(This article may or may not contain affiliate links. What does that mean?)
There’s only one time I’ve come close to cutting a trip short, calling it a failure, and buying the first available ticket home. I was in Vienna. Yes, beautiful, enchanting Vienna, on a family trip with our kids. Don’t get me wrong, my wife and I were loving Vienna’s rich history, stunning architecture, and delectable melanges.
Unfortunately, a three- and five-year-old had hijacked our trip and were running it off the rails at an alarming speed. They whined, they fought, they were cold, they refused to walk one more step.
As Americans living in Istanbul, we not only live in a sprawling European city with small children, but we also travel to the U.S. and other countries with our children at least twice a year.
So one year when Christmas was approaching and we had Capital One miles burning a hole in our pocket, we booked a last-minute flight to Vienna just in time for the final night of Vienna Christmas World on Rathausplatz.
We ice skated, sipped mulled wine and hot chocolate, and munched on sausage. Day one: success. We’d even wisely booked an Airbnb apartment with plenty of living space from which we could reach the city center on foot or by train. But after the first day or two, the kids got tired of the same old routine.
Walk here, walk there. See this museum. Eat at that restaurant. Really, mom’s stopping for coffee again? Even outings that they enjoyed, like the historic Schönbrunn Zoo, couldn’t seem to salvage the trip. The aforementioned whining continued and increased.
My wife and I even took turns taking in the sites individually and staying at the apartment or a park with the kids. But we couldn’t help feeling like we’d made a big mistake. We’d traveled with kids before, but we realized that it wasn’t usually to cities. And we realized that we had booked the trip for ourselves and dragged them along. In order to save our trip we had to come up with activities that would appeal to both the kids and us.
We had planned to stay five days in Vienna and then continue by train to the Salzburg area, stay another five days, and return to Istanbul from Salzburg. But after just three days, we started researching return flights from Vienna.
We hadn’t booked lodging near Salzburg yet and with low last-minute availability and high prices, we asked ourselves why we would keep paying money to be miserable? Unfortunately, (or as it turned out, fortunately) tickets from Vienna to Istanbul were just too high. We were stuck.
Scavenger Hunt Anyone?
But then came my trip-saving idea. One day when we were out seeing sites, I decided to make a scavenger hunt for the kids. Eat a sausage, drink hot chocolate, go inside a church, eat a pastry, ride a train, eat Schnitzel, go ice skating, see a Christmas tree, visit a palace, see a manger scene, etc.
I made the checklist in notes on my phone and let them take turns choosing an icon to go with each item and then checking the item off once completed. The kids loved it. Suddenly our trip and our Austrian bucket list became theirs, too.
We continued on our trip with renewed hope and our new secret weapon in my back pocket—literally. After visiting friends outside Vienna, we traveled across the country by train to Gmunden, a small resort town on Lake Traunsee, about an hour outside Salzburg.
The train ride was a real cultural experience as we saw how Austrians travel. We also enjoyed the scenic landscape starting with the outskirts of Vienna and moving through the open countryside.
We had one transfer and just enough time for a quick snack. We ticked off items from our scavenger hunt as we rode and everything went really well. It was a vast improvement from the days before.
A few nights earlier we had decided to stay in Gmunden, a beautiful Austrian village with an authentic old-time feel, after a brand new Airbnb listing miraculously popped up at an incredible price. As a new listing it had no reviews, so the price was low, but with a super host listing it (Airbnb superhosts have other listings and are, therefore, more reliable), we snatched up the spacious apartment with brand-new, never-been-used furnishings.
After arriving in the quaint lake-side town, surrounded by mountains, we were so thankful we hadn’t given up and gone home.
There’s only one time I’ve come close to cutting a trip short, calling it a failure, and buying the first available ticket home. I was in Vienna. Yes, beautiful, enchanting Vienna, on a family trip with our kids. Don’t get me wrong, my wife and I were loving Vienna’s rich history, stunning architecture, and delectable melanges. Unfortunately, a three- and five-year-old had hijacked our trip and were running it off the rails at an alarming speed.
Viennese Lake Country
The next day, we continued with our scavenger hunting in Gmunden. Find a coin, touch a church building, drink hot chocolate, cross the bridge, go on a hike, see a tram, catch a snowflake on your tongue, see mountains, feed birds. The list went on. We roamed the city with a purpose and the kids enjoyed every minute of it.
If we saw something interesting, we added it to the list, then checked it off. I wanted the kids to have their eyes open to interesting things around them. After all, they were learning how to be good travelers.
The following day, we took a breathtaking train ride from Gmunden to the more tourist-heavy Hallstatt. We had heard about this picturesque village from friends and knew that no trip to Austria would be complete without seeing it. Halfway through the ride, the landscape turned from brown and green to pure white as a fresh snow painted the Austrian countryside outside the window.
After ferrying across Lake Hallstatt to the picturesque hillside town, my wife and I couldn’t wait to discover its treasures and our kids couldn’t wait to get started on yet another scavenger hunt.
See the Austrian flag, touch a statue, hear a bell, see a pink building, find a hiking trail, go in a store, eat a ham and cheese sandwich nicely (that was added when lunch wasn’t going so well), play in the snow, see a waterfall, go in a tunnel, build a snowman … and more.
After a long day of exploring and hunting, we journeyed back to Gmunden by train, discussing the highlights from our day-trip.
On the last day of our trip we caught an early train to Salzburg, stashed our bags in a locker at the station, and set off on another day of scavenger hunting before our evening flight home.
After watching the Sound of Music as a family a day or two before, we had our list ready to go. See a fortress on a hill, sing a song, go to Mirabel Gardens, see a water fountain, run, skip, jump as high as you can, see a horse, go in a store, see the name Mozart.
Traveling With Children? Don’t Forget the Scavenger Hunt
At the end of the day we boarded our plane back to Istanbul, grateful that our once-failing trip had been turned around by such a simple idea. We’ve since used the scavenger hunt trick on other travels, like our trip to Heidelberg last spring.
Go to a castle, cross a bridge, go in a church, go up a tower, take a picture with LEGO Martin Luther (if you haven’t done it, you really should), take a secret passage, see pigeons, stay away from your sister, be calm in a restaurant (again, the meal had taken a turn for the worse), see a dog, touch a tree.
So, whether you’re touring Europe or driving to the city for the day, give it a try on your next trip. Happy hunting!