It was 9:15 a.m., and the Eiffel Tower had barely opened for the day. Nonetheless, we faced a 90-minute line-up before our two young kids — ages 4 and 6, respectively — would get to take the trip up the tower that they had been begging for since the moment we landed in Paris. But half an hour into the line-up, their patience (though not their enthusiasm) was wearing thin. So we did what any rational, tech-centric parent would do: we produced a pair of iPads, and handed one to each kid.
Five minutes later, peace was restored. In fact, the kids looked so happy in their distraction that we decided to follow suit. Each of us took out an iPhone, and there we stood, inching forward in line, playing on our respective screens.
Then we made the mistake of looking up.
All around us, the tourists of the world had been distracted from the prospect of their Eiffel Tower visit by an even more amazing sight: we four and our four screens. A German couple elbowed each other and pointed. A pair of Spanish kids craned their necks to see what our kids were playing with. And a family of Japanese tourists pulled out their cameras and took our pictures.
When your family’s technology use starts to compete with one of the world’s most beloved tourist attractions, it could be time to re-evaluate the role of technology in your travels. Or it could be the time to embrace your geekiness and incorporate it into your travel planning.
You’ll be shocked to hear that we took the latter route. If anything, our two weeks abroad gave me an even greater appreciation for the miracle that is the smart phone, and its ability to make travel with kids a whole lot smarter. The last time I was in Europe was not only pre-iPhone, it was pre-kids: and now that I’ve braved (and enjoyed!) international travel with two young children, I feel thankful that I got to do it with an iPhone in hand.
Here are 10 ways you can use your smartphone to get the most out of travelling with your kids:
Jet lag cure
- Stimulant: If your travel involves a major timezone change, you may find it hard to get your kids past their jet lag. In our case, the challenge was keeping the kids awake late enough on their first couple of nights in Paris. But for the very reason that most experts recommend against letting your kids play video games close to bedtime — the overstimulation makes it hard to fall asleep — we found our iPhones to be a great ally in keeping the kids awake. When we reached the droopy end-of-day when the kids just wouldn’t keep their eyes open, we handed over the iPhones and encouraged them to play high-stimulation games like Implode and Frogger.
- Travel clock: One challenge in adjusting to a new place and time is figuring out when it’s appropriate to wake up. When our four-year-old woke me up our first night in Paris, I had no idea if we’d just fallen asleep or if it was close enough to morning that I could let him get up. From then on, I used the Theme Clock app every night: it keeps the hour on permanent display, so that when we woke up in the night, I could instantly see if it was an appropriate time for a snack, potty break or morning wake-up.
- Night light: It’s scary for kids to wake up in an unfamiliar location, and tough for them to find their way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. But we were leery about leaving lights on, since darkness helps with the adjustment to a new time zone. The gentle illumination from our iPhone clock provided just enough light to make them comfortable during middle-of-the-night wake-ups.
- Kid fun: Our Paris explorations were targeted at sights and activities our kids we hoped our kids would enjoy. Appls like DK’s Top 10 Paris (which included a list of top 10 kids’ attractions) and Lonely Planet Paris (which let us look up details on major attractions) helped us find our way to attractions like the Musée des Arts and Metiers, which was a huge hit. And the dedicated app for Paris Plages, the family-oriented riverfront festival that happens in Paris each summer, helped up discover the street performance that was a highlight of the trip.
- DIY Guidebook: Before leaving home, I did lots of research on topics like the best kids’ attractions in Paris, the best places to eat with kids, and the best restaurants in the neighborhood where we were staying. I used Evernote‘s web clipper to save the results of my research into an Evernote notebook called Paris, and I used Evernote’s settings on my iPhone to select the “Paris” notebook for offline use. If I used my computer to find a new activity or a fresh set of restaurant options, I added that to my notebook too; if I looked up a bus route, I took a screen shot of the results using Skitch, then dragged it into Evernote, too. As long as I remembered to sync Evernote on my iPhone before leaving the house each morning, I had a constantly up-to-date guidebook tailored to our plans for that day.
- Portable highlights: In addition to the iPhone guides, we purchased a couple of guidebooks dedicated to kids’ fun in Paris. Rather than schlepping these everywhere we went, I began each day by snapping pictures of the relevant pages with my iPhone, and using my Photos app as a kind of mobile guidebook.
- Snack finder: Traveling with kids changes your perception of a “close” location for the next snack or meal. Traveling solo or with Rob, I’m happy to walk fifteen or twenty minutes, even when starving, if it means my next bite will be something special. But even two blocks can feel like an impossibly long walk if you’re with a tired, starving and cranky kid who insists on being carried. Thank goodness for Yelp, which lets you search for cafés or restaurants, sort them by distance, and filter for those that are open now.
- Navigation lesson: When our daughter got impatient with the time it took for us to plan out each Metro route, we included her in the planning by handing over an iPhone. The GPS locator made it easy for her to figure out our location on the Paris Smart Map; we used the iPhone to teach her how to navigate to the nearest Metro using the map.
- Local flavor: While searching for Paris-related apps that would help us navigate or find restaurants, I came across a few games and activities that were aimed at kids. The iPétanque app harnessed our little ones’ gaming to the characteristically French game of boules; Paris Concentration got them playing the usual card-matching game against a backdrop of Paris monuments.
- Dinner companion: We wanted to enjoy some serious meals out, but knew our kids wouldn’t have the patience to sit through a three-course meal at a nice restaurant. Thanks to the iPhones, we made it work: when the kids got antsy, we let them play games as long as they kept the sound off.
With the iPhone in such heavy rotation, you might expect that the Eiffel Tower wasn’t the only place we drew stares. And it’s true that our use of smartphones (not to mention the kids’) was more anomalous and conspicuous in Europe than it is in North America.
But for the most part, I felt like the iPhones made us less conspicuous as tourists than we would be without them. Instead of standing on a street corner with a map and guidebook, I stood there with an iPhone — just as I would here in Vancouver. Instead of eating in the touristy cafés, we found our way to the local watering holes. Instead of being Those Horrible Tourists With Their Noisy Children, we were Those Weird People with the iPhones.
In other words, ourselves.