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Oregon Family Magazine

Navigating European Airports

My family has lived abroad and traveled often in Europe, but after this last trip—with connections in various European airports—I thought how stressful and embarrassing navigating security and airports would be for rookie families. 

In short, domestic airports offer no preparation for European airports.  

Parents, here’s what you need to know so that you and the kids survive without a break-down. Who wants tears, tantrums, and running mascara, anyway? 

Don’t Sweat It: Getting Through Security 

Don’t be me. I once felt hundreds of eyes on me at the Edinburgh Airport security check-point. I was forced to rifle through all my liquids (sunscreen, mascara, hand sanitizer, etc.) in my carry-on tote and roller suitcase. In front of the world, or so it seemed, I had to shove them into one teeny zip-lock bag. The fact is, European airports mean what they say when they allocate one zip-lock bag per traveler for liquids. Better to corral all the family’s liquids from their various pockets, cosmetic and toiletry bags before you reach the security line to confirm everything will fit. You’ve possibly never had to perform this exercise while traveling within the US, but honestly, the reinforcement at European airports is strict. What doesn’t fit will be pitched. Buh-bye, precious moisturizer. 

Trust Me: Packing Light Will Pay Off 

You’ll encounter more steps in Europe, period. It’s not uncommon to board and deplane from the tarmac, which means you’ll be walking up and down narrow steep stairs exposed to weather (think, wind gusts or unforgiving rain). You don’t want to break a sweat handling your carry-on luggage, or lugging your kids’, which of course should all be compliant with the more stringent European standards.

Once on the ground, what if a cobblestone pedestrian-only zone lies between your taxi drop-off point and your historic hotel? What if your charming Airbnb on the top floor doesn't have an elevator? You and the kids will be exhausted. Can you hear the publicly embarrassing whining and complaining? The loud refusal to walk another step? It’ll be hard enough, so get in front of this travel-deflating scene. You simply won't be sorry if you travel with as little as possible: ideally, that means next-to-never checking luggage. My secret? Buy small toiletries for the family at a local store upon arrival. Choose basic clothing pieces, mostly in one color. Ever heard of space-saving vacuum storage bags? Use them! My personal travel tote handles a book, my laptop and corresponding cords, plus those liquids I’ll need to have within easy reach at security. I’ve found the advantages of restricting the family to carry-ons outweigh possible inconveniences—for starters, there’s no chance luggage will get lost!          

Be Ready: Navigating Airports 

You’ll need to be resourceful to stay hydrated because drinking fountains are scarce. Keep your eyes open for potable water, including bathroom tap water (if in doubt, ask if it’s safe for drinking) and fill your empty water bottles before you board. But if you must, buy some before boarding. Some European carriers do not automatically serve complimentary water and you’ll be glad to have a family stash of water—and snacks, of course—on your flight. Buying bottled water on board for the family will add up quickly. Depending on your destination, when you land—happily hydrated of course—there will be the mad rush for the immigration line but be sure to pick up a landing card before you get in line if it wasn’t distributed on board. 

As exciting as it is for a family to go on their first European vacation, unfamiliar security rules, airline practices, airport protocol and generally foreign scenarios can put a dent on the fun. We know that family travel, though valuable in creating life-long family memories, is often stressful. These insider tips will help you manage your first time flying to Europe so you’re flush with confidence, concentrating on having fun, not just surviving the travel.   

HINT: As you start your research on flights, you’ll perhaps wonder if there’s an optimal day of the week to find the lowest rates. There is: Tuesday at 3p. Tuesday mid-afternoon is the best day to finally commit and hit the purchase button because at this point in the week, airlines have matched competitor’s pricing. Rates will inch upwards and then, sink back, re-adjusting to their lowest point every Tuesday afternoon. Finally, don’t forget to make sure your passports are in order. And, get acquainted with other useful information offered by the State Department relevant to your destination. Good luck and bon voyage!  

Kathryn Streeter’s writing has appeared in publications including The Washington Post, The Week and Austin American-Statesman. Find her on Twitter