This isn’t a free printable list of what to pack down to every last sock and retainer. Nor is it a tutorial on how to cram all the necessities of a family of five into carry-on luggage (is that even possible, really?).
This is a list of helpful products meant to address the most pressing and universal needs of every travelling family in Europe, as I see it. Namely keeping the small people fed, rested and, when necessary, entertained.
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To keep the young’uns fed
We’re like a little family of chipmunks when it comes to food. We pack snacks for every outing, we pack lunch whenever possible … and then we add more snacks to the stash, just in case. It saves us time, it saves us money, and perhaps most importantly, it saves us from hangry kids.
To make this magic happen, we employ snack cups, reusable water bottles*, soft-sided insulated lunch bags (or in the expansive days when we had a car, a big grocery cooler bag or two), ice packs and good ol’ plastic baggies.
Then the only question is whether Mom will remember to actually grab lunch from the fridge before leaving the house. (We had a lot of trouble with this when we transitioned from two kids to three. Thankfully it was only ever the lunch, the toothbrushes and the pack-n-play we left behind — never a kid!)
There are so many lovely places to stop for a picnic in Europe, and kids love the novelty of it, so why not pack a lunch and cast your messy-eater worries aside?
* Tip: Bring your own empty water bottles through airport security, then fill before boarding.
To keep young’uns rested
In this category, probably more than the rest, we parents would do best to focus on being strategic with our travel schedules rather than seeking to purchase a magic solution. But, there are a few products that can help.
Whether it’s kids who can’t sleep because they’re sharing a bed with a sibling for the first time (and having way too much fun at it) or kids on a sugar high from vacation food, getting them to conk out on a trip can be a struggle. My wife and I have made it a rule to give our boys melatonin for our first night in each new hotel. Melatonin means happy kids (it’s like candy at bedtime, right?) and happy parents who get to rest after a busy day.
For the littlest ones who can’t hack pounding the streets all day, you need some way to carry them, allowing them to rest their chubby legs or even nap while rest of the family sight sees. Our method of choice for infants and toddlers in Europe is a baby carrier. Given the prevalence of cobbled streets, subway escalators, monument stairs, bus and tram steps, and the miniscule size of many European elevators, I’m almost surprised to see people even bothering with strollers at all. We’re on our third child with our Ergobaby Original baby carrier, and even despite #3’s prodigious size, this carrier is still going strong and we still love using it, especially in Europe.
Particularly on travel days, the carrier really struts its stuff. For train travel, you can often pass through security without removing your child. With air travel, you will be forced to take him out of the carrier, but then you can put him back in for boarding and pass all the way to your seat with two hands free for carrying luggage or directing older kids.
In addition to the Ergo carrier, we also brought an umbrella stroller (we have a Chicco Liteway stroller, but I’d probably opt for this Summer Infant 3Dlite if I were to buy again) with us when we moved to Europe, but we hardly use it.
Already on the trip over, the stroller was causing headaches. It took us three flights (it was supposed to be a more reasonable two, but that’s another story) to get from our native Seattle airport to Budapest, and each time we gate-checked that stroller only to have it end up not at the gate upon our arrival but among the checked baggage. Every time the airport personnel helping us track down this wayward stroller were surprised that it wasn’t there for us at the arrival gate like protocol dictated — but somehow it happened all three times, so go figure.
Now here in Budapest, and when we visit other European cities, we almost always opt for the freedom of the carrier and leave the stroller at home.
To keep the young’uns entertained
For our family, we’re not big on the idea of providing kids with entertainment around the clock, especially not electronic entertainment. Better to let them play outside, observe the world around them, get creative with open-ended toys (or things that aren’t toys) or just be bored for a while. But when we need to ensure peace and quiet for a time, here are a few of the tools we employ.*
Though they’re not in daily use by our kids, we do have iPads for our two older boys, and as leery as I am of frying their young brains, I will admit the kids have learned a lot from them. They study the Bible stories with the wonderful Bible App for Kids by YouVersion; they study letters and numbers with the Endless series of apps, they study geography and foreign languages. The iPads also serve the function of portable DVD players when on the move. Know that many American electronic items cost more to purchase outside the states.
For use with the iPads, with Mom or Dad’s phone or with in-flight entertainment systems, we have these AmazonBasics headphones. They’re durable, colorful and volume-limiting, and they adjust to stay comfortably on children’s heads (and parents’ heads, actually). We also have a headphone splitter, which has seen so much action these past few years. We use it for the kids to share Netflix on a single screen, we use it to split music from our phones with a cranky baby, and we use it in the hotel room to sneak a movie while the kids sleep. It’s such a small gadget but oh so useful.
