My husband and I try to take our two sons to France once a year. During our Covid year of homeschooling, we spent Fridays learning and cooking French. Not only did it foster a fondness for the country and language in both of them, it also brought me back to my younger self who had lived in France as a young woman. I wrote about my time in France and cooking with my sons in this award-winning anthology called Breaking Bread.
France now feels like a relative to my both of sons and my husband and me. And getting ready is less stressful because we know what to expect. In the way that you know what to expect from your ersatz aunt.
If you want to take your kids to France, here are a few to-dos to keep in mind. For our tips on airlines that fly to France and when to book and how, see this informative piece (complete with podcasts!) here.
After you buy your plane tickets, figure out where you’re going and staying:
In my opinion, Airbnb is the way to travel with kids. Having kids and their gear and noises is hard to do in a hotel. It’s hard for both you and them to relax, and it can be a nuisance for other guests. I like to be able to make my younger son a snack at 10 PM, when it’s only 4 back home and he found his dinner too odd, or he was too distracted or tired to eat, without having to call room service. Plus, I’ll never forget the time I went to a hotel with my mother when I was in my twenties and there were young children above us who sounded like a stampede of hippos. Children moving, moving, moving–this is not relaxing for other people. I choose not to inflict it on others.
If you know you are going to Paris, look at the various arrondissements before you book your Airbnb and consider what will give you and your family the most options: The 14th and 13th are very family oriented, distinctly French areas, but they are elegant and sometimes pricy. The 10th, 11th, and 9th tend to be young, tattooed, and hip. The 1st and 2nd are fancy.
In other cities, it might be good to choose an Airbnb near an attraction you are sure to go to–and perhaps go back to. Sometimes kids get tired and you can only do half a museum or park, but want to go back. For instance, on the Dordogne river, you might want to go to Lascaux one day. And even though you hoped to hit a street fair in Sarlat, everyone’s too fried. You’ve got kayaking the next day, and a special dinner another night. If you spread yourself out over 3-4 days and are less worried about making dinner reservation times, being in an Airbnb will give you the flexibility to go take a nap, make a semi-familiar grilled cheese, take a shower, and go back out to have a low-key adventure that’s unplanned but just as (or more) wonderful.
More than anything, if you have children from 2-8, pick an Airbnb near a small park or garden to get out early and run around. Time change makes for antsy kids and having a natural place for your kids to ground themselves and do a little Ferdinand-type smelling of the flowers is a good idea.
What to book 1-2 months before flying to France:
A couple of months before you leave, book a car rental if you are traveling by car, or train or bus tickets on SNCF (download their app to your phone) and buy tickets to things you think you may want to do: one or two restaurants, perhaps. The Eiffel Tower. A film festival. The Louvre or Orsay. The Lascaux Caves. But my biggest piece of advice is very important: DO NOT OVER PROGRAM yourself or your kids. See last note at the bottom for more on this topic of being realistic with your goals and expectations.
Start packing 2 weeks before you leave:
Because I hate the stress of packing, I tend to start early–I begin pilfering from my kids’ drawers a good two to three weeks before we go, and I curate for the best, least stained t-shirts, pants, etc. I try to keep it really basic and pack less, not more, because I know we will bring back a haul of things (we’ll get to that later on in this article).
For a family of 4, you need no more than 2 large bags or suitcases and one backpack each or canvas tote bag (kids and adults). We like to take one large duffel, one hardcase, 3 backpacks, and bring a large tote as a carry on that I can easily open to pull out snacks and water.
A lot of Cat Rickman’s advice for packing for one week in France, applies to 1 month in France. In most Airbnbs you can wash your clothes–so you don’t need much more than 3 days’ worth of stuff.
Forget packing cubes, and instead pack a few rolled up cotton or nylon reusable tote bags. France has banned single use plastic. So, be prepared with your own shopping bags to take to markets and stores and, on the way home, your dirty laundry.
