If you’re thinking of taking a family vacation to Europe trust me, you won’t regret it! We spent an amazing two weeks touring Spain, Italy, and France last year and loved every last second of it. Good planning is key, though. So, with that in mind, read on for my tips for traveling to Europe with kids!
15 Tips for Traveling to Europe with Kids
If you’re a regular reader, I’m sure you’ve noticed that we LOVE traveling as a family. We’ve been all over Florida, as far north as Canada, all the way to the west coast to visit Napa Valley, and down to South America to visit my family.
Still, it took us a lot of years to build up the “courage” to go to Europe with the kids. My son was 11 and my daughter had just turned 7. So we said, “Okay, let’s give it a shot!” I’m so glad we did! We don’t regret a single minute of our trip!
But as I mentioned above, when you’re traveling to Europe with kids, a little bit of extra planning goes a long way toward making sure everyone (including YOU) has a wonderful vacation.
Below, I’m sharing all of my tips with things I did before we left, how we planned our itinerary and some things we learned along the way (in that order, more or less). I hope it helps you plan the perfect European family vacation! I’m including some of my favorite family photos from the trip, too, so you can see a few of the amazing things we did. Enjoy!
1. Don’t try to see too many countries in one trip
It’s tempting to try to squeeze every last “bucket list” destination into one vacation. After all, traveling to Europe with kids isn’t exactly cheap! So, who knows if you’ll be able to get back there again anytime soon, right?
But cramming EVERY single dream destination into one trip isn’t the way to go. First, you won’t have enough time in any one destination to really see and experience it. Second, you’ll all be so exhausted from non-stop traveling that you won’t really enjoy what you do manage to see.
There are SO many countries that I’d love to visit in Europe. But we narrowed this trip down to just Spain, France, and Italy. Check out the video below for some highlights from our trip!
2. Decide what you want to see in each place before you book your trip
Don’t just narrow down your bucket list to a few countries, also whittle down the landmarks that you want to see in each destination as well. That way you can figure out how much time you need to allot to each place.
For example, say you narrowed down your three destinations to Spain, France, and Italy as we did. Have everyone in your family make a list of the places they want to see and the things they want to do the most.
Now, highlight all of the places that pop up on more than one person’s list. Those will be your “definites.” Next, plot those places out on a map. Then, go through the rest of the lists and see what else you can add that falls between your “definites.” Try to make sure that each person gets one of their unique destinations added to your itinerary.
Doing this will really help you decide how to divide up your trip. We spent a lot of time in Spain, with 3 days each in both Madrid and Barcelona alone because there was just so much we wanted to see. I’m glad we did, too! It was SO amazing! The architecture is gorgeous and there are so many neat landmarks.
3. Book the red-eye flight
We flew from Miami to Madrid on Iberia Airlines. It was an 8-hour flight, so we went with a nighttime departure. I’m SO glad we did because the kids slept most of the way. Madrid is 6 hours ahead of Miami. We landed in the early afternoon Madrid time, relatively well-rested.
Still, since we were a bit jetlagged, we really had no problem falling asleep that first night. I think that really helped get us on a European time zone schedule.
Side note- Iberia Airlines was great! The service was great and the food was surprisingly awesome, especially for plane food! Also, although my kids slept a lot, I still recommend bringing plenty of activities for them to do on the plane. That’s not really a tip for traveling to Europe with kids, though, since it goes for any flight.
4. If you want to see more cities, also book a cruise during your vacation
Booking a week-long cruise as part of our European vacation was one the smartest things we did. We did a bunch of city tours (more on that in a minute), then hopped on the Norwegian Epic out of Barcelona.
The ship took us to Corsica in France, then Naples, Florence, and Rome in Italy, back to France to see Cannes, then finally to Mallorca Spain. It was super hectic, yes, but oddly also relaxing. The ports were all so nice and offered so much in terms of history, culture, and of course amazing food.
When we were on the ship, though, we could really just unwind. There was plenty for the kids to do, including water slides, rock climbing, and the kids’ club. You can even leave the kids at their club and go have a “grown-ups-only” dinner date.
Check out my tips for 10 First-Time Cruise Tips for Families for more ways to get the most out of your time aboard the ship.
5. Travel Europe by Train as Much as Possible
Europe has an incredible railway system, and riding the train is an amazing activity all on its own. We took the fast train from Madrid to Barcelona. It only took about 2.5 hours, and the kids loved it so much. Not only is it a super convenient way to travel, but you get to see more of the country out the window. Sure, it’s only in passing, but it’s still really neat!
I can’t recall the exact train that we took, but you can find one that fits your budget and itinerary through Eurail, Renfe (for trips in Spain), and such. One important note- the BBC recommends avoiding “heavily advertised third-party agencies” like Rail Europe and Rail Bookers because they tend to be more expensive.
6. Book guided tours (but don’t go overboard)
Guided tours are a great way to see a bunch of touristy landmarks while getting a local’s perspective on everything. But don’t go overboard with them. As I said earlier, my kids got tired of them after a few days.
I do recommend booking one or two along the way, but be smart about it. Go with small groups so you can actually see and hear your tour guide. Look at what’s offered, too, and add up how much it would cost you to do all of that on your own to make sure it’s worth the price.
For example, when we spent three days in Barcelona, we went to the Sagrada Familia, Casa Gaudi, and Park Guell (you can see a bit of it in the video below), and took a guided tour of the city. Tours that include those destinations start at $100ish per person, but that price includes the entrance fees, transportation, and more. The cost ends up being roughly the same or just a few dollars more than it would if you just went on your own and paid for each thing individually.
While guided tours have their benefits, they do have one significant drawback: you’re on someone else’s timeline. When your tour guide says that it’s time to move on to the next landmark, you really have no choice but to follow. So don’t go too overboard on them.
7. Leave time open in your itinerary for spontaneous exploration
Yeah, yeah, scheduled spontaneity is kind of an oxymoron, and I know I said that you need a solid plan in place when you’re traveling to Europe with kids. Still, part of that plan should include a little time where you have absolutely NO plan.
Leave some time open at each destination to just wander aimlessly. Take in the sights, sounds, and delicious scents all around you. Stop for gelato in Italy, explore a unique smaller museum in Paris instead of the packed Louvre, or browse local markets instead of more touristy souvenir shops.
8. Plan downtime between each destination
We spent so much time walking, exploring, and touring every single day that we were all pretty exhausted by end of the day. One of the reasons I’m so glad we booked a cruise is that it kind of gave us forced downtime each night.
The great thing about being on a ship is that you really don’t have to do much in terms of planning or thinking. Plus, everyone can kind of do their own thing. Maybe you’re hungry, your hubby is tired, and your kids are bored. Drop your kids off at the kid’s camp, send hubby off for a nap, and grab a bite to eat at the buffet! Everyone is happy and relaxed, and you’ll all be rejuvenated for another day of exploring.
If you’re not taking a cruise during your trip, get the same experience by choosing your hotel wisely. Pick one that offers kids’ activities and on-site restaurants. That way, you can still all do your own thing within the safety and confines of one location.
Also, make sure you add a little bit of a buffer between each activity as well. Don’t just race from one landmark to the next. That’s a surefire way to end up with cranky kids (which, in turn, makes for cranky adults!).
9. Relax your regular rules a bit
When you’re home, consistency is a vital part of raising kids. But when you’re on vacation, it’s okay to relax the rules a bit. For example, you know how important healthy eating is to me and my family, right? Well, when we’re on vacation, I relax that rule quite a bit!
I’m not saying we eat junk food all day every day while we’re away. But if we’re passing by a gelato place and my kids really want to try it, I let them, even if it’s close to lunchtime.
Maybe your kids really love pizza and when you’re at home you only allow it once a week. While on vacation, they really want to see how it tastes in each country. Go ahead and let them eat pizza every night! As long as they eat healthy at home, a little splurging while on vacation isn’t going to derail their nutrition habits for life or anything.
Speaking of food…
10. Tips for dining in Europe with kids
I have a few important food-related tips for traveling to Europe with kids, but they all kind of go together. So I’ll just put the all here to make it easier for you.
- Add food experiences to your itinerary. Food is just as much – if not more- a part of European culture as any of the landmarks you’ll visit. So when you’re making up your itinerary, include places that will allow you to really experience each culture’s cuisine.
