Taking a ferry

How to Travel with Kids on the Cheap

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Wondering how to travel with the whole family without bleeding money out your ears? Traveling with more people means more plane tickets, more beds to sleep in and more meals to buy. As I have learned through the years (and lots of mistakes), it takes some planning to make this even remotely affordable. MonsterDad argues that there are much cheaper ways to travel than the way we do it, but I counter that $10-a-night hostels don’t allow kids under age 12, and I wouldn’t want to freaking take my kids there anyway.

Since I’m unwilling to travel by overnight bus, sleep in hostels, and live off of rice and beans, we do a fair amount of saving in order to be able to travel. But we still can’t afford to stay in five star resorts. Read on for some tried and true tricks I use to prevent the budget from completely exploding.

Cheap travel with kids
This is what dinner with a toddler at a restaurant looks like for me, and why I always pack food.

Watch the food budget

Restaurants are expensive. If you have more than one child, it’s always advantageous to stay in a place with some kind of kitchenette available. Once you land in your destination, hunt down the nearest grocery store and stock up. Plus, a grocery store is one of my favorite cultural experiences for the whole family when we are abroad.

If you do eat out, look for restaurants that cater to locals, not tourists. Try local delicacies. Stop at hole-in-the-wall places. And avoid the hotel restaurant. You’ll usually save money.

For extreme thriftiness, consider bringing food along in your luggage. I have been embarrassed in the past to admit to packing Kraft mac and cheese in my suitcase, but no more shame! I hate wasting money on food that toddlers will barely eat. For a dollar, some milk, and access to a hot plate and a pot (or even a microwave), you can make the kids mac and cheese. If you’re at the stage where the toddler is just going to scream and run in circles at a restaurant, take them back to the room and feed them and let the other adult go out and bring back real food. For older kids, packing a few granola bars can save you from paying for snacks on the go.

Think outside the box for accommodations

Hotel rooms are designed for two to four people. We are a family of five, so we automatically have problems. Even if you only have one or two kids, it’s often rough going during bedtime if everyone is in one room. You can look for suites and condos, but also try getting off the major booking sites and searching for small, local inns or hotels where you may save money.

Costa Rica Airport
No, you can’t bring this home.

Even better, consider staying in a house. This may require staying outside major cities, and you might need a car. But a house exchange site or house rental sites like VRBO or AirBnB can be a much cheaper option than a hotel, especially if you need more than one or two bedrooms. I was pretty hesitant the first time we used a house rental in another country, but we didn’t have any problems, and we saved a ton of money. A house exchange requires that you put your own home on their site in order to trade with other people. This is a great way to save money (and potentially make friends), but since there is no way I am ever getting my house clean enough to to trade with another family, we are major fans of VRBO.

Planes, trains, or automobiles?

Carefully calculate the cheapest way to get your family from Point A to Point B. It might be better to take a train for one or two people, but once you get to five it might be better to rent a car. That puddle jumper plane ticket might look cheap, but do they charge for luggage? Traveling with a family is different from traveling solo. Look into car rentals vs train passes vs flights vs shuttles to your destination. Of course, you’ll also have to decide when a higher cost is totally worth not having to drive ten hours with the kids. I can’t help you with that one. (Although I do know some ways to survive a road trip if you decide not to spring for plane tickets…)

Save Money on Souvenirs

Encourage your kids to think of low-cost ways to collect memories from your vacation. Do they have a daily travel journal? Can you give them a cheap camera to take photos for an album? My son made a PowerPoint presentation of all the critters he saw in Costa Rica, and he loved working on it during our vacation — then had a great souvenir at the end (and something to show his class)!

A bad souvenir
An example of a bad souvenir, even if it was free.

If you run across any free stuff, collect it: stickers, patches, pens, matchbooks. An Oregon rest stop was an absolute treasure trove of free stickers and maps for us. However, I admit that my boys still love to buy stuff. I usually give them a budget of $10 or so for souvenirs, and push them to wait until the very end of our trip to spend it. They know their limit and will spend a couple days perusing markets before they make up their minds. Just make sure you actually get this shopping done before your day of departure; you may think they have forgotten, but trust me, they will remember their desperate need for souvenirs as soon as they see the airport gift shop. Good luck finding something there for under $10!

Choose Activities Carefully

Many tours and activities cost money. Fortunately, when traveling with kids, you just can’t do all the things. You just can’t. The kids will explode from overstimulation. They require rest times or maybe even rest days. This allows you to choose carefully which pricey activities or tours are important to you, and which are important to the kids. Skip the ones that aren’t perfect for your family, even if they’re the ones everyone else is telling you just HAVE to do (especially if the people telling you that have teenagers, and you have a toddler). Don’t tell yourself this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Tell yourself that maybe you’ll be back here again someday, and in the meantime, plan an itinerary that will leave you with wonderful memories of happy kids.

This may require splitting up. If only one adult wants to, say, go to a museum, don’t bother paying entrance fees for everyone just so the other adult can chase the kids around shushing them. Is there a park across the street where you can take the kids for a couple hours to eat croissants and play with other kids? You might all have a better time, and save some coin in the process.

Will traveling with kids cost you more money than traveling solo? Yes, but it’s worth it. Just plan ahead so that you don’t have to spend their entire college savings on that beach vacation.

Happy travels!