How to Save Money on Family Vacations
Whatever your reasons for taking your kids to Europe, there are ways to be there within a budget. Taking the kids costs more – in airfare, food, hotels, and activities – than if it was just me and my hubby as my sole globe-hopping partner. (I’ll save my dreams of spending an entire quiet day in the Louvre for another lifetime!)
But with advanced planning, and at least one person who can say “NO” to extras and yummy temptations (my kids will tell you who that is in our family with rolling eyes and a head tilt towards me), the trip can be affordable.
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We have 3 children and have taken them on three two-week trips to Europe. I’m proud that our efforts at saving with credit card miles and budget accommodations resulted in each trip costing less than some families spend on a much shorter trip to Disney!
Here are the practices we relied on to keep to our family travel budget:
1. Sleep in one room.
For a family of 5 or more, search for those hotels that can accommodate you with your kids in one room. See the menu above at Sleeps5.com! The large rooms are hard to find, read about our process to find them, but a large hotel room with 5 (or more!) beds all together is cheaper than booking two smaller rooms.
Apartments can be convenient, with kitchens, but often require a minimum 4- to 7-day stay and usually lack reception-desk services. Some travelers really prefer having the front-desk assistance provided by most hotels, in case something goes wrong with the building/room, or they need help with anything.
Extra benefits of booking one “family room”:
Convenience with children — If you are a family with three little kids, it would be difficult to have Dad in a ‘triple’ room with, say, a 3 year old and a 5 year old while Mom’s down the hall in a ‘double’ with a toddler. How would you help each other with bedtime duties, and how would you talk about the next day’s plan, and what if the toddler’s toothbrush is in Dad’s travel bag?
Supervision — I don’t know about your kids, but even now that my 3 boys don’t need help with bedtime tasks anymore and are in charge of their own belongings stowed in their own luggage, a separate hotel room of their own is still out of the question. They would certainly break something or each other if left alone, even with a connecting door through which I could check on them often.
In hotel rooms, I am ever vigilant about preventing other guests’ annoyance, constantly reminding the kids, “hands to yourself” to stop the hitting and wrestling of each other, or “step quietly” to stop them from jumping and thundering across the floor. I rest assured their behavior is monitored when I’m right there in the same room.
Safety in Hotel Rooms — The budget hotels we’ve stayed in were often located in semi-questionable areas such as near train stations. If part of my family were in another room, how could I check and double check (ok, I fret a lot: triple check!) that their windows and doors are locked? And, emergencies such as fire alarms worry me in the best hotels. Would the kids or my DH know what to do or remember how to reach me?
I felt secure knowing my kids were nearby, in the same room with me, in our room for 5.
2. Book hotels that serve breakfast.
What better way to start your day than with a spread of buffet food to choose from that is all-included in the room rate? Our kids loved the cereal choices each morning, especially since there was sometimes sweet or chocolate options – something we don’t normally have at home!
Nutella, that sugar spread of chocolate and hazelnut, was often available in European hotels for smoothing on bread, and again, not offered at home, in my no- or low- sugar kitchen. Another favorite of theirs was the orange juice. At some hotels, a kid-friendly no-pulp orange juice variety was offered.
For me, any breakfast that includes sliced tomatoes, meats, cheese, pastries, and coffee is mu-u-u-uch appreciated each morning.
Extra benefit of breakfast at your hotel:
Save time for your itinerary — Breakfast buffet in your hotel saves crucial sight-seeing time. Eliminated is the time to get to a restaurant, the time to choose and order, the time for the food to cook and be served, and the time to request and then pay for the bill.
3. Pay for your rental car before you leave home.
If you rent a car the day you need it, the price is higher. Instead, shop ahead for the deals, reserve your car, and pay for it before your trip begins.
Use a company that offers 24-hour phone service for problems or questions that come up, such as gemut.com. Ideally, pay for the rental car with a VISA or other credit card that provides insurance that covers any damage to the car, and be sure to use the same credit card at the counter (they’ll ask for one to cover any shortages of gas or damage upon return of the car) when you pick up the car or else your insurance coverage may be voided.
Research boarder crossings ahead of time, too. We once considered picking up a rental car in Munich and driving to Denmark, until we found out about the steep (as in double the 3-day rental rate) fees to drop the car in country #2.
Note: Cars in Europe are different (read: tiny!)
Unlike the usual rental car company in the U.S., European rental car companies normally don’t offer the spacious minivan like we drive at home! For our family of 5, a Ford Mondeo or VW Caddy was roomy enough for all of us plus our luggage. (And tight enough so that one boy’s shoulder was touching another’s and you can imagine what joyful moments we experienced then…)
4. Use public transportation in big cities.
We’ve stayed in bustling city centers, and could get to many sights on foot, but we still needed transportation to get around to locations further away.
