Traveling with Teens in Europe
The Challenge is Making Trips Both Educational and Fun
When our kids were still in their single digits our family travel was taken up with basic survival issues, such as eating and sleeping.
Now that Andy is 14 and Jackie is 11, the big challenge is making our trips educational and fun. Our kids are at the age when traveling with Mom and Dad isn't
cool; friends at home are the preferred vacation partners; and we can no longer thrill the kids just by loading them into the car and saying, "We're
going on an airplane today!"
Middle-schoolers and teens see their summer break as a vacation they've earned. If your European trip is not their trip . . . it becomes
the enemy. To get your children excited, involve them in the planning stages, consider their itinerary wishes, and make real concessions. "Europe's greatest
collection of white-knuckle rides" in Blackpool-England's answer to Coney Island-might be more fun than another ruined abbey.
Pre-trip study helps get kids tuned into and prepared for upcoming experiences. Read books such as The Diary of Anne Frank for Amsterdam.
Watch movies together such as The Sound of Music for Salzburg and Brother Sun, Sister Moon for Assisi. Get a jump on foreign phrases, learning the top 20
or so before you leave home. Practice at home, wishing your children a cheery Bonjour and asking them for a city map, a room with a private bath, or a well-done
Help your kids pack layers for warmth, clothes that don't show dirt, and sturdy, well-broken-in shoes. Older kids can live within the
one carry-on-size bag rule. Make the consequences of packing heavy perfectly clear-the kids carry all their stuff all the time! A daypack is also handy for
games, snacks, and knickknacks. Our kids each bring a Gameboy and CD player to pass the time with a soothing touch of home.
Study Up, Splurge, Document
Since a trip is a splurge for the parents, kids should enjoy a larger allowance, too. Provide ample local money (along with a personal
coin purse or moneybelt) and ask your kids to buy their own treats, gelati, batteries, and trinkets within that daily budget. In exchange for the extra allowance,
ask them to keep a journal or daily scrapbook.
If you buy the actual journal at your first stop in Europe it becomes a fun souvenir in itself. Kids like cool books-pay for a nice
one. Their travel journal is important, and it should feel that way.
Help your kids collect and process their observations. Bring tape, a gluestick, and scissors from home. Encourage your kids to record
more than just a trip log . . . collect feelings, smells, and reactions to cultural differences.
Review the day's plan at breakfast. It should always include a kid-friendly activity. Hands-on tours, from cheese-making shops in Holland
to chocolate factories in Switzerland, keep kids engaged. Go to sports or cultural events-such as a soccer game in Dublin or a jousting tournament in Germany-but
don't insist on staying for the entire time.
Itineraries for Kids
When making an itinerary, be sure to allow a couple of low-impact days to get over jet lag. Remember kids need plenty of exercise too.
Take advantage of the great public swimming pools found in many small towns from England to Austria. Consider renting mountain bikes (with helmets), which
can turn touring the Alps into a cool activity.
Help your kids connect with European children their own age. By staying in B and Bs or small guesthouses, you'll find it's easier to
meet other traveling families. When visiting with Europeans, be sure to work your children into the conversation.
In Europe's hotter climates, local kids hang out on city squares until late in the evening. Take your children to the European night
spots to observe-if not actually make-the scene (such as the rollerbladers at Trocadero in Paris, or the cruising-without-cars scene along Rome's Via del
Corso). Small-town pubs in Britain and Ireland welcome kids and are filled with family-friendly social opportunities. Many times our kids have enjoyed playing
pool or tossing darts with new friends in a pub.
With older kids, mom and dad have much more freedom. Kids can go to the hotel's breakfast room early or late. If they don't want to
go out for the evening, they can stay in the hotel. Nearly all rooms have TVs (although, be careful . . . many have pornography channels right next to Monsieur
If your kids miss their school friends, make it easy for them to stay in touch with a free email account (Hotmail and Yahoo!Mail are
good bets) and visits to cybercafés. Often Anne and I linger over a glass of wine or dessert while our kids run across the street to an Internet cafe.
Driving Is Best
While train travel is workable with older kids, we still prefer family vacations by car. With a car, we enjoy doorstep-to-doorstep service
with our luggage. And we can be a little bolder about coming into town without a room reserved. For a smoother ride, we stock the car with a trunk pantry
of snacks, water, and picnics. I also delegate some navigating responsibilities to our kids. Following a map to help dad drive through a new town or lead
the family back to the hotel on the Paris metro is a great confidence builder.
Pre-teens can have pretty rigid food comfort zones, and an occasional Big Mac or Whopper between all the bratwurst and kraut helps keep
our family happy. In a small town, when the kids start to wear us down we let them find dinner on their own. When we did this in Austria last year our kids
couldn't believe we'd actually abandon them this way. After Anne and I gave them enough money for pizza and a drink, we took off for a romantic, parents-only
dinner under a floodlit abbey with a view of the Danube. Our children had no choice but to use their few German words and a phrasebook, sort through a menu
on their own, deal with the waiter, and be careful they understood the bill. They did wonderfully, and spent their change at an ice cream place down the street.
In a crowded situation, having a unique family noise (a whistle or call, such as a "woo-woop" sound) enables you to get
each other's attention. Consider packing walkie-talkies to help you relax when the kids roam. Older children can wear money belts with photocopies of their
passport and hotel information.
Family Hosteling Is Cheap
Most hotels have large family rooms. Learn the necessary phrases to communicate your needs. When our children were younger, we
requested a triple room plus a small extra child's bed. Now we get two rooms for our family of four: a double (one big bed) and a twin (a room with two small
beds). In much of Europe a "double" bed is actually two twins put together. These can be easily separated.
Families can hostel very cheaply. Family membership cards are cheap, and there's no age limit except a maximum of 26 in Bavaria
(waived for adults traveling with their children under 26). All hostels have "members' kitchens" where the family can cook for the price of groceries
(for details visit Hostelling International).
Our two best family trips have been in Italy and the Alps. Our Italy trip featured five days in Venice (in an apartment in the
town center) followed by four days in the Cinque Terre (a Riviera wonderland for kids). Our 20-day trip across the Alps-from Vienna to Zurich-included a few
museums and lots of outdoor fun.
Living on the road far from their favorite TV shows and neighborhood friends has broadened our children's outlook. They've learned
what all travelers know: the size of your backyard is up to you.
RICK STEVES is the host of the PBS series Rick Steves' Europe and the author of over 50 European travel guidebooks, including Europe Through the Back Door.