How To Do a 4-Week Summer Trip in Europe with Kids

We were in Europe for about four weeks this summer — Madrid, Northern Italy and Croatia. Our family of five includes three kids ages 11, 12 and 15. We’ve taken long trips before and I have learned that the key to an enjoyable and memorable trip is to balance the needs and wants of everyone in the family, even if it means skipping that one important activity, or place, in your itinerary. Here are some tried and true strategies for long trips that work for our family. (Although I’m writing this after our trip in Europe, these strategies also worked for us in Asia a few years ago.)

1. Europe is hot in the summer. When booking accommodations, make sure you stay in a few places with a swimming pool. Pools might be scarce in big cities, but they are available in other towns and you don’t have to always select 5-star hotels. They will provide a place to refresh and reenergize everyone after a good day’s worth of walking and sightseeing in the heat.The kids, especially, have something to look forward to after you’ve dragged them to yet another tourist site. Our small, 2-star hotel in Santa Margherita Ligure (Hotel Villa Anita) had a new, small pool with several jets that entertained the kids endlessly. Although we stayed just one night at the small Hotel Kapetanovic in Opatija, Croatia, the pool was just what the kids needed after a long drive through the country. After two weeks of culture in Northern Italy, we were ready to unwind in Rovinj, Croatia. We spent three days splashing and swimming in the pools of the 5-star Monte Mulini, our favorite hotel during our 4-week trip.
2. Give the kids ice cream or a cold drink as often as they want. Forget the calories, forget how much sugar they’re taking in. You will have quieter, happier kids. After all, you do want them to come along with you to visit museums, churches, towers and look at all the interesting architecture, right? Besides, this gives all of you a chance to sit down, talk and cool off. Better yet, find an air-conditioned gelateria or heladeria.
3. Be flexible. It’s okay to not do everything you planned to do. When planning our 3-day stay in Verona, Italy, I had the idea of renting bikes to see the town and surrounding area. Bike tours were certainly promoted as one of the things to do in the city and its outskirts. The weather was so hot and humid (it was 103 F one day!) that there was no way I would be able to convince my family to do a bike tour. No big loss, especially since I didn’t book anything in advance. We walked around instead and came back to our air-conditioned b&b when we got too hot. Another example, prior to our trip, I had reserved a car for our third day in Rovinj, so that we could do some sightseeing to neighboring towns. When we got to the hotel, all we wanted to do was hang out and not leave. We had already been traveling three weeks and we needed some R&R. So, we postponed the car for the next day and relaxed for three days.
4. Schedule a few guided tours. I selected Context Travel for Segovia, Florence and Venice. You can sign up for an already-scheduled tour (10+ people), or decide to take a private tour for up to 6 people. The private tours, though I thought pricey, was well worth the money. The online registration form asked me to give the company a brief description about our family (ages, interests, etc.), so that they could match us with an appropriate guide. Of course, I asked to have young, energetic guides to capture (and maintain) our children’s attention. We were very happy with our guides. They were knowledgeable, service-oriented and personable. Especially nice was the boat tour through Venice — we were happy to not do a walking tour in the heat. We had our own guide, water taxi and driver and this allowed us to photograph the not-so touristy highlights of the city.
5. Get out after breakfast, rest in the afternoon, be reenergized for the evening. After breakfast, our routine would be to walk around a neighborhood, stop for ice cream, visit a church, museum, or other historical site, then stop for another ice cream or snack. At about 3:00 pm, we would be exhausted. We would head back for the hotel or b&b and rest and enjoy the air-conditioning. The kids occupied that time with their books, electronic gadgets, or swam in the pool. My husband and I read, checked email, and occasionally had a siesta. At around 6:00 pm, we were ready to explore again and slowly make our way to dinner at the restaurant of choice.
6. Do not overdose the kids on big cities with too many museums and churches. Europe is full of these, but DO plan to visit towns that are along the coast or near lakes. This will give everyone a much-needed change of pace. You will enjoy refreshing breezes, cooler temperatures, and wide open spaces. Also, we established a rule of one museum and one church per town. Better to get an in-depth understanding of a few, rather than an overload from too many. Of course, this might not be possible in Florence.
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Cheap (or Free) Thrills

After many years of traveling with my family, I’ve decided that many of our most memorable moments have come from what I call “cheap thrills”. Of course, we’ll never forget our pampered vacation at the lakeside resort of Parco San Marco (Lake Lugano). Booking a room that overlooked the sparkling lake and renting a speedboat — to satisfy my then 8-year old son’s wish of driving one — were not cheap. But, nothing compares to the deep feeling of satisfaction and elation from an activity that is free, or costs little, yet provides memories that will last a lifetime.

Gelato everywhere you go in Italy. Go ahead and spoil your kids — let them have a gelato anytime of day. Cheap thrill all day long. We’ll never forget the delicious, refreshing gelatos we bought from a little shop in Menaggio, and licking them as we sat at the edge of Lake Como.

Golf cart rental during the last 2 hours of the day. We didn’t use it for golfing (pricey activity), but drove it around to photograph the gorgeous landscaping and views from the Princeville Golf Course. (The golf course makes extra money because early morning golfers have returned their carts by this time.) We actually rented two. My husband and I each drove one with one child, so that they could experience the fun of riding on a golf course in a buggy equipped with a fancy GPS navigation system!

Biking in Bali. Bike rentals are really cheap and the stops you make along the way are free. My husband and I parked our bikes to follow the crowds swarming to a festival — we guessed it was a festival because of the colorful banners waving high in the breeze. It was a festival for the traditional tooth-filing ceremony. Wow!

Kauai’s canoe club annual fair in Hanalei. Many community fairs do not charge an entrance fee, and you get to hang out with the locals to get that authentic experience. You can watch the races for a bit, go swimming when you’re ready to cool off, and the kids can even participate in a keiki (means child in Hawaiian) obstacle race on shore.

Watching elephant seals in San Simeon, California. Just pull your car over along Highway 1 and park for free. These mammals are HUMUNGOUS and hilarious to watch. Very comical as they clumsily maneuver their 3,000- to 5,000-pound, 15-foot long bodies across the sand, often bulldozing over another one! Every member of our family was so entranced and amused the first time that we went back a second time. Best time to see them is between November and March.

Reply to this post and share your cheap thrill on your last vacation.