Published On Sat Jun 24 2006 in The Toronto Star
By Heather Greenwood Davis
Search the Internet for advice on taking a vacation in Europe with kids under the age of five and you’re likely to find three words: Don’t do it.
Article after article will tell you how hard it will be and that you should wait until they are “old enough.” And in a lot of ways they are right.
Simply traveling with an infant from home to the neighbour can require more bags than a solo trip to the most remote part of the Outback. But let’s face it, outside of the playroom at McDonald’s and the babysitter’s place, there are few places in the world that are easy to bring your toddlers.
“So,” Amie O’Shaughnessy asks, “why not Italy?
O’Shaughnessy is one of the few yay-sayers on the Web.
After taking her own son on a vacation to Europe as a toddler she saw the need for a travel planner who could offer specific insights into how to make the trip work with young children in tow.
After an initial scouting trip to Italy on her own in 2003, she took her then 13-month-old son Devon with her to test out properties and activities. The next year she put her money where her heart is and formed “Ciao Bambino.” The company’s focus is on helping parents take Italian vacations that are enjoyable for everyone, even when neither child will eat the pizza unless all visible pepperonis are removed.
“I’m kind of a fanatical international traveller,” O’Shaughnessy, 37, admits over the phone from her California home base. “That was even before I had my son. After I had him I realized that I still wanted to travel but that my requirements had changed.”
So far, O’Shaughnessy says, the company has had no shortage of clients willing to strap on their baby slings and load up their strollers once they have some assurances from her that it can be done.
“Most people don’t want to wait 10 years to travel again with their kids,” she says, noting that the company has now expanded its services to include France as well.
“People want to expose their kids to cultural experiences. They want them to experience new things. With the right tools, it is not only possible, it is completely enjoyable.”
Pay the $200 U.S. ($221 Cdn.) consultation fee and Ciao Bambino will help you evaluate your needs and desires for up to two weeks of travel. Additional weeks of planning cost $100 ($110 Cdn.) each.
The advice you receive is like that of a really organized friend who’s been through it. She can set you up in tried and true accommodation, propose child-friendly itineraries and advise you on which restaurants won’t cringe when you wheel in a stroller.
“Our focus is on the ground arrangements,” O’Shaughnessy says. “My goal is to educate (parents) on things that will make it easier and enjoyable for everyone. When they are travelling with young kids, (parents) want the comfort of knowing they are going somewhere where they can all be comfortable.”
And that’s one of the reasons that O’Shaughnessy has opted to use only properties that have a four- or five-star rating, despite the fact that that rules out the least expensive options.
“They are value-oriented, but they aren’t budget oriented,” O’Shaughnessy admits. “These are parents who maybe they’ve backpacked through Europe before but that’s not what they want to do with their baby.”
And they are parents, says O’Shaughnessy, who like herself enjoy return trips to destinations that provide what they need to have a good time.
For her, that means she is in Europe at least twice a year on scouting trips or vacation with Devon, as well as husband John by her side.
“Its not easy but it’s certainly possible and a lot of fun,” she says.
Here are some tips to help make the experience more enjoyable:
Plan ahead: This is not the time to just hop a plane to Europe and hope for the best. You’ll need a budget and a plan. Top Italian accommodation prices are not for the faint-hearted. A one-week stay for a family of four in a rural resort property with a kitchen could easily cost up to 2,000 euros ($2,800 Cdn.) per week in high season (Easter to October). In the city a hotel suite or connecting rooms could run anywhere from 400 euros to 500 euros ($560 to $700) per night. An apartment isn’t much less. Cut your costs in half by travelling in low season (November through March) and pay for as much as you can before you leave home. Finally, don’t forget travel insurance. Kids always get sick when it’s least convenient and insurance can mean a good trip in spite of it.
Pack light: Newsflash! Italians also use diapers. In fact a trip to a grocery store or pharmacy will also find you baby food, wipes and pacifiers. Don’t pack as if you’re headed for a deserted island. At the Ciao Bambino properties, cribs, high chairs and fold-out beds are also available. The one thing O’Shaughnessy recommends bringing is a lightweight stroller. Other essentials? Prescription refills, allergy medication (or any other meds where you are partial to a particular brand), kids’ toothpaste and a travelling potty seat if you need it. Weigh the cost of bringing versus renting a car seat when you arrive, but be sure to also check with your airline to see whether the weight of those items will count toward your overall totals.
Prepare for the flight: “It can be horrendous,” O’Shaughnessy admits, “but it’s a little pain for a lot of reward.”
The trick is to expect it and be ready. Take an overnight flight whenever possible.
Change the kids into their pajamas before boarding and load them up with warm milk during takeoff. If you have to fly during the day, packing things like a well-charged DVD player, their favourite DVDs and headphones can help.
The kids should also have a carry on bag that provides easy access to a change of clothes, diapers and wipes, books, snacks and favourite quiet toys.
Forget the view and get the kitchen: Sometimes you’ll be able to have both but if you have to choose, the ability to make hot dogs and warm milk trumps a view of the vineyards every time. The rule of thumb is be comfortable.
Think air conditioning, laundry facilities, a backyard.
Get Involved: In a series of telephone consultations with clients before they leave, O’Shaughnessy notes the kids’ ages, likes and dislikes. She uses that information to set up an itinerary in Italy that works for the whole family. That can include guides who speak perfect English and are willing to answer endless “what’s dat?” from your 3-year-old and stop for diaper changes and juice breaks. Include parks and gelato stops as well as museums and historical sites in your itinerary to keep everyone happy. Try new things, too. One of O’Shaughnessy’s favourite outings for families is a cooking class in Tuscany that has the whole family slicing and dicing together.
Finally, remember to do as the Romans do.
“The whole piazza thing. The whole infrastructure is set up for families and just walking and socializing,” O’Shaughnessy explains.
“People who enjoy the trips the most really relax. You need to keep it loose. If you get lost or need assistance don’t be shy about asking for it.
“If only we in North America were so friendly,” O’Shaughnessy says of the Italians. “They go out of their way to be friendly, to help you.”
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