International Travel for a Family (Tips for Saving)

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Five years ago, I told my kids that I would take them to Europe when my oldest graduated from high school. I suppose I thought that day was safely out in the future, but I was mistaken 🙂

Don’t get me wrong. I love Europe and I love going there. I have been many times. I also consider international travel a very valuable thing -not just for myself, but for my children. I can look at a lot of insanity on social media and think to myself that things would be a lot better if people travelled more. Ignorant dogmatism tends to dissipate the more one travels and reads. (When I say “travel”, I do not mean to Disney World and when I say “read,” I am not referring to one’s favorite news website.)

No, the main trepidation about going to Europe with a family of six is just the cost and to some extent the logistics. If you are not careful, the costs can just go crazy. A round trip ticket to Europe by itself averages $1000. When you throw in housing for six people (too many for a single hotel room), food, attractions, and travel once there; you are in very deep.

We are going for ten days and visiting 4 countries (Ireland, England, France, and Switzerland). I set a budget for the trip of $10,000 and told the family to make it happen. Everyone was responsible for different areas from food, lodging, entertainment, and travel in/between cities. This is sort of a rough breakdown of the costs:

Travel to/from Europe: $3,000
Travel within Europe: $1,000
Lodging: $2,500
Food: $2,000
Entertainment: $1,500

We have been working on this for several months and I wanted to share some things that we have learned in case you want to do a family trip of your own. These tips are aimed at people that want to save money so keep that in mind. If money is not an object, some of this will not make sense. It is going to be sort of Eurocentric, too; though of course you can use these tips for other places.

Getting to Europe
I recommend that you decide where to go based on where tickets are cheapest. Kayak.com is invaluable for this. Check out their Explore feature which allows you to quickly look at a big geographic area and pick the cities with the cheapest flights. Here is what the map for Europe looks like from Atlanta at the moment.

What you quickly see is that if you are willing to be flexible in where you land (and when), you can save lots of money. When you combine this chart with tips from travel experts like Clark Howard, you can save a ton. In our case, we got tickets from Providence, RI to Shannon, Ireland for $350 (including fee/taxes). Granted, we have to get to Providence from Atlanta; but I knew that tickets from Atlanta to Boston (an hour away) are running only $100/round trip so it made sense. It also gives us a day to explore Boston and Providence (where Marla and I used to live).

The key is to land in Europe wherever you can at the cheapest price. It really does not matter where you land because of the next point.

Travel inside Europe
Traveling inside Europe is cheap. It doesn’t matter where you land because once you do, just catch a cheap flight to wherever you want to go. We have four one-way plane trips and one train trip during the trip that collectively cost my family of six a whopping $950. Yes, you read that right. You can fly between cities like London to Paris for $25-$50 quite easily. If you do the math, our average plane/train ticket per person is just over $30, again including all fees.

By the way, trains are about as expensive as planes. We are traveling by train between Paris and Zurich only because it is scenic.

To be honest, we were not able to hit our budget of $1,000 though. We need rental cars in a few areas ($300) and there will be a few hundred dollars in bus/train fares in places like London.

Lodging/Food
The first time we went to Europe, we went extremely cheap. Our guidebook was written by Rick Steves if that tells you anything. To be honest, we don’t have any desire to do that anymore. We like to stay in comfortable places and we like good food. As a result, our budget is probably a bit higher than necessary and you could definitely do this part cheaper than us.

It is probably impossible to stay in good hotels on our budget with a family of six so we are using Airbnb, renting full houses. If you plan ahead, you can score good places for an average of $250/night. In London for example, we are staying within just a few minutes of the hot spots. On the other hand, in Paris, we have a really nice place but it is 30 minutes outside of the city.

In regards to food, I strongly suspect that we will not spend the full $2,000, especially when we have the option to cook a bit in houses. However, we are not going to Europe to cook and won’t let that get in the way of seeing what we want to see.

Entertainment
One of the things I preach to the kids is that the travel itself is entertainment. The experience is entertaining. The cultural missteps are entertaining. Sitting in a cafe drinking a $2 coffee is entertaining if you keep your eyes open. That is cheap entertainment.

