Euro Trotting With Teens

After spending the last few summers vacationing in our own beach town – kids with summer jobs while husband toiled at his – it hit us this might be one of the last long holidays with our senior high schooler. With his college departure imminent, we decided we should take one last huge trip together before any spare income (read remaining retirement fund!) we have goes down the college-tuition black hole taking with it our cozy family unit.

Once we decided to bite the financial bullet and take a jaunt across the Atlantic to the Old Continent, we discarded any notions of luxury and comfort so we could afford to see as much as we could cram into three weeks. From the outset we decided to visit seven cities in four countries: Rome, Florence and Venice in Italy; Madrid and Barcelona in Spain; Paris, France and London and Oxford in England. This last city was a must because I hadn’t been back since I graduated from the University in 1987, plus we needed to inspire our college-bound teen to dream big!

 And as the kids head into the home stretch of their education at home and school, for one it’s the beginning and the other the end of high school, we also wanted to impart the educational value of travel abroad, cultural differences, the reason for learning foreign languages, and broadening their outlook on the world.


Trevi Fountain, EiffelTower and VeniceCanals, photos by B. Valle

Planning our DIY trip to Europe with our adolescent children was done completely on line; contacting hotels, purchasing train tickets, museum tickets, trans-Atlantic flights and flights within Europe as well as airport transfers. This was definitely not a one-stop-shop family holiday! Our European trek took us on uncharted territory regarding expenses; the only advantage we had going into this was the fact that both my husband and I are seasoned travelers and we knew the ins and outs of visiting Europe on a student-like budget.

Outlining every detail of our voyage, I hope to help you – really, encourage you – to take a similar leap of faith (goodness know we did!), and make life-long memories for you and your teen-aged brood while you can still show them who’s boss – a feat we managed practically without incident except for a couple of meltdowns from both adults and kids!

Now, grab your steamy cup of coffee (is it Starbucks? Mine is!), play your favorite background music and come along!

Airfare. Do this first and as far in advance as possible!

The dates for our Trans-Atlantic journey were determined by the airline because we wanted to use up our miles to save where we could. With the dates set, we then figured out our journey’s path. We decided to break the flight in two segments of about eight hours each; we stopped over in Boston to visit colleges: Harvard and Boston College (dreaming really big here!), and then headed to Rome.

Then it was time to book the dreaded hotel scene.

First, I bought Let’s Go Europe to get an idea of rates and locations. But, the more I read and visited websites, the less impressed I became with the rooms and amenities. Word-of-mouth seems to work best with us, so my husband used his vast pool of international clientele to get recommendations on all sorts of hotels in our chosen countries. I cross-checked each hotel name we got with for reviews and photos (got to take these web notes with a grain of salt!), to get an idea of location, etc. Booking hotels on line was not an easy process; it was time consuming, the time difference made for delayed replies, and the language, you’d be surprised, is not always the best English!

Our favorite hotels were:

The Monalisa in Florence is just beautiful. It’s a lush and floral oasis in the middle of Florence. Book the family room which has four beds and a big bathroom. This was by far our favorite hotel!

The American Hotel in Venice. This was a very spacious apartment-like room right next to a canal with a private boat dock. The two-room apartment even had a laundry area. I highly recommend this place for a family stay.

The Fira Palace Crown Plaza in Barcelona has very large rooms and was very economical. It’s a bit out of the way, but the big room made up for this.

The Best Western Madrid had a spacious room, a full hot and delicious breakfast included with the room, and is perfectly located in the center of everything. Very economical, too.

The Radisson Blu on Boulevard Haussman was the most expensive hotel we got — a total splurge.  We had to get two rooms and they were small, but very well appointed. And the location was unbeatable!

The Cavandish Hotel in London is a luxury boutique hotel located on the ritzy Jermyn Street. The location is perfect for walking to Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Square and even Buckingham Palace. We were able to negotiate having the four of us in a room, but it was tight. However, the big English breakfast included with the room was more than amazing and made up for the tight quarters.

