We are getting towards the tail-end of our whirlwind Europe trip, having visited eight cities in just two weeks…Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Graz, Hallstatt, Salzburg, Budapest, and Prague. Six of these cities were covered in five days since the first part of our trip was set aside for conferences in Russia.
Edric and I commended our kids numerous times for being such troopers. Catalina walked thousand of steps everyday in this past week as a four year old without complaining, except for one instance when she hadn’t had enough sleep. We woke the kids up early each morning to catch trains, car rides, and tours, and they eagerly readied themselves.
Two of our kids, Titus and Catalina, struggled with slight coughs, but we didn’t have to deal with fevers or stomach problems. Thank God!
When Edric and I first planned our trip, it was supposed to be for the two of us. But on a whim, we decided to purchase tickets for the kids since there was a promo deal. After the rush of spontaneity wore off, we were like, We need to have a plan. It’s not going to be easy touring Europe with five kids.
Thankfully, I am married to a man who is an awesome planner. He actually prefers to be on top of booking flights, hotels, and the tours. Yey! He maps out the entire trip, and then I help with the fine-tuning of the itinerary. He really does more of the hard work when it comes to the planning, and I am glad he prefers it this way.
Now, let’s get to the details of how to survive Europe with five kids:
1. Manage Expectations. Early on, we mentally, emotionally, and spiritually prepared our kids for this trip. We told them the following:
– You will be doing a whole lot of walking.
– Whining and being fussy will not be tolerated (especially for the younger ones).
– You will be eating bread everyday. Goodbye to Asian food.
– Efficiency will be required.
– Everyone has to take care of their own things.
Since they were briefed ahead of time, they hardly complained. They knew what was expected of them, and they lived up to these expectations.
2. Make it an educational experience. The older kids were tasked with researching and giving a presentation on each city and country we intended to visit. Edric asked them to look into the history, system of government, language, currency, and GDP of each country. They also had to put together a PowerPoint of visual references for landmarks in each city. This heightened their excitement for the trip.
Their knowledge proved to be useful, too. They helped us figure out exchange rates. Elijah and Edan also tried learning Russian and German, just for fun. They were able to read certain signs which came in handy, and speak simple phrases to connect with the locals.
3. Have each child pack their own stuff. Edric provided a list of items for our boys two weeks before our trip, and I helped the girls with their preparations. If there were any last minute items that had to be purchased, we had two weeks to shop for these.
A few days before our flight out of Manila, Edric and I inspected the kids’ bags to make sure they didn’t forget anything. Since the kids packed their bags, they knew what was in them. They weren’t dependent on us to outfit them everyday. Apart from specific occasions when they needed to be dressed in something more formal, they took charge of their clothes. Of course, I still needed to assist Catalina, who hoped to wear dresses everyday. This simply wasn’t possible with the cooler weather.
4. Pack sensibly to keep luggages to a minimum. It would have been tough pulling suitcases through cobble stone paths and in and out of airports and train stations. Plus, there was the matter of fitting our bags into a vehicle when Edric rented a van. Our two girls shared one large suitcase. The three boys used one large and one medium one. Edric had his roller garment bag, and I had one large one to myself. We also had one cabin-sized luggage. This translated to just six suitcases, freeing up Catalina’s hands, and allowing each child to pull the size appropriate to their strength. Edric also purchased luggage covers that looked alike so we were able to easily identify our bags.
5. Bring comfortable shoes for everyone. Our family is more function over form when it comes to packing for trips. We get this from Edric. I would, of course, prefer to be fashionable when I travel. However, I found that sneakers and flats are the best way to endure walking around in Europe, especially with kids. I tried to do one day with booties but my toes were throbbing by the end, and I nearly tripped three times. The photos looked good but the pain wasn’t worth it! By the end I was in rubber shoes. The kids only needed two kinds of shoes. One casual looking one and rubber shoes. Sore feet didn’t become an issue for them even if we didn’t have a stroller for Catalina.
It’s the pits to bring a stroller in Europe if your child is old enough to walk. The old streets aren’t friendly to strollers. So good shoes are a must for everyone!
