Sunday, August 16, 2015

Budget Travel Tips (you can make it happen if you really want to!)


I've had a lot of people ask me about how we manage to travel a lot on a tight budget with a bunch of kids. Here are some answers to commonly asked questions:

I was lucky enough to be raised by parents who wanted to raise "citizens of the world." They taught us to value and embrace diversity, to realize that "different is interesting and good," to understand and love the nature and art and culture of our home and every place we visited, and to seek after truth and beauty in every situation.

While we can bring the whole world into our home through the Internet and great books and documentaries these days and that is a huge blessing, there's still nothing like actually experiencing things first-hand. A big part of who I am comes from the travels I was lucky enough to experience with my family growing up so naturally, I want some of that for my own children. And I never feel more alive and more "on" as a mother than I do when I'm traveling with my children.

I love seeing the kids' excitement mirror my own as we explore new places together!

For many years, we realized we needed to be content with very inexpensive roadtrips - sometimes in Utah, sometimes stretching to California, often in conjunction with family weddings or reunions (our budget was super-limited with employment ups and downs for quite some time - but we literally lived on rice and beans in order to protect some money for travel that was important to our families and to us. Plus we pretty much always drink only water in our family - which saves us at least a dollar a day over families who drink juice and soda and milk a lot more - that $365/year we might otherwise spend on drinks goes a long way towards family travel when we do it on the cheap!).

Then we were so excited when we were able to do a big cross-country road trip a few years back, funded by the Power of Moms Retreats I put on along the way. We paid like $65/night for hotels thanks to Express Deals on Priceline and stayed with friends and family many nights. We stopped at grocery stores and ate out of the cooler in our car and stretched the $100 gift certificate Subway gave us when we asked them to sponsor our trip as far as we could (everyone paired up to share $5 footlongs, drank water, no chips, no cookies...). We did fabulous free things in every city we visited and spent no more money on food than we would have if we'd been eating at home. And our inexpensive hotel costs and gas costs were covered by what we brought in from our Power of Moms Retreats.

Once our employment situation became a bit more stable, we started putting aside money every month towards a hoped-for Europe trip and while it was a big stretch, we felt like we were close to making a trip work for this spring or summer. Bulgaria and Italy were first on our list since Jared and I served missions there long ago and since the kids have been raising money to help orphanages in Bulgaria for many years now and I've been involved in a non-profit that works with Bulgarian orphanages for 10 years now and needed to do some fact-finding and training at the orphanages. But England and France were right behind (I grew up in England for 4 years, most of my and Jared's ancestors are from there, my little sister is moving there soon, I have a couple dear friends there, and for France -  I learned French in school and travelled there a lot when I was growing up in England - fell in love with the countryside and castles and Paris and all that). Plus my brother lives in Switzerland now and Jared and I both have Swiss ancestry. And my other brother was moving to Spain. So there were SO many places we really wanted to visit in Europe for many reasons.


We tried to figure out how to maximize getting miles from credit cards but that proved to be too complex for various reasons (we couldn't figure out how to get enough miles to get us all on the same flights and we realized we'd need a lot more lead time and would need to put a lot more on credit cards to make it work - just too complicated in the end...).

Then we realized we could get a small grant to help with a portion of our airfare expense in going to Bulgaria since we'd be doing a lot of work, training and infrastructure-building in orphanges (as I've been working for 10 years with One Heart Bulgaria, fundraising and serving on their Board for part of the time, it was really time for me to get back to Bulgaria and do some assessment and training and research). After MANY hours of researching airfares on the internet, we were able to find some decent deals that could make our dreamed-of trip to Europe this past summer actually happen. When we were trying to actually book the best-deal plane tickets that we'd been able to find after weeks of searching, the website we were on froze up so we called their customer service line and to book on the phone. After going through each flight number on the itinerary that we'd pieced together so carefully, the agent quoted us a price that was almost $800 cheaper than what we'd been just about to pay when booking on the website. We went over it again and again and confirmed that everything was correct and yep, that lower price was correct. What a wonderful blessing to pay less than we thought we were going to have to pay!

At the SLC airport - headed out on our adventure

During our 12-hour layover in Paris that was supposed to be 2 hours.
Mechanical difficulties. Wish we'd known we'd be stuck so long and we'd have
figured out how to to explore a bit of Paris! But they told us we had to stay close...


We rented a car in Bulgaria for the week we were there. We shopped around a lot on the internet and finally found a car for $350 for the week. It was a 7-seater but had NO luggage room so we had the twins sit on some bags as booster seats and put other bags on our laps and under our feet (glad we didn't bring much luggage!). It worked out OK since we seldom had to travel with our luggage as we were mostly doing day trips around the country. But we learned that what the rental companies call a "mini-van that seats 7" isn't at all the same as what we'd call a mini-van here in the US.

