not recommend skimping on seat assignments with the hope that you will figure it out on the plane. Too many people pay extra for seats to be willing to move to accommodate your family just because you didn’t book seats together.
- Consider paying extra for early boarding. If your kids are above the age for family boarding and you have carry-on bags or a lot of gear, I would recommend playing extra to get to board early. This is less stressful and you can get everyone settled into their seats, with bags in easy reach.
- Avoid the bulkhead. I know it can be tempting to go for the extra leg room of a bulkhead seat but there are two things that make these challenging for families. First, you can’t have anything by your feet for take-off and landing. So no easy access to snacks, wipes, games, etc. Second, often flight attendants store their bags in the overhead compartment near the bulkhead, or it is where supplies and/or emergency equipment is stored, which may end up meaning your personal items and carry-on bags are behind you.
- Confirm your seats before check-in. If you book your tickets far in advance and the airline changes your flight time or plane, be sure to contact them in advance to make sure your seats are still confirmed and that everyone is still sitting together. Sometimes you can do this through the airline app (which I’d highly recommend that you download.) I’d also request them to note that you are traveling together as a family with small children (if applicable) because they have an unfriendly way of shuffling seats when they change their flights around putting children rows away by themselves. Dealing with this at the airport or on the plane is nothing but stressful.
- Pack for the plane. I have some suggestions on what to pack for a long-haul flight, but make sure you have a change of clothes, lots of snacks, chargers, sleep masks, travel pillows, headphones, moisturizer/lip balm, wipes, and lots of activities. Keep a set of toiletries and a change of clothes in your carry-on as you never know when your checked-in luggage may be delayed or lost. I’d also recommend putting some outfits from each family member in each bag so if one bag is lost, little Jimmy isn’t stuck wearing dirty clothes while the rest of the family is fresh and clean.
- Make a budget. I’ve written many articles about the cost of a family vacation in different European cities. Take a look and build your own budget ahead of time so you aren’t surprised when you arrive.
- Call your bank and/or credit card company ahead of time to let them know that you will be traveling overseas and which countries you are going to. This will help alert their fraud prevention department not to outright deny charges just because they are from a foreign country.
- Make sure that you have a credit card that does not charge international transaction fees.
- Avoid currency exchange places. Their commissions are usually very high. Before you go, order some of the currency you need from your local bank for the best exchange rates (you might even want to get some in advance when the Euro is low). Make sure you do this a week in advance.
- While in Europe, use an ATM card to withdraw money in local currency. Make sure you have local currency in hand before leaving the airport (and before leaving the international terminal.)
- Make sure you have a chip and pin credit card and/or ATM card before you leave for your trip as most European ATMs require this type of card and many credit card terminals do as well. Most U.S. credit card companies are finally catching up and issuing these cards but don’t forget to set up your PIN number just in case you need it!
- Don’t forget travel insurance! Yes, it is another expense but it can save you thousands. Especially now, it is important to have travel insurance that covers cancellations, interruptions, lost luggage, theft, medical expenses, and more.
Phone & Internet
- Contact your mobile phone carrier about an international roaming plan, or be sure to turn off your international data and voice roaming and just use WiFi. If your kids have phones, make sure their phone stays in Airplane Mode (with WiFi on if you want) for the entire trip.
- If your carrier doesn’t offer a reasonable international plan (many are $10 a day), you can also purchase a SIM card when you arrive.
- Download offline maps and apps before you arrive. WiFi-based messaging apps like Whats App are helpful, as well as apps for the local public transit and basic apps like TripAdvisor and Google Translate.
- Make copies of your tickets, itineraries, passports, and critical documents (leave one copy with a trusted friend or family member, upload others to a secure Internet location.)
Looking for more suggestions? Check out these best travel tips for families.
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