I am a travel junkie. It’s the thing I will spend all of my money on, without regrets. It’s what I daydream about and obsess over and since my kids were born, I’ve wanted to take them places. This year’s vacation was a huge milestone, because we were able to take them to Europe and it was awesome! This was a big leap and I worried it was too much too soon, but it all worked out, and it was even a budget friendly trip.
A family trip to Europe sounds pricey, and while it wasn’t cheap, it was honestly about as affordable as a trip out west. Sometime in October I started playing around on Google Flights; I basically put in the dates from RDU and “Europe” as the destination, and it showed me options. How easy was that? Vienna was less then $500 roundtrip, so even though I’d never given it much thought, I did some quick research and pulled the trigger. It helps that you can cancel without any penalty within 24 hours, because this truly was a spontaneous purchase. But the more research we did, the more we felt like it could be a great destination so we stuck with it.
In order to keep this trip as affordable as possible, I booked basic economy flights, which means no checked bags, among other indignities. This was a bit of a challenge (in theory at least) because we went from snow in Salzburg to 70 and sunny in Vienna- but it was incredibly manageable for each of us to pack plenty of clothes, extra shoes and even some souvenirs in a carry-on. It helped that we had laundry facilities at the Airbnb where we were staying, but I was fine to re-wear some jeans and leggings regardless, and luckily those packable down jackets are exactly as advertised-packable. Basic economy sounds scary, but the rest of the flying experience was positive. The large planes to Europe are incredibly roomy, meals (plus beer and wine!) were still free and they booked our seats together without any hassle (which has been an issue when we have flown budget on domestic flights in the past).
Another cost-saving measure was using Airbnb instead of hotels. It wasn’t just about saving money, because there are plenty of hotels in the same $150-200 a night price point, but it was about saving our sanity. For about the same cost as a mid-tier hotel, we got roomy apartments with separate bedrooms and plenty of living space, which is crucial when you’re traveling as a family and spending all that time together. All three of our apartments had great locations that would rival a top hotel. The real money-saving aspect was being able to eat some meals at “home”, instead of being forced to pay restaurant prices for everything. And to be honest, especially because the food wasn’t our favorite part of the trip, it was nice to take a break from searching for a family-friendly spot every time someone was hungry. Here's the view from our window in Salzburg with a homemade happy hour- not bad!
After flights and accommodations, the next most important (and expensive) vacation element is itinerary. Over the past few vacations, we have found that a mixture of outdoorsy activities coupled with more structured visits is a great way to balance the fun for everyone. My sister-in-law lived in Europe while her husband was stationed at various air force bases, and they joke about how there is definitely a limit to how much culture kids can take. After a while, all those castles and museums look the same, and when the kids aren’t happy no one is happy. So we packed our itinerary with activities that we hoped would really appeal to them (and still appeal to us). A day of bike riding was fun for them, but it was through wine country and picturesque villages, so the adults got something out of it for sure. The gondola to the top of the alpine mountain range was very much in their wheelhouse, and so was the salt mine tour with a trip down the longest wooden slide in the world. Spending so much time outside cut down on entry prices to museums which, especially for their ages, was the way to go.
Meals is also a huge expense when traveling. As mentioned, we were able to eat some meals, drinks and snacks at home base, which helps a lot. It was also important to be understanding with their food choices in a different food culture. It was a lot for them to be so out of their comfort zone in a foreign country, so while we wanted them to try new foods, we didn’t make it a battle at every meal. Plus, who loves to pay for food the kids won't even eat? Picnics are a great way to have a memorable, delicious meal and stay on budget. One afternoon we grabbed a pizza from a street kiosk for the kids and a cheese platter, fruits and sandwiches from the incredible selection at the grocer, plus some splits of Austrian sparkling wine and set up in a gorgeous park. The kids ran around while we leisurely enjoyed the food and scenery- it was perfection, at half of what a sit down restaurant would have cost.
Overall, this first family trip to Europe was a smashing success, without killing our wallets. Which is great, because I'm already planning our next epic adventure.
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