browsing the flower market and bird market on Ile de la Cite
We conceived of this trip to France two years ago, right after we returned from a fantastic trip to Italy. At that time the boys were three and 13 months, and almost every detail of the trip - the weather, the culture, the food, the developmental stages the boys were in - was a very good match for traveling with small children. Of course, the trip to Italy had some difficulties, but it was beautiful and magical and it was very easy to imagine doing it again. And if the boys were two years older, how much easier it would be! Right?
Our trip to France was so good (that's an understatement - France is just magical), but the time in Paris was not the perfect fit for our kids that I had hoped it would be. Tim and I did our very best planning beforehand, and I'm so thankful for that because good planning smooths over a multitude of traveling problems. But when you only have eight days in Paris you want every detail to work out as well as possible, and some of our details just didn't work out, namely: the weather and the fact that Sam is two and a half and not a very compliant companion at this point in his traveling career. I consider these two points linked and vitally important.
warming up with some chocolat chaud on Ile St. Louis
One of the reasons our Italy trip was so successful was that we had gorgeous weather the whole time, and we ate and played outside most of the time. I prayed for good weather in Paris, but alas, it was very cold, cloudy, windy, rainy, and a couple of times even snowy. Great trench coat and hot chocolate weather! But not ideal in other respects. We made the best of things and visited parks and outdoor markets, monuments, and cathedrals, but it was hard to fully appreciate everything when the kids were cold. Sam, in particular, had a hard time with the cold, and this only compounded his jet-lagged two-year-old condition. So, we retreated to indoor activities when we got too cold, and that had its difficulties, too.
journaling after our trip to Ile de la Cite
So, here are my updated guidelines for the best possible travels with little ones (pretty much the same as before, but with a couple of important updates):
1. Stay in an apartment or house. Someplace with a kitchen and a washing machine, and more than one room so when kids are sleeping you can stay up and enjoy yourself. Your visit will be about 1000% better for it. (And if you can swing it, try to pick a walkable neighborhood you like. The less time spent commuting the better.)
2. Bring the essentials, but don't overdo it. Bring their favorite blanket, their favorite bedtime book, their favorite movie on the iPad (and a night light app if you need one). Bring some stickers and paper and crayons, a couple of very small toys, and not much else. We start our trips with a half-full backpack for each boy, and it is amazing how we always have enough! Along the way they acquire little things here and there (coins, rocks, sticks, small toys, tickets, books, maps and souvenirs) and they play with these found treasures so well. There really is no need to bring lots of stuff for the kids. A few comforts from home for bedtime, and their imaginations will do the rest!
3. Plan activities that are fun for everybody - parks, picnics, strolls along the river, bike rides, hikes, etc. We don't plan everything around the kids, but we do try to plan every day with something in mind just for them. A lot of days we would do something for the parents (visit a market, Notre Dame, an art museum) and something for the kids (the ferris wheel, the bird market, a playground, a carousel, etc.) For us, the key to happiness seems to be spending time outdoors.
Which leads me to my next rule...
4. Unless you're going skiing, travel during the warm months. It seems obvious, but when you're looking at prices the shoulder season is very tempting. Don't mess around with the shoulder season. For adults, fine! But for children, you need the good weather. You need the ability to picnic 90% of the time. You need to let them run and yell and wrestle (a lot), and that just isn't possible when you're indoors touring museums and eating in quiet bistros all day. You don't want the struggle of dressing them for inclement weather every time you go outside (never mind packing all that gear). You don't want to be wiping noses on vacation! So, pay attention to the weather and go when it's warm.
5. If you can, travel with people you love. Family, or friends, it doesn't matter. If you have a good time together it's so wonderful to share the adventure. This relates to kids in a several important ways: built-in playmates for the kids, built-in fun for mom and dad (plenty of quiet time to visit because the kids are happily playing together!), and you can swap baby-sitting for each other so you can have date night. Win-win-win. We still love to travel just as a family, but we've had several trips now with family and close friends (Tuscany with the Griffiths, Switzerland with Mom and Dad, Montana with the Mungers, and Burgundy with the Griffiths) and it has been nothing but blessings for us every time.
More about this in my post about Burgundy.
6. If you have a two year old, just stay home. Kidding. (Sort of.)