Two weeks with an almost two-year-old toddler exploring England, France, and Norway.
Reasons to Travel With a Toddler: A European Test Case
My daughter got her passport when she was one month old. Before she was two years, she had visited six countries: the Cayman Islands, where we lived for a year, New Zealand, Norway, France, England, and of course the U.S. (she’s been to 10 states so far). Although we plan to do more slow travel in the future, most of our international trips have been relatively short–lasting about two weeks.
Many people consider traveling with small children to be impossible, or least unpleasant. They point to long flights, interrupted nap schedules, and the need to haul around extra equipment as just a few of the reasons to leave the kids at home. Plus, they say, your child won’t remember anything; the experience will be wasted on them.
It’s true that there are potential obstacles to traveling with kids, as there are with any kind of travel. But I find there are more reasons to travel with kids than to not. Yes, the flights are long, but we booked overnight legs (most long-haul flights will dim the lights anyway), and our daughter slept almost the entire time. Yes, nap schedules are interrupted, which is why we’ve tried to accustom our daughter to sleeping in the stroller or car, which she does beautifully, so she can rest on the go.
And yes, it is tempting to fly with portacribs and bottles and toys, but the truth is you need very little of that. Every hotel I’ve stayed at has been able to supply us with a portacrib (which we don’t use anyway). We pack lightweight strollers (which airlines transport for free) or baby slings, and we only bring a few toys, usually something brand new so it has some novelty. This is mostly for the plane ride and waiting in lines at customs, etc. You’ll be exploring so many new sights once you reach your destination, your baby won’t need toys. We did Europe with a backpack for me and my husband; a day pack, which could clip onto one of our backpacks; a small backpack for our daughter, which could also clip on; and an umbrella stroller. That’s it.
Obstacles overcome, let’s get to the benefits of traveling with kids. First, children under two are free everywhere. They fly free or at a hugely discounted price, often 10 percent of an adult ticket for international flights. (Yes, they do have to sit on your lap, but I’ve found that when flights aren’t full the attendants often relocate the people sitting next to us so we get an extra seat. A seat for free! Can’t beat that.) Attractions are free. Metro and bus fare is free. Meals are negligible (our daughter often shares our food). This means travel with little ones is much more affordable than travel with older kids, though both have their advantages.
Another benefit to traveling with a child is that people tend to be extra accommodating. At the airport, you get to board first, which means there is always room for your carry-on luggage. People everywhere stop to talk to you and smile at your baby. Sometimes store owners will give your child things for free. Commuters make room for you on the metro. We’ve even had opportunities to network with people because they were impressed with how our daughter was behaving in a restaurant.
These perks are great, but to me the greatest benefit is watching my child’s world expand through exposure to different places, languages, foods, smells, and sights. All of this foreign stimulation is making her brain fire up new neural pathways, something that doesn’t happen in quite the same way back at home. And traveling with a child reminds you to stop and enjoy what you’re seeing, to revel in the wonder of the world around you, no matter where you are.
We started our trip in Salt Lake City and flew to Los Angeles and then to Oslo (because Norwegian Airlines is incredibly cheap–be sure to investigate airfare to alternate cities when planning a budget trip to Europe). A side note for families: LAX has a fun children’s play area in its international terminal.
From Oslo, we flew to London. We were only in London for a day, but we still saw quite a bit: Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the London Eye, Tate Modern, the Globe Theatre, Millennium Bridge, Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Strand, Trafalgar Square, and more. Kiri loved exploring the city.
One thing that I love about traveling with kids is that you take time to do things you wouldn’t normally do, like check out the hotel pool. Sometimes traveling is stressful, but Kiri reminded us to laugh and take time to play, to remember why we were there in the first place.
From London, we went to Oxford, a beautiful city with a rich history and gorgeous architecture. It also has a fabulous selection of parks, gardens, and meadows, which meant Kiri was able to run around freely–something that was harder to do in London. While I was at my conference, she and Ryan explored the sights, from Oxford Castle to the Botanic Gardens.
After a couple of days in England, we took the train to France and spent five days in Paris. Kiri loved walking along the Seine and stopping at the many playgrounds, which were often right next to historical monuments. (Important note: the Paris metro is not accessibility friendly, so we had to carry Kiri and her stroller up and down a lot of stairs. This is another reason to pack a lightweight stroller.)
One of my favorite things about Paris was being able to show Kiri a huge selection of art. We went to the Louvre, Cluny, Orsay, Orangerie, Dali, and Rodin Museums. At the Louvre she learned the word “statue” and while she wasn’t particularly impressed with the Mona Lisa, she loved finding sculptures of children and animals. She also loved the Louvre’s medieval foundations; it was a great place to run around, so be sure to check that out if you’re visiting with small children. (Another perk of having a child in a stroller: we were able to skip the entire line and ride the elevator down.)
There’s nothing quite like a toddler to make you stop and enjoy the Jardin des Tuileries–or explore the hedges.
We bought a Paris Pass, which is something I wouldn’t spend money on if I was in Paris without kids, but Kiri loved riding the bus, river boat, and petit train, and the tours were actually quite informative. Plus, the pass allowed us to pop in and out of any museum at our leisure.
Monuments and Historic Buildings
All of the monuments were very exciting. We visited the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, Napolean’s tomb at Les Invalides, the Opera Garnier, Sainte Chappelle, the Pantheon, Montparnasse Tower, and the Sacré Coeur Basilica, among others. Again, the Paris Pass came in handy!
I loved watching Kiri’s face in la Sainte Chappelle.
Kiri enjoyed climbing the 422 steps to the top of Notre Dame. I should say she enjoyed our climbing the 422 steps. (No strollers were allowed up and there were no elevators, obviously. So be prepared to carry your child!)
After an incredible time in France, we flew back to Norway. The Oslo airport is very easy to navigate and very kid friendly. (There are nursing/ changing rooms in addition to the bathrooms.) While there, we rented a car and set off to explore the countryside.
After about three hours of driving, we stopped for the night in Hemsedal; then in the morning we continued on to Flam. Our route included lots of impressive tunnels. One was 25 km (15 miles) long!
In Flam (technically, Gudvangen; we took a shuttle from Flam), we boarded a ferry to tour the Aurlandsfjord, an arm of the Songefjord, the longest open fjord in the world. On our cruise we saw many small towns that are accessible only by boat. It was a foggy day, and sailing through the glacial bends, emerging through the mist, made us feel like Viking explorers. Kiri was a big hit with the passengers on the cruise. They fed the seagulls together, and at least five people asked to take pictures with her.
After our fjord cruise, we headed back toward Oslo via another road. This one took us up through winding tunnels until we were above the clouds.
One of my favorite things about Norway was the beautiful, old churches we saw in every town. We stopped at the Torpo Stave Church (built in 1192).
We stayed the night at an apartment in Bjorneparken, the Bear Park. (We found that lodging was much cheaper if you went to the hotel directly rather than through a listing service.)
On our last day we drove back to Oslo and visited the Viking Ship Museum.
From there we drove the airport and caught our plane home. It was a fabulous trip, and I’m so glad I got to experience it through the eyes of my daughter.