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France With Kids: Traveling Abroad With Two Littles
Several years ago we took the trip of a lifetime: 3 weeks in Paris and the French Alps. It was a trip we dreamed about, planned extensively and saved for. We had a window of opportunity where one child was still free to fly, one was old enough to really “get it,” and baby #3 was still happily cooking. So, we took our chances, and off we went … the trip included my husband, a 3.5 year old, a 1.5 year old, and myself at 4 months pregnant. Here’s my little tale of our adventure, how things didn’t crash and burn, and how we made this trip a memory we will always cherish. Side note – I am not the only mom that adores traveling to France with kids!
First off, yes, we are a little crazy. Everyone we told about our trip during those months of planning said the same thing:
“Oh, you’re going to France! How wonderful! How romantic!….Who’s watching the kids?!”
“Oh, we are taking them! We are going as a family.”
“Oh!…………Good luck with that.”
We didn’t have any agenda to prove anyone wrong. We knew the trip would be challenging with two little ones. We went in expecting that. And I think that helped the most. We specifically planned our trip to accommodate our children and make it as easy on them as possible. Our end goals were to enjoy ourselves and spend time together as a family. That was it. France or not, we were going to enjoy this vacation with our children.
So, here’s what we did to make this trip a success…
Plane Travel and Jet Lag :: France With Kids
There are a million posts on traveling tips with kids, and I think I read every one. I went into the flights armed with every trick in the book and an iPad. The longest flight was 8 hours, and we needed the kids to sleep since we would be landing at 6:00am in Paris. Well, guess what?! It went really well and the kids actually slept for about 4.5 hours of the flight! I think people forget that even in the weirdest situations, kids do get worn out and they will fall asleep. No, it wasn’t the easiest keeping a 1.5 year old confined to a tiny space, but we just kept finding ways to distract her and play. Luckily, the 3.5 year old was happy with his movies and the headphones we purchased.
Once we landed in Paris, we had to deal with the next big issue: jet lag. We were all going to need a couple days to adjust to the time difference, and I had read horror stories about it. Yikes! But, my husband and I agreed that we needed to get everyone settled to the new schedule right away. Keep ourselves awake. Take a good nap. Wake up again. Then do normal bedtime. There were a few nights of 3:00am wake ups, with the kids ready to go, but after about three days, they were sleeping well at night and napping each afternoon. Consistency here is key!
Where We Stayed in France With Kids
A trip anywhere for longer than 4 or 5 days definitely deserves a homey feel. We knew that being away from everything familiar for three weeks was going to be tough on the kids. In order to help create a “home away from home” on our trip, we decided to rent apartments during our stay. Our Paris apartment had a bedroom, living room, kitchen, and a nice bathroom with a tub. As soon as we arrived, we pulled out the toys we brought from home, unpacked the suitcase, and had the kids pick where they would sleep. We wanted them to feel at home right away! In the Alps, our apartment was even larger and offered the kids plenty of space to run and play. The kids had fun exploring all the little nooks, the doors, the stairs, and the rooms. We wanted them to be excited and feel settled, and they did a great job making themselves comfortable. It turns out that France with kids can indeed feel like home!
Another important aspect of this is timing. We were not about to jet set all over Europe with two kids in tow. We knew we had to pick two or three things to do. That’s it! So, we stayed in Paris for a week. Then we stayed in the Alps for 9 days. This gave the kids plenty of time to adjust to the new city and home and ensured that they didn’t feel rushed off to the next destination.
Walking Through Paris With Kids
One issue that we went back and forth on before the trip was whether or not to bring a double stroller. I debated a single stroller and carrier combination for awhile, but in the end we decided to purchase a cheap, lightweight and compact double stroller. What a blessing! That thing, although not always the easiest to push and maneuver, was a lifesaver for walking the Paris streets. There is no way my 3.5 year old would have been able to walk as much as we did and no way my 1.5 year old would have stayed happy in the carrier for long periods of time. The in-and-out of the stroller got to be fun for them, and it became their little haven amidst the new and different surroundings.
There were a couple of days when we didn’t bring it along if we knew there weren’t long walks involved. It was nice not to be weighed down with it everyday, so having those lighter days was a perfect balance.
Paris is full of amazing sights: the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, Notre Dame, etc. These fantastic places are not all kid friendly, however. My husband and I sat down before the trip and thought about what were our top priorities as far as sights. Then we thought about what was kid-friendly and made adjustments from there. For example, the Louvre is nuts. It is miles of artwork and statues and full of people. As cool as it is to wander through all day, we were not about to put our kids and my pregnant nerves through that! So, our art experience was the Rodin Museum instead: an outdoor garden with beautiful statues where the kids could wander and we could get an art fix. And, it ended up being free! It was the same in the Alps. Sure, my husband and my (less pregnant) self would have loved to hike through the mountains to incredible vistas! However, that is basically impossible and entirely too dangerous with children, so we chose some lighter, shorter hikes instead.
So, how did we decide what to do? Each of our days looked a little like this:
- Pick one main attraction that involves an activity (have a picnic at the Eiffel Tower; climb the stairs at Sacre Cour; go on a mini-hike)
- Pick a fun treat for the day (ice cream, Nutella crepe, macarons)
- Make it back home for a nap (most days)
- Stop by a park or other outdoor space (to ensure the kids get playtime and stretch their legs)
- Do something culturally relevant (visit a bakery, read in a bookstore, watch an artist/musician)
This was the perfect balance of seeing France (for the adults) and letting the kids enjoy the trip (parks and treats).
Handling the Meltdowns When Traveling Abroad
Yes, some days were hard. Please don’t think the trip was perfect! We had tantrums and hours of whining. Kids will be kids no matter where they are. Again, our expectation of that was so important. If there was a fit, it was a sign that maybe we needed to slow down or get a healthy snack or have an early bedtime. Some days the kids just needed a break, and we would spend 3-4 hours playing in the apartment. Some days it rained and our plans didn’t work out. Some days, I was so tired and just needed to take a nap.
Bottom line: we didn’t let the hard parts ruin the good. We stayed positive and went with the flow. We reminded ourselves of our goals: enjoy ourselves and spend time together. And we did. We really, really did.
Three weeks vacation may be impossible for many of you. Or the thought of taking your kids abroad to another country and a new culture sounds impossible. This was our dream that we made work. And I encourage every family to think about their own goals and dreams, especially when it comes to traveling! It can be done and it is possible to travel with kids, even when everyone else thinks you’re crazy.
And maybe the kids won’t remember the trip. Maybe, one day, they will look at the pictures and wonder what it was like. But, I will remember. I will tell them about how happy they were after the boat ride down the Seine, how amazed they were at the hike to the waterfall, how surprised they were when everyone spoke French to them, and how content they were to snuggle with mommy and daddy on the airplane. And it will always be worth it.