11 Tips to Afford Family Travel

Last year, we traveled to 20 countries with 4 kids aged 7 and under. Even I recoil a little at the thought of that.There were tantrums and frustrations and hangry attacks. The kids had their moments, too. 😉
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But there were also so many magical times that we will treasure forever and ever and ever. Our kids are better friends because of it. They rely on each other more. They’re more creative in their play and more understanding of others. They show greater compassion. We’d do it again in a heartbeat.

But it costs a lot of dang money to fly a family of 6 around for 1/4 of the year! So we had to do everything we could to save and bring down costs. I’ll be doing several posts on the specific financials, but I wanted to start things off by sharing a few general tips for how we kept things affordable. Hope they help – and I’d love to hear anything you do, as well!


1. SAVE. Duh. Don’t go buying that giant TV. I have an iPhone 7 that I got a year ago because my old 5C finally kicked the bucket. We don’t have cable or Netflix. We drive a 2007 minivan that we bought with cash 5 years ago. I’m currently typing on a 2011 MacBook Pro. We’ve sold stuff we don’t need on Craigslist. You get the idea. No need to be a monk but try to remember what is really the best use of your funds.

2. CREDIT CARD MILES AND FLIGHT DEALS. The total cost of our long-haul flights to and from Europe last summer was something in the neighborhood of $1,000 for all 6 of us. And about $700 of that was taxes for the baby, who didn’t have his own seat (10% of the adult fare gets expensive with one-way flights). If we’d had enough miles for him, we would’ve totally gotten him a seat because it would’ve been a whole lot cheaper. We love the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, the Chase Marriott card, and the Chase Freedom card. The first has a great initial miles bonus, the Marriott has hotel points, and the Freedom card gives cash back that can also be converted to miles and such.

If you’re not good with limiting yourself with credit cards, well, don’t do this. But if you treat it like cash, then credit cards have lots of advantages. They get you rewards and build credit for spends you would make, anyway. We NEVER carry a balance and have every card set to automatically pay in full every month. Sometimes we close a card after getting the points and re-open a different card later. Others we like to keep (like the ones listed above). Either way, it’s a great way to fly for cheap.

When converting to miles, be sure to check out airports and taxes. For instance, we try to avoid Heathrow as their taxes tend to be really high, especially on British Airways. United tends to have very cheap taxes domestically. Check out your destination and the amounts you’ll need to pay before converting any miles.

When buying flights with cash, we typically search various dates, time periods, and lengths of trip on Google Flight Search. It’s the best we’ve found at comparing most airlines (except Southwest, which doesn’t show up on there, so we search that separately). We also like Skyscanner and Scott’s Cheap Flights. Try different departure and return dates, different lengths of trip, fly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays if you can, and keep checking back.

3. DEALS ON ACCOMMODATIONS. We try to save our hotel points for the places we can get the most bang for our buck. We stayed at a 5-star hotel in Amman, Jordan for 10,000 Marriott points a night with the 5th night free (a smoking deal). We were also able to use points in London where lodging is crazy expensive. In other places, we tended to use Airbnb because we can usually get a larger space for less money (you can use that link to get $40 off your stay). If we’re staying for several nights or it’s an off-peak time, we’ve occasionally reached out to hosts to see if they’d be willing to give us a discount.

Before we had this many kids, we often couchsurfed. We had consistently fantastic experiences and really got to experience cultures in ways we wouldn’t have otherwise. In fact, the last time we did it was in Iceland – with three kids!!

If we’re somewhere for longer, home exchanges are amazing! We had a great experience doing a home exchange with a family in France – and other than the $150/year membership fee, it was free! This way, you’re also not paying taxes on income from renting out your home.

4. EAT LIKE A LOCAL. That means we didn’t go seek out McDonald’s when there was amazing and cheap local food in India, nor did we eat out every meal while in France. We obviously eat out more than we would at home, but we try to keep it reasonable. We will usually make at least 2 meals in a day. We also try to purchase local ingredients – no buying expensive American peanut butter while in Europe. We try to purchase from markets and local vendors. With all this, our food expenses aren’t typically enormously higher than they would be at home.

5. RENT OUT OUR PLACE. This deserves its own post, but we typically rent out our home on Airbnb while we travel. We had a couple of mildly frustrating experiences (mostly with Airbnb being unhelpful) but overall, we’ve had really great people stay and we’ve never had any major issues. We hire cleaners to come before and after any guests and build that cost into our rate. This tends to cover a good chunk of our travel.

6. HAVE A SIDE INCOME. We’re grateful for Dan’s job, and that’s what covers our daily living. But he also has a side job. Dan became a licensed realtor in California for us to purchase our own home, and he’s also helped a number of others since. For friends, he typically gives back as much of the commission as he can after his broker’s fee (he’s always had a distrust of realtors and delights in beating the system, haha). With others, he still gives back a BIG chunk just because he likes to help people, but keeps a small amount that covers his time, our taxes, and puts a little into our travel fund.

It works here in CA because homes tend to be so expensive and because many people do their own research in finding their homes. But if you can find something like that where you live, it’s a great way to facilitate travel.

7. MIX EXPENSIVE PLACES WITH LOW-COST ONES. There’s nothing like traveling from Norway to make London feel absolutely cheap! Ha. Still, most of Europe is pretty pricey. A few months later, we headed to Asia and while getting there was more expensive, we also ate one of the best meals of our lives where we all stuffed ourselves silly for under $7 USD. So. There’s that.

We also try to seek out some lower-cost activities in the places we go. Even expensive cities will have an abundance of fun and free things to do! Try googling “free things to do in ___” or “what to do with kids in ___.” You might be surprised how many free things will turn up for kids that are interesting for adults, too!

8. TAG ALONG. Dan occasionally has work trips, and we try to tag along if possible! This means his flight and hotel are generally covered, which is a big help.

9. LIMIT EXTRAS. When flying, we all share a single suitcase. One. We limit the stuff we bring, and that means we only have to pay for one piece of checked luggage, and only have to deal with moving one suitcase around. We also hardly buy any souvenirs. We buy a children’s book (…or several) in each place, as well as an ornament, and that’s basically it.

10. BE FLEXIBLE. We like to look through various dates for travel to find what is affordable. Sometimes flights or train trips are cheaper on some days than others, so we try to be flexible to take advantage of those. We also are usually okay with missing some school if needed. We work it out with our kids’ teachers and sometimes do independent study packets so our school still gets funding, but we don’t stress too much about them missing some school here and there. We don’t travel just as a fun vacation – the purpose is to learn and grow, so we figure they’re still expanding their minds even while we’re gone. We’ll also occasionally see if Dan can work remotely for a few days if we’re in a location with an office of his company or where he would have good WiFi.

In general, we try to work around dates that make it more affordable for all of us so that we can include more travel in our lives. The more rigid you are with dates, the more you’ll typically have to pay to get your exact schedule.
11. LEVERAGE BEING A FAMILY. 6 people is always more expensive than 2 people, right? Actually, no! Sometimes being a family actually comes in handy. There were a couple of museums in Scandinavia that had a family rate that was actually cheaper than the individual rate because they wanted to encourage kids to come! We’ve also had restaurants bring us extra food, airplanes upgrade our seats or check extra luggage for free, museums or security lines send us right to the front, or had hotels include nice breakfasts for free – all because we had small children with us.
Despite the stereotype that people get annoyed by kids who travel, so many actually love seeing it and will go out of their way to be helpful. Be grateful, be courteous, and pay it forward!
Okay, tell me what I missed! I’d love to hear what you do to make family travel affordable!

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