- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

Imagine London at Christmastime: carols in Trafalgar Square, the Oxford Street Christmas lights and the Christmas market at Hyde Park.

Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it?

For most families with children, it probably will remain just that - a dream. With kids in tow and the economy as it is, it’s just too expensive and complicated, right?

Not necessarily, says Cynthia Harriman, author of “Take Your Kids to Europe,” which is in its eighth edition.

“There are so many good deals out there now. Airlines are dropping their prices, as are hotels,” says Ms. Harriman, who recently came back from a business trip to central Paris where she noticed hotel prices as low as about $95 a night; just outside Paris they were as low as $40.

Couple that with airfares dropping about 25 percent in the past month and the dollar strengthening against the euro - the exchange rate Tuesday was $1.26 to 1 euro - and things might just seem a little less nightmarish.

“Internationally, there are a lot of signs of softening,” says Rick Seaney, CEO of www. farecompare.com, a site that compares airline fares.

“Base prices are lower and fuel surcharges are starting to be trimmed back,” Mr. Seaney says. Although, he adds, the fuel surcharges for Europe still are typically about $300 per ticket.

In addition, money sometimes can be saved on family tickets by booking tickets on European carriers such as Lufthansa and Air France, which often provide discounted tickets for children age 11 and younger, Mr. Seaney says. American carriers usually discount only tickets for children under age 2.

Mr. Seaney also recommends traveling off-season - primarily avoiding June, July and August - and always booking flights that include a Saturday night stay.

“Otherwise you’ll be treated like a business traveler,” he says. Meaning pricier tickets.

Speaking of avoiding high prices - or prices altogether, really - some families on a budget might choose a house swap as opposed to a hotel or apartment stay.

“You swap houses with another family and you may even get the use of their car,” Ms. Harriman says.

She recommends www.home exchange.com, which charges $99 to join and use its site. Anyone, though, can visit the site and look at the inventory - thousands of European listings - for free.

Ms. Harriman says another advantage of house swaps is if the European homeowners with whom you’re swapping have kids, they can recommend child-friendly activities and places to visit in their hometown, be it Paris or Frankfurt.

OK, so now that we’ve squared away flights and accommodations, how do you keep children - preschoolers in particular - occupied on the long flight?

“I know a lot of moms aren’t going to like this, but a portable DVD player is definitely worth the investment,” says Kelby Carr, an Asheville, N.C.-based online family travel writer. “It’s the only thing that works.”

Some may question - like Ms. Harriman, who aims her books at families with school-age children - the wisdom of taking small children to Europe since they’re not likely to remember much and certainly will cause their parents a headache or two.

Ms. Carr disagrees.

“Kids should never be a deterrent to travel,” she says. “It just takes a lot more planning.”

She also doesn’t buy the argument that young kids won’t get anything out of or remember the trip.

“Their little minds absorb everything,” Ms. Carr says. “Maybe you don’t need to teach your kid their colors at the Louvre. But it’s pretty cool if you can.”

Whatever age the children might be, though, it is important to try to accommodate their needs for structure and normalcy - bring a favorite teddy bear for a preschooler, for example - including allowing them enough time to adjust to the time difference.

“They listen to their bodies. We fight our bodies,” Ms. Harriman says. “So it takes them longer to adjust.”

She says she would recommend no less than a two-week trip for European travel with kids. She suggests splitting the time between a small town, which can be a base camp, of sorts, and big cities: For example, stay in Chartres with its magnificent cathedral, 60 miles southwest of Paris, and make excursions to the City of Light.

And language barriers?

“We have those. Children usually don’t,” Ms. Harriman says, recalling a trip to Spain she and her husband took with their two children some years ago.

“[My son] didn’t need to speak any Spanish,” she says of her son, then 10 years old. “Because he spoke soccer and skateboard.”

Of course in England even adults should be OK languagewise - even if you don’t speak skateboard.

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