How to Make Travel Affordable, as an Expat
As expats, we have the fortunate advantage of living next door to the places we want to visit. A quick 4-hour car ride and we are at Disneyland Paris. 6-hour train ride and we are in Munich. We have travelled further to visit our family on random weekends in Canada, so these timings are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we are willing to endure in order to vacation in Europe.
I have heard many stories of families packing up everything and travelling full time. That sounds amazing, and economical, and freeing… and nothing like the way we travel. After 2 weeks, our family is finished and ready to get back home. We like routine, we like boring, we like our house. We aren’t the full time travelling type of people.
If we were not living here, this would be the most expensive personality to have as a traveller; imagine, flying all the way across the ocean, just to visit for 2 weeks, then head back home. Do that a few times per year and that is a lot of time and money on a plane (or boat) that could have been spent on another vacation or two (or 5). With that in mind, we take every school holiday, long weekend, summer vacation and even just random days during the week because the destination is on sale, and we go away.
Let me give you a little back story first; many many years ago, while hubby and I were still dating, his career manager asked him where he wanted to be relocated. This is a question we get asked every year, and every year he would say “Europe”. When we got married, I agreed with him; Europe is where we want to go. We like to travel, we like history, we like adventure, but we also don’t have a lot of money. He, newly in the military and I, fresh out of university, didn’t have a lot to our names and we knew this wasn’t going to change overnight. Moving to Europe is the only way we are going to be able to visit the continent before we are in our 50’s.
Finally, one day, he calls me and says “tomorrow is the day, where are we asking?” Europe was the only place we could think of. But this year was different; this year, they said yes! We were moving to Europe… with a 2-year-old!
During the planning stages of our move, we slowly realized how many vacation days hubby would have. And how many school holidays the munchkin would have. It was crazy how often both would be available to go on vacation. But where are we going? We had never made a bucket list before, there was no need. We were never going to be able to afford to go to any of these places, so why write them down. Because luck changes and you need a bucket list ASAP, that’s why you write them down.
Life in Germany is not much different than life in Canada. We are both developed nations, the culture is very similar, the clothes and customs and food are very similar. The only problem was the language barrier and a few little things in the people’s mannerisms – but I soon learned that it was mostly a European thing and not a German thing – the people here are very forward. No one has the time or desire to be nice when nice isn’t needed. If you screwed up, they will tell you. If your kid screwed up, they will school your kid even if you are inches from the child. In Europe, they still believe in “it takes a village”, and this was the hardest part of moving here. No one was ignoring me anymore.
Like back home, no one is exploring their own backyard. My neighbours, my friends, they all kept telling me how they were visiting Egypt, or Italy, or Turkey. And no one was visiting France or Germany or Belgium. It was crazy how many places I had to tell them were right next door. I have written several articles with my fellow mommy-group in mind; this is where you can take your kids during the summer holiday.
Because no one was travelling in the near, it was hard to find ways to make travelling less expensive. After a year of trial and error, reading, researching and talking it out, we came up with a few strategies that have helped us greatly reduce the amount of money we spend on our vacation, and spend while on our vacation. Remember, it’s not just about the hotel and flights, it’s the stuff that comes along with it.
So how do we make travel affordable?
- Mico trips! We take many vacations, throughout the year. A long weekend here overnight stays there. Any time we have available that is not costing us vacation days, we are on the road and on vacation. While he doesn’t get paid off for not using his vacation days, so saving them isn’t an option for us, this strategy leads us to more economical options – listed below. We are checking off local attractions, cities, landmarks, off our list, while adding new ones every day. Never forget to explore your own backyard.
- Bridge days – Germans don’t move holidays to fit nicely on a calendar like we would back home. They are not neatly placed on a Friday or Monday. If a holiday is scheduled for a Thursday, then it’s on a Thursday… and everyone takes Friday off. A bridge day simply bridges two holidays together, like Thursday to Saturday. In some cases, even Wednesday to Saturday (never before the holiday, only after). We strategically spend his vacation days to line up with these holidays to get great deals on vacation destinations. Not every country, or even every German state, observes the same holidays – so maybe where we are going isn’t on a holiday and their prices are set to low-season.
- Hubby calls it “the circle of death”. Where ever is our destination of choice, Mont St Michel for example, we plan a route there and back along different paths and stay at various cities along the way. There were many beautiful towns that we had never heard of before planning that particular vacation. I mean, we have to come home eventually, might as well take a new way home and stop at each town on the way back.