On the flip side, you can’t go to London and never visit the Tower of London. You can’t go to Paris and skip the Eiffel Tower. So we will do all of those things. Again, a bit of research will pay off big. For example, in London, if you travel by public transportation and follow a few rules, the large attractions are buy 1, get 1 free.

To be honest, I don’t know if we can hit our entertainment budget because it is not really prepaid. I suspect that we can though.

Packing and other logistics
We had to do research to figure out what size luggage to take. The downside of the cheap travel in Europe is that you are limited to carry-on luggage and it is a bit smaller than what you can get away with here in the US. Basically, I had to compare the various airlines to determine the maximum size bag we could carry on and then I got one for every member of the family. Everyone is responsible for their own bag and they are allowed only one bag. Because we are staying in houses with washing machines, only a few outfits are really necessary.

There are of course other logistical issues as well. Make sure that you are using a credit card with no international conversion fees or at least low conversion fees. One of our cards has no conversion fee at all but the others range all the way to 3%. That is a big deal: on a $10,000 trip, 3% is $300 in waste. Make sure that you have a working cell phone for Europe. If you don’t, there are plenty of inexpensive options such as this one.

Conclusion

I think the key is just planning. I can remember the first time Marla and I went to Europe back in 2000. We landed in Rome, Italy, without a plan and I remember carting huge suitcases on cobblestone roads trying to find some Rick Steve’s “hotel” which turned out to be way more primitive than we wanted. By the end of the day, we had been mugged because we did not know the basics of safety and how to carry valuables. A bit of planning would have done us a world of good.

If you have tips for international travel, be sure to post them below.

6 thoughts on “International Travel for a Family (Tips for Saving)

  1. Kathy Kerr says:

    Please follow the facebook page Award Travel 101. I feel very bad you spent $10,000 on a Euporean trip that could have cost a lot less.

    • Greg Howlett says:

      Don’t feel bad 🙂 We could undoubtedly do it cheaper if we wanted to. If it is all about being cheap, you sort of miss the point and might as well sit home. Life is for living and there is a balance to all this.

      • Kathy says:

        I didn’t mean go to cheap places. It’s about learning ways to use credit card points to travel to luxury places free.

        • Greg Howlett says:

          The thing is, that is not free. You are giving up something when you use points. I get 3% on all CC purchases in cash. I suppose I could redeem the points for travel but the exchange rate is not as good. Also, it makes little sense to me to spend points on international flights because they charge fuel surcharges on such redemptions that cost as much as a budget ticket. I suppose I could work harder to earn more points but that is time-consuming and I suppose I could look for good exchange rates on hotels that are better than 3% but again, that is time-consuming.

  2. Diana says:

    We went to France for three weeks with a stopover in Warsaw. We wanted to go the luxury route instead of the cheap hostel/ budget route. We did most of it with airline and hotel points. We took 2 years to save up enough points and spending money. I went on the Language Exchange website and met some people to practice my French and Polish with. 2 families invited us to stay in their homes. It was great to see what living with a French family was like. Great experience. You might try housesitting some time. You take care of someone’s home and/or pets in exchange for a place to stay. Sometimes it includes a car to drive. I did not use 3rd party websites to get airline tickets and hotels. Even if it was cheaper, most are not refundable, and if something goes wrong, good luck getting Expedia or Priceline to help you when you’re stranded. United has an Excursion Perk now.
    You get a free stopover in the same region. Bonus! For food, we bought groceries and cooked a couple nights. Our biggest meal was breakfast or lunch. We would bring our own snacks along to sightsee. For sightseeing, we got the city passes. Like Paris Pass. Well worth the money if you like museums. We used local transportation when available. Although we got lost on the way to a church we were supposed to sing at. Oh, buy a ScotteVest or something similar. Pickpocket proof and it has tons of pockets to hide and store everything. Well worth the money. Forget the fanny pack. We spent 3k for 3 weeks in France and we flew business class. Going again next year!

    • Greg Howlett says:

      Haha, that is awesome about fanny packs. I mentioned we got mugged. We got mugged because we were dumb fanny-packed tourists who got fooled by gypsies in Rome. I looked down and our passports (yes we were caring them for no reason) were lying on the ground along with cash.

      Trading homes is a great idea and by the way, there is no reason to apologize for doing it not on the cheap. If you are not willing to spend some money, I see no reason to go.

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