Three years ago, my family and I went on our very first overseas family trip together. My husband, 14 year old step-son, 22 month old daughter, and I all boarded a plane to embark on a three week tour of Southeast Asia, visiting Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, and Japan. It was a whirlwind three weeks, and we all had a blast spending time with each other and exploring the different countries. But I would be lying if I said that it was a breeze planning such a trip.
More than likely, airfare will end up being the biggest expense on your trip, especially for an overseas one. With kids, there’s no way of getting around paying for the extra ticket, especially if your child is over two years old. However, shopping around can help you find more affordable options for flights, rather than just going with your usual airline. Also, being flexible with your dates, as well as flight destinations can help save you some money.Personally, I have used websites such as Kayak, Vayama, and Hipmunk to search for flights. When planning for a trip, it’s generally cheaper to fly into a hub city, rather than flying into a less frequented one. When we went on our Southeast Asia trip, even though our main destinations were Jakarta and Manila, we ended up saving money by flying into Bangkok instead, since that city is a more common destination for travelers to that region. Even when we took into account the cost of buying additional regional flights, the total airfare cost was cheaper than flying into either Jakarta or Manila. The one thing I like about Kayak is that it will search for the major airlines and also the lesser known airlines, so you end up being able to see a variety of flight options on one site.
|The view from above (September 2004)|
Finding adequate accommodation for an overseas family trip can be difficult. Most hotel rooms only offer double occupancy, which in most parts of the world equals two Twin beds, or one Queen sized bed. When looking for lodging, try and find hotels that offer family rooms or triple rooms. Sometimes hostels can be an option if they have private rooms that can accommodate small groups of 4 people or more. Recently, I have been using Booking.com to look for rooms, as I prefer their user experience compared to other booking sites. However, I’ll also use Trip Advisor to research hotels, as that site allows me to see reviews from other travelers, which is really helpful when trying to decide on a hotel room.
Another option is to look for home rentals. My family and I have been using Airbnb since 2009, and for the most part have been satisfied with the experience. We have used Airbnb in the United States, Canada, and the Philippines, and have stayed at some pretty gorgeous homes. In most cases, Airbnb was the more affordable option for us, since we are usually traveling as a family of four of five. Other families in the United States have used VRBO to book home rentals as well, but I tend to default to Airbnb when looking for lodging.
Couch surfing is another option for families, but it can sometimes be hard to find a couch that can accommodate a family of four or five, and you have to be open and up front about what your needs are, especially if you’re traveling with young children.
Budgeting for lodging can be somewhat flexible, depending on whether you want simple or luxury accommodation. For developing countries, I tend to budget under $100 a night for lodging. For more developed countries, I’ll aim for $150-$175.
|The kids enjoying some downtime at a studio we rented in Berkeley
This is the area in the budget where you can have the most flexibility. If you’re willing to be pretty strict about spending, or if you’re traveling in a cheap country, you can probably get by with having a food budget of $100 a day for a family of four. That takes into consideration $5 for breakfast, $7 for lunch, $11 for dinner, and $2 for snacks per person. For most of my family trips, I’ll usually budget about $140 a day for food. That breaks down to $7 for breakfast, $10 for lunch, $15 for dinner, and $3 for snacks. Some days we’ll go over this amount, and some days we’ll go under, but it’s helpful to have a budget to make sure we’re not always eating out at fancy restaurants during our trip.
Some creative ways to save money on food is by visiting a grocery store or market and making your own meals. We have done this in Manila and New York. In both times we were staying at an apartment, so for breakfasts, we made our own meals using food we bought at nearby grocery stores.
Other ways we’ve saved money on an overseas family trip is by having street food lunches. One thing to keep in mind, especially when traveling in developing countries, is to make sure the food you get from street vendors are properly cooked, so that neither you nor your kids get sick. I don’t agree with folks who avoid street food at all costs, but as a parent, I do think it is important to be cautious about what foods you give your kids. The general rule is to make sure the food is fully cooked and hot, and to avoid eating raw food that has been washed in the local water.
