How to Travel in Europe on a Budget, with Kids!

Europe is definitely not most people’s idea of a wallet friendly destination.  A sunny beach in Mexico would be better, or anywhere in South America? Sure!  But I wanted to go to Europe this summer, so I made it happen, on my Flight, Accommodation, and Transportation (FAT) budget of $1,200 per week for myself and two daughters.  I’ve just finalized my last booking for our 5 week trip through England, Spain, France, Norway and Iceland, and wanted to share how I made it happen!

  1. Book one-way flights using credit card miles.  Pay only taxes and fees.
  2. Book rental car early, and pre-pay for additional savings.  Book the cheapest car that my family will fit, with AC and Automatic Transmission.
  3. Stay with family occasionally, not more than 3 -4 nights at a time, because family, like seafood, goes bad after 3 days.  Same with friends.
  4. Limit my accommodation budget to $100-$150 per night.  This will eliminate most hotels, and all resorts, but it forces me to be creative, be local, and opens up new experiences.  Most European hotels have a 2 person max per room anyway, which makes a hotel with kids even less palatable. When I forgo the big hotels, we can explore cool glamping sites, adorable pensions, charming bed and breakfasts,  gites, farmstays, tipis, yurts, guesthouses, and of course, Airbnb’s.  Its all part of the magic, the adventure, the experience.  When you do it this way, Europe becomes cheaper than the U.S.  Trust me on this.

Let’s dive in a bit deeper on the details:

Because I travel using miles, I pay only taxes and fees.  Depending on which itinerary, and which airline, those can still add up.  For example, our outbound Virgin Atlantic flight from SFO to London  cost us $225 per person in taxes and fees.  Still, not too bad when you consider it’s a nonstop Premium Economy flight on Virgin Atlantic!  I just looked, and today that flight costs $2,500 per person if I had to pay for it.  Hell of a savings, wouldn’t you say?  The cheapest summertime flight to continental Europe will run  you at least $1500/person.

Ok, so that’s the first leg.  Lets not get too excited, because good deals like that don’t happen every day.  I booked that flight in September, a full 9 months before our trip.  I spent 3 days trying every possible combination of cities and airlines before this one dropped in my lap and I grabbed it.

In London, we are staying with family for 4 nights, and we aren’t renting a car, so I’m not adding anything else to the budget for that part of the trip.

From London, we fly to Barcelona.  This time, with British Airways.  BA is notorious for killing you on fees and taxes when you travel to/from the US.   I have a bunch of Avios, so I decided to use them for an inter-europe flight.  Plus, the flight times were good and direct.  (As a side note, I am going to be retiring my Chase British Airways Visa, and switching it out for a Chase Business card with a big sign up bonus, because I have my new San Francisco Business License!).    I got lucky on this one too- total cost was $27/person in taxes and fees.  Today, 4 months before our trip, that flight would cost us about $150 per person, or $450 total.  Not as big of a savings as the first leg, but still its significant.

You may ask why I don’t just book one of the cheap airlines like Easy Jet.

1) Because I had the miles to spend, so why spend the money?

2) Easy-Jet is great for certain itineraries, but they nickel and dime you, which can add up.   Bags, seat selection, water…. nothing is free.

3) Easy-Jet’s schedule was a pain- early morning or late night flights.  I wanted to fly mid-day, and arrive with plenty of day light to find my Airbnb and explore.

In Barcelona, I snagged an Airbnb close to Gaudi Park- very cute, lots of good reviews, and good location.  I have great memories of Gaudi Park when I was 18 traveling through Spain, and I can’t wait to show my kids.  The only bummer is that it’s only 1 bedroom, so the kids will have to alternate nights on the pull-out sofa.  As the kids get older, the days of staying in a studio are over.  We did that for a week in Aix 6 years ago and it was brutal. Now everyone has to have their own bed at least.  2 Bedrooms are better.  But, for 3 nights and a great location, and a GREAT price of $117/night, I decided to book this 1 bedroom place, pull out couch and all.  It is SO DARN CUTE, and I am sucker for a well -reviewed place!  But of course, I will do a full review low-down after we stay there.  Total cost with the cleaning fee and Airbnb fee was $439 for the 3 nights.

In Barcelona, we will pick up our first car of the trip, a VW Polo with AC and automatic transmission from Auto Europe.  I’ve never booked through them before, so we will see.  At $151 for the week, it felt like quite the bargain.  As long as it’s clean, relatively new, road worthy, and has AC, I really don’t care about the luxuries.

