In June we took what a trip of a lifetime to Europe. We traveled to London, Paris, and Amsterdam to visit friends living abroad and to celebrate two big birthdays (including my 40th!). I shared a lot of our adventures on Instagram (because I love that platform for this very thing), but was getting so many questions in my DMs that it felt like answering them all would be better suited to an old-school blog post. Because what else do I have this space for, if not to share?
A lot of the questions were in the same vein, so I’m just going to share 10 Things generally about the trip that other families planning travel might find interesting:
Our trip evolved around the desire to visit friends who had moved from Los Angeles to Amsterdam for the year. Three families in LA wanted to go see the family in The Netherlands. All of the families are good friends, and we’d all traveled together before. Not as entire families like this, but the women had taken girls’ trips and mother/daughter trips, and all of the families had been to visit us at our lake house over the years. What I’m saying is that we are familiar enough with one another’s travel styles to know that we would be a good fit for taking on the task of 16 people meandering across Europe.
And I’m going to say more about this later, but this really matters. When making a big trip like this, it is crucial to be on the same page in terms of energy, activities, budget, and enthusiasm.
So we knew we were going to Amsterdam, but no one wanted to go all the way across the ocean with children for just one stop. As we were trying to figure out calendar dates for this thing to happen, we realized it would most likely fall over my 40th birthday. When asked where in the world I wanted to turn 40, Paris was my dream. We also realized that the Women’s World Cup was going to be in France this same week. This was one of the cities we’d been tossing around visiting anyway, since Paris is a short train ride away from Amsterdam, so these elements made it a lock.
My family really wanted to go to London as well, and one of the other families had extended family in England, so two of the four families added that city to the beginning of the vacation.
2. FIGURING OUT THE BIGGIES
Truthfully, finding dates that worked for all four families was the hardest part of pulling this thing off. The first conversations about this trip started about a year in advance, and we tossed around going during the holidays, then maybe spring break, and then eventually decided that the beginning of the summer after school let out made the most sense.
Once we’d determined dates and destinations, we chose international flights and hotels.
Those are the obvious biggies: dates, flights, and accommodations. We chose dates and flights about six months in advance, and accommodations about four months in advance. Our biggest plan-in-advance activity was going to the World Cup, and those tickets were also purchased about 3-4 months in advance.
Other activities that needed advance planning:
Tickets to the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam. (Those become available two months before desired date and we had such a large group that our local Amsterdam friend set it on her calendar to purchase on the first date available.)
Sketch London for tea
Eiffel Tower. (We actually didn’t end up getting tickets to the top of the Eiffel Tower because they were sold out by the time we checked. We were able to get tickets to the 2nd floor of the Tower by a total fluke. If this is important to you, definitely purchase those way in advance.)
All other activities and reservations (including the train tickets) we procured 4-6 weeks before travel.
3. USE A TRAVEL AGENT
Now is the time to tell you about my secret weapon: the travel agent! Maybe you thought travel agents went out of business with the rise of the internet, and the ability to research and book your own everything? Not so!
I’ve been using a travel agent for a few years now and I cannot tell you how much time and headache it has saved me. We found our travel agency through a friend, and they have consistently been more knowledgeable about flights and hotels than anything I could find online, and booking through them has allowed things I couldn’t have gotten myself. Upgrades, flight changes to a previously sold out airplane, I cannot say enough about how much easier it has been to book these main elements through a travel agent.
They’ve also helped me with things I didn’t even know they could help me with. Working with a hotel’s concierge, for example, to plan a celebration while traveling, arranging transfers between the airport and hotels, that type of thing.
Yes, you pay a little bit for their services, but it has been worth every penny, every time. (And I think their fees are very reasonable anyway.)
On this trip, we used a travel agent for flights, transfers, and hotels. She also helped me with my birthday celebration.
We booked our own activities and train tickets.
In London our group stayed in the same hotel, in Paris we stayed in THREE different hotels, and in Amsterdam we were split between half staying in a hotel, and half the group staying with the family we were visiting. A travel agency helped us with all of these things.
