Over the last few years, our vacations have fallen into what my husband recently described as "a rut." We have explored our native state of New Jersey inside and out (the most recent excursion: an underground mine in winter, brrrr!) and bunked with relatives up and down the East Coast. Basically, we've stuck close to home by taking staycations-keeping in mind both budget and what we believed were the preferences of our 6-year-old son. So when Aidan recently asked, "Can we go to Paris?" I was a little taken aback. He wanted, he said, to see the Eiffel Tower -- perhaps a reaction to watching Ratatouille a few too many times. When pressed for more reasons, he offered: "There are kids there! And they eat crepes, and fries, and croissants.?... I like all of those!"
He had a point. A great one, actually.
Traveling to a different country would truly be a wow experience. And not just because we could visit the Eiffel Tower (and the Louvre and ?...?well, all that Parisian good stuff), but because we'd experience a different take on day-to-day life -- the food! The playgrounds! The shopping!
Still, I wondered, how much would it cost to spend a week overseas if we finally cashed in our frequent-flier miles? And were we crazy for considering taking a kindergartner to another continent? Pauline Frommer, creator of the Pauline Frommer Budget Guidebooks, eased my fears. "Europe is great for kids. They're at a magical stage in life where they absorb everything around them. Plus, even with the price of airfare and the weak dollar, savvy parents can find ways to stretch their vacation budget." Okay, that settles it -- sign us up!
A NOTE: Every member of your family (even a baby) needs to have his own passport to travel to Europe. Applications can take anywhere from four to six weeks to process and cost $100 for adults and $85 for kids under 16 (rendewals are slightly cheaper). For more info, go to travel.state.gov.
If, like my kid, yours has a hankering to see some big-time monument -- Big Ben or the Roman Coliseum, say -- then you'll probably want to center your trip around one of the classic destinations. In addition to boasting the iconic attractions, big Western European cities are comfortable places for families. "There are frequent flights and competitive pricing," says Teresa Plowright, of travelwithkids.about.com.
If your child isn't dictating the destination, you have a little more leeway in where to vacation. "Everyone wants to go to London, Paris, Rome, but with young children, cities are exhausting and can be expensive if you haven't done your research," says Cynthia Harriman, author of Take Your Kids to Europe. "Little kids have no preconceptions, so be open about where to go -- try some beautiful countryside like Umbria in Italy, the beaches of Sicily, or Ireland's Dingle Peninsula."
New York City mom Sharon Schuur remembers the trip she took with her kids, ages 3 and 5 at the time, to the West Coast of Ireland. "My younger one still talks about walking down paths, picking wild blackberries." You'll not only have a more relaxed vacation if you stay outside the big cities, but you'll also cut your expenses.
So much choice! Where to start? Read travel books, surf the Web, and ask everyone you come in contact with for recommendations and tips. Then it's time to do the budget.
My husband and I have been accumulating frequent-flier miles for years. But even if you don't have a secret stash, you can snag an airfare that may not be much more expensive than flying cross-country to a destination within the States. In addition to comparing fares online (check out expedia.com, orbitz.com, and kayak.com), book your trip during the shoulder seasons.
"Visit Europe during spring, which is roughly March and April, and fall-September through November," says Nancy Schretter, managing editor of familytravelnetwork.com. "You'll get great deals and nice weather." Summer, especially August, is when airfares peak. It's also when most Europeans go on vacation, so you'll also have a tougher time booking the cheapest and best accommodations. Also, try to fly midweek, when flights aren't as full.
Many international airlines offer discounts for children 2 to 11. For instance, on Air France, a child accompanied by an adult can receive as much as a 33 percent discount. Full-price tickets usually kick in at age 12. You have to ask for these discounts and may need to doggedly pursue the matter with reservationists-but don't give up, they do exist. Kids under 2 no longer fly for free on international flights. They can ride on your lap for just 10 percent of the adult fare but, be warned, this isn't the sanest way to travel.
BOTTOM LINE Airfares from the U.S. East Coast will cost you between $400 and $1,000 (or more) depending on when you go. West Coast fares are usually $200 more. You can save $300 to $500 per ticket by shopping carefully. Keep in mind that June 1 through October 15 will be the most expensive.
After airfare, the priciest part of your vacation will be accommodations. "There are big hotel chains in Europe, but one of the great things about alternative lodgings -- rentals, B&Bs, self-catering cottages-is that these give you a taste of what local life is like," says Pauline Frommer, creator of the Pauline Frommer Budget Guidebooks. However you choose to experience Europe, there's an array of affordable places to stay.
