Five years ago my wife and I travelled to Andalucia, Spain, for our honeymoon. We left New York City a couple, and, though we didn’t know it at the time, returned a trio.
That’s right, Felix was conceived amid days rife with hikes through the hot, dry countryside, cool rests in shadowy castles, meals of bread, cheese, and tapas, nights of wine, and mornings of cafe con leche. Appropriately enough, some days my wife ate sun-warmed figs from a tree outside of our hotel room — a fruit which ancient Europeans considered a symbol of fertility. It was an ideal trip, the best of many we’ve taken together as a couple.
Since then, our travel has been curtailed to visits with the grandparents, siblings, and the friends who’ll have us, kiddo and all. For a while, this was enough. But the bottoms of our feet itch to travel again, not to theme parks or the Jersey Shore, but to dream destinations like Rome, Paris, or Athens. And not alone, either, but as a family.
But even if we could afford the small fortune for flights and hotel rooms and the like, would we have fun traveling with a little boy? Especially one who demands a lot of attention and activity. Seeking advice, I turned to master traveller (and father) Rick Steves. On his website he writes, “Two adults with kids spend twice as much to experience about half the magic of Europe.”
Well, that’s not encouraging!
To help me figure things out, I decided to make a list of the pros and cons, which I humbly submit for your review. What do you think? To travel to Europe with four-year-old, or not to travel?
Buck up, kid — you’re going to Europe! Or are you? 1 of 17
Take this little one to Europe or wait till she's older? Well...
Con: You won’t be able to enjoy the people watching with a bored kid tugging on your sleeve. 2 of 17
Nothing beats starting the morning with a strong coffee or espresso, munching on some delicious bready thing, and just watching European life unfold in all it's Old World glory. Simply walking the streets of a European city reveals treasures of humanity. On the tight, medieval streets of Barcelona, I stumbled upon a guy sitting under an orange tree, playing flamenco guitar. It was beautiful. Throw in a little boy whining "Come on, Daddy, this is boring!" and it kind of ruins the picture.
Pro: Older Europeans really love cute little kids! 3 of 17
Friends who have traveled to Italy told us their son was adored by the people there, especially the older ones. He received gifts of fruit, and tons of attention. An account borne out in Anthony Doerr's wonderful memoir of living abroad with his twin sons, Four Seasons in Rome. So maybe there will be a lot of people around to keep Felix entertained?
Con: Dining al fresco isn’t as fun with your little one running amok around the plaza. 4 of 17
European meals stretch out in lovely leisure, course after course, and with service that's... well, not as fast as we might expect here in the States. Who cares when you're on vacation time! Felix will. Some times even when the service is quick he loses his ability to still in a restaurant. And if we have to eat every meal out... sounds more like parenting work then a relaxing treat!
Pro: Kids love feeding pigeons in the plazas and wading through the fountains. 5 of 17
As a single traveler, the many pigeons in the plazas of Venice grossed me out and even kind of frightened me. They outnumber the people! It's like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. That's because people feed them, and what little boy wouldn't like to run about scattering bread crumbs? Plus, kids sometimes splash about in the fountains. This never seems the cleanest place to swim, but when in Rome... My point is, maybe there'll be enough for Felix to do in the city squares, we won't have to worry about him.
Con: Four-year-olds don’t appreciate fine art. 6 of 17
In Florence, you stand on line for hours to see David and think, I waited all that time for this? (Take my advice and just see the replica. No wait and looks the same.) Try making that exciting for a little kid! It ain't gonna happen. My son's attention span for looking at art is pretty slim. At the Brooklyn Museum of Art I've lead him in painting scavenger hunts, which is fun... for him.
Pro: There are lots of great churches and castles with stairs to climb. 7 of 17
Ruins, on the other hand, are pretty cool. Especially the ones — like the many my wife and I found on the side of Spanish roads — with no signage, fees, docents, or rules. You can sprint up the crumbling steps of the castle keep for a great view, or explore dark rooms full of bird feathers and spiderwebs. It's a pretty great adventure!
