I have travel fever. It’s contagious. I got it from my husband, and we passed it to our children. I’ve been working on organizing the next family vacation, and as frustrating and time consuming as it can be, the payoff is always amazing.
Doug and I started traveling together when we were newly married, living on barely more than love and Ramen noodles. At times, travel included sleeping in the back of the car. We progressed to saving enough to backpack through Europe for six weeks, also done on a shoestring budget, and included a few overnights on the train with our rail passes. Once or twice we even took turns sleeping while at the train station because the hotels were out of reach for our budget. We had a blast, but needless to say, did not have children at the time. We haven’t had to travel that bare bones in a while, but I will never outgrow my delight in finding a bargain.
Today, I thought I would write a bit about traveling outside of the U.S. on a budget.
How: Sign up for every bargain travel site you know. Sure, your inbox will be inundated with daily specials. These are easy enough to click “delete” and not bother looking at them. When you want to start looking, they will be there. Or you can read away daily, and dream. Some of my favorite sites are: Travelzoo, Groupon Getaways, and EuropeanDestinations.com. If you are not interested in travel packages, keep an eye on airfare specials through Expedia and other similar sights.
Before Ticket Purchase: Double check the itinerary!! I learned this the hard way. Make sure if you have a layover that it is long enough to get through customs if necessary, and that your next flight departs from the same airport. Traveling by bus an hour across town with all your luggage, car seats and children in tow while worried about meeting the deadline is no fun. If the deal is too good to be true, there may be a reason. Read it over carefully.
When: Be willing to travel off season. As a homeschool family this worked very well for us. September and April tend to still have pleasant enough weather, but with everyone back in school the crowds and prices are down. Closer to winter is even cheaper. Avoid internationally celebrated holidays like Christmas. Thanksgiving may still offer some bargains, since it is a holiday uniquely ours. Check your proposed destination as they may have some big holiday that we don’t celebrate and the crowds and prices will be up again.
Investigate: Don’t be afraid to play with the dates. We found an amazing deal to Italy one fall. It included three nights in Rome, two in Florence and two in Venice with airfare, hotel and train transport between cities. All for less than airfare alone. Like that wasn’t good enough. As I looked longingly at the itinerary, I thought, “If only we could get in one more day to be able to see Pompeii.” So I decided to see how much more it would cost to add an extra night. To my shock, the price went down by a hundred dollars! Mind you, this included an extra hotel night! So I added two nights. The price returned to the original price. Hey, what did I have to lose? I tried adding a third night. The price went up by three hundred per person. We ended up with five nights in Rome, two Florence, two Venice, all at the original bargain price. It was amazing. So, play with the dates and locations, you might be pleasantly surprised.
ASK!: If you can’t find exactly what you want, email as many travel agencies in the country you want to go to as you can. We did a two family trip (eleven of us) to Ireland one year and really wanted to drive together without having to join a tour. We couldn’t find anyone who would rent a twelve passenger van. I don’t think they believe in big cars. Everyone said we had to rent two or three cars. We nearly changed our destination plans. I sent out a dozen emails and heard back from very few, but my inquiries paid off big time. We ended up with an agency that got us a fourteen passenger minibus with a driver and gas, excuse me, petrol, included. They arranged our hotels—I picked the locations, and even included some entry fees to major attractions. It all came out to less than what we would have spent on hotel rooms and two cars, not to mention adding petrol and entry fees. Add to all that a friendship we developed with our driver and the totally stress free travel. I’d struck gold.
Kids. Most places charge for children, but make sure they are aware of the ages as they will often give a discounted price. Airlines are required to charge taxes and fees for those traveling on your lap. I know. Bummer. Three hundred dollars or more and you still have to hold them on your lap the whole night. Many hotels charge per person, not per room. Discounts may be given if you use a family room. Many international hotels have a room with a double bed and two twins stuffed in odd angles and corners. Since our children are old enough to stay in rooms without parental supervision, we go ahead and book for two in a room. The overall price doesn’t usually change, and it’s nice to have our privacy.
Rooms: If booking your own rooms online, be sure to check reviews. Don’t trust the pictures. This is another thing I learned the hard way. I have three requirements: Safe, clean, quiet. It is miserable being kept awake half the night by celebrants running the hallway. Don’t expect the same standards as we have here in the U.S. Most hotel rooms are very small, the hot water may fluctuate, and amenities may be limited. We’ve happily stayed in rooms where the bed was against the wall on one side and bumped the door on the other. Hey, I paid half the rate of the room with a two-foot clearance around the bed. Besides, who goes to another country to stay in their room? Look at it as a cultural experience. Check your location and its access to trains or buses. It is often the preferred method of sightseeing and you don’t want to have to drive twenty minutes, park your car (and pay for parking) then get the train. Don’t be afraid to try odd accommodations. How about a room on a boat? Air B&B is becoming quite popular. I haven’t tried that one yet. Regular B&B’s are sometimes cheaper than hotels and give a much better picture of the local area, but often are off the beaten track and you’ll need a car.
Food. In third world countries it will be dirt cheap, but stick with the cooked stuff, and washed fruit. In Europe everything is pricey. We would typically plan on breakfast at the hotel, pack some bread and cheese for lunch, then eat out for dinner. Serving sizes tend to be modest by American Standards. Check what is the norm for tips. In many countries a tip is not expected, and is sometimes considered an insult.
Sightseeing. You can often get the best prices ahead of time online, read up on this before you go. You may email your hotel to ask their recommendations. Personally, I recommend that you spend a little extra if you must to see as much as you can. A tour guide in Rome is worth every penny. Paying to go up the Tower of Pisa or the Eiffel Tower? If it is a once in a lifetime opportunity, do it. Eat bread and cheese for supper. I have very few outstanding memories of meals we had while traveling, but I will never forget how my legs felt going round and around the circular staircase to the top of Pisa’s tower, or the view of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Take advantage of the freebies. Enjoy street performers (watch for pick pockets) and incredible scenic walks and drives. Find out when Evensong is occurring at the local cathedral. It is worth the time.
Getting Around: Trains between cities are hassle free, but lack the freedom to venture off and explore a side road. You have to decide how comfortable you are driving in the country you are visiting. Some countries require an International Driver’s License. Cheap and easy to get at your local AAA. In most cities, buses or trains are better than driving. Taxi’s are expensive and traffic is slow. In the city, we prefer to use the train and walk. It gets us right in with the locals, adds to the overall experience, is faster and cheaper. Bring your best walking shoes. We average about eight miles of walking per day. In South America you might hire a two wheeled open cab pulled by a motorcycle, or a small boat.
So, there you have it. Another time I will write about traveling with little ones.
Do you have any stories or advice you can give on traveling on a budget? I’d love to hear about it!