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12 essential tips for budget family travel in Europe

12 essential tips for budget family travel in Europe

Europe can be an expensive place to travel. Read on for our top tips for families travelling Europe on a budget.

Living in the UK, we’re grateful to have Europe on our doorstep, with the different cultures, languages and experiences only a short drive or flight away. Since our first child was born over ten years ago we’ve ventured over to Europe countless times for city breaks, ski trips, camping holidays, six-week road trips, to name a few.

If there’s one downside to Europe is that’s it’s not always the friendliest of continents on your bank account. Budget family travel in Europe can be a challenge and the strategies a solo traveller might follow are different to those of a family, who are used to travelling as a group.

But don’t let the potential cost put you off because Europe is an ideal family travel destination with so much to offer. You just need to spend some time planning the best way to travel Europe on a budget and, with this blog post, you’re already in the right place.

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1. Travel slow

Rushing around Europe, trying to tick off as many sights as possible, is a sure-fire way to max out your budget. It’s also a recipe for family arguments and child meltdown. Trust us, we’ve very much been there.

Fast travel usually means expensive flights or being forced to travel during peak periods. If the end of your trip is fast approaching, and you still have five bucket-list items to do, you have less flexibility to choose cheaper travel options or accommodation deals.

Time is our most precious resource so we understand it’s not always an option but, if you can slow down and spend longer in one place, you’ll open up the possibility of long-stay discounts. It’s common for Airbnb hosts to offer as much as 50% discount for stays longer than two weeks, meaning you’re paying the same price whether you stay two weeks or a whole month.

Embrace slow family travel. Not having to rush to the next destination lets you choose off-peak or slower travel options, both of which are more friendly to your credit card and are perhaps the cheapest way to travel Europe with a family.

2. Don’t focus on the cities

European cities regularly feature on top-ten lists, with places like Venice, Paris, Barcelona and London drawing in hordes of visitors each year (check out this superb London with kids guide if you do venture to the UK capital).

However, whilst it’s tempting to follow the crowd, keep in mind these cities are past masters at extracting the tourist dollar, with sights, attractions, restaurants and hotels all expensive.

Families travelling Europe on a budget might consider taking a step away from the famous cities and seek out their lesser-known neighbours; you may find you have a more authentic experience at a fraction of the cost. Smaller towns are likely to have cheaper food and drink options, with hotels often less busy and more inclined to offer a good deal. If you have your own vehicle, heading out to the countryside and trying out a campsite will keep the kids busy and help you save some money.

By all means, head to the cities for a day visit but consider taking your own packed lunch and choosing a few select sights. We headed to Paris for the day during a French camping holiday (this is where we stayed) and we felt like we’d experienced the city without setting off alarms bells on our bank account.

3. Go where the cheap flights take you

Skyscanner and Google Flights are bookmarked on our browsers and we love idly scrolling through random flight combinations when we should be working. On top of being an enjoyable diversion, it builds up our knowledge of flight routes and possible getaways.

Nuremberg with kids
When the cheapest half term flights took us to Nuremburg, Germany

If you’re not especially tied to one destination, and fancy a random choice, head over to the website and see what’s cheap. Skyscanner has a great option to specify a ‘From’ location and then set the ‘To’ box to ‘Search Everywhere‘. How exciting!

The results give you an idea of where might be cheap at that time of year; of course, the fares quoted aren’t always available when you get through to the booking screen, but as a general idea, it works really well.

Also remember to check the budget airline (e.g. Ryanair, Easyjet, etc) websites every now and then; they often have sales or new routes advertised, further fuelling your wanderlust.

4. Travel off season

An obvious one, and not always easy to achieve when you have school term-time to navigate, but look for any opportunity to travel in the off season. This can sometimes be as easy as choosing a departure the day before school term ends, or travelling as much as you can before the kids reach school age.

There is also the option of deregistering your kids from school for longer term travel (parents may need to take unpaid parental leave in this instance).

Outside of school term issues, remember that certain destinations are busier at certain times of the year. Whilst this is usually for a good reason (better weather, festivals taking place, national holidays), it’s often worth missing them to cash in on cheaper travel and accommodation costs.

5. Pack the hiking boots or even the bikes

Transport fares can soon add up when you’re travelling, particularly as a family when you’re buying multiple tickets for each journey. If you’re covering relatively small distances, especially around a town or city, it’s a good idea to ditch the vehicle and use your feet or bikes.

cycling in the Dordogne

Walking around a city gives you a whole new perspective on a city, is better for the environment and your figure, plus it’s always free of charge. In some ways, it’s the best way to travel around Europe as a family.

If you’re going a bit further afield, or need some more speed, consider hiring or bringing your own bikes on your trip. Many cities have affordable cycle hire options, often app-based and easy to use. If you’re bringing your own bike, it’s always easy to find a bike rack or cycle parking area in city centres and the bikes allow you to access parts of the town or city which would be off-limits to a car.

6. Travel to where your money goes further

When it comes to value for money, not all destinations and countries in Europe are created equal. A week’s budget in one might only last one day in another. In general, countries in the north and west of Europe are more expensive (particularly Scandinavia). If you head over to eastern Europe, you’ll notice how much further your budget goes (our European city break to Bucharest with kids was especially good for this).

