Helpline Question of the Month: Is There an Easy Way to Travel With Toddlers?
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Bringing young children to Europe can be a fun, enriching experience for the whole family, but dealing with tantrums, unexpected sickness, or simply feeding your child can be a challenge. Kate hopes to bring her daughter to France but is worried about complications that may arise, so she turns to the Travelers Helpline for advice on smooth travels with toddlers.
Tag along on Kate's journey through our Travelers Helpline...
"I'm taking my daughter with me to France this fall and wanted to know if anyone has advice to share on traveling with a toddler. I've taken care of the hotels already and will have a rental car most of my trip. I know rules for child seats are different in Europe, so will I be able to get one of these seats or not? Do most cafés, etc. offer a children's menu? Is this going to be the most difficult trip of my life? Any advice would be most appreciated!"
Port Coquitlam, BC Canada
Yes, it will be the most difficult trip of your life. If you are already having second thoughts, arrange something with the grandparents (or an aunt and uncle) and go enjoy France.
I would ditch the rental car idea. Why? I find when driving in a place I am not familiar with, it really helps to have a navigator who can read maps and signs as we whiz down the roads! I would consider taking the trains instead, perhaps saving a rental car for exploring from a base city only. So if you are interested in exploring the Loire Valley, take a train to Tours, then rent a car there for a few days, and so on. The train systems are great and your child will enjoy the ability to get up out of his/her seat, have a picnic en route, and go to a bathroom when they need. I would also strongly suggest you do not get a rental car at all for Paris (that would be a real pain). Plus, parking can be so expensive (25 euros a day is typical in Paris).
I don't think it has be the most difficult trip of your life. I think it can be done and enjoyed, but really scale back your expectations. Visit lots of parks and beaches, and keep the amount of two-night stays down (remember that two nights in one hotel only equals one full day at a destination). Food will be easy, because a lot of French food is basic, like roasted meat and potatoes. There are also tons of great yogurts to choose from. I always try and rent a hotel that at least has a mini fridge in it to keep snacks, juices, and fruit, etc. You know how kids want snacks at unusual times.
I wholeheartedly agree with Pat's advice. The train is way more fun for toddlers and way easier for parents (my son's first trip to France was at age 2-1/2). That said, if you do rent a car, you will need a car seat. European car seat rules are now very similar to the US and toddlers definitely need one. I would bring your familiar one from home, but you can also arrange one with the rental company. We've never had a problem doing that, although I suppose there is the chance they might not have it when you arrive. There is specific information based on child's weight here: http://www.theaa.com/motoring_advice/touring_tips/AA_France_Monaco.pdf
I have another thought for you. Prepare for toddler jet lag! He/she will wake up at 3 a.m. for the first three to five nights you are there, and he/she will be STARVING (it will be dinner time at home!). You are just going to have to get up and deal with it. Toddlers can't really convince themselves to go back to sleep and wait until the sun comes up. Bring LOTS of nutritious snacks with you so you don't have to hunt for food your first day on the ground. Also, their little clocks seem to take longer to reset. My toddlers would eat absolutely nothing during daylight hours for the first three days. I was sure they were ill, but no, they just needed to adjust in their own time. Around day four, they resumed eating like there was no tomorrow. So don't panic if the feeding schedule is wacky for a few days.
San Francisco, CA
Will you have help or anyone to watch your daughter if you have to solve a problem or get directions? If yes, that's great. If not, then be sure your belongings can be secured, compact, and manageable, leaving you relatively free to watch your daughter and solve issues. Check with her doctor on items to bring for any unexpected sickness, which could happen in the middle of nowhere or in the middle of the night. Check with your own doctor too. My husband and I got food poisoning at 3 a.m. in Lisbon with a bouncy toddler and no Pepto Bismol. That was hard. Here are some highly recommended lifesavers: A foldable stroller and your daughter's sleep buddy. If she uses a pacifier, extras would be good.
For your carry-on: Besides your daughter's essentials, pack an extra shirt in case of accidents on the plane. Have a great and smooth trip!
Carole's suggestion about bringing the medications you usually use for your child is spot on. Sure, they have everything there, but if a fever or tummy trouble starts at 2 a.m., you are stuck in a hotel room! Plus, you know the medicines and doses you are used to giving her.
Salem, Oregon USA
I have no experience with toddlers in Europe, but I have taken them all over the US on long flights by myself.
- Do pack yourself and your child an extra shirt and a Ziploc bag to put soiled clothing in. It's worth it when you are more than a half hour away from your luggage.
- Do pack some compact busy toys for lines, buses, and trains.
- Don't try to get away without naps. Naps on trains and buses are fine.
- Remember sunscreen. A burned toddler is a cranky toddler.
- Make sure running or climbing is part of every day's plan.
- Do take snacks everywhere.
Montreal, Quebec Canada
My advice would be to not expect to have a really good time.
Take your own car seat with you. When you rent a car, you can stock up on juice, diapers (if still needed), and all kinds of supplies outside of towns at the hypermarchés and keep them in the trunk. Parks are everywhere, as are carousels. Your kid will have a great time! Be in the moment.