Also remember that any electronics you bring will probably need an outlet converter for charging. While not always the best at staying plugged into the wall, these multi-converters have the advantage of working nearly worldwide. Though, if you know you’ll only be in a specific country or region, you might be happier with one of the dedicated plugs that fit snugly in the large round wall outlets of certain parts of Europe. We have several similar to these round wall plugs for use at home in Hungary.
* I hope it goes without saying that books, washable markers and whatever age-appropriate small toys — think Matchbox vehicles and little dolls — your kids favor are also must-packs, in addition or in lieu of electronic gadgetry.
And to carry it all
In a word: Backpacks.
Now, I’m not at all a sporty type, so backpacks were never my bag of choice. But that all changed when we moved to Europe. Along with almost everyone here, we now carry backpacks.
For traveling, they’re the perfect solution. They leave your hands free for carrying other luggage, pushing a stroller or cart, and guiding young kids through the airport. They’re soft-sided and therefore more likely to meet the requirements of the European budget airlines, no matter how shrunken their carry-on measuring cages may be (after a scuffle with WizzAir in Barcelona*, we’ve vowed never again to travel with carry-on suitcases). And they give kids a wonderful sense of purpose, being able to carry their own snacks and toys or even help out the family by carrying keys or groceries.
* Before moving to Europe, we bought some rolling pilot cases specifically meant to be used as carry-on luggage. But it only took us one trip to learn that they were essentially useless. Every airline’s max size for carry-ons is different, and even within the same airline, it can come down to the difference between a strict and a relaxed check-in agent. We were able to get our carry-on suitcases to Madrid, but when we tried to fly home from Barcelona, the ticket agent wanted to charge us €40 for each of them (we’d brought two) because they were literally 2 millimeters too big. Instead, we emptied them out and gave them to two guys working security at the airport. Then we bought a small backpack from the gift shop, cajoled a plastic garbage bag from the the sales clerk and used those to carry our gear back to Budapest, vowing to only use soft-sided luggage from then on.
As to which backpack to carry: If you want what the cool kids have, then Fjallraven makes your backpack. These Fjallraven Kanken backpacks are all the rage in Europe right now. You see them in Budapest on people of all ages. They come in a few sizes, including a mini-size Kanken that can work for kids. But they also have a price tag to match their popularity, which we didn’t want to pay. That led us to find some excellent alternatives.
For adult backpacks, we like a big clamshell opening all the way around for easy loading and unloading. This vintage-style school bag from Kaukko does triple-duty as a carry-on, daypack and diaper bag, and the price is a third that of the Fjallraven.
In choosing backpacks for the kids, we look for durability, padded straps, a chest strap and cuteness. For the youngest kids, Skip Hop’s backpacks fit the bill. Our almost-two-year-old loves his owl backpack, and carries his own diapers and wipes with pride.
The Mountaintop backpack is the next step up, great for kids 3-6 years old. It’s not only padded on the shoulders but also along the back, and its slim profile means kids won’t be bumping other people, on a crowded tram for instance, with their backpacks too often.
And last — but anything but least — are packing cubes. If you’ve been on the fence about these, get off it and buy some! They make even more sense for families than they do for the general population. Especially if you have a multi-leg trip, like we did when we visited Spain. You can pack each family member’s clothes in a cube, then transfer it directly to their drawer or closet when you reach each hotel — without any need to further unpack or sort. As you approach the end of your trip and the dirty clothes start to pile up, simply roll and stuff, changing the composition of the cubes from one for each family member to some for dirty, some for still-clean things.
For our family of five, we bought two sets of AmazonBasics packing cubes (in a bright color so they’d never get lost in the back of a hotel drawer): a 4-piece set of small, slim, medium and large packing cubes, and an additional set of two medium and two large packing cubes. For longer trips, we use the bigger cubes for each family member, then fill the small and slim with pjs or swim suits. For shorter trips, the kids share cubes, and Mom and Dad use a medium each, leaving the largest ones behind.
Sturdy reusable shopping bags — we have a couple bags from Baggu, and their quality is top notch — also will come in handy on a trip to Europe. Grocery stores often charge a fee for disposable bags, so it’s smart to bring your own (and it makes you look more like a local who’s in the know). Plus, a couple times now we’ve used a larger shopping bag to hold the kids’ three small backpacks during flight check-in; in that way they count as only a single carry-on item, and we’re able to avoid hefty fees for extra baggage.
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