Traveling with kids: ways to make it work

Let’s be honest, OK? Traveling with a young child is a hassle. You need to maintain their schedule, or suffer the consequences. You need to pack and carry a lot of stuff. You are paying for experiences they will likely not even remember. But the compounding benefits of a well-traveled child will, I believe, serve both kids and parents.

a fountain in Dublin

When traveling with kids, fountains are your friend.

In the past few months we’ve taken several short trips from our home base in the middle of Germany. We’ve been to Berlin, London, Dublin and Salzburg and I can confidently say we had a great time in each of those places. A fair amount of preparation, a little luck and a surprise or two helped make each excursion fairly painless for all involved. Here’s why traveling with a young child can really rock.

1. Hospitality professionals are great with kids.

We flew on eight Lufthansa flights recently and on each one, E was greeted enthusiastically by the flight crew. They made him feel special and he was given a different game or toy on every flight. We’re still playing with the LEGO plane and pilot he received.

We hit the jackpot with several hotels. The ApartHotel in Berlin offers a family suite with a separate kids’ bedroom, a washing machine(!), a full kitchen with kid-sized utensils and an immense breakfast buffet.

ApartHotel Berlin family suite

The amazing family suite at the ApartHotel in Berlin.

In London, we stayed at the St. James Court where E was presented with a backpack at check-in. Inside were colored pencils and a coloring book, games, and a teddy bear dressed like one of the Queen’s guards.

While not billed specifically as a kid-friendly hotel, the Dylan in Dublin had the most amazing staff I’ve ever encountered as a parent. The waiter we saw at breakfast greeted E by name each day and brought us little extras, like fruit already cut into bite-sized pieces and small glasses of milk. When E had a melt-down one morning and I removed him from the restaurant, the two gentlemen at the front desk (fathers of young children themselves, we discovered) offered to open up the private lounge so I could have a space to myself to help him calm down. They also chatted with E each afternoon about his day and gave us lots of family-friendly tips for restaurants and activities.

2. You’ll meet lots of locals

Many tourist attractions hold little enchantment for young children, but neighborhood playgrounds, cafes, parks and zoos always fit the bill. We scouted nearby playgrounds and walking trails in each city and every time ended up chatting with local families who gave us tips about places to eat and things to do. Our own insiders guide and new friends for E to boot!

A fairy house in Salzburg

Iron Man discovered this fairy house on a hike far off the tourist trail.

3. A slower–and non-linear–pace

Forget the whirlwind tour of historical highlights. Kids force you to slow down and take in your surroundings in bite-size portions. You won’t hit all the big tourist spots, but you’ll find things you never would have seen if you followed the guidebook. Lingering in front of the main tourist attractions in Salzburg led to a fascinating conversation about puppetry with one of the performers. Hitting the local pub before the evening rush led to a lengthy chat with our server and some new and tasty discoveries. A simple afternoon walk to get the wiggles out led to a pretty neighborhood with a quiet canal and plenty of ducks to feed.

London’s free museum admission is perfect for families. However long (or short) the time you spend, you don’t have to worry about getting your money’s worth. My grand plan to hit three museums in one afternoon fell apart when E became so enchanted with the Science Museum that we spent five hours exploring the hands-on areas. But he was happy, I was happy and there was no reason to hustle him to the next destination.

And when a short rain shower delayed a meet up at the end of the day, a quick duck into the National Portrait Gallery turned into E’s first introduction to several great masters–without any guilt that it only lasted 15 minutes.

Monet's waterlilies

E among the waterlilies.

So it’s true, we didn’t tour Mozart’s house, kiss the Blarney Stone, see the Crown Jewels or visit Museum Island. But we did hike to a castle, splash in fountains, eat shepherd’s pie, touch the Berlin Wall, and stand before Big Ben as it struck 12. And those are the memories I want and that I hope to keep on creating.

 

Full disclosure: Some of our accommodations were part of business travel, and therefore not paid by us personally. However, we received no special treatment or compensation for our stay at any of the hotels listed above and all opinions are my own and based on my personal experience.

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My love affair with the Swiss railroad

Swiss train travel

Fast, fun and always on time, trains are the perfect way to travel in Switzerland.

Can you love a railway? If it’s possible, then I truly do. The Swiss train system embodies everything I appreciate about Switzerland: efficient, reliable, safe, accessible, adventurous and oh-so-family friendly. Now I admit it is also very Swiss in one other way: it is not cheap. But for our family, I can say that we easily got our money’s worth. A pass for unlimited travel for 30 days, which also allowed both kids to ride for free, meant that we could hop on a train simply because we felt like it or because a town on the map had an interesting name. And it covered more than trains. Every bus route was covered as well and any ferry or funicular we happened upon was covered as well. The train pass also gave us free or reduced admission to most museums and historical attractions.

