Last week we went on our first official “just the four of us” family vacation to Dublin. One of the great benefits to living in Europe is that we can literally hop in our car and drive to some of the most fascinating places in the world. In fact, this was one of the main reasons we wanted to move to Ireland in the first place: to travel and see as much as we possibly can in the next 2 years.
Dublin was a bit of a reality check for us, though. Turns out, it takes more than time away from work and a sense of adventure to travel with a family: it takes money. Loads of money. Especially in Europe. But I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure a lack of funds doesn’t keep us from our fun!
Here are a few ways we’ve found to save money on our travel. With a little extra planning and some flexibility, you really can stretch a dollar (or Euro) pretty far.
1. Travel Off-Season
Everything costs more if you travel during your destination’s peak season. If you have some flexibility in your schedule, travel when the area isn’t as popular (it will save you lots of money, plus there will be fewer crowds to deal with). If you need to travel at a specific time (like when your kids have a break from school), see if you can find a location that is off-peak during your preferred travel time. Many areas in the Bahamas and South America, for instance, have killer deals in the summer months during their “rainy season”.
2. Save Money on Transportation Costs
My friends over at This Beautiful Frugal Life just did a great post on saving money on airfare–really, if you want to save money on flights, this is a great post. Once you arrive at your destination, you’ll still need to get around. Many cities have great public transportation that is both convenient and affordable. If you plan on renting a car, you can often save money by renting for a whole week rather than by the day and by returning the car to the same location that you picked it up from (most car rental companies charge a fee for returning your car to a different location). For our recent trip to Dublin, we decided to spend a little extra money to have centrally-located lodging so we could walk everywhere and not have to pay for parking or taxis. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Be Creative With Your Lodging
Long gone are the days where hotels were your only (or even best) option for lodging on a vacation. For our family with two children under the age of 3 (read: two children who take naps and don’t sleep through the night), hotels are actually a BAD option. I need bedrooms. With doors that lock. And a kitchen to prepare the 5,000 meals a day that they require. We love renting from vacation rental sites like VRBO and AirBNB. For the same price as a modest hotel room, you can rent a whole house (or, for the truly adventurous, exciting options such as a gypsy trailer or a houseboat!). We have had several great experiences with rentals from these sites, so I really don’t see hotels again in our future for a very long time.
And, if you get really desperate for sleeping space, you can always let your baby fall asleep in the stroller then disassemble said stroller to bring sleeping baby inside.
4. Buy A Pass.
Most large cities across the United States and around the world offer some sort of “City Pass” that allows you to visit several attractions for one (relatively) low price. If you’re planning on hitting up several sites on your visit, these passes can save you a lot of money. If you are visiting a U.S. city with a Costco, you may even check the local warehouse for City Passes on a deep discount. In Ireland we were fortunate to have Heritage Pass cards gifted to us–the cards give us free admission to hundreds of national heritage sites and parks in Ireland for an entire year. On our trip to Dublin last week we saved about $50 per person by using our Heritage passes to visit castles, old prisons, and government buildings. Many cities and states have a similar pass for parks, museums and public spaces.
5. Save Money on Food
Next to airfare and lodging, food is usually the most expensive part of any vacation. We like renting places that have a kitchen so we can cook the majority of our meals at home (plus, our kids are picky little things so it’s a waste taking them out to eat, anyway). If you can’t (or don’t want) to cook for yourself, consider buying share-able ready-to-eat meals (pizza or rotisserie chicken, anyone?). You can also order your restaurant meals as take-out to save money on tips and service charges (as an added bonus, you can even make your meal into an adventure by eating in a local park or at the beach).
6. Check The Group Deal Sites
Most major cities around the world are featured on group deal sites such as Living Social and Groupon. Sign up for e-mail alerts from your destination city to purchase vouchers for your vacation. I’ve gotten great deals on hotels, restaurants, and attractions this way.
7. Find Your City’s Free Admission Days
Several cities that I’ve visited have a “free day” where museums, art galleries, and the like are free on a certain day each month. In Seattle, we had free first Thursdays, and here in Ireland they have free first Wednesdays. If you visit any of the sites participating in the “free day” on their specified day, admission is totally free. Can’t beat that!
8. Budget For Special Activities
There will always be one or two things that are really important to splurge on. Maybe it’s dinner at a Michelin Star restaurant or visiting an over-priced theme park. Decide what your “splurge” is, and budget that in ahead of time. After all of the money you’ve already saved, you won’t feel *quite* so guilty about consuming $200 worth of duck confit. After all, this is a vacation!