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Family Travel Tips for Europe: Keep These 5 Spending Areas in Check to Make the Most of Your Budget

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 a vacation with a group like ours, but it is more than possible if you follow a few of our family travel tips.

In 2019, we took our first vacation outside of the States to visit four well-known European cities: London, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. We spent the entire year prior planning all the details of where to stay enlisting the kids help in selecting what attractions to visit. With 4 kids ranging from 9 to 17, you can only imagine the variety in what they selected. Of course the obvious ones like the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben made the cut.  However, our 9 year old’s suggestion of visiting the local video game arcade didn’t.

One of my favorite parts of planning a vacation is the travel budget. We don’t have unlimited funds so minding the dollars and cents is essential. If you don’t watch things carefully, you could easily rack up credit card debt that can bite you a month or so after the trip. So I channel a combo of my inner Rick StevesSuze Orman and Bear Grylls when embarking on this necessary travel task. 

Airfare

A good general rule of thumb is to prepare for at least 20% of your international vacation expenses to be spent on airfare. The cost will vary depending on destination and location, but you should use $500-$750 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 initially 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!

Lodging

Finding lodging as a family of 6 can be pretty challenging. That’s when vacation rental services like AirBnB become your best friend. These vacation rental services offer a whole host of options from as low as $100 to as high as $1,000+ per night.

You’d be surprised at the gems you can find on the lower cost range of places to stay, but you’re usually trading location for comfort. Our budget included $250 per night, offering excellent accommodation even at peak tourist seasons.

Local & Inter-Country Transportation

Public transportation in major European cities is an efficient and relatively inexpensive option for getting around. If you plan well and your rental is located near travel hubs, following this family travel tip should be easy.

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.

Meals

We usually aren’t the 4 course, caviar every meal type of group, but we enjoy trying new things. There are so many great restaurants through these lands, and the best isn’t necessarily the most expensive. We would frequent small cafes often for a delicious light breakfast, juice, and coffee.

Our 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 planned for $250 per day in food expenses for the whole family.

Excursions

Several iconic attractions are relatively inexpensive or even free to experience. With this being our first trip to Europe, we wanted to take in as much as possible, which meant choosing some high-ticket tours and experiences.

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 offers. It was a 4-course lunch introducing us to some iconic French cuisine.

You might think even this was still pretty expensive, and it would have been if we didn’t leverage our credit card reward points. This is your secret weapon for keeping your vacation budget in check. We saved our credit card points up for a year, allowing us to book a number of excursions at no cost. This family travel tip alone saved us approximately $1,500!

Family Travel Tip: Airport Lounges

When traveling internationally, long layovers seem to be a rite of passage. This part of the trip can quickly turn sour when forced to sit at the terminal the entire time. The offspring are either tired, excited for a new adventure, need of some distraction, or all of the above. That is where airport lounge access comes to the rescue!

Our first long layover was in Minneapolis Saint-Paul International (MSP) airport. Although this is one of my favorites with its wide selection of dining options and overall aesthetics, this was the first time with the family on such a long layover. We filled the first 30 minutes of our 4-hour layover with lunch but with 3 1/2 hours to go, my wife and I immediately went in search of something to prevent the pending 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 the time away till boarding.

family travel tips

To my knowledge, this is the only PGA lounge, but airport lounge access, in general, is still a good option. Keep in mind, many of these safe havens can do damage to the 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. You might instead consider these family travel tip options to help you save:

  • 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 membership through a club. Networks like Priority Pass charge annual fees for access to thousands of lounges worldwide. Some membership levels still require an entry fee but at a reduced cost. Priority Pass Select offers entry for 2 guests which 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 access. This is an excellent option as it offers numerous options, and you receive additional benefits such as rewards points and discounts on 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 responsible family vacation plan, we had one of the best vacation experiences imaginable. We got to try new cuisine, see iconic landmarks, post 100,000+ Fitbit steps, and even getting closer to understanding 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 were pre-booked expenses, so all good there.

Meals: Despite some surprises here and there, averaged $225 per day. Check!

Excursions: We still hit the target budget, even with adding higher ticket attractions like the London Eye.

Everything was looking on point until digging a little deeper into the transportation and miscellaneous 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 budget.

Family Travel Tip: How to Avoid our Missteps

Inter-Country Rail – Last Minute Purchasing Means 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. Just in case something unforeseen occurred. This meant buying them a day or two before departure. I should have heeded the expert’s 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 amount of freedom, but this really wasn’t necessary in hindsight. 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. It was understandable for us with exhausted kids who have walked for hours 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

AirBnB 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 overall 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. We will definitely be paying closer attention to these hidden expenses for our next trip. 

For a more in-depth look at our time in Europe and some of the resources we leveraged, visit the posts below and our Travel Planning page to learn more. 

Family Travel Tip: Covid Guidelines Update

These days, traveling with our family comes with a few added expenses and restrictions to consider. With Covid still a concern worldwide, it’s good to know what you need to do to be cleared to fly. When you plan to travel internationally, you’ll need to first check the destination’s Covid requirements and situation.

If you are not fully vaccinated, you will need to show a negative covid test taken 1 to 3 days before your trip. This means you will need to schedule a test with one of the many locations that provide testing, or you can purchase an at-home rapid test for fast, convenient results. I definitely recommend heading to the nearest clinic if you have the time. PCR rapid tests can cost as much as $150 each!

When you travel internationally, you’ll want to make sure you follow all safety guidelines. If you don’t, you may be denied re-entry into the States. While an extended vacation sounds nice, it’s better when it’s your choice.

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