I recently helped a friend plan her first trip to Europe with her daughter, and it made me realize how overwhelming the process of flinging a family across the ocean for the first time can be. This post is my attempt to demystify the process so the curious will feel emboldened to guide their families to the wonder of Roman temples and Renaissance statues, not to mention pistachio gelato that sings of sun-drenched trees.
So, consider this your passport, and buon viaggio!
Here are the bullet points, details are below
- Tickets: Travel in the fall and spring if possible.
- Passports: Allow plenty of time to get your passports, and explore alternatives to the post office.
- Phones: Decide if you want to get an international plan for your phone or if you’d rather (and your phone has the capability) engage with an Italian cellular network.
- Money: Bring a bit of cash, a debit card, and a credit card and tell your financial institutions that you’ll be traveling
- Location: Stay in a vacation rental in a location with enough to do so that you can stay put for your entire vacation. Don’t relocate more than once every five days.
- Language: Have fun with speaking Italian. You are going to the land where gesture is king!
- Dining Out: Bring a menu decoder if you have fussy eaters, but remember if your child eats nothing but pasta and pizza, it’s not the end of the world.
- Daily Rhythm: Moving at child’s pace can be a blessing.
When you are traveling as a family, even a slight difference in ticket costs add up, so I know you’ll want to find the absolute cheapest fares available. Travelzoo, Scott’s Cheap Flights, Airfare Watchdog, Skyscanner, and Next Vacay are all great resources for fare sales (also try playing with dates and locations in Google Flights to get an idea of which days are cheapest). Remember, children under two fly free on your lap and flights are cheapest not in summer. Fall and spring in Italy are the best anyway; think great weather, few crowds, and signature regional dishes and festivals. I also love Italy in the winter, but I know traveling with small children is far easier when the odds of fair weather are higher. Rome is typically the cheapest city to fly into, but once in awhile, Florence and Milan are budget options. If your outbound city is too expensive, look at flying out of a hub like Newark and getting a cheap flight there. Stopovers in Turkey and Iceland often make for cheaper flights, but you’ll have to weigh that against the hassle of prolonging the journey. Sometimes it is about the destination, right?
Plan ahead to get your children’s passports. Don’t trust blogs to tell you how to do this, as they may be outdated. Instead, go straight to the source and make sure you follow the instructions to the letter. We used to get our kids’ passports at the post office, which was a reliable nightmare. Then I realized that if you hit the “where to apply” section on the above webpage, you’ll get a list of government offices that process passport applications. We found a nearby circuit court to be a surprisingly positive experience. No surliness at all! Or lines!
Time was, you could travel about without a phone, but now, your phone serves as camera, map, communication, restaurant review guide, etc. You may crave the act of disconnecting and plan to use paper maps and not research restaurants, and I completely advocate for every single bit of that, but it may be a good idea to at least consider how you’ll contact your landlord or make reservations without a phone. There are two possibilities for using your phone in Italy.
International plan: You get an international plan by contacting your current service provider to ask for relevant details (for instance, cost and can you sign up for an international plan on-line?). You’ll keep your home phone number, which means people from home will still be contacting you. Which can be annoying when you’re getting texts about playdates while you’re sleeping off that meal that began with a salumi platter and ended two hours later with panna cotta and grappa. Then again, if you’ve mastered the art of “do not disturb” this seems like a solvable problem.
International plans are usually more expensive than getting a SIM card, but sometimes that difference is negligible, so it’s worth checking. Data is limited on these plans, but we’ve never hit our limit. An advantage to the international plan is that you can manage the process entirely in English, where when you go the SIM card method, you not only may have to conduct the transaction in Italian, you’ll be getting frequent messages from your Italian service provider, and will have to manage those as well.
SIM Cards: Getting a SIM card means going to a phone store once you land in Italy (for instance TIM—often our preference because their range is reliable, Vodafone, or WIND) and purchasing the tiny card that pops into your phone and taps into the Italian network. The cost varies by plan and the time you get it, but it’s somewhere around €10,00 for the card and another €10,00-€20,00 for a plan with enough minutes to last you a few weeks. You’ll need to have your passport with you to get the card, and then you’ll then have an Italian phone number (so if multiple members of your family get SIM cards, make sure you note the phone numbers. I suggest not just having them stored in your phone, as you never know when the pretzeling required in Italian bathrooms will “force” a phone to leap into the toilet. Which I wish I could say had never happened in our family. Sigh). As of this writing, you’ll only be charged for outgoing calls, not incoming, but double check that if you are worried about it. Calls home will be quite expensive, so if you get a SIM card, use Facetime or Skype or iMessage for communications back home.
