The good, the bad and the ugly of travelling Europe with a baby

So we’ve taken a little break from blogging while recovering from our trip but I’ve had complaints from the loyal audience that there has been a lack of blogs. Never fear, a few more are coming your way.  As promised a wrap-up of our Europe trip is today’s effort……. to be followed with the what we have bought post, and of course our Christmas wrap-up.

People seemed to think we were brave/stupid for doing a long trip with a little one but on the whole it was a very positive experience.  It was great watching Astrid experiencing new things, eating new foods and seeing (and feeling her first snow).  While it was very different travelling as a family as opposed to as a couple it was on the whole a good experience. There were times we would gladly have posted her home or we heartily wished the grandparents would fly over to give us a night ‘off’ but all in all we had a ball.

We had to make a few concessions travelling with a small child. We tried to give her adequate rest periods when possible. Either by trying to be in our apartment or a hotel room for her lunch time sleep and trying to get her to bed at a ‘reasonable’ hour. At home she would normally have a 12pm sleep for a couple of hours and a 6.30pm bedtime. On the road this just wasn’t possible. Many days she napped in the stroller or carrier, often for short intervals. Other days she had to nap on a train or a bus. Bedtimes were a bit random too.  If we were travelling it often wasn’t possible to get dinner until 7pm or later and her bed time would just have to wait. We also travelled a bit at night and she would have to go off to sleep on a train, only to be woken a few hours later to be carted back to our Paris apartment in the cold and dark.

When we had been travelling for a few days in a row we would try and have some quiet days back in Paris to let her catch up on some sleep.  This meant we had to organise our sightseeing so that we didn’t have her out all day in the cold, when she was tired.  Generally though, Miss A was a trooper. She happily ventured out in rain, hail, snow (and minimal sunshine) to see the sights of Europe. She would fall asleep when she was tired and had been seen sleeping while soaking wet and being snowed on!  She got used to being in a different bed every night and would often excitedly find her cot when we got to a new hotel room.  She got used to not always having food when she needed it. We always tried to keep a stash of biscuits on us for snacks (and way too many biscuits were consumed during the trip). She would happily eat a croissant or 3 too!. When we weren’t in the apartment dinners were often late and she was very patient with waiting for food, often after her bed time. We won’t talk about how little fruit and vegies she ate while we were away. Potatoes (fried or otherwise are vegetables right?).

The downsides of travelling with a baby……….. firstly the stuff. You need lots of stuff! We always had to make sure we had several outfits when out for long periods as it wasn’t fair to keep a small child in wet (or filthy) clothes. Given how often we got rained on she often got wet.  Plus, there are the sleeping bags, comforters, bottles, nappies, bibs, wipes and other bits and pieces that come along with a small child. Even when we packed light we had to take quite a few things with us just for Astrid.  We also had to carry the Astrid, which involved strollers, carriers and lugging a lot of weight. Thanks goodness for carriers which were often more convenient than strollers! One of the best things we did was use compression sacks. Great for compressing sleeping bags, blankies, nappies and other bulky items. As a bonus you can put your dirty and wet clothes in them when you are done and they keep space for all your shopping!

Second downside….. the lack of down time. If we were just travelling on our own, flights and train trips could be used to relax or catch up on sleep. When you have a small child this just doesn’t happen and we were constantly entertaining her or trying to settle her to sleep. Even if we got her to sleep on a train or plane we were usually having to resettle or I was holding her while sleeping.  You also knew that no matter how late you went to bed, the small child-sized alarm clock would have you up pre-dawn the next day.

Third downside…….. not always getting the time to do what you want to do. Museums with a toddler – forget it! We managed a few museums here and there but in reality asking a small child to sit still for any length of time is impossible so we would try and see what we really wanted in the shortest space of time and take it in turns to look at stuff while the other baby-wrangled.  We also couldn’t do many things at night. While Astrid was pretty well behaved, keeping her up late at night to go sightseeing or to a show wasn’t a sensible idea. We generally stayed in at night and if we wanted to do something we took it in turns to go out while the other stayed with the bub.