4. YOU GOTTA BE HONEST ABOUT YOUR TRAVEL HABITS
Even though I had traveled with these families before, it always helpful to be honest and upfront (in advance) about your travel habits. We had one family that is very go-go-go and activity-oriented, and one family that likes a slow morning. Our family falls in the middle.
The way we planned our trip, we could easily accommodate both of these approaches, but it is a MUST that we were honest about that before we started the trip and we were surprised or frustrated by one another.
Other preferences that we worked around:
Not eating super adventurous food.
Our family builds in some downtime before dinner. Ideally at least an hour, two hours is even better.
Hiring local/hotel babysitters (not every family was comfortable with this).
5. WE HAD MEETINGS ABOUT OUR PRIORITIES
In the months leading up to the trip, we had a few planning meetings. And by “we,” I mean the women/moms. When traveling with this many people, with this many children and lots of personalities, we decided that our best approach was to plan (in advance) one main activity and one main meal.
Each day had ONE main activity and ONE main meal.
Yes, just one. This philosophy ended up working out really, really well. The go-go-go family might get up earlier and do an extra thing or two before or after the day’s main activity, and more than once we spontaneously added in an activity because we were all in the mood that very day, but in terms of planning (without knowing moods or weather or whatever), it was nice to have ONE important thing that we (mostly) all did together, and then ONE great meal (almost always dinner), and that’s all.
But if you’re doing the math, you realize that this means you have to REALLY pick and choose these important things since we were only in each city a few days. So we (together) chose our most important priorities and then chose a day for those things.
One family wasn’t all that into museums, one family didn’t want to go all the way up the Eiffel Tower, everyone felt differently about allocating time to shop & wander. Still, almost every day we had enough flex time that anyone could fill out their own family activities or lack of activities if they wanted.
Before we left, I was a tiny bit worried that we hadn’t planned quite enough, but it was perfect this way. It forces you to drill down to the most important things in each city, and when one kid felt sick one day or when we added in something new because it seemed super fun, there was space for both of those things on the agenda.
6. WE DIVVIED UP TASKS
Each family booked their own flights and hotels, but we divvied up other tasks. One family researched and booked all the World Cup stuff. I booked the trains from London to Paris, then Paris to Amsterdam. My friend Tracy was excellent at crowd-sourcing, researching, and then booking restaurant reservations. Our local Amsterdam friend took care of almost all of our arrangements there, which was a huge load off.
We texted around group decisions, of course, but it really made it less overwhelming to have assignments. We all trusted one another’s research and taste, so even though I can be kind of controlling about these things, it was easy to let this go. I’ve been on other trips where there’s just ONE designated leader or cruise director, so to speak. I’m sure that comes down to group dynamics.
7. WHICH BRINGS UP THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENT OF TRAVELING: ATTITUDE
Look, even the most good-natured human can become unpleasant while traveling. It can be stressful. People get tired, overwhelmed, homesick. Kids melt down. Adults melt down. This is NORMAL.
And just like in every aspect of life, attitude is everything. Adult attitudes can trickle down to kids, so I always try to be aware of the tone I’m setting around the kids while traveling. One grumpy pants person can pull down the excitement of the whole group. Don’t be that person!
Staying relaxed and “rolling with it” are not exactly my own personal attributes. My husband has been a huge teacher for me in minding my attitude (towards everything), and I can see the difference it makes while traveling. It was shocking to me how well this group did for two solid weeks in a foreign country (including a toddler and a preteen and - ahem - one anxiety-ridden mom), and looking back i’m convinced it was because we generally had good attitudes. And good weather. In fact, the main time our attitudes started to crumble was over the weather. A real life correlation there.
8. ALSO MONEY
This is a super important thing to be addressed and not overlooked. I am very aware of the luxury of our trip, starting with the fact that we are even able to do something like this at all. So I do not take that for granted and I acknowledge that the budget aspect of any travel is a huge part of the trip. Not only the actual dollars, but the mental load that comes along with it, however that looks for your family.
