When my husband Frank and I decided to travel to five countries—Iceland, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and Italy—in 12 days with our 18-month-old, reactions were mixed: lots of shock, a little admiration, and plenty of doubt about our sanity. Maybe we were naive to think it could work, but since the beginning of our daughter’s life, we’ve been determined not to quit enjoying our own lives—even if we are at home by 7 p.m. most nights.
But nearly two weeks in several foreign countries with a toddler? This made our normal level of bravery—think venturing out to Taco Tuesday with Asa in tow—look like a trip to the spa. This, we realized, could be the dividing line in our vacation history: Remember when we used to, you know, go places? Well, at least we can still go to Knoebels. (Look it up.)
I’d already flown solo with Asa twice, and most recently, as a family, we’d traveled to Disney World, with disastrous results: back-arching, wailing, and writhing at 30,000 feet. By the end of the flight, I was tempted to pass Asa off to Frank and pretend I didn't know them. It was bad.
|All strapped in and ready for takeoff!|
So, with this nightmare in mind, we boarded our first flight from Washington, D.C., to Reykjavik, Iceland, one of the longest legs of our trip at just over five hours, with a healthy dose of fear. Amazingly, though, Asa was a gem—but, as we learned later that night, she was just resting up for some serious screaming. In theory, our hotel’s room-darkening shades were great, except that they left about four inches of window exposed on either side. Room-dimming would have been a more accurate way to advertise these curtains—and because Iceland only gets “dark” for three hours a night during the summer, Asa slept three hours. It was a delight, truly.
Fortunately, this first night was the peak of our collective misery. As the days passed, we settled into our groove—even when facing a 102-degree fever in Heidelberg (hers), a 103-degree fever in Rome (mine), and an intestinal battle with cheese fondue in Switzerland (I lost). (Somehow Frank always escapes unscathed, though he frequently claims he can “feel something coming on.” Let’s call this empathy, shall we?)
So how’d we wrangle a one-and-a-half-year-old in Europe? Learn from our successes—and our mistakes—for your European adventure with a pint-sized passenger:
Mistake #1: Don’t assume “room-darkening shades” means black-out shades.
I knew Iceland would be light at night, so in my hotel search, I made sure to hunt for a room with darkening shades. But, as previously mentioned, that did absolutely nothing for us, since they failed to actually fully cover the windows. My advice? Even if you’re in a country that gets dark, but your little one requires pitch-black to sleep, do extensive research: Read reviews, call the hotel, do anything you can to ensure the room will actually be dark—unless you like strolling the sidewalks at 2 a.m.
Mistake #2: Don’t experiment with snacks.
When I was grocery shopping for the trip, I found some granola bars on clearance for $.62. I can’t resist a bargain, so I bought them—and didn’t conduct a taste-test with Asa before we left. Naturally, she refused to eat them once in Europe, leaving me to ration her favorite fruit snacks (and forcing me to share my Nutella croissants with her). So stick with the snacks you know work, and stock up.
|Can you sense her misery?|
Mistake #3: Don’t tote your toddler in a baby carrier.
On our first day in Rome, I made the executive decision to have Frank carry Asa in her Ergo. I’m going to add here that I was suffering from a high fever at this time, which is my excuse for not realizing that a) Her carrier was black, and it was 100 degrees outside b) She’s now an avid walker, and runner, and restraint is not welcome. What seemed a smart way to navigate the Colosseum, which I figured wouldn’t be stroller friendly (but was), was actually terrible: Not only did she overheat, but she was dying to have some freedom—for her, being restricted in a shaded stroller is much more acceptable than being confined to a carrier in blazing heat. Never again.
Mistake #4: Don’t bother with the hotel cribs.
If the hotels you’re staying at offer free cribs, go ahead, ask for one. But if you have to pay, I’d suggest skipping it, since toddlers have reached the stage where they’re aware of their surroundings—i.e. they know you’re in the bed five feet from them. From night one, Asa absolutely refused to sleep in the crib, even though, at home, we’ve never coslept.
|Happily chilling in her carseat, snacking on Nutella.|
Success #1: Do rent a car.
I loved, loved, loved the fact that we didn’t have to deal with airport transfers, trains, subways, or taxis, which would have been a serious hassle with a carseat and all the luggage we had (there’s no such thing as traveling light with a toddler). By renting a car, we gave ourselves more freedom, and had a safe place for Asa to nap while we drove.
A couple warnings:
1. Driving on European roads is challenging if you’ve never done it; since my husband lived in Europe for three years, it was an obvious choice for us.
2. European model cars are smaller than U.S. cars. (Case in point: Our friends who paid for a two-suitcase car could only fit one of their American-size bags.) So book a larger car than you anticipate needing, although you may be surprised with an upgrade: In both Iceland and Europe, the rental companies bumped us up to a roomier ride (probably after seeing our ridiculous pile of baby equipment).
3. Keep long rides to a minimum. In our experience, three-hour stretches are the max, when, day after day, you’re subjecting your little one to long rides. Remember, you’re taking in the scenery, but your baby is staring at the back seat.
Success #2: Do ask the airlines if there are any empty seats for your toddler.We were cheap and didn’t buy a seat for Asa, instead opting to pay about $150 for her to fly as a lap infant. On our first flight, the attendant gave us a lap belt for her—something U.S. airlines don’t offer—to strap her to us, thereby preventing escape. We though that was amazing—until, on the next three flights, we were given free seats for her and her carseat. How? At the gate desk, Frank just asked the clerk if there were any open seats. In all three cases, there were, and the airline kindly rearranged the flight a little to accommodate us. (FYI, even though Iceland Air is super-barebones, it is very accommodating of children. Plus, for no extra cost, you can break up your trip, stopping in Iceland, then finishing your final leg to Europe a few days later, letting you avoid super-long airtime. ) It never hurts to ask!
Success #3: Do keep breastfeeding.
I’d initially planned to wean Asa at 12 months. When that didn’t happen, I decided to stick with it until after our big trip, since I knew the nursing would help pop her ears during take-off and landing and soothe her to sleep (2.5 hours on the first flight!). Even though nursing a 20-pounder is uncomfortable in an airplane seat, it was well worth the pain (I was crying at one point, my lap was no numb from holding her). So if you’re thinking about weaning (whether from bottles or breast), but have a vacation around the corner, hold off if you can!
|A nap at 3 p.m. in Rome? Never would have happened when Frank and I were childless. But with Asa, it was essential, even though she barely naps at home. The heat is taxing!|
Success #4: Do know your limits.
Go into your trip knowing this: With a toddler in tow, you won’t see everything. My advice: Pick one or two must-sees in each city, and consider anything else a bonus, because once you factor in long lines, nap times, snack times, meal times, and, yes, tantrums, your ambitious itinerary will become torturous. If your budget allows, take any opportunity to skip the lines, whether by buying tickets online (we did this for the Colosseum and the Vatican) or hiring a tour guide (we did this in Florence to see the statue of David). That way, you’ll use up your toddler’s patience looking at exhibits, not standing outside of museums.
|Why wait in line when you could be eating gelato?|
Success #5: Do book a few American-style hotels.
By American-style hotels, I mean the Crowne Plaza. I’m all for quintessentially European hotels—if I’m on a romantic getaway. But cramming a family of three into a closet-sized hotel room? No thanks. In Germany, we stayed in a Crowne Plaza and it was divine: plush robes, roomy accommodations (i.e. space for Asa to play), air conditioning, and a pastry waiting on the dresser. Call me a typical American tourist all you want, but I’ll take a cozy robe over roughing it any day.