Image: Nussbaums in Europe
Nancy Nussbaum  /  AP
This June 8, 2010 photo shows, from left to right, Nicole, 13, Robert, 22, Emily, 19, and Madigan, 8, Nussbaum as they stop for a picture in the Grund quarter of Luxembourg City in Luxembourg. The Nussbaum family spent 16 days visiting Luxembourg, France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland and learned a lot along the way.
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updated 7/7/2010 11:18:01 AM ET 2010-07-07T15:18:01

It was a family vacation that required more preparation and planning than any other trip my husband and I had ever taken: 16 days, five countries, and four kids, ages 22, 19, 13 and 8.

The six of us visited Luxembourg, France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. We mostly rode trains, including one overnight trip, and we stayed in hotels and apartments.

It was the first time any of us, minus our oldest, had visited Europe, so family and friends offered valuable advice, hoping we'd enjoy the same experiences they'd had and avoid making their mistakes. We learned our own lessons as well, since no one we knew had traveled with six, and only one family we knew had taken children along.

We aren't calling our vacation the "trip of a lifetime," because we certainly will go back again. But we did learn a few practical things about how to travel. Here are eight tips for a family vacation in Europe — four things we'd do again, and four we'd do differently, based on our experiences.

Four things we would do again

Pack light.
I early on had made a rule, which I secretly doubted we could follow. Everyone would bring only carry-on luggage, a quality backpack that did not have to be checked.

Having minimal luggage made switching trains less hassle and also made everyone responsible for their own stuff. Another benefit was that my husband and I always had a free hand to hold onto our 8-year-old when making those train switches. We also thought we might be less of a target for thieves because we didn't have to set our luggage down while checking the details of our next train ride.

Everyone brought just five or six shirts and several pairs of pants. You can always handwash or do a laundry if you need to. With six of us, there were more than enough people to carry 3-ounce bottles of shampoo and other toiletries through the airport security. If we needed anything more, the experience of shopping at foreign markets was part of the adventure.

When our flight arrived about 40 minutes early in Zurich, Switzerland, we had four minutes to catch a train to Luxembourg City that cut our travel time from five hours to three. We did it, but checked luggage would have prevented this.

Bring walking shoes, not sneakers.
We all were thankful for our "adventure shoes" with Vibram or Vibram-type soles when climbing rain-slicked hills and mountains to see sites such as King Ludwig II's Neuschwantstein castle near Fussen, Germany, and the Hohensalzburg Fortress in Salzburg, Austria. And of course we walked miles daily in addition. The adventure shoes provided the traction and support needed for exploring.

Despite their less-than-stylish appearance to my 13-year-old, they were much more comfortable and practical than tennis shoes. She wore them every day.

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Rent apartments.
Many hotels in Europe did not have family rooms or quads available, and we had trouble even finding hotels with three doubles to book.

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But apartments were the perfect alternative. In Paris, we rented an apartment for five nights, and in Munich, we rented another for six nights. The Paris apartment cost slightly less than hotels, and it was just a half-block from Notre Dame Cathedral, in the heart of the city. We had the convenience of a kitchen for breakfast and a few other meals, while also being able to regroup around the table each night.

Our apartment in Munich, which accommodated eight, was even larger than we needed and provided the same conveniences. It also was near the train station, where all of our tours departed, and was within walking distance of most major sights.

To connect with apartment owners and preview our lodgings, we used two of the many online vacation rental sites: Paris Attitude (www.parisattitude.com) and HomeAway (www.homeaway.com).

Arrive early for train travel.
We arrived 20-30 minutes before our departure times to make sure we could sit together. Trains with the most direct routes were especially likely to be crowded.

We took our seats early as well for the TGV or high-speed train from Metz, France, to Paris, even though we had reservations. We were thankful we had after another traveler showed us the same ticket for one of our seats; apparently the train had been double-booked.

Four things we'd do differently next time

Trust train-station storage for those backpacks.
In Luxembourg City, our first stop, my husband and I weren't completely comfortable locking up our packs in storage because the building was separate from the station.

After checking out of our hotel, we had four hours before our train left for France. The six of us walked around the city with our packs, preventing all of us from checking out a store together or sitting down at a cafe in the shopping area because we were so bulky.

But in Munich, when we arrived about five hours before we could drop off our packs at our apartment, we stored our luggage at the train station. It gave us more flexibility and our children thanked us.

Ask for children's portions at restaurants.
A number of restaurants offered children's portions or even a children's menu, even though the regular menu never indicated such. We learned to ask in part because waiters often were reluctant to take my 8-year-old's plate if any food was left, even when it was clear she and the rest of us were done eating.

Carry small bills and enough cash to cover a meal.
We used ATMs throughout Europe to get cash frequently in increments of 70 or 100 euros. We often received 50 euro bills, which some merchants would not accept unless our bill was close to that amount.

Also, some restaurants do not accept Visa or MasterCard. At a restaurant in Berchtesgaden, Germany, we were caught off-guard when we were told that credit cards were not accepted. We covered the bill for our meal by dipping into our 8-year-old's birthday-present euros in my bag. We later repaid her.

Stick to traditional-sized postcards for writing home. We had sent e-mails updating family on our travels, but my children wanted to send postcards to a few friends and their grandparents, mainly because the large cutout postcards of beer and pretzels at the Hofbrauhaus were so fun. The larger postcards cost 6 euro, or nearly $8, to mail in Munich, while regular postcards cost 1 euro. We spent 20 euros — $25 — mailing five postcards.

