How We Do Family Travel on a Budget

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I realize sometimes our life on social media looks like one trip after another and many wonder how we can afford to travel so often.  First and foremost, we prioritize travel over anything else.  We drive a beat up old car, we don’t eat out often, and we are all around thrifty.  I almost always buy things on sale and since we have moved around so much, we try not to spend money on material things that we can’t take with us.

When we travel, we generally travel on a tight budget.  In fact if we are travelling in developing countries, our style of travel is backpacking and our daily budget is $150 all in for our family of 5.  We are happy traveling on a budget.  I find it allows us to get a better sense of a country and its people.  Sure, we might not be able to do everything we would like to at a destination, but it forces us to seek out free activities like wandering the streets or finding the local playground.  You read all my tips and advice for family travel planning in this post.

In Australia our travel tended to be shorter getaways since Paul was working.  Australia is extremely expensive to travel in and since we had income coming in and didn’t travel full time, our Australian travels were more mid-range.  If we went on short getaways from Melbourne, we choose to camp, which kept costs down.

Read my full post on how you can travel more as a family.  And if you need a reminder about why you should travel with your kids, check out this post about 7 benefits of family travel.

After 15 years of travel, 10 of those with kids, here are some of our tips for family travel on a budget.

Family Travel on a Budget

Travel Off Peak

I know many people worry about taking their kids out of school for a family vacation, but I say just do it! We have found teachers to be really supportive of our travels with little concern.  Obviously this depends on the country you live, but in Australia and Canada, we have had no difficulty traveling during school terms and for extended periods.  We have also visited many countries in low or “green” season and have found good savings.  In the tropics, it rarely rains all day and we don’t find an hour of rain each day affects our holiday. Recently we traveled to India in the green season and in addition to cheaper prices, we didn’t have to book accommodation in advance.

Wet season Kerala

We traveled in the “green season” in India and it was beautiful

Take Local Transportation

Sure, it might be harder than transportation catering for tourists, but it is saves a lot of money and allows you to see the country in a different way. We loved taking the chicken buses in Nicaragua and the trains in India and the songthows in Thailand.  We met local families, learned more about the local culture and ways of life and had a much more authentic experience. In fact, one of my all time favourite traveling memories was in India last year when we were befriended by strangers on a train.

Sri Lanka train with kids

Taking the local train through the tea fields in Sri Lanka

Choose Active Activities over Attractions

When we travel we prefer to wander the streets of a city, explore the parks, or go for a hike. These cost us very little.  We splurge occasionally on a tour or attraction, but try to do free and active activities whenever possible.

Choose Destinations with a Lower Cost of Living

We love traveling in Asia because it is so affordable and it was a great choice when we were living in Australia.  Now that we are back in Canada, getting our family to Asia is very expensive and we are focusing on closer destinations like Mexico and Central America.

asian temple

No need to spend tons of money to soak up the culture when traveling

Travel Slower

The faster you move, the more expensive is it as your transportation and attraction costs increase. By traveling slower, we cut down on transportation costs and don’t feel as rushed to cram everything in.  We spent a month touring Nicaragua and could have easily toured multiple countries in South America, but purposely chose to slow down and experience one country more deeply.  We also find that when traveling with kids, slower is better, which also allows more flexibility.

Central America with kids

We had lots of time to get to know Nicaragua in our month there.

Don’t Try to do it All

There are usually lots of ways to experience and spend money at different destinations. We try to find the balance between splurging on a few items that we really want to do and tempering that with lots of free and active activities.  That is why we love traveling in Asia because the culture and people are so interesting to us, that we don’t need to pay money for more manufactured experiences.

Collect Experiences, not Things

We do sometimes buy souvenirs, but we prefer to spend our money on unique and interesting experiences, rather then things. I do not like clutter and although there are lots of interesting things to buy when on holiday, I try to think practically about where they would go and what I would do with them.

If we do buy mementos from our trip, we try to buy directly from the artist.  Some of the great travel keepsakes we have at home are a table we bought in Malawi in Africa for $20.  It is intricately carved and we met the artisan making the piece.  We shipped it home while on a 6 month trip and it definitely has a special place in my heart, even if it isn’t the most practical item.  One item I often buy are Christmas tree ornaments as they are small and we can remember our travels when we are home decorating the tree.  I also really like to buy consumables while traveling, like a special coffee or spices or home made soaps.

Malawi countryside

We bought a beautiful hand carved wooden table on the road side in Malawi.

Research

I love to research travel and spend hours preparing for an upcoming trip. We often find exceptional quality accommodation and things to do as recommended by other travelers that offer amazing value.  So even though we travel on a budget, we often experience much higher quality activities and accommodation then what we are paying.  If somewhere is popular, there is probably a reason why.

Last year in Indonesia, we found this amazing house in the rice fields of Bali.  It cost the same as staying in popular Ubud, but offered a much more authentic village experience as we became friends with our hosts.