Our car in Bulgaria (no luggage space but 7 seats!)
In Italy, the best price we could find for a vehicle that would seat us all for the 10 days we'd be there was $450. Initially, the keys the rental car place gave us were for a car similar to the one we'd had in Bulgaria. We asked if they had anything bigger and they gave us a full-size van for the same price. It was huge - a nine-seater with tons of luggage space. I was worried we wouldn't fit through all those tiny streets and  that it would be hard to park but Jared was sure it would be OK and thanks to his excellent driving skills - it was! (We did have to fold in the rear view mirrors on the sides to get through some extra narrow streets...)

Our Fiat Scudo in Italy
We chose to stay in places where there would be free/cheap parking for the van. We lucked out to find good, free street parking (probably not the norm) and ended up only paying for parking when we were in Sienna for a few hours (like $2/hour maybe?) and when we left it at the train station in La Spezia (I think $2/hour also?) to take the train to the Cinque Terre towns (quick train ride to the first town, then we hiked from town to town and took the train back to La Spezia at the end).

Train ride through the Cinque Terre (wish you could see how brillant blue that water was!)

When we weren't driving from one city to another, we parked our car near our apartment and walked pretty much everywhere. You see so much more when you walk! And we've got some good walkers. We put 84 miles on our feet over the 17 days we were gone. We took the subway in Rome one time but really, Rome is very walkable. We walked everywhere in Florence. We walked all over Sofia and Plovdiv. We found so many great things and soaked in the culture and sites so much by walking everywhere (plus it was free!).

Walking along the Arno in Florence - love that Ponte Vecchio!


We booked apartments to stay at throughout our stay in Bulgaria and Italy. We had help from a generous supporter of the charity we were working with in Bulgaria while we were there and he paid the $55/night that the apartment there cost (and we just paid for a couple nights at a cheap hotel in another city we visited). In Italy, we found some great apartments that slept 7 for an average of $100/night. So all in all, we paid about $1000 for lodging during our 2.5 week trip.

The very Italian house we stayed at near the coast 

the view from our apartment in Florence


We spent only slightly more money on food than we normally spend at home because we bought food at grocery stores to eat breakfasts and some dinners at the apartments where we stayed and we packed along bread and cheese and cucumbers and carrots to eat for lunch while we were out and about.

picnic of cheese and bread on the street
We ate at a few restaurants in Bulgaria since everything was half as expensive there as it is in the US (so nice to go to a restaurant and tell the kids they could order anything they wanted! Usually we're giving them a low dollar figure on what they can order or telling them then need to pair up and order something together if there isn't a cheap kids' menu).

But we also ate at the apartment we were staying at quite a bit. Shopping at local stores and trying local foods is a great way to really experience the culture - and it's sure a lot cheaper than eating out! Here are the kids enjoying some traditional Bulgarian cheese called sirene, excellent tomatoes and this red pepper spread called lutenitza on delicious Bulgarian bread.

We loved shopping at the very open market where I shopped as a missionary - Crasno Selo.

the bread in Bulgaria and Italy is SO GOOD!

I told these guys that this brown stuff was chocolate milk, It wasn't. It was actually a very popular Bulgairan drink made of fermented yeast or something like that called boza. Nasty! But fun to watch their faces as they tried it!

We saved a lot by eating breakfast and dinner at our rented apartments -
here's some fresh pasta and salad we had one night in Florence.
In Italy, we thoroughly enjoyed inexpensive street pizza (about $4-5 for a big slice) and lots of great gelato ($3/day per person to get a big bowl or cone each). We splurged for dinner at one of the Cinque Terre towns after a full day of hiking and it was probably an average of $14/person for fresh pasta and seafood. Jared and I went out one night on our own and spent about $20 each on a really authentic and delicious Italian meal at a great place our Airbnb host recommended.

Here are a few shots of some gelato moments - makes my mouth water just looking at it!

Gelato in Genova
Gelato in Sienna

Gelato in Florence (joint wine/gelato place)

Almost everything we did was free or close to free - hiking the Cinque Terre cost a small fee per family for the hiking pass and about $3/person for the train, going to the Colosseum and Roman Forum was $15/person but free for kids under 18 so the whole family went for about $30, gorgeous and fabulously interesting churches and cathedrals were all free except for the very biggest ones. We paid to go into the Uffizzi Gallery which was not super cheap but it was the one museum we did. We paid to get into a castle in Bulgaria which cost $10 for a family ticket.

