Today my 3 year-old son asked me to take him back to the Eiffel Tower. He wanted to go on the “roundy-round” (his word for Carousel) that was in Paris. Yes, my 3 year-old has been to Paris. Twice. He’s also been to Budapest, Santorini, Andalusia, and Croatia. He took his first steps at Lake Garda in Italy and his second in Venice. No, we’re not millionaires. We’re a military family who was recently stationed in Germany. In the two glorious years we lived there we took nearly every opportunity to travel and managed to enjoy these cities as grown-ups—despite traveling with a toddler.
Don’t give in to the fear—you can do it too! To help, I’m sharing some of the tips and tricks we picked up along the way:
Timing is Everything
My son has a very predictable schedule (which we worked very hard to establish). Knowing this schedule, we were able to plan our days accordingly. Use naptime to your advantage. If you know you want to relax on the beach or tour a museum, plan those activities during a time when your kid will be out for the count. My son has slept through the Louvre (traveling parent tip: not stroller-friendly), a canal tour in Amsterdam, Neuschwanstein castle, and fireworks in Budapest (that one surprised us). Our best “parenting win” moment? Knowing our son typically went to bed at 7pm, we fed him dinner on his schedule, gave him his bath, put him in PJs, strapped him into his stroller, reclined it and tucked him in with bunny and blanket, then went to our 8pm dinner reservation at a fabulous Parisian restaurant—with the stroller parked at our table. He slept. We had one of the best meals of our lives.
Have Some Kid Friendly Activities
Now, fair is fair. We are talking travel with a toddler. They can’t spend all day strapped into an Ergo looking at art and architecture. But they can ride a carousel, eat ice cream, or run around fountains/castles/gardens. It’s also surprising how many play grounds are available in desired travel destinations. We tried to give our son at least an hour of dedicated play every day, but we also took little opportunities to let him have fun. After touring the Doge’s Palace in his Ergo, he got to chase pigeons and eat ice cream in St. Michael’s Square. I’ve already mentioned the carousel in Paris. There’s another one in Florence. And one of my fondest memories is watching my husband and son chase each other through a water-feature fountain in Utrecht (traveling parent tip: keep a spare pair of dry clothes in the car).
Pick Your Lodging Appropriately
As every parent knows, life with a toddler is exhausting. Travel with a toddler can be even more tiring—especially if you’re not used to sharing a bedroom. Since most hotel rooms are a single room (family suites are practically unheard of in Europe), we booked stays at apartments or single family homes using websites like Booking.com, HomeAway.com or Airbnb.com. (Check out Shannon’s post for more tips on prepping your “home away from home.”) Having a kitchen saved us money, and being able to put a door between ourselves and our sleeping child saved our sanity. An added bonus, once the child was in bed we could open a bottle of wine, play some cards—and in one fantastic location in Croatia, open the windows of the apartment which overlooked the port/center of town and enjoy the live music! Other homes marketed to families may actually have kid’s toys/games/videos. We stayed at an awesome little apartment in Bruges, Belgium that had an entire area dedicated for play. While having a pool onsite may require parents to be extra vigilant, our villa in Santorini (shared with friends) allowed us to enjoy some splashy-fun while also having a “down day” where no traveling was required.
Gear to Make Life Easier
Travel packing for children could be an article in itself: toys, snacks, clothes, diapers, car seats, strollers—0h, my! I was so thrilled when my son was finally toilet trained as it freed up half a suitcase! As frequent travelers to not-always-kid friendly destinations, these items saved us money and headaches:
- The travel cot. Some hotels/apartments can provide you with a crib or pack and play, but this isn’t always an option (or sometimes comes with an additional fee) when staying in private homes. Since we drove to many of our destinations, quantity of gear wasn’t an issue. This inexpensive, small, collapsible cot can easily be tucked into a corner—giving my toddler a place to sleep (that isn’t a spot wedged between my husband and me). Even now that we are back in the states and our toddler has become a pre-schooler, this cot gets a lot of use.
- The booster seat. We actually pulled this out of the closet the other day for a dinner party! It’s lightweight, collapsible, and fits into a shoulder bag. We used it every Sunday in Germany as our favorite bakery didn’t have any high chairs—and we brought it on every trip (we didn’t expect the hotels/apartments to have high chairs either).
- The baby carrier. We’re partial to our Ergo, but any carrier that your child can ride comfortably in (and sleep in) is a must in my book. Strollers are great, but a lot of travel destinations are not stroller friendly. Plus, when your toddler is up walking and joining in on the fun (or chasing the pigeons), with a carrier, one of you isn’t stuck pushing an empty stroller. Same goes for the framed back-pack. We purchased one and were excited to use it on our first big trip—but it was so awkward and heavy that it spent the remaining two years in our basement.
- The travel potty. I remember discussing the issue of potty-training with a fellow mom and bemoaning the difficulty of finding bathrooms on the road in Europe (seriously, in Italy they are literally a hole in the floor, and there may be an hour between rest areas). At least with diapers, my son could go and I wasn’t stressed about finding a restroom right now! Then that blessed woman told me about the “potette”—a travel potty that doubles as a toddler toilet seat? Brilliant! Forget the expensive inserts—just use a grocery bag and a diaper.