Last week I received a request for tips for traveling in France with very young children, and how to avoid stressful moments with them when possible. As I look back on our three months in France (and especially our two weeks in Paris), here's what I learned that made our family vacation and travel times easier:
Will you bring a stroller or not? Should you take the metro or the bus? There's not a single correct answer to such questions, but how you get around will affect your family's energy and outlook, so choose wisely. We simply used an Ergo baby carrier for our infant, but my husband wound up carrying our three-year-old often enough and far enough that I bought a secondhand stroller on LeBonCoin (the French equivalent of Craigslist) a week or so after we arrived in Paris. However, the metro is not stroller-friendly (with all of its stairs and rush-hour crowds), and each line transfer requires additional stairs, so you may wind up exhausted and frustrated if you consistently try to use both a stroller and the metro. My friends who live in Paris use an inline double stroller for their 3- and 5-year olds but get off at a major station like Les Halles and walk to their distant destination rather than trying to transfer to another line. Buses are a much easier choice with a stroller but they're not nearly as speedy.
If you travel without a stroller, it's helpful to know that some museums like the Louvre provide free stroller rental. I felt so knowledgeable when parents in the Louvre would ask me where we got the museum-issued stroller, but I didn't feel so smart lugging its metal frame up the long flights of stairs where no elevator was available! Plus my older children argued over who got to use it, so we might have managed better without a stroller there. If I could do our trip over, I might bring a toddler-sized Tula carrier so my husband could carry our three-year-old more easily.
I seem to remember reading in a Rick Steves' guide that children hate waiting in lines even more than adults. I think this is especially true for young children, so choose your top museum(s) and monuments to visit, and buy your tickets online--ideally, several months before you go. You can buy Eiffel Tower tickets here, for example, and skip the hour-long line. Some places such as Cité des Enfants (the children's museum at Parc de la Villette) even require advance reservations, so always check for ticket information online before you show up.
If you do show up without tickets, find an employee and ask them politely in French where to buy a ticket--if you have young children with you, chances are high that they will usher you straight to the front of the line to get in--but you'll still have to wait in line for a ticket inside.
For metro tickets and admission tickets, it's extremely helpful to have a credit card with a microchip (a chip-and-pin card or a chip-and-signature card). American banks are just switching over to these cards, so if you don't have one yet, apply for one months before you go. We didn't have one for our trip, and it was downright difficult to buy metro tickets when we needed them because I didn't always have the correct cash for the machine, and the offices were frequently unattended. These little hitches can turn into tiring moments for families.
Definitely don't plan to visit more than two major sites per day, and include outdoor time whenever possible. Picnic lunches in the park are refreshing for everyone, and Paris' parks are fantastic! I highly recommend the Paris City Walks with Kids cards--each card features an area or destination (like Montmartre) and gives walking directions to nearby sights and activities for kids. (I simply packed my favorite twenty destination cards rather than the whole deck.) Kim Horton Levesque's Little Bookroom Guide to Paris with Children is also helpful for pinpointing family-friendly spots. (You might enjoy my interview with her here.)
Whether or not your child has had a nap, the late afternoon slump is inevitable, so don't forget to take le goûter--a 4pm pause and a treat definitely brightens attitudes before dinner! And speaking of dinner, your stress level will stay much lower if you avoid dinners out. Renting an apartment with a kitchen is such a wise choice for families who want to avoid the stress of dining in restaurants with very young children. (You'll find my short list of family-friendly Airbnb apartments in Paris here.)
For children old enough to ask for the things that catch their eye, consider giving a small daily trip allowance specifically for food, toys, or souvenirs. It's emotionally challenging for children (and adults!) to walk past so many boulangeries, patisseries, ice cream stands, and glittering storefronts each day; even as a generous parent, there will be many times when you will have to say no to your child's requests. Providing an allowance can cut down on tantrums by giving your child some purchasing power within reasonable limits, and it helps him or her evaluate the importance and the cost of what they want. (On this topic, The Opposite of Spoiled is the next book on my reading pile!)
What tips make your family travels easier?
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