One of the most common questions we received after traveling full-time for two years was about how to save money when traveling with kids. After all, we incur pretty much all the expenses of solo travelers times four! No, it’s never truly cheap. But after two years on the road we’ve come up with some creative money-saving strategies beyond playing the basics.
Bring what you need from home (within reason)
It’s good to know that you can find most things you need for kids wherever you go. After all, there are kids living all over the world!
But the convenience of buying or renting that stuff when you travel could cost a pretty penny. For example, we usually bring a lightweight car seat for travel so that we don’t have to pay to rent one. In Australia we had to rent one for each kid and it wound up costing us $200 with all the fees! Likewise with items like diapers, you might end up spending an arm and a leg if you buy a small package in every tiny village convenience store in Europe rather than bringing a packing cube full of ones you purchased at Costco back home.
Consider home exchange to save money on accommodations (and beyond)
Swapping homes with another traveling family is a great way to get a feel for “living like a local” and save tons of money in the process. The largest network, HomeExchange.com, charges $150 for an annual membership that allows you unlimited swaps with other members. You can either arrange a reciprocal exchange (where you and your host swap homes at exactly the same time) or take advantage of their innovative non-reciprocal points-based exchange options.
How else can home exchange save you money? For starters, you won’t have to eat every meal out. We always eat breakfast at “home” when we travel and often use groceries to pack a picnic lunch for ourselves.
A home exchange can also come with lots of other benefits since it’s usually stocked for people to live there. At our home exchange in Hawaii, we found all the boogie boards, snorkel gear and beach chairs we could ever need! We didn’t have to spend any money to rent those items. We also had our own garage, so we didn’t have to pay for expensive hotel parking.
If home exchange won’t work for you, hostels are another worthwhile option to consider. We’ve stayed in many hostels as a family and we love the experience! Look for ones with a family room, which is often a suite two rooms (or more!) and an attached bathroom. Breakfast is generally included and there’s usually a kitchen available if you want to prepare meals there. We’ve also found staying in hostels with our kids to be a great way to meet other travelers from around the world!
Stay open to all your transportation options
There’s usually more than one way to get from point A to point B, and almost all of them are just fine for a family. We’ve taken our kids on planes, trains, buses, boats and more to get around as we’ve traveled the world.
The key is to evaluate all your options. In some cases, renting a car works out best if you’re traveling as a family of four or five and your kids are old enough that they don’t get the deepest discounts on transportation options. But in many cases, kids under 4 travel free on buses and trains in your lap and kids over 4 (up to 12-14, depending on the country) get a 40-50% discount.
While trains and buses are sometimes your best option, don’t rule out kid-friendly flight deals! For domestic travel within the US, there are a few you should know about:
- Southwest offers a companion pass once you’ve earned enough points in a single year. You can earn those points through a combination of flights and/or credit card sign up bonuses. Once you earn the companion pass, a single named companion flies free with you!
- Alaska Airlines offers a similar companion pass program, but they charge $99 per companion ticket (some credit card offers waive that fee for the first year). While the Southwest program is a better value, you may want to choose one based on what flights are available from your home airport.
- Frontier Airlines offers some flights on weekdays completely free for kids if you’re a member of their Discount Den program.
In other countries, kids generally get a modest 10% discount on their airfare but sometimes flights are just too cheap to pass up. But make sure you account for the cost of ground transportation to get to far-flung airports versus close-in train stations and bus depots.
Use your memberships – even abroad!
Traveling as a family means that you’re potentially paying admission fees for lots of people. At some blockbuster attractions, it’s just unavoidable. But if your family has memberships at any local museums, check to see if those cards will get you in for free!
We’ve used our local science museum membership to gain entry all over the US, as well as in Chile, Israel and more. Likewise, look for reciprocity options for your children’s museum, zoo and botanical garden memberships. You’ll be surprised at how many you find!
Slow down… way down
Traveling with kids is a completely different experience than traveling without them. You may not hit every blockbuster site on TripAdvisor’s top 10 list, but we’ve found that it offers more opportunities to connect with locals and other travelers.
There are two pieces to slowing down that save you money. First, in your daily activities you can give yourself permission to spend a gorgeous afternoon at the park. While your child finds new friends (and learns that play is more universal than language), you can enjoy a coffee and chat with other parents you meet. Experiences like that don’t cost a penny but your family will remember them for years to come.
The second piece of slowing down is in your overall itinerary. Rather than spending just two or three nights in a location, spend a week! You’ll probably find a better deal on lodging (especially on Airbnb), you’ll only need to buy one round of groceries rather than replacing items at new destinations and you’ll spend less on transportation. After two years of full-time travel, we’ve learned that it’s much more economical and enjoyable to stay in a place for a week (or more) and really dive in. You can get off the beaten path, take some day trips… and not feel guilty about a few afternoons at the playground.
Time it right
Do yourself a favor: if your children haven’t yet gotten to 1st grade in school, work the shoulders of travel season. And I mean work them hard. October and May are wonderful months for travel in much of the world because the weather is perfect. Even more importantly, no one has long breaks during those months. You’ll generally find cheaper plane tickets, smaller crowds and sometimes even discounts on hotels and Airbnbs during those times.
What should you do if your kids are already deep in school and activities? All you can do is try! If your child’s school has a four day weekend in October, consider pulling them for another two days to make a wonderful getaway to one city. Long weekend in February? Snag a few extra days to head somewhere tropical before the spring break crowds arrive. While you don’t want your older kids to miss too much material in the classroom, they’ll learn so much more from a few days in a unique part of the world!
Traveling with kids is often hard and almost always expensive. Hopefully these tips will jump-start your money-saving creativity to help your family travel more and more affordably!
Melissa and her family have explored six continents together, most recently during two years of full-time travel. You can find more in-depth, practical travel advice for families on Travel Car Seat Mom and The Family Voyage.