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Family holiday hacks: Travel to Europe with the kids with these genius tips

If you’ve been putting off a European summer with young kids because you reckon it wouldn’t be worth the hassle, the great news is that a superb month under the Mediterranean sun needn’t wait.

My wife and I recently spent four weeks on the road through the UK, France and Italy with our daughters – one of whom who turned five during the holiday and the other aged two-and-a-half – and the honest truth is that it was one of the greatest holidays we’ve had in a relationship spanning 15 years and featuring travels to 30 countries.

We didn’t even really intend to go on a holiday like this because, like most sane people, we thought it would probably be a bit of a punish. But then the email arrived in my wife’s inbox advertising return airfares totalling sub-AU$4,000 for the four of us and the decision was taken out of our hands: at that value, we needed to do it.

We were on the plane before we knew it. Source: Supplied.

Naturally, it was a very different holiday to those pre-children. And not every moment was true to the #blessed pictures we flooded Facebook and Instagram with, because the reality is that it’s still parenting and kids are still difficult sometimes in an idyllic Positano Airbnb. But as we progressed through one of the best months of our lives, and then reflected on our travels as we passed the hours on the flight home (so, so many hours!), we developed a list of the reasons we reckon the trip went so well, as well as some things we learned to make the next holiday even better.

You think one month is hard? Try travelling full time with kids, the trend on the rise. Interested? Here’s 10 international  travel destinations for families to get you started.

Plan your flights like a military operation

We knew the biggest challenge we faced would be the flights – not just to survive 24 hours in economy with two kids, but to try to maximise sleep for the kids so the first week of the trip wouldn’t be a write-off.

The first leg was 15 hours to Doha and our girls tend to sleep for about 11 hours at night, so we theorised that if we left mid-afternoon, they’d have three or four hours to be excited and then calm down before their bedtime, at which point there would be 11 hours of the flight left. And if things went pear-shaped, at least we would know it wasn’t for a lack of planning.

We had everything planned before we even got on the plane. Source: Supplied.

We also packed an entire duffel bag of the snacks they never say no to. Nutrition was not our aim here, full tummies was. And as we watched them take a first, disdainful look at aeroplane food, we knew this had been a masterstroke.

The final piece in our plan was the seat selection: we’d had an airline staffer tell us that the last seats to get taken on any plane are the middle seats in the back rows, so we booked seats A and C across two rows towards the rear in the hope that the B seats would remain empty and we’d get two full rows. For three of the four flights, it worked a charm and we had space to burn.

But we didn’t nail it all – when you buy your kids a cheap tablet and headphones for the journey and spend hours loading them with all their favourite TV shows, you should also check that the headphones work. That’s a cruel discovery when you’re already at 30,000 feet.

This is the time for a Greatest Hits tour

Especially at the start of the holiday, as you all overcome jetlag and the kids get used to life on the road, you’re not going to get much done. The familiarity of a favourite destination you know and love is welcome and lends itself to low-key days just being there.

We started our trip in London, where we lived a decade earlier before we had kids, and all four of us enjoyed just seeing the city pass by from the top of a double-decker bus as we shifted between playgrounds and restaurants, the kids keeping a sharp eye out for squirrels.

Next we returned to our beloved Paris, but discovered with the kids calling the shots that we saw it in an entirely different light. We got to enjoy the highlights afresh through a five-year-old’s eyes and slowed down enough to just people-watch in a way you can’t when you have a list of attractions to see.

Seeing the trip through the kid’s eyes really opened ours! Source: Supplied.

We had expected that this wouldn’t be as much of a walking holiday with the kids along for the ride, but as we passed 20,000 steps for the ninth consecutive day, we were glad we erred on the side of caution and brought our double pram. The kids being able to sit back and relax at will definitely bought us extra hours for strolling along the Seine and exploring unknown parts of town.

We sprinkled in some new destinations later in the trip so we’d have that fun of discovery, but having those old friends to help us get the holiday off on the right foot paid dividends.

Prioritise your accommodation

You’ll be seeing a lot of it in the weeks leading up to your holiday, when one of the kids was losing it, my wife would ask me with a laugh, “you ready to take this shitshow on the road?” And the reality is that a holiday with pre-school-aged kids isn’t unlike being at home.

You don’t have to go to work, the weather is probably better and you can eat bulk “sometimes foods” guilt-free, but your small children are still small children and still need the rest time and downtime they enjoy at home.

Nutrition isn’t the aim here. Source: Supplied.

We knew that kids use play time to process the things that have happened in recent days, and we would be throwing a lot of new experiences and challenges at them in short order, so we anticipated plenty of slow starts to days and afternoon adjournments to play with Enchantimals and colour in pictures of unicorns.

Our solution to ensure those lazy hours were highlights for us rather than stir-crazy confinement was to spend a bit more on Airbnbs that had amazing terraces with views that you’d pay an entry fee to get a photo of. And so from Positano to Puglia, we were happy for the kids to play in the lounge room to their hearts’ content, because we were lying in the sun enjoying the views we’d lusted after for years.

Embrace the four-night minimum

It’s probably not a coincidence that the one time our kids really tried our patience was after they’d slept in three different b in as many nights, courtesy of a one-night stop in Matera to break up the drive between the Amalfi Coast in Italy’s west and Otranto in the country’s far south-east.

They always seemed most content towards the end of our stays in the places where we spent at least four nights, which stands to reason.

With their stuff artfully strewn across the accommodation, some favourite foods in the fridge and their cuddly toys lined up on their pillows, they were finally at home. They knew the way from their bed to ours, they knew the way to the toilet in the night, and then as soon as they had it nailed, we up and moved again.

The kids with their stuff artfully strewn all over the place. Source: Supplied.

We probably asked a bit too much of them by having eight destinations in four weeks. Next time, we’ll stay four or five nights minimum in each place, maybe even a full week, comfortable in the knowledge that while we may see fewer sights, we will see them better.

Always gate-check your pram

Seriously, always gate-check your pram.

I didn’t realise how central our double pram was to the success of our holiday until it went missing between a checked baggage counter in Bari and the baggage collection carousel in Rome.

And if you do lose your pram, pray to your Lord that it is incinerated in full view of airline personnel for a fast, easy reimbursement, because I was soon to discover that the only thing more painful than Alitalia losing our pram would be the process of being reunited with it once it was located.

Our trusty double pram was lost! Source: Supplied.

Almost 36 hours of conflicting reports from call centre staff, airport personnel and the courier company that was supposedly circling Rome with our pram put a major dampener on trying to give Italy’s capital a second chance, 13 years after a visit during a 40-degrees-at-8am heatwave left us dehydrated and unimpressed.

When she wasn’t insisting repeatedly that the green single-seat umbrella stroller circling the baggage carousel was surely our missing black two-seat umbrella stroller (“Are you sure? Maybe have another look at it, a good look.”), the Alitalia lost property representative had some valuable advice:

“Most of the things that go missing are either checked very soon before the plane leaves or are from the oversized baggage drop-off,” she told us. “If you check your stroller at the gate as you board the aeroplane, this is the only really certain way that it goes on the plane with you.”