Tips for Family Travel on a (Small) Budget

Happy Friday! A bit of a long winded post for you today, but I wanted to take a few moments and answer questions from our recent travel adventures and budgeting for the trip. We love to travel and we try to plan something unique and maybe a little out there (in terms of countries, length of trip and what not) every couple of years, and we do it on a tight budget.

Would you believe me if I told you that between budgeting housing projects and everyday purchases (food, gas, clothing…), we actually spent about the same amount of money on our trip to Ireland, Spain and Morocco as we would have spending that same four ish weeks at home? Crazy, I know. But hear me out.

I’ll be the first to admit that travel expenses can add up quickly. The cost of a flight, rental car, hotel, food and so on can be overwhelming and sometimes it can be much easier to justify spending those funds on projects that hit closer to home (a new fridge, tile for the kitchen, replacing the AC).

But for us travel is much more than the out of pocket expense. It is the opportunity for our little family unit to embark on an adventure that is for just that – our little family. We leave behind the distractions of work, home projects, school, even our favorite friends to spend a few weeks in family solitude. Despite the new sounds and sites and smells of a beautiful destination, this is a powerful gift and one that I most look forward to, one where we can nurture those family roots, feeling connected and whole together. In that way, disappearing for a few weeks is a rejuvenating experience. And a fun one, too!

Map in our bedroom

That all said, like most families we still don’t have the extra funds set aside to make such fantastic travel a reality at the drop of a hat. We tend to spend our free time (and money) focusing on big projects like a new kitchen, new bathroom, backyard makeover and so on, and I bet you do too. All worthy projects indeed!

Earlier this year though the travel itch hit, and finding a way to conquer some sort of trip in 2012 became a mission. What if we could budget travel into our lives in such a way that it doesn’t disrupt the regular ebb and flow of our monthly budgets? Then travel becomes a must again.

Here’s our inexpert system in a nutshell:

Flights = Utilize our CC reward system, shop around, take advantage of discount airlines in Europe
Rental Cars = CC reward system, purchase third party insurance
Accommodations = Focus on B&Bs and apartment rentals rather than hotels, rent out our own home or ‘house swap’ while gone
Food/Gas/Site-Seeing = Stay within our usual monthly budget, ‘splurge’ on only what we must

Choosing a Destination. First up is spinning the globe and choosing a destination. Kevin and I each have a bucket list of five or so must-see countries and five or so State-side cities that we’re dying to visit. We try to make everyone happy. Rarely is a big trip planned for less than 2-4 weeks (travel costs are expensive! must make the most of a flight) and rarely is it to one destination.

Chaing Mai, Thailand

In the five years we’ve been married we’ve planned three trips in this fashion, so we’re still working out the kinks (New Zealand, Australia and Thailand in 2010, Japan and Okinawa in 2007) but we’re slowly getting the hang of it. This particular trip came together because Kevin’s top bucket list choice was Ireland, mine was Spain and Morocco couldn’t be missed while we were just a stone’s throw across the Gibraltar Strait.

Budgeting Travel Expenses. Once our destination is chosen, it’s time to budget our travel.

Flights & carsWe only travel to certain areas, or at certain times of the year, that we have enough travel miles for. Aka we haven’t paid for an airline ticket (for one of these big trips) in five years. This takes care of our entire flight expense and is the reason we can make traveling every couple of years feasible – that plus saving up two years of vacation days through work!. We don’t rack up miles in the traditional way through a frequent flyer program with an airlines, we actually redeem our points through our credit card directly for tickets. We use Wells Fargo’s reward system and we have found that their point system is best taken advantage of with redeeming points for travel credit. I’ll preface here that we are VERY good credit card users. We charge everything – groceries, gas, a cup of coffee – onto our credit card and pay that sucker off every month. So basically, we only charge what we can afford, and we can easily track it. And between our personal credit cards (we’ve found it’s easiest to manage budgets when we each have one so we know what we’re each spending), and my business credit card (also through Wells Fargo but charges I am reimbursed for from my company), we earn an adequate amount of points for travel. And rental cars, because this rewards system can be redeemed for all sorts of travel vouchers and goodies.

This is a solution best recommended for those that want to build great credit history, but are super responsible with that little plastic swiper in the wallet, because debt is a horrible solution for anything.