BUDGET HOTELS You can find simple, clean, no-frills family hotels in most European cities for $100 to $180 for a double room per night. Try eurapart.com and travellerspoint.com.
B&BS A cozy choice, B&Bs often have "family rooms," specially priced double rooms that include bunk or single beds for the kids. Ask when booking. Some B&Bs charge a per-person rate, but stays do include breakfast. In England, you can expect to pay about $50 to $60 per person. For a variety of family-welcoming options, check out ciaobambino.com, which has reviews written by parents for parents for small properties all over Europe.
A HOME OF YOUR OWN If you're staying for a week or more, consider renting an apartment or a house, says Frommer. "The cost will usually be a good 20 to 45 percent less than the equivalent hotel stay." (I found a three-bedroom cottage in England's Lake District for $900 for seven nights in June at lakescottages.info, just one of many search sites.) You'll get a kitchen, a living and dining room, and sometimes a grassy area where the kids can play. Wimco.com features local concierges who can assist you with everything from babysitting to dinner reservations. Untours.com includes pre-trip planning assistance and ground transportation packaged with its rentals. Homeaway.com is another popular site for home rentals.
FARM STAYS For about $100 a night, your family can bunk at a working farm or horse ranch in a bucolic area. These basic, rural accommodations are known as agriturismos in Italy, schlaf im stroh (sleep and straw) in Switzerland, and gites in France.
HOSTELS Aren't these the stomping grounds for college backpackers? "This is actually a big secret: More than 80 percent of hostels in Europe have family rooms, often with a private bathroom," says Cynthia Harriman, author of Take Your Kids to Europe. They may even be in a charming, centuries-old building. In Scotland, for example, you can stay in Carbisdale, a real castle that comes with a resident ghost and free breakfast for around $75 per night. Check out guideforeurope.com and hostelworld.com.
EUROCAMPS (eurocamp.co.uk) You can rent a cabin or "bungalow" with multiple bedrooms and a kitchen in one of 200 locations in country areas throughout Europe starting at about $500 per week. They have kids' programs, pools, restaurants-basically resort facilities at camping prices.
CRUISES This is Europe as buffet; you can sample short bites of many different places and return at another time to explore favorites in more detail. Prices, except in August, are comparable to hotel-room rates, with the budget bonus that they include meals. At cruisecompete.com, enter the parameters of where you want to go and agents anonymously bid. For example, European Costa Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Lines offer weeklong cruises around Italy, Greece, and Croatia for $730 per adult.
HOME SWAP Cheapest of all? Consider a home exchange with a European family. Of course, you have to be comfortable with strangers staying in your house and have a bit of flexibility in your schedule to find a match, but that means going to Europe costs you nothing but airfare. "A home exchange comes with separate bedrooms and often a car," says Harriman. "Plus, your host family may arrange for you to meet friends." Check out: homeexchange.com, homelink.org, and digsville.com.
BOTTOM LINE If you abandon the traditional hotel room, a week's accommodations sharing one "family" room could cost you less than $1,000.
One of the biggest reasons for going to Europe on vacation is to see just how different everything is. "Your kids will experience new places and cultures firsthand," says Aime O'Shaughnessy, editor of ciaobambino.com. "Even a toddler will understand that people live differently all over the world."
You and your kids will also discover that doing just the ordinary things in a new place is fun and exotic (and mostly free), whether it's using foreign currency to buy a loaf of bread, riding a double-decker bus, or just strolling through unfamiliar neighborhoods. In fact, you can have a relaxing time with the family and see the important sites without spending a lot of money. Some ideas:
HANG OUT IN PIAZZAS In these large open spaces with no cars, kids can run around, meet other children, watch street performers, and chase pigeons. Europeans have mastered the art of loitering, and you'll do well to bring a little of that dolce fare niente (pleasant idleness) mind-set back home.
PICNIC AT PLAYGROUNDS Nearly every European city has amazing outdoor areas. The jardins in Paris, for example, have ponies and puppet shows.
EXPLORE REAL CASTLES From Ireland to Italy, practically everywhere has a medieval history, and you'll find massive imagination-stoking castles and ruins.
VISIT MUSEUMS Europe is known for art, and many of the northern cities have museums with great programs for kids. In most of Europe, children 12 and under get into churches and museums for free.
BOTTOM LINE Lots of sightseeing is free, but you may still want to do some touristy things-a boat ride down the Seine, a visit to the Tower of London to see the crown jewels. Figure on an average cost of about $20 per site per adult and about $10 per child.
The more I researched traveling to Europe, the more excited I got. And I do think it's an affordable option for our family. What I hope to bring back besides a mini Eiffel Tower is one happy kid who has also learned a little something about another culture.
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Parents magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.