Just because you’re travelling as a family, doesn’t mean the budget has to fly out of the window. Some parents might worry that budget travel with kids might lead to a compromise on safety or enjoyment but that’s not the case; budget travel isn’t any less safe or any more difficult, it just needs a bit more planning before and during your trip.
With some flexibility in terms of what you see and what you do, the kids will barely notice you’re cleverly stretching the budget.
We’ve collected together some tips and tricks we’ve learned over the course of our longer-term travels on a budget whether that was overlanding in Africa for 101 days, on one of our many trips to Morocco with kids, or ten weeks backpacking Southeast Asia.
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1. Choose your destination wisely
When it comes to value for money, not all travel destinations are created equal. A week’s budget in one might only last one day in another. You could cross a border and find last night’s $10 accommodation is now costing $100, even though the standard is identical.
Eating-out and alcohol prices vary greatly between different countries; street food is usually relatively affordable around the world, but a restaurant meal in more affluent countries can easily cost upwards of $80 for a family of four. In other destinations, you’ll struggle to spend more than $10 on a meal.
Alcohol prices vary greatly, often more expensive in Muslim countries where the local population doesn’t drink alcohol. If eating-out and drinking alcohol form an important part of your trip, plan to travel in countries where it’s more affordable.
The best value for money destinations are often perennial budget traveller favourites; Southeast Asia and Africa. Keep in mind that whilst that holds true as a generalisation, individual countries within these regions (e.g. Singapore and Tanzania) can easily blow your budget.
Of all the places on the globe, our best budget travel destination is Southeast Asia, which offers the best compromise between budget and experience. It’s a great place to visit with kids, with a perfect balance between cultural experience (e.g. Angkor Wat), and more kid friendly things like water-parks; Cambodia and Thailand are firm favourites.
2. Travel slow
It’s a fact that slow travel saves you money so, however tempting it might be to tick off a bucket list of sights, slow it down and enjoy getting to know a place that bit better. It’s also the best way to travel with kids, as too many early starts and twelve hour travel days will soon take their toll on everyone, particularly young kids.
If you’re trying to pack in too much, aeroplane journeys become more common, a way more expensive (and worse for the climate) option than a train or bus. Trying to reach another city on a specific day reduces your flexibility to choose a cheaper day or time, or forces you into peak-time travel.
Accommodation costs are often cheaper if you can book for a week (or even a month), with many owners offering long-term discounts.
3. Go where the cheap flights take you
We’ve wasted/enjoyed many an hour idly scrolling through Skyscanner and Google Flights looking for cheap flights and inspiration. The websites let you search exact routes all the way through to ‘Anywhere’, giving you the chance to see where is cheap at any one time.
There’s been many an occasion where we’ve discovered a cheaper flight to a nearby airport, or seen that flights were hundreds of pounds cheaper a few days later.
If you have flexibility in your plans, both in terms of dates and destinations, head to one of the websites and play around with some options. Trust us, it’s a great way to spend a rainy winter’s evening. Involve the kids as well, let them type in a few destinations and suggest new routes. Even if you don’t follow all their advice, it’s a good way to get them onboard with the planning and a good Geography lesson.
4. Be creative with accommodation
The proliferation of online resources to find accommodation has opened up many more options to reduce your costs. Gone are the days of either trusting the Lonely Planet or traipsing up and down the hotel strip, asking for discounts. No-one enjoys going from hotel to hotel looking for a good deal, especially when you’re with kids who just want to sit down and have an ice-cream after a long journey.
We’ve found in places like Morocco, AirBnB offer incredible value for riads, usually at a fraction of the price of hotels nearby. You’re very likely to get long-term discounts from hosts and find places to stay in locations otherwise bypassed by chain-hotels. Plus you’re also helping local people to earn money directly from tourists.
In other countries like the UK, YHAs have received a makeover in the last few years and are now a good option to save some money. You’ll lose some of the facilities and service you’d expect from a more expensive hotel, but it’s a very friendly welcome and you’re likely to meet other families too.
In many cities (in particular Europe), hostels are a clever option for saving costs without compromising too much on facilities and location. They’re usually in the city centres and provide a relaxed, family-friendly environment to stay in. Dorm rooms are available if you really want to stretch the budget, otherwise family rooms are available and a good solution.
Never rule out a campsite, especially if you already have your own camping gear. Whilst not always in the city centre, they’re often served by public transport, giving you the chance to stay close to a city at a fraction of the cost of a hotel. You’re also likely to find kid-friendly features like swimming pools, playgrounds, and kids-club. We especially love the family campsites in France.