Tip 1: When traveling with teens, always contact hotels directly via their websites because most don’t allow four to a room unless they are children under 12. If the website does not list a room for 4 people, e-mail and request one. The best hotel rooms we got were for four people, and therefore the roomiest! Check out the complete list of hotels I’ve attached to this post for teen-friendly references.

Now we are on to transportation.

Trains are the most common and convenient way to travel within Europe. You can see beautiful country side as you journey to your next destination, and European trains are modern, clean and very efficient. We booked all our train travel on

We traveled from Rome to Florence and then to Venice by train, each trip lasting about two hours.  We took the AVE, a very fast train traveling upwards of 300 KM per hour, from Madrid to Barcelona in under three hours. And we took the CHUNNEL from Paris to London — what a great system! We departed from the center of Paris, and arrived two and half hours later in the center of London. Gone are the Hydrofoil days of yonder!

Tip 2: If you can afford the approx. $30 difference between first and general class, go first class on the Chunnel! Waiters, wine and hot food served over white table cloths was pure luxury.

Note: We opted not to purchase the more commonly used Eurail Pass since for our purposes it would be more expensive. It’s worth making the comparison between individual fares and the pass if you will not have the time or flexibility to be ‘jumping’ on trains spontaneously as the Eurail pass allows you to do.

My husband did not want to spend nights on the trains’ sleeping compartments (although fun, it can be hard on your back!), so he booked two flights with Vueling, a Spanish commuter-style airline, to fly from Venice to Madrid and from Barcelona to Paris.The price for both flights was approximately $280 per person and we saved a lot of time and backache.

Tip 3: If you are traveling overseas with a college-bound teen, visiting universities or major-related sites like an embassy requires a little planning ahead. My son arranged to spend one morning at the US Embassy in Madrid to get an idea of a career in Foreign Diplomacy and Internationl Relations. Use the websites, and e-mail several contacts listed – sometimes it takes more than one try, and be persistent!


University of Oxford, England photos by B. Valle

The final step was purchasing tickets to museums and other attractions online to avoid lines once there, and believe me, the lines to buy them there are long!

Here are the links to sites used and the attractions we got:


The Vatican Museum Try to be there by 9 AM before the crowds. The serenity at this time of day also stays with you for a while.

The Coliseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill It was boiling in August!


Ll’Accademia – Michael Angelo’s David Small museum, go anytime with a pre-purchased ticket and time reservation.

Note: In Italy, non-European Community kids and students are not given any discounts – not even with the much touted International Student ID. Be prepared to pay adult prices with an average cost of 8 Euros p.p.


Paris Museum Pass – By far the best value for money. Don’t go to Paris without it! For about $45 per adult it allows you access to over 40 museums including Versailles, the Arc de Triumph, the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and Orangery. Students/kids are free! The longest line I’d ever seen (longer than a Disney ride!), was at Versailles. No way around it unless you’re there by 9 AM and first in the security line. Since we had the Paris Pass, and because I speak a little French, the guard at the gate liked us and let us in without waiting in line!

Once we hit each city, and to get a great overview of each city, we purchased tickets for the hop-on-hop-off double-decker tour buses which are very convenient and available in all major cities. The bus stops are everywhere, and you can get on and off at any stop and then catch another bus later. It’s cheaper than cabs, you see more than in the subways, and headsets are provided so you can listen to explanations about the landmarks you are driving past. Highly recommend them!

We visited additional sights in some cities which we had not planned beforehand:

Vatican City: St. Peters Cupola. Climbing to the very top of the Basilica takes an exhausting 400 steps, without air conditioning in 95 degree heat!

Florence: The Ufizzi Museum, and the Campanile at the Duomo. Again, climbing 352 stairs takes stamina.

Venice: The obligatory Gondola ride cost $100 for four, but you can negotiate this price if business is slow, which we did. The Palazzo Ducal off Piazza San Marco is worth the visit.

