Family Travel on a Budget – Here’s How you Do it

Travel Money
Written by Kirstie Pelling

Family Travel on a Budget – Here’s How You Do It

Travel is expensive. There’s no getting away from it. Even if you do it cheaply. And in a world where airlines are even suggesting charging for the toilets, is it still possible to cut corners and costs? Yes! We have spent our lives trying to do family travel on a budget; for better or for worse. Here’s a few of our tips for how a family (like us) can do it for less…

Family travel on a budget? It's all in the planning

Family travel on a budget? It’s all in the planning

Family Travel on a Budget- Why do it at all?

If I had money I might not budget for a holiday at all. I’d just spend, spend, spend. But I’m married to Stuart, who is the self appointed budget king. In his world, talking money begins even as he traces his finger along the contours on a map while calculating how fast a family member can pedal uphill. For me the only joy in sticking to a budget comes is knowing we got something just that little bit cheaper and can afford an extra latte or hotel night. Ditching the budget on the other hand gives me immense joy and the fleeting satisfaction of needling the budget king.

Captain Stuart relaxing on deck

Budget Captain Stuart relaxing on deck

Families do have to budget carefully

I was brought up in a family where saving money was a necessity. My Mum made our clothes. We went on holiday to my Aunt’s caravan and played on playgrounds or wandered ruined castles rather than spending on big attractions. Now I’m a grown up I feel things should have changed. I shouldn’t have to watch the pennies. But of course, like any family that’s not the case. We do have to budget. Especially on holiday where as we all know, it can all go out of control. Besides, I’ve learnt over the years that a bit of careful planning, budgeting and cutting back can enable you to do much bigger things with the money you do have.

Nature's Park Garden Resort, Mactan Island, The Philippines

With a bit of travel planning you can afford to do more of this

How do we afford our travels?

Travel can be a money guzzler. As soon as you leave the front door you are bombarded with cab fees, flight taxes, baggage charges and airport parking. Unless you are a student or pensioner, there seems to be no such thing as a cheap rail ticket any more. And, even in the age of the last minute accommodation sites, if you are a family of five, a reasonably priced hotel room that can house you all is the Holy Grail. We spend a lot of time worrying about holiday budgets and working on how to bring them down. And we suspect we’re not the only ones. In fact we know we’re not; recently Google Analytics informed us that someone had been repeatedly tapping in “How do the Family Adventure Project afford their travels?” into Google. And I mean repeatedly.

Well, the answer is, we jiggle and we juggle, we penny pinch and fudge it and cut corners where we can. We don’t have access to air miles because we don’t fly enough. (And we don’t fly much because we don’t have access to air miles). And our kids don’t go to the kind of school where a holiday in Mauritius is offered as a raffle prize at sports day. This is how we do it and are doing it right now. Feel free to add your ideas and suggestions in the comments. And check out this other mega money saving post on cheap ways to stay.

Planning Nightmares

Detailed planning is my personal nightmare, but it can save you money.

1 How can I get around cheaply?

Sadly these days, your travel budget is often blown before you even get anywhere. How did a meal on a ferry get so expensive? Why did no one mention those tunnel tolls? And hang on a minute, how much are you paying for your mother in law to call on the mobile to confess she’s lost the cat? So my number one tip for family travel on a budget is to brainstorm all of those hidden costs before you commit to booking if you want to avoid racking up the euros or dollars while you travel.

Your flight or ferry is often your greatest expense. So make sure you do your research. There are loads of flight comparison sites to help you with this like Kayak and Skyscanners.

You can also compare modes of transport to find out which is the cheapest. If you normally fly could you do it cheaper by train? Could you even do it in the car or on a bus? And again, don’t forget to work in hidden costs. An overnight sleeper train may seem an expensive option, but it might save you splashing out for a night’s hotel in a city. Think about a Eurail pass if you are planning a few trips. Or see if there’s a budget airline transporting passengers to an airport near the city you want to visit rather than directly into it. We recently found some good deals for Croatia flying into Zadar.

When you are there, keep an eye on local transport costs as these can mount up. Beware the cost of an open topped bus versus the local authority version. Kids travel free on some public transport systems so it’s worth asking at the Tourist Information. And walking only costs you shoe leather!

Lastly, make sure all your passports are up to date in advance so you don’t need a costly emergency dash to the passport office before you go. That was a bit embarrassing earlier this year when I nearly had to leave Cameron behind.

Kirstie and Cameron on tandem waiting for ferry

Getting around can be expensive. Look for the options for family travel on a budget or even power yourself.