Here we are at the castle in Bulgaria:

And here we are at a few of the 50 or so churches (free) that we visited in Bulgaria and Italy (There's so much beautiful art and so much culture and history to experience in churches!)

yes. wrestling is always necessary somehow...
My favorite church in Bulgaria - Alexander Dnevski. Got to sit in on a
Bulgarian Orthadox service there - so interesting.
The Sienna Cathedral charged a small price for admission for older kids and adults
(a few of the most amazing cathedrals do) but it was SO worth it!
There's a lovely church like this around every corner.
The kids were interested to note that it seemed that the more plain the church
was on the outside, the more elaborate it was on the inside.
And vice versa.

High baroque church in Genova

Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Sofia, Bulgaria

Bulgarian Orthodox church in Old Town Plovdiv in Bulgaria
One of the kids' favorite things we did in Bulgaria was to explore some old communist-era block apartment buildings where I served much of my mission. They were delighted to ride in the rickety old elevators and it was super exciting when we found that we could get onto the roof of one of the buildings where we had an awesome view of the whole area. Totally free.

Roman Amphitheater in Old Town Plovdiv in Bulgaria ($10 for a family ticket)

Here are some shots of our epic (and mostly free) day-long hike through vineyards and olive groves and amazingly beautiful towns in the Cinque Terre:

Here we are at a couple gorgeous off-the-beaten track hill towns in Tuscany. Wandering is so fun - and totally free!:

Driving over and hiking through the Apuan Alps was so beautiful - and so un-touristy. The marble quarries were really interesting and the vistas were breathtaking (as was the tiny windy road!).

Loved entering these gates of Genova and exploring the tiny twisty streets of the old city
The kids just had to see the leaning tower of Pisa. And it did not disappoint.

We listened to great Rick Steves audio tours of various areas in Florence and Rome (free - just downloaded them when we had wifi at the places we were staying and then listened later when we were at our destination).

Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
Climbing to the top of the Palazzo Vecchio cost like $3 per person but was worth it!

The Colloseum was SO cool. And so worth the $30 we paid ($15 each for adults and kids under 15 are free)

Magical night-time walk through Rome - awed by the Pantheon

Maybe our favorite night was when we wandered through Florence late at night, watching excellent street musicians, then came around the corner to see the Duomo all lit up - priceless.

We love street performers - some amazing talent and it's free (but we always give the a couple dollars). And in this photo below, you can see that if you're out and about and it suddenly gets really cold, a plastic bag makes a pretty good little jacket...

I have such fond memories of going to the Uffizzi Gallery in Florence when I was on study abroad in college - loved sharing some of my favorite art with the kids. It was expensive (I think like $15/person which adds up when you've got 7) but I think every trip needs one or two splurges for something you really value. And with the help of the Rick Steves free audio guide to the Uffizzi, we were able to go right to some of the most interesting stuff and not drag it out and make the kids dislike it.

We decided against going to the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel in Rome. The line was 4 hours long and it was expensive and there were SO many other wonderful free things to see in Rome. We did wait for about an hour to get into St Peters in the Vatican - great to see that crazy huge opulent place with the kids and enjoy the amazing art and architecture there while learning more about the Catholic church.

The twins' big souvenir purchase (the kids all brought their own souvenir money that they'd earned) were these Roman soldier and gladiator costumes. They had to put them right on and got a lot of smiles as they walked around Rome in these get-ups. They're all set with Halloween costumes now!


When we travel, we pack light and that makes a big difference in how burdensome traveling can feel!

I shared my best tips for packing in this post - these tips work for road trips or trips around the world:

I read the post above and expanded on the ideas there in this podcast that went up on Power of Moms this week:
Radio Show: Road Trip Tips

In a nutshell, we just don't bring much when we travel and we lower our standards about what constitutes "clean" clothes. We wear socks again if they aren't that dirty or stinky. We wear shirts and pants again if they don't smell and spot clean small spills (plus we pack darker colored/patterned things that won't look dirty as quickly). We try to stay at places with laundry facilities so we can wash stuff when needed. Also, we try to find shoes that are good for walking and that look decent with all our outfits so that we don't have to bring more than one pair of shoes plus maybe some flip flops. Shoes take up the most space! And we don't bring books - just a kindle or books loaded on our phones. We always bring a hoodie/light jacket for each person and bring a few raincoats/ponchos - take so little room and often come in handy!


Travelling to places that your heart yearns to go is something just about any family can do if they make up their minds to do it.

Yes. There are trade-offs. You can't really have it all (at least most people can't). But you can prioritize in a way that makes room in your budget for the things that you feel are most important for your family.