- Hotel hopping – I am a large fan of this strategy. A home base is great if the day-trip is about 1-2 hours away. Much further than that and it starts to become fruitless for us; I am not spending more time on the train than I am at the destination. We spend a night in one hotel, like in Honfleur, do everything in that town, take a day trip or two around, then head out to the next location, Mont St Michel. On the way to Mont St Michel (since it is technically a day trip worthy spot but much too far and too much to do), we spent a few hours in Bayeux. We didn’t want to spend the night there but also didn’t want to miss it entirely.
- Shoulder season – while it may sound odd, we don’t vacation during the summer months. Europe is far too crowded, the prices are way too high, and the heat is just unbelievable. Plus, everyone at work is trying to book the same time off so we just don’t bother. We book the week before school starts for our holidays; this is the shoulder-season. Prices have dropped due to fewer crowds, the crowds are down because school is going to start soon, and the weather is amazing. We have done this 3 years in a row and it is marvellous. During the other 7 weeks of summer holidays (yes, munchkin only gets 8 weeks of summer holidays and that is more than enough to recharge his batteries), we do day trips. Explore the area, take the train to avoid traffic, and we can head out any day during the week when the crowds are at their lowest. Yes, hubby doesn’t get to join us on all of the trips but we try to only schedule places that he wouldn’t like – or at least, places he wouldn’t mind skipping.
- Plan ahead. We are known in our community for planning months in advance. While friends and coworkers may plan one or two months before their intended date, we plan 6-9 months ahead of time. With our booking.com account having reached Genius level – this means we use it very often and now earn 10% discount on many hotels, as well as free breakfast – there is no reason not to book in advance. Not only am I getting the rate discount for my account, but I have the pick of any hotel in the city. 1-2 months in advance and you are lucky if the only room available is the Penthouse suite at the Hilton. This also leads me to my next point…
- Booking.com Things book up quickly. Booking.com also allows me to cancel at the last minute, should I have a change of plans, without any fees. We did this once, heading towards our hotel in Heidelberg and suddenly decide we want to visit the city but spend the night in Triberg instead… so we cancel the hotel and book a new one. Since cancellation is free, there are a lot of openings a few days before the date but who plans a vacation with only a few days’ notice? Not I, that’s for sure.
- Saved vacation days. All those vacation days that we didn’t use in strategy #1, micro-trips, are being saved up for the two long vacations we take per year; Easter and Christmas. Munchkin gets 3 weeks off for each holiday and this is unique to his school for many reasons that aren’t important here. We want to take advantage of all this time off and go on a big vacation. We add all these strategies together – hotel hopping, the circle of death, booking.com and saved vacation days, and we get a whopper of a 2-week vacation. The final week of his holidays tend to line up with everyone else so this is the time we start to head home; as the crowds start to come in and the prices start to rise, we are already on our way out the door.
- Reduce unnecessary spending while on vacation. This goes for souvenirs and food. Keep the currency exchange rate in mind when picking somewhere to eat and keep souvenirs on a budget. On our vacations, we have a set limit of food spending per day; this can be spent however we want throughout the day, as long as the daily limit is not exceeded. It usually comes down to breakfast at the hotel, quick/cheap lunch, and nice dinner. If we want to cut our expenses, even more, we opt for a nice lunch and cheap dinner – since the lunch menu is always cheaper than the dinner menu, often times for the exact same dish and portion size. The children also share one adult menu or he gets a child menu and she shares with me, depending on the menu options. Snacks are always purchased at a grocery store, and are usually healthy fruits and vegetables instead of sweeties – not only is this a healthy option, but good foods tend to take longer to ingest, they keep you feeling fuller for longer, but also come in large enough quantities that one trip to the store gives enough snacks for a few days. Souvenirs are not reduced to our “collections” – I get a postcard, she gets a snow globe, he gets a magnet and the other he gets a novelty duck. Sometimes we buy a t-shirt, or cultural item from that destination, but souvenirs are kept to a minimum.
- Reduced luggage. By reducing the amount of luggage you bring on vacation, you are reducing your airline fees, maximizing your trunk space and optimizing your vacation sanity when looking for items in your suitcase. Reducing luggage also has the happy accident of preventing many from purchasing too much; if there is nowhere to safely store the item and bring it home, it simply can’t be purchased.
There you have it, my top 10 ways to save money while on vacation. Be sure to check out Tapped Out Travellers for more detailed explanations for these strategies and many more helpful times to reduce stress, maximize vacation time and stick to your vacation budget, all while having the greatest time of your life with your family and loved ones.
Check out these great tips for Economy Fliers, including Long Haul flight essentials from Practical Wanderlust.
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