A note on rental cars. Most major credit cards cover extra insurance expenses for renting a car, so it’s not necessary to purchase all of the add-ons that cause that $15/day rental to get very expensive very fast. Check with yours to see if they’ll cover you abroad (and even for future Stateside rentals). Ireland seems to be an exception as they’re one of the few countries that are exempt from this rule, making rentals extra pricey there! Purchase third party insurance at a much cheaper rate rather than through your rental company, and if you have kids bring your own carseat to save the $12/day for that. This also allows you a free extra piece of luggage with most airlines, and a carseat bag can fit much more than a carseat! hint, hint. We booked AutoEurope for our Spain rental after researching internationally, many European rental car companies are less expensive than the more easily recognizable American names.

A note on which major airlines to choose: we go with the cheapest. But if British Airways is within a hundred ‘points’ or so, we absolutely book them. They move families to bulkhead seating, provide cots and entertainment bags for toddlers and babies, and allow you to bring plenty of kid-related luggage if you need it (we brought just Liv’s carseat bag and used it as extra storage for the ‘heavy stuff’ in addition to her carseat.)

A note on flights in Europe. We booked our short hop flights (Dublin to Barcelona, Sevilla to Marrakech, Marrakech to Madrid) through RyanAir, which is a discount airline in Europe. The flights are very cheap – think $20 per person, but don’t include any and all fees that RyanAir so deviously includes. Want to book online? fee. Book over the phone? bigger fee. Don’t have your boarding pass printed? $60/fee. Peanuts or a water while flying in the sky? you betcha. Needless to say, if you read the fine print and fly very cautiously you’re in for an inexpensive treat. But if you’re not careful you’ll get nabbed for every mistake you make. We were great about that fine print most of the time, but we did get hit with a few extra (expensive) fees when in destinations such as Morocco where internet service was bad and we couldn’t for the life of us find a printer to get our boarding passes printed out. Sometimes saving $ to fly is worth the stress, but sometimes it’s not. All a personal preference. PS if you plan on flying RyanAir, email me! I have lots of tips to share including how to get past those ridiculous ‘baggage’ fees if you have kids.

Accommodations: Now that the flight and car transportation costs are out of the way, it’s time to take care of our lodging expenses. We are B&B travelers all the way, not only are they generally cheaper, but they are friendly and fun and you meet great people (I like to use This year we tried something new. We rented flats while abroad through sites like Airbnb and Trip Advisor for an even better deal – which means we nab a full living space while we’re in various cities so that we can enjoy time around the house (when Liv’s napping, etc), a kitchen to eat meals in and an all around cozier environment. This is especially useful for overcoming jetlag and when a laundry day is inevitable.

I recommend booking apartments and flats 3-4 weeks in advance and B&Bs 2 ish weeks in advance (more for very popular destinations). We attempted to have about 70% of our overnight stays pre booked to take any stress away from travel, but kept open nights open here and there so that we could reroute ourselves or stay for shorter/longer periods in certain spots.

Granada, Spain

A hut in a remote village in Thailand

Here’s another brand new cost-saving move that we tried. We rented our casa out to visiting San Diego travelers while we were away, too. I’m happy to report that it was a success! Between visitors to our house and the cost of lodging abroad, we came out to about a wash, crossing accommodations off of our expense list. The crux is that you’re trusting complete strangers to your home, your personal space. The pro is that travel is feasible and affordable. And shoot, another set of folks are trusting you with their space!

I know it’s not for everyone and we did a fair amount of clearing of closets, purchasing of new towels and sheets and prepping our house for guests, but if it means traveling for free (and we really don’t have own anything that valuable), then we’re in. Plus, airbnb provides an insurance policy, takes house photos at no cost and allows us to preauthorize a security deposit automatically. We also screened all potential visitors and ended up with a few lovely families from Switzerland, Texas, Arizona and Australia, while kindly saying ‘this isn’t a good fit’ to a group of college kids traveling and an extended family with eight adults and ten kids under the age of six.

It’s worth mentioning that we live in a ‘vacation destination’, even if we are in the suburbs of San Diego rather than the hot tourist spots so it was fairly easy for us to fill the days (and even ended up renting out our place for Thanksgiving & Christmas because we’ll be with family anyways!). But that doesn’t mean that any home and lifestyle would not be desirable to a family somewhere – there are plenty of folks looking for a small town getaway or a farm experience or a big city loft. Perhaps even a business stop over. It’s all how you present your space to your possible visitors.

PS if you are thinking of giving this a go, we get a credit towards a future adventure if you use this referral link. Another option we’d love to try is a house swap, a la The Holiday. How awesome would that be! If I could find a Kate Winslet-esq house…

Food, gas and other everyday commodities. So now we’re on to the necessary extras such as food, gas, site-seeing fees (museums, etc) and so on. These can add up! And they must be accounted for. When it comes to food, we give ourselves wiggle room but try to stick with roughly what we would spend at home x2. That means we save up for yummy meals (how can you miss out on delicious Spanish paella? fresh fish straight from the harbor? a local wine?) but balance that with street food and sammy’s on the go.

