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 managing and enjoying family travel on a budget. Here’s a few of our tips for how a family can travel for less…
Family Holidays on a Budget – why even try?
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.
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.
How do we afford our travels?
Travel can be a money guzzler. There really is no such thing as a free or even cheap holiday. 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. 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. 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 for saving money while you travel in the comments. And check out this other mega money saving post on cheap ways to stay.
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.
Use flight comparison sites
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 Skyscanner.
Research all transport options
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. Check out this post on our summer of Interrailing Europe for inspiration. 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 found some good deals for Croatia flying into Zadar. If you are traveling internally within a country take a look at the coach or bus network. We have hopped from city to city for just a few coins in many places, You may well have to share your seat with a few chickens or someone else’s baby if it’s crowded, but it is a good way to make friends! You can often find alternatives where you least expect them – I was surprised to find a train that could take me from Tunis to Carthage and coastal towns on a recent weekend in Tunisia.
Use local transport instead of luxury or tourist options
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. But then an open top bus can also kill a whole day without having to fork out or attractions. Kids travel free on some public transport systems so it’s worth asking at the Tourist Information. And walking only costs you shoe leather! In some countries it can be more efficient to link up a few activities and book a car or taxi to take you to them all in one day, rather than pay for several excursions.
Keep documents up to date
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. And take any medical cards or documents that will help if you need to visit a doctor’s surgery abroad. Photocopy all of these in case of loss.
Book flights 6 months before you travel
Book your flight ahead. Travel by budget flight if possible and book your ticket on credit card in case the airline goes under. Research out of the way airports with cheap transport into the city. Leave plenty of time to check in – ie do not try and take a taxi across New York at rush hour to make your flight; in fact do not take a taxi to the airport at all – New York’s public transport system will get you there just as efficiently. Choose unpopular or indirect flights and leave time between flights if the cheap airline won’t re-book if you miss one.
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 spend a fortune 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. Check out my list of top 10 ways to stay cheaply around the world with a family. Then read on.
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. Cruise ships in particular offer good deals far in advance, with kids sometimes going free. On the subject of cooking ahead, always pre-book airport parking – and look out for special deals on valet parking.
Book last minute
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. Or, while they may not drop the price, perhaps you can persuade them to upgrade your room or throw in a free experience. 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 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. We find the Teletext holidays app useful for deals but there are lots of others offering inspiration and a one stop booking process. If you do book ahead then note the date where cancellation fees apply and have a sniff around of current prices the day before in case you can get a better deal. If you want to stay in a particular hotel, it’s worth phoning the hotel direct and asking for a cheaper price or an upgrade of room.
Stay out of season
One of our top tips for a family holiday 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. The French Alps villages have huge discounts in summer and you can still do adrenaline ports and sometimes even skiing. Or visit a beach resort in winter. In Tenerife in January I had a luxury room in a five star hotel which I could never have afforded in the summer.
Use a budget hotel chain, hostel or Airbnb
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 not very glamorous option. We even did a tour of a few. Youth hostels can still offer some great deals, although they’re 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. Also sign up for the Youth Hostel online newsletter as they often offer money off discounts. If you stay in the hostel itself, you may find a large dorm cheaper than a private family room, if you can stand the snoring of strangers.
Airbnb has been good to us. If you are careful with your bookings you can bag a great deal, with a clued up host. We stayed in Hero’s Square in Budapest for a few euros and were given a guided itinerary by a local, which saved us money on restaurants and transport. House sitting or house swapping are also great options for a family.
Stay in the airport
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? Airports like Singapore have on site hotels that can rent rooms by the hour. Dubai Airport has novel new sleep pods. 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.
House sit or swap
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. If you cycle, sign up to the Warm Showers app for a free bed at the end of a long cycle courtesy of the community.
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. If you are stuck for a bed with no campsite or hillside nearby, you could always ask a local or a farmer if you camp in their garden. We stayed a week in Villa O Higgins in Chile by camping amongst the chickens. Are you starting to see a chicken theme here?
3 How can I eat cheaply?
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.
Picnic and camp fire cook
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.
Take you own plane food
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. And don’t bother paying for the expensive three euro water on board the plane. Take a refillable bottle with you and fill it up in the loo at the depature gate. They may even have a water fountain.
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. In Iceland we ate at N1 service station garages to keep costs down. In Japan we heated up all our meals in the free microwaves in 7-11’s (after buying their ready meals!)
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?
4 How can I find 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 a money drain so if you’re looking to save cash look for the simple and free alternatives. 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.
Visit tourist information
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. Street art tours also tend to be free or available for a small donation. Some museums have free entry and others have certain days or times when entry is free; a little research can save you fortune. Even places as big as The Louvre have free hours and days.
Go online and ask in forums what others recommend for free. Take a look at what TripAdvisor recommends. Use apps to help you explore the city in a different way. If you geocache your way round a city, you even get free presents. We recently watched a bunch of people spend a happy afternoon on the Pokemon Go! app in a park in Sofia. We also once followed everything TripAdvisor recommended for a whole day in Italy. It was huge fun and a bit quirky.
Keep an eye out for city passes and discount cards
City passes and discounts cards can save you a lot of money. The best we’ve found at Dubai’s Entertainer, and New York’s City Pass scheme and Innsbruck’s City Card.
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? If your plan doesn’t cover phone calls, look into buying a local sim card for your phone as soon as your plane is on the ground.
Park and ride
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? Or select a car park or street parking way out of town and get local transport to the city or airport. 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.
Share and wear
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?
Patch and mend
Make gaffer tape, needles and thread your friend. If your luggage is falling apart, patch it with sugru; it’ll be much more recognizable 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.
6 Can I save while I spend?
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 cash back sites
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. Keep an eye on sites like Martin Lewis Money Saving Expert.
Don’t renew your insurance. Book each year to get the cash back. There are sites that can help you find the best deal. If you arent sure of your plans it may be better to book one tri at a time rather than an annual policy involving worldwide travel and skiing for trips you won’t go on.
Look after the small change
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. Always use an ATM on the ground in the country you are visiting instead.
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.
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.