15 tips for traveling in Europe with toddler

Since we are in the middle of our journey around Europe, we wanted to share some accumulated tips.  Some may be obvious and others are not so much but each came in handy as we planned and implemented the trip.

  1. Be very selective about the destination.  Generally, you already have criteria for choosing the right place: culturally interesting, close to your friends, great food, etc.  A toddler adds another layer of requirements:
      • social and political stability, both in the region, the country, and specifically the city, town, etc. (even more so than you would usually consider)
      • access to excellent healthcare
      • environmentally clean
      • well-connected for easy transportation
      • good infrastructure: well-paved roads, accessible by strollers, etc.
      • bonus: some countries are extra welcoming of babies, such as Spain or Turkey
  2. Research, research, research.  Some of the joy of travel is to experience the unexpected.  Normally we do plan on places to visit and places to eat.  But we leave some room for improvisation and free wandering around.  With a toddler, it’s best to meticulously plan and write each step out:
      • read Tripadvisor, Google, and Yelp reviews about each place, paying attention to people’s comments about the quality of the experience, the price, the location, accessibility with strollers, etc.  Learn on other people’s mistakes!
        • however, do not exclude the place just because it has one or two negative factors – just weigh them and plan accordingly.  we’ve had some amazing experiences in poorly-accessible places like castles, for example, just planned the visit when our toddler was the most active and could run around on his own.
        • likewise, if the food is absolutely amazing, it may be worth going outside the budget for a great experience.
      • confirm that the place is within your price range and suitable for your interests/ preferences.  You don’t want to drag a screaming toddler for 45 minutes to a destination just to find out that it’s not acceptable.
      • check on the place’s website and double-confirm the opening hours, especially around any holidays: you can even call them and confirm that they are open on the day of your visit.  see above point about the screaming toddler.
      • find out of any special times when the access is at reduced price or free as it may coincide with your toddler’s schedule anyway and any discount multiplied by a family of four or five really pays off.
  3. Carefully consider alternative transportation methods or routes.  Europe has numerous budget airlines, regular airlines, trains, ferries, buses, and boats.  If you have an active toddler, like ours, you may want to select a mode that either reduces the travel time dramatically or allows for unrestrained running around.   To that end, we mostly went by the airplanes and trains, with trains being our favorite.  Most trains in Western Europe are great: beautiful, fast, offer free wifi and amazing views.
  4. Consider checking in the luggage.  Usually we travel with carry ons, or “cabin bags” as they are called here.  After several errors, we finally mastered the art of traveling the budget airlines without having to pay the extra luggage fees.  However, the stress of carrying multiple bags and items is making us reconsider.
  5. Assign roles and responsibilities to each family member.  For example, our dad is responsible for luggage, mom for the toddler, older son – for camera, laptop, and stroller.  That way in the chaotic moments when the car/airplane/train stops, everyone grabs what they are responsible for, avoiding any incidents or problems.
  6. Take advantage of amazing European parks.   Almost all large European cities have great parks which are absolutely beautiful and have many activities for kids.  Even small towns often have green areas with nice playgrounds.  You can bring a blanket, a book, and spend some quality time with your family.  Our toddler loves the word “park” now as it means a lot of fun for him.
  7. Visit farmers’ markets.  They are great for toddlers as most vendors love and greet kids, giving them free samples, chatting them up, and playing with them.  The kids can learn about different colors, fruits and vegetables, and shapes or look at fish and sea life.   Often, there is a playground nearby allowing you and your spouse to tag team between shopping and watching the kids.
  8. If visiting for a prolonged stay, choose the smaller suburbs of the large cities: they are generally safer, cleaner, have fewer cars, friendlier people.
  9. Use websites like AirBnB.com or comparable  sites to book a place to stay.   Many times you can rent a home which has kid-friendly amenities, toys, games, tricycles, trampolines, etc.  It’s a great way to test the new toys out before buying them for your home.  These places are also larger than hotels or traditional BnB’s which is important to allow your toddler to run around and explore.
  10. When selecting a place to stay, check for things we take for granted but are not necessarily present in all European homes.  When traveling without kids some challenges might be exciting and tolerable.  With toddlers, you will miss every convenience:
      • elevators
      • (central) air-conditioning and heatinge
      • washer and dryer
      • good water pressure
  11. Obvious tips applicable to any traveling with kids apply here too:
      • bring toys (old and new)
      • bring healthy snacks
      • bring spare set of clothes
      • keep diapers and wipes easily accessible
      • travel near toddler’s nap or sleep times
      • bring Sea-bands or barf bag for motion-sick babies (singing loudly fun songs helps too!)
  12. Make a schedule every morning and assign toddler-watching hours to each family member.  Traveling and living in a new environment adds some chaos and stress, is very distracting, and at the same time has a great potential for making unforgettable memories or fueling personal growth.  At the same time, a family must be extra vigilant so the toddler does not wander off somewhere or set some cathedral on fire.  Assigning toddler-watching times to the family members improves the quality of attention and allows each member to actually enjoy himself or herself instead of being in a perpetual on guard state.  Also, if you know that you have only one or two hours to spend with your toddler, you will devote them to shadow puppets, learning the numbers, or chasing the frogs.  If the time is indefinite, you are fatigued and the best you can do is just follow him around with a resigned look on your face.
  13. Slow down and explore at toddler pace.  When traveling with our older son before our toddler was born, we tried to cover as much territory as we could, constantly moving and collecting maximum experiences.  With toddler, we were forced to slow down and linger at each destination, which turned out to be a blessing.  When visiting a petite palace in Paris, our toddler was fascinated by some bug on its steps.  We let him explore it, while really looking around at the amazing architectural details near the entrance.  Likewise, we let him stop and smell the flowers in Andalusian spring field or jump around in the grass.  He took forever eating his breakfast in Bodrum cafe, allowing us time to enjoy the stunning scenery.  Yes, we ended up skipping some of the major tourist destinations, instead doing one or none per each city.  But our experience at each was much richer.
  14. Bring an iPad loaded with educational games that do not require wifi connection.   There are thousands of educational apps and when you spent ALL of your energy chasing your toddler in the park, or simply need some quiet time to eat or use a restroom, pull out that iPad.  Not only it’s small and light, it can teach your toddler to spell or sing a song, while you are enjoying that cabernet.  You can’t take the wifi for granted though, so make sure you have apps that function without it.
  15. Set up and practice emergency procedures.  Get local cell phones for emergencies, pre-program the emergency numbers, write out the procedures and practice them in each new place.

Truth to be told, your toddler will likely not remember any of the experiences you spent so much effort to implement.  However, you can make priceless memories for yourself and other family members while keeping your toddler safe, happy, and entertained.