Swiss train schedule

When you get to the station, just look up to find the big board with the most up-to-date information.

And for me, trains are just a great way to travel. The schedules are easy to use (and there’s an app, so you can plan your travel on the fly), there are no security lines, unexpected delays or gridlock. You get to see the countryside without the stress of looking for your exit or a parking spot. There is plenty of leg room, no one has a dreaded middle seat, and the bathrooms range from acceptable to immaculate. (For extra points, on some of the trains, the bathrooms are decorated to look like better bathrooms! Wallpaper murals make you feel like you are in an alpine outhouse with a view of the mountains or even a nice granny’s WC, complete with a vase of flowers and lace curtains.)

Swiss train bathroom

Bathrooms feature murals to help you forget–at least for a moment–that you’re in a tiny, public, moving restroom.

But here is the real kicker, and why I think the train pass is worth every penny. Almost every major train route has a “family zone” car on it. Which means all the people with little kids congregate onto the one car and no one cares if your kid if loud or cranky or super social or whatever. Your kid might even make some new friends and you might too! And best of all, on the popular long-haul routes the family zone is the top floor or a double-decker car and IT HAS A PLAYGROUND! Let me repeat: A PLAYGROUND ON A TRAIN!

Playground on the Switzerland train

Go ahead and let ’em run. The playground on the upper level of the train car will keep kids entertained on long-haul journeys.

With a slide, small climbing area, tunnel, play boat and dock, little kids will be able to burn off energy in a safe and enclosed area without bothering anyone else. There are also tables with board games printed on them for older kids and more space for stroller parking on the floor below. Even if your kid doesn’t run around the entire trip, just having the peace of mind that they can get up and move around whenever they wish is huge.

Train travel for kids in Switzerland

A hot dog and a window seat. What more could a kid ask for?

When it comes to family travel, the trains make Switzerland a great choice for people who want to get the very most out of their European visit. Merci vilmal Switzerland!

A grey day in Zurich

Zurich clock tower

There is no excuse for being late in Switzerland!

When the weather won’t cooperate for another hiking day, that just means it’s time to take in the city sights. Ken has a former colleague who is living in Zurich, so we jumped on the train and headed over to meet him for the afternoon. Though we visited Switzerland last year, we never made it to Zurich, since we spent the majority of our time in the French-speaking western section of the country. In my mind, Zurich was a bit intimidating and imposing. As the epicenter of so much international business and finance, I imagined the entire city like a large bank: cold, shiny and austere. I was completely wrong.

boys in Zurich park

Don’t let the sweet faces fool you. Those boys are filling up the city-provided dog-poo bags with water and whipping them at each other in a make-shift water balloon fight.

Of course, in one afternoon, we only saw a small glimpse of the city, but what we were able to take in was full of charm, history and friendly faces. Our friend David met us at the train station and took us on a short walk through an older section of the city toward one of his favorite restaurants. walking through Zurich The pizza place seemed like a hub of expats, full of young families and groups of friends. Everyone was chatting in various languages, but the wait staff addressed each table in English first, then switched to any number of languages, depending on the response. The pizza was amazing. A crust that was almost phyllo-dough like, topped with all sorts of ingredients, but without a tomato sauce base. Mine was feta, ricotta, honey and rosemary. So delicious! We finished our meal with cafe creme, just right for a drizzly day.

pizza in Zurich

Honey, rosemary and feta pizza. Accompanied by croissants, of course.

But no afternoon out is complete without ice cream, so we walked over to a fro-yo shop. Tangy frozen yogurt with your choice of toppings and a sofa to sit on to watch the world go by–a great way to spend the day. Big thanks to David for being a wonderful Zurich host!

frozen yogurt from I Love Leo in Zurich

Some people like candied nuts, some people like chocolate cookies, and some people like fresh berries.

 

The everyday exotic: a stop at IKEA

After a rainy day doing inside things, we jumped on the train for a change of pace…but ended up somewhere very familiar: IKEA. Lame place to spend time during a European vacation. Maybe, but we had a pretty good time for reasons that are not available in the American IKEA.

IKEA chairs in Switzerland

The familiar “wall of chairs” greeted us as we took the escalator upstairs.

We thought it would also be an opportunity to pick us a few small items for the flat: toys, washcloths (not common in Europe) and maybe some things from the grocery. We figured while we were there, E could play and burn some energy and we could have an inexpensive dinner as well.