Now, not every phone can receive a SIM card. You must have a GSM phone, which means not with Verizon, ATT, or T-mobile. Or you can have a Sprint or Verizon phone that is specified as a world phone. World phones have a second slot for the SIM card.
Also, your phone must be unlocked, which means not locked onto your network, which would make your phone unable to connect with the Italian network. This is easier than it used to be. You can contact your service provider and see if your plan allows them to unlock your phone. If they won’t unlock it, you can buy an unlocked phone on ebay or a site like Swappa (cheaper, of course, if you don’t need a smart phone, though I do recommend one smart phone per family, for mapping, etc), or, if you are flush with cash, you can buy a full-price phone from Apple, rather than one from your local phone store.
It would be handy, wouldn’t it, if there were a phone store in the airport to get a SIM card? Unfortunately, that’s not the norm. We’ve been burned researching where a phone store is, seeing it’s at the airport and feeling thrilled that we could take care of this obstacle before even getting the rental car, only to find out the Vodafone store is in departures. Past security.
You can research where a phone store is around your destination, and then head to the website of that Italian phone service ahead of time and go through menus to see how much the SIM card and plan will be. Using Google Translate, write down everything you can about the plan, so that when you land, you have it all written down and can use this cheat sheet to communicate with the phone store employee.
Remember, not every member of your family will need access to the Italian network. We always attach one of our phones to an Italian service (via an international plan or a SIM card, depending on the price differential), and the other family phones are turned on airplane mode from the moment we get into the airplane to fly to Italy. This turns off roaming, so you aren’t hit with a huge bill when you get home, and allows everyone to tap into wifi when it’s available (the person with the Italian service can even make a wifi hotspot if necessary for the rest of the phones). If you are looking at this trip as an opportunity to have your kids take a break from Snapchat and Minecraft, you can certainly tell them they need to leave their devices at home because wifi doesn’t work the same in Europe. I won’t tell.
Some families want older kids to have a phone in case family members are separated. This isn’t one of our considerations; we just come up with plan if someone gets lost. When we went to Hanoi, Nicolas went out for an explore on his own, and we just trusted him to find his way back.
Note: Traditional Italian buildings are made of thick stone, which make it impossible to talk on a cell phone. You’ll notice people often leave their phones on windowsills. That’s why. So if you get a call and it’s breaking up, head to a window or terrazza.
It’s wise to arrive with some cash for tolls and the like. Not a lot, just like €20 (20 euros), just in case the ATM at the airport is down—a common situation in Italy, though a different bank or even a different machine or waiting a few minutes can resolve the problem. You can get euros from your bank or AAA, but be advised that the exchange rate is awful, which is why I wouldn’t buy too many euros. And traveler’s checks went out of vogue with wine coolers. Long lines, hassle, who needs it?
In general, you’ll want to carry cash, rather than relying on plastic. Farmers markets, bakeries, gelato, bars are primarily still on cash economies, especially in smaller towns. Some people carry cash in moneybelts. We find Italy to be safer than the United States, and we never carry our cash in moneybelts at home. But if the thought of being pickpocketed makes you anxious, certainly a moneybelt is a sensible option.
So how do you get your cash once you are in the Boot? Unless you are in a huge bind, don’t use money exchange offices. Just like euro sellers back home, they get their money by using an exchange rate that is not in your best interest.
We use ATM’s (called bancomats in Italy) to get cash. You’ll find the machines everywhere, and you can complete the transaction in English. You can use a credit card to get euros, but I advocate for using your debit card instead. You’ll be charged a service fee either way, but when you use a credit card you’ll incur cash advance fees, and you’ll start to accrue interest right away. The debit card just takes the money from your bank account at the most favorable exchange rate. Easy-peasy.