Fourth downside……… nappy changes! European cities are not big on baby friendly facilities. We came across bugger all baby facilities in our travels. Particularly in Paris, where any toilets are a rare commodity and you tend to have to pay to use them, and they are often questionably clean.  They also rarely contain change facilities. Even a shopping centre (of multiple levels and buildings) might have 1 change room. Most places had none. Good old McDonald’s and Starbucks had a change facility about 50% of the time so we often ducked in for a quick nappy change. However, 90% of nappy changes were done alfresco. We changed nappies on park benches, up the Eiffel tower (under a staircase), in side alleys, in the stroller and in the rain, snow and cold! Astrid also experienced many high speed and high altitude nappy changes on trains, planes, up monuments and towers and at the highest railway station in the world (over looking a glacier).  We have no idea what parents with toilet training toddlers do about the lack of facilities…….

The upsides….. plenty! It was fantastic watching Astrid experience new things. She also really came out of her shell with all the travel. People also love little kids and we often had people fawning all over her. She was great for getting us pushed through lines, security screens and even immigration. Have a baby, no need to queue and no security screening required!  We had so many comments on how cute she is (and we agree) and it was lovely to see so many people excited to meet her.  We also did and saw things we wouldn’t have done if we didn’t have a little one.  We had fun at great parks (Paris parks, complete with puppet shows are amazing), went to the Zurich zoo in the snow, stopped at countless fantastic cafes for a croissant refueling.  We visited amazing toy stores and cute baby boutiques (yes Anto groaned every time I entered one!). We walked around for countless hours while she slept in the carrier or stroller, so she didn’t wake…… often seeing things we wouldn’t have otherwise seen. It was so much fun seeing things for the first time through her eyes as well as ours.  Even simple things like chasing pigeons in a Parisian park were extra special!

How to travel on planes, trains and buses with a little one:
We were really worried about all the travel we had to do and how Astrid would go on long trips. Particularly 30+ hour flights!  We shouldn’t have worried too much as she was really good most of the time. When overtired she had her moments of being cranky but 99% of the time she was good. I honestly think that the parents worry about the kids behaviour more than other passengers.  We went with the ‘whatever keeps her happy philosophy’ and let her watch tv on the tablet (Playschool was the winner) and let her eat constant snacks. So yes many biscuits were eaten, but in the end it doesn’t matter. She would generally settle into watching some tv and eating some food. We would also play with toys we had with us and look out the windows at things we could see.  When possible walks up and down the aisles helped.  Even a walk to a nappy change was a good change of scenery.

We also tried to stick to her routine as much as possible. If it got to bed/sleep time we would pop her in her sleeping bag and give her her comforter and try and get her off to sleep.  This usually worked although we had a couple of times that a lot of screaming ensued, at which point we gave up and let her play so as not to annoy other passengers.  We always took snacks with us and heaps of nappies, and changes of clothes for the inevitable spills. We took a few small toys on long trips but she was generally happy to play with a  piece of paper, a magazine or the headphones.

Long flights were actually easier than short flights. The longer flights were bigger planes with more opportunity to walk around. We would also be seated in a bulkhead so she could play at our feet when the seatbelt sign was off.  On long flights we could settle her to sleep for big chunks of the flight. Short flights she was confined to our laps with nowhere to go. Short flights were often over 3 hours and this could be tough! Food is a great distractor 🙂 and she would inevitably only fall asleep as we were about to land. Trains were pretty good. Lots of space to move around and things to look at out the window. Buses were difficult as there was usually nowhere to go, little space and the trips weren’t long enough to get her to have much sleep.

Our other tip is to use a small baby carrier like the ergo. Walks around train stations and airports are often very long and involve stairs, luggage and dangerous situations (well train stations at least). If we kept her confined in the ergo we could move around easily and she was contained. It is easy to get on and off even when squished between seats in a plane or train and folds down to nothing. You do have to take them off for security screening, which is a pain when you have a sleeping baby, but we could also use the ergo to keep her still when on trains. Sometimes strapping her to one of us when she was tired made her stay still long enough to fall asleep!

Lastly, our mantra, was that ‘we don’t know anyone and we will never see these people again’. We figured if she was truly feral then they would just whinge about it to every person they met for the next 10 years, but we would never know.  Luckily I don’t think she disgraced herself, and we mostly got comments on how good and cute she was!

