This is why we explore Europe with our friends and their kids


By Courtney Woodruff

My friend, Lori, and I sat next to each other on a park bench at a playground in downtown Amsterdam. Our boys were busy building tiny kingdoms in a sandbox, and we were enjoying a few minutes of quiet conversation and camaraderie after a long day of sightseeing. Every so often, our sentences were punctuated by the soft click of our cameras as we snapped photos of the kids playing together.

“We’re in the Netherlands right now,” I said out loud, as if I’d suddenly recognized our surroundings.

Instead of laughing at me for stating the obvious, my traveling bestie simply replied with a deep sigh and an “I know.” She knew exactly what I meant: We’re in Amsterdam right now. . . watching our kids play together like it’s any other day. Is this real life?!

By now, Lori and I have collected a handful of these moments together, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. We’ve attended European fests, toured museums, visited Legoland Deutschland, and celebrated Thanksgiving in Strasbourg, France with our kids and husbands. Most recently, our families headed to Holland for an unforgettable spring break vacation.

Looking back, traveling with our friends has been one of the highlights of our experience living overseas. If you’ve never considered finding companions to join you on your travels around the world, check out this list of things that make the experience mutually beneficial–and downright awesome–for each family.

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1. Save money by splitting as many expenses as possible

The cost of overnight stays, transportation, and meals can do quite a bit of damage to your travel budget before you even factor in the price of excursions, activities and souvenirs. Splitting expenses with friends whenever possible helps save you money while also giving you a bigger bang for your buck. For example, instead of paying for two separate hotel rooms, consider pooling your finances to rent a larger, more comfortable space from Airbnb or Booking.com. On our recent trip to Holland, we were able to reserve a comfortable farmhouse that would have been out of our price range if we’d planned the trip on our own–and our half of the fees ending up being less than what we would have spent on a small hotel room with fewer amenities.

Houses with kitchens also present the opportunity to share the financial and physical burden of preparing meals. When it’s not your night to cook dinner, offer to do the dishes. Over our four-night stay, each family covered the groceries for two evenings so we could save the money we would have spent dining out at restaurants.

If you’re driving, take one vehicle whenever you can and divide up the cost of gas, tolls, and parking fees. Even though it wasn’t practical for both of our families (and our luggage) to pile into one SUV to make the four-and-a-half hour trip to the Netherlands, we saved money by carpooling back and forth to our destinations in Amsterdam, Haarlem, and Lisse.

2. Take better family photos

Traveling with friends means you don’t have to trust your cell phone or expensive camera to the stranger that happened to walk by at just the right moment. And you can leave the selfie sticks at home. Take turns snapping pictures of each other–with the whole family in the shot! My friend, Lori, is a talented photographer, and she is wonderful about capturing candid shots of my husband and me with our kids. These images are the most precious souvenirs I have from our vacations together. We even had our own private photoshoot in Keukenhof Gardens, taking our time until each family was satisfied with their photographs.

3. Share childcare responsibilities

It’s true that it “takes a village to raise a child.” Extra pairs of hands and eyes are always welcome when it comes to caring for children, especially when you are out of your comfort zone and in an unfamiliar place. During the week, we took turns watching each other’s kids so the couples could steal a few rare private moments together, like touring the Anne Frank House without chasing after little ones through tiny rooms. We also made sure to plan a special ladies’-only excursion to the Corrie ten Boom House and a guys’ trip to the Heineken Brewery. This gave the moms and dads the opportunity to explore on their own and get to know one another better. At the same time, the kids played together and enjoyed each other’s company without tagging along to activities that would have bored them to tears. Sharing childcare responsibilities allowed us more time to relax, savor the unique travel experiences, and be present in the special moments.

4. Forge deeper bonds of friendship

When military life requires you to move every three years (more or less), it can be easy to form quick companionship with solidarity sisters and misters in your community. But true friendships–the kind that last a lifetime and feel like family–are built from the ground, up. Taking trips with friends may leave you feeling vulnerable at first, as it allows acquaintances to get a good glimpse of what real life looks like for you every day (complete with bed head, family quarrels, and piles of dirty laundry); however, it also gives you the unique opportunity to genuinely get to know their personalities and families from the inside-out. Mark Twain once said, “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” Our traveling buddies have seen us at our best and worst, and, thankfully, they still seem to love us as much as we adore them.

On our last day in the Netherlands, Lori and I had a few hours to hang out while the boys spent the afternoon at a children’s museum with their dads. After a delicious lunch, we found ourselves debating what to do with the little bit of time we had left. In the end, we chose to head back to the farmhouse to get into our pajamas and indulge in a chick flick instead of checking off another item on our Amsterdam bucket lists. I was surprised to discover it isn’t the famous sites and monuments we visit, the delicious foods we taste, or the fun activities we participate in that stand out the most in our travels. Instead, it’s the people we journey with, the moments we share, and all of the laughs we have together along the way.