You will, however, almost certainly want to use your credit card at times. For big expenditures (don’t be fooled by shops that advertise that they’ll take dollars; again, the exchange rate will not be as good as what you’ll get with plastic) and also even smaller purchases in order to stretch your pocket euros, resulting in fewer trips to the ATM. Most credit cards in the US are chip and signature cards, but most in Europe are chip and PIN cards. You can usually use a chip and signature cards in Europe without a problem, but if you are in an automated situation like a train station or parking lot, it could be more complicated. If you want to play it perfectly safe either carry enough cash to cover these situations, or call your credit card company and ask for your PIN. This can take a couple of weeks, so plan ahead.
Check with your credit card company to see if they charge a foreign transaction fee. If they do, and that’s aversive to you, check with Chase and Bank of America to see if getting a card from them would make more sense. American Express and Discover aren’t taken everywhere in Italy. So do bring a card with a Visa or Mastercard icon.
We use a credit card from our bank that functions as a debit card. So it looks and acts like a credit card, only the money is taken straight from our account, rather than our receiving a bill.
Before we leave the topic of money, and this is important (as the bold should cue you): Make sure you tell your bank and your credit card company that you are going to be in Europe. When there are odd transactions, like suddenly being abroad, banks and credit cards companies fear that your card was stolen and that they’ll be on the hook for charges so they shut down your account. Your card will suddenly stop working. Which is an awful, awful feeling. We call our bank ahead of time and even so, sometimes our card will inexplicably freeze. Being used to this by now, we request an email address for the appropriate bank employee ahead of time and as soon as we hit a wall, we email our contact. Problem is rectified right away.
I recommend that families stay in vacation rentals, rather than hotels. With children, it’s helpful to have the flexibility of eating in and calling it a night when you want, and separate bedrooms can also be key for sleep. It’s also budget-conscious and fun to stock your fridge with Italian groceries for breakfast and snacks. You can find houses, apartments, and even yurts and castles on VRBO, Airbnb, Homeaway, and Booking, etc. Personally, I like beginning my search on Booking because their filters are the most advanced. Find a place with solid reviews (check the same place on multiple sites). Keith and I once changed hotels midstream when we were in Paris because our hotel had a dripping ceiling, smelled like muddy ashes, and had a toilet seat that, for lack of a better word, bit you when you sat in it. Even though it was just two of us, navigating that switch was a bit tricky. With children and strollers, it’s far more complicated. Don’t stress about this, but when reading reviews, look for mention of street noise, the number of floors up (carrying a stroller is cumbersome up one flight, let alone five), an outfitted kitchen, a bathtub if your child is too big for the sink and too small for a shower, off-putting odors, or other issues that grow in complication when you have little ones.
For this first trip to Italy, limit your destinations. Transitions are hard on kids, and frankly, harder on parents who do the schlepping. So try to stay at least five days any place you go, and bear in mind a travel day doesn’t count as a day in the place you leave or the place you arrive. It is a lost day.
If you have a week, lodge in one spot, and day trip if you must. I promise Italy’s wonderful cities have plenty to occupy you for that amount of time. When we had a six-year-old and a two-year-old, we spent 10 days in Italy, five in Rome and five in Todi, a small Umbrian town, and frankly, I experienced actual pain at leaving Rome. I could have stayed another month at least.
Here are a few of itinerary ideas:
1) Rome is great for even the youngest elementary school children because they love the stories of gladiators and emperors. Read up on the lore before you go, the Forum is far more interesting if you can spin a yarn about how senators would play games in the marble and show your children the remnants. If you have an extended vacation and want to add on another leg, consider something different than the usual Florence or Venice. Think about a smaller city or town, or even some country time in Tuscany or Umbria or a seaside village. I love Le Marche, too, but things are spread out, which means a lot of time in the car.
2) Florence is wonderful especially for older children who can appreciate art, literature, architecture, and stories of the Renaissance. If you have time to add a leg, it’s easy to get to a smaller city like Lucca or Siena, or one of Tuscany’s (or Umbria’s) smaller towns. Avoid gimmicky and over-touristed spots like Pisa. People will tell you to go to Cinque Terre, but I’d avoid it this time around. It’s grown really touristed, and the paths between the villages are often washed out and it’s just a lot of bother when you have children in tow. You want options. That said, if you have been dying to go, then go for it! I know you can make it work beautifully.