Investigate whether your destination city has travel ticket bundles. Munich had a 3-day partner ticket that covered all 5 of us for 21 Euros. Berlin had a 3-day Welcome card that covered 1 adult (me) and our 3 children for 24.50 Euros. We then purchased a ticket each day for hubby for 2.10 Euros.
In big cities, the posted maps in are easy to navigate, and using the group tickets, we were free to zip here and there on unlimited trips.
5. Airlines between cities may be best.
Travel experts expound about rail passes being great deals. But don’t assume taking a train is cheaper than an airplane for a family. It certainly might not be easier.
For example, to get from Berlin to Legoland in Denmark, a train ride would have been over 6 hours, not including the two train transfers we’d have to accomplish. We opted to take a plane at just $15 more per person and which took just a couple of hours. And I’m sure that though the scenery out a train window could be spectacular, my kids would not likely enjoy 6 hours of it.
6. Buy plastic bottles to refill each day.
At your destination, as soon as you see a beverage available in a plastic bottle with a screw-top lid, buy it! Warning: The bottle’s size should correspond to the strength of the person carrying it — water is heavy!
My hubby was kind enough to carry a large bottle for me to share with him, and the kids carried smaller versions of their own. Each morning, and at fountains throughout the day, we’d refill the bottles and sip (or gulp when it was real hot out) whenever we needed to.
7. No shopping.
Admittedly, this is an easy one if you are traveling, as I do, with your hubby and 3 boys. They hate to shop! Even if I had extra spending money, I would rather avoid their moaning and groaning than attempt to venture into a boutique while they waited.
And my guys don’t care much about souvenirs, either. But when they did want a trinket, we limited the purchases to small things, like postcards, hats, magnets, and pens.
Knowing we were on a tight budget and agreeing on spending limits ahead of time eliminated the temptations to buy stuff.
8. Keep away from coffee and ice cream chains.
Depending on the time period and currency exchanges, the US dollar may or may not be doing better against the Euro or the Pound. Still, in Europe we found that where we were, Starbucks was very expensive. Likewise, international ice cream chains like Haagen Dazs were, also!
Alternatively, we found many local restaurants with an adjacent window through which you could order a 1 Euro ice cream cone, and other counter windows along pedestrian avenues. Fast food eateries, however, such as McDonalds or Pizza Hut, are good options, cheaper than restaurant choices, if you have hungry, cranky kids and are desperate for something quick.
9. Eat just one sit-down meal per day.
Let your hotel take care of serving you breakfast included in your room rate, and find take-out food for lunch. Public transportation subway or metro hubs and train stations usually offer many choices for inexpensive food to please everyone. We found teriyaki, hot dogs, sandwiches, pizza, and more at the Berlin train stations, for example.
For snacks, we bought granola bars for quick pick-me-ups on the go. Families can opt to save even more by making dinner with deli or take-out selections.
But even though I’m frugal, after a long day of herding kids and smoothing sibling skirmishes, I really, really looked forward to spending a bit more at our evening sit-down meal.
10. Eat family-style at restaurants.
At the sit-down restaurants, we ordered just 3 entrees for the 5 of us, and requested an extra plate or two. (Everyone got their own beverage.) The kids happily relinquished the vegetable or salad side dishes to me and DH.
We treated the entree plates as serving platters and shared everything. The food was always enough, even at meals on the trip when all 3 boys’ appetites (age 10, 10, and 14) were the size of an adult’s.
To quell any misgivings amongst ourselves about potentially not being satisfied, before ordering we always said, “if we are still hungry, we’ll order more”. But we never did, and we always left feeling full, with a little room to spare for an ice cream cone on the way back to the hotel. Even better – there was no food waste!
Tip – Student neighborhoods are cheaper.
Venture into university areas for inexpensive food. One time, we accidentally ended up in a Munich university area in search of the U-bahn stop for the English Garden. A pizza and pasta restaurant/pub offered a tasty and very cheap dinner served by a friendly waitress who spoke little English but who conscientiously made sure we were taken care of. That experience taught us to seek out college student neighborhood restaurants for eating inexpensively.
– Sandy Nielsen
See our Europe family travel costs and expenses:
Family of 5 in Rome for 89 Euros Per Person Per Day
Family of 5 in Paris for 106 Euros Per Person Per Day
Family of 5 in Munich for 53 Euros Per Person Per Day