- People eat dinner late in Europe. Dinner is usually around 7 PM or later. So you may want to plan a small extra meal somewhere in your day. For example, eat breakfast at 7, brunch at 11, lunch at 3, and then dinner at 7.
- There are no kids’ meals and portions are smaller. First, restaurants don’t really serve kids’ meals in Europe. Everything is an “adults” portion. Second, those adult portions are a lot smaller than they are in America. Here, everything is “big” this, “jumbo” that. They don’t do that there, which is probably why they’re so much healthier overall.
- Plan some “safe” foods to order for each country. If you’re an adventurous eater and don’t really have any “off-limits” foods, then you can just kind of wing it. But if you or your kids are picky, make a list of some things that you know you’ll like so you can keep an eye out for them on menus. Also, learn the correct way to pronounce them!
11. Take an insane amount of pictures…then put the camera away
Pictures are one of the few totally free souvenirs, so definitely take a ton of them! But don’t spend so much of your trip worrying about framing up the perfect photo that you’re just looking at every landmark through your smartphone screen or lens.
Here’s what I recommend. When you first get to your destination, pull out the phone and snap away. Get all of your shutterbugging out of your system right away. Put your kids in silly poses (who cares if everyone holds up the Leaning Tower of Pisa? It’s still fun!!), ask someone to snap a picture with you in it, and photograph that landmark from every angle possible.
Then, put the camera away until you reach your next destination. Spend the rest of the time really absorbing the culture, sights, and sounds around you. Mental pictures are just as important and memorable as actual photographs.
12. It’s okay to split up sometimes
You don’t have to do everything together all of the time. Maybe you and your son are really into art and dream of seeing the Louvre, but your hubby and daughter can’t think of anything more boring. Rather than dragging them through a museum that they have zero desire to see, plan something else nearby for them to do together instead.
Bonus: it’s great to spend a little alone time with each of your kids. The next day, you can swap. Hubby can take your son to see something that they would both enjoy, and you can take your daughter somewhere else.
13. Let the learning come naturally
If you’re traveling to Europe with kids during the school year, it’s tempting to try to fit in a ton of educational activities to make it feel like they’re not missing out on learning (or if you’re a worldschooling family). Fight that temptation. I promise you, they’re going to learn SO MUCH just by walking around, interacting with locals, and even just eating lunch.
In other words, just visiting another country is an educational experience all on its own. My kids learned a ton on our trip. Europe has such a rich and long history that it’s impossible to not learn something everywhere you go. You can’t help but think about the ancient Romans who built the Colosseum, wonder why the Leaning Tower of Pisa actually leans, or marvel at the engineering ingenuity of the viaducts.
14. Be ready and willing to throw your entire itinerary out the window
Now I’m going to contradict pretty much everything I just said but bear with me. Yes, good planning is key to traveling to Europe with kids without losing your mind…but you can’t be so rigid that you’re willing to suffer through boredom and misery just to stick to your schedule.
For example, maybe you had an action-packed week in Rome planned, with an itinerary that hit every major historical site and then some. But halfway through, the weather turns cruddy or your kids get bored to tears with yet another tour or you just realize that you’re just not that into historical sites after all.
Rather than sticking it out and wasting both time & money on something that isn’t bringing you joy, ditch your itinerary and come up with a new one. It’s okay, I promise!
15. Just relax and have fun!
Most important of all, just relax, have fun, and make some amazing memories together. Honestly, I can 100% promise you that your trip won’t go completely according to plan every moment of the day. That’s just the nature of traveling with kids. Don’t let it stress you out. Adapt and move on.
Sometimes, the things that don’t quite go as expected end up becoming our most treasured memories years later. Your kids may not remember everything they learned about the landmarks you visited. But they will definitely remember the day you got lost in Italy and finding the best little bistro ever.
Long story short, even with the little bit of extra planning that you need to do, traveling to Europe with kids is totally worth it! They learn so much from the history and culture, exposure to different languages, and even trying new foods! I am so glad we decided to do it, and I can’t wait to take them back again to check out some of the other countries on our dream travel list.