My husband and I have been blessed to travel all over the world. And the number one question I get about our family travels is how we afford it.
And while I think that is a personal question, I have decided today to go ahead and open up, and share some of the details of our financial situation, and how we are able to “afford” to travel as much as we do.
I have read many articles about this, and most people say to do things like use reward points and frequent flyer miles, etc. That is not what we do. We do not use credit cards at all, so reward points are out. We only go on vacations we can pay cash for. We aren’t brand loyal for flying, so while we have frequent flyer accounts, we rarely earn enough points with them to get free or reduced fares. And no one else pays for our vacations. We wish our parents would foot the bill, but they don’t.
You might be thinking we must make a lot of money then. But we don’t.
We are solidly in the lower middle class. My husband is a restaurant manager, and I work part-time at home. We have four kids, and probably make below the national average.
And yet we travel a lot. I am not bragging here, I am trying to illustrate a point. In the last five years we have traveled quite a bit within the US. We have been to many places in Southern California (Palm Springs, LA, Oceanside, San Diego, Anaheim (several times)) San Francisco, all throughout Utah (Bear Lake, Wolf Creek, St. George, etc.), Idaho, Florida, Hawaii, Montana (Yellowstone), Colorado, Nevada, etc. As well as several other places: Rome, Barcelona, Genoa, Jerusalem, Izmir (Ephesus), Olympia, Athens, Savona, Monaco, Haifa, London, Mallorca, Malta, Paris, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo, Mazatlan, Brussels, Bruge, Amsterdam, Kinderdijk, Krakow, Trier, the Bahamas, and Durban, South Africa.
Some of these destinations were in the same trip, and some were separate trips. We sometimes take the kids, and we sometimes leave them with family. But we go. We try to go on 2 bigger vacations a year: 1 with kids, 1 without. We do some local getaways as well. Sometimes we drive, sometimes we fly, sometimes we cruise. But we always go.
So how do we afford it? Put simply: We make it a priority.
Here are some of the specific ways we are able to save $ to use for vacations and travel, and save $ on vacation and travel to make it easier to afford:
We don’t have car payments:
We have 2 cars. I drive a 1998 Chrysler Town and Country that I think we paid about $3k for. My husband drives a 2004 Saturn Ion that was roughly $5k. We decided a long time ago that instead of having a $250-$400 a month car payment we would rather drive older, not as prestigious cars we could pay cash for, and have more discretionary income for travel. These cars are cheaper to insure, and free up a nice chunk of change for travel. If you have a car payment, ask yourself how much more you could travel if you had that much to spend on travel every month.
Sometimes it is embarrassing to drive an old car, and sometimes it breaks down, but I care a lot more about being able to travel than I do about appearance and social prestige. And a little bit of inconvenience on occasion is worth it to me.
We give our kids a trip for Christmas instead of toys:
As a family we love to travel, and we really don’t need more “stuff” and so we asked our kids what they would prefer. And about 4 years ago we made the change. What we normally spent on Christmas we started applying to a fun family vacation. The kids still get a stocking, PJ’s and books, and fun things from Grandparents and cousins, etc. but from Mom and Dad they get a vacation.
On Christmas they get to open up an envelop with the destination and dates we are going. They sometimes get little coupon books for things like, “A souvenir” or “A treat at the airport or a stop on the road trip”. We include any excursions or outings too. The kids love it. They look forward to it. They talk about where the trip might be. They speculate on what activities it will include. And we love it.
When we have more $ we do something a little bigger and better. And when things are tighter we might do something that is drivable. For example, two years ago we took a week long cruise to Mexico, complete with daily excursions. Last year we drove about 5 hours south of our house to St. George and enjoyed staying in a condo and spending the week at the resort.
We budget for it:
Travel is a category in our budget. Just like we budget for groceries, cell phone bills, and utilities, we budget for travel. Occasionally we have to dip into our travel fund for other things (that is life, right?) but whether it is $20 or $200, we try to put a little away each month to help with travel. When we get extra money (bonus, tax return, gifts, etc.) we usually save some of it, and use some of it for travel.
We prioritize it:
I think this is one of the biggest things. We love to travel, and so it is a huge priority for us. That is where we spend a lot of our discretionary income. I rarely buy new clothes. I don’t get my hair done often. I do my own nails. I cook almost every night of the week. We look for good deals on the things we do buy. We trade babysitting when we can. We go to matinee movies. We minimize our entertainment expenses by investing in season passes so that we can have fun all year long without spending tons of money. We spend a lot of time having fun at home playing board games, or kickball in the yard, or watching movies. We try to keep our fun free or low cost. And this means more money is available for travel.
We are flexible with our travel dates:
This has been a huge advantage for us. A couple years ago, I was browsing online and found a 7 day cruise for the Western Mediterranean for just $250/person. I was able to find flights for under $1000, and 3 weeks later we boarded the ship. But I was only able to do this because we could make last minute work. We don’t typically travel during normal school breaks, or holidays. Part of that is because of my husband’s job, but part of it is to save money. We don’t go to Rome in June, we go in April when we can fly there for less and pay half the price for hotels. By being flexible in our travel dates we are able to see more for less. This has gotten harder now that our kids are in school, but we still do our best.
We keep our eyes open for deals, and we know a deal when we see one. We have an extensive list of places we want to go and see, and a fairly good idea of what the “normal” cost is to get there, stay there, and play there. So when I see a deal for one of those locations, I jump on it. We are deal chasers. We know we want to go certain places. We know we are going to spend a certain amount on travel each year, so we try to maximize the two by finding deals.
For example, last year I saw flights to Oahu for $300 round trip. We jumped on it and took the whole family on vacation. Two years ago I saw flights to Durban, South Africa for about $1200 each. We had been wanting to go for years, and I had rarely seen the flights under $2000. So we made it happen. If you know what things normally cost, it is easier to take advantage of a deal when it presents itself.
We are Ok with Cheap!
We aren’t too proud to stay in a less than perfect hotel, fly on red eye flights, or with “crappy” airlines, attend a time-share presentation to get discounted tickets or incentives. When we are in Europe we don’t stay in Villas, we stay in Ibis Budget. We don’t fly first class, we fly coach. We have sat through a number of time-share presentations to get a discount on Disney tickets, or activities in Maui for less. Again it is a matter of priorities. We would rather give up a little comfort if it means saving $ so we can take the whole family, do more, see more, and have more fun. We often fly on Allegiant, Frontier, and Alaska airlines as opposed to the nicer flights with better amenities because it means huge savings for our family. For example, we were able to go to San Francisco for $100 round trip each with Allegiant, the same time of year would have been $350-$400 on another airline.
We spend on the things that matter to us the most, and save on the rest. For example, we pack our own food and try and stay in condos with kitchens to save on eating. We pack minimal clothes so we don’t have to pay for extra luggage, and realize we might be wearing the same things in a lot of photos. We pay to skip lines so we can see more faster, but don’t pay for guides if we can check out the guide book from the library and learn about the place ourselves.
We own a timeshare:
We invested in a time-share back before kids, paid it off fast, and really use it. We know that timeshare ownership gets a bad rap, and I totally think in many ways it is deserved. But if you really use it, it is worth every penny. My husband and I bought with Worldmark by Wyndham 9 years ago. We paid it off in just over a year (we didn’t have kids back then, and worried less about things like debt). And we use it. We pay just under $700/year in maintenance dues, and so we maximize our ownership. We watch for inventory specials. We book through our timeshare for the more expensive destinations, and pay for hotels when it makes more sense to pay cash. For example, we have been to Maui several times for a week at a time using our timeshare. Having accommodations paid for helps us get out and do more and see more. In fact, I am writing this post from one of our timeshare properties as we are on a little mini-vacation with the kids. Where you stay can be expensive, so to find a better deal, try some of the ideas in this a post on finding low-cost accommodations.
We don’t pay for extra luggage, food, etc.:
This is just one example, but the point is, when we travel, we are very conscious of minimizing unnecessary expenses. When we cruise we eat on board, because it is already paid for. If we can take public transportation rather than renting a car or taking a taxi, we do it. If assigned seats on a flight are more expensive, we hope the gate agent will take mercy on us and the other passengers and seat our children by us. We bring our car seat so we don’t have to rent one. We use the GPS on our phones so we don’t have to rent one. We don’t buy the beverage package on the cruise ship. You get the idea.
We research the destinations to find the cheapest way to afford the things we want to do. In other words, we often invest time in order to save money. I wrote a lot about this on my London post, which you can see here. But if we can find a pass that gets us into stuff for less we usually take advantage of it. Taking a few hours to research what there is to do, and how to do it for less can save a bundle, especially when there are 6 people involved.
We rarely use groups or guided travel:
We instead buy (or check out) the guides, and educate ourselves, book our own connections, and figure things out for ourselves. There is something to be said about having someone else arrange everything for you. We used a service like this for a 2 week trip we went on in Europe. It was our first time overseas, so we loved having someone else arrange all transfers, guides, hotels, buses, and activities. It made the language barriers etc. less intimidating. But had we taken the time to figure those things out for ourselves, we would have saved probably a third the cost of the trip, or more. You pay for the convenience, so if you can find a way to do it yourself, figure out your own transportation and activities, educate yourself about the sites you visit, etc. then you will save. Again, it is a matter of priority.
Flying 6 people to anywhere is going to be expensive. Even if you get a cheap flight. And so when we can we drive. It takes longer, which can be an issue if you have limited vacation time. But we have found that we can make the drive a fun part of the vacation, and it saves us a bundle.
We do whatever it takes to make it possible:
This is probably a little bit of repeat, but travel is something we really value. You can read about why I think everyone should travel here. When I really want to go somewhere and we can’t afford it, I look for a way to earn extra money, whether that is donating plasma, or taking on more freelance work, or clipping some coupons to save a little here and there. I look for ways to make it affordable, which might mean staying with a friend, or saving the more exotic destinations for when we have a bigger budget. I look for ways to use money we would have been spending anyway and apply it toward vacation, for example, I am always happy to get a trip or getaway for a birthday gift. We skip anniversary gifts and instead go somewhere.
We put in the work:
If you aren’t willing to do the research to find the deals, or make sacrifices (like eating out or driving a nice car), then chances are you will find it harder to afford the kind of travel you want without a big income. We wouldn’t be able to afford to take our family of 6 on vacations if we didn’t do the work to find a good price on flights, accommodations, and activities. If we weren’t willing to plan, pack smart, cook, research destinations etc, and sacrifice other things.
I hope this helps. I truly love being able to explore so many parts of the world, and I wish we could afford more travel than we currently enjoy. As I come up with new ways to make travel more affordable for us, I will add to this list. But now I want to know, what are your tricks for being able to afford travel?