Your kids’ clothes should be clean, not overly formal, but also not so casual that you might project disrespect. In general, I don’t pack clothes with slogans or big labels. I like to pack one to two pairs of what we call “cozy pants,” which are sweatpants or leggings; I think Hanna Andersson are the best. Depending on the season, 1-3 pairs of clean shorts (one pair should be loose like soccer shorts, one pair that could be worn with a nice top, like khaki, and one jean or cut off jean). For boys, 1 collared shirt and a tie. For girls, one nice dress or fancier shirt with slacks or a skirt, and 2 more casual dresses with tights or sandals. One great pair of sneakers as your kids will walk a lot and likely complain about their legs and feet being tired. This is the one moment you might consider not getting hand-me-downs or onsale sneaks, but, instead getting a nice, new pair of sneakers and getting them fitted at the shoe shop and making sure they have good, durable laces or velcro. I like to always have one pair of Birkenstocks for inside wear and for tired feet that need to slip on something comfy, barefooted or with socks. Bring 2-3 t-shirts and one pair of jeans. Boys need one nicer pair of pants; girls do, too, unless they like dresses or skirts. Everyone needs a raincoat in the spring, a warmer coat in fall and winter, one sweatshirt, one nice sweater (wool or cashmere for ultimate warmth and wear while traveling), one long sleeved t-shirt. 4 pairs of underwear each, and one for each kid in a parent’s carry-on. And cute PJs–you never know who might see your kids outside on that Airbnb patio while you’re making breakfast. I like these organic cotton PJs from L’ovedbaby. And always always always have one pair of wool socks per person, no matter the time of year. You’d be surprise how good a pair of Darn Tough socks or Smartwools feels, even in August, on a pair of tired feet.
Backpacks: Leave room. If your kids are like mine, they will go crazy for French bandes dessinées, or graphic novels, and all of the lovely French toys everywhere. France is a country that loves children. They make so many lovely things for kids.
For the plane, pack some good books to look at or read; math, science, or French language workbooks; a deck of cards; some audio books you’ve downloaded on Audible; ear buds; a splitter so your kids can listen to the same story off your phone; plenty of high calorie snacks like cheese sticks, meat sticks, gorp, crackers, nuts, dried fruit, chips, and fruit leathers. Food will keep them happy and less antsy–but steer clear of snacks full of sugar, as that will just wind them up. I like both of my kids to have a stash of their own snacks they can easily access and graze on the entire flight. I have a cold/hot bag with some sandwiches and apples. I give both my kids lots and lots of plastic-free sugar-free gum. Gum makes plane rides bearable.
Always carry reusable water bottles (just empty them before going through airport security and refill afterwards). Every airport on the planet, pretty much, has water fountains now. Keep your kids hydrated while flying.
Try to get everything but the last toiletries packed two-three days before you go. This will give you the presence of mind to figure out that you need a new toothbrush, or want one more activity book for that flight without TV from Lisbon to Paris.
In your carry on: Always pack a small zipped pouch with some Advil, Tylenol, Benadryl, Claritin, Neosporin, bandaids, Immodium, ex-lax, chamomile tea bags for anxious bellies, melatonin, and hand sanitizer for the plane. I like to carry a small bottle of this dry toothpaste, called Ecodent, to freshen my breath on the plane (it’s also good for you and the environment). One small pot of shea butter for chapped lips and hands and faces–the plane is drying. I like Allafia. And vitamins: I buy pill organizers for each person and put multis for the duration of the trip, a zinc each day, and a vitamin D. And then one or two extra organizers that I fill with things like vitamin C for sniffles, vitamin B tablets for kids (and adults) to give us a boost of energy, and Calm magnesium gummies for everyone.
Leave lots of room in your suitcase:
When we go to France we give each kid 100 euros to spend how they want, with some parameters. Which means you could have quite a haul when you leave.
So, roll up a small duffel bag and put it inside your suitcase. You will thank me later when you fill it with dirty laundry to make room for all of the amazing things you’ve picked up in France and have carefully wrapped and stowed in your hard case. Some things we have brought home over the years in our hard case: olive oil, wine, Chartreuse, chocolates, organic soaps, ceramics, French shampoos, a wooden bow and arrow, new clothes, vintage clothes, Veja sneakers, buckwheat flour for crêpes, a crêpe pan, a Madeleine pan, French knives, honey, jam, salt, graphic novels, posters, vintage LPs, activity books, wooden toys, makeup, maps, etc.