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Photos: Perfectly Paris

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  1. Mood lighting

    The Eiffel Tower and the Hotel des Invalides are illuminated at dusk with in Paris. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Heart of the Louvre

    The intricate ceiling of the Appolo Gallery at Paris' Louvre Museum is reflected in a display case in the foreground. Built in 1661, the gallery was not fully completed until 1851. In all, over twenty artists worked on the decoration. The Appolo Gallery gallery contains more than two centuries of French art, and houses such wonders as the French Crown Jewels, including the famous Régent (140 carats) and Sancy (53 carats) diamonds, as well as the 105-carat Côte de Bretagne ruby. (Joel Robine / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. To the heavens

    The Sacred Heart Catholic church (Basilique Sacré-Coeur) is seen on Paris' highest point, in Montmartre. The view at the top of the dome is excellent -- 271 feet above Montmartre Hill -- and is the second-highest viewpoint after the Eiffel Tower. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Looking glass

    This elaborate stained-glass cupola (dome) inside Magasins du Printemps department store is located above the main restaurant in the store. Installed in 1923, it is composed of 3,185 individual pieces of stained glass. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Keeping cool

    Tourists soak their feet in a reflecting pool at Place du Trocadero, an area of museums and gardens. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Sights from the Seine

    A "Bateau Mouche" tourist boat travels near the Paris Justice court. These boat tours are a popular, but relaxing way to view the sights of Paris along the Seine River. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Museum of masterpieces

    Originally a royal fortress for kings, and open to all since 1793, the Louvre is one the world's greatest art museums, housing 35,000 works of ancient and Western art, displayed in over 60,000 square meters of exhibition space. More than 6 million visitors see the Louvre per year. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Shopper's haven

    Local art, food and other goods are sold in passage Jouffroy, across Boulevard Montmartre. Originally designed to protect pedestrians from mud and horse-drawn vehicles, the passages (shopping arcades), arre located between the Grands Boulevards and the Louvre. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Modern art

    A view of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Its 1977 factory style architecture contrasts with the surrounding buildings of Paris' oldest district near Notre-Dame cathedral. It has a public library, and the French National Museum of Modern Art. (Loic Venance / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Holy architecture

    One of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture is the Notre Dame Cathedral, attracting 13 million visitors each year. The name Notre Dame means "Our Lady" in French. (Stéphane Querbes / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Practical protectors

    The famous stone statues of Notre Dame. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tranquil gardens

    The Jardin des Tuileries is Paris's most central garden. Its fountains, sculptures, cafes, formal gardens, and central location, make it a popular destination for visitors and locals. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Offi) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tuileries Palace

    Tuileries Palace encloses the western end of the Louvre and the formal gardens that make up Jardin des Tuileries park, stretching from the Louvre to the Place de Concorde, and bordered by the Seine. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Moulin Rouge

    The cabaret Moulin Rouge was built in 1889, in Paris' red-light district of Pigalle on Boulevard de Clichy. The Moulin Rouge is best known as the birthplace of the can-can dance. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Flowing with history

    The Fontaine des Mers at one of the main public square, Place de la Concorde. At 20 acres, it is the largest square in Paris. (Henri Garat / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Honoring warriors

    The Arc de Triomphe stands in the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle, at the western end of the Champs-Elysees. The arch honors soldiers who fought for France. The names of generals and wars fought can be found on the inside and top of the arc. Underneath, is the tomb of the unknown soldier from World War I . (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Coffee break

    People walk past a boulangerie (bakery) in the Montmartre district in Paris. (Michel Euler / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Paris blues

    A piece of renowned French Roquefort blue cheese is displayed in a shop in Paris. (Philippe Wojazer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Pricey real estate

    The Place Vendome is an octagonal square located to the north of the Tuileries Gardens and east of the Eglise de la Madeleine. The bronze spiral column at the center of the square was constructed in 1810 by Napoleon to celebrate the French army’s victory at Austerlitz. Within the square are apartments, and posh hotels and high-end retailers, including Cartier, Chanel, and Bulgari. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. French connection

    The high-speed rail network in France goes to several Parisian train stations, including Gare Du Nord shown here. The name was derived by the idea that travelers would be able to travel to Belgium, Netherlands, Northern Germany and the Scandinavian countries. It is the busiest railway station in Europe, and the third -busiest in the world. (Cate Gillon / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The grandest address in Paris

    The Pere Lachaise cemetary (Father Lachaise Cemetery) on the eastern edge of the city, is named after the Jesuit Father Lachaise, King Louis XIV's confessor. Many famous people are buried here, including Musset, Chopin, Moliere, Oscar Wilde, Delacroix, Balzac, Jim Morrison. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Impressive collection

    The Musée d'Orsay is one of Paris' most popular museums, housed in the former railway station, the Gare d'Orsay. The museum houses an extensive collection of sculptures and impressionist masterpieces by Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Cezanne. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Grand design

    The Grand Palais (Big Palace) was built for the World Fair of 1900. The building is best known for its enormous glass-domed roof, making it one of Paris’ most recognizable landmarks. The Grand Palais was the work of three different architects, and is currently the largest existing ironwork and glass structure in the world. (Marc Bertrand / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Prestigious avenue

    The Louis Vuitton department store is located on the stunning Champs-Elysees, one of the world's most famous and beautiful streets. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Le Pantheon

    Le Pantheon was originally intended to be a church dedicated to Saint Genevieve to fulfil a vow made by Louis XV while he'd fallen ill. It was used for religious and civil purposes until 1885 and now functions as a famous burial place. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
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