Traveling with a Large Family in Europe: Learn from Our Mistakes So You Stay on Budget

Booking flights, lodging and planning excursions for two weeks across 4 countries for one person can be taxing. Multiply that by 6 and you’ve got a small scale tour group on your hands! This is the challenge with planning large family travel like ours, but it is more than possible.

This was our first major trip outside of the States for our family. We spent nearly a year planning all the details of where to stay and what attractions to see. I enlisted the kids help by performing Google searches for their top attractions prioritizing them based upon length of time in country and cost. With 4 kids ranging from 17 to 9, you can only imagine the wide breath in what they selected. Some of the obvious ones like the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben were a given, but visiting the local video game arcade or London Museum of Water and Steam didn’t make it to the top of the list.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the trip for me is creating and managing the travel budget (don’t judge me…I’m know how weird that makes me). Large families like ours do not have an unlimited amount of funds so budget planning is essential. If you don’t watch things carefully, that credit card bill could come home to bite you a month or so after the trip. So I channel a combo of my inner Rick Steves, Dave Ramsey and Bear Grylls when embarking this necessary travel task.

Large Family Travel Budget Breakdown

There are five major budget categories you should monitor when planning your large family travel adventure:

Airfare

A general rule of thumb to follow is that airfare is usually at least 20% of your total international vacation expense. This will vary depending on where you live and how far you are planning to travel. Use $500 per plane ticket as your baseline and then explore ways to reduce your fare price from there. Flying roundtrip from one major metropolitan location can be the most cost effective, but you have to do your homework. We landed in London, but flew out of Amsterdam for this 2 week trip. Leveraging airline miles from credit card reward points combined with business travel, we managed to save 66% off of standard plane ticket prices!

Lodging

Since we travel 6 deep and the kids are too big to sneak under a coat (there’s no shame in our travel game), vacation rental services like AirBnB become your best friend. They offer a whole host of options from as low as $100 to as high as $1,000+ per night. The low end of the range can have hidden gems, but are usually based in areas further from the main attractions. Our family aims for the $250 per night rate which offers solid accommodation choices even at peak tourist seasons.

Local & Inter-Country Transportation

Public transportation in major European cities are quite efficient and relatively inexpensive. So as long as your rental home base is strategically located, this budget line item shouldn’t be a problem. Leveraging the inter-country rail system can also be economical if planned appropriately. We took trains from London to Paris, Paris to Brussels and Brussels to Amsterdam. All these major routes are serviced by Eurostar and Thalys high speed train service at fairly reasonable prices. We even had breakfast included with our 2 hour trip from Brussels to Amsterdam.

Meals

We aren’t a 4 course, caviar every meal type of family, but we do like to try new things. There are so many great restaurants through these lands, but the best aren’t necessarily the most expensive. We would frequent small cafes often for a light breakfast, juice and coffee.

Lunches could be had on the go from french fry stands in Holland (best fries I’ve ever tasted) to Argentinian steak sandwiches at Picadilly market in London. Dinner was where we’d spend the most money as we’d opt for nice sit down restaurants after a long day of walking. Taking advantage of the local grocery store for in-home meals can be the most-economical option by far. Either way, we figured $250 per day in food expense for the whole family.

Excursions

A number of iconic attractions are relatively inexpensive or even free to experience. Since this was my family’s first trip to Europe, we wanted to take in as much as possible which meant some experiences were high ticket tours.

For example, my wife loves dinner cruises with fine food and beautiful views from a unique vantage point. Dinner cruises are usually pretty pricey so we opted for a lunch cruise with the kids on the Seine River. It was a beautiful, sunny day passing by many of the top sites Paris has to offer. It was a 4 course lunch exposing us to some iconic French cuisine.

Still sounds pretty expensive you might say? It would have been if we didn’t leverage our credit card reward points. This is your secret weapon for keeping your large family travel budget in check. We had been saving the points up for a year giving us the opportunity to book a number of excursions at no cost. This saved us approximately $1,500!

Assessing the Damage

Armed with a solid, fiscally responsibility large family travel plan, we had one of the best vacation experiences trying new cuisine, seeing iconic landmarks, posting 100,000+ Fitbit steps and even uncovering my wife’s Dutch heritage.

Since I’m a little obsessed with hitting financial targets, I sat down the day after our return to the states to assess if I accomplished my mission…

  • Airfare and Lodging: These expenses were pre-booked so all good there.
  • Meals: Despite some surprises here and there, averaged $225 per day. Check!
  • Excursions: Even with adding higher ticket attractions like the London Eye, still hit the target.

Everything was looking on point until…I dug a little deeper into the transportation expenses. 100% over budget?!?! After the pulse slowed a bit and the shock wore off, I was able to find the main culprits that wreaked silent havoc on our large family travel budget.

Lessons Learned: How to Avoid our Missteps

Thalys Train to Netherlands

Inter-Country Rail – Last Minute Purchasing Mean Less in the Wallet

While we planned ahead on which days we’d travel between countries, I was wary of purchasing train tickets ahead of time in case something unforeseen occurred. This meant purchasing them a day or two before departure. I should have heeded the experts warning to book at least a month in advance. Not doing so cost us an extra 30-40%.

Booking at the last minute can give you a relative of amount of freedom, but in hindsight this really wasn’t necessary. Our AirBnBs were booked months in advance so we already knew the exact departure dates for each city. Taking a late morning or early afternoon ride would have given us sufficient wiggle room for later than anticipated check-outs. Major carriers will allow for last minute departure changes as well minimizing the impact of unexpected changes. Word to the wise…don’t let the fear of the unknown guide your travel plans as it may bite you in the wallet later.

Uber – Convenient, but Costly

While we did use low cost rail, bus and tram options, there were times when Uber XL became our friend…a little too much. In Paris, we Ubered back home after a 3 hour tour of the Louvre and a wonderful evening at the Eiffel Tower. This is understandable when the kids have walked for hours and it’s fairly late at night in an unfamiliar city. Where we got too comfortable with this option was during our stay in Brussels using the service to take us to our rental apartment as well as back and forth to certain venues.

Miscellaneous Expenses – The Hidden Budget Syphon

Air BnB offers the comforts of home, but some amenities aren’t included. Availability of the basics such as toilet paper, paper towels and cleaning supplies are inconsistent from place to place. This accumulated to an additional $250-$300 in unexpected expenses.

In the end, the trip was worth every penny and still saved around $3,000-$4,000 through rewards programs and excursion deals. But we will definitely be paying closer attention to these hidden expenses for our next trip. For a more in-depth look at our large family travel trip to each of the 4 cities, visit our posts below:

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