international travel on a shoe string

As many of you know, this Spring our little family of four took off to France for a 3 week vacation.
Pretty swanky, right? You might think that we're high rollers around here, but that's hilariously off base. 
We get by on one modest salary, but still manage to travel a fair bit. Here's how!

> > > Travel in low season
  • When Brad's Nonna invited us to visit her in Italy 4 years ago (and offered to pay for one of our plane tickets) we booked it for early Spring. Summer is high travel time for essentially every international destination (except Australia!), so plane tickets and accommodations run up to 30% higher.
  • For our vacation rental in France this summer, there were three price options:
    High Season (June 1 -September 1), Mid Season (April 1-May 30, Sept 1-October 31) & Low Season (Winter). 
  • We wouldn't have been able to do Winter with the babies and Brad's work, but opted for Mid Season and saved 20%.

> > > Add vacation to pre-planned (and ideally pre-paid) trips.
  • If you're already traveling somewhere (say, for a work conference, business trip, or school studies) look at the cities or countries where you're laying over. Changing a flight plan is easier and cheaper than you might think.
  • We were delighted to learn 2 years ago that our trip to North Africa stopped briefly in Paris en route. For only a $50 fee, we delayed our trip back by a week, enjoyed a week in the South of France (our Babymoon!), then hopped back on the plane from Paris to Montreal.
  • We also added a cheap trip to Greece when we were visiting Nonna in Italy. When you're already in Italy, it's 10 hours of cheap (read: a nauseating ferry) travel away!

> > >  drive and see the sights!
  • We did seminary courses in Colorado one summer and had our yearly staff conference in British Columbia to attend. Most people flew from Colorado to Vancouver, but we rented a car with some great friends and drove across the US! 
  • We split a cheap hotel room in Idaho and spent two days in Seattle before driving up to Vancouver. It was a blast and something we could never do now that we both have kids. Glad we took the time and saw a lot of the US in the process.
  • My sister recently did a road trip with her husband out East and Brad and I are convinced we need to do the same soon!  They saw all of Eastern Canada and also Maine and the drive was a good part of the vacation. Think we'd need a minivan before that drive could feel like a vacation for us though ;)

> > > avoid hotels
  • This summer in France we rented apartments and houses instead of hotels and saved a ton! The price breakdown was at least 50% cheaper than any hotel!
  • Not to mention, if you can handle not having your bed turned down at night, rentals are generally more comfortable. You have tons of space (instead of your whole family in one hotel room) a full kitchen, and often toys and cribs for kids. One of our rentals was a FIVE BEDROOM farm house equipped with a toy chest, crib, full kitchen, and roof top garden and was over 50% cheaper than the nearest hotel!

> > > take the babies!
  • Children under age 2 are FREE to fly anywhere in the world. I repeat, FREE.
  •  This was big for us because we wouldn't have gone away for 3 weeks this summer without them. It's just too long to be apart, and why, when they cost nothing to bring along?
  • Toddlers and babies are also the easiest to bring. You might be rolling your eyes reading this imagining a screaming baby on a plane (and there's a post about that coming!), but hear me out.
  • Babies and toddlers don't eat much (and babies, like, nothing) so you save money there, and don't need much. 
  • We brought one large zip lock bag of toys for Lily and found it was unnecessary. Most rentals provided toys (hotels wouldn't have!) or she was entertained other ways. Plus the airlines provided a small "survival pack" for each kid (wipes, a diaper, and a stuffy for Lily and a teether for Oli), which was awesome.
  • Babies and toddlers are also great because you can stash them anywhere. One of our rentals in France was a 1 bedroom and we did not want to share! Lily slept in a pack-n-play in the laundry room/closet and Oli slept on the floor in the bathroom. Older kids would cost more because you'd need another bedroom.

