Booking flights, lodging and planning excursions for two weeks across 4 countries for one person can be taxing. Multiply that by 6 and you’ve got a small scale tour group on your hands! This is the challenge with planning family travel like ours, but it is more than possible.
This was our first major trip outside of the States. We spent nearly a year planning all the details of where to stay and what attractions to see. I enlisted the kids help by performing Google searches for their top attractions. With 4 kids ranging from 17 to 9, you can only imagine the wide breath in what they selected. Some of the obvious ones like the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben were a given, but visiting the local video game arcade didn’t make it to the top of the list.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the trip for me is managing the family travel budget (don’t judge me…I’m know how weird that makes me). We do not have an unlimited amount of funds so budget planning is essential. If you don’t watch things carefully, that credit card bill could come home to bite you a month or so after the trip. So I channel a combo of my inner Rick Steves, Dave Ramsey and Bear Grylls when embarking on this necessary travel task.
The Budget Breakdown
There are five major budget categories you should monitor when planning your family travel adventure:
A general rule of thumb to follow is that airfare is usually at least 20% of your total international vacation expense. This will vary depending on where you live and how far you are planning to travel. Use $500 per plane ticket as your baseline and then explore ways to reduce the fare price from there. Flying roundtrip from one major metropolitan location can be the most cost effective, but you have to do your homework. We landed in London, but flew out of Amsterdam for this 2 week trip. Leveraging airline miles from credit card reward points combined with business travel, we managed to save 66% off of standard plane ticket prices!
Since we roll 6 deep and the kids are too big to sneak under a coat (which we have done before), vacation rental services like AirBnB become your best friend. They offer a whole host of options from as low as $100 to as high as $1,000+ per night. The low end of the range can have hidden gems, but are usually based in areas further from the main attractions. We aim for the $250 per night rate which offers solid accommodation choices even at peak tourist seasons.
Local & Inter-Country Transportation
Public transportation in major European cities are quite efficient and relatively inexpensive. So as long as your rental home base is strategically located, this family travel budget line item shouldn’t be a problem. Leveraging the inter-country rail system can also be economical if planned appropriately. We took trains from London to Paris, Paris to Brussels and Brussels to Amsterdam. All these major routes are serviced by Eurostar and Thalys high speed train service at fairly reasonable prices. We even had breakfast included with our 2 hour trip from Brussels to Amsterdam.
We aren’t the 4 course, caviar every meal type of group, but we do like to try new things. There are so many great restaurants through these lands, but the best aren’t necessarily the most expensive. We would frequent small cafes often for a light breakfast, juice and coffee.
Lunches could be had on the go from french fry stands in Holland (best fries I’ve ever tasted) to Argentinian steak sandwiches at Picadilly market in London. Dinner was where we’d spend the most money as we’d opt for nice sit down restaurants after a long day of walking. Taking advantage of the local grocery store for in-home meals can be the most-economical option by far. Either way, we figured $250 per day in food expense for the whole family.
A number of iconic attractions are relatively inexpensive or even free to experience. Since this was our first trip to Europe, we wanted to take in as much as possible which meant some experiences were high ticket tours.
For example, my wife loves dinner cruises with fine food and beautiful views from a unique vantage point. Dinner cruises are usually pretty pricey so we opted for a lunch cruise with the kids on the Seine River. It was a beautiful, sunny day passing by many of the top sites Paris has to offer. It was a 4 course lunch exposing us to some iconic French cuisine.
Still sounds pretty expensive you might say? It would have been if we didn’t leverage our credit card reward points. This is your secret weapon for keeping your family travel budget in check. We had been saving the points up for a year giving us the opportunity to book a number of excursions at no cost. This saved us approximately $1,500!
Special Note – Airport Lounges
When traveling internationally, long layovers are often a right of passage. However, this part of the trip can turn sour when forced to sit at the terminal the entire time. The offspring are either tired, excited for new adventure, in need of some distraction or all of the above. That is where airport lounge access comes to the rescue!
During the first leg of our trip to Europe, our layover was in Minneapolis Saint-Paul International (MSP) airport. This is one of my favorite airports due to its host of dining options and overall aesthetics. However, this was the first time with the family on such a long layover. Lunch filled the first 30 minutes to the schedule. But with 3 1/2 hours to go, my wife and I immediately went in search for something to prevent the ensuing adolescent breakdowns.
