Last year we had the opportunity to take my 7-year-old son to Italy. I was excited to show my son a piece of the world outside of the US, but nervous. He can be a ball-of-energy and hard to reign in. Travel with him is sometimes difficult because he wanders and is impatient with waiting, delays or the unknown. He is a picky eater and a complainer when he is tired (jet lag!!) I was uncertain about so many things. My husband and I don’t speak Italian and had never been to Italy so we weren’t sure what to expect ourselves, let alone with our son.
However, the trip went SO much better than anticipated and my son LOVED it. Our memories of this one-on-one trip with him are amazing. I recommend taking a child with you whenever possible! We still had plenty of couple time and relaxation without our littles around. And my son passed on his love of Italy to his sisters and they are begging to go.
Here is how we prepared and what worked wonders with him.
Sleeping and Jet Lag
To help alleviate jet lag, and make sure your body will sleep when it is suppose to take Melatonin (Doctor approved for us!) Get up really early (5 am) the day you flying out, even it you don’t leave until the evening. On the plane take melatonin 30 mins before you want to sleep and try to lay down. My son laid on the floor where there was white noise and darkness. Within an hour, he was asleep for the duration of the flight. When we touched down in Europe about 3 am our time, we woke him up and started going on our day. Stay up on the first day until it is night time where you are. Take melatonin every night (30 mins before you want to sleep) to help get to sleep quickly in unknown places and time zones.
They make Melatonin in gummys that taste delicious! My kids loved them, but BEWARE! My kids became monsters 30 mins after they took it because they got SO tired.
We found our old point-and-shoot digital camera and gave it to him before the trip. I wasn’t too worried about him losing it or breaking it since we hadn’t used it in several years. The camera was essential in keeping my son engaged and looking. I didn’t care how many pictures he took and what they were of. It was very entertaining that he got pictures of several door knobs, garbage cans, flowers and every pet and seagull we saw. While we were looking up at the Roman Forum, he was taking a picture of the trap door we were standing on. His perspective was blocked by tall adults so he noticed different things than we did and this
actually enhanced our site-seeing experience. Every night as we talked about our day we would have Jackson show us his pictures and talk about his favorites. His pictures were HIS and what he saw and focused on. This helped us to relate to him better and for him to communicate to us what he liked better.
Side note: We thought we would get better pictures of us as a couple since Jackson had a camera, but we mostly just got shots of us and sky in the background. Or with Dads head cut off. so have a stranger take your picture if you want a good one!
Renting a car vs. public transportation
We debated this for quite a while because we were only doing a one way trip (expensive for a rental) and the train system in Italy is really good. But I am so glad we opted for our own car. Having a car gave Jackson the down time he needed and gave us the freedom to come and go at our leisure. We probably paid more for the car/parking/tolls (and parking tickets!) and gas than a train pass would’ve been, but we also go to see and experience more of what we wanted when we wanted it. I noticed that when we got in the car it was like a traveling home for us. Jackson could be louder and get down time playing with his toys, books, souvenirs, etc. It gave us time to re-group and plan our next step. It was a perfect way to break up the site-seeing and being in public with some relaxation time without us feeling like we were wasting precious time in a foreign country. My husband and I could continue to site-see from the car and my son could take a break.
We budgeted $50-$100 for gelato. Typically, we try to save money on food and especially unhealthy foods, but in this case it was worth it! We knew our son would look forward to ice cream! We made a goal with him to try as many flavors as we could (and we wrote them all down in his travel book with a rating next to it). This helped us to motivate him to hike faster, walk further, count a certain number of statues seen or steps climbed, etc. It kept him engaged and he didn’t even notice feeling weary when he was licking a gelato. Whatever your vacation provides that your child will enjoy, plan on splurging a little to make a better experience for them.
Our friends who lived outside the main city of Rome, showed us that we were paying triple the price for gelatos than what they pay at their corner market. But convenience is worth the cost, unless
we could bribe Jackson to wait until we got home.
I found a travel book for our trip just for kids. It had bits of historical information, things to find at each site, some Italian phrases, and some games. Jackson loved looking at his travel book in the car before and after sites. He especially loved trying out the Italian.