2 How can I get cheap beds?

There are lots of sites that offer families cheap all inclusive deals for every budget. We spent a week in the Algarve on a half board deal. It didn’t mean we couldn’t take off and have an adventure. We spent the bulk of our budget on activities. But what if you want to go it alone? Or do a city based holiday where all inclusive deals aren’t the norm. You might think you’d need to put money in an offshore savings account to fund four or five people doing central Europe for two weeks, and perhaps you would if you chose to stay in five star hotels every night and didn’t book ahead. But it is possible not to break the bank. Keep an eye out for advance special deals, especially off season. While pre-booking can feel restrictive if you prefer improvisational travel, sometimes saving the cash is of more value than living whimsically.

Or go the other way and do it all last minute. A hotel owner will be much more likely to agree a discount if he is unlikely to sell the last bed to someone else. If you are the last minute type then you could use the accommodation booking sites. But you don’t need to do this last minute. They may have titles like Late Rooms but they offer deals many months in advance. Their Top Secret rooms are often good value too. You won’t know the hotel until you have booked but you can type some of the phrases into a search engine and see if it makes a good guess. On o our top tips for family travel on a budget is to stay in a ski resort in summer when you can get a small ski chalet at a rock bottom price.

Cyclists welcome at Premier Inn

Budget hotels and self powered transport. That’s cheap!

In the UK Premier Inn or Travelodge always give you what you expect, at cheap rates if you book online, quite far in advance. There can be restrictions on five staying in a room, but hey who’s to know if you sneak an extra one in under your coat?

There are budget hotel chains like Days Inn all across Europe which are a cost effective if somewhat unglamorous option. Youth hostels can still offer some great deals, although probably not as cheap as budget hotels when you have to pay per head for a large family. But in many countries you can camp in the grounds and use the facilities for just a small fee. Ring and ask.

This may sound extreme but if you are flying into a country very late at night do you need that hotel room? Could you save one night’s fee by mooching around at the airport and then trying to check in early into your room the next day? And sometimes airports in places like Singapore rent rooms by the hour. Perhaps you only need three or four hours sleep instead of eight? It’s not always practical with tired kids but you might want to be creative.

Alternatively, look at a house swap, a house sit or try some couch surfing. Not everyone wants a family of five staying with them, but there are some who will positively welcome you.

The cheapest way of all is to take a tent. It’s the most flexible too. Look on the map for cheap, free or wild campsites and watch the budget drop, drop, drop. If you go wild, make sure you are legal though.

Tent wild camping in forest

The ultimate in low cost accommodation and family travel on a budget? Wild camping in a forest.

3 How can I get cheap eats?

I’d rather sleep like a pauper and eat like a King than the other way around. How about you? Food is fuel when you’re outdoors and active and kids are a nightmare when hungry.

On a longer trip; think picnic to really bring down costs. Take a little stove and cook for yourselves in the open air if you crave hot food. Shop with the locals and use supermarkets and markets to pick up supplies. These often also have cheap cafes so you can eat in while you are there. If you are flying with budget airlines take a picnic onto the plane with you. Drink is banned when going through security but food isn’t.

The most expensive part of a meal is often the table and chair, and that’s not even tasty, so eat street food or take-away or find a park bench to have an al fresco dinner. Fast food is often cheap and while it may not sit well with the five a day rule you can always buy extra carrots and bananas to compensate. Or you can just ditch the rules and eat healthily when you get back home.

When we do venture into a restaurant it’s not unknown for us to skip courses or share them. Why not order one less meal and an extra plate?

Food, doughnuts, ices, croissant

Perhaps not the healthiest diet but snacking, street & fast food will bring your costs down.

4 How can I seek out the best value activities and attractions?

What shall we do? What shall we do? Why are we so obsessed by doing stuff? Sometimes it’s more habit than the path to happiness. How often are you seduced by the aquarium when the kids would be happy looking at fishes and ducks in the park?  Attractions can be money stealers so if you’re looking to save cash look for the simple and free alternatives.

Local guides, newspapers, and tourist information centres can be good places to identify free local events. Many cities offer local guides who will show you around for free on walking or biking tours. Some museums have free entry and others have certain days or times when entry is free; a little research can save you fortune. Go online and ask in forums what others recommend for free. If you geocache your way round a city, you even get free presents. Ask at tourist information when you get there.

Remember those birthdays when you bought your kid an expensive toy and they spent hours playing with the cardboard box? Well travel is often like that.

