First of all, we have a travel budget. Rob and I both value travel and sharing experiences as a family, so when we go through all of our monthly expenses we make sure to set aside a regular amount for travel. Some years it has been a very tiny amount (like sleeping on an air mattress at a family member's house tiny) and other years we have dedicated more money to travel, as our finances and situation allow.
This post will look at destinations we have visited (or plan to soon visit) from our current home base near Wiesbaden, Germany. Maybe when we move back to the States again I will write about travel there.
Day-trips or pit-stops: These are places we can drive to in about 2-3 hours. When our kids were babies that was as far as we could get in the car before a meltdown or feeding. They are perfect for a day-trip, or as a place to stop for a few hours on the way to somewhere further out. These are the cheapest way to travel and explore not far from home.
Strasbourg or Colmar, France: I love that we can be in France in just a few hours and enjoy Alsatian food and French pastries while visiting cathedrals and castles.
Baden Baden: This is a spa town; Caracalla is for ages 7+ and people wear swimsuits, Friedrichsbad is 14+ and nude.
Heidelberg: Castle ruins and downtown shopping
Rhine River cruise, Bacharach, Burg Rheinfels: The Rhine River cruise is especially nice for people with limited mobility. We prefer to ride just one direction, then take the train back. (The ride coming back upstream is slooooow.)
Burg Eltz (and other castles): One of my favorite castles in all of Europe!
Michelstadt: Little medieval walled town with an intact wall, toy museum, adorable Rathaus, and lovely Christmas market.
Trier: This wasn't one of our favorite spots, but it is very historical and a lot of people love it... maybe we were just having an off day or something.
Worms: Birthplace of the Lutheran Reformation.
Aachen: One of my favorite cathedrals in Europe, the diminutive Aachener Dom. Also burial place of Charlemagne.
Ulm: Home of the Ulm Minster- the tallest cathedral in the world (until Sagrada Familia is completed.)
Rothenburg ob der Tauber: Probably the most famous walled medieval town in Germany.
Cologne: I know there is more to see in Cologne than the cathedral, but the cathedral alone made it worth the drive.
Barefoot Park: This is a uniquely German past-time and so much fun with the kids!
Long weekend driving trips:
Not having to buy airfare significantly reduces the cost of traveling. These are places near enough that it makes sense to drive there even if we are only staying for a few days.
Black Forest camping trip: Our family likes camping, and this can be a great way to travel for less. We loved the Black Forest area.
Luxembourg camping trip: This is one we haven't done yet, but plan to soon.
Garmisch: The first time we lived in Germany we never visited Garmisch, but this time around we have visited there repeatedly. It has become our favorite spot for an actual relaxing vacation- with some skiing and sight-seeing on the side.
Normandy, France: We loved seeing Mont St. Michel, but many people come to this area just for the WWII sights. There is a ton to see and do here, and we get to eat French pastries- my favorite.
Legoland: The kids just love this. We have gone maybe 3 times now? I just look for the overnight deal on their website- one night's stay in their theme cottages, including breakfast, with park tickets for 2 days. It costs less than park tickets alone.
Berlin: It took us a long time to actually visit Berlin, but when we finally did we really liked it. The city is very easy to navigate and full of interesting history and iconic monuments.
Dresden: The Dresden Christmas market might be my very favorite in all of Germany. I'm sure the city is lovely to visit year round, but I am so glad we went during the Christmas market! We also love awesome outdoor sights, and nearby Bastei Bridge was one of those for sure.
Munich and Dachau: We loved the Englischer Garten and Biergarten and walking in downtown Munich. Nearby Dachau Concentration Camp may be difficult to explain to small children, but I think it is an important part of history and was worth the effort and emotional toll to visit.
Paris, France: Okay, maybe Paris isn't exactly cheap. But with a large family, it is cheaper to drive there than to fly. We also make it more affordable by taking the metro or walking within the city, staying in an airbnb, and if visiting a LOT of sights, getting the citypass. I can't even believe it myself, but I have now been to Paris four times. Once with my nephew (in my mid-20s, backpacking,) once as a family with 2 kids (driving,) once with some mommy friends (flying,) and once with just Charlotte (by train.) I think Paris is totally do-able on a budget.
Bruges, Belgium: Ohhh just thinking of Bruges makes me miss the daffodils, waffles, fries, and beautiful buildings.
Amsterdam & Keukenhof, The Netherlands: Amsterdam was a very expensive place to visit, so why is it on this list? We were able to see the highlights of Amsterdam in one well-planned day and two nights. We stopped to see Keukenhof (early, before the crowds) on our way home on day two, and we had an unforgettable mini-break. And it saves money to visit both sights in two days rather than taking two separate trips.
(Our kids look forward to road trips because we usually stop at least once for McDonald's. We generally don't eat McDonald's except for when we are traveling.)
Extended road trips: These trips are more involved, longer, and require more planning. But again, because we are not buying plane tickets, we are able to see many more places for our money.
Venice and Slovenia: Venice is expensive. Using it as a one-two night stop on our way to much more affordable Slovenia means that we got to experience it for less cost. Slovenia was fantastic! Lake Bled, green cities, caves, and castles ... we loved it.
Eastern European Road Trip: this was the first BIG road trip I ever planned for our