Planning well in advance helps to introduce children to the delights of Europe, writes Josie McNaught.
Tempted by those early-bird family-friendly airfares to Europe? Saving on getting there is smart, but forking out thousands just so your kids can stand in Paris or Venice, instead of Auckland, and say "we're bored" isn't really worth it, is it?
Take my advice and spend the time between booking the airfare and going by giving the kids a bit of a heads up on what to expect. After all, you're spending all this money on boredom prevention so make it a trip that is more "wow" than "whatever".
Wait until the time is right
Don't go until your kids are old enough to use the loo, make toast, own a cellphone and stay out late. Lugging children under 10 around the world is pretty much a waste of time if you are after a rich, cultural experience.
Instead you'll experience European playgrounds, food that tastes like home and the eight-year-old will only remember the 10 flavours of gelato she tried.
Palladio's architecture, Canaletto's landscapes, French delicacies and Italian style will simply pass them by. Plus they get tired and grumpy and need to be in bed far too early.
And where's the fun in watching Italian television night after night?
Have a boredom buster
Ban the word "bored". I declared that if Zoe, 14, and Nate, 11, uttered it, they would be packed off home on the first plane as a BUM - bored unaccompanied minor.
Do some homework
I'm an art junkie and I spent hours looking at old catalogues and art books with my guys when they were babies. One-year-olds can't read, right? But they can look, and remember and point. Did I feel smug when we swept into the Louvre? You betcha. But even if your kids have grown up on an unrelenting diet of trash TV and comics, grab a load of library books on European art and architecture so they can have a bit of a preview. Tell them they can just look at the pictures if they like - that should impress the teenagers.
Trust the penny to drop ...
Come our day at the Louvre it was all worth it with Nate running back to me through the galleries panting "I've found it! The guy who did Venice! I've found it!"
He'd found a splendid series of Canaletto's Venice paintings, backed up by our visit there a couple of weeks earlier when we gazed at the same view from our vaporetto.
Yes, the kids joined the bunfight to see the Mona Lisa, but thanks to all those years of simply looking at pictures of paintings, they were aware that the wonderful world of art is about so much more than that one famous piece.
... more than once
When we visited the National Gallery in London, Lucy Micklethwait's book An Alphabet in Art really came to the fore for my daughter Zoe. There were several of her favourite works to seek out, including the paintings used to illustrate the book's D for Dog page (Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Marriage), C for Cat (The Graham Children by William Hogarth), Renoir's The Umbrellas (obviously 'U') and so on, finishing with Hans Holbein's magnificent The Ambassadors with its mysterious distorted skull.
Witnessing their excited faces when they saw a work, for real, for the first time, was something I will never forget.
Let them do what they like
I have a fashion and interiors-mad daughter and a son who fantasises about being reincarnated as a medieval knight. So vintage shopping in the back streets of Paris was perfect. When we visited Murol, a semi-restored medieval castle in south-west France, Nate was in his element, pointing out battlements and explaining how the fortress was designed to keep enemies at bay.
Enforce hard currency
Knocking around with the pound and euro isn't cheap so I read the fiscal riot act before we left town. There would be spending money, but new shiny stuff would not be purchased on a whim.
Lego was out, but a soccer ball was fine and the best way for Nate to meet boys his age. Ditto all the exciting-looking clothes on sale - we hunted around vintage shops in Paris and made a beeline for the sale racks at Top Shop and H&M.
When in Rome
Kids have to eat and it's good if they can order food using the local lingo such as"je voudrais" along with "merci beaucoup" and "grazie" and the words for bread, drinks and fruit and vegetables. The grammar might not have been spot on, but the vocab was fine.
Non merci, Le Big Mac
Tempting as a takeaway might be in Verona or Milan, just to see if McDonald's really does taste the same half a world away, our tight budget meant the kids instead enjoyed local treats such as octopus salad and running out to get marmalattas (sinfully delicious jam-filled croissants) for breakfast in Italy, and the daily boulangerie visit in France.
We did a lot of cooking so visits to the local markets had the double benefit of making them use their Italian and French phrases and they got to learn about locally grown food.
When we did eat out we tried snails, tripe and even pheasant. The children had their splash of wine in their water with their food too, although they quickly learned that "coke" is universal and requires no translation.
Brace for downtime
You can't prepare for jet lag, the waiting around that comes with travel, or the frustration of the first day in Paris (also Zoe's birthday) coinciding with the great Sunday shopping shut down, so just go with it.
The temptation to share some of the wonder, beauty and culture of Europe with your children is natural and I found Zoe and Nate were the perfect age.
Granted, I hadn't been able to afford to take them away before (and a timely airline sponsorship helped this time), but they were old enough to appreciate what we were undertaking, and young enough to display childlike wonder when they got their first glimpse of Italy from the plane and saw the Eiffel Tower gleaming in the rain on their first evening in Paris.
As Nate said to me when we arrived home, "Mummy, now I know there IS a world."
Josie and her family travelled to Europe with assistance from Cathay Pacific, which has daily flights, via Hong Kong, to London, Paris, Rome, and Milan.
Europe's top five:
Kathryn Trewin of Flight Centre Kerikeri shares her top things to do in France, Spain and Italy.
1. A metro card is an efficient and cost-effective way to travel around Paris on the buses, trains and metro. Visit the Sacre Coeur Basilica and take the funicular to the top for spectacular views of the city.
2. Visit Montpellier in the south of France and head to the markets by the old Roman aqueduct. It runs most mornings and is full of artisan suppliers - the Roquefort cheese salami is amazing.
3. Head to Parc Guell in Barcelona to see some of the incredible Gaudi architecture. On a fine day it offers views all the way to the sea.
4. Make the most of the water taxis in Venice, they're great at navigating the canals. Also visit the island of Murano for authentic Venetian glass straight from the manufacturer.
5. Travel the Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera. I recommend using a company that will transport your bags to each town so you only have to carry your day pack.
* For more information on travelling to Europe, contact Kathryn and the team at Flight Centre Kerikeri on 0800 427 555.By Josie McNaught