We will spend a week on the Costa Brava, at a cool glamping resort called Las Dunas.  The Europeans have perfected “camping” (the best campgrounds have luxurious pools, nice onsite restaurants, a spa with massages, and a lovely little poolside bar serving endless sangria!)- I’ve written a separate post about picking the best “campsite”.

For 1 week in a new, air conditioned, 2 bedroom camping cabin with WIFI, next to the pools, with a kitchen and private bathroom, I’m spending $800 USD.  At just over $100/night, it fits my budget well.  We can walk to the beach, or drive down the coast to explore those hidden coves in Begur or L’Estarit that  I’ve written about before.  Or walk to the market for fresh baked bread and groceries every morning, although there is a fantastic restaurant on site, with burgers for 4 euros, or handcrafted daily specials from their seasonal chef, so really why bother cooking at all for that price?  Ok, I’m getting excited for this one.  I will be sure to write whether it lives up to my hype 🙂

After our week on the Costa Brava (please don’t let me gain Sangria weight), we head off for France, which ironically was our original intended destination.  It just happens that when you are booking your flights with credit card or frequent flier miles, you get to be flexible and see countries and cities that are a side bonus of slow, flexible travel with kids.

We will drop our VW Polo off in at the Figueras train station in Spain, and take a quick 20 minute express train across the French border into Perpignan.  There we pick up our next rental car, a Renault Captur, because of course we will be in France, so a Renault is a must.  Total cost for the 2 week rental: $402.  A bit steeper than Spain, but still within my budget.

I had originally preferred to pick up a car in Barcelona and drop off in Paris, but the fees for taking a car across the border are insane.  It would have cost me $400 for the 3 week rental, plus an additional $800 for the taxes and 1 way rental fees.  So, I said nuts to that.  We will deal with the small annoyance of hauling luggage from rental car office, to train station to rental car office.  Plus, a train trip will be a new experience for the kids- we haven’t done much in the way of train travel yet.

For the next 5 nights, we will be in the Dordogne region, camping at Le Soliel Plage, a gorgeous little campsite on the banks of the Dordogne River.  A 3 bedroom luxury cabin, with Wifi, bathroom, and kitchen was $800 for 7 nights.  I had to pay a bit extra to rent sheets and towels, as I guess most French people bring their own.  Anyway, well within the budget I set, and it has 3 pools, onsite Kayak rental, and a nice restaurant.  Sarlat Le Caneda is close by, and Bergerac/Rocamadour are nice day trips.  I’m considering extending this another 4 nights, but may chose another spot in the same region, just to have a little variety, and in case we get sick of Soliel Plage.  Anyway, that will be about the same $100/night.

After this, its off to stay with my aunt in the Luberon (Provence) for 5 days for a family reunion with my other aunt, who will be traveling in Italy.  We are all meeting up at my Provence aunt’s house, which has space for all of us.   Since its family, I’m not including it in my budget, but I do plan to take everyone out for a really nice dinner one night, as a thank you.

Then, we drive up to Paris, return our rental car, and stay one night at a little hotel near CDG that everyone raves about on Tripadvisor called Le Celtic.  It was $60 on booking.com for a family bedroom, and includes breakfast!   I mean, come on.  Yes. I will take that.

We fly out from Paris to Bergen Norway, which I booked using my United Miles.  Grand total was $45/person.  Not too bad for an international flight!

In Norway, I broke my rules about never hiring an organized tour company, but this was because Norway in a Nutshell had a deal that was too good to pass up.  I had read about NIN on a bunch of different sites, and lots of people raved about the convenience of it.  So, we chose a 3 night itinerary that includes 1st night Bergen downtown hotel near the waterfront (Bryggen the neighborhood is called- very picturesque).  We leave early the next morning for a train ride to Flam (the Flam Railway is apparently one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world).  1 night in Flam near the lake, and then a boat ride on the lake next day, and finally a bus back to Bergen, this time staying at an Airport hotel (with breakfast) because we have an early flight the next day to ICELAND.  Phew.  Ok, the grand total for the 3 hotel nights (breakfast at 2 of them), train, bus, and boat ride was $600.  So, a bit more than I usually spend on accommodations but since it included the Most Beautiful Train Journey in the World, and they got all the tickets organized, I figured it was worth it.  Plus, when I did my research (and I always, always do my research), it would have been more expensive for me to book these hotels by myself.  So, I used the tour company.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Finally, ICELAND.  This was the only flight of my trip that I did not use miles for because I simply could not find any mileage flights available.  I tried everything I could think of, but other than a 48 hour United flight with 3 layovers, there was nothing  available with award miles of any kind. I almost skipped Iceland, but I really really wanted to go. So, I said screw it, and booked Norwegian Airlines with hard cold credit card.  Grand total for the 2 hour flight from Bergen to Reykjavik: $110 per person ($330 total).

