I started Ciao Bambino in 2004 to help take the fear out of traveling to Europe with young children. It’s not easy, but thoughtful planning will help ensure that the gain outweighs any pain. Despite the hardships of flights, time changes and inevitable travel snafus, the vast majority of brave families who embark on a trip to Europe with a toddler would do it again in a heartbeat.
What’s the secret to success?
You’ll be traveling 7 to 12 hours on airplanes (excluding connections). This is an eternity with toddlers. Don’t bother going unless you can spend 10 to 14 days on the ground. Time change adjustments are tough for everyone; know that the first few days may be spent doing just that … adjusting. Create a schedule with plenty of time to enjoy your destination once everyone has settled into the new place and routine.
Type A travelers like nothing better than seeing as much as possible in a short period of time, but that only works well for adult trips. Keep the itinerary simple with as few accommodation changes as possible. One of the challenges of traveling with young kids is that they need so much stuff — don’t exacerbate the issue by having to repack and move all time.
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This may seem painfully obvious, but do the research required to know that where you are staying is in fact toddler-friendly. Important things to consider include:
Separate sleeping areas: Do you need this? Consider if your child can go to sleep when you are in the room. City hotel rooms in Europe are small and this may mean that you need a suite or connecting rooms, which can add to the accommodation expense in a hurry. When you are traveling with just one child, a workaround is to ask the hotel to confirm if the hallway in the room, or even the closet, is big enough for a crib. We stayed at a hotel in Florence where we turned our huge walk-in closet into the “nursery” — it was dark and quiet (we kept the door cracked for plenty of air circulation). It worked perfectly!
Kitchens: In some ways I think babies under a year are the easiest to travel with because they are still breastfeeding or using bottles and/or baby food. Even so, it’s really nice to have at least a kitchenette to warm milk and clean bottles, utensils, bowls, etc. Europe has a growing number of aparthotels that combine hotel services with apartment amenities. We have a number of these properties featured on Ciao Bambino — my favorite option by far with young kids.
Location: Convenience is everything and the bottom line is, you will have an easier time seeing and doing things if you can simply walk out the door without having to worry about a cab or public transportation.
Kid-friendly management: I think it’s actually harder to find kid-friendly value-oriented properties than luxury properties. Really high-end hotels will cater to every guest. That said, the attitude of the management and staff toward kids is the key to making you feel at ease. If you can’t find a good option through a family-friendly accommodations guide, email prospective hotels and ask if many families stay with them. The answer to this question is surprisingly telling — like the property that told me they loved kids but expected them to be quiet in the garden. Red flag …
A home base where you can settle in for 7 or more days: Many apartment/villa-type accommodations with kitchens and lots of private living space have weeklong minimum requirements to begin with. I look for properties that have a safe place for kids to run around — open, flat grass is key. Most rural resort properties will have swimming pools; the bigger issue is if they are fenced and/or positioned far enough from guest rooms. Many properties in Europe have stone stairs, not ideal but unavoidable. The key is to ensure that any stairs in your unit have adequate railings and risers and are not open enough that toddlers can fall through them.
The reality is that babies and toddlers need to nap, and an aggressive sightseeing schedule is a recipe for frustration and disappointment. When we’re in Europe, our favorite pastime is loitering, meaning we hit a park, square or village and simply hang out with the locals. Our best memories from when our son was young are of doing exactly that — he played in a safe place while we relaxed and appreciated the magnificent setting.
Europeans eat much later than Americans. Every country has different customs, but most dinners start at 7:30p or later. Decide how you want to handle meals, i.e. will you go back to your kitchen where you can keep your home schedule or will you eat on local time? There is no right answer here; it comes down to priorities and personal preference. We spent a week in Spain with our then-2 1/2-year-old and simply had dinner with him at 10p with the locals. I know it sounds crazy, but it worked — we had a late snack, brought his stroller with us to meals so he could cash out once he ate, and then simply let him sleep all morning long.
The best toys and tote-alongs to keep young kids entertained on the road >
The amount of things you need to carry when traveling with a toddler is overwhelming, so buy as much as possible overseas in order to pack lighter. European pharmacies are an excellent source of all kinds of great baby supplies, including pacifiers, baby food, body care, etc. Specific brands, however, are different than ours, and it is important to bring your own formula and any other supplies for which particular ingredients are a must. Pharmacies are everywhere, in local villages as well as big cities. Sunday is a day when many shops are closed — be sure that you plan accordingly.
The reality is that both are nice to have, but given limited hands to carry things, I’d choose a lightweight stroller over a backpack. That said, this is an area where personal preference prevails. Some people swear by using only backpacks so that cobblestone streets and stairs are easier to navigate.
Our son weighed 20 pounds at 6 months — a backpack for hours on end at his size was not an option. My personal preference is to travel with a light umbrella stroller that you can easily navigate through crowded streets and that folds compactly in crowded restaurants. Many Ciao Bambino clients over the years have preferred the durability of jogging strollers on European cobblestones. People are all over the map on this issue — the bottom line is that you need something to make walking for long periods of time comfortable for everyone.
TIP: There are more and more equipment rental companies available throughout Europe now. You can always rent what you don’t want to carry.
Taxi drivers may or may not let you use your car seats (or may not have seat belts in the back at all). A way around this for longer transfers is to book a driving service ahead of time where you can confirm the setup and policies. Most car rental companies can provide rental car seats. The issue is quality — there is no guarantee that you will get something that meets your safety standards. Know that and plan accordingly (we’ve always brought our own).
Some people argue that young kids won’t remember going to Europe anyway, so why go? It’s true that our son has been every year since he was born and has no recollection of his early adventures. We, however, cherish every one of these early travel memories and, if asked, would do it all over again. Waiting until kids are older is a fine, but there is no substitute for the unique and magical experience of the experiencing the joys of Europe with young children.
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