Frugal Family Travel

Do I dare call family world travel frugal? Semantics police might object. If you are amongst them, read it as fancy frugal family travel from now on, and you’ll be just fine.

But as with most things, the cost of traveling with your kids is highly variable. From experience, I’d say it can range anywhere from hardly more than bumming it on your own – which is almost nothing – to infinity, I suppose.

We are on the finite end of the range. For both money and time. Yet we’ve managed to travel throughout the US, a bit of Canada, and a fair bit of Europe over the last few years. And we have a lot more planned. We have learned some things along the way.

And that’s the first lesson, family travel can be done on a budget. Pretty much anywhere you’d like to go.

Next lesson. If time is of the essence, pick and choose where to save. Save in one category or several, but realize that it can be (a bit) more work to design in maximum savings. If you get a kick out of thinking about your trips and planning, then you can save some real money. But don’t be scared – you can save money even if you are a lazy planner.

(Disclosure. I like thinking about the trip. But kinda generically. I wouldn’t do anything crazy like planning or writing stuff down. And I can still save a buck or two. H, however, is meticulous in planning. And that’s where a lot of magic happens. But sometimes being a lazy planner can save you a ton of money. Stay tuned.)

Now. There are some specific categories to consider.

- Where to go
- When to go
- Getting there
- Getting around
- Staying
- Eating
- Drinking
- Activities
- Souvenirs

Each of these is a fun discussion of it’s own, and we’ll spend some time on all of them.

The moral of the story is that if money IS an object, you STILL don’t have an excuse not to famvoyage!

Mazapan in Toledo, Spain

I crave those sun-drenched memories. The ones where it was warm and the lighting was just right, doing something simple with good people.

Our first international trip with our oldest boy was to Madrid. It was March, and we had just a bit warmer temperatures in mind. It was fine when the sun was out, but there were many a chilly moment, including a rain-drenched wait to see the palace (which is a story for another day).

We took a day trip to Toledo, which is a short high speed Ave train ride away from the city. This particular train is also notable for being a time machine, as when you arrive in Toledo it will be the middle ages. With tourist shops. Selling things you don’t need but will find yourself at least glancing at out of the corners of your eyes. We bought the boy a t-shirt. If he had been older he would have wanted one of their finest swords (kids into the idea of knights and stuff would love this place!)

Toledo was once a powerful city, but over the centuries it found itself less the center of attention. This leads to a frozen in time mystique that is perfect for street wandering. The hills and cobblestones don’t make it effortless, especially with a stroller, but it’s more than manageable.

While there, you should visit the cathedral. There is a room that acts as a mini art museum housing a number of works by my favorite artist (El Greco.) I enjoy the use of form and color that is not modern but appeals somehow to my modern art sensibilities. I find art in small doses like this are like a good appetizer. You get a taste but don’t get full. A little art tapa. And its a good amount for kids.

Speaking of food. We needed a snack. We were probably very near starving. Toledo is known, at least in one travel guide we had with us, for a sweet treat called Mazapan. It’s a sugary almond confection, very simple but very rich. I enjoyed it with a Coke, because for some reason I appreciate the sweet on sweet combination of soda and candy. My wife was probably drinking Fanta Lemon. The boy was sticking with milk.

After purchasing the Mazapan in a friendly little shop – a box for our little family and our lovely travel companions to share – we went looking for a place to sit and enjoy the sunshine. We found a tidy simple plaza up the hill just a bit. There was a bench or two, and some nice modest trees just starting to do their spring tree thing.

Did I mention that dappled light coming through the trees makes those sun-drenched memories all the more craveable?

The plaza was all cobblestones and low walls. It was small and empty. Quiet. Far from the city streets of Madrid. Far from real life. Instant memory. It was a memory as we lived it.

Anyway. There was a modern-feeling wall on one end of the plaza. It was out of place, which I liked. I spent a few minutes trying to capture it with a photo. It eluded me.

Mostly we just sat and ate our snack, enjoying. Sweet. We didn’t think to buy any to take home, to try later or to give away, because we often don’t think of those things. Or maybe we thought of it. But we didn’t buy any. We ate what we had and we drank our sugary drinks and we sat as the sun smiled on us.

I’m sure the boy, striking as his memory is, does not recall that afternoon. He was ten months old. But I wonder what he might think when he next visits Toledo, maybe with his kids, with the sun warming a nice spring day. Whether it’ll feel like a memory all at once, whether he’ll have just a little something from the time before, I know I’ll never forget.

We finished our snack and wandered down the rolling hills of the modest city. It was a great day for traveling and for the family. And then we took the train/time machine back to the city for more adventure.

