I was chatting with a friend recently who got orders to Germany – and she said to me “How did you do it? How did you see so much and not go broke?”
We lived in Germany for 3 years, and in that time, we saw 14 countries and countless things within Germany. Even considering that within those 3 years I had a difficult pregnancy and delivered a baby, we still managed to see quite a lot. So I’m here to share my top tips for traveling on a budget & stretching your dollars so you can see MORE.
First, and most importantly, set a budget. Look at your finances and figure out a set amount each month to fund your travels. For us, this was $400. Some months, we didn’t spend any of it; other months, we spent three times that. But we set aside the money into a separate savings account each month and used that money for our trips. (Get free savings accounts and fabulous interest rates here. I use this awesome online bank for all of my savings!)
2. BE FLEXIBLE
We homeschool, so we have the awesome flexibility of being able to travel during the school year, and during off-peak times. This alone saves us a ton of money, as rates are cheaper across the board when it is not peak tourist season. But also, be flexible about your destination. One November, I knew that I wanted to take a trip in February, and I knew I wanted to go someplace warm. Other than that, I didn’t care where we went. So I searched for flights going south – Portugal, Greece, Italy, Spain, various islands – and we found the cheapest destination at that time was Barcelona, Spain. So that’s where we went! We got our tickets for only 7€ ($11 USD)!!! Yes, you read that right: ELEVEN DOLLARS.
Which brings me to my next point:
3. TRAVEL ON DISCOUNT AIRLINES
Yes, it can be an unpleasant couple of hours, being crammed in a small airplane with no frills. But the savings are totally worth it! And this couple of hours is pretty small in the scope of your whole trip, anyway. I’d rather spend the money I save seeing something magnificent and unforgettable. My favorite budget airline is RyanAir. They fly all over Europe, and tickets (one way) are usually under $100. But like I said in point 2, you can find awesome deals if you are flexible with your destination and dates! I used the routemap to see where I could go from my nearest airport, and then searched the destinations one at a time until I found a great price.
4. FIGURE OUT THE CHEAPEST WAY TO GET THERE
Sometimes flying isn’t the cheapest way to go, especially if the destination is somewhat nearby. But don’t automatically assume that driving is cheaper either. As military, we got US gas prices within Germany at certain stations, but once we left Germany we had to pay European prices, which were usually around $9 per gallon. When my mom came to visit, we wanted to see Paris, but we couldn’t all fit in our vehicle – so we had to either rent a larger van, fly, or take the train. Plane tickets were not reasonable for that trip, and with a rental, gas, parking, and tolls- driving wasn’t either. So we went to the local train station with flexible dates and my husband was able to get us a great deal on train seats. It was about $450 for 7 of us, round trip. If we pushed our trip one day either direction, the price would have doubled, so this is another case where being flexible saved us a lot of money. We got the train tickets first, THEN booked a place to stay and planned the rest of the trip. This was the only trip we took by train (except our British Isles trip, where we bought a 2 week unlimited travel train pass), because train tickets were incredibly expensive.
5. PACK LIGHTLY
When I booked my first flight on RyanAir, I thought the baggage restrictions were a real drag. Only one carry-on per person!?! No suitcases unless I pay extra?!?! But what I realized during that trip was that it was SO much easier to travel lightly. We could easily move from place to place with only backpacks, not having to haul suitcases around. It was easier to maneuver our 3 (and later 4) YOUNG children since we had two hands free to help them. We could easily travel by plane, train, bus, or foot without suitcases. We could leave one city in a morning, hop on a train, sightsee, and check into another hotel that evening without having to worry about what we would do with our suitcases all day while we were out and about the city. We were able to see more things in less time and save money in the process! I wrote an in-depth blog post about HOW exactly we backpack with a large family and what we pack in this post.
6. STAY IN APARTMENTS
If you are going to be in one city for any length of time (2-3 nights or longer), it can save you a lot of money to stay in apartments instead of hotels. Especially if you have several children needing beds, this can be a huge money saver. In many places, Europe’s version of a “family room” consists of a double bed for the parents and a twin for the customary one child that is common across Germany and other European countries. If you have 3 or 4 children, getting 2 rooms can get very expensive very fast. There are some hotels that are the exception. In Dublin, for example, we had an awesome family room at the Ashling Hotel that had huge family rooms for reasonable prices (we got the room with a coupon code and did NOT buy the on-site breakfast).
If you decide you want to stay in a hotel, I have found great deals by using booking.com. Search your dates, then sort by price. I was very fond of searching by map, so I could see where the apartment was in the city. It can save a lot of money on transportation to be closer to the sites you want to see. On the other hand, if transportation is cheap and hotels are expensive (as was our experience in Rome), you can stay outside the city and take a cheap commuter train in. We have done both, depending on the city and the costs.
7. EAT AT “HOME”
Another perk of staying in an apartment (besides the fact that separate bedrooms = more sleep!) are the kitchens! You can buy some groceries at a local market and eat breakfast in the apartment. Pack some sandwiches and snacks for the day, and then your only eating out is dinner. You can still experience the local cuisine each day, but cut your food budget in 1/2 or even 1/3.
8. BUY TICKETS ONLINE BEFORE YOU GO
For almost every major tourist attraction, you can buy tickets online before you go. This is awesome for 2 reasons. 1. It is usually cheaper. 2. It saves a TON of time. Instead of waiting in 2 lines – one for the ticket and the other for the attraction – you only have one. And most of the time it is an very short one. We saved hours and hours of waiting at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Colosseum in Rome, the London Eye in London, and other popular places.
9. CONSIDER THE CITY MULTI-PASS
Many cities have a multi-pass, where you can buy one ticket and see multiple tourist destinations with that ticket. They sometimes even include public transportation. Add up the places you want to see, and the cost of transportation (if the pass includes this), and see if it is a good deal for your family or not.
Many times, you can also get transportation multi-passes online ahead of time as well. Do a little research and decide what kind of tickets are best for you. There are a myriad of options: a certain number of trips, a certain number of days, pay-by-the-trip, family tickets, etc. I’m a big fan of using the local public transportation (subway/metro if it is available). It is usually the cheapest and fastest way to get from place to place within a large city, and many times children ride free. Yes, it can be stinky or dirty. But I still loved it. I loved watching little old Italian ladies coo over my baby, or old Spanish men making comments about my children’s blonde hair. If you only stay where the tourists go, you never get to have unique experiences that are the best part of any trip!
10. SPEND MONEY
Wait, haven’t I been telling you how to NOT spend money? One thing I learned (the hard way), is that sometimes a deal is just not to be had. Traveling can be expensive. But don’t spend your time in a gorgeous museum being bitter about how much it cost to get in. Enjoy it. And for goodness sakes, don’t not go. You spent money to get to that city, see what you want to see there. Decide what is important to you and your family, and experience it.