You might want to make sure the attachment system for your car seat will mate with what you're going to rent. I have the suspicion that it might not. I think it runs about five bucks a day to rent one.
You've got a misconception of what a café is. It's more of a place to get a drink and watch people. It's okay for a roll at breakfast, but other than that, the food isn't great. At the bistros or brasseries, you can get an appetizer portion and feed your child off of your plate. There are all kinds of things. It'll work itself out.
My advice is to take the kid. I've lugged my little ones all over the world and never found it to be a problem. They eat what's put in front of them and roll up and take a nap when they're tired. One was fresh-hatched in Asia and we had to toss the blanket over her head to hide her age from the airline toads to get her home. Again, we had no problems.
One of the best trips I've ever taken was a guys' trip last year as a birthday present for a kid about to turn five. We went way into the far beyonds of China (his idea). He never missed a beat, lost sleep, got sick, or went hungry.
Thank you all for your excellent advice! I really appreciate you taking the time to respond. I am excited to, like Doug said, live in the moment and just take it all in. My daughter will almost be two when we leave, and I'm less stressed knowing she's with me. I feel that it will be a huge pain to take my car seat since it's so big and I'll already have my stroller to lug around. So I think I'll rent one with the car like someone suggested. I'll make sure to take snacks and toys everywhere. My husband is diabetic, so I'm used to taking food with us when we travel. We're flying into Bordeaux and flying out of Nice. I think we may ditch the car in Provence and take the train to Nice, unless you think it would be easier to keep the car with everything we have to cart around. Again, thanks for your suggestions!
Port Coquitlam, BC Canada
I thought you were traveling solo with a toddler! Two adults with a child is a totally different situation. This will NOT be a difficult trip. Happy travels!
I think I misunderstood your original post. I though Kate was going alone with a toddler to Europe, hence my suggestion that renting a car was not a good idea (one adult in a car with no navigator is tricky). If your husband is coming, this makes the trip 100 percent more doable in my opinion. Only one kid and two grown-ups will work out fine! Have fun, guys!
Two adults and one toddler is not a problem. Assume you're going to have a great time, not a terrible one! People will dote on your little one endlessly. My son was two and a half his first time in France, and in many bistros and cafés they even gave him free food and sweets! You might have to watch out for that! The best final recommendation I can give you is to assume you will travel very slowly. This can be a good thing. Kids make you ease up and take time to smell the flowers, find the playground at the château, and relax on a park bench. It can be a nice change from racing around trying to cram as many sites as possible into each day. If you see one "big" thing and one "little" thing per day, you are doing great!
"Is this going to be the most difficult trip of my life?" Not knowing anything about your life, it is hard to say. Probably still a yes, in my honest opinion. As a minority view, I would suggest leaving her with Grandma. Enjoy the time alone with your husband.
We've traveled all over Europe and back and forth to America with a toddler. Yes, it's harder than just taking care of yourself, but really, if you currently live with the toddler, it's not a problem. You'll be prepared. My two bits of advice are: pack more than a T-shirt in that gallon Ziploc baggie. You each need a change of clothes (underwear, socks, shirt, and leggings, which pack better than jeans). What are the odds that the toddler throws up just on their or your shirt? You'll want a complete change. It doesn't take up that much room, and you'll be happy you have it if you do need it. Secondly, there are great combo car seat/strollers. It's a car seat that has wheels and a retractable handle on it. "Lilly Gold Sit n' Stroll" is one brand. They're great. Don't worry about a child's menu. Most kids will eat a ham and cheese sandwich, omelet, etc. or bits and pieces from your meal. Have fun!
"You've got a misconception of what a café is. It's more of a place to get a drink and watch people. It's okay for a roll at breakfast, but other than that, the food isn't great." I respectfully disagree. I've had hundreds of good meals at cafés.
Ann Arbor, MI
The car will give you the freedom and spontaneity to change your mind in an instant if you need to. Lots of European families (as well as American) travel with their children all the time and somehow they manage, and many love it.
In my opinion, car travel is less stressful than taking trains with a toddler. Trying to manage the toddler and luggage on public transportation can be difficult. The rental car gives you much more flexibility.
Bring your OTC meds. By law, restaurants have to post their menus, so you'll be able to tell whether they have a kid's meal. But with a two-year-old, I don't think any restaurant will have a problem with you feeding her off of your plate. Also, don't be afraid to try a French chain restaurant. Some of them are quite good and offer really good, low-cost children's menus. Flunch and Courtepaille pop in to my mind first.
It will be more work, but it doesn't have to be the worst trip of your life. It can be a nice vacation, just different.
Ansbach, Bayern Germany
"I think car travel is less stressful than taking trains with a toddler. Trying to manage the toddler and luggage on public transportation can be difficult." Amen.
Thank you all for your comments! I really feel better and will be more prepared this fall. I'm really looking forward to taking my family and will take it slow, as you all say, which will be a very different trip for me since I'm used to going full speed and seeing as much as possible. Thanks again!
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