When Charlie was just under the age of two we boarded a plane and went to England and France for three weeks. It was everything we hoped it would be. We did the same thing with Oliver some years after that. People always like to know why we took our kids overseas for non-business and non-philanthropic and non-full time millionaire reasons. It is a good question. Here is why:
1. We did it because we wanted to stay in the travel habit. Scott and I did a fair amount of travel in the years leading up to us starting a family and we really wanted to continue that tradition. Read: I didn't want to end up like 'Ellie' from UP with all of her unrequited travel dreams.
2. Kids travel for free (or a VERY reduced cost) when they are under the age of two and we wanted to take full advantage of that... which of course made #1 all that much easier.
Once we had passports in hand, tickets purchased, vaccines updated, and fielded all the "It is too bad your kids won't appreciate this trip when they are older" comments, I set to the task of how to take care of a toddler in Europe. It turns out it isn't super hard. Granted, the diapers over there suck - as do the wipes, and there is not a Target with a Starbucks on every block. However, it turns out that babies are babies everywhere and having a cute kid transcends all cultures. So it really wasn't that bad. Here is how we tackled the obvious road blocks of traveling with Littles in Europe:
Dun. Dun. DUN. Fly direct and fly overnight. If you can get a bulkhead seat and inform you airline that you will be needing their inflight "cot". British Airways and Iberian are both pretty good about providing these and keeping them available for families with infants. Be aware that these seats do go fast so as soon as you book your tickets, let them know you'll need the bed. Bring all the comfort items you possibly can (blanket, pacifier, stuffed animal) to create a "home-like" environment. Pack a change of clothes, pack of diapers, and extra bottles/sippy cups. Most airlines are pretty good about providing milk on board. Once we got stuck on a British Airways flight in which they "ran out of food" so my poor kids were starving. The stewardess felt so bad that she snuck them some cheese-its from First Class. (I genuinely have not been impressed with British Airways as of late.) So perhaps bring some extra milk and snacks just in case. As for you, be prepared for the possibility of not getting any sleep. This is ok. Just accept it. Wear solid black athletic wear that looks chic and is also comfortable to move around in. You're running a marathon, prepare for it accordingly.
Rather than bump around from place to place every 48 hours like we did in our pre-kid years, our strategy was to stay in one place and venture out for day-trips from there. This worked out beautifully as there was minimal disruption and everyone could settle in for at least a week. We chose homes in central locations (London, Rouen) that allowed us to venture to cool places like Oxford and Mt St Michel for the day. Obviously, I love the whole AirBnB thing as it allows us to do our normal routine in a foreign location which is just plain awesome for everybody.
We relied pretty heavily on public transportation in major cities like London and Paris. In fact, when we visit Paris we often will park just outside of the Peripherique and then take the metro into the city center. Once we drove in Central Paris and it resulted in tears (mostly mine) and we all said "Never again." When we want to visit somewhere that is slightly further away we will rent a car. This is fairly easy to obtain with a US driver's license in England and France. We would also just rent car seats along with the car. In the past we have brought our own car seats for the kids and I genuinely can't say bringing your own is better than the borrowing. It comes down to personal preference. We've also used Uber and good old fashioned Black Cabs in a pinch.
This one I can never get quite right. Grocery stores have goofy hours in Europe. So timing their closing time with our "Arriving from Versailles late at night" time was quite a challenge. We aren't the type of people who eat out, as this is expensive and cuts into sightseeing time. We eat on the go when we travel. I usually stock up on crackers (pretty easy to spot in any store) whenever I can and try to keep milk/yogurt on hand for the kids. This doesn't always happen though. One time I realized that Charlie's "dinner" consisted of a few cherry tomatoes and Nerds. Thankfully that night I did find a late night grocery store and got some real food for him. We often make do with baguettes and cheese and the odd fruit that is in season. It does require constant vigilance to keep your "food bag" stocked.
Bring as many US branded diapers as you can. Wait. I think you misunderstood me. Bring as many American Huggies/Honest Co./Pampers/Up & UP diapers as you can. Shove them in side pockets of suitcases, inside shoes, down the little mesh pouch that nobody uses - just bring as many as you can. Wipes... you can scoot by with the European brands. You may need to use more, but wipes have never caused a blow-out, if you know what I mean.