3) Venice is sheer magic, though I don’t recommend if for families with kids still in strollers. You want to glory in all those canals, not groan at the prospect of lugging your stroller, however light, over them yet again (and convincing toddlers that the canals are not lazy rivers to play in is a challenge, much to the ire of Italian grandmothers who will, we’ve found, come yelling out of fear for your children). An extended trip can incorporate the Dolomiti if you want to hike (summer only, which is not the best time for Venice) or ski (Christmas in Venice is drop dead gorgeous), or the Italian lakes or small city like Bologna or Ferrara or Ravenna or Verona or a river cruise of the palaces on the Brenta river or a small town in the Veneto or Emiglia-Romagna. I’ve heard wonderful things about Trieste, too.
4) Naples is a glorious and vibrant city, but I don’t recommend it unless your youngest child is at least in the double digits. All the scooters and motorcycles who think of sidewalks as personal highways mean that children must walk in perfectly straight lines to avoid veering into the path of vehicles zipping from behind. And it’s a region more known for crime, which means you’ll be hovering more than you’d like. If you have older children and want to check it out, you’ll have a blast, and can combine the trip with a bit of Italian sunshine on the Amalfi coast or an island like Procida.
Obviously, if you aren’t a city person, there’s no need to do any of the above. You can practically just shoot a dart at a map of Italy and find something wonderful, from the rolling grapevines in Barolo to the sun-drenched ruins in Sicily. My aim is to give you ideas to avoid extensive car rides, but don’t ruminate too long, just pick something and dig into it.
If you stick to cities, chances are high that you can get through the entire trip with English. But what fun is that? This is a fabulous opportunity to show your children how fascinating language can be. Or if they’re too young for that, it can be an opportunity to show them that it’s okay to make a fool of yourself. Which is actually an excellent springboard for later language learning. So learn some basics (I’ll list a few key phrases below the fold), gesture broadly, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Play with language, and if your children are old enough, teach them the niceties and encourage them to speak for themselves. Italians will be utterly charmed, or at the very least they will be friendlier if they see you trying to connect in their own language. So often tourists come and treat Italy like a travel video that they are gracious enough to step down from. Instead, engage. However you can.
When Nicolas was 5 and we were in Rome, we dined at a restaurant famous for pizza and infamous for surly waiters. Well, when Nicolas polished off an entire pizza and then thanked the waiter in Italian, the waiters literally lifted him out of this seat and carried him through the restaurant on their shoulders. Later, when we were in Umbria we went to a little restaurant tucked into an old olive mill and though we spoke no Italian, we tried and our children tried and by the end, the family was taking photographs with us and giving the children free dessert. We walked out of there and Nicolas said, “Italians are so nice.” Indeed, they are. If you don’t hold them at arms length.
So try to get some Italian words and phrases in. Duolingo is fun, but you want traveler’s Italian, for which I really like the Rick Steve’s phrasebooks.
Aren’t you lucky? Pizza, pasta, gelato, are universally loved by children, and it takes only a slightly more adventurous child to relish a plate of different kinds of salami, grilled meat, gnocchi, and oh, my. I’m getting hungry.
The Italian way of eating may seem overwhelming at first, but it ends up working out particularly well for families. Menus are divided into courses:
- Antipasti (varies by region, but often a selection of cured meats and cheeses, toasted bread with toppings, tartar or thinly sliced raw beef drizzled with local olive oil, a kind of frittata with truffles, or some regional fried things)
- Primi (usually your carbs—pasta, risotto, gnocchi, or a soup)
- Secondi (meat or fish)
- Contorni (vegetable side dishes like salad or roasted potatoes or sautéed spinach, etc, be advised this come with or after your secondi; salad as a starter isn’t done in Italy)
- Dolci (dessert like panna cotta or cake or tiramisu, etc)
New travelers see that list and think, “There’s no way I’ll be able to eat all that!” (Keith and I reflect on that list and think, “We better lose weight before we go to Italy, cause we always gain ten pounds!”). No worries! Order exactly what you want and no more or less. Sometimes we’ll order an antipasti to share, primis all around, and another secondi to share. Or some of us will get a primi and other people will get a secondi. When that happens, your waiter will want to know if you want to follow the traditional parade of dishes, which means those that get secondi will get them after those getting their primi, so if you are ordering an antipasti for your child’s meal and you are having a primi and your partner a secondi, you can tell the waiter, “tutto insieme!” (all at the same time). Or you can specifiy which should come at the same time, for example, “antipasti e primi insieme!”