Iceland was by far the most frustratingly expensive country to book.  Especially in the countryside, there just isn’t enough infrastructure to support the massive tourism boom.  All of a sudden, Iceland has been “discovered”, and in the last 5 years, everyone I know has visited or is planning a trip.  That means major competition for decent places to stay, and it also means that inn keepers can demand $350/night for a 3 person hostel room with a SHARED BATHROOM.  It’s absolutely insane, going to Iceland in the summer.  On the other hand, the winters are freezing, and the roads are treacherous, with frequent whiteout conditions, so summer is really the only time that makes sense.  But GOD DAMN, that country is shittingly expensive.  Excuse my terrible French.

Booking the rental car was the easy part.  It usually is, because there are just a few choices, narrowed down by: I picked the cheapest car available.  End of story.  Makes it easy.  In this case, I booked through Sixt, an Icelandic company.  I checked Kayak, CarRentals.com, Priceline, Travelocity… Sixt it was.  At $341 for 5 days, I certainly don’t feel like I got a bargain, but there you go.  At least its done.

Accomodations are harder.  If you want a hotel room, you are going to pay $350-$500 night.  Period.  This is a basic accomodation, nothing special.  Outside of Reykjavik, there are only a handful of chain hotels scattered around the island (enough that if you are travelling the Ring Road, and book well in advance with an unlimited budget, you could theoretically sleep in an actual hotel every night).  Otherwise, you pretty much have to opt for guesthouses and farmstays, which is great because there seems to be more of them popping up every month, and some are truly outstanding.  Great breakfasts are standard issue, as are very clean rooms and comfortable beds.  I searched long and hard (and yes, a lot of research) I picked the following:

3 nights in the Golden Circle at Heradsskolinn Boutique Hostel for $350.  This was the easiest place to book outside of Reykjavik because it has long been a tourist hotspot and has the infrastructure to support that.  It got great reviews, has an excellent onsite restaurant, and I just happened to snag the last remaining rooms for that week.

Now for the painful part- I really wanted to stay in Vik, an adorable village the south coast near the famous cliffs and the black sand beaches, but there was nothing.  I mean NOTHING less than $250/night.  That $350 hostel with shared bathroom I mentioned?  Yeah, that was Vik.

I think there are 3 reasons for this:

  1. There simply is not enough infrastructure to support all of the summer tourism
  2. The vast majority of  inns/guesthouses do not accept credit card.  You send them your name, and you pay cash when you arrive.  No deposit.  This makes me wonder if a lot of these places book up early, only to get many last minute cancellations (or no-shows), as travelers change their plans.
  3. The few hotels that do accept credit card have arrangements with the tour companies.  Their remaining rooms are rented at astronomical prices to the rest of us poor slobs trying to go solo.

Anyway, booking Vik has been a bit of a nightmare, and I may well throw in the towel.

I did find a nice little guest house a bit further West, near the Selfoss Waterfall.  It’s in Hella, on a horse farm, and the owner gives horse rides on his Icelandic Tolting horses.  I booked it through Airbnb, and for $117 night including breakfast, it will have to work.  I will probably give up on Vik, and book this place for an additional night.

All I can say is that Iceland better damn well be worth all of the hype, because booking our week there has been a pain in the ass.

Our last night in Iceland is in Keflavik, and if we have time we will do the super touristy Blue Lagoon, but we will see.  Our guesthouse cost $150 with breakfast.  We have an early flight to New York the next day, so the important thing was to be close to the airport.

Finally, our very last leg of our 5 week journey is our nonstop Delta (booked using my Flying Blue Miles) flight from Reykjavik to New York.  At $130/person, not too bad.  Again, if I were booking using cash, that flight would cost me $1700 per person.

In sum, there is my 5 week trip, dollar for dollar.  All in, it will cost be around $6,000.  However, I am planning to actually EARN money from my trip, and will share that in another post.

I’m still trying to decide if I want to stay on the east coast for a bit, or just catch an afternoon flight home (I can book on United for about $10 per person), so I am not going to include the New York/San Francisco portion on this blog, since the price is nominal and I’ve already paid for my trans atlantic portion.

 

 

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