Con: Dinner time is after bedtime. 8 of 17
I love the Mediterranean custom of eating a big meal in the middle of the day, spending a slow afternoon napping or taking it easy, and then gearing up for a pre-sunset paseo around town to build the appetite. Of course, sometimes our American appetites had grown so big that my wife and I would be the first people at the restaurant, waiting outside when they opened the doors at 9pm. If we were tired and hungry at that point, my ravenous four-year-old would be eating his own arm!
Pro: Wine is so much cheaper! 9 of 17
So does it really matter how cranky or crazy your sleep deprived, jet lagged little one is behaving? The vino comes cheap and tastes great. After a glass or three, everything will be gravy.
Con: As if 8 hours in an airplane isn’t bad enough on its own 10 of 17
My coping method when on a long flight? Eat a big meal beforehand, and then put in earbuds and space out to music, drifting in and out of sleep. I reach a point of Zen and snap! We're there. If I had to keep a little kid entertained that whole time — and I'm talking about one who doesn't even like a twenty minute car ride — then forget Zen, I'd be ready to commit hara kiri.
Pro: The trains are awesome. 11 of 17
Then again, you touch down and it's golden. Europe is a land of trains, and my little guy LOVES locomotives. He even digs looking at train maps, and visiting train museums. While riding on a train, he devours snacks and zones out, staring at the passing scenery, tapping into that same calm I do while on planes. That would be an aspect of traveling with him that I'd really enjoy.
Con: Europeans don’t eat a lot of hotdogs or PB&J, and no bratwurst and Nutella sandwiches don’t count. 12 of 17
You know how kids are: they want everything to be just so. Felix even notices that his grandparents use different brands of milk, and compares how they taste to our own. I'm not sure how well he would do with lunches if they didn't have hotdogs, peanut butter and raspberry jam (with no chunks of fruit, please!), and grilled cheese (with the cheese oozing out the sides, of course). Again, it's one thing if this were for a day or so. But for an entire week or two week trip? As the French say, le sigh.
Pro: Italian food is PERFECT for kids and there’s plenty of bread and cheese all over Europe. 13 of 17
But the kid is a pretty easy eater in general, loving pastry, pizza, and pasta, so as long as we picked the right country we might be fine. Also, salty bread and butter? That could be a meal for Felix. And then there's gelato to consider, and he loves meat, and if we go to a city like Amsterdam where they serve awesome french fries with rich, creamy mayo he'd be in heaven. (And in Amsterdam, I'd be... never mind.)
Con: Traveling all that way only to spend the day at playgrounds and family friendly restaurants. 14 of 17
It would be disappointing to go to Europe only to find myself doing all the things I do here on days off with Felix... playing chase in the park, helping him climb playground equipment, finding places to eat that will suit his four-year-old needs. This is all fun, for sure. But it's vacation! I want to do something different from the norm, especially if we're going to go all that way.
Pro: Everyone likes naked beaches! 15 of 17
Right? Our whole family likes spending as little time clothed as possible, and what with all the sights to see... Seriously, though, even just lounging about on a rocky European beach can be a blast. The place is so beautiful, it might not really matter the little parenting hiccups along the way.
Con: Europe is so expensive! 16 of 17
And now that Felix is four, we'd have to buy him his own seat on the plane, and meals at restaurants, and then there's all the snacks to consider. And hey, what about the hotel? One room for the whole family sounds claustrophobic to me, so do we have to get a suite or something? Just thinking about it has me considering the joys of a staycation.
Pro: You know what they say: You can’t put a price tag on memories. 17 of 17
Visiting Europe with Felix would be like doing any of the things I like with Felix, it would take a familiar experience and make it brand new. I'm sure I'd notice different things about him while traveling, and different things about the place by virtue of being with my son. It could be pretty cool... What do you think?