After seven months of family travel in Asia and now wrapping up our third month in Europe (and seeing over 10 countries in Europe), I am finally forming enough of an option to write this blog post. I will likely go in and edit later as we still have two more months before we leave Europe, but I feel a good grasp on the differences.
Family travel is a unique experience, so my observations are based on this kind of travel. Traveling as a single person or couple may be totally different. Also, these are just OUR experiences and may vary widely from experiences you’ve had! So take it all with a grain of salt. Also remember in most of these places we are mix of tourists and trying to “live” there for a month, so we do things many tourists don’t (doctors visits, dentist appointments, health and beauty care, grocery shopping, etc.)
What are the biggest differences when it comes to family travel between Asia and Europe? While trying to generalize such large areas is difficult and not always accurate, these have been my take-aways after nearly a year of full-time international travel.
- Costs: This is a big one and well-known to most seasoned travelers: Europe is one of the most expensive places to travel. However, it can be done just as cheaply, I’d say, as Asia. This has surprised me. There is a MASSIVE variation in transportation costs, housing costs and food costs in Europe. Many of those differences are a surcharge to tourists. You can get this in Asia as well, for sure, but it’s more of an undercurrent here in Europe. For example, our guide in Italy for a day-trip was discussing this with us and gave us some incredible info! He said the prices on the English menu alone are usually 2-3X the price for locals. He can get a pizza anywhere, he said, for 5 euro and we usually see 10-20 euros on a menu. Everything is a premium for the tourists. Sometimes you may even see a price listed in a board and they will charge you more at the register. You can stick to your guns and ask for the listed price, so pay attention. To some degree, we just accept this and roll with it. There are also cheaper countries in Europe, for sure, just like in Asia. Portugal and Italy can be quite affordable or massively expensive. Croatia is very affordable (our cheapest stay yet). France seems to be a much biggest expense as I imagine Germany and Austria will be as well.
- Transportation: Overall, transportation is about the same. I’d say getting taxis in Asia was overall easier… we get blown off a lot in Europe! The drivers are not as friendly in Europe, especially with kids, which makes family travel harder. SE Asia is much cheaper on everything, but Japan is about on par with Europe when it comes to taxis. The trains/bus systems are really good in all major cities on both continents. Signs are in English or have English subtitles 95% of the time, so it’s just figuring out the finer details of where to go. This usually means we try one direction and find out it is wrong. The international train system in Europe is INCREDIBLE and easy. Overall cleanliness of train stations and bus stops varies by country with Singapore and Japan being the cleanest BY FAR.
- Friendliness: Asia wins the cake on this one. Overall, they are just more friendly to tourists. They don’t expect you to speak their language and aren’t offended when you don’t. In Europe, this hasn’t been too bad, but there is some frustration as you blunder along in English. Most people here speak 2-5 languages, so you stand out more this way. At least in Asia, English is the common language between Europe and Asia (as well as the US and Asia), so most tourists are speaking English. We have Northern European heritage, so a couple of times here in Rome I’ve been mistaken for a European (until I open my mouth, of course!). That has been kind of fun versus looking totally different in Asia from the local heritage.
- I miss the kindness or politeness of Asia. Thailand is so friendly and welcoming. Other Asian countries we visited varied, but I think they are working hard to get tourism and they welcome it, for the most part. Europe, on the other hand and in a broad sense, feels like they put up with tourists, but would rather not deal with them at all 🙂
- Ease for a Big Family: I’d say Europe and Asia are about equal. The world of hospitality, in general, is built for families with two kids worldwide. Hotel rooms vary based on the size and cost of the city, but are roughly the same everywhere. Parts of SE Asia seemed to be easier to get larger taxis, especially Thailand. However, we’ve had good luck in Rome also. Be sure to check our my tips for transportation around the world (currently drafting) for general tips on getting around. Love of children varies country to country, but is more overt in SE Asia. European affection for the kids shows in small, little touches or caresses from some adults. On the flip side, we’ve had a good number of adults in Europe get very frustrated we decided to travel with children at all, to the point of yelling at our children (just a couple of times). That’s not my favorite AT ALL and puts me totally on edge. We never had that happen in Asia, which is why I consider that an amazing destination for family travel.
- Food: Hands-down easier in Europe. If you are coming from the US, you will just be way more familiar with food in Europe. Asian food is AMAZING and I love it, but eventually, after months of travel, you and your family just want some comfort food. This is one reason we search out Mexican food everywhere we go :). Many tourist spots in Asia still serve “American” classics like burgers and hot dogs and pizza, but it can vary widely on quality. Sometimes it’s just gross! The food in Europe has been so delicious, especially here in Rome. Portugal was yummy and we found some wonderful places, but I feel like every meal here in Rome is knocking my socks off with something! From the cheese to the bread to the pastries to the gelato, Europe is just more familiar. I chuckle as we walk around Europe and see the the token Chinese Restaurant, packed with Asian tourists. I think it goes the other way too: they crave familiar foods as well. This doesn’t even touch on being gluten-free. There is no competition on GF food. Asia barely even know what that means. It is VERY hard to find (the only fall back in expensive hotels that cater to western tourists. They always have GF options when asked). Europe has been SO easy relatively. Gas stations, restaurants, groceries stores have all had GF options. The most difficult was Croatia, but anything in the EU has loads of options.
