When my husband and I decided to give our kids experiences over stuff, we immediately started looking for ways to afford traveling to new and exciting places. In 2017 we took the boys to Iceland on a low-cost carrier and stayed four nights in adorable AirBNB in a small town outside of Reykjavik. The entire trip cost less than $2,000. Once we realized we could cut costs in specific areas, we knew more European travel for our family of four was doable.
Here are some tips for making a European vacation affordable:
1. Stay on the lookout for cheap fares.
They exist, and they are extraordinary. When my husband and I started thinking about this year’s summer vacation, our initial thought was to take the boys to California. He and I have been several times, but our boys haven’t. We anticipated renting a car and driving the coastline, stopping in Monterey, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
But when we started seeing European airfare comparable to California, we decided to go international instead. Our first go-to for airfare is Scott’s Cheap Flights, which combs Google Flights and other sites for the best deals. When you sign up, you receive daily emails for fares all over the world. You select the airports you’re willing to fly out of and those are the emails you’ll receive. We opted to go premium, which requires a small annual fee, but that ensures we get all the possible fares to the places we want to go. It was through Scott’s Cheap Flights that we found roundtrip tickets to London for $398 per person for our May vacation. From London, we hopped on EasyJet flights for $67 to Milan and rented a car to drive to The Mediterranean.
We also use Skyscanner to find cheap fares to specific places we want to visit. As a rule of thumb, shop for fares on Tuesdays, and the cheapest rates fall approximately two months prior to the travel dates. Also, avoid flying on Fridays and Sundays.
2. Unless you have hotel points to burn, AirBNB is your friend.
I’m not an expert on AirBNB, but I’ve used the service nearly a dozen times combined in Iceland, England, Scotland, France, and Italy, in addition to the United States, and only a few of those times did we stay in a major city. We typically opt for staying in the small town next to the big city, where nightly rates are lower and public transportation gets you where you want to go. For example, instead of staying in Nice, France, we stayed in Antibes, a small, quaint town between Nice and Cannes. At $90 per night, the two-bedroom apartment was walking distance to the train station and had a little grocery store and bakery on the street corner.
Opting to stay in small-town neighborhoods not only saves money but also immerses you in the culture you’re visiting. We felt like we were seeing the real France, not a touristy version of the country that costs more and feels less authentic. Plus, fewer tourists means you aren’t in competition with hundreds of other people and can have entire places to yourself, like this gem of a beach on the Mediterranean Sea:
Again, unless you’re enjoying that free hotel breakfast with your hotel points, renting a house or apartment means you can semi-stock the fridge with your go-to foods and omit one or two restaurant meals a day. We always eat dinner out, and occasionally we’ll grab lunch, but cereal or eggs and toast at the AirBNB are cheap and easy. Additionally, you can buy a whole bottle of wine to keep in your fridge in lieu of overpaying for wine by the glass. Trust me when I say that rosé is more enjoyable on the balcony in your pajamas.
4. Pack light.
When looking for an AirBNB, I make sure there is a washing machine on site because I intentionally do not pack enough clothes for the entire trip. For our ten-day trip to England, France, Italy, and Monaco, I packed six outfits each for my boys (who are nearly 13 and 16), and eight outfits for myself. I did that knowing I’d do a load of laundry halfway through the trip. Each of us had one backpack, which carried travel-sized toiletries and other small items, and one carry-on suitcase on wheels. No checking bags, no paying extra fees, and no time wasted in Baggage Claim. Packing light also means leaving a little room for souvenirs.
5. Avoid tourist traps.
Unless you love long lines, inflated prices, and overrated stuff you can view online, only visit the museums, palaces, and entertainment centers you truly want to see. In other words, don’t waste time seeing obligatory landmarks. Sure, you can walk by Big Ben in London or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but do you really need to pay the money to go inside? Maybe not. If there is tiered pricing, go for the minimum entrance fee. For example, we paid €8 each to go inside the Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral) on a rainy day, but we opted out of the extras, such as rooftop access, which would’ve upped the price to €17 per person. We ended up enjoying dinner at a rooftop restaurant across the street, which gave us gorgeous views for free.