Traveling with Kids | Making it Affordable

by , posted on January 9th, 2013 in Traveling With Kids

So here we are in 2013 and I am personally so ready to welcome a fresh year and all the new experiences it brings. One of the first things I do at the beginning of January is start organising our travel plans for the following 12 months. So I thought this would be the perfect time to write a bit about trying to make family travel as affordable as possible (because I’m sure more than a few of us spent too much during the holiday season).

We all know that traveling with a family is extremely expensive and can put some major financial strain on a household budget. When you consider all the transportation, accommodation, food and entertainment costs your first instinct is to trash the travel plans and stay home.

As a family we have made traveling a key part of our lives, which means we’ve had to scrimp in other areas. We might still have 10-year-old stained IKEA couches and certain floorboards that fall off the wall when you enter a room, but in return we have wonderful memories of our time in various countries around the world. And it’s worth it for us. Sometimes it’s about making decisions about what is important for you as a family to spend your money on.

Here are some of my top ways to make traveling as a family more affordable:

Book Ahead: I can’t stress enough how important it is to book ahead when planning a trip with your family. We often book major trips from six months to a year in advance. Luckily, one of my favourite past times is scouring Expedia for cheap flights to exotic destinations.

We usually start by booking our flights then over the following months slowly book any needed accommodation, local transportation and entertainment. This way you can take advantage of the lower prices that are offered in advance and slowly pay off your trip beforehand. For Japan, we booked and paid for our flights in September, our accommodation in November, our train passes in January and some tickets to special shows and events in February. So by the time we actually left for our trip in April, we had pretty much paid off all the major travel expenses. Luckily, most hotels or vacation rental sites have very good cancellation policies so it’s possible to cancel bookings if plans change or a better option comes up.

The “piggy bank”: This is one of my all-time best money saving techniques for traveling. Right after booking our flights (and then my subsequent panic attack at having booked flights to a far-away place), I immediately get our travel piggy bank put in a place of high traffic and importance in our house. The most important thing about this piggy bank is that it has to be completely sealed and not possible to open. That way when you’re low on cash and need to pay the water man, you don’t pillage the pig.

Over the months leading up to our trip my husband and I put all of our 1€ and 2€ coins and the odd bill in the pig and by the end we always end up saving enough for most of our spending money. For Japan, I used a wonderful ceramic hand painted pig—that I bought at a Frida Kahlo exhibit in Milan—and we made the breaking of the piggy bank into a family event. The kids loved hammering into that gorgeous ceramic pig and counting all the money we had saved.

House vs Hotel: Staying in a rental house is by far the most economical option for us when traveling as a family. Being a family of five means we need two hotel rooms. We all know it can end up being really expensive after a few nights. Usually, holiday rental houses and apartments cost less than hotels and we absolutely love the freedom that staying in them gives us. Having bedrooms with doors that close make the evenings so much more comfortable for us parents—we’ve spent more than one night sitting in the hallway of a hotel with kids sleeping in the hotel room. Having a kitchen also allows us to eat a relaxed breakfast before starting a day sight-seeing and the option to make the odd dinner when the kids are too tired to sit in a restaurant. Plus, what a great excuse to get out and explore the local grocery shops and produce markets. I’ll admit that it’s really one of my favourite parts of being in a foreign country.

Another option for saving money on accommodation is the famous house-swap. We’ve done it several times and had very positive experiences (read more about our house swaps here).

Eating Out: Aside from the obvious way to save money in regards to eating while traveling (picnics and preparing one’s own meals), whenever we travel to a new place we always try and compile a list of good and affordable restaurants in the area that we’re visiting. We get advice from friends, scour the internet for restaurant reviews and ask locals for their favourite restaurants.

There’s nothing better than discovering a local haunt that has tasty traditional food and reasonable prices. Once we find a place we really like, we usually return several times to try out different items on the menu. In my opinion, those little hole-in-the-walls that look a little rough around the edges end up being the best culinary experiences.

