Introducing my kids to new experiences and cultures is one of the most important things I want to do for and with my kids. Travel often teaches flexibility, respect, and awareness of other cultures, and brings history to life in a way just a book can never do. In addition, travel gives my kids a sense of the greater world that exists beyond their home region, state, or country. The big question for me is how can we travel as a family, without spending a small fortune? Here are some planning tips.
Hotels can be expensive with a family, not to mention cramped and inconvenient. I can’t recall how many times my husband and I sat in a dark room being completely silent and hoping our kids would fall asleep quickly so we could watch a TV show (on mute with closed captioning…very romantic), or in earlier years, when we stuffed a portable crib into the corner. Instead, consider:
- Smaller chain hotels (e.g. Premier Inn in the UK) that cater to modest business travelers
- If you need to choose hotels, look for those with a kitchenette (e.g. Springhill Suites or a newer Residence Inn)
- While hotels near airports can often offer better rates, they may not be as good a deal once you factor in transportation cost to get to and from the city. If your time is limited, consider if its worth it. You may have a better experience staying inside the city at a slightly higher cost, if you avoid a lot of wasted time in transit.
When booking from a vacation rental site, be thoughtful in your selection of a property; for example:
- Research the area of town for any property that interests you. There are options for every budget and taste including some great eco-friendly ones here.
- Check property reviews and read them thoroughly! If no reviews or no prior host or guests stays, choose a different property. It’s important to choose properties hosted by those that have some experience as hosts (and as guests too, ideally)
- Since eating out is one of the biggest money drains on a vacation, be sure the property you select has enough kitchen space and equipment to prepare basic meals. This alone will cut your vacation food expense in half.
- As well, be prepared for unexpected surprises, such as an elevator out of service, a hot water heater not working, or unexpected nearby construction.
- Ask questions before you book - about the space, the neighborhood, the nearby amenities or services, the noise, or whether their furnishings are child friendly, etc.
If you choose this style of lodging, be flexible and open to finding solutions if you find yourself in an unexpected situation. If you’re the super planner type, you could book a hotel as a backup plan (but be sure to cancel before the trip if you aren’t going to need it)!
We love exploring and introducing our kids to new cuisine from around the world but cannot afford to eat out for every meal. A good rule of thumb is to eat out only one meal each day so you can sample local tastes without breaking the bank. For domestic travel by car, bring a cooler and pack lunch and snack items.
Though many places will allow you to bring in food, if not, just find a bench or grassy area to sit and eat outside the attraction or location entrance. When traveling with younger age kids, plan your day in two segments; am and pm so you can go back to your ‘base’ for lunch and naps.
Souvenirs & Spending Money
With some advanced planning, you can save a few headaches. For example, before the trip, agree on a set amount of spending money for each child (or amount of their own money to bring, if applicable). Then, relax and allow the kids to spend it how they see fit. You won’t have to constantly say “no” or hear whines or begging to buy that just right thing (as long as you stick to the planned amount)!
Allowing kids to choose helps develop decision making skills and determine what is most important to them, even if it is the hundredth stuffed animal or para cord bracelet.
We often want to explore and introduce our kids to different cultures, but we can’t afford to buy tickets to every event, attraction, or ‘must do’ in town. Discuss it first and select a few main attractions. Most likely you will not go to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower but you can also find fun off-the-beaten-path excursions that may not cost a dime. For example, parks, free walking tours, local markets, free exhibits, late entry museum discounts, and hiking trails are all great options.
One of our favorite things to do in Paris was to buy French baguette sandwiches and relax in a local park eating our repas francais. Or while in San Francisco, the kids loved checking out Asian markets in Chinatown. This summer we went to Boston and visited the freedom trail (yep free!) as one of our key activities.
Though there are many variables that go into the calculation of ticket fares (time of year, holidays, events, days of week, availability, location etc), there are ways to minimize the cost:
- Travel during non-peak season: Summers and holidays are the most expensive time for air travel. A flight to London during the summer could cost 30%+ less if you travel over the off season or during spring break instead.
- Do your homework: Websites like Kayak, Expedia, Priceline, Orbitz, OneTravel, and Fare Compare allow searches for multiple carriers at once to find the best prices. Kayak allows you to compare many sites and the interface is easy to use.
- Check daily and try varying the day of the week that you travel. Many sites will give you the option for flexible dates. Kayak also provides a graph that shows the history of prices and gives a prediction for future prices. If you don’t have the time to research, websites like Kayak and Travelzoo allow you to sign up for fare alerts and will email you when prices drop.
- Many credit cards allow you to earn points for using it on everyday purchases, so every time you buy groceries, you could be closer to your dream vacation.
- If you need to check your bags (and pay fees), save by consolidating/sharing a bag between two people or use a larger carry-on to reduce the number of checked bags.
Without a doubt, traveling on a budget as a family can take a lot more planning, but the moments, memories, and lessons can undoubtedly last a lifetime.
Corrie Wiedmann and Shannon Tennyson