Unlike in the U.S., if you road trip in France you will find that every road stop has some organic yogurts, cheeses, healthy snacks, books, maps, activity and workbooks for kids, little toys. Our younger son bought a ton of graphic novels and little books and fun games at road stops. They all came home with us.
Leave some things at home:
Buy your shampoo, soap, skin cream, and body lotion in France. You will thank me later. Every French pharmacy, on every corner, will have better skin and hair care products that cost less and are better for you and the planet than anything you can get at home. Also, why lug all that stuff? You can also get your toothpaste, tampons and pads, diapers, Covid rapid tests, you name it, in France. Keith Van Sickle wrote us this terrific piece on how to use a French pharmacy, here.
Do not overload your kids with books you hope they will read. 1-2 books–seriously. It’s exhausting to take in a new culture and language. They won’t read nearly as much as they might lying around in the Bahamas. They will be assimilating and their brains will be working overtime.
Do not pack a lot of gadgets and screens. French kids do not sit at the table on their parents’ iPhones. They sit at the table and eat. And talk. And roll their eyes at their grandparents. Don’t stress out others around you in France with your kids on loud screens. They will learn and absorb more if they are not on screens.
Leave all but one stuffy at home. Trust me, you’ll lose one and it will be a big drama. Bring one and make darn sure it’s in their backpack when you get off the plane. (Knuffle Bunny, anyone?)
Teach Your kids three words:
Merci: Thank you.
Au Revoir: Goodbye.
Now teach them to make eye contact and smile. That’s all you need. They need to say hello when they walk into a store or boulangerie, smile, and say thank you to everyone. And then need to say goodbye–when leaving a hotel, when leaving a café or boulangerie, when leaving someone’s house. Bonjour. Merci. Au Revoir. Eye contact. Smile. Make them say it as well as they can and no matter where they are or what is happening. It will go a long way. French people will think you are the world’s best parent.
Have realistic expectations:
Take the time when in France to walk, shop, eat, drink hot chocolate. It’s important to try to be in the culture. Leave a free day in each location or town, or two if you can. Go slowly so your kids can relax and truly experience it all. Don’t try to hit 12 towns and cities. Do one or two for 4-5 days each. Kids tend to see many things adults are too busy staring at their phones or talking to each other or managing the bigger safety details of the whole experience to notice. If you slow it down, they will absorb the nuances of cultural difference and this will change their lives. It might be everything from little lizards they spot along the walls, to cows grazing on fields you are driving past, to tiny, beautiful toys in shop windows, or flowers that smell unlike anything they’ve ever smelled before. Give them time to see their France, and make their own memories, down low.
A good example: When in Paris, please don’t be the kinds of parents who expect their kids to do the entire Louvre the day after you get there. Your kids will be exhausted and it will not go well. Take the Louvre in small bites–2 hours, max. Go only to the sculpture garden the first day; or only to see the Mona Lisa and the jewelry. Then go eat. Rest your feet. Or skip the Louvre and only do the garden of the Rodin museum, perhaps. (If you are there at Easter, they have egg hunts amongst the statues–a twofer!) Or just spend an afternoon watching kids sail their boats and sitting in the sun at the Luxembourg gardens. Do a carousel in the evening (they are all over France). Or take a bateau mouche up the Seine.
Above all, and not to sound like a grandmother, but remember your kids are traveling and strung out and will need high protein, high fat, high calorie foods all day long like yogurt, sandwiches with butter and ham, or cheese, omelettes, salads with meat or fish, potatoes, and rice. An ice cream in the afternoon never hurt anyone, and we’ve got lots of great options, here. More than anything, they need patience.
Your kids will want to come back if less gets “done” and more is experienced.
But don’t just take it from me! Go try it!
Make all your beds before you leave home. Nothing is as wonderful as coming home to a freshly made bed.
Caitlin Shetterly is the Editor-in-Chief of Frenchly. She is also the author of 4 books: Fault Lines, Made for You and Me, Modified and the upcoming novel, Pete and Alice in Maine, which will be published on July 4th, 2023 by Harper Books. She is a native daughter and she lives with her two sons and husband in an old house on the coast of Maine.