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