Saturday, 24 October 2015

Travelling on a budget with kids

My husband puts it down to my blonde hair.  He has a theory that the latent Viking traveller in me has been unleashed, centuries after my ancestors explored the high seas.  I always loved to travel but, since having children, my urge to see every nook and cranny of the world has heightened to obsessive levels and I am forever looking for opportunities to see something new. 

As teachers, my husband and I are blessed with thirteen weeks of holiday a year, coupled with a burning lust for new experiences.  Our children, Matthew and Annie, have been to over twenty-five countries in their little lives.  A wet and windy day at a Bosnian monastery, a pulse-racing climb up vertiginous city walls in Montenegro and a spring walk around Dubrovnik’s majestic city walls have all been enjoyed recently.  Ask the children what they love most about travelling and they’ll tell you, quite seriously, that they love the buzz of being able to ask for ice-cream in several languages.  A skill to set them up for life, methinks!
However, the flipside to our profession’s wonderful holiday entitlement means that we’re chained to the prohibitive prices of the travel industry.  We all know too well how the prices soar once school holidays are mixed into the travelling equation, resulting in some families giving up on the notion of travelling abroad.
However, my determination to follow the sun (and the cheap euro) has resulted in a skill-set that
enables me to have several holidays lined up every year.  Currently in my holding-pattern of trips for the next year, we have Poland, Canada and Greece ready to be explored.
It’s so easy to get bang for your buck if you know how…
The first rule is NEVER to book through a travel agent.  Yes, go and flick through the brochures for ideas but never sit down to discuss deals!  With the internet at your fingertips, the independent traveller has access to all manner of bargains and, in booking aspects of the holiday separately, the holiday suddenly becomes bespoke and individualised.  Over the years, as a family, we’ve had adventures which just wouldn’t have happened had we booked a bog-standard package tour through a travel agent. Booking discrete components of the holiday is definitely the way forward, yet so many families leaf idly through brochures and get stung financially.

When booking our holiday, I will always let the flight prices dictate our destination.  We never choose where to holiday; we let the cheapest flight prices guide us.  This method has resulted in amazing holidays in countries such as post-communist Latvia, fresh-as-a-daisy Slovenia and ice-cold Finland.  I love the fact that places off the beaten track are not only cheaper, but are also more authentic and culturally-rewarding.  Use to find the bargains.  You can search for flights by month, by country or by region.  It's exciting to see where a search for random flights might lead your family...
The next secret for success is to be organised and start to plan holidays months in advance; the early bird does indeed catch the worm when it comes to travelling for less.  For example, way back in September, we booked this year's summer jaunt to Canada.  We're flying direct from Gatwick to Toronto for three weeks, straddling the bright sunny months of July and August.  Our flights, with Air Canada, have cost us the grand price of £1202 for all four of us!  Factor in car hire (which was booked straight after the flights) and accommodation in motels along the way and we'll have a once-in-a-lifetime roadtrip through The Great Lakes for under £3500.  An absolute bargain when you look at brochure prices for similar adventures.
A personal favourite tip of mine is to not only look at your children’s school holiday dates but also those of other education authorities.  Easter this year was abound with bargains as the early Easter Sunday meant that schools set their own dates for the term’s break.  My school’s Easter fell in March yet I know of friends who weren't free of the early morning starts until April.  The story is similar in 2017.  Also, look at your school's PD days.  Flying home on a Monday often slashes the price of flights.  Sometimes, holiday companies don’t pick up on these anomalies and, therefore, forget to adjust prices accordingly.  It’s worth a search…
With regards to add-ons, we never take anything the airline offers.  Travel insurance is already taken care of as we always buy an annual multi-trip policy and we normally try to travel with just hand luggage and, if absolutely necessary, take one suitcase for the whole family.  To buy a small (but perfectly big enough) suitcase can be as cheap as £15 yet airlines will charge £30 each way for a suitcase to be put in the hold.  Purchasing a cabin suitcase not only saves money on the flight price but also means that the boot space in the hire car at the other end of the flight needn’t be so big.
Once we’ve secured flights to our destination, we tend to self-cater as, with two children, it’s cheaper and more convenient to cook for ourselves and the trips around the supermarkets add to the cultural aspect of the holiday.   Again, I always book way ahead to secure the best deals, generally using the reviews by other travellers to guide my decision.  Last Easter, we stayed in Croatia for £35 a night in an amazing apartment which overlooked Dubrovnik Bay, which came complete with homemade cake every afternoon!  Websites to look at are and When using these websites, I always search by the number of reviews each apartment/villa has had.  I figure that fifty other travellers can't be wrong and, often, you can find ideas for daytrips and excursions in the reviews written by past tenants.

Sometimes we do stay in hotels to treat ourselves and I will always research to find the best price, using a price comparison website such as  Last summer, we spent a night in a 5 star hotel in Malta for a fraction of the price everyone else paid.  The breakfast was an amazing feast and the extra yogurts, cereal bars and juice cartons I squirrelled away into my handbag, when the bow-tied waiter wasn’t looking, kept us going for days!
Another aspect of holidays where there are savings to be made comes in the form of trying to shave off a little from the cost of activities whilst away.  Through experience, I find the travelling community to be so helpful and willing to advise each other.  For me, the forums on Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree have saved me a fortune.  We travelled to Billund in Denmark at the end of August 2015 to visit the original Legoland, the home of the fantastic plastic, and through my research, I found that I could source Danish 2-for-1 attraction vouchers (just like the ones on our cereal boxes in the UK), from German ebay for one euro; a saving of over £100 on our entrance fee.
 Another way to make the most of activities is to look for free things to do.  Looking on the website of the local area works a treat as there will be a whole host of community events which will immerse you in the local culture.  A couple of years ago, our whole family took part in a neighbourhood fun-run in a coastal village in Maine, USA.  The organisers couldn’t believe that a British family had entered and we were treated like royalty all day and paraded around like celebrities for all to see!
Car hire can be another prohibitive cost on a family holiday and I work hard to slash costs here too.  I always secure my car hire as soon as I know where we’re going, making sure that the car hire price is fully refundable, allowing me to keep checking back on prices throughout the year.  For example, I have recently cancelled and (instantly) rebooked car hire for a holiday in Italy because the current exchange rate has altered prices favourably for us.  Also, we always take our own SATNAV (bought specifically for holidays)and child car seat to save unnecessary add-ons.  
In addition, to avoid having to take out extortionate excess insurance, I have an annual policy with which pays out should we have an accident abroad.  This costs £30 a year yet avoids me having to pay around £5 a day for top-up insurance when abroad. 
Finally, a little-known and savvy method of saving money on all aspects of the holiday-planning adventure is to do all your booking through a cashback website ( as the savings made add up quickly; these sites deal with most of the major holiday companies.  My flights to Canada will pay me back in the region of £20 and my night in an Italian hotel this summer paid me back £10.  It might not seem much and I’m aware that I must sound like a real cheapskate but the pennies do add up to pounds and, in the last couple of years, I’ve made over £700 cashback – the price of two booked-in-advance long-haul flights.
So, in essence, the world is there to be explored and with just a little time, determination and knowledge, we can all be travellers on a shoestring.  It’s just about knowing where to start the search.  Happy exploring!

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