One of the first things my husband Cody and I did after we finished grad school and before we started our careers was hop on a plane to Europe. After two weeks in Spain, Italy, Austria and Germany, wanderlust had a firm grip, and we were hooked!
Before we had our first son eight years later, we had visited 19 countries together on five continents, including trips to India and Sri Lanka, South Africa and UAE, Peru and Brazil and three trips to Europe. Traveling is where we recharge and invest in each other; it’s also how we connect to the world and get outside our comfort zones.
When we began having children, we knew we wanted to keep traveling, but we had convinced ourselves that family trips would need to stay state-side and international trips would have to be kid free — at least until the kids were quite a bit older.
For years, we’d daydream about what it would be like when our two young boys were old enough to take them overseas. We wanted them to be old enough to not only remember the experiences they’d have but also to really appreciate them; for the trip to be “worthwhile.” After all, we thought, why would we want to spend all that money and effort to bring kids on a trip they won’t remember or at least appreciate?
But then I read this question: “What if it’s not about what the kids remember but about what YOU remember experiencing with your kids?” The memories YOU will cherish forever. The chance to enjoy captured time with your quickly growing and ever-changing children. The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the world through your little one’s eyes. And a chance to lay a foundation of adventure and education that only travel can provide.
When that thought landed firmly upon us in spring of 2021, and with an open summer ahead, we finally said, “Why not!” and booked a month-long trip to Italy and France for all four of us.
(A little disclaimer here — because we were waiting for international travel to re-open to Americans after the first wave of COVID, we were forced to book this trip very last-minute, which we were able to do because not many people were traveling at the time. So accommodations that would not typically have been available on such short notice were available for surprisingly decent rates. But normally, as you might imagine, booking trips like these as far in advance as possible is best for availability and cost-efficiency.)
Since this was our first time taking our then 3- and 5-year-old boys overseas, we decided to visit some of our favorite places, partly because they were familiar and we knew the locations would be great for kids and partly because those places have been special to us as a couple and we wanted to share them with our whole family.
Typically, when it was just Cody and me, we would zip from city to city spending maybe just a day or two in each place so we could fit in as many sights and experiences as possible. But we knew we’d have to slow down with kids as it takes longer to get around and it’s smart to build in more down time. So we planned for approximately three to five days in each of our main stops with a few quick stops sprinkled in.
When we finally narrowed down our top spots, we had settled on spending three weeks in Italy and one in France (mostly because our boys had watched the movie Ratatouille a lot and wanted to see the Eiffel Tower). We flew into Milan and made our way to Varenna on Lake Como for four nights, then to Vernazza, which is one of the villages of Cinque Terre along the Ligurian Coast, for five nights. We made a quick stop in Lucca on our way to spend three nights in Florence. From Florence, we rented a car to drive to our agriturismo (farm stay) outside of Pienza with lunch in Panzano. After three days of enjoying the quiet, bucolic paradise of Tuscany, we made two quick stops in Bologna and Modena before heading to Venice for three nights. From Venice, we flew to France for four days in Paris before our last stop at Mont Saint-Michel along the coast of Normandy.
The far-reaching benefits of travel
When our month of adventure came to an end, we were all exhausted and excited to be home (except for maybe Cody), but we had the time of our lives and made memories that will stay with us forever. Over the last six months, we’ve seen how the experiences we shared are shaping the way our kids see and interact with the world. It lit a spark in them that is fueling their curiosity, creativity and compassion like nothing else can, and we hope that’s a flame we can continue to feed over the years to come.
When we hear other parents say, “I’ve always wanted to do a trip like that, but it seems really overwhelming. I don’t know if we can do it,” our response is, “You can!” It definitely takes planning, preparation and saving, but that can be part of the fun.
Here are a few tips to kickstart your planning (or at least your daydreaming!):
- Make the planning a family affair. Sure, the ultimate plans and decisions should probably be steered by the adults, but don’t hesitate to let your kids throw in their two cents as well. They’ll be more interested and engaged, which will make it more fun for everyone.
- Don’t forget passports and other travel requirements. Yes, even for little ones. Regardless of age, everyone needs a passport to travel internationally, and for kids under the age of 16, the initial application must be submitted in person with both parents or guardians signing off either in person or through a notarized letter. You’ll also want to research whether your destinations require Visas, vaccination or medical documentation, custody documents, international driving permits, etc. I particularly recommend researching your destination’s COVID requirements and protocols as those vary greatly and change frequently. Travel.state.gov and CDC.gov are both helpful resources.
- Book convenient lodging. Finding accommodations that serve your family best is key. I highly recommend booking apartments or other similar vacation rentals that give you access to a kitchen, separate rooms for kids and adults and laundry facilities. Having a kitchen can help you save money on food by preparing a few meals at home, and having a separate sleeping area for the kids is nice so the adults don’t have to go lights-out when the kids have an earlier bedtime. We all know how much dirty laundry kids can generate so being able to do laundry helps you minimize how much you need to pack. And when you have to plan to return for afternoon naps or unexpected needs, a room close to the action is ideal.
- Pack smart. Based on your destination(s), research what you’ll need to pack beforehand and be strategic about what you take. Depending on the age of your kids, there’s a chance you’ll end up carrying more than just your own bags, so you won’t want to be lugging around a bunch of stuff you don’t absolutely need.
- Learn a little language. Three generally accepted facts: 1) locals appreciate it when tourists make an effort to speak their language, 2) kids pick up foreign languages more quickly than adults and 3) foreign language skills are easier to practice when you’re surrounded by that language. So, what better time to teach your kids a few key phrases? Hello and goodbye, please and thank you, my name is, etc. can get you a long way and might even help them make a new friend, which brings me to my next point.
- Play with other kids. One of my favorite things from our trip was seeing our boys play with other kids. You can almost always find a playground, beach, piazza or soccer field to let them run around and make some new buddies. It didn’t matter that the local kids were speaking broken English or giggling at our boys’ first efforts at Italian. Laughter and play are universal languages and break down barriers in ways few other things can.
- Let them document their experiences. Two of my favorite souvenirs from our trip are the journals and cameras we gave our boys to document things they found interesting or memorable. I’ll never forget them sitting at the feet of the Statue of David sketching their own versions of the masterpiece in their journals just like the college art students. Looking through the photos they took on their own cameras gave us a glimpse into the world through their eyes.
- Get off the beaten path, but don’t ignore the tourist attractions. One of the most common travel tips you’re likely to read in your research is to “get off the beaten path,” and that’s great advice. Branching out from the crowded and sometimes overrated attractions into a more local neighborhood can reveal hidden gems and authentic experiences. But those tourist attractions became popular for a reason, and after climbing the Eiffel Tower or pretending to be gladiators in the Colosseum, kids will feel like certified world travelers the next time they see those places in movies.
- Be realistic and flexible, but don’t underestimate your kids. We knew we would have to keep our plans very flexible and be realistic about what we could accomplish each day, but time and time again our boys showed us they’re often capable of more than we thought. Whether you’ve got a daunting flight ahead of you, you’re considering a strenuous hike or you’re worried about getting your picky eaters to try that new food, just frame it all as an exciting adventure and give them a chance. They might just surprise you!