Madrid: Stadio Bernabeau, mecca for soccer enthusiasts. An organized tour takes you on the playing field, locker rooms and players seating area. The Prado Museum is free from 6-8PM.

Barcelona: Christopher Columbus’ Column at the end of Las Ramblas. My men do have a thing for heights. This one had an elevator. We visited The Pablo Picasso Museum, simply enchanting!

Paris: The Eiffel Tower, another towering challenge with a two hour wait. Instead of standing in line, the guys climbed to the second story and then took the elevator. Bateaux Mouche — take this ride at night when all the buildings are lit up!

Oxford, England. The train ride was a little over an hour, and it only cost 40 pounds round trip for all four. We did not take any of the guided individual college tours. Lunch was at the highly recommended Turf Tavern, a lively traditional pub and favorite watering hole for students. It prides itself on providing “An Education in Intoxication”.

We tried to avoid museum burn-out, so we sprinkled the trip with a few frivolous places to see, eat at or simply for fun. The Hard Rock in London is a must; walking the length of St. Honore Fauburg in Paris, and Regent Street in London to window shop had my daughter squeeling for fashion joy, and visiting the soccer stadium in Madrid was a boys only splurge!


Original Hard Rock Cafe and Topshop on Regent Street, London, UK Photos B. Valle

For some, traveling to Europe means excellent food, bold coffee and high-end shopping. Not for us. Instead, we delighted on superb panninis, crepes and Croque Monsieur on the go. Starbucks VIA was my constant companion thanks to the coffee giant’s generous sponsorship of my entire lot of the tasty brew and travel mug for the trip. Fortunately, Starbucks’ VIA had me caffeine-prepped for each day – especially in Italy where there was not a Starbuck’s insight! TOPSHOP and street markets were the only places we could afford to spend our pricey Euros (gosh, the exchange rate, especially the US Dollar vs. the Pound, was punishing!).


Croque Monsieur

Tip 4: We bought sandwiches almost daily, and always had breakfast at the hotels if it was included in the rate. The best two breakfasts were the Best Western in Madrid (bacon and eggs), and the Cavendish in London (bangers, tomatoes, eggs and potatoes). Only the Radisson, Paris did not include breakfast with the room (and it was the most expensive accommodation!), but Starbucks was around the corner, so we headed out early and grabbed croissants and coffee to go! We had one square meal each day, and dinner was usually at an affordable spot with home-cooked like meals; we splurged in Rome at a restaurant on the Piazza Navona, and also in Madrid at a restaurant on the Plaza Mayor. We hit two cafeterias: El Corte Ingles in Madrid, and the Gallery Lafayette in Paris. Venice has a great self-serve buffet, “Le Chat qui Rit,” away from the over-priced fare at Piazza San Marco.

So this is how we planned, booked, and purchased the essential elements of our memorable family trip. To our surprise, except for one almost-missed-the-train disaster, our carefully crafted itinerary went very smoothly. There are a lot of observations I ‘d like to tell you about; graffiti, architecture, and street-performers (the latest temp work across Europe), but this will have to be in a second posting later on so I don’t take up your entire day!

The abundant historical art treasures, the cultural variety seamlessly connected by the almost-invisible borders of the European Community, and the veritable hassle free transportation available to travelers made this an exhausting but unforgettable family journey. And since both of us are in our late 40’s, and our kids 14 and 17, it was also one heck of a Euro-family-fitness challenge Amazing Race style!


  1. Anonymous says:

    Suzette, I loved reading all about your trip to Europe. Even for this native limey, who is very seasoned at jumping on and off trains, all the information is welcome. I traveled with my 8 yr old last summer using the Eurostar from Ashington to Paris, we stayed at a Best Western for location and value, but I am glad you mentioned that one room is usually only for 2 people. My daughter hopes that while you were in Paris you enjoyed a chocolate crepe from a street vendor.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Oh, yes! Please tell your daughter we enjoyed a few crepes: Nutella, confitture, and fromage. In fact, you can see those sweet street delicacies ON me! Thanks so much for reading and sharing your tips with me!

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