We talked about budget aspects before traveling and not every family made the exact same decisions. Of course for any large expenditures (again, the World Cup is a good example here), it was cleared with everyone before the purchase.
It was handy that we were (mostly) dealing with four families of four. So when we bought tickets for things, or even while at dinner, the math was easy because it was an even split. This group was very comfortable using the app Venmo (or PayPal) to split checks and/or pay one another back right there in real time. Yes, this meant that we were often just passing money back and forth between us, but it worked out.
If you didn’t have such symmetrical family units or if there were extenuating circumstances (one family would have alcohol on their bill and the other wouldn’t, or something), I think it’s easier just to set a precedent of how you pay the bill each time, in a way that makes everyone comfortable.
There is on perfect system here, and I know that some people might be much more comfortable only paying for their own things, and that’s fine. But this question came up quite a bit and so I wanted to share how we handled it.
9. SPEAKING OF RESTAURANTS…
I feel like the most questions I got were about eating in restaurants with children.
Now listen, we ate at some incredible places in Europe, and I can take credit for none of them. Again, my friend Tracy was in charge of most of our meals and she knocked it out of the park. I think she did a combo of crowd-sourcing (asking on FB and other friends who travel for recommendations), then cross referencing with TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Open Table. She made some reservations in advance via email and a few on the Open Table app.
It is not easy to make reservations for large groups in another country. So all the applause goes to Tracy. I’ll outline in another post the restaurants that we would recommend to you, but to answer a few questions I kept getting:
There were very few kid menus at the restaurants we chose, so we often went with kid-friendly restaurants. For our crew, this meant Italian was usually a hit (pasta for everyone!), and once or twice we (politely) asked the chef to make something special like plain noodles.
I also did not choose for these long European meals to be life’s teachable moment. We want our children to be functioning members of society who can sit still and quiet at a nice restaurant, but we also had to be realistic and enjoy our own meal. So what i’m saying to you is that if the evening got too long (and with large groups at not-chain restaurants, the meals often went really long), we sometimes handed them a screen.
I make no apologies for this. Most of the time, the kids would all play a game (Heads Up was a favorite) or watch a video together anyway, so I call that bonding. Otherwise, yeah. You just do what you gotta do. It was vacation.
10. ABOUT ANXIETY
I also got a lot of questions about traveling with anxiety. There are just so many ways for anxiety to rear its ugly head when you’re traveling, from fear of flying to jet lag interrupting your body rhythms to crowds to simple stress and overwhelm.
Our family travels a lot, so none of these things are new to me. I think if you didn’t travel often, this would be a lot harder, because both the unknown factors of travel as well as so many things being out of your control, it can make for a rough mental health situation.
Travel itself does not give me anxiety. I actually love to travel (I think I thrive while traveling) and (usually) don’t mind flying. But I still have the same triggers that I have in my everyday life, and so I have to stay aware of a few things, always:
Sleep. Lack of sleep is my #1 trigger for a bad anxiety flare, and staying up late and doing too many things on a trip can very easily tip me into bad territory. So I have to stay mindful of it. This usually means that I’ll miss a fun night out in order to rest sometimes, or I have to sleep in and either have a slower morning or miss a morning activity. I can skimp on sleep a little bit (and am fueled by excitement of the trip itself), but I can’t really go more than a few days like that.
Crowds/stimulation. I can handle it, but I can’t handle too much of it. Again, just staying aware.
Alone time. This is by far the hardest one when traveling with our family. We do build in quiet time before dinner most days (and this is as much for my kids as well as for myself), but we all stay in one hotel room and that grates on an introvert after awhile. No much solution to that one, except to be cognizant of how long your overall trip is.
Alcohol. Too much alcohol always means I don’t sleep well which means i’m anxious the next day. Sometimes it’s worth it. Most of the time it’s not.
I could probably do a whole blog post or podcast episode about traveling with anxiety . (If you want to hear about my anxiety story in general, listen to Episode 18 of the 10 Things To Tell You podcast.) But this covers the absolute basics.
Hope this has been helpful in your planning a large trip with friends or a group. We had a great time, and I look forward to many more travel adventures in the future.