Traveling with Kids’ … Car Seats

Our family trip to California is just two days away. The earlier post about buying our youngest a seat for the first time sparked some good questions about the relative merits of traveling with car seats. In LA, we will be renting a car and the car seats will be a necessary evil.

(Side commentary – We’re big supporters of the proper use of car seats. We spend plenty of time and money getting high quality safe seats for our boys, and we use them – always. And we don’t even mind that kids use them until they are 45 these days. I didn’t when I was little, but I’m sure my survival was a fluke :) )

But man oh man, are they a pain to travel with. Why?

Car seats are surprisingly big, bulky and heavy. And better seats generally seem biggest. And they are so awkwardly shaped! Where do you even hang on to the thing? Is it any wonder I don’t want to drag TWO of these things onto a plane? Just getting from the car to the luggage check and back again with other bags is work!

A simple tip for dragging that thing through the parking lot is to tighten up the straps, and tie together the loose ends. The tightened straps make a nice little handle – a place to hold the seat! – and the whole process gets easier.

So now you have to check luggage! We pack light and for short trips generally carry everything on. Car seats end up an exception. This is more about the time spent and the extra stop at the counter than cost. Many carriers don’t charge you for this, unlike bags. And if you or your kids have frequent flier status, they might not charge you for bags. Check with your carrier to see if there is a charge. If so, you could always lug it on the plane if you got a seat. Might as well.

If you check a seat, bring it to the airline counter. Get one of those paper luggage tags and strap it onto the back, on one of the seat straps. Put your name on it. This will probably survive many trips. Then find or ask for a giant plastic bag for car seats. They seem wasteful don’t they? (Is there a reusable equivalent?) Anyway, the nice baggage people need you to stuff the seat in a bag, so get right to it. From there, they give you the baggage claim and off it goes. No more dragging for a few hours.

You wouldn’t want to avoid the bag anyway. The bag will get banged up and torn a bit. Better it than your seat. Even with it, your car seat will probably get dirty at least.

So what about renting a seat when you get there? That would avoid much of the lugging and car seat dirtying. A perfect alternative? Hardly. I have a number of problems with renting a seat:

- Where’s it been? Are you sure it hasn’t been in an accident? Some experts caution the purchase of used car seats, and I would thing similar caution has to be applied to renting one. I’m sure the broad majority of car rental establishments are careful about safety and inspect the seats. But I just don’t know.
- And will be it clean? Our one experience renting a seat was positive in this regard, but I’ve read some less flattering reviews.
- Will they have one the proper size for you to reserve? Will it be there when you get there? There is similar risk in checking a seat, as anyone who has had a bag lost knows. But I do get paranoid that I’d go to pick up my car and they wouldn’t have a seat. That would be unpleasant.
- If you’ve used a car seat, you know there is adjustment to get it to fit your kid right. With your own seat you don’t have this extra step. And unfamiliar seats can be worse. We once had a seat delayed on a return flight from Ireland (back to my earlier point about the risks of checked luggage) and the airline gave us a loaner for the night. It was a fine seat, but we struggled to figure that thing out and get it installed properly in the car.
- Lastly, and most importantly. As a family who considers themselves relatively frugal travelers, the price can’t be justified. After just a few days of renting a seat, you could BUY one. One you know and trust. One you’ve hand selected for its safety and features.

So that’s my opinion. So let’s assume you’ve made the right choice and are bringing your own seat. One more tip – if you have a spare seat, use that. We have a spare set that we use for my parents because they watch the boys quite often. That set is very handy for trips because it’s a bit less expensive making it less to worry about and also significantly lighter than our primary set. Encountering a problem would be less of logistical problem than with our primary set when we got home. And it means we don’t have to uninstall or reinstall the seats in our home airport parking lot which makes for a quicker load time when we get home and are tired. So if you are bringing your own seats, consider your backup seats.

(Thought – Does anyone know of seats that are especially well suited for travel? Either because of their size/shape or their portability. I’ve seen some gimmicky looking stuff, and I wonder if anyone has tried something that worked well.)

I’ve saved my best tip for last. If at all possible – don’t bring a seat! This is the method we employ on almost all of our European trips, and some American ones too.

If you are using public transportation – trains, buses, subways – you won’t need a seat. Many Europeans cities, and even day trips way out of town, are easily accessible this way. Plan your trip around public transportation to save not only cost, but the hassle of car seats.

