When I told friends I was planning a two-week European vacation with my three kids, ages 9, 6 and 1, the reaction was always the same: shock and awe. Admittedly, I was a bit apprehensive, but I forged ahead. My husband, kids and I (plus my mom) spent time in Spain and took a week-long Mediterranean cruise, stopping off at ports of call throughout Italy and France.

It was one of the best decisions of my entire life. Really.

Traveling Abroad With Tots is Brilliant

Here’s why I ignored the level-headed advice of my peers and why I’d do it again in a heartbeat: Domestic vacations can be fun and easy, but international travel yields invaluable benefits, such as

  • familiarity with other languages. Years of in-school Spanish paled in comparison to hands-on experience talking to multilingual cruise employees, taxi drivers and shop owners.
  • piquing interest in the customs and history of other cultures. Webkinz? Lame! Roman gladiators— now they’ve got style!
  • offering a broader perspective. The world is enormous and there’s no singular way of doing things.

Understanding this is a priceless concept for my daughter, who is entering her tweens when popularity and it clothes often take center stage.

How to Do It

So you’re sold on the concept of traveling abroad with your kids. But the reality is another thing entirely, right?

Wrong. All you need is an optimistic attitude, flexibility and a few pointers. Here’s where I can help. Not only did I vacation internationally with my (ahem, three) kids, I have a few travel-writer tricks up my sleeve.

My smartest move was using a cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas, for a home base. I wanted to introduce the kids to Europe’s treasures. However, endless train rides and repeatedly packing and unpacking would bring chaos and meltdowns. The ship provided stability and a perfect jumping-off point for exploring various destinations, like Naples, Rome, Pisa, Nice and Marseille, in small doses.

Royal Caribbean (www.rccl.com) gets high marks for its family-friendly features. Immersion in foreign cultures and languages was fabulous, but coming “home” at the end of each excursion to an English-speaking staff and American-style comforts created smooth sailing. We stayed in a Royal Family Suite, a feature that I cannot say enough about. The extra space, massive balcony and five-star service were worth their weight in gold.

Tricks of the Trade

The key to keeping the entire family happy? A relaxed approach and solid prep work.

If I had designed this trip to be a tour of museums, churches and fine dining, right now I’d be venting about how my kids cramp my style instead of writing about the trip’s merits. Thankfully I knew better, and I crafted a kids’ European vacation that involved pick-up soccer games with local kids, pigeon-chasing in beautiful piazzas, body surfing in the Mediterranean and eating gelato on every corner. Was it the Europe I dreamt about pre-kids? No. But it sure was romantic.

My children fell hard for international travel. The secret: food and toys. The kids enjoyed a culinary tour of France (minus the bouillabaisse), where we sampled sweet and savory crêpes and compared buttery croissants. In Italy, I bribed the kids with souvenir money, which they spent on Italian specialty toys. They earned Euros for being accommodating during challenging travel moments and refraining from sibling arguments. In turn, the toys provided hours of entertainment plus keepsakes to last a lifetime.

Family travel requires planning. The hours I scoured the Internet and compared details paid off immeasurably. I found a perfect apart’hotel in Spain, Citadines Barcelona Ramblas, that is part of a chain of family-friendly properties (www.citadines.com). The apart’hotel had extra room, complimentary breakfast and a strategic location— all features that can make the difference between smooth travel and rough waters.

Whether you’re dreaming of the South of France, the bright lights of Tokyo or the Australian Outback, you need not wait until your kids are older to check out these incredible places abroad. Go now. Bring the kids. It may not be the trip you’ve always imagined, but it may spark the imagination of each traveler, yourself included. Buon viaggio!

Before You Go

Get passports

Everyone, including infants, needs a passport for international travel. Apply at travel.state.gov at least six weeks prior.

Be prepared for long waits

Plane rides and customs can be excruciatingly long. Tote small toys, have games up your sleeve and take advantage of open spaces for letting off steam.

Pack wisely

Stash wipes and Purell in day bags. Bring dish detergent to wash out sippy cups. Older kids can wear clothes again, but babies need extras for accidents and spills.

Shrug off language barriers

Pick up a phrase book, like Rick Steves’ Italian Phrase Book & Dictionary (Avalon Travel Publishing) for basics. Then use your hands, body language and creativity to get by. Relax, it’ll be fun.

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