Low and behold…we discovered the PGA MSP Lounge! The $10 per person entry fee gave us unlimited putting, comfortable seats and interactive games to play. Perfect environment to keep us active, distracted and pass time away till boarding.
To my knowledge, this is the only PGA lounge, but airport lounge access in general is still a good option. But many of these safe havens can do damage to the family travel budget.
The average cost for a lounge day pass is $30-$50 per person according to SmartTraveler.com. That would equal $180 to $300 for our crew of six! In my opinion, access to unlimited food, drink and comfortable seats do not make the price tag a worthy investment. Instead, consider these options…
Airport Lounge Access Tips
- Leverage a third party app that provides airport lounge access without a membership. Services like Lounge Buddy offers entry into thousands of airport lounges. They can help you find the right lounge that can fit your budget
- Purchase a lounge membership through a club. Networks like Priority Pass charge annual fees for access to thousands of lounges throughout the world. Some membership levels still require a reduced entry fee per person. Priority Pass Select offers entry for 2 guests and thus helps in reducing the overall cost. But mind the fine print. For example, Delta recently changed the rules so that you can only gain access to their lounges if you are traveling on a Delta flight that same day.
- Sign up for a credit card rewards program that includes lounge access. This is the better option as it not only includes access to numerous lounges, but you also receive other benefits such as rewards points and discounts on other travel expenses. Some cards cover the cost of lounge membership making the annual credit cards fees a bit more worth it.
Airport lounge access can be just what your family needs during layover purgatory. Just make sure to plan ahead so that you don’t fork over too much cash for a few hours of respite.
Assessing the Damage
Armed with a solid, fiscally responsibility family travel plan, we had one of the best vacation experiences trying new cuisine, seeing iconic landmarks, posting 100,000+ Fitbit steps and even uncovering my wife’s Dutch heritage.
Since I’m a little obsessed with hitting financial targets, I sat down the day after our return to the states to assess if I accomplished my mission…
- Airfare and Lodging: These expenses were pre-booked so all good there.
- Meals: Despite some surprises here and there, averaged $225 per day. Check!
- Excursions: Even with adding higher ticket attractions like the London Eye, still hit the target.
Everything was looking on point until…I dug a little deeper into the transportation expenses. 100% over budget?!?! After the pulse slowed a bit and the shock wore off, I was able to find the main culprits that wreaked silent havoc on our large family travel budget.
Lessons Learned: How to Avoid our Family Travel Missteps
Inter-Country Rail – Last Minute Purchasing Mean Less in the Wallet
While we planned ahead on which days we’d travel between countries, I was wary of purchasing train tickets ahead of time in case something unforeseen occurred. This meant purchasing them a day or two before departure. I should have heeded the experts warning to book at least a month in advance. Not doing so cost us an extra 30-40%.
Booking at the last minute can give you a relative of amount of freedom, but in hindsight this really wasn’t necessary. Our AirBnBs were booked months in advance so we already knew the exact departure dates for each city. Taking a late morning or early afternoon ride would have given us sufficient wiggle room for later than anticipated check-outs. Major carriers will allow for last minute departure changes as well. Word to the wise…don’t let the fear of the unknown guide your plans as it may bite you in the wallet later.
Uber – Convenient, but Costly
While we did use low cost rail, bus and tram options, there were times when Uber XL became our friend…a little too much. In Paris, we Ubered back home after a 3 hour tour of the Louvre and a wonderful evening at the Eiffel Tower. This is understandable when the kids have walked for hours and it’s fairly late at night in an unfamiliar city. Where we got too comfortable with this option was during our stay in Brussels using the service to take us to our rental apartment as well as back and forth to certain venues.
Miscellaneous Expenses – The Hidden Budget Syphon
Air BnB offers the comforts of home, but some amenities aren’t included. Availability of the basics such as toilet paper, paper towels and cleaning supplies are inconsistent from place to place. This accumulated to an additional $250-$300 in unexpected expenses.
In the end, the trip was worth every penny and still saved around $3,000-$4,000 through rewards programs and excursion deals. But we will definitely be paying closer attention to these hidden expenses for our next trip.
For a more in-depth look at our family travel adventure to each of the 4 cities, visit our posts below: