The week of Thanksgiving, my family and I went to Paris. It was the first time we’d ever taken a big vacation together, and it was so much fun. It was cold, windy, and rainy, and the prices were exorbitant, but we had planned well enough and saved up enough cash to still enjoy our time together.
(By the way, if you’re wondering what this frugal family is doing taking a holiday to Paris, of all places, it happened to be the cheapest flight from our city.)
Quite a few of you wondered how on earth we managed to take two preschoolers to a big European city during the cold and rainy season and still manage to have fun. With some forethought and a bit of flexibility, we had some simple strategies that really helped us maximize our time in Paris.
So if you’re planning a family vacation to a big place in the near future, here are some tips we learned for successful vacationing with little ones.
1. Stay in an apartment.
This was one of the smartest things we did. Instead of messing with set breakfast times in a cafe and early checkout times, we opted for staying in an apartment in a regular neighborhood. Here, we had a kitchen where we could stock it with our own food preferences, the kids could be loud and run around, and we had laundry facilities to keep our packing to a minimum. It was cheaper, too, since we stayed for an entire week. The kids really enjoyed our “home away from home.”
Check places like Airbnb or VRBO for reasonable vacation housing options.
2. Bring a travel highchair.
Many countries don’t have high chairs as a standard policy in restaurants. We toted this small, lightweight inflatable highchair in the basket of our stroller, and I’m so glad we did. We used it quite a few times, from street cafes to Disneyland. It was nice not having to mess with containing a two-year-old over mealtimes.
3. Pack less; do laundry.
If you can stay in a place with laundry facilities, that saves you the trouble of packing a week’s worth of clothing — a big plus when traveling with kids. We packed about three days’ worth of clothing for each person and did laundry halfway through the week. It made our luggage load quite a bit lighter.
4. Plan on downtime.
We did a lot for seven days — we saw the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame, the Arc de Triumphe, major museums, and topped it off with Disneyland. But we made sure and sprinkled in some playground and window shopping time between all the sightseeing.
Whenever we passed a playground, we let the kids run around and blow off steam for half an hour. We visited a great toy store and did some Christmas shopping while the kids had a ball playing with the toys on display.
5. Lower your expectations — make it a family trip.
My husband and I didn’t take moonlit walks along the Seine. We didn’t eat a romantic dinner in the Eiffel Tower. And we certainly didn’t spend nearly as much time as we wanted at the Louvre. But that was okay — this was a trip for bonding as a family. We kept our expectations low, and still ultimately did more than we thought we would. Sure, we wanted to do more in Paris, but we could always go again when the kids are older, or when it’s just the two of us.
6. Eat at home.
We also ate two out of three meals at home. We leisurely ate breakfast before heading out for the day around 10 a.m., and then we were home in time to cook a simple dinner before bedtime. This saved us a ton of money, and the kids could enjoy just being a family at mealtime, instead of being cooped up at a restaurant. It also made our lunchtime out more special, because it was our one meal out of the day.
We also stocked up on snacks at the local grocery store, so we carted around crackers, fruit, and other healthy treats on the go. The crackers were a great distraction for the two-year-old at the museum. He was more intent on nibbling his cracker in his stroller than he was admiring the Monets.
7. Plan ahead.
Read quality travel guides, and roughly sketch out your days in advance. My husband and I enjoy spontaneous traveling, but with kids, it’s not nearly as much fun. So we made a list of “must-sees,” and routed out the best days to see them. We went ahead and bought a museum card, which saved us money and tons of time in lines (a huge help with little ones). We researched ideas on things to do in Paris with kids and then did those things. And yet we stayed flexible enough to shift around the days based on the weather and our energy levels.
8. Bring dishes for kids.
This is one thing we didn’t do and wish we did. Normally, I’m okay with our kids using regular drinking glasses and plates. But because it was someone else’s home, and because they were really tired, I was a bit skittish when they ate off of nice china and drank their water from champagne flutes. Next time, we’ll bring an unbreakable plate, fork, and cup for each of them.
About a year and a half ago I wrote about more tips on traveling in general with kids.