The first thing you need to know when traveling with your kids is that this is Not Your Vacation. If you have never been to Paris, you may have been creating a dream trip in your mind for years, or decades. This is not that trip. Kids will irrevocably alter a trip and you have to be okay with that. Leave lots of wiggle room in your itinerary. Plan one big event per day and then have some smaller “filler” options available in case you have the time. But don’t get your heart set on any of them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with “only” seeing the Eiffel Tower. In fact, it may well be an experience your children will never forget. But if you try and see the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and the Musee d’Orsay all in one day you are going to have a mini French Revolution on your hands.
Take it slow, be flexible and above all remember that your kids are seeing things that none of their classmates have. In our increasingly global world it’s highly likely that your kids will be back again someday. This trip is not the feature film. Just consider this a teaser trailer—the hook that will sell them on the joys of international travel forever.
Now I know you’re secretly thinking, “But my kids are different! They are cultured, they are hardy, we will barely need to change our plans at all!” It’s not true. My boys have grown up literally all over the world. Leafy Isaac had been to four continents before he turned four years old. The older two get in arguments about which vacation was the best which are eventually settled based on which one had the best cathedrals. They are about the nerdiest, er, most seasoned travelers you can get. But we still spend a considerable part of each trip playing in parks, eating ice cream cones from McDonalds and sitting in hotel rooms watching cartoons in a foreign language.
In other words, at least 30% of each day needs to be spent Acting Like a Local. Go to playgrounds. Wander aimlessly. Stop at ice cream carts (or bakeries, or things-on-a-stick stands, or whatever the local snack options may be.) Watch the kids join in a friendly soccer game while you smile at other parents. Be local. You may find after you return that these are actually the best memories you have from your trip.
When my kids talk about where we’ve been and what they miss, a truly substantial amount of their love focuses on what they ate (“remember that really really good yogurt in New Zealand?”) or kids they met (“remember those kids in Yangshuo that we played tag with and then we found out they lived right by our house?”) or playgrounds they visited (“that swing-ey-fly-ey thing in the National Garden in Greece? That was the funnest thing ever!”) So embrace the slow lane and plan a completely different kind of trip.
This is why I give some apparently contradictory advice to those parents planning their first trip abroad with their kids. Don’t go where you want to. Okay, not really, but don’t, please don’t, go somewhere you have been Waiting Your Whole Life To See. The pressure will be too high and nobody will have a good time. If you’ve been waiting your whole life to go to Paris, go to Rome. Or Rio. Or Reykjavik. Anywhere but Paris. Save that trip for a kid-free vacation.
For a realistic example of how a trip with kids is going to go down, I present this chart. On the left is how we spent a day in Spain with just the two of us. On the right is the same trip when we took our kids.
Sevilla with Adults
9:00 Sevilla Cathedral
11:00 Sevilla churches tour
1:00 Lunch (at a café)
2:30 Alcazar and gardens
4:00 Basilica de la Macarena
6:00 Plaza de Espana and gardens
10:30 Walk the Guadalquivir River
Sevilla with Kids
9:30 Sevilla Cathedral
11:30 Lunch (on a park bench)
12:30 Playground and ice cream
2:30 Plaza de Espana gardens
4:00 (Another) playground and churros
5:00 Walk back to hotel along Quadalquivir
6:00 dinner (bread, cheese and ice cream bars) in hotel room, play UNO till bedtime.
See what I mean? By setting a much more leisurely pace and planning for lots of churro breaks we managed to have a completely lovely day with three completely happy children who were all under the age of nine.
So there’s my first 80 Diapers Rule for you. One major activity per day. Period. Seriously. For the rest of the day, act like a local.