Don’t assume your child won’t eat snails, just because they make your lip curl in horror. Give them bits of all kinds of things, you never know what will land. But if your child is fussy, you can order pasta with just olive oil or a simple tomato sauce (pasta per bambino, con olio/un sugo semplice).
Two idiosyncrasies about Italian dining. One, pizza. It is only served at night. If you find a place that serves it for lunch, they are catering to tourists, which means the food may be “fine” but that’s all you can hope for. But you and I both know that if only pizza will do for your child, sometimes “fine” is fan-fruity-tastic! A meal of pizza is generally just pizza and maybe an antipasti or a contorni like a salad. And those pizzas are dinner plate sized, intended for one person, though our kids tend to share.
Two, water isn’t a given. You’ll have to request bottles of water, still or bubbly (naturale or frizzante). We always get one of each (“uno e uno”). This may seem wasteful, monetarily speaking as well as the bottles. All I can say is—when in Rome. And don’t forget there’s no tipping (just round your check up) and food is so much less expensive that a regular crummy American Italian restaurant, so you’ll still be pleasantly surprised by the cost of your meal. Which reminds me, restaurants have a cover charge, called a coperto, usually a couple of euros per person. Just letting you know for when you see it on the bill.
By the way, high chairs (called seggiolone) are not ubiquitous, so make sure you bring a stroller your child is comfortable napping, eating, and looking at books or toys in while you eat.
Children change how we travel. There’s a danger in ruminating on what you could be doing if you were stroller and wet-wipe free. Instead, embrace the slower pace that children enforce. That pace actually serves to sink you further into the arms of Italy. You’ll see less, yes, but what you do see will feel fuller and more exceptional.
You may need to punctuate trips to boring old churches and art museums with some run-around time at the park, but that time is delicious. You’ll be surrounded by actual Italian families playing and speaking Italian, so sit back, tilt your head to catch the sun, and soak it up.
One of the reasons I suggest cities for first timers is that you can strap your child into a stroller and just walk. In Italy’s storied centers, you can walk all day and never tire of the details, scents, and flourishes. Ducking into a gelateria only adds to the charm.
A word about how Italians structure their daily rhythm. You’ll hear shutters start opening around 8 or 9, and then after lunch there is a pausa, where shops shut down as people go home and have a nap (this is more noticeable in smaller cities and towns which become dead zones during pausa, and is less noticable in areas that cater to tourists). Life picks back up again around 4, and people don’t sit down to dinner until 8:30. If you can get your children onto this rhythm, so much the better, but don’t worry if you can’t. You’ll find some restaurants open for dinner closer to 7, and if you don’t, that’s why you are staying in a vacation rental, right? You can boil up a packet of pasta and save your experimentation with Italian restaurant culture for the lunch hour.
Travel is bonding. Bring a big sketchbook and during meals write or draw the day's events, or play games, or sketch what you see. You are a zillion miles from the obligations and presses that serve to divide you. Instead, you are here, together.
Enjoy the magic.
Vocabulary is below, and as ever, please leave a comment or question, and share!
Good Morning Buongiorno
Good Evening Buona serata
Please per favore
Thank you grazie
You’re welcome prego
I would like Vorrei
For her/him Per lui/lei
High chair seggiolone
Pasta for children, with oil/simple sauce pasta per bambino, con olio/un sugo semplice
With /without cheese con/senza formaggio
Table for three/four/five/six una tavola per tre/Quattro/cinque/sei
I want to make a reservation… Vorrei fare una prenotazione…
Do you have…? Avete…?
Can I/we have…? Posso/Possiamo avere…?
All at the same time Tutto insieme
Can I have a box? Posso avere una scatola?
Water, please, L’acqua per favore
Natural, fizzy, one of each naturale , frizzante, uno e uno
Out and About
Where is the park/bathroom/ice cream? Dov’è il parco/il bagno/gelato?
Can you help me…? Può aiutarmi?