At the end of every day we would glue in our ticket stubs (yep I brought a glue stick for him), rate things we ate, and write a bit about our day. We bought a journal to help guide our thinking about the events and give my son space to write, but I bet you could make a little journal yourself. I liked helping my son go over each day and all the things we did and saw. In one day of sight-seeing there is more to remember than a month of the mundane!
The people we were staying with in Rome lent us a scooter for our days there. This was such a blessing for us. It folded up and had a strap so we could carry it if needed. There were a couple times we couldn’t take it in places and so we found a locker for it or had to stash it in a bush and hope it was there when we returned (it was both times!) Jackson absolutely loved it. He lasted for 10 hours through the city of Rome. I think we walked 8 miles or more and he just kept on scooting! He was so entertained and we were able to see all the things we wanted without hearing a minute of complaint. We actually wore out before he did!
My son doesn’t love movies and after several on the plane, I didn’t want him to overdose on screen time. I filled an old ipod with audio books, kid-friendly comedians (Jim Gaffigan, Brian Reagan, Bill Cosby) and music he would enjoy. Sometimes he listened with headphones on his own and sometimes we plugged it in to the car speaker and all got a laugh. We had to set some rules for when he could listen because he kept wanting to listen as we saw sites (which meant he wasn’t looking and would wander off). Once the newness of having his own ipod wore off it worked wonderfully!
Hotel fun Our first hotel had a pool on the roof top! Unfortunately, we didn’t figure this out until after we checked out (but we went back to swim and enjoy the view of the alps for a bit). Make sure you check your hotel amenities first! We had to wait a couple of hours for dad to work and wish we could’ve gone swimming to pass the time.
Our next hotel was built on the cliffs of the Mediterranean Sea which was amazing for us, but it also had a pingpong table, game room, outdoor playset, etc. We didn’t schedule enough time to play on it so we had to take a stop after we were done with our site-seeing so Jackson could get enough play time. Finding hotels that offered something for him was not on purpose, but it added fun and excitement for his trip.
Our next hotel had a queen bed and a single bed. I don’t think American hotels offer this, but a triple room was so perfect for us!
Finally, we stayed with a friend that had a yard for soccer and a boy his age with a few toys to play with.
When we encountered our first souvenir stand, I realized that Jackson wanted to buy EVERYTHING! My husband and I collect magnets so we usually don’t waste a ton of money on souvenirs. We quickly set a standard for him. He could get one postcard from each place we went. He could buy something for under $10 for each sister and find something for himself he could buy at the end of our trip. We helped him figure out the currency rate so he knew how much things cost(Mathematical application anyone?). He also helped us pick which magnets. This gave him something to look at without constantly begging for more things. We also bought shirts for all the kids.
Humanitarian We gave Jackson a handful of coins to pass out to the homeless in the city. This really helped Jackson to look around and see people and their situations. He had the opportunity to interact as he gave a few coins to each person.
Make it a game We counted steps,skipped stones, threw pennies in fountains, named statues, found differences in churches and tried to turn everything into a game for Jackson. My husband is great at coming up with ways to engage him in what we want to do.
My son was exhausted after the Vatican museum. In this photo we are waiting in line to hike up to the top of Peter’s Basilica. I never thought he would make it, but dad made up a game and Jackson made it up to the top by counting each step to see if it was more than the last building we climbed (971 steps.)
Photo Journal after the trip When we got home I compiled all of his photos (and mixed in some of ours) into a book. You can make them on Shutterfly, Arts Cow, Snapfish. He loved showing his book to anyone who would look and this made the trip last longer than a week.
Food Jackson is pretty picky eater, but I felt like Italy was a great introduction since we could find pasta and pizza anywhere. Your vacation may be a bit more challenging. I kept snacks (especially with protein) on hand. Travel packets of peanut butter, granola bars, apples, raisins, beef jerky, trail mix, or crackers are perfect to fill a belly when a meal isn’t coming soon.
One of our first stops was a grocery store, which was fun to see the differences from America. We let Jackson pick some snacks he’d like and picked up a flat of water so we’d never be thirsty the rest of the trip.
We had an amazing trip thanks to these tips and ideas. What else do you do for your little ones on sight-seeing trips?