6. Prioritize rest. Even though our days were hectic with a lot of sightseeing, we made sure that each child had a comfortable bed to sleep in at night. We had one location where Catalina slept in between us, and she accidentally punched me several times during the night. The next morning I wasn’t the happiest person. Every other place we had a space for each child. (Since we are a family of seven, we always need to book two rooms plus extra beds. This is simply a reality we have accepted, especially cost-wise.)
A proper night’s sleep was the best way to recover after every long day of walking around or traveling. We didn’t stay in super pricey hotels either. For us, the better considerations for hotels were: comfortable rooms to get good sleep, good breakfast buffets, convenient locations. In Vienna, it especially mattered that our place was right beside the train station.
This isn’t a review but Edric and I were very happy with the Novotel hotels as stayed in. They weren’t five star but they were modern, clean, child-friendly, and well-located.
7. Reserve seats in advance for airplanes and trains. This seems pretty straightforward but we made the mistake of booking first class train tickets from Vienna to Prague without specifying seat numbers. For three hours we were getting kicked out of our seats (even if they were first class) because other people had reserved the ones we tried sitting in. We learned from this experience and paid the minimal extra to have designated seats on our way back.
Edric and I are willing to pay a little more for good seats when we travel with the kids. It minimizes the stress of having to struggle to find rows where we can all be together.
8. Give yourself a good buffer when it comes to time. Edric is the kind of person who will push things to the last minute. I am not the same way. So between the two of us, we find the middle ground and end up having a decent amount of time to get from one place to another. (With kids, the unprecedented tends to happen.)
Edric would therefore ask me, “How much time do you think we need to get to such and such a place?” Or, “What time should we leave?”
I would always be the conservative one, which he appreciated. This afforded us breathing room. For example, if we had to be in a certain city by 9 AM, and it took two hours to get there, I would suggest leaving 2.5 or 3 hours before. As a result, we managed to be on time. At airports, I suggested that we always head to the gate first to get ourselves situated instead of eating or shopping.
9. Assign teams or a buddy system. Elijah was paired with Titus. I was in charge of Edan and Tiana. And Edric and Catalina were another team. Edric would often mouth out, “Stick with your buddies!” Or, “Find your buddies!”
He also instituted a point system for efficiency and lack of efficiency. Everyone competed with one another. I wasn’t too sure about this idea because it felt very performance-based, but somehow it worked. When the kids served one another they received extra points. And when they were neglectful or made others wait they got deductions. As for Edric, the kids would shave off points from him when he got irritated or agitated! This kept him mindful of his responses.
Grouping the kids made it so much easier to keep track of one another. We only had to be responsible for the people in our team. I didn’t have to count five kids all the time, and neither did Edric.
10. Give the kids responsibilities. Edan took charge of the tech backpack. Elijah carried the souvenir backpack. And Titus was assigned the boys’ stuff backpack. Every night, the boys made sure that camera batteries and the wifi device were charged for the next day. Since the boys all slept in one room, they pretty much managed themselves. Elijah made sure they woke up at the appropriate times, packed their belongings, and kept their room straight.
One time I walked into their room, and it smelled like feet. Ugh. Disgusting. I am so glad Edric and I shared a room with the girls, who always liked to be clean and neat. Tiana would re-pack and organize the suitcase she shared with Catalina since she was responsible for it. She enjoyed folding her clothes and compartmentalizing her things. A little girl after my own heart!
Since each child took responsibility for their belongings, I didn’t have to micro-manage their messes. They picked up after themselves. Correction. They had no choice. It was a mandatory requirement of Edric and me.
11. Bring a basic first-aid kit. We packed paracetamol, stomach flu medicine, bandaids, anti-histamine, vitamins, vitamin C, honey spray, and Cetaphil wipes in anticipation that there would be spills, dirty hands to clean, and soiled clothing. Thankfully, Edric and I didn’t have to give out paracetamol, anti-histamine, or stomach flu medicine to our kids. It was the wipes that were used constantly.
12. Be flexible with food and drink. Feeding seven kids in Europe is expensive. We weren’t expecting to frequent restaurants for every meal.
Water, for example, is costly when purchased in restaurants. I mistakenly bought two bottles of Evian at an airport restaurant for 3.90 Euro each!