…..and just for the record once we were home Astrid has settled into a good routine again. Has given up most of her bad habits easily and is actually eating fruit and vegies again! We kind of figured this would happen but it’s always worrying when you think you might have undone good parenting work by relaxing the rules while travelling.  Turns out she can tell the difference between home and travel rules. Doesn’t stop her from asking for a biscuit every time she gets in a car or the stroller though 🙂

Our best and worst – Nic
Best: Hotel – for luxury, Sofitel Heathrow Airport, London, for style and charm, Huyze Weyne B&B in Bruges. Honorable mentions though to the Boutique Hotel View in Amsterdam and Hotel St Josef in Zurich
Worst: Hotel – I think the Shaftesbury in London as the staff were just so surly and unhelpful. The Merkur hotel in Interlaken, Switzerland is the runner up though as it was old, tired and very noisy but the staff were lovely and the breakfast nice so it wasn’t that bad overall.
Best: Train trip – the day we did the Swiss alps to Jungfraujoch. Amazing scenery! I did love the trip back from Zurich to Paris in the snow though, travelling at 300km/h hurtling through snow at sunset and drinking wine.
Worst: Train trip – the trip from Stockholm to Karlstad in Sweden. Long, crowded, noisy and a very tired and cranky baby.  The trip from Brussels to Bruges was similar but not as long. All other train trips were great so it’s hard to pick a bad one.
Best: Thing about travelling with a baby – watching her experience new places, new things and new foods, priceless!
Worst: Thing about travelling with a baby – no down time and no breaks, ever!
3 highlights of the trip: Hard to narrow it down to 3…….  One of the first mornings in Paris when Astrid woke early and we were out pre-dawn walking by the Seine, around the Louvre and down to the Eiffel Tower as the sun rose, stopping for some morning croissant and coffee. Walking around Bruges in the freezing cold, with all the Christmas lights on, it almost snowing, horses and carriages clip-clopping around the streets and stopping to drink Belgium hot-chocolate. Watching Astrid play in the snow for the first time ever and having a ball at the highest point in Europe at Jungfrau Joch, Switzerland…….. and a fourth because I couldn’t resist – walking around Mont St Michel in Normandy in the dark with noone around when it was quiet and all lit up. Totally magical!
Worst moment of the trip: When Astrid was really sick in Paris and we had to get her to a doctor who could speak English. Runner up would have been realising we had lost the passports, we were cold and tired and had to go back to Bruges to get them.
Best parenting moment: so many it’s hard to pick but just seeing how much fun Astrid was having and how excited she was at all the new adventures. How well she travelled made me very proud.
Worst parenting moment: Probably the flight from Stockholm to Paris which was late, crowded and we had an overtired child who would not settle and screamed, kicked, bit and generally was miserable for 2 hours until falling asleep on us half an hour before landing.Two exhausted adults and an over-it toddler was not a good combo!
Place I want to go back to: So many, but Zurich, Switzerland is on the list as somewhere we have to see again.  I would love to visit Amsterdam, Brussels, Bruges, and Paris again too though……. oh and the Loire valley in France.
Place I am not keen on ever visiting again: probably Geneva. I was so looking forwards to it and it underwhelmed me. I also am not in a rush to go back to Luxembourg. It was interesting but I don’t think it’s worth a second visit.
Best meal (s): I had so many good ones but the 5 course dinner that was 19 Euro in Bruges Belgium is hard to beat! The meal at Shalstromsgarden, Sweden with Bjorn and Linnea was also extremely memorable, as was the cheese and mushroom fondue we had in Luzern, Switzerland.
Worst meal: probably the greasy spring rolls from a takeaway in London
Best chocolate: definitely anything in Belgium although some of the truffles from our street in Paris were damn good.
Best waffles: our first lunch in Gent, Belgium – with chocolate sauce and rich vanilla icecream.
Best Crepe: Anto’s home made crepes in our Parisian apartment were awesome but for atmosphere the crepes we got from a takeaway vendor and ate by the Seine on a cold morning while listening to an accordian player and drinking hot coffee can’t be beaten.
Best patisserie: anything from our street in Paris but I adored the Ideale Pistache and Gateaux Opera.
Would I do it again: In a heartbeat. We are already thinking about our next big European adventure!

