Traveling Internationally with Children

I have said repeatedly that I enjoy travel because it educates me in ways nothing else can. I got educated on my recent trip to Europe with my wife and two stepchildren.

I loved our experience. It was wonderful. Even though it wasn’t our first foreign travel adventure together, it was our first large-scale international excursion with elementary school-age kids. We arrived in London and spent several days there before taking a train to Paris. While there, we also took a day trip via train to Brussels.

I’m still on the “traveling globally with children” learning curve, but I now have a much better idea about what will work for us, what will not, and how my wife and I will plan for an enjoyable family adventure. We’ll make adjustments as the kids get older, but these lessons will likely hold up for the next two or three years.

Lesson #1 Change assumptions about jet lag and sleep

I built in a couple of extra days at our arrival destination, London, because I thought the kids would be zombies for two days because of jet lag. They weren’t. There were adjustments, of course, but we didn’t need the additional time in one location to improve acclimation.

My wife thought the kids would sleep on our 7-plus-hour flight to London. They didn’t. The personal entertainment system with loads of movies and TV shows kept them awake the entire flight.

View from the London Eye in London.

Lesson #2 Think carefully about when we’re scheduled to arrive

We arrived at London Heathrow at 7 a.m. local time. We’re not doing that again.

In the initial hours of jet lag adjustment, coupled with the kids not sleeping at all on the flight, we found ourselves with a six-to-seven-hour wait before we could check into our hotel room. My stepdaughter, who’s the older one, was able to manage but was clearly exhausted. My stepson was practically delirious and tried to fall asleep on some lady (who resembled his mother) at the British Museum.

Next time, we’ll be looking for flights that minimize the time frame between arrival, airport departure, and check-in.

Seeking shelter from the rain at the British Museum in London.

Lesson #3 We’re not buying the breakfast service

I thought I was being responsible — 8 months before our departure — by buying the additional breakfast service for all of us at each hotel. I wasted my Pounds and Euros.

It’s easy for me and my wife to make food adjustments. The kids, not so much — fair enough. I learned they are perfectly happy grabbing something from the local grocery store at a time when they are ready to eat. When traveling, that doesn’t necessarily line up with the established breakfast schedule.

Also, I paid for two days of breakfast none of us ate. On the day we visited Brussels, our train ticket was too early to take advantage of the breakfast timetable. On our departure day, it was the same issue. Next time, we’ll simply make our breakfast plans in the moment.

There’s one other note of relevance on this matter. I deliberately avoided major hotel brands in favor of choosing hotels that had a local feel. Several of the major brands include complimentary breakfast, so next time, we’ll probably choose to stay in one of those.

Viewing the sunset from our hotel balcony in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

Lesson #4 Take advantage of the neighborhood grocery store

Tesco and Monoprix became our primary food sources. They have ready-to-eat hot and cold food choices, and the kids had fun searching the shelves and making their own decisions about what they wanted to eat. It is a significantly cheaper alternative to taking a family of four to restaurants for every meal. Besides, shopping at new-to-us grocery stores in other countries is somewhat exotic, and the near-daily visits also gave us a better sense of the community.

A view of Little Europe with the Atomium in the background in Brussels.

Lesson #5 Plan for a shorter overall stay with balance between two locations

Based on our recent experience, my wife and I are talking about reducing the number of total days. We choose our own interesting types of experiences when we travel by ourselves, but when we’re traveling with the kids, we’re deliberately targeting places and experiences they would enjoy. A natural history museum, a children’s science center, and parks and playgrounds are always good calls. Once we’ve visited those, we can move on.

Fête des Tuileries is a summertime carnival set up in Tuileries Gardens in Paris.

We still like the idea of visiting two places and making a day trip to a third location. For future foreign travel, particularly in Europe, we’ll be looking for interesting locations within close geographic proximity featuring solid public transportation options.

St. Pancras International station in London, where we departed for Paris via Eurostar train.


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