|Sushi lunch in Tokyo (July 2012)|
Unless you’re planning on renting a car or using taxis during your stay, a great way to save money on an overseas family trip is to utilize public transportation. Most major cities around the world have reliable public transportation systems, and I always find this is a great way to get a feel of what it’s like to live like a local. I’ve taken my kids on public transportation in cities like New York, Bangkok, Singapore, and even in Paraguay. They always enjoy people watching, and for us, it’s almost like a mini adventure, trying to navigate our way around the city. Before you go on your trip, research what the public transportation options are in the place where you’ll be, so that it will be less of a shock when you get there. I usually budget around $20-30 a day for local transportation, just in case there are days when hiring a taxi is a necessity.
|My daughter riding public transportation in Bangkok
This is the part of the budget that can sometimes be overlooked. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to go over-budget on activities. There’s always something interesting to do, and more than likely, those things aren’t cheap. One thing that’s helped me in the past is to only choose one or two things to do per day. I also try and alternate the days with free activities. Beaches are usually free, and so are parks, monuments, or walking tours of neighborhoods. My kids enjoy museums for the most part, but they also enjoy just hanging out at a playground. It’s okay if you don’t see every site listed in your guidebook. The most important thing is that you’re spending time with your family exploring a new city.
|The kids enjoying some playtime at a public park (July 2014)|
More and more, I have tried to avoid buying souvenirs on trips, especially since my house is beginning to get cluttered with the random knick knacks we’ve acquired throughout our travels. Photos have become my souvenir of choice, and aside from the cost of printing photobooks, they’re virtually free! But if you must buy souvenirs, try to set a cost limit for each of your family members. For my family, it’s usually $20-50 a person, depending on how long of a vacation we go on and how many countries we visit. We usually spend our souvenir money on things like snacks that are specific to that country, postcards, or wearable local crafts.
|Enjoying a drink of terrere after our trip to Paraguay
Visas, Travel Insurance, Airport Tax, Airport Transport, and Baggage Storage
Do some research ahead of time to see what visas will be needed for the country that you’re visiting, as well as the best way to obtain that visa. Some countries will offer visa processing by mail through their embassies while other countries offer visas on arrival. Either way, it’s good to be prepared. We once spent over an hour at the airport in Asuncion, Paraguay waiting to get our visa-on-arrival processed!
Another travel cost to consider is travel insurance. When I was a solo traveler, I never bought travel insurance. But now that I’m a mom, I’m a lot more careful about how I travel, and I always buy travel insurance for my family and me. When we went to Southeast Asia, my husband came down with a pretty bad case of amoebas, and having the travel insurance on hand really helped save us some money on the doctor visit. Insure My Trip is a good site to shop for travel insurance.
Other costs that may arise include airport tax, airport transport, and baggage storage. Some countries like to charge airport tax or a departure tax. Make sure you research this ahead of time, so that you’re not caught off guard at the end of your trip, and you’ve spent all your local currency. Also, be sure to budget transportation to and from the airport. I’m a major proponent of public transportation, but when it comes to getting to and from the airport, I usually err on the side of convenience. Hiring a shuttle or a taxi is usually much easier than trying to lug multiple bags and kids between trains and buses. The only exception would be in Tokyo, where a taxi from Narita airport into the city can cost over $200! In that case, I’ll gladly use the public transportation system.
In terms of baggage storage, sometimes there are things you’ll need to bring on the flight that you won’t need for the rest of the trip. In our case, it’s usually the car seat, which I like to bring on the plane for my kids. Other times we’ve used baggage storage is when we’ve had long layovers in a particular city and we want to do some sight-seeing in between flights. On my way to India last year, I had a layover in Amsterdam and used the baggage storage at the airport to store my carry-on while I went and explored the city.
|Taking the shuttle bus to the airport (July 2014)|
The last thing I always budget for is miscellaneous costs. No one can predict what will happen on a trip, and especially when I’m traveling with my kids, I like to be somewhat prepared for the unexpected. I usually budget around 1-5% of my travel costs for miscellaneous costs. This gives me a small cushion of funds, in case I go over-budget on the other expenses.
I have always been a planner, and to me, part of the fun of travel is in the planning. There’s something exciting in the anticipation and uncertainty of preparing for a trip. I’m also a big advocate for family travel. To me, nothing is more educational and enriching for your kids than exposing them to a new culture or place. I hope these tips on budgeting for an overseas family trip are helpful in getting you and your family started on an adventure of your own. Bon voyage!
|Having fun on the beach in San Francisco (2013)|
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