- Beds.You may laugh at this category, but it’s no joke! A bad bed can ruin a vacation. You’ll be walking around with back pain or neck pain, popping pain pills– NOT fun to deal with while trying to travel with your family. Jet lag is already going to kick you in the behind, so having a good bed goes a long way! We’ve slept on all kinds of beds around the world, including the floor in Japan. Overall, you get what you pay for :). Western hotels are going to have more comfortable beds. Asian countries, in general, like hard beds. Our bed in Hong Kong was, not kidding, a piece of plywood with a mattress pad. It was incredibly uncomfortable and painful. Chinese tend to like the hardest beds, I believe, and Japanese traditionally sleep on tatami mats on the floor. Know this before you book your Airbnb! Beds in Europe have varied about as much as they might across the US. Some softer, some harder, but all reasonable.
- Bathrooms. I could (and probably will eventually) write an entire blog post on bathrooms. Let’s just say it now: outside of Japan, bathrooms are a MILLION times easier in Europe!
Japanese bathrooms are the best in the world. Not only are they the cleanest, but they are designed perfectly and are super high tech! Even public restrooms in Japan are cleaner than any gas station in the US or Europe. Japanese showers and tubs are combined into one room, so you can splash in the tub to your hearts content (which I LOVED for our toddlers). I could just close the door and leave them to splash away! I also was constantly amazed at Japanese tech in the bathroom. Sometimes the seat would rise as you entered, white noise or nature sounds might play as you sit down (so you can’t hear each other pee), the seat might cleaned, the bowl will be sprayed (so nothing sticks to it). I maybe miss Japanese bathrooms the most out of anything in Japan! (Sorry, tangent there on Japanese bathrooms!).
Other Asian toilets can vary from totally normal looking westerns to squatty potties. Don’t know what that is? It’s basically a hole in the ground with a place for your feet on either side. You squat down to do your business and it flushes away with some water. If you can’t squat super low, you end up spraying yourself and your feet and legs. Gross. However, these are much more familiar and comfortable for Asian cultures. Western toilets are reserved for the elderly that can’t squat, the handicapped, and tourists.
Toilet paper is hit or miss and also varies on if you can flush it down the toilet (no-no in Thailand). Instead, you need to throw it away. Also gross.
European bathrooms are quite similar to the US with a few exceptions. First, there are ALWAYS bidets in apartments/houses and hotels. Second, a few times in restaurants or cafes or gas stations there is no toilet seat in the women’s toilet. It’s just the bowl. I can’t figure out if this is cost savings or for cleaning purposes or what. It’s strange to me. Flushing can also be really different, from tanks over the toilet to floor pedals you need to push. They usually have two flushing options: solid waste or liquid waste. Cleanliness is like the US- varies based on where you are.
- Sidewalks. In Asia, these show up or get better with the more developed a country is. There are a LOT of places in SE Asia with no sidewalks at all. Japan always has sidewalks as does Europe. Just something to keep in mind as you truck around with young children. Also, note that strollers on cobblestones (hello most of Europe) is not very fun. Nor are high heels.
- Parks. Another consideration for those of us traveling with young children are places to let them run. Parks are an important part of family travel. Asia had some really good parks! Bali didn’t really have any, but they do have beaches. Thailand has some, both in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Our hotel in Vietnam had a great playground and China probably has some, but we were on a tour all the time. The best parks in the world are in Japan, for sure. Amazing parks and so plentiful. You just have to walk a block or two to get to a park and playground. Europe has been hit and miss, but they have not been plentiful. We didn’t really find any in Portugal (and I spent some good time looking). Rome has had a few, but they are not plentiful. So far, Europe takes a bit of planning to find a park, if they are available in your area at all.
- Beaches: Asia has some fabulous beaches. Some of the most beautiful in the world. They also tend to come with some serious trash. The more developed the country, the better it is, of course. You’d be shocked by the beach and ocean trash that exists in SE Asia. This has not been the case in Europe at all, probably because it is just being cleaned up regularly. We’ve been to a few public beaches and they are pretty clear of trash.
The ocean, sadly, is FULL of trash. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just Google it and find some info on the trash island underwater. It’s the stuff of nightmares. Trash just washes up on beaches everywhere with the tide, but perhaps there is just more awareness and cleanup here. Or different tides. Or less trash in these oceans. I don’t know.
- Clothing: Surprisingly, this varies a lot less than you might think. Fashion can have it’s extremes anywhere, but it’s so much less than I expected. Temperature dictates a lot more, but really only Thailand and Bali had more traditional clothing. It’s about the same everywhere else. I feel like I see the same clothing stores in malls around the world.
Hopefully this gives you some good ideas if you are considering international family travel soon! Every place comes with quirks and bonuses. No where is perfect either. In the end, enjoy the culture and learning experience!