As the world reopens, Americans are eager to resume travels around the world. But that first big trip across the Pond or even just across the border requires more planning than your average family vacation. Here, an ex-pat TravelingMom shares her tips for having the best travel experience abroad.
The entire continent of Europe offers a huge history lesson for kids and adults alike. And for those of us (like me) who grew up in the modernity of the US, visiting cities and towns in Europe where buildings are hundreds of years old, and where bridges, roads and monuments date to Roman times — or sometimes later — is a great reminder of just how long humans have been making history here.
I live in Italy now, and travel in Europe frequently with my husband and 9-year-old daughter. So if you’re ready to make your first trip to Europe with your kids — and you should! — here’s my tested advice for making this big international trip for the first time.
Choose the Right Destination
Europe’s a big place, and assuming you’ve only got about two weeks to see it, you have several options for organizing your trip, depending on your travel goals:
- If you want to see as many countries as possible, stick to Northern Europe, where borders are closer together and well connected by trains and highways. Consider starting in Paris and ending in Frankfurt, Germany. You’ll be able to take in Brussels, Belgium; and Amsterdam, Netherlands; and some smaller cities along the way.
- If there are one or two places you absolutely want the kids to see, like the D-Day beaches of France or the Colosseum in Rome, plan on a 2-country trip with a flight in the middle. You get a week in each country — just enough to decide where to visit on your next trip!
- If you want immersion, stick to one country. France, Germany, Spain and Italy are some of the larger countries where two weeks will fly by as you visit a mix of museums, monuments, historic sites and countrysides.
Some Things Families Can Expect in Europe
- Europe is very welcoming of children. But you’ll probably notice that in restaurants and other enclosed areas, European children are generally quiet and well-behaved. Encourage your kids to follow suit!
- Restaurants generally don’t have kids’ menus, though many will be happy to make your kids a simple order of pasta with tomato sauce or something similar. If your kids are used to chicken nuggets and fries, try to get them to branch out and try something new.
- Here’s something that might surprise you: the farther south you get in Europe, the later the kids stay out. It’s not uncommon in Italy or Spain to see little kids dining out with their parents at 10 or 11 pm. In Northern Europe, families, when they do dine out together, generally do so earlier and kids go to bed earlier.
International Travel Tips
Get Your Paperwork in Order
1. Everyone needs a passport, even infants. The official U.S. Government website for passports has all the info you need to apply or renew. Wait time for new passports is currently 8-11 weeks, so plan accordingly. Also, make copies of your passports and put a copy in each checked bag. Email a copy to yourself as well so it’s as close as the nearest internet cafe.
TravelingMom Tip: Don’t make these mistakes when applying for a passport for your kids.
2. Americans don’t need a visa to visit Schengen countries. For stays of less than 90 days, U.S. citizens need only a passport to visit the 26 nations in the European Union where border-free travel is permitted. You will probably be asked to register your visit with the destination country — this is especially common since the pandemic. Completing these pre-arrival forms is usually part of the flight check-in process.
3. Let your credit card companies and health insurance company know your destination and travel dates. And ask whether travel insurance or emergency medical insurance is included for cardholders and their immediate family members. If not, we highly recommend buying a travel insurance policy that covers everyone in the family, including for medical emergencies and emergency repatriation to your home country.
4. Enroll in the U.S. Department of State’s free STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program). It will alert you to any emergencies, travel alerts or travel advisories in your destination country and connect you, if needed, to the closest U.S. Embassy.
5. Check with your carrier to make sure your cell phone plan covers calls to home and calls within Europe. Get the details on cost so you don’t come home to a nasty surprise when your bill arrives. Many cell phone companies will sell you a short-term phone plan that covers calls and wifi roaming charges for international travel.
6. Play it safe and get an international driving permit (IDP). Even though many places in Europe will accept your U.S. driver’s license, some rental car agencies will require an IDP. And the IDP offers peace of mind in the unlikely event that you’re pulled over by a traffic officer.
7. Decide how you’ll handle cash and credit abroad. I don’t take out foreign currency in advance of arriving in foreign countries. Instead, I take my debit card to an ATM in the airport or train station and withdraw local currency as soon as I arrive. The exchange rate is usually more favorable compared to foreign currency exchange desks. Just be sure to alert your bank and credit card company that you’ll be traveling, so your card doesn’t end up blocked while you’re far from home. Also, get a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees so that you won’t be shocked when you get your monthly statement. Whatever you do, never exchange currency at the airport. That’s the worst exchange rate anywhere and fees are likely to be the highest.
8. Bring your vaccination card or proof of a negative Covid test. Covid requirements in the vary from country to country. But here’s a rundown of what to expect in most destination countries.
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- For travelers 12 and older: proof of vaccination, proof that you’ve recovered from Covid-19, or a negative PCR or antigen test taken within 72 hours of travel.
- For unvaccinated children under 12: a negative PCR or antigen test taken within 72 hours of travel.
- For adults: some countries require proof of vaccination and a negative PCR or antigen test taken within 72 hours of travel.
Even if you are able to travel to the country of your choice without a vaccination, many countries require this same proof of vaccination, negative Covid test or recovery from Covid-19 to enter museums and historic sites or sit indoors at bars and restaurants. In some countries, this same proof is required to check into a hotel room.