Our best and worst – Anto
Best Hotel: – luxury Sofitel Heathrow Airport, London. For Style and charm the Boutique Hotel View in Amsterdam, for a great room, wonderful surroundings (including a big dog for Astrid to meet) and the best host you could ever come across Huyze Weyne B&B in Bruges
Worst Hotel:  The Shaftesbury in London was pretty bad as far as the (female) staff go, which was annoying because aside from being pokey it could have been a fairly pleasant place to stay. Followed closely by The Merkur hotel in Interlaken, Switzerland – not that there was much wrong – just noisy un-homely & with an annoying pushed together single beds arrangement with a huge wooden bed frame constantly annoying you out of sleep. However the staff were really nice & the breaky was good. It must be a testament to whoever did the hotel research just how good most of our accommodation was 🙂
Best Train trip: for tourist value Jungfrau Joch in Switzerland – constantly climbing up the mountains with no end of scenery was amazing. For constantly breaking my brain the 80 minute high speed to Brussels – how you can be in an entirely different country – with different culture, languages etc in 1 hour 20 minutes from our apartment still makes my head spin. For cinematic effect the Zurich to Paris – standing on the platform watching the (heavy) snow fluttering down followed by flying through the countryside looking at the snow covered scenery was just magical (and once you are on the train it was warm 🙂
Worst Train trip: The only one that was not really good was the first trip in Sweden – a older noisier crowded train with a fairly grumpy bub – the only saving factor was Bjorn (now known as ‘Bjorn Man’) who met us on the train & for some reason became Astrid’s favourite person within about 30 seconds.
Best thing about travelling with a baby: Skipping lines! Plus you have a ready excuse to play with all kinds of things you otherwise would have to avoid.
Worst thing about travelling with a baby: 24 hour a day restrictions – everything was organised around Astrid with quite a few things just not done because it was just going to be too painful / difficult to organise.
3 highlights of the trip: The Alps of Switzerland – while I could take or leave the high altitude the trip up was spectacular. Visiting the Zurich zoo in the snow – so very different from the kind of experience that we would get in Australia. Walking around in the dark in the North(ish) of Sweden looking up at the stars (it was probably 4.30pm 🙂
Worst moment of the trip: Hauling the (excess) luggage from Paris to London on my own – mostly the Paris end – once on the train it was fine.
Best parenting moment:  People telling us they didn’t even realise that Astrid was on a flight, train etc – How well she behaved (in public) most of the time was amazing.
Worst parenting moment: The bribery – at times it was just so much easier to bribe with food etc than ‘do the right thing’ trying to keep her quiet and happy in difficult situations was a challenge.
Place I want to go back to: Most of them :p Another visit to Amsterdam, Zurich and the Loire Valley, France would have to be on the cards – Absolutely Paris.
Place I am not keen on ever visiting again: For me Brussels – although the Chocolate could lure me back and London, for it’s expense without class – although once again there is enough stuff to do that I’m sure I will be lured again.
Best meal (s): Mussles in Brussels round one (chez Leon) where Astrid and I ate like kings. The ‘set menu’ in Bruges was something so very different and so good that it would have to be on the list – although the ‘meaty’ version at 23 Euro was so much worse value than Nic’s 19 Euro vegie version 🙂 For best ‘unusual’ meal the ‘picnic’ we had on our London hotel room floor with things from Mark & Spencers express at Heathrow – which demonstrated that when the British put their minds to it they can create good quality tasty food at a very reasonable price.
Worst meal: Indian in Interlarken – and not just because it rhymes. Coming from Australia where our immigrants seem to have carried with them excellent cuisine I was a tad let down by the Swiss version. That and they appear to not have access to (cheap) vegetables most of the year meaning the dishes were missing the stuff that would normally fill them out.    That being said it was still edible and took little effort to obtain – as a generalisation the food everywhere was fairly high quality & picking somewhere to be ‘worst’ was a fair exercise.
Best Chocolate: Neuhaus in Belgium, although the hot chocolate in the snow in Bruges is pretty much up there.
Best Waffles: I had less experience with this than other members of the party :p however the last lunch in Gent at a little tucked away place would win it for me.
Best Crepe: Has to be the crape eaten on the bridge just up from Notre Dame, accompanied with a shot of espresso and an accordion playing in the background – I don’t know if it tasted the best (it probably did) but it was the full Paris experience.
Best Beer: The ‘local’ at Mont St. Michel – which was only improved by sitting near a nice fire out of the weather.
Best Patisserie: Gateaux Opera from the Patisserie across the road from our apartment – although that one time there wasn’t quite enough gold dust on the Macaroon almost dropped it down the list – see the things that you can fault when surrounded by quality!
Would I do it again: In a heartbeat – I’m sure that if there wasn’t a mortgage to pay I would have spent the last 3 weeks of the trip convincing Nic that we could stay longer.

