"I see. I see it," my 13-year-old said quietly at first and then loudly once she was sure – stretching above the treetops, she'd spotted the spires of Germany's Hohenzollern Castle.
The structure appeared almost to meld into the forested mountaintop beneath it, but as our bus drew closer, more began to take shape. Hohenzollern Castle, about 30 miles south of Stuttgart in the Black Forest, is the ancestral seat of a storied German royal family; the castle had been built, destroyed and rebuilt three times until the final construction in the 19th century.
Disney's Magic Kingdom is enchanting, but it's got nothing on the allure of Hohenzollern – a majestic beauty rising above shadowy blankets of trees within the Black Forest. It was definitely one of the highlights of my family's trip to Europe this summer. But there were plenty others: My daughters got to experience a whole new culture and language and history.
These perks were a big part of our desire to ditch Disney or some of the other typical family trips and head abroad. But we also knew that taking an international family trip would come with some considerations and extra planning. Here, I offer tips from our experience to help you take the plunge and take a European vacation – family style.
Tip: Exchanging money
Most of the countries in Europe are part of the European Union (EU), which means they use the euro as their currency. The exchange rate of euros to U.S. dollars hovers around one dollar = one euro, but that changes day to day.
Many credit cards also work aboard, although you will incur some fees each time you charge. Make sure to call your credit card provider before your trip to let them know you're traveling. Otherwise, they may tag your card as having suspicious activity and possibly even restrict the account.
Tip: Surviving a plane trip across the Atlantic
There's no easy way to get to Europe – all of it involves several hours aboard a plane. I kept my kids busy by loading up an iPad with movies and music and packing my bag full of snacks. Depending on your airline, there may be free movies available throughout the flight.
I also brought along ibuprofen for the inevitable sore muscles and an anti-motion sickness medication recommended by my child's pediatrician.
Tip: Have your kids keep a scrapbook along the way
Before our trip, I bought a small sketchbook for my younger daughter. Instead of keeping a journal of her experiences, she'd draw pictures of what happened each day. Besides offering a great keepsake for your kids – and a place for them to stash brochures and activity tickets they collect along the way – sketchbooks give your kids something to do if you have to wait for a bus or train, or if you're on either going to your next destination.
Tip: Language barriers
Most places in Western Europe that draw tourists will have people working behind the counter that speak at least some English. Don't be shy about bringing a translation book. Most Germans appreciate Americans' efforts to try to communicate in their language, at least the basics.
Tip: Eating out with kids
One big concern when traveling abroad is whether there'll be something for kids to eat on restaurant menus. Many eateries in Germany and other European countries do have kids menus.
But kid favorites like pasta and pizza are popular in Europe, too. My kids were even surprised to see the menu at more than one place offer a plate of fries on the adult menu – as the entree.
Tip: Planes, trains and automobiles
Public transit makes getting from one place to another relatively simple in Europe. For instance, while maps are often only available in German, the times and destinations are usually marked clearly enough so that you can understand where and when to go. That said, keep your schedule open to allow enough time for figuring your way around. Rental cars are also an option – don't be too nervous driving on the highways, called autobahn. Just stay in the right lane!
Tip: Travel insurance
When traveling internationally, I always purchase travel insurance. Thankfully, I've never had to use it, but I like having that peace of mind. I bought my policy through my credit card company. There are a variety of coverage options available, but I tend to go for the most basic at the best price that includes emergency medical assistance and trip cancellation.
Tip: Saving money on activities
When you stay two nights at participating hotels in Germany, you'll also get a Hochschwarzwald Card. The red card is good to get in free to over 60 local destinations in the Black Forest, like the gondola to the top of Mount Feldberg. Many other areas in Europe offer similar discounts. Do some digging before arriving at your destination to get maximum savings.
Tip: Using your phone abroad
No one wants unexpected surprises when you open up your cell phone bill after a trip. Perhaps the easiest way to use your phone without adding a separate international calling plan is to rely on Wi-Fi. For an iPhone, turn your cellular data off (located in the "Settings" options). Public places and most hotels have Wi-Fi available, and you can FaceTime and text without difficulties – although the connection may be slow and there will be a time difference. Then again, if you want to make sure you can chat easily with people back home, add an international calling option to your phone for the period you're traveling.