Tips for Planning Your Trip
While solo travelers and couples might be able to snag some last-minute deals, for families, it’s best to plan ahead:
9. Book your international flights 120-180 days in advance to get the best airfare. Since families seldom travel light, make sure the airfare you select includes a checked bag, instead of just carry-on. Heading to Europe, you’ll have the widest choice of flights and lower prices if you book direct flights from New York, Atlanta or other East Coast hubs.
10. Book your hotel rooms at least two months in advance for popular destinations or at busy holidays like Christmas or Easter. You don’t want to wait until the last minute only to find out that there are no rooms available. And note that hotel rooms in Europe are notoriously small, very expensive, and don’t live up to “American standards.” Save money by renting an Airbnb or similar vacation rental. But be aware that in some European cities, short-term rentals are illegal or highly regulated. So make sure that you’re renting from a legit source.
11. Book rental cars well in advance. My family loves taking trains to get around Europe. But if you decide to rent a car, it’s best to do that several months ahead of your trip. Some countries, like Italy, include basic insurance coverage in the rental car fee. But make sure you know what’s covered when you book, and check with your credit card company about what rental car insurance might be offered to cardholders.
12. Buy a universal power adapter. Electrical plugs in one country might not be like the ones just across the border. A universal adapter will ensure that your chargers, laptops and other devices will all stay juiced-up. And don’t forget to pack the adapter you bought! They can be difficult to find once you arrive at your destination. No one there needs an adapter, so ifyou can find one, you’ll pay far more than you would if you buy it at your local discount store or order it online.
Packing for International Travel
We’ve traveled in Europe, and back and forth to the US extensively. TravelingMom Keri Baugh wrote this great guide to what to pack for international family travel, so I’ll just add my two cents here:
13. Pack layers. This is especially important if you’re heading to mountainous areas, such as the Swiss Alps. The temperature will drop as you gain elevation. And do a little research about the clothing norms of the country you’ll be visiting. Even in hot weather, Europeans dress a bit more modestly than Americans. So skip the tank-tops and short-shorts in favor of nicer t-shirts or polos, and longer shorts and skirts or lightweight slacks.
14. Don’t overpack. You’ll find that shopping in most European cities is not all that different from shopping in the U.S. If you’ve forgotten something, you can always duck into a pharmacy or clothing store.
15. Keep medications, a change of clothes and other necessities in your carry on bags. This is good advice no matter where you’re flying. That way, if you and your checked bags are (temporarily) separated, you’ll have what you need. And bring a foldable duffle bag into which you can stuff souvenirs to take home.
Tips for Enjoying Your International Trip
16. Plan for jet lag. If you arrive on the morning flight, try your best to stay up all day and acclimate to the next time zone. Go for a walk and spend time in the sun and try one of these tips for managing jet lag.
17. Bring comfortable shoes. Fashion has its place, but the best way to see the world is by walking around. Italian women spend years learning to walk those cobblestone streets in spike heels. If you’re not as adept, don’t risk spraining an ankle or missing an adventure because your feet are killing you.
18. Carry your wallet in a front pocket, or carry a cross-body bag that’s more secure than a shoulder bag or other type of purse. Lots of travelers to Europe bring a money belt, but to be honest, I find these awkward and unnecessary. Instead, make regular ATM stops and take out however much currency you’ll need for the day so you’re not carrying around wads of cash. Crime is generally quite low in Europe, but pickpocketing is not uncommon.
19. Don’t get into a taxi before agreeing on the fare. If there is a disagreement, involve a local who can help translate. And only use official taxis or use your Uber app in 80 countries around the world.
20. Know where you’re going. Snap a photo of the address of your Airbnb or hotel, or at least the street signs at the nearest corner. That way, if you or your children get lost, or the taxi driver can’t understand your accent as you try to pronounce the name of the hotel or apartment, you can show the photo.
Health & Safety
21. Don’t drink the water. While this isn’t a problem for most of Europe (and the water in Italy is free and really yummy), there are lots of countries in the world where the water is not safe to drink. If water in the country you’ll visit is questionable, don’t risk getting sick! Drink bottled water and don’t order drinks with ice. The ice may have been made with the tainted water that will melt into your drink. And drink your drinks straight from the bottle rather than pouring it into a glass that may have been washed in the contaminated water. If you buy fruit in one of those countries, wash it with bottled or boiled water. Or only eat fruit that doesn’t have to be washed and can be peeled, like a banana.
22. Keep the hand sanitizer, wipes and tissues handy. We all got used to doing this thanks to Covid, and you will glad to have it in many countries. Chances are the restrooms won’t be as clean you’d like. And they may not have hand soap or toilet paper. Plus, keep a few coins in the local currency. You may have to pay to use the facilities, as TravelingMom Editor Cindy Richards learned in Italy when she risked arrest to pee.
23. If you or your kids have food allergies, purchase an allergy translation card. That way there won’t be any mistakes when dining.
24. Pack some chewable children’s Motrin or Tylenol. Finding medicine for kids in a foreign pharmacy might be difficult.