Most useful travel items, gadgets and apps:

  • the compression sacks. You just roll them to squeeze the air out and they save heaps of space and keep your dirty clothes away from other clothes
  • phone apps for public transport. We used one for the Paris metro that gave us all the connections and times and it made it super easy. There was a similar one for the London tube. Other countries had websites you could use to figure all your connections. It makes life very easy!
  • Tripit – an itinerary organising program (and web-site), while it ‘looks’ fairly dull we lost count of the number of times refer to our phones to verify travel details etc. Heaps easier than hunting though paper. It also updates from email confirmations and it was great for referring to flight, train and tour times while on the go. It also kept all the hotel details sorted. We gave ‘read’ access to family at home so they could see where we were at any given time should they need to contact us.
  • Tripadvisor – for ‘real world’ reviews it is a great resource – you can fairly easily sort through which hotels you should just avoid and which are hidden gems. There is a note of caution – you need to read the comments on reviews to make sure they match your expectations. Frequently people would down rate an otherwise good looking hotel / museum / thing for something we would not be bothered by – the same thing happens with people up-voting for trivial reasons. That all being said it’s a fabulous resource.
  • GPS and google maps on our phones. You can get walking directions from any point to another and even create walking routes. It makes it hard to get lost! The downfall was when walking city streets with lots of high buildings as it often couldn’t get an accurate signal. It was so good to rarely have to use paper maps.
  • an ergo for quick trips and the big carrier for long days of walking. We did use our stroller for a lot of walks around Paris but we wouldn’t have taken it if we had of been on the move more, but it was convenient for the type of trip we did.
Things lost and gained along the way:

  • A glove of Nic’s at Zurich zoo
  • Astrid’s shoe on a tram in Amsterdam
  • A bottle of Astrid’s left at Bjorn’s house in Sweden
  • The passports at the B&B in Bruges, Belgium (although we did get these back)
  • Nic’s hat on a train in between Ghent and Brussels, Belgium
  • about 2kg each for Nic and Anto (yes we ate ALL that food and still lost weight). For the record Astrid gained about a kilo!
  • 72 kg of luggage. We left with 58kg (3 checked bags, 3 onboard bags and a stroller) and came back with 130kg (6 checked bags, 3 onboard bags and a stroller).
…….and our thoughts on Paris:
we went to heaps of wonderful places but we spent the most time in Paris. Anto was keen to go to Paris. I wasn’t resistant to the idea but I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to spend so much time there compared to moving around.  I wondered whether Paris was over-rated. Well, we loved it! Paris is, well Paris! It is spectacular to walk around and soak up the Parisian culture. Living in an apartment in a bustling residential area made it so much easier to immerse ourselves in the Parisian lifestyle, it was amazing that in just under two months we started to look at some of the things back in Australia as strange and unsusual. Oh and the food. the pastries, breads and wine was to die for!

Trip stats:
Days: 60
Countries visited: 8
Cities visited: 16
Flights: 10
Days with long regional or international train trips: 16
Days with local trains, buses and trams: about 55!
Distance travelled: 40,603km (as recorded by tripit)
Distance walked: about 700km (we didn’t record all our walking but based on what we recorded this seems a fair estimate, we wore through some boot soles!).
Fun had: too much too count!

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