Should You Take the Kids to Europe?

getting around europe with kids

By Rick Steves

When parents express their desire to travel to Europe with their kids, I often find myself tempted to suggest that they drop their little ones off at Grandma and Grandpa’s house on their way to the airport. After all, Europe is known for being an expensive destination, and bringing children along can drastically alter the nature of the trip in unexpected ways.

All Kidding Aside…

It’s not hard to argue against the idea of taking kids to Europe. A family vacation in Europe often revolves around playgrounds and petting zoos rather than exploring world-class art and breathtaking ruins. No matter how well you plan, you simply cannot see and do everything you would without children in the same amount of time. With kids in tow, your perfectly laid-out itinerary is more likely to be disrupted. Are you prepared to abandon a lifelong dream of seeing a particular sight if your child is on the verge of a meltdown? Additionally, traveling with kids comes with added challenges and inconveniences that can make the experience more exhausting and frustrating.

Traveling with kids comes at a price. Oftentimes, out of exhaustion and frustration, parents may opt for convenient yet expensive options like taxis and the first restaurant they stumble upon with a kid-friendly menu. Ultimately, two adults with kids end up spending twice as much to experience only half the magic of Europe each day compared to what they could have without them.

However, there is an alternative solution for families who have a limited budget, 20 days of vacation time, and dream of enjoying Europe as adults. Consider this plan: Go for the first 10 days without the kids and truly immerse yourselves in the magic of Europe without being weighed down by parental responsibilities. The money saved from leaving the children at home can easily cover the cost of top-notch childcare. Then, return home and spend the next 10 days with your kids, whether it’s camping, visiting a water park, or simply enjoying quality time together at home. If your children have an adult relative elsewhere in the United States whom they’d be excited to spend time with, you can even consider flying him or her to your house to babysit while you’re away. This way, everyone gets to experience Europe in their own way.

That being said, if you have the financial means and don’t mind sacrificing some of your own sightseeing goals, traveling with your children can be an incredibly rewarding experience for the whole family. It provides an opportunity for your kids to become more comfortable with the wider world and allows you to live more like a local and less like a tourist. By prioritizing neighborhood parks and public swimming pools over crowded museums and churches, you can adopt a slower-paced, more authentic approach to experiencing a foreign culture while also saving money. Your children can become your ambassadors, opening doors to new experiences and relationships. Some of your most cherished travel memories may involve your kids playing with children from other countries in beautiful locations such as Luxembourg Garden in Paris or a park in Madrid. Allow them to form friendships with local kids and enjoy the sense of camaraderie as they race through Siena’s main square, the Campo, while you relax with a refreshing Campari.

In Europe, families love to travel too. You’ll find kids’ menus, hotel playrooms, and specially designated areas for children at rest stops along highways all over the continent. Parents with babies are often offered seats on crowded buses and may even be ushered to the front of the line at museums.

What’s the Right Age for Europe?

Having taken my own children to Europe every year for the first 20 years of their lives, I can reflect on our European adventures during their childhood with fondness. When they were in grade school, our trips were focused on the basics of survival – eating, sleeping, and keeping them entertained. As they entered their teenage years, the challenge shifted to making our trips both educational and enjoyable.

Some parents prefer to wait until their kids are older and can fully appreciate the experience before taking them on a trip to Europe. My general rule of thumb is that children should be able to handle a full day of walking, be open to trying new foods, and feel comfortable sleeping in unfamiliar beds. They should also be capable of carrying their own daypack with a change of clothes, a journal, and a few toys. I’ve found that children are typically ready for an international trip around the same age they’re ready for a long day at Disneyland.

Grade-school kids are often the easiest to travel with, provided you incorporate kid-friendly activities into your daily itinerary. They tend to be happiest in rural areas with access to swimming pools and open fields where they can run around. Small towns offer a more manageable level of crowds, chaos, and must-see attractions.

As for tweens and teens, they view summer break as a well-deserved vacation that they’ve earned. If this European trip is not solely about you, involve your kids in the planning process. They are more likely to get excited about the vacation when they have a say in where you’ll be going. Assign each child a location to research and take their suggestions into serious consideration. Give them the opportunity to shape the itinerary based on their interests. While spending time in cities is essential, remember that a day of shopping or relaxing at the beach might be more enjoyable for them than another visit to yet another historical site or ruined abbey.

If you’d rather eliminate the stress of planning and have more energy to spend quality time with other adults, consider joining an organized tour designed specifically for families. For example, our family tours and “My Way” unguided tours welcome kids as young as 8, and at 12, they can join their parents on any Rick Steves tour. Especially during the summer, children in the group tend to make friends quickly, allowing parents to relax and enjoy the company of other adults.

Taking your kids to Europe is a decision that depends on various factors, including your budget, your children’s age and readiness, and your own travel goals and preferences. While there are challenges and sacrifices involved, the experience can be incredibly rewarding for the entire family. Whether you choose to embark on this adventure or wait until your kids are a little older, remember that the most important thing is to create lasting memories and cultivate a love for travel in your children.

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