Even in New York, we’ve skipped seats. There was a cab ride and a car service from the airport involved. We called ahead to make sure a seat wouldn’t be required. It was a little scary, but it was really fine and saved us seat lugging for 10 minutes of total driving. Just like when I was a kid. Please do note that this can backfire on you. In Berlin, I did get kicked out of a cab for not having a seat for our one year old at the time. Our older boy, then 3, was fine due to the cabbie having his own booster to use. We found a train instead and all was fine.

Hopefully with these tips you can make an informed choice about traveling with the car seat. As much of a pain as it can be, it’s far from a deal breaker. You will probably feel like a pro in no time with the tips above. Happy travels, see you after California!

PS – back to the safety of a car seat on a plane. Some seats aren’t designed for lap belts only, so I bet they aren’t all that safe in that context anyway. AND you have to be sure that your seat is FAA approved (it says it on the side of the seat) and you have to show the flight attendant on your way in or they’ll make you check the seat anyway. Heather says you can’t even have boosters on planes because they only have lap belts and boosters are designed to work with shoulder belts. One more reason to enjoy the lap child while you can!

Last Minute Family Travel Tips

Whew. Last minute travel can really test your planning skills. For example:

- A difference of few hours matters. One of the fares we were looking at jumped $60 while we ate dinner. When you are traveling at the last minute, and the trip is a must, you simply might not find a good deal. Find an OK price, hold your nose, and buy. This goes against our best frugal family travel related tendencies, but you might not have the luxury of options. Unless…

- See if you DO have options. This particular trip could have been turned into a long drive if necessary. Be sure to creatively consider all options. Would a drive be cheaper or more realistic? How about the bus? Even if these things aren’t better, having checked and considered them will ease your mind about the logistical ramifications of the trip.

- Frequent travel can lead to a “travel snowball.” Frequent travelers probably already pay attention to the frequent flyer miles game. But is your kid a frequent flyer? We didn’t have enough miles to offset the cost of this trip, but our oldest son did. He literally saved us over $1000. If you ever pay a fare for your child, make sure they get the miles, they come in handy. (No miles for lap children, which is another con I guess)

- Be flexible. You’ll hear this a lot around here, it’s so important for family travel. It’s true in this case as well. Be flexible with your hotel and rental car standards, be flexible with flight times and travel methods, be flexible with price. In this case more than others, some preferences need to take a back seat.

- Rest in advance if you can. This is probably worth a post of its own. We arrived after midnight. Then we spent a ton of time together with family. We flew back a couple days later at 6:30 AM (there’s a 6:30 in the morning now?!?) A good night’s sleep before the trip can make a huge difference in successfully navigating a couple of short nights (which will be short nights for your children, and you already know how they can act when tired.) A nap after the trip is also great if possible.

It’s hard to step back and think through this at the last minute, so put it in the back of your mind now for future use. Last minute travel isn’t ideal, but hopefully with these tips you can get through it a little easier. I’d be interested to hear other last minute family travel tips others can come up with.

What Do They Speak In???

This was the first question our oldest son asked us as we deplaned in South Dakota last weekend. It isn’t an unusual question for him, in fact, based on his experience of travel – it is a very valid question. See, we’re raising our kids to be world travelers and what comes with that is the understanding that not everyone speaks English. So when we got off the plane in South Dakota, he wanted to be sure he would be able to talk to the people we would encounter there.

Every time we travel to a new place we try to get our kids to experience the culture of the area. This definitely includes language. We try to teach them a few words to use so that they can at the very least say please and thank you. When we came back from our trip to Italy when our oldest was about 18 months he was telling everyone “Ciao” as we got off the plane! It can be a very fun learning experience for the whole family. But in this instance, no learning necessary – he can already talk everyone’s ear off in English!

Sometimes Life Intervenes

On my last post, I mentioned that our next flight would be to visit some family in California. While that trip is still on, an unexpected death in the family requires a flight later this week. With this trip there is great sadness but also the opportunity to see some seldom visited family and spend important time together.

As these things often do, the events of the last couple of days have me thinking.

This is known by most of you, I’m sure – not all family travel is exotic. It can range everywhere from a short drive to go camping, to a journey to visit family, to a round-the-world adventure. Even each of those types of trips can vary widely. But the skills and confidence you pick up from any of these really can be transferred to a variety of difficult or fun travel (life!) situations.

The most fun stories will be those that focus on the adventures. And even seemingly minor travel details take on a new light when you are on a BIG TRIP. But the skills can be widely applied. So even if you are only going a few miles away, we do hope you’ll read on. Who knows where the story will take us?

For now, appreciate the time spent together as a family.

Next time, a lighter topic…