> > > eat in
  • You can't go to France or Italy and not try the food. That much is obvious! But we had a rule in France: we'd only eat out for one meal a day. Because we were renting homes with kitchens, it was easy to cook/prepare 2 meals a day.
  • Breakfasts ended up costing around $1 per day, compared to $7 in restaurants. Lunches were generally simple pasta dishes costing the same, compared to up to $15 in restaurants. Then dinner (or sometimes we'd swap for lunch) was a chance to spoil ourselves and eat the delicious local fare.
  • In Greece we ate ALL meals in the apartment. We figured Greece isn't known for food so much as for natural beauty and just being there was a financial stretch, so it was pasta 2 meals a day :)

> > > save up wisely
  • I know some people think credit cards should only be for emergencies, but we use ours every.single.day. Our Visa Travel Rewards card gives us generous points for any type of travel (transportation, accommodations, etc) and even more when you're paying for a travel expense (i.e booking a train ticket)
  • We also save up points on our Air France card (after a few summers flying with them for work trips we had enough for one of our flights this summer to France!) and with Aeroplan.

> > > prioritize travel 
  • For us, travel is really important so we cut back in other areas to make it happen.
  • We also accept less-than-perfect trips instead of saving up for THE TRIP. It may mean staying in less glitzy accommodations, or not eating out, or traveling in rainy Spring or breezy Fall, but we're okay with that.
  • We saw a lot of old couples this summer in Switzerland and France. Many probably saved up their entire lives for the trip of a lifetime, or others may not have considered travel a possibility until they retired, but we couldn't help but feel they were missing out. While we'll always love travel, doing it when we're young seems the best time: we're healthy, have lower living standards, and have the energy to do whatever we want!
Our fam of 4 in Annecy, France


  1. great post! :) we're hoping to travel once Dan's internship is done in 2-years. Now that he's a pastor he gets to travel a bit and do lots of fun things (right now he's in Darien Lake for the week).

    One thing I got to do for free, that most people wouldn't get the chance to, is travel first class on the train from Toronto - Vancouver. It was the trip of a lifetime that I'll NEVER forget! Food was amazing, sights were amazing, and we got to meet tons of neat people from all over the world. I wish I could take Dan on that trip one day!!

  2. Never thought of renting a place, sounds way more fun than a hotel! Especially if it has a nice kitchen :)

  3. Lots of great tips! I love figuring out how you can still do fun stuff and new adventures for way less!

    You definitely should come out East! When you get to Halifax I promise you free accommodations! And maybe you need a minivan, but rooftop carriers also can work wonders and be cheaper to the upgrade in car and on gas. We got one this summer, that we could strap right to our car without a rooftop rack. It made for a comfortable trip with our fam and my mom and all of our stuff!

  4. Some great ideas! I would second the idea of renting an apartment. My friends and I saved a bundle doing that in Germany.

    I would add a couple of ideas:
    1) Ask around to see where locals eat. In many cities, locals are not willing or able to pay the same prices that tourists do when eating out. In some cases, just going a few blocks away from touristy areas will get you less expensive (and often more authentic) meals.

    2) Be on the lookout for local farmers' markets and produce stands. My mom and I travelled around Finland basically eating a large breakfast at our hotel (it was always included) with local fruit, veggies, and buns as an afternoon snack: Definitely healthier than fast food! That left us only paying for one restaurant meal per day.

    3) Bring some snacks from home so that you'll have options if you get to your destination and find that you don't like your options when you arrive. I brought cereal bars and granola to Hawaii a few years ago, because I knew the resort would be expensive and I didn't want to pay for every meal, but was not sure whether there would be a grocery store nearby. This also helped when, due to jet lag, I was waking up at 4am for the first few days, well before any breakfast place was open!

  5. What a great sensible post! I am definitely gonna follow through with some of this tips!

  6. Anaisabel7.8.12

    Where did you look to find houses to rent?

  7. www.airbnb.com for house / apartment / room rental all the way!!! Used it for Boston and NYC. Bed and Breakfasts are also a lot cheaper than hotels and are really fun because you are still served and you are treated the "local" way so can absorb some of the culture through that. I find that in hotels your treatment is kind of standardized similar to North America.

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