As I’m writing this I am about to embark on a three-week European vacation with my husband and our two children: Kiera (14) and Ryan (11). The kids and I will spend a week in Paris before my husband joins us and we head to the South of France and then pop around Italy. This will definitely be a trip of a lifetime and I really want it to be special for all of us.
A lot of us are about to embark on our summer vacations right now. Whether you are headed to soak up the sun, camp or see the sights, here are some ideas for making the voyage unforgettable for your kids.
Make your kids part of the planning process
No matter if you are flying, driving, taking the train, going to the beach or on a European sightseeing jaunt, kids of all ages will have more of a vested interest in a vacation for which they had input. Give younger ones choices for outings and day trips; older kids can research hotels and Airbnbs, make restaurant reservations and work on logistics like train schedules. If you’re a Type A person like I am, I realize how much relinquishing control can give you the shakes. But you can always acknowledge their ideas and tweak as necessary.
Give them something to record the journey
Your kids will appreciate a place to capture their memories. You can go old school and buy a bound travel journal or a more high tech route with one of the cool apps out there like Day One 2, Bonjournal or Tripcast. Travel journals designed for kids include details like writing prompts, colorful pages, quotes, a space to note what souvenirs they bought and their favorite travel memories, while apps can incorporate Instagram photos, captions and geotags. I bought my kids this journal, which is perfect for for our three-week trip, and could easily be used for several shorter vacations.
Seek out meaningful souvenirs
This can be a challenge, since many of the tchotchkes like t-shirts and keychains might be branded with a location but made overseas. Do a little research beforehand or while you are there to discover what they region is known for, and ask for recs for shops or markets selling more artisanal items--or at least domestically-produced ones. My kids made shark tooth necklaces in Amelia Island, Florida and got local homemade hats and jewelry from the Charleston City Market. Full disclosure: my kids love snow globes, and I travel a lot. I can’t usually find ones from the country I’m visiting, but they still love them. Moral of the story: if yours really have their eye on something and it’s dreadfully cheesy, they still may cherish it long after the trip.
Plan something specific just for each child’s interest
I was inspired for our Parisian leg because my son’s been fascinated by the Eiffel Tower since he was about three. So let’s just say booking tickets months in advance, planning a trip to the top and having a dinner picnic on the adjacent park means he’s pretty much covered. My teenage daughter (not surprisingly) loves the mall, so we are going to weave in some time while in the City of Lights to window shop at the boutiques and maybe actually buy something at my favorite budget French clothing chain, Pimkie. Win, win. If your child loves to dance, take in a performance where you are visiting. Science fans will love a visit to the kids' science center or guided stargazing at the planetarium.
Don’t try to pack in too much
It’s tempting to think that seeing and doing all of the things will make a vacation one kids will remember, but that can backfire quickly. Younger ones will get cranky and melt down, older ones will be ornery and resistant, and you’ll be left disappointed and frustrated. There is something to be said for just sitting on the beach, relaxing and people watching at a cafe or sitting at the campsite talking and playing games, rather than doing that ambitious ten mile hike. Less is usually more, and these seemingly forgettable, chill moments can turn out to be what they remember most about the trip.
Give them a little backstory
Learning the history of the area you’ll be visiting will give them context. That could be through the tourism website for the city or region, a tour or guide book or an audio tour. I had my kids download Rick Steve’s app on their devices, which has tours for tons of European cities, museums and sites, as well as themed tours based on culture, music, cuisine and art.
Have them create a real photo album of the trip
I might be dating myself, but it’s a shame that all of our photos stay on our devices, IG feeds or Snapchat stories. It’s just not as much tactile fun to scroll through our phone’s albums as it is to peruse the pages of a scrapbook or photo album. Older kids can use services like Snapfish and Shutterfly to pick a template, populate it with pics, add captions and get it printed and shipped. Little tykes will require more assistance, but you can prompt them for memories and anecdotes.