IKEA children's department

Setting up for a proper IKEA picnic.

It seems many families had the same idea. E spent about 30 minutes just playing with the pretend kitchens and workbenches. Other kids also drifted in, and soon there was a full-blown toddler pretend picnic, with E pouring everyone many cups of coffee and other kids making sandwiches.

While all that was happening, Ken had wandered away in search of other items. I knew something unusual had happened when he returned 20 minutes later SMILING. This man, (and usually me, for that matter) never has a smile while at IKEA. What was going on? Then I saw it: in his hand, was a beer. “I stopped at the snack bar, ” he told me excitedly. “They had a deal. I got two hot dogs and this beer for 4 Swiss Francs!”

IKEA beer

Now THIS could improve the shopping experience.

IKEA has beer? “They have wine too,” he told me, “in the restaurant.” We headed over to see this wonderment of civilized living and found a restaurant full of relaxed parents, happy children and organic food.

IKEA restaurant

Beer? Wine? Energy drinks? Everything a person needs to make it through a trip to IKEA.

So yes, we didn’t really immerse ourselves in Swiss culture this day. But while we were shopping, the rain stopped. We had a tasty, inexpensive meal, and in typical Swiss fashion, we did find ourselves next to a farm field and grazing cows–even next to an IKEA.

 

A little ramble in the hills: Weissenstein

Weissenstein Switzerland

Looking down the valley from Oberbalmberg.

We took a hike in a beautiful area above Solothurn, Switzerland this afternoon to explore the Weissenstein, known as “Solothurn’s mountain”, with the plan of seeing how close we could get to its 1400 meter peak. A relatively easy hike, in that it only requires endurance, we figured it would be a beautiful and manageable afternoon with the two boys. The trail did not disappoint!

We caught the bus at the main Solothurn train station and headed out of town until we reached the last stop in Oberbalmberg, after about 30 minutes of winding up the hill and honking to ensure no cars–or livestock–were coming the other way. We weren’t the only parents on the bus with a toddler in a backpack, so we knew we were headed to the right place.

Once we stepped off the bus, we headed to the Wanderweg sign. Small, but (mostly) noticeable, these yellow diamonds let hikers and walkers know they are in the right place, even when it seems you couldn’t possibly be.

Wanderweg trail marker in Solothurn on Weissenstein

Just follow the Wanderweg symbol and you’ll find yourself in the most beautiful areas in all of Switzerland.

We followed along meadows and valleys, with the sound of cowbells echoing between the rocky cliffs. Then we entered a forested area and the path narrowed. We climbed up until we reached a point near the peak. Then we promptly got lost. Oh well. We just continued to follow the path we were on until we hit another sign. No big deal. Along the way, we passed hillsides of wild flowers, dense forest, creeks that spilled into rocky gorges, and switchbacks.

Such is the Swiss wanderweg. Eventually, you will get somewhere, because the paths go everywhere. Getting lost just means going someplace else.

Weissenstein, Solothurn, Switzerland

That little hill up there? Oh yeah. We climbed it.

Toddlers and airplanes: ready, set, go!

Toddler airplane tips

First off, I’d like to personally thank the FAA, TSA, CIA and any other government agency for recently allowing electronic devices during Tarmac sitting, taxiing and take off. You have improved my life and the lives of my fellow travelers tenfold.

We’ve flown with E starting when he was 4 months old. For the most part, it’s gone well, but the challenge always came during that beginning part on the plane when he was excited and antsy and required to sit still.

I know letting little ones zone in front of a screen isn’t ideal, but when you’ve got hours ahead of you, even a champion Pinterest parent will get burnt out. A carefully timed episode of Curious George can stave off melt downs and get you over the hump until the snack cart rolls by.

Here’s what worked for us on the seven hour plane ride to Europe.

1. A combination of favorite and new snacks. Fruit chews were introduced on this trip and they were a huge hit! A friend recommended them for take-off and landing and she was right–no apparent ear trouble.

2. A personal water bottle with sipper top. I just didn’t want to deal with spills in that small a space.

3. Noise canceling headphones. So worth it. Planes are loud and earbuds are not a good choice for tiny people. Over-the-ear headphones let E enjoy Sesame Street without forcing the rest of us to endure Baby Bear. (God I hate the sound of Baby Bear.)

4. iBooks with the Read to Me feature. Again, the headphones let him enjoy lots of his favorite stories without forcing the business travelers next to us to listen to Go Dog Go.

