I believe that you should travel as far as you can, for as long as you can. So, it's no surprise that one of my biggest fears of child-rearing was the inability to travel, and I don't mean the Disney all-inclusive one-stop-shopping type of travel. I mean the immersion in foreign cultures and language, travel that requires planes, trains, and automobiles, and self-service adventures as opposed to bellhop courtesy. Not one to be held down by convention, I strapped on the Ergo and took to NYC, Paris, Bruges, Gent and Middleburg on a 2 week adventure with a 14 month old.
SMART LONG-HAUL TRAVEL WITH A TODDLER requires breaking-up the flight into segments. Since we were traveling from the West Coast to Paris, we stopped for 2 nights in NYC. Genius for three reasons:
- West Coast to East Coast time difference helped with the jet-lag transition (meaning, fewer vacation nights spent awakening at 3am with a toddler who thinks it's time to play);
- A day at Central Park allowed my toddler a much needed exertion of energy; and
- Open Skies was offering a killer deal on business seats from NYC to Paris - a much more luxurious "lap infant" seat option. We booked the red-eye flight from NYC to Paris, so my toddler slept the entire flight!
BEGIN YOUR ADVENTURES IN A FAMILIAR CITY with the hopes that it will relax you. A relaxed mom is key to relaxing a toddler in a foreign environment. I know Paris better than I know my backyard city of San Francisco, so Paris was an easy jumping off destination. Paris also offers the essentials for toddler travels:
- Enchanting architectural visual feast for adults (one that can be enjoyed even when chasing after a toddler);
- Loads of open boulevards (for strolling with toddlers while window shopping);
- Parks and carousels on virtually every corner and outside popular monuments (allowing unplanned museum visits preceded or followed by a park outing);
- Casual outdoor dining with delicious food for adults and children alike; and
- General safety.
Paris is designed to encourage cultural excursions with children. Outside the Louvre, the Tuileries offers carousel rides, kiddie parks and an abundance of space to run around. Jardin du Luxembourg features a multitude of kid friendly activities, including a kid-size zip line, fountain boat rentals, and carousels. Nearly every metro stop is adjacent to either a carousel or park. Which means, a daily outing in Paris need not be planned in advance.
BOOK SPACIOUS ACCOMMODATIONS IN A CENTRAL LOCATION for easy outings and returns for naps. Hotel rooms can be doll-house size in Europe generally and even more so in Paris and Bruges, so we rented apartments via Airbnb and Homeaway, respectively. In Paris, the Marais provided us a central location with an abundance of parks, eateries, museums and shopping. Bruges is tiny, so any location in the city center is central and convenient.
BRING AN ERGO AND LIGHT-WEIGHT STURDY STROLLER to conquer the cobblestones. Our UPPAbaby G-Luxe stroller glided on the cobblestone streets with ease. Between the Ergo and the UPPAbaby, I was able to comfortably explore the city for hours at a time. I would also recommend bringing a rain cover for your stroller - after being caught by surprise (and hostage under street overhangs) by Bruges' moody wet weather, we picked one up at a local store.
BEGIN EACH DAY WITH TODDLER FUN TIME but don't fret about the details of the day. We began each day at our neighborhood park, which meant my toddler was generally napping in the stroller by the time we made it to our shopping or museum destination - thereby allowing fun time for both toddler and mommy. The plethora of cafes, parks and carousels in the cities allowed us to meander without having to stick to a particular route or time regime.
I must confess that Paris was much easier to navigate with a child than Bruges because Bruges has fewer parks (and less impressive ones) and, on rainy days (which there are many in Bruges), finding inside seating at restaurants was a challenge. We were told on several occasions that we could not come in with a stroller - a problem when your child is sleeping.
USE YOUR APARTMENT AS A HOME BASE for exploring the regional area. Bruges is an ideal secondary home base, it's easily reached from Paris via train, and is a 1hr drive to Brussels, Gent and other Belgium cities and a 2hr drive to the Netherlands, and a 3hr train ride to Amsterdam. Bruges is a very charming Disney style town that offers delicious chocolate and beer (much needed for mommy after wine indulgence in Paris), but 2-3 days is sufficient to explore this gem. Next time, I would skip Middelburg and take the train to Amsterdam.
TO BRING OR NOT TO BRING A CAR SEAT, this was the question that stressed me out until we arrived. I choose not to bring a car seat for two reasons: too cumbersome for airport travel and the safety latches in U.S. car seats are not generally compatible with European cars.
I hired a taxi with a car seat to drive us to/from Orly airport in Paris. Car seats are not required by law in Paris city center, and we got around mostly on feet and via metro, so no car seat needed in Paris. We rented a car in Bruges to explore the region, and I rented a car seat from the car rental agency. The only hiccup was that we had to install the European car seat ourselves - I'm still not convinced that we installed it correctly.
KIDS MENU NOT NECESSARY (and generally not available). French children are encouraged to eat the same meals (with all the veges and variety) as adults, so menus catered to children are generally not available at restaurants.
My toddler preferred the cultural offerings of croissants, savory crepes, croque monsieurs, yogurt, and Belgian waffles and fries. We deviated from this rule while waiting for our delayed flight at Orly airport, big mistake! A sub par plate of cold sliced ham and french fries was presented as the choice child's meal.
Toddler Jet Set Tips
- Don't over pack clothes, but bring plenty of diapers and wipes (which can be expensive in Europe). Clothes can be washed at laundry mats available all over the city or in your rental apartment.
- High quality formula and portable baby pouch food are widely available in Europe, so you need only pack enough for the plane and transport.
- Airbnb and Homeaway offer rentals with cribs, toys and kid friendly environments.
- Bring a light-weight yet sturdy stroller, such as UPPAbaby G-Luxe.
- Protect your stroller in transit by checking it at the gate in a check bag, which are available at Target and Toys R Us.
- If traveling during the rainy season, bring a rain cover for the stroller.
- Bring an Ergo or other baby carrier for hands-free carrying.
- Make a list of local hospitals before you leave.
- Traveling with grandparents or other family can ease the stress and provide mommy with some alone time. (Thank you Grandma and Grandpa Reb!)
Images by Brooklyn Boheme.