When we told people we were taking our 4 and 1 year old daughters to Europe for a month, many of them looked at us like we were crazy! Some smiled politely – but you could tell they’d rather have root canal.

But off we went in September 2015! There were times we thought we were a little crazy too – but it turned into an amazing and unforgettable adventure.

In future blog posts I’ll tell you more about specific places we visited and things that worked for us, but here’s a more general list of tips for a successful family holiday.

1. Airbnb is your friend
Airbnb – or other self-catering accommodation – was probably the number one thing we did differently from when we’d traveled pre-kids. It meant we had the freedom to decide if we wanted to prepare “normal” food like we would at home, or eat on the go. Buying food at supermarkets cut costs. We also weren’t stuck in one hotel room, so we could put the kids to bed and then have another space to spend the evening.

Our Airbnb home in Provence

Our Airbnb home in Provence

2. Involve them in the planning and manage expectations
Before your trip: Involve your kids in the planning, show them some of the sights that will interest them online, get them excited about the things you’ll be doing. Then, once you’re traveling, chat in the evenings or at breakfast about plans for the day to come, try giving them choices, and let them know if there will be an extended time of traveling or waiting. Try to help them get excited, but also manage their expectations if you can.

Eiffel view

3. Set up home
I think it would have been difficult to have done a whirlwind “if it’s Tuesday it must be Brussels” type of trip with young kids. We spent at least a week at each place we stayed, so it felt like we had a home to come back to every day. Spending time in our rented accommodation doing “normal things” playing with toys or watching a little TV can also help them feel more at home. Find a park or playground near to where you stay, for those afternoons where they need to let off steam and don’t have something specific planned.

Parisian playground

Parisian playground

4. Relax the rules
So it’s the second ice cream of the day, they haven’t eaten a vegetable in 4 days, and they watched French cartoons for twice as long as you would normally let them watch at home. Holiday rules can be a whole lot more flexible than your normal family rules – no one will become malnourished or have their intelligence permanently destroyed in a week or few.

patisserie

5. Ice cream
Do I need to elaborate?

gelato

6. Keep a sense of humour
If you have a strong-willed/fussy/tantrum-throwing/wakes-5-times-a-night kind of child, chances are good that you’ll still see plenty of this while you’re away. But hopefully being away from work stress and in a fabulous environment can make things a little easier. Poppet threw an epic tantrum right under the Eiffel Tower, but I try to see it as “more scenic and pretty than a tantrum at home”.

Spoilt for choice for this photo - I went with sulking in the Paris Opera House

Spoilt for choice for this photo – I went with sulking in the Paris Opera House

7. Bite-sized culture
It is possible to visit beautiful cathedrals, magnificent architecture, even a museum or 2 – although the latter can be a little more tricky – but 5 hours in the Louvre is probably pushing your luck. One thing that works well is to follow a cultural sight with something kid-oriented, say a carousel or a trip to the beach.

Pantheon

8. Sometimes you just have to do the full Disney
Find out in advance about attractions at your destination that your kid will really love – a Disney store, an awesome playground, even a nearby McDonalds – and save it for a day where you see your kids need a little extra fun-injection.

We also got plenty of stern stares and reprimands for allowing our child to walk around with no shoes - you can the child out of Africa...

We also got plenty of stern stares and reprimands for allowing our child to walk around with no shoes – you can take the child out of Africa…

9. Look through their eyes
When we were in Barcelona, my daughter had a blast at Gaudi’s architectural wonderland Parc Guell – because she pretended it was Elsa and Anna’s palace in Arendale. So as we wandered around, she informed us that we were moving through the dining room, kitchen, bedrooms and so on. She loved it and maintained a happy mood despite a lot of walking for 3 year old legs.

I believe this was Elsa's dining room

I believe this was Elsa’s dining room

10. Slow down
We quickly realised that the best strategy was to plan one sight/activity for the day, and then take the rest of the day as it came. We were generally aware of what else was in the area and then assessed the kids’ readiness to do more on the day. Speaking from experience: attempting too many Provençal villages in one day was the recipe for a major 3-year-old meltdown.

Provence

Bonus tip: Eyewitness Travel Family Guides
I’ve always been a fan of the Eyewitness series of travel guides, they always have gorgeous photos that help me get excited about a new destination (although their accommodation options are normally out of my price bracket). But their family guides are awesomeness of another level. Jam-packed with tips, ideas and advice for families. Every attraction contains information like age-appropriateness, where to let off steam nearby, and the all-important restroom locations. I will definitely look to see if they cover any future destinations to which we plan to travel. At time of writing, they had at least 15 titles covering many European and US destinations.