5. The blanket he uses for nap time at school. I think encouraging “a rest” worked far better than saying time for bed. The nap blanket helped him believe he wasn’t going to miss much.

When we landed after our 7+ hour flight, all my preparation was worth it. In rows both in front of us and behind us, people expressed their surprise that there was a toddler on board. They hadn’t even known he was there–until we landed and he started talking to everyone that would make eye contact. I guess hours of just talking to mom and dad got a little boring….

 

Toddler airplane travel tips

A movie and a sandwich. What else does a traveler need?

The long-haul carry-on bag

kid's back pack for travel

packed up and ready to roll

After several flights with E, I’ve developed a few rules for our carry-on bags to help make our journeys more enjoyable. While every flight is different, and needs change as E grows, we have a few tried-and-true items we never leave home without. Will they eliminate the possibility of melt-downs? No. Will they end all boredom and wiggling? No. But hopefully they will give us at least a bit of peace and quiet and keep us from being that family on the plane.

E’s backpack

Fjallraven mini back pack

Kid’s backpack, perfect for long trips and short hops.

E loves to carry his own back pack and pick out the things that will go inside. I got him this yellow Fjallraven for a few reasons:

  1. It is mini-sized, so it won’t make him top-heavy.
  2. The top handles make it easy for me to grab if I need to keep him out of harm’s way.
  3. The bright color makes him easy to spot and and the backpack hard to accidentally leave behind.
  4. The straps adjust all the way to grown-up length, so if he decides to ditch it, I can put it on and keep my hands free.

It doesn’t hold a lot, which I think is a good thing. He can find what he’s looking for and there aren’t’ so many items that I can’t keep track of them when he invariably pulls them all out and dumps then on the floor.

In his back pack, we tend to stash the following:

  • Crayons and Post-it notes in an old Altoids tin (thanks Pinterest!)
  • A stuffed animal
  • A Melissa and Doug Water Wow tablet
  • Snacks
  • A few books
  • A  rubber dinosaur
  • Fuzzy pipe cleaners
  • Tape (Tape is awesome. Make tape balls, stick it on your face to make funny faces, re-seal snacks, label stuff…)

I carry my trusty L.L. Bean Quad backpack which has traveled with us on several trips and holds an amazing amount of gear and flotsam.

L.L. Bean Quad back pack

L.L. Bean Quad back pack

In my back pack:

  • Toddler water bottle
  • E’s blanket
  • Overnight essentials dopp kit (toothpaste and tooth brush, facial wipes, contact lenses and glasses, etc.)
  • Diaper change pack
  • Set of clothes for E
  • Set of clothes for me (Do not discount this one. If your child gets motion sickness, the person they throw up on will not be themselves. Trust me.)
  • iPad and charging cord!
  • Travel documents and wallet
  • Headphones for both of us (one noise-cancelling set, one ear-bud set)
  • Snacks
  • A few small, wrapped toys to use in a emergency

Will we forget something? Of course! But we are not traveling to a remote or desolate destination. We’re traveling to a major international airport. As long as we have enough diapers to get us through any delayed flights and tarmac-sitting, I think we will be OK.

Transporting toddlers

toddler travel in backpack

Anytime is nap time with the right gear.

When you’re even a bit off the beaten path, the big SUV stroller isn’t going to cut it. While great for malls, sidewalks and airports, we have dirt paths, cobblestone streets and tight quarters ahead of us. The little legs of a three-footer can only go so far–or too far. Traveling with toddlers means both energy and containment are going to be issues. We do have an umbrella stroller for some outings and city exploration (a completely disposable one purchased on sale for $20 at Target. And bonus: it looks like a shark so E truly enjoys riding in it.) But for the most part, we have found the secret to toddler travel success is a really sturdy backpack. Even better, ours was a hand-me-down from a similarly adventurous family. So it was road tested, yet still in terrific shape.

We carried E along mountain trails, zig-zagged through street festivals and up and down dozens of flights of stairs without a problem. He got a great view, up and away from dirt, feet and dogs. He often fell asleep in it, which while not ideal, is of course better than no nap at all. And it help a TON in the storage pocket, so all the diaper stuff, bottles and toys were with E, which meant the parents could split up without accidentally stranding one with a fussy baby and no supplies.

I’ve seen a few other products that are worth exploring. This belt system from Obi-Baby-Carrier seems to work for bigger kids and eliminates the bulk of the backpack, which would be great during the to-and-from. It’s compact enough to throw into your daybag as an option for kids who get tired along the way.

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photo from obi-baby-carrier.com

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photo from obi-baby-carrier.com