Eating-out and alcohol prices vary greatly between different countries; if you visit a fancy restaurant in Paris, there’ll be a vast difference in the bill compared to a local restaurant in Romania.

Alcohol prices vary greatly, they’re notoriously expensive in places like Iceland and Denmark, but incredibly cheap in somewhere like Prague. If eating-out and drinking alcohol form an important part of your trip, plan to travel in countries where it’s more affordable.

7. Avoid hotels

Hotels tend to be the default option for travellers in Europe. This is understandable to an extent as there is a degree of comfort in knowing you’re staying in an established place, with things like room service, housekeeping, attached restaurant, all plus points.

Hostel Koln family bedroom
our hostel room in Cologne

However, don’t allow yourself to automatically choose hotels as they’re often the most expensive option in town. More and more hostels are cropping up in towns and cities throughout Europe and they’ve undergone something of a transformation over the past few years, gone are the days of a cheap dorm room shared with a random collection of strangers. You can now expect family rooms, ensuite bathrooms, stylish décor, buffet breakfast and fantastic value.

If you have your own camping gear, check out any campsites near to your destination, they’re often served by public transport and a great option to cut your accommodation costs.

8. Use the supermarkets

Eating a gorgeous meal at a restaurant, or enjoying a glass of beer in a family-friendly bar are a key part of the travelling experience and shouldn’t be forsaken entirely, but try to remember how much of your budget will be get swallowed up (pun intended) by eating and drinking.

If you’re lucky enough to have accommodation with cooking facilities, consider heading to the local supermarket and picking up some simple ingredients for a home-cooked meal. When travelling as a family, you’ll often find the kids prefer meals you cook to something they choose in a restaurant. Even if you have nowhere to cook, a couple of baguettes and cheese, which you eat in a park or hotel bed, will work well.

Some of our best travel meals have been a picnic in a park overlooking the river, or a cheap takeaway pizza eaten on the hotel balcony.

The same logic applies to alcohol, where the mark-up in the bars is gigantic. In most European countries, you can pickup a decent bottle of wine for less than €5, or a pack of six beers for even less. In a bar, you’re likely to discover the bill many times more expensive.

9. Self drive may be cheaper

This one depends more on where you’re travelling and what the itinerary is. Car hire (or bringing your own vehicle) isn’t usually recommended if you’re just visiting a city, or would spend days driving across Europe from home, just to reach the destination.

Tips for driving through France - Bongo in the Alps

For other types of trip though, having your own wheels can really save you some time and money. For places off the beaten track, a taxi would work out expensive and leave you stranded whilst you’re there.

Car hire varies across the continent but tends to start around €25 per day, plus the usual extras like insurance and child car seats. If having a car allows you to visit cheaper, more off the beaten track places, the upfront vehicle costs can pay for themselves.

10. Check your phone plan

EU residents can use their existing mobile phone plan around Europe so have no worries. Travellers from the UK used to have this privilege before Brexit but the rules are now more complicated.

EU data allowance varies between the different providers, all of whom have their own ‘fair-use’ policy in the EU before you lose access (or pay a monumental fee per MB). It tends to be around 5GB per month, which is enough for shorter trips but can soon expire if you’re travelling for longer.

We use Smarty SIM when we’re travelling, which allows you to buy 1GB top-ups (costing £1 each), so you stay connected whilst in the EU. So far, that’s the best option we’ve found, once our usual EU allowance has been used up.

Try to use free Wi-Fi where possible but make sure you keep a close eye on your usage and are aware of what happens after your allowance is used up; there have been stories of travellers amassing mobile phone bills running into the thousands of pounds!

11. Buy the city passes

Most European cities have city passes in one form or another. They tend to offer extensive use of public transport, entry to art galleries and museums, and money off hundreds of other attractions.

Tourist passes for Madrid city centre
Madrid tourist city pass

They can seem tempting, but take some time to plan out your itinerary and how much you intend to use public transport. If you intend on visiting several museums and attractions, are planning to use public transport several times a day and prefer the convenience of the passes, they’re a good approach and will save you money over the course of your trip.

We also find that, once the initial payment has been made, you’re more inclined to visit a museum or hop on the train, because you’ve already paid for it and you want to get your money’s worth from the pass. You’ll end up doing more and having a better experience, all at no extra cost.

12. Research blogs before you go

The good news is that, by reading this sentence, you’re already on the right track with this tip. Blogs like this one are a useful guide to where the best budget travel destinations are, and how you can make your Euro last longer when you’re there.

New travel destinations are cropping up all the time and blogs are usually the most up-to-date resource for staying informed and locating your next budget adventure.

If you’re venturing to a new destination and want to know the top tips for travelling there with kids, type ‘[destination name} with kids’ into Google. If it’s not us, TraveLynn Family, near the top it’ll mean that we haven’t yet ventured to that destination, but I’m sure one of our fellow family travel bloggers will have a post for you, sharing all the top tips for families to get the most out of that destination.

You may also like to read:
The best ALTERNATIVE European city breaks with kids
Top 10 tips for PACKING LIGHT with kids
Family travel on a budget: how to travel cheap with kids in tow