We also love to try out all of the (safe) street foods that are offered. While wandering through a famous park in Kyoto during the cherry blossom festival, we tried the most delicious food at all the different kiosks. The stir fried peanut noodles and grilled squid are still some of the tastiest fare we ate on our trip.

Lastly, we often eat our main meal of the day at lunchtime because we’re usually in need of a good rest and lots of food to get us through the rest of the day. And it is almost always less expensive to eat at noon than in the evening in restaurants (lunch specials!).

Entertainment: Before leaving on a trip, we always look up all the museums and sites we want to visit and check to see if they have children’s rates or family tickets. Most museums have one day a week that is free, so if possible it’s always worth it to visit it on that day.

One of our favourite activities in a new city is renting bikes for the day and cycling from one site to the next. By doing this you save on buses/taxis/subways and get to see areas of the city or countryside that you usually wouldn’t see. You’ll also save time waiting around for said buses/taxies/subways. In China, we spent many lovely days cycling through gorgeous rural areas as well as big cities.

And sometimes the simple “free” activities end up being the most loved by the kids. We always head to a nearby playground or park in a new place and let the kids mingle with the local kids. It’s so lovely to see our children interact with locals even if they don’t have a common language. My kids still write to several children they’ve met this way.

Another great activity is hiking. Whenever we visit any new place we always find a nice hike to do in the local woods or mountains. That way we get to see some nature, get some fresh air and exercise and often meet interesting people from the area.

Transportation: One of the biggest costs for traveling is obviously transportation. There is the initial flight (or train ride, etc.) to arrive at your destination, but also all the local traveling you’ll have to do when you’re there. We always do lots of research before leaving to find the most comfortable and convenient ways to get around a county. In China we traveled mostly by taxi because it was so inexpensive. We also decided to take a 24 hour train ride from the North to the South because it was cheaper than flying and also a great way to see the Chinese countryside. In Japan, we decided to invest in train passes for our entire stay because in the grand scheme of things, it ended up being cheaper (and far easier) than buying individual tickets.

Hopefully some of you can use a few of these tips to make your future family vacations a tad more affordable. Are you in the midst of planning some family trips? Do you have any money-saving advice for traveling families? I’d love to hear them if you do.

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6 Responses to “Traveling with Kids | Making it Affordable”

  1. petra Says:

    January 9th, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    Hey Jillian,
    Your tips are so fantastic! We don’t travel much with our kids besides camping but I am kind if wondering if we shouldn’t head somewhere exotic (well, more exotic than a European campground) soon. You make it seem so easy. Love, P

    Jillian in Italy Reply:

    I’ll have to discuss camping with you at some point. I have serious anxiety when I think of camping. We did it with the kids when they were all teeny and it was a nightmare. They were so over-excited and wild the entire night in the tent. And camping in Italy isn’t what you’d call “being one with nature”. One time our pitch site was on concrete with a street light shining down on it (next to a highway).

  2. Jennifer Cooper Says:

    January 10th, 2013 at 11:23 am

    I fall down on the planning ahead part. I’m going to work on that though.

    Oh! And I signed up for It sends me a daily email with airfare deals. I’m keeping my eyes peeled for summer travel deals (specifically to Italy!).

    Jillian in Italy Reply:

    Nice! If something comes up for Milan grab it!

  3. Deborah Says:

    January 10th, 2013 at 1:39 pm

    The planning ahead tips are so great, we do the same, book way in advance and slowly pay off things one month at a time up until our trip. Love the piggy bank idea, I bet it’d work way better than the envelope in the top drawer which is too easy to “borrow” from.

    Thanks for the tips Jillian!

    Jillian in Italy Reply:

    I’m always caught at home without cash and needing to pay the piano teacher or the postman or someone else. That’s why, for me, it’s so important to not be able to borrow from our travel piggy bank. And I’ll be honest, there have been times I’ve contemplated smashing the bank open!

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