I’ve taken my kids to five continents on a single mom’s tight budget, scrimping all the way. Here are my best tips for how to do it without going broke:
•Take red-eye flights
. Red-eyes that fly overnight are nearly always cheaper because people don’t like them. But guess what? They’re better for the kids and their frazzled parents. Because it’s nighttime and dark, the kids will be more likely to fall asleep and stay asleep. When they wake up, you’ll be at your destination — or at least closer.
Never miss a local story.
Boy, do you need a lot of snacks, on a plane, in the car, everywhere. I bring a huge bag of familiar snacks from home, and as the kids eat their way through them, I replace them with souvenirs. That way, you don’t waste money buying airport or gas station snacks they might not even like. When the kids got older, I started making them bring their own snacks in their suitcases, but make sure there are plenty in their backpacks to eat on the plane so you don’t have to buy the airline food. Jerky is a good choice if they’ll eat it, because the protein fills them up.
•Get the kids’ meal.
If you’re flying overseas, you’ll probably get a free meal on the plane. Delicious? Wait until I stop laughing. But you can often order a special meal for the kids, which will be equally nasty, but it will be nasty airline food the kids might eat such as spaghetti or chicken fingers. Ask in advance. And note that if the flight is long, that’s not enough food for a kid. Bring more.
•Rent an apartment.
It typically costs more to rent an apartment, house or condo than to get a hotel room, but you can save a bundle on restaurant costs by cooking your own meals, plus kids’ boundless energy is better contained in such spaces than by jumping on the beds in your hotel. I like ApartmentsApart.com, HomeAway.com and Airbnb.com. I got a great apartment in Italy that my kids loved and it was right across from a school, so they even had a soccer ball kicked to them.
I once gave my son money to buy a snack in the convenience store while our taxi was gassing up in Egypt, and he spent $8 on a bag of chips. Horror-stricken, at first I thought he’d been ripped off, but then I realized that imported snacks were costly luxury items that really did cost $8. The local brand of chips tasted fine and the kids liked it, and it cost the equivalent of 50 cents. We changed loyalties very fast.
I know that’s a shocking thing to say, but if your kids hate museums like mine did when they were little, don’t waste the money. In some countries, they’re staggeringly expensive. Do other things instead. And, no, they won’t turn into ignorant wretches. My son hated the natural history museum when he was little, even though I’d bought an annual membership, but he actually asked to go to the one in New York as a teenager last summer, and enjoyed it, too.
•Shop at the local grocery stores.
In Venice, my kids’ hands-down favorite activity was feeding the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square. Knowing this, I had gone to the local grocery store and bought bags of popcorn for 1 euro each, saving two-thirds on the cost of buying in the square itself. I spent a long time watching the kids play with the pigeons, sitting on some steps and resting my tired feet. When we came home, they told everyone that was their favorite thing of our trip. We also bought our pasta at the store and cooked it at home, saving something like $1.2 trillion compared to eating out in that priciest of cities. When we went to the Grand Canyon, we stayed at the nice, two-story Motel 6 in Williams, Arizona, that had a little breakfast area. By going next door to the supermarket, we were able to buy our own fixin’s and eat at the motel.
•Go to Costco.
Yeah, they pretty much have Costco stores everywhere, probably next on the moon. You can use the Costco app to map out your driving route, then gas up using the discounted gas pumps and eat lunch at the cheap snack bar. Inside, you also might find discounts for local attractions that aren’t available at home.
•Bring a gallon-sized baggie of over-the-counter medicines from home.
It saves a lot of time looking for a pharmacy where someone who speaks Swahili will understand that you need some Pepto-Bismol. And if you have to run out in the middle of the night to get some from the convenience store, it’s going to cost you big.
•Check out guesthouses and hostels.
Hotels aren’t your only option on the road. If you go to a website such as Hostelbookers.com or Hostelz.com, you can look for places with family rooms that will also let you cook in their kitchen. The sites have reviews, so you can read what other people have to say about it to determine if it’s a family-friendly place. I wouldn’t stay at a place with lower than an 80 percent approval rating. Eating in and cooking what the kids like to eat will save you a ton of money and aggravation, and many hostels now have private rooms available.
•Use discount websites.
If you look on the local pages for discounters such as Goldstar.com, Groupon and Living Social for the cities you’re visiting, you can often find deals on things you want to do. For example, I bought a half-price deal to take a harbor cruise in San Diego from Goldstar; and a half-price Segway tour of Atlanta, a half-price zip-line adventure in Georgia, and half-price parasailing in Catalina from Groupon.
•Book on Hotwire.
If you’re on a road trip, you can use the Hotwire smartphone app to search for discounted hotels in whichever area you’re approaching for the night. Use the blind app, which means you won’t know which hotel you’re booking, only where it is, that it has a certain number of stars, its amenities and what the traveler rating is. The down side is that you have to pay for the hotel when you book it — without knowing which hotel it is. The upside is that you can save a good chunk of money.