June 10, 2019

Planning an International Trip with Kids, How Do I Make This Happen?

So we've touched upon the mental preparation of choosing to travel internationally with kids, sharing some ways in which travel has a positive impact on young minds, and now we are ready to dive into the nuts and bolts of planning. This is one of my favorite parts!

As an A-type personality, researching and making lists turns me into a giddy child, and that's what this next step in our international travel planning process is all about. Are you ready to figure out where to go, how to find transportation and accommodation, and figure out what you'll do when you get there? Here's step two!

Planning an International Trip with Kids, Three Part Series
Take the Leap!   |   How Do I Make This Happen?   |   Don't Pack the Kitchen Sink

Rome is very walkable, with many kid and family-friendly activities, and I wouldn't hesitate to bring the girls if time and money permitted!

Step 2 - How To Make It Happen

Where Should We Go This Time?
If you're like me and can't decide where to go because the world is your oyster and you want to #SeeALLTheThings, make the process of elimination easier by assessing your budget first. How much can you afford to spend both in terms of money and time? Will one destination require additional resources, such as renting a car versus using public transportation or driving to your international destination? Are there kid- and family-friendly activities?

To aid in our decision making, I use the following equation to ensure I don't overlook something major.

Money Available + Time Available + Kid-friendly Activities = Destination Choice

A children's train at Dinkelsbuehl's OrangeNacht
celebration proved to be a big success with the 3yo!
The financial aspect of this equation is the first hurdle; if my total budget is only one thousand dollars, I cannot afford the $800+ airfare per person to get five of us to Europe. In the case of limited funds, I look for places where we can drive (Canada), find cheap airfare deals (Caribbean), or else postpone an international trip in lieu of a domestic vacation. Our policy is to avoid debt to fund travel, and I encourage you to make wise choices when it comes to your money.

Our available vacation time is the next aspect. This year we have a lot of paid time off at our disposal, thanks to a very generous parental leave program at my husband's job. But next year, we will be back to just four weeks a year plus holidays. In my opinion, any place that takes more than a two hour flight or a four hour drive to reach requires at least three total days to enjoy, not counting the travel time. With kids, you really don't want to feel like you have to go home just as soon as you've gotten there!

Finally, if your destination doesn't have any activity or natural attractions which interest your kids, then it's not really worth it for a family trip. Since our girls are so young (3.5yo, 2yo, and 4mo), I would not consider trying to visit the Louvre or some other art museum. The admission price is too high to potentially waste it by leaving early due to bored or tantruming kids! But because Paris is such a walkable city, I wouldn't necessarily rule out a trip to the City of Lights as a family trip.

Using the money/time/activity equation has helped us decide between top choices or putting destinations on the back burner for the future.

Playgrounds can make any city a kid-friendly destination! 
We stumbled across this small, fenced-in play area along the banks of the 
Donau (Danube) in Ulm, Germany. The girls LOVED it!

Getting There  Staying There  Moving Around  Doing Fun Things

As you can see, this pregnant mama was
"over it" before the plane even took off!
How Do I Get There?
Once we've determined the destination, I create a rough itinerary of how the trip will go, both from a big picture perspective and from a daily view. I start with how we will get there (airfare, train tickets, road-trip gear), flesh out the middle with accommodations and transportation on-site, and end with a list of sightseeing possibilities. I list everything to ensure I don't forget something important, like making sure the hotel/Airbnb has a crib available for the littlest one.

Some of my favorite sites for tracking airfare are Kayak, Skyscanner, and Google. I have grown particularly comfortable with the filter settings on Kayak and have found them to have the best advertised prices. Once I find routes that accommodate our needs, I cross-check prices across multiple other sites (Orbitz, Priceline, the airline's direct site) until I have the best deal.

Many parents strategically select flight times based on nap times, bed times, or other kid-related factors. While I try to keep this in mind, our deciding factor is always price. We prefer nonstop routes whenever possible, but if a layover route is a couple hundred dollars less expensive per person, we will bite the bullet to save our wallets.

Where Do I Stay?
For accommodations since having kids, I almost always choose an Airbnb rental. None of us get a good night's sleep if we're all packed into one hotel room, and the price tag of two hotel rooms is typically more expensive than renting an entire apartment. Finding the best Airbnb for your needs doesn't require superhero skills, just a little common sense. My personal rules of thumb are:
Getting comfortable on the floor at Oma's house
for Annika's dinner time (September 2018).
  1. Only book a rental with lots of reviews. I'm hesitant to stay at a new listing if it has no reviews. It could be really great, or it could be really bad. When I'm traveling with kids, I want to minimize the risk of it being dirty, unsafe, or being in a bad neighborhood, so I eliminate listings that have little to no reviews unless a personal friend can vouch for it.
  2. Don't book a rental whose recent reviews indicate problems. A rental might have a high average score on their reviews overall, but the most recent reviews may indicate that the owner has let things start to slide. Be discerning.
  3. Research the general neighborhood of the rental. While the rentals won't show an address until it's booked, you can look at the general neighborhood map for a general idea as to its location, and some listings will discuss the neighborhood. I use this method especially for big cities where some neighborhoods may be unsafe. Sometimes the reviews on a listing may mention neighborhood pros and cons. Beyond the safety consideration, if the listing is too far away from all the attractions you plan to see, you will need to evaluate if it's worth the extra commute time.
  4. Go for the super hosts. There's a reason some Airbnb hosts get a "super host" rating; it's because their listings and service go above and beyond. These fine folks are the ones most likely to hunt down a second pack-and-play for your kid (like our host in Erding, Germany) or respond in the middle of the night when you realized that you just locked yourself out of your Smoketown, PA, Airbnb (oops, my bad) or who leaves the crab pots baited for your Northern Neck getaway. Not all of the stays I just linked have reached this super host status yet, but they will eventually -- because hospitality is a priority for them.
How Do I Get Around?
Prior to kids, my husband and I preferred using public transportation, but for our last few trips to Germany, we have rented a car. Renting a car provides the freedom and flexibility to get off the beaten path and access locations not as easily accessible by public transportation. When traveling with very young children, it also eliminates the stress factor of hopping on and off buses and trains. But as with all things, you'll have to evaluate the cost and responsibility of a rental car versus public transportation. We have used both Sixt and Hertz to rent cars in Germany. I will never, ever use Hertz again, but Sixt has always treated us well.

If you are traveling to a major city and staying within the limits, renting a car doesn't really make sense. Research the public transportation options and download any available map apps to help you navigate the system once you're there. I found this to be particularly helpful when visiting London.

My Colorado ride -- a brand new, hybrid Ford Fusion. I loved it!
What Will We Do There?
The internet is an amazing tool! Simply entering "name of your destination + kid friendly activities" will provide a wealth of responses. Enjoy exploring your destination through articles, photos, and blog posts prior to ever setting foot on the ground! As I surf the web, I keep a list of all the things that pique our interest, how to get there from our lodging, how much time to budget for it, and how much it costs to get in. I also leave time in our overall itinerary to be spontaneous or stumble across something. That dusty old church might not look so interesting on the web, but when you walk by it in person, you may just change your mind.
For an Airbnb referral code, please reach out to me personally.

Stay tuned for the final step in our international trip planning with kids series: how to pack smarter, not harder!

What sort of things do you like to do on vacation? Do you prefer the relaxing beach vacations with sand castles and ocean-side restaurants? Or adventures in nature with birds and animals to keep the kids interested? Or do you like to wander urban jungles and let the sights, sounds, and smells keep your kids busy?

Taking family walks is one of our favorite vacation activities. It makes us feel like real locals!
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