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How to plan your family’s first international vacation

Couple planning a trip around the world, he is pointing on a map and she is using a mobile app, vacations and holidays concept (elenab/istock)

This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Stirling Castle and Loch Lomond.

It is exponentially easier to plan a trip with kids to somewhere you've been before than it is to plot an adventure someplace new. I was forced to acknowledge this last spring as I struggled to map out my family's itinerary for a three-week, three-country European vacation. Plan a skiing, camping and hiking trip in the American West, where I was born and now live? No problem. But picking a handful of kid-friendly stops in multiple European countries when all options were on the table? Let's just say I had multiple deer-in-the-headlights moments.

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The impetus for this grand escape was my mother-in-law's 70th birthday celebration (she sent save-the-date notices two years in advance so her guests — nearly 80 in all — had plenty of time to plan). The party was slated for early July in southwestern France, so that became the foundation on which we based the trip. My husband and I also wanted quality time with our immediate family, which meant we were looking for a 12-day vacation for four. Additional criteria included being somewhere two energetic Colorado boys could run relatively free; a blend of culture, art and the outdoors; and minimal time spent in transit.

We settled on Scotland, with a three-day stopover to see friends in England before heading south to France. Though it was a relief to set the trip's scaffolding, filling in the gaps between landing in Edinburgh and departing three weeks later from Toulouse proved surprisingly challenging — not for a lack of options, but for my lack of insight. I could hardly pronounce the names of the villages, much less know which would be better: braving the gales on an abandoned, rocky beach somewhere in the outer Hebrides or a more civilized itinerary involving castle-touring, whiskey (for us) and hot chocolate (for the children), and petting the dogs of all the Scots I didn't yet know we'd meet. (And trust me, they love their dogs and bring them everywhere — heaven for young kids.)

To say I lost hours of sleep stressing about trip planning is an understatement. Part of the difficulty came from expectations; when spending thousands of dollars and taking precious time off work, there's a lot of pressure on the trip planner to pull off something sufficiently wonderful to justify the cost and effort. Part of it was concern about the kids. Henry was 7 and Silas was 5, and I wanted a trip that would inspire, entertain and educate them with minimal chance for meltdowns. And part of it came from trying to piece together an itinerary for a continent I hadn't visited since I was a single, late-night, barhopping 20-something.

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Spoiler alert: Our trip was incredible — not in the Instagram-perfect sense of the word (#honesty), but because it accomplished my top goal of bringing us together in shared adventure for days on end and strengthening our family bonds.

Did we have our ups and downs? Of course. Did I learn a lot about trip planning? Without a doubt. Here are my top takeaways.

Buy the book. Even though the Internet pulses with constantly updated information, it can overwhelm and delude people like me. After wasting hours down Internet rabbit holes, I bought the Lonely Planet guides to Scotland and France, and significantly simplified my planning. I initially wanted to tour all of Scotland, explore several islands and climb a mountain over the course of seven days. The Internet insisted that it was possible. The guide led me to conclude that it would be slapdash and exhausting.

Don't be afraid to miss "don't miss" destinations. I had the best intentions of steering us toward the Isle of Skye, Scotland's famous crown jewel, but thanks to my procrastination, I had trouble finding lodging during the (apparently, very popular) dates we would be there. At first, I was crestfallen. But our alternate destination, the Isle of Arran, also known as "Scotland in Miniature," proved to be remarkably accessible and stunning. There, we discovered an island filled with cheerful locals; an impressive distillery; a brewery and charming cheese shop; a large mountain we hiked as a family; and bucolic views that still make my heart surge months later.

Splurge on a nice hotel your first night. We couldn't afford to fly the whole family first class, but we did splurge on a large room at the luxurious Balmoral Hotel at the intersection of Edinburgh's new and old towns. J.K. Rowling wrote the seventh book in the Harry Potter series here, but even more impressive was the elegant decor and Number One, the hotel restaurant where we ate the best meal of the entire trip. The kids loved the shortbread and bath toys awaiting them in our room, and the hotel's prime location — a short walk to Edinburgh Castle and adjacent to Waverly Train Station. One soak in our room's marble tub, and it was as though the 14-hour red-eye in economy hadn't even happened.

Call the local tourism bureau. Logging onto Skype and calling both VisitScotland and the Tourist Office of Lauzerte (the small French village where my mother-in-law lives part-time) was the most efficient way to get a list of family-friendly options. Upon learning of my kids' proclivity for climbing things and being outside, Michael at VisitScotland directed us to Stirling Castle, Trossachs National Park and the Isle of Arran, assuring me that there would be plenty of opportunities for walking hills and exploring tide pools. Delphine in Lauzerte assured me that children would love the prehistoric cave drawings at Pech Merle and informed me about nearby Chateau Feely, a winery known for its biodynamic processes and excellent cafe that welcomes children. These bureaus are staffed with regional experts. Use them.

Pay luggage fees in advance on budget airlines. It's true that European budget airlines have mind-bogglingly low rates, such as the $39-per-person, one-way flight on Flybe that I booked from Birmingham, England (where we stayed with friends for three days), to Toulouse, France. But that didn't include the baggage fees, which I realized applied to every piece of luggage, even carry-ons. Paying those fees in advance saved a significant amount of money. My takeaway: Always read the fine print, especially when dealing with budget operations.

Rent a car if public transit is spotty. Like many Americans, I fetishized Europe's interconnected public transportation system. But I quickly learned that our off-the-beaten path choices in Scotland and in southwestern France did not have regular transit service. The car was among our biggest expenditures, but the freedom it allowed was, as they say, priceless, especially with little ones whose patience for long bus rides and waiting rooms isn't as evolved as that of their parents.

Aim for balance. For part of our trip, we were on the go, seeing the sights in Edinburgh, driving to Loch Lomond and exploring the nearby national park — all while fitting in castle visits along the way. For other parts we stayed put, renting a house for four days on the Isle of Arran and settling into another house in France with family for a week and a half. Having the balance of activity and a slower-paced base camp kept our energy high.

Always ask locals where to eat. Always. Despite the prevalence of apps with extensive restaurant reviews, our best meals always came from local suggestions. The woman from whom we rented a cottage on the Isle of Arran told me that Scottish ferries have delicious food. She was right. Her tip introduced my 5-year-old to the joys of delicious chicken curry, and I indulged in a decadent, savory pastry dish with salmon and cheese that I would love to have again.

Less is more. In everything. We each had the smallest suitcase on the market, generally marketed for children, which was guaranteed to fit in the overhead bins of most airplanes. This forced us to pack light. And did we ever keep it simple: a few changes of clothes, one sweater, a rain jacket, a bathing suit. Yes, we did a lot of laundry. We also all wore everything we brought.

Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.

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