Call us cautious. Call us safe. Or just call us lazy. We made a decision when our kids were infants and toddlers that we were not going to take family trips to destinations where it felt more like work than a vacation. Examples?
- Disney World with kids who need naps and strollers
- Red-eye flights crossing multiple time zones
- International destinations with questionable healthcare facilities
After almost a decade of parenthood we decided we were at a point where the kids were at a good place to take an international vacation. Our youngest was at an age where he could make it through (most) days without a nap, they could walk for long periods of time without needing a stroller or to be carried, and as long as we picked a location or two where we didn’t need to rent a car we would not need to be concerned with a car seat.
After some discussion about locations inside and outside of the US for a Spring Break trip in late March we settled on two European cities: London and Amsterdam. Our rationale was:
- Red-eye flight on the way over that was long enough to get some sleep but not a crazy long flight
- Modern European destinations with English speakers in each location
- “Easy” first international trip compared to some other locations we could have chosen
Based on the fantastic time we had I think we made a good call waiting as long as we did. The boys had a blast. The older one will definitely remember the trip and hopefully the younger one will remember parts of the trip as he grows up.
International Travel Tips
Over the past couple years airlines have introduced a new class of travel called Premium Economy mostly on international flights. For us, affording four first class or even business class tickets is out of the question. At the same time, flying overnight in economy with 30-ish inches of leg room doesn’t excite anyone.
Premium Economy isn’t going to get you a lie-flat seat, caviar, or champagne (at least not the good champagne) but it will get you more legroom, some better amenities (blankets, pillows, amenity kit), and in some cases better meal choices. On our flight on British Airways in World Traveler Plus (their name for Premium Economy), we had 38 inches of legroom compared with the 31 inches we would have had in Economy. Regardless of whether you’re 6’1″ or 3’0″ the 7 extra inches are great on a red-eye flight.
Premium Economy will cost you more than the standard Economy ticket (in our case it was about $200 per ticket) but compared to the extra money you would have to shell out for Business Class for the fam, it’s worth consideration. We all slept better and, while we were still groggy upon landing at London, I like to think we were more well rested and ready to start our vacation than we would have been in Economy.
Bonus Tip: You don’t have to fly Premium Economy both at the start and end of your trip. Since our flight back from Europe was in the middle of the day we only purchased Premium Economy for our red-eye on the way to Europe. We purchased less expensive Economy tickets on the way back and that worked out just fine. We read and watched movies on the way home and didn’t miss the extra legroom or amenities.
Bonus Bonus Tip: On British Airways one of the meals offered on the Premium Economy is from their Business Class menu. Business Class meal for a Premium Economy price. Score!
It’s tempting to try and load up the itinerary with a bunch of activities each day. It’s even more tempting when you read about these city “passes” that include 80 different attractions and claim to save you money. They certainly do…if you visit a large amount of attractions each day (typically 4 or more places each day you have the pass).
We purposefully decided to limit our scheduled activities to 2-3 at the most each day. We wanted to see the main attractions in each city, but we did not want to drag the kids from one place to another in a quest to see how many places we could rack up by the end of our stay. It was important to us to let the kids experience the cities apart from just seeing the famous sights.
For example, when we were in London we saw the sights you would expect, e.g. Tower of London, London Eye, Buckingham Palace, but we also spent time in a lot of the London parks and found a surprising amount of playgrounds. This gave the kids a chance to be kids and play for a while before mom and dad pulled them away to another attraction.
Limiting the amount of activities meant that the kids enjoyed each of the attractions we did go to, had some time to experience each city outside of the tourist-packed areas, and didn’t get exhausted as each day of the vacation went by. As a family we ended up saving money compared to the city passes since we enjoyed free activities such as walking around neighborhoods and going to the park vs. visiting more paid attractions.
Traveling internationally, especially to cities like London and Amsterdam, is expensive (even without the Premium Economy tickets discussed earlier). And while staying in hotels can have some perks including the occasional swimming pool, daily housekeeping, and maybe even some cookies set out in the lobby in the afternoon, having a small room for 3+ people with paper-thin shared walls and doors that seem to amplify instead of block any hallway noise isn’t always the best option.
Enter websites like Airbnb and VRBO that enable you to rent an entire apartment/condo/house for your family. In our case, we looked at Airbnb for lodging in both London and Amsterdam. In London rooms at the chain hotels (Marriott, Starwood, Hilton) in and around the center of London were going for $400+/night for a standard room with two queen beds. By doing a bit of searching on Airbnb we found a two bedroom flat in the trendy Notting Hill neighborhood. The best part? It was available for less than $200/night including all service and cleaning fees.
We had the entire flat to ourselves complete with two bedrooms, one bathroom, a full kitchen, washer/dryer, a living room, and a small dining table. This meant that we had a separate bedroom from the kids so they could go to sleep and we could stay up later without disturbing them. We had multiple grocery options within a few blocks and purchased groceries, which allowed us to save money by eating breakfast at home instead of at a restaurant. And we had some noise separation from other people (although admittedly it was still a bit noisy out on the street at night).
Other benefits included being in a neighborhood where we could experience London as residents do (albeit residents that were way more wealthy than we are) while still being only a 3 minute walk from a Tube station that had us to the center of London and all the major attractions within 15-20 minutes. We made sure to find a rental that had many positive reviews and owners that rent out their flat full time meaning that they’re used to people regularly checking in and checking out and make sure the flat gets cleaned properly each time.
It’s still good to check both rentals and hotels in cities. In Amsterdam, for example, any of the rentals near the city center were just as expensive if not more so than the hotels and so we opted to increase our Marriott Rewards point total by staying a few nights in a hotel vs. going with another Airbnb.
Traveling internationally with kids is a great way to open their eyes to just how big the world is that we live in and get them excited to travel to more places in the future. Just a few small adjustments to the flight, activities, and lodging to make the adventure a little more easier for kids and parents alike can go a long way to ensuring that everyone has a great time and fond memories for a lifetime.