Bring a small amount of your usual soaps and lotions. If you run out, know that European brands are actually really nice. And I enjoy scoping out the baby aisle at the local "InterMarche" to see what mama's in other parts of the world use on their babies.
Baby carriers and fancy strollers are all the rage these days. If you want to find social media hipster mom who will give you the skinny on all the latest, expensive baby carriers - be my guest. We keep it simple with the Boba Lighweight baby carrier. It folds up nicely into a little carrier-burrito and evenly distributed our kid's weight so nobody was dealing with the dreaded "strap dig". For strollers, we loved our Maclaren Quest lightweight stroller when we took Charlie to Europe the first time. It was so perfect! The second time around with Oliver we got a double stroller and opted for the Joovy Ergo Caboose. ERRRRR. Strike-out. Nope. Its heavy, annoying, and the kids didn't even like it- never again. Maclaren or I quit!
When it comes to sleeping arrangements, I am, of course, hyper-vigilant about making sure that everyone is well rested. During our first trip to Europe as a family I tried out the Kidco PeaPod pop-up tent in lieu of my son's normal pack n' play. That went over like a fart in church. He hated it. So we asked our AirBnB host for a baby bed. My son's instant delight upon seeing the familiar mesh siding of the pack n' play was enough to let us know that if it isn't broke, don't fix it. From then on, we just asked for the "house play yard" for our kids to sleep in. It was familiar (They slept in one at home. Never actually bought a crib.), they slept great, and we had one less bit of baby gear to deal with.
European washing machines are not awesome. More often than not they are front loaders that will hold your clothes hostage for no apparent reason for no less than 2 hours. Dryers are not really a thing either. Some washing machines have a drying feature - don't bother and stick with a radiator. Sure, your clothes will get all crispy and conform to a weird 90 degree angle, but that is the fun of Europe. Right? Plus, those "Washer/Dryer" combos don't really work anyway and you'll likely end up using the radiator to finish the job. I should also mention that having laundry facilities available to us is non-negotiable when we rent a house. This way we can wash the clothes at night and hopefully have something reasonably dry by morning. Who wants to be doing laundry during The British Museum's visiting hours?
People often like to know "What can you do with a baby in Europe?" The question is more like "What can't you do with a baby in Europe?" As long as your kid is well behaved and knows their boundaries, there really isn't much you can't do. Our kids have visited Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey), The British Museum, The Palace at Versailles, the Abbey at Mont St. Michele, D-Day beaches at Normandy, the Eiffel Tower, Christ's Church campus at Oxford, a thrift shop in the Lake District, several pubs, cute Parisian boutiques, restaurants, churches, beaches, parks, a bookshop that Ernest Hemingway haunted in the 20's... to name a few. I don't say this to brag, but to say that when your kids are small, portable, and with few opinions, there are a lot of cool things you can do. It wasn't all just gallivanting everywhere either. There were, of course, "mental health" days in which we would just be "home", taking care of laundry, napping, grocery shopping, and playing in the yard at our rental, instead of a day of crazy adventuring. Those days are super important too. Our general rule is 3 days of "go-see-do", 1 day off. When we travel we usually bring my mom or a friend with us to help out with the kids. More often than not they will watch the kids so Scott and I can go have a date-night out on the town.
Misc. The first night of jet lag is the worst. It gets better after that. Just try to be outside and awake as much as you can. Know that most over-the-counter medicines are not available at the local grocery store. You have to go to a pharmacy and they have super goofy hours. It is best to count on everyone getting sick and bring enough of your own "American" medicine rather than rely on the foreign stuff.
I will also add that if you aren't super travel savvy or fluent in the language of the country you are about to visit, go to England first. You won't have the language barrier, the customs/culture are familiar enough and it just makes for an easier transition to the rhythm of travel abroad with children.
Taking little kids to Europe is probably one of the best travel decisions you will ever make. It comes with its challenges for sure. But, so does taking a surly teenager or even a curmudgeon 40-something. Everyone has their own set of needs at every phase of life so don't listen to any excuse about "not being old enough" or "appreciating it". If you happen to find some time off, some cash on hand and a fierce love of travel, book that ticket and load up the family. Adventure is calling...