We keep Christmas and birthdays small (up to maybe $50 for birthday presents and maybe $50 for a birthday party every other year and our Santa has a $100 limit). Our clothing budget is small (the fact that the kids wear uniforms to school and that none of them are into brand names and that I really hate dislike shopping helps). We're OK with sort-of-worn furnishings (we like antiques and they're supposed to be a little dinged-up, right?) and basic cars (in fact, the one time I had a new car, it just stressed me out - every little ding or spill was so painful!). We seldom spend money on entertainment (family movie night and family game night and hikes and bike rides are our favorites - all pretty much free. Plus we live in a place where there are always so many awesome free events that we can walk to - downtown Ogden never disappoints!).

We've chosen to prioritize travel above many other things. We have so many precious memories from family trips and we've got a bucket list of family trips to work through on into the future. Maybe we'll make it to India and Africa (a couple of our bucket list places) but maybe we won't be able to afford that (it's just the airfare that's so expensive - everything else is pretty darn cheap in the 3rd world...). I feel quite sure that we'll make it to places that don't cost so much to get to like Mexico and Montreal and Chinatown in San Francisco and other awesome places where we can experience different cultures and languages more fully and build the kinds of special memories that come from stretching and growing as you navigate new places and experiences together as a family. 


Claire Mizukawa said...

I love this post! My family traveled a lot growing up and I think there was sometimes the perception that we were "rich" because we had been to London, Paris, Italy, etc. but we traveled very cheaply and my parents just prioritized it like you do. Sure, we stayed in some funny places (hostels made for the best stories! But there are some really clean, nice ones too!) but my dad always said, "travel should be character building!" :) Those are really the best memories. You're doing your kids a great favor. I hope to be able to do the same when my own family is a little older!

Amy said...

Im going to Florence and Tuscany in October, any chance you could give a run down of where you stayed/places you visited or the best place to stay, or places to eat I can't miss? Thanks, love your blog!

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Anonymous said...

Then we realized we could get a small grant to help with a portion of our airfare expense in going to Bulgaria since we'd be doing a lot of work in orphanges

Hey Saren, do you think you could do a follow up post on how you search for volunteer travel funding/grants? Your tips are so great and similar to how I traveled with my family growing up. But I've never combined foreign travel+volunteer work (especially with kids) and really admire how you were able to do that.

I really love reading your blog and Moms' site. You're info is so practical.

Helen said...

Thanks for sharing so much information about your strategies and motivation for making travel work on a budget. I hope to be able to do this with my son when he is a bit older.
Also, you must hear this all the time, but…your daughter is your mini-me, you two look so much alike!

Kim said...

I loved reading this! Thank you for sharing. I grew up in South Africa, but have lived here in Utah since 1993. I didn't marry until I was thirty and traveled quite a bit in my single years. I am a wanderlust at heart and I yearn to take my husband and girls home to Africa and to other wonderful places in the world. Thanks for reminding me it is completely possible. And yes, those flights prices (x5) are always the killer of my wishful thinking and planning.

Brooke Liljenquist said...

I'm SO glad you posted this! I keep seeing pictures of people taking their kids to Europe and I didn't understand how to afford it so I am very grateful for your tips. Airbnb is AWESOME, no?

Did you have a certain website you were shopping when you found the awesome airfare deal? Maybe you posted a link but I didn't see it?

JLH said...

Loved this! We have travelled quite a bit with our little kids (age 6 and under) and we get a lot of assumptions that we have a lot of money. We don't. We prioritize. Like you, I feel most alive and on-the-ball in my mothering stride when I am travelling with my little family. We just bought a house which has made for restrictive travelling funds which has been tough. Otherwise, we cut out the "extras".

If you ever do make it to Montreal, I would be happy to give some tips as we live on the island of Montreal. There is plenty to do here, but I do find it a bit more pricey than other destinations we have travelled to (and lived in). Also, if you are looking for a location with lots of french, Quebec City is less bilingual than Montreal so I'm told it is a bit more authentic but we haven't made it there yet! We are happy to have people at our home and airbnb is pretty popular and there are families in a community group that travel and will try to rent their place out.

Loved reading the tips you had as it helps me as my kids get a little bit older in the travelling.

JLH said...

Almost forgot to ask - where did you find your airfare? We are really missing Europe and I have been trying to keep track of places to buy flights so we can start a plan to get there.

Anniemom said...

Ditto Ditto Ditto to the comments already left here! Fantastic trip! I would love to get more details on where you stayed and where you found your airfares. And, grants... We are the same.. we value experiences over stuff and have a strong desire to help our kids expereince diversity and have the opportunity to serve and make a difference at home and abroad. Thanks for sharing!

Zequek Estrada said...

This was really enlightening. I love to travel but my husband says it's not going to fit in our budget. However, I feel like following your example to keep things like birthdays will be really helpful. I also think that combining this with a thorough online search for lodging and discounts will make traveling more possible.


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