Sometimes this is non-issue, such as traveling through Thailand where meals are less that $2. But sometimes, such as with this last trip, a combination of baguettes, salami and cheese in the park + Farmer’s Market meals gathered locally and cooked from home + eating out is what works out well. It’s all about balance. I recall one such trip with girlfriends in college where I lived off of a giant bag of homemade granola for four weeks. That’s an exaggeration, maybe it was just my breakfast and lunch substitution, but we were going cheap (and that can be thrilling and fun, too!). My point is, enjoy the local cuisine, but sometimes make it yourself in your rented apartment (which you should attempt to position above the local baker… mmmm).

Other commodities such as gas are just as necessary at home (at least for us) as they are on the road. So we try to cancel out our travel at home (which can involve weekend trips to Santa Cruz or Phoenix from San Diego) with the gas we’ll use to get around during the time we’re gone.

And don’t forget the little purchases you make on a regular basis! I bet that museum fees and site-seeing expenses are near cancelled out just by missing the random Target and Costco shopping sprees that happen when you least expect them.

Souvenirs. I don’t believe in tchochtkis, but I do believe in a few well-thoughtout memorable objects from places of interest. It could be a ziplock baggie full of black sand from Japan (we have one, and I still intend on using it as a vase filler… someday). Or it could be a beautiful throw for the house, a piece of art that rolls up tightly or a fabulous dress. Just keep it simple and pick what matters. No tourist tees, please.

I found this wool blanket over in Ireland while in Clifden and fell in love with it as my one Irish souvenir.

Slush fund. That being said, every great trip needs a fall back fund. We put aside extra funds for those random, unplanned detours or accidents that might happen along the way. It would be terrible to be at your destination, which you’ve worked so hard for, and to miss out on an experience because there was no slush fund available. It doesn’t have to be big, and sometimes you’ll have to say no, but an emergency stash can make a big difference. This is where the money that we might usually spend on a home improvement project comes in handy.

We’ve used such a fund for an unexpected tour, when booking lodging last-minute and a hotel was our only option, and opportunities like flying back to mainland Ireland from Inis Maein rather than taking the ferry (12 seater plane! and to see Ireland from above? sigh) because it seemed like a cool experience. We’ve also given in to our share of recommended restaurants in one of those ‘we only live once’ moments when it might have been above our budget. Slush fund is subject to what you want to save for, but it is a plus.

Kyoto, Japan

At the end of the day travel is what you make of it, and if it is a puzzle piece that you can’t imagine going through life without, it’s worth finding a way to overcome the challenges to make it happen. Even if that means saving an extra 5% for a year or so, becoming loyal to one airlines, asking for only flight vouchers at Christmas from every relative :), or pushing past any personal pride and letting a perfect stranger sleep in your bed (gulp) while you’re away.

Already starting to think of a trip for 2014…

In a recap, here are our best tips: Enroll your credit card with your bank’s reward system to take advantage of free or discounted flights and rental cars. Purchase third party insurance for your rental car rather than through the company. Book accommodations through sites like Airbnb, or Trip Advisor and avoid big hotels, rent out your own house through a reputable company to offset the cost! Budget food, gas and everyday purchase just as you would spend on those same items back home. Build up a tiny slush fund for the extras and the unexpected! And most importantly, enjoy that wonderful time together as a family.

There you have it, my attempt at justifying our travel adventures. Happy, happy weekend and plan something to somewhere fabulous! I’m itching to go on a long hike… somewhere near home.

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  1. says

    Great tips! We’re fanatic about using Quicken and paying off our credit card bill every month (ie, we know what we spend our money on), so it’s always cool when we come back from a big trip that hasn’t cost us too much more than “normal living” would (nothing like eating grocery food in France!). Not sure I’d be brave enough to do a house swap type thing, but it’s an interesting idea! Looks like you’ve traveled very well!

    BTW, hope your husband’s brother is doing okay.

    • says

      Rachel, thanks for your thoughts for our brother. He’s going through his chemo rounds and it appears to be as successful as they had hoped. We’ll keep everyone posted!

      Quicken is a great idea! And we are huge fans of grocery stores abroad too, haha! an adventure in its own.

  2. says

    Wow, those are great tips, Morgan! I’ve wondered about house swapping, sounds like fun, but makes me a little nervous. Maybe we should start a bloggers’ house swap- at least we have the illusion of knowing each other. :)


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