The smarter thing to do was to find convenience stores or groceries to get our water, fruit, and snacks. On certain days we only ate two full meals. The first was almost always a buffet breakfast, the second would be sometime in the early or late afternoon. Usually this was a sandwich or pizza.
When we were lucky enough to find other cuisines, we ate more substantially. Besides these meals, the kids ate ice cream, chips, chocolate, fruit, or nuts so they stayed full all the time. (Ack, I know.)
This is not our typical diet in Manila, where sugar is kept to a minimum, and we ask avoid processed foods. If I had the space to spare, I would have brought the kids their formula — Friso Four — but we had to be flexible on this trip. We couldn’t eat normal meals at normal times because we were in transit so often.
I had to be especially flexible. Even though I am intolerant to gluten, dairy, eggs, and certain beans and fruit, I couldn’t be picky on this trip. However, there were consequences for me…stomach pain, mild headaches, knee pain, and rashes. It’s okay, I will detox back home and take my turmeric pills!
The kids learned to make do with what was offered to them. It was more challenging with Catalina, but she learned to cope without her favorites like Sinigang, fried fish, rice, etc. I made sure that she and Tiana drank lots of milk at the breakfast buffets. Sometimes, Catalina would down three glasses of milk!
13. Be encouraged. People are GENERALLY kind to children. I supposed it’s not typical to see a family with five kids in Europe. People would smile at us in an amused sort of way. They would make room for us, give us freebies, or be very willing to take our family photos.
One woman I know who has seven kids told me, “Children open doors.” In their different travels, she also experienced the same thing with her kids. Kids have a way of disarming people. And somehow people are more sympathetic when you have lots of kids, and they tend to be friendlier towards you and your children. However…and this is a big however…I think people are more accommodating when kids are behaved, well-mannered, and friendly.
We reminded our kids to say please and thank you, to acknowledge older persons, to be appreciative, to be mindful of their volume, and to be glorifying to the Lord. When they weren’t polite or friendly, we asked them to apologize. As a result, we didn’t have negative encounters with locals.
Okay, there was one cleaning lady who didn’t appreciate that one of our bags was blocking her cart. And the Russian immigration folks didn’t really smile at all, at anyone. They seemed awfully strict and uptight. Otherwise, I felt really proud and special to be a mom to my five kids.
14. Model a positive and grateful attitude. When you travel with children things aren’t always going to work out as planned.
When Edric or I would show our stress, the kids would feel it and compound it with their own reactions. However, when Edric and I chose to exemplify thankfulness, then it encouraged our kids to do the same. We often had to tell ourselves and one another, “This trip is a blessing. Let’s have the right attitudes.”
We didn’t have to deal with any tantrums because we all agreed to have the right mindset. Twice or thrice Catalina acted up about being sleepy at the end of the day or about silly things like her hair not being tied up properly. I would just take her aside and talk to her about changing her attitude, and she did so.
15. Pray! We experienced so many answered prayers during the trip that it became obvious to the kids that God was really the one in charge of our vacation. Weather forecasts of stormy skies would quickly change to sunny days at the last minute. Small requests for good seats or favor with people would be granted.
Towards the end of the trip, I noticed that the kids began to pray very heart-felt prayers as they saw the Lord bless our time. We kept reminding them that all of the wonderful experiences we got to enjoy were from Him.
So there you have it. Traveling with kids is an extra-grace-required kind of experience, but it is loads of fun! There is a different level of intentionality necessary to maximize and enjoy an area of the world like Europe. Although Edric and I have been to more familiar parts of Europe, the countries we visited this time around — Russia, Austria, Czech Republic, and Hungary — felt very unfamiliar to us. This forced us to really think through how to survive the trip with our kids.
By God’s grace, our family didn’t just survive, we grew closer to one another. The kids learned about new people, languages, and cultures, as well as how to be team players and to push themselves when they were tired or inconvenienced. We experienced trusting God and depending on him even for the small details.
Although I am tired, I would gladly do this again in the future as the Lord permits such opportunities for us. For now, I am looking forward to going home to our routines and predictable schedules, and to eating lots of Paksiew! Thank you, Lord, for Asian food, especially Filipino food!