Algarve Beach at Sunset

When it comes to entertainment, many of the best things in life are free

5 How can I shave periphery costs?

We probably stress more about this more than most, but the kind of travel we do often involves travelling light or with specialist outdoor gear. However you travel, it’s easy to get gear and packing obsessed, to splash out on new outfits or the latest gadget, things you could probably do without.  Over the years we’ve trained ourselves to be more make do and mend, saved a fortune and gradually become a bit less shiny and fashionable. However you travel there are probably many little extras you could cut out or be creative about. Do you all really need this season’s sunglasses? Do you all need to take a phone or could you share and save on your bills?

Do you need to use airport parking or do you have a friend near the airport who could look after the car for you? Or could you use a site like ParkLet to rent a cheap parking space? We often ask the local vicar to keep an eye on our car for a few weeks for a small donation to church funds. Weird I know, but it works.

When flying taking less clothes can save on baggage charges. So, can the kids share T-shirts? If you’re going to a cheap hot country, is it cheaper to take no baggage, fly out in your swim suit and buy a few clothes when you get there? Or if you’re going somewhere chilly, can you save on baggage fees by wearing all your clothes rather than packing them into the hold?

Make gaffer tape, needles and thread your friend. If your luggage is falling apart, patch it with sugru; it’ll be much more recognisable on the conveyor at baggage reclaim. Put clothes in plastic bags inside if you worried about the rain getting in. Or borrow a case from a friend. OK I know I’m starting to sound mad now, but I think you get my point.

Save money through make do and mend

Second hand and make do and mend. You’ll never be trendy but you’ll save a fortune.

6 Can I save while I spend?

You shouldn’t need to place your entire life savings in an international bank account to have a decent length family holiday abroad. There are loads of ways of saving money by just making a few practical tweaks to how you fund and run your holiday. You may already be more familiar with air miles than we are. But there are other ways of saving money through reward schemes.

Use your supermarket loyalty cards to buy travel or tickets to attractions. Avios offers travel in exchange for pounds spent at certain shops. Use cash back cards and sites to buy anything you need for your trip and you’ll earn a little bonus spending money. We use Quidco a lot.

Don’t renew your insurance. Book each year to get the cash back. And don’t change back your euros at the end of a trip if you know you are going on another. Don’t buy currency at an airport; you are a captive audience and it’ll be expensive.

Have a policy of E-baying something every time you are buying something else. Never upgrade. And that is a blanket rule for everything including your airline seat, your hotel room, you car hire, your own car, your house and your wife. Unless it’s a free upgrade of course. And, Stuart, I still probably wouldn’t do it on the wife front. Not if you want someone to help with the planning next time.

Add your suggestions

So there you go. A few tips from us on family travel on a budget. Hope it helps you budget this summer. Feel free to add yours in the comments below.

Money Piggy Bank

Family travel on a budget

Disclosure Note:  This was brought to you thanks to support from Elizabeth Hardy. All the advice, experience and opinions are, as ever, entirely our own.

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


  • If you have pets like we do, kennels, feeding services or home boarding while you are on holiday can cost you loads!
    If you don’t mind someone living in your house while you are away, you can slash pet care costs.
    We register on , pop in our holiday dates and watch the offers roll in.
    Once we have a couple of good ones, we start contacting references. We have used this website many times now and used a dozen different sitters with no problems.

  • We are clearly the ones with the tent most of the times. We prefer small campsites, they are cosier than large caravan oases. A bit of lawn and a shower is what we love most, a pzblic cooking place is appreciated. We could camp in the wild, in Sweden it’s allowed, but I admit I prefer that shower. I have never used it myself, but offer our own guest room via, a service exclusive for cyclists, a couple from Canada has only just arrived here today. We used house swapping in Paris, it was convenient and affordable, though, to be fair, no-one can convince me the owner slept in the apartment a lot, it was obviously only for renting out.

    We are quite good at finding budget flights and trains, and such a trip itself is convenient with children, but the luggage issue is both a hassle and is becoming mega extra expensive with budget airlines (and we haven’t even talked bikes yet), that’s why we ended up with the car. We still like to leave it somewhere, though.

    Altogether I firmly believe that three weeks four-star all-inclusive by the Red Sea cost a lot more than our kind of holiday. And we aren’t too expensive the rest of the year, so we can afford to go.

  • Regarding the cheaper places to stay, we always plump for a Premier Inn when staying in the UK. There are 4 of us (2 adults, 2 nippers), and, as you say, we can all sleep in one room. Also two children get a free breakfast with one adult breakfast; and you can always take out a croissant or two for the nippers’ elevenses.

    They may not by full of individual charm, but we’ve never stayed in a dirty Premier Inn – and, as far as we’re concerned, that’s what counts!

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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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