Eat at Local Restaurants

When traveling in developing countries, we prefer to eat at local restaurants where we find the food is better and much cheaper. We look for busy restaurants when deciding where to go.  Our kids do sometimes get tired of foreign food and that is when we will go to a restaurant that caters to tourists for the kids to get some Western food.

where to eat Asia

Asian hawker stalls = cheap and delicious!

Keep your Destination Open

We often have a few places in mind for our next trip and will make the decision based on where we can find the best flight deal. For example, when we were living in Australia, I wanted to go on a special trip with just Gavin.  Scoot had a great sale with really cheap flights to Singapore, so that is where we went.  It could have been Vietnam or Thailand, but Singapore was the best deal.

Take Advantage of Layovers

If we are planning a trip and have a layover along the way, we will often turn that into a longer stopover.  That way we get two destinations for the price of one, since often airlines will allow a free stopover.  We find this also helps the kids deal with jetleg.

Just this year, on our way to and from India, we took advantage of stopovers in Guangzhou, China and Hong Kong.  We felt like we added some destinations, got to try out some places and broke up the trip, all at no additional cost.

Subscribe to Flight Deals

We are always on the look our for flight promotions. We subscribe to all the big airlines and deal sites like Secret Flying.

Budget Airlines

We don’t love them, but we almost always choose them for domestic flights because the savings for five people really adds up.  We also think of the savings as money we can spend on a nice restaurant or a tour or attraction.  That being said, we have learned to be very careful when booking budget flights.  A few years ago we booked super cheap flights from Australia to Bali that we ended up not being able to use because we couldn’t get away that month.  We couldn’t change our dates or get a credit and ended up walking away from a substantial amount of money.  It was a lesson learned.  Don’t be tempted by cheap flight sales.  Make sure you can travel on those dates, because you won’t be able to make any changes to your booking.

Remember that budget airlines will nickel and dime you for everything.  Make sure you are comparing apples with apples when comparing flights between budget and full-service airlines.  If you can travel with carry-on only, you can save a lot of money.  Read this post to check out the best carry on luggage options for kids.

Stay in Apartments

For our family of 5, we find it really difficult to book hotels at reasonable rates because they want us to purchase two rooms. We almost always stay in apartments, booked through Airbnb.  This usually gives us multiple bedrooms, a kitchen and we get to stay in a local neighborhood.

Sydney family accommodation

We love staying in Airbnbs

Pack Lunches

When travelling and heading out on day trips, we will often pack sandwich lunches. Yes, we would love to be eating all our meals out at restaurants or cafes, but we can save a lot of money having a picnic lunch.  This also ends up being healthier usually.  Generally we will eat one meal out a day because we are on vacation.  In more expensive countries we often will buy sandwiches at a grocery store or food truck and find a park for a picnic lunch.

Cook Dinner In

This is another one of the things we love about staying in Airbnbs – the ability to cook our own meals. We find it is a lot cheaper to eat lunch out then dinner.  I try to pick simple meals that are quick and easy to prepare, like pasta or tacos.  I also find that after a full day out sightseeing, the kids are tired and like to relax back at our home away from home.

Always Carry Water Bottles

I hate paying for water, both for the cost and environmental impact. We always carry and refill water bottles in a daypack.  Recently, we have made the switch to filtering our own water in developing countries so as not to use plastic.  We can definitely recommend the Grayl filtration system.

We always carry water bottles

Always Have Snacks Handy

My kids are hungry all the time and I certainly don’t want to be buying snacks for them throughout the day. We always carry snacks like granola bars, fruit, nuts and cookies for when they are feeling hungry. Check out this helpful post for great travel snack ideas for kids.

Don’t Get Drinks at Restaurants

We find a great way to save money is by not ordering drinks when we are eating out. We are perfectly happy with tap water in developed countries and inexpensive bottled or filtered water in developing countries.

When traveling in hot destinations we will often have a cold drink in the afternoons at a restaurant or park.  Our kids know that there is a “1 drink/a day” rule that we stick to when traveling.

Stick with the free tea instead of expensive drinks

Use Coupons and Book in Advance

Coupons don’t really come in paper form anymore, but you can still use online coupons, discount books or discount websites to book tours and attractions at a much lower price. In Australia, the Entertainment books for each region have significant savings with the added bonus of helping support a charity as well.

If you are visiting an attraction, you may be able to pre-book tickets at a discounted rate on their website, Klook or Viator.

Negotiate

negotiating India

Don’t be scared to negotiate. In many countries, it is expected.

When traveling in developing countries, don’t be afraid to negotiate especially when it comes to markets and transportation. Do your research in advance and know what the going rate is for a tuk-tuk ride across town.  I don’t like negotiating and usually leave this up to Paul.  If you negotiate light-heartedly, the vendors are usually more then happy to find a common ground.

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Family Travel Budget Tips

 

 

 

 

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