You read that right! When I was 16 my mom planned a trip around Europe for our family of six. In order, we went to: Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, Czech Republic, Italy, Wales, France, and Spain. My mom estimates it cost her a whopping $28,000 in total, but she stands by the fact that it was an investment worth taking. It helps that she was able to cut a lot of costs throughout the trip. She’s a true expert when it comes to the best ways to travel for cheap!
I was more or less oblivious to the intensity behind the scenes on this trip, as my mom planned everything (yes, a superhero). However, from my limited perspective, this trip was incredibly important to me. It was an experience of a lifetime, and I’m sure my mom would agree. We were gone for 5 months and visited a good chunk of Western Europe. There were six of us, so the fact that we managed on such a tight budget is a little hard to believe. But my mom is a travel guru well-versed on the ins and outs of the best deals and financial shortcuts. Below is an interview I conducted with her in order to combine her best tips, ranging from accommodations and transportation to food and entertainment!
Let’s start with the obvious question: Was the trip worth all the stress and money?
The trip was very stressful and expensive. I did 100% of the booking, organizing, scheduling, and researching for each and every place we went. That was admittedly very overwhelming. However I am a bit OCD about such activities, so planning was right up my alley.
But I would say without a doubt it was worth it. I was very excited that I was able to offer my family an opportunity to experience something most don’t get to! We left the comforts of home and took an adventure to explore and experience other cultures for almost 5 months.
What were the biggest money saving choices you made?
- Using AirBnB and Vacation Rentals By Owners (VRBO) was my #1 best tip when it comes to travel for cheap. European countries do not typically accommodate large families. If we went the hotel route we would be looking at booking 2 or 3 hotel rooms just to accommodate our size, which would have cost thousands more.
- Research transportation extensively! I found local companies (Ryanair, easyJet, etc) that had amazing deals or passes traveling within a city or from one place to another. In some cases our seats were even cheaper than our luggage. Because I was so thorough I was able to find the best possible deal through air, train, bus, and ferry. Not only was this a money saving advantage but I think it enhanced our experience too.
- Cook at home! Because of our apartment-style living situations, we would usually eat there which saved a lot of money.
- Tour wisely. I tried to find as many free or low cost attractions to visit (thus the copious amounts of churches we visited). And we would save up to splurge on must-see attractions!
Was there anything you would’ve done differently?
Europe is tricky! You are immediately put in the mindset that everything is so close and accessible so your tendency is to try and reach all the places “while we are here”. I basically shoved Europe down my families throat!
Of course, I wish I could have seen more. However, realistically it may have been better to stay a little longer in each place and see a few less places (as much as that pains me to say). Travel day was always the most stressful and probably if we had a few less of them it would have made things a little happier.
Although also a huge undertaking, I would have tried my hardest to figure out some miraculous way to have only carry-on luggage. Initially I was super impressed with myself that I managed to get everyone to figure out how to fit 5 months worth of “necessities” into a hockey duffel. But hauling these bags thousands of miles gets old fast! If there is any way to do it with just a carry on, make it happen! It might mean more stops at the Laundromat, but probably worth it if you want to travel for cheap. Especially since paying for luggage can really rack up!
Although, one of the things I insisted we packed was a sheet set for everyone. We never really knew what accommodations we were truly walking into, and somehow it felt better to always have your own clean sheets and pillow case. I am not sure I would want to give that up.
Finally, visiting famous attractions was unsurprisingly one of the most expensive elements of our trip. If I had to do it again I would research a little harder to see if there were city passes or coupons.
What were the usual living situations?
We typically stayed in AirBnB or VBRO accommodations, which were apartment style housing. Some places were nicer than others, but realistically they were all actually pretty fantastic to immerse ourselves into the community. It’s also obviously the cheaper option for a family of six!
Were you able to truly experience the cultures on such a tight budget?
There may have been a few things here and there that we decided not to do for cost reasons. We also obviously had to limit our destinations. But I believe we really made the most of seeing all that was around us. Again, one needs to resist the urge to “see it all” just because you are so close. It’s just not possible to see everything! At least not if you want to travel for cheap.
Is there anything you would’ve spent more or less money on if you did it over again?
On our trip to Paris, we were scammed and left scrambling for accommodations the night before we arrived. We were mostly reimbursed by VBRO, but not until months later, so that hit our budget pretty hard. Although there wasn’t too much we could have done to avoid this, it’s important to keep in mind that this kind of thing does happen. Ensure there’s a buffer in your travel budget for emergencies like these!
Also staying in Paris for as long as we did (two weeks) was probably unnecessary. When it comes down to it, it’s just a big city. It was good to slow down for a couple weeks, but Paris itself was probably only worthy of a week.
London is super expensive, but there is no way that I would eliminate that destination. We all loved London so much, so it was worth the extra costs involved.
If money was not an issue I would of loved to do day trips to more outlying locations around the places we stayed. But all in all I feel that everything fell into place nicely and the trip flowed pretty well!
Would you have cut any countries out or add any other ones?
Oh my gosh where to begin! I would have loved to see Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Central Spain, Portugal, Amsterdam, Belgium and more of Italy!
However as I have said, you can only shove so much of Europe down in that amount of time. I did find the Canary Islands to be not that pretty or interesting; however, the sole purpose of going was to be somewhere that was warm and to really not have a lot to do. The goal was to decompress after an extremely hectic schedule. So I suppose it did accomplish its purpose!
One more thing to travel for cheap!
My mom didn’t mention that we rented our house out while we were gone. This is a pretty common tactic for families leaving on long trips. The devastating 2012 Alberta floods happened just before we left, so we decided to rent our house out for cheap to a family whose home was destroyed in the disaster. This way we could do some good as well as earn some extra cash while this family got back on their feet. Renting out your living space is fantastic for longer trips; however simple posting a listing on Air B&B could earn you some extra money if you want to travel for cheap!
The freeloader’s additions
As far as my own critiques go, I am incredibly easy to please. Travel tends to be an amazing experience for me regardless of how much is spent on accommodations or food. My favourite places we visited were Colwyn Bay, a tiny beach town in Wales, and Florence, Italy. Although Italy is booming with tourists from coast to coast, Wales proves that you don’t necessarily need to hit the hotspots in order to take yourself on a trip. Paris was probably my least favourite stop, and even my mom agrees we shouldn’t have spent so much time there. My main tip would be to consider a lesser known location if you’re just looking to travel for cheap. This obviously cuts the price down, and like I said, all travel is good travel!
My family’s Europe trip was a huge part of my adolescence, from the country towns to the major cities. Travel (even travel on a budget!) has a way of broadening your perspective in unexpected ways, and the memories I gathered are priceless and cherished. If you’re able to cut costs to the extent that my mom could, the experience will be more than worth it!