5. Shop the markets
Wherever you are in the world, the best place to find affordable food and drink is where the locals shop themselves. Bars and restaurants which cater for tourists are always more expensive and sometimes that’s a good thing of course; you want nice service and international menus and are happy to pay extra.
If you’re trying to make your food budget last longer though, there’s no better place to shop than local markets, especially if you value fresh, local produce. It works well just for a snack but it’s even better if the place you’re staying has its own cooking facilities, as you’ll be able to buy local and make your own cheap meals. Get the kids involved, asking them to order produce or try out a fruit they’ve never tasted before.
6. Travel off-peak
This isn’t necessarily about travelling in school term-time. It’s about finding destinations that are off-peak when you’re able to travel.
Travel costs (accommodation, travel and food) shoot-up during peak season and all countries have their own unique peak periods, usually linked to religious, national, or school holidays.
Once you’ve selected your destination, check if there are any specific dates you should avoid, e.g. for things like Chinese New Year, European summer holidays, Christmas, Rio Carnival, or Eid al-Fitr. On these dates, accommodation and transport will get booked up and prices will skyrocket.
Of course, peak-season in one region will be off-season in another so don’t be put off because it’s (e.g.) European summer holidays – that just means it’s a quieter time to visit Cambodia with kids, for example.
7. Think about phone data
We all like/need to be connected to the internet when we travel but roaming and other access costs can soon add up when you’re overseas. Many places now have free WiFi which reduces costs, but when you need get online on your phone, make sure you’re not stung by roaming charges. The kids will want their chillout time with screens or Skype calls with friends back home, all of which burns through internet data.
The best option is to buy a local SIM, either a physical one if the registration process isn’t too intensive or, better still, try an e-SIM.
Whilst e-SIMs are slightly more expensive than physical SIMs in terms of package costs, you can’t beat the convenience. You’ll also be able to keep your own SIM in your phone and stay connected to your own network; very handy for the ever-increasing number of one-time passcodes we receive nowadays. Just remember to turn off roaming.
8. Avoid tours
Tours have their place on a trip and can sometimes get you to places and experiences you’d struggle to reach independently, but they’re usually expensive and something we’d recommend avoiding when you’re on a budget.
It’s not just the upfront costs to factor in, but also the reduced flexibility on where you eat, stay, and visit. It’s not uncommon to be dumped at an expensive restaurant for lunch, or made to hang around a city for three hours until you’re collected (which always leads to spending money just to fill in the time). Kids don’t always enjoy following an exact schedule as well, they sometimes need to take an hour out to chill, or are desperate to stay longer at one place but not another.
Independent travel lets you set your own pace and budget, giving you a chance to arrange your own cheaper version of the same tour.
9. Limit the souvenirs
It’s lovely to pick up mementoes of your trip if you have space in your luggage, but try to limit the amount of souvenirs you buy as they’ll impact your luggage and wallet. Your kids might see a toy they desperately need but take a moment to think how much it’ll cost and how long they’ll actually play with it for.
We’re as guilty as anyone for buying wooden carvings and paintings overseas but, the truth is, they hardly ever look as good once you get them home. Try instead to focus on making memories and enjoying the experiences you’re having; not only are they free, they won’t get damaged in your luggage on the way home.
10. Consider overnight travel
There’s hardly any travel experience as memorable as gently rocking to sleep on an overnight train. Not only is it a highlight of any trip, it’s also a great way of saving money. Whilst the ticket price is slightly more expensive than a seat on a daytime journey, the sleeper bed means you avoid one night’s accommodation cost whilst also making the long journey fly by.
We’ve taken fifteen hour train journeys during the day, only to arrive exhausted at 10pm in a strange city before paying over the odds for a bleak hostel. For the same price (or less), you can arrive refreshed in the morning after an overnight journey, with a few extra dollars in your travel fund.
In many countries, particularly in Southeast Asia and South America, sleeper buses are also popular; perhaps not as gentle as the train, but an equally cheap option to travel long distances.
Final thoughts for family travel on a budget
Family travel on a budget doesn’t have to mean a compromise on enjoyment or experience. With a few simple steps during the planning stage, you can choose a destination to suit your budget. Once you arrive, you can continue to save money by following some of these tips, ensuring your trip lasts as long as possible before the budget disappears.