(Updated October 2018)
Affording Family Travel
People ask me all the time how they can afford to travel internationally. It’s difficult to answer since everyone has different circumstances. Some people have access to lower-cost airports. Some choose other priorities and wonder why there isn’t money left over for travel. Not everyone can afford to travel everywhere, but the world is far more accessible than people think it is.
I’ve written before about how we give the gift of travel to our kids, and I’ve talked about ten ways to save money while traveling. But how do I lower the costs of travel enough that we can take our kids to several countries every year? This is how I do it.
I don’t pay more than I have to for airfare
- I collect frequent flier miles. Even if miles are worth a little less every year, they’re still a great way to travel for free. I have three credit cards right now that earn miles or points with every purchase. Different cards give bonus miles for travel, dining, gas or groceries, so I’m sure to always use the right card for each purchase. If there’s a card that gives you a 50,000 mile sign-up bonus, get it. Then cancel that card after you earn the bonus and get another. Play the game. There are A LOT of websites that offer advice about doing this – just Google “travel hacking”. Once you have the cards, charge everything that you possibly can. For years at my previous job I charged all work expenses that I could to my cards and then got reimbursed by the company. Some years I earned 250,000 miles by doing this. That’s a lot of free trips.
- I’m loyal. By flying United and its Star Alliance partners as much as possible, I’m able to reach 1K status every year. This means that I earn more miles for every flight and also that I have access to an expanded inventory of award flights. I typically use miles for free tickets for my family while paying for tickets for myself, in order to maintain status. Additional benefits to having 1K status are faster check-in and security lines, priority boarding, frequent upgrades and international lounge access, all of which make traveling with kids easier.
- I plan ahead. Way ahead. I sketch out our travel a year in advance and start looking for the best tickets. I set up price alerts in Kayak so that I receive an email daily with the ticket prices for the dates I want to travel. I search constantly. Sometimes if I find a great fare 10 months in advance, I grab it even if the routing isn’t ideal. Three times out of four the airline will change its schedule and allow me to change to better routing at no additional cost.
- I look for all routing/ticketing options. If the tickets are expensive to Africa, for example, I might look for a cheap ticket to Dubai or Oman, and then buy a ticket on another carrier from there. Sometimes it backfires, but usually it works well. For my recent trip with my son to Asia, we went to four countries in 16 days, and I planned the destinations and dates around inexpensive flights. I looked at literally dozens of different ticketing options, and in the end booked 10 flights on 5 airlines on 5 different tickets – 1 open-jaw ticket on United, 1 round-trip ticket on ITI Air and 3 one-way tickets, on Air Asia, Thai Air and Eva Air. It worked perfectly, and I’ll guarantee you I paid less than anyone else doing a similar itinerary. I probably spent 15 hours on the flight research for that trip, but it paid off.
- I look at different departure airports. In Southern California we can fly out of several airports, so I price them all. Think about all of your possible departure points within a few hours of home.
- I go when others aren’t going. Our kids’ school has a different break schedule than most other schools, which lets us book tickets far less expensively than if we’re traveling during peak weeks. But when we do need to travel when everyone else is, I look for the cheapest travel days, even if it means pulling the kids out of school a day early. Leaving Friday before Christmas break or Thanksgiving break can be half the price of flying out Saturday or Sunday.
- I combine destinations. Since airfare is the leading expense on most trips, if we’re going to Europe, we maximize the trip. We’ll spend 5-6 weeks at a time there, relying on low-cost intra-Europe tickets to move around. We rarely go to one destination anywhere in the world and then come straight back home. When I took my daughter to Bali, we added Sydney, mostly because of routing but also because it’s a fun city for a stopover. When my son wanted to go to Easter Island, it was barely more expensive to add stops in Panama City, Santiago and Iguazu Falls. His 2015 trip to Denmark included Oslo, Amsterdam and Zagreb, again relatively inexpensively.
I search for the best hotels at the best prices
- I use TripAdvisor. If I know where we want to go but don’t have a specific hotel in mind, I go to TripAdvisor, search for hotels in that destination, and put in my dates. That brings up pricing for most hotels. I filter the results by “Family Friendly” and then start at the top, looking for the top-rated hotels at the best prices.
- I contact hotels directly. Once I have a short-list of hotels and rough pricing from TripAdvisor, I write to the hotels directly. I explain that we are a family of five and need an optimal room layout for our ideal dates and ask what their pricing options are. We’ve stayed at some amazing hotels around the world because their reservations agents were a lot more flexible than their websites when it came to accommodating all of us. The Four Seasons Bora Bora and the Rosewood Mayakoba both made exceptions to their official policies and allowed all of us to stay in one room. That cut our costs in half, and made nice hotels in amazing destinations comparable to far cheaper places that would require us to get two rooms.
- I look for value dates. Hotel pricing is usually dependent on expected occupancy. If your dream is to stay at the Four Seasons Bora Bora, figure out when the absolute cheapest time to visit is. If it’s not posted on the hotel’s website, write to them directly.
- We don’t stay in hotels all the time. Whenever it makes financial sense based on the destination and length of stay, we look to rent apartments. Airbnb is amazing. If you want to take your kids to Paris and your budget is tight, rent an apartment out of the center of town. With the metro you can move around easily, and you’re having virtually the same Paris experience as someone paying $1000/night at the George V – maybe even better.
It’s a huge world. I want to take my kids everywhere, but there’s no reason that trips need to be done in a specific order. If we have spring break to plan, I think of where we can go that week where we won’t be competing with others for plane tickets and hotel reservations. If you want to go to Santorini, don’t go during the summer – prices are far lower in October. If you want to stay in an overwater bungalow and you can’t make Bora Bora work price-wise, look at the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand or Mexico. The bungalows are cheaper, as are airfare and food.
I budget for travel
This is probably the biggest difference between frequent travelers and people that dream of traveling but don’t think they can afford it. Frequent travelers make travel their primary budget item. That means that they’re not spending $200/month on cable, or getting new cars every four years, or spending $10/day at Starbucks, or going out to eat frequently, or even getting their nails done. They’re saving everything they can so that when there’s an unexpected $400 cheap fare to Chile, they’re on a plane and having an incredible two-week adventure – all for less than a lot of people spend dining out every month. On Facebook it looks like they’re living dream lives, always posting from amazing places around the world. But really it’s just that they have different priorities.
One thing that we do, and that I talked about in my article on giving the gift of travel, is that we minimize gift giving. Birthdays may involve one present. We have a lot of empty space under our Christmas tree. My wife and I rarely give each other presents. We’ve never once gone to a “Doorbuster Black Friday Sale” or bought something just because it was on sale. All of you who are in line at Wal-Mart Thanksgiving night to save 10% on an 80-inch television? That’s fine. But it’s going to delay your travel dreams.
Take your kids everywhere! But never pay more than you have to.