Traveling to Europe with Kids and Teens
by Laura Glendinning
In my childhood we did vacations but they generally involved visiting relatives or showing relatives around when they visited us. That meant three destinations. Somewhere in Texas (we lived in Houston). Somewhere in Michigan (where my grandparents lived), or Wisconsin (where my cousins lived.) We saw the Alamo a lot, visited the Kellogg’s cereal factory in Battle Creek and ate cheese near the shores of Lake Michigan. And there was one family trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras thanks to the neighbor girl and I being fast friends. Her family was from Baton Rouge. Her big brother could spit ten feet! He said “thow” instead of “throw”. It was all so exotic. When we arrived in New Orleans after a loooong drive on I-10, we were hungry. I had never seen piles of boiled crawdads on a newspaper pass as dinner. No canned green beans and watery potatoes. It was awesome.
Mom had heard they threw cheap beads off Mardi Gras floats so she figured it was a fun thing for kids. Uh, yep. Just as you thought. Grown adults were tearing beads out of our hands. But did it make a surreal and searing memory glued to my brain? Yes it did.
Most luckily…. my dad’s parents lived near London.
So we did pile 5 people on an international flight and got to visit my Scottish grandparents and bachelor uncle one very cold Christmas. They lived in a very pretty town off a main train line from London, Weybridge. As a 14 year old, I was trusted to take the train into the city with the 19 year old family friend and visit the British Museum. We went to Portobello Road and Kensington, passed by Buckingham Palace and really fit a lot in. Before you say “It was safer then,” let me mention the IRA were still randomly bombing London landmarks and streets. All the parents kind of shrugged and said, “you’ll be fine.”
Point of the story being, even if you don’t let the kids take the train themselves or brave Mardi Gras, let them in on planning. They will be curious about very different things than you and will lead you on a better trip. Did you know French skateboarders gather near the Eiffel Tower? And also near the Pompidou Center? Now you do.
On one trip to Paris I took our then-6-year-old to the Musee de la Poupee in Paris (doll museum) because of her passion for dolls. Would I have ever visited this quirky little converted house near the Anne Frank garden for any other reason? We met the elusive ginger store cat. We looked at dioramas of dolls in old-fashioned clothes, trapped forever behind glass. Absolutely everyone spoke French and exclaimed about their fond doll memories. There were no Barbies, Chatty Cathy’s or anything remotely familiar. It might as well have been a science museum as far as we were concerned. It’s a nice memory because it was so darn off beat. And sadly, closed forever due to rising rents. Yet another reason following some quirky request is important.
With our tours, family-friendly is a given because you are boarding a train instead of an impersonal bus. The kids will plan their snacks they bring aboard and enjoy the weird rocking sensation of walking to the loo and seeing flashing countryside. They will present their e-ticket and get it scanned, feeling proud as they do so. The conductor will say “bonne journee” and that will register as a new French phrase to remember.
Once on site in Normandy, or the Loire Valley the kids will see unfamiliar countryside, very old stone walls and legit fairy tale castles. Because leaving the city and doing something a little challenging makes a trip all the more special.
I like to think our now 16-year-old daughter soaked up a few lessons. When she has been on trips with school or other families, she makes a point of picking up quirky mementoes and Instagramming moments that are not typical. We still make her tell the story of her friend ordering a coffee in a random coffee house on a D.C. school trip. Our daughter had urged everyone to forget the prescribed snack and branch out. The girl was so shy she mumbled her order and got a black coffee worthy of a hustling journalist instead of a teen-friendly vanilla frappe iced whatever. Well there you go. A funny story and an adventure.
One client made sure he got his kids to World War I sites by having us arrange a private van and guide. Did the teens absolutely love being woken up early to drive? Nope. But off they went for an amazing day and as the dad reported, the guide was pleased to see kids off their devices and asking smart questions about the history. The family in turn was thrilled to be included in a spontaneous re-enactment the guide had known was planned and timed the day to make sure it happened.
This is what traveling as a kid does for you, and your family. You make memories that might not be by the book, but they are all yours.
Because why visit the Vatican in Rome when you can pop into cutting-edge fashionable boutiques for your teen? Yes, that happened. And I would not trade the day for anything.
A fellow mom who has been traveling with her three kids for years read this over and reminded me 1. make everyone fill a water bottle before you set out for the day and 2. everyone should have a full change of clothes, including underwear, in your carry-on.
Which reminds me of the time on a business trip when I wore the same clothes for 36 hours. My bag missed a connection in Marseilles and I can only be grateful I don't do the "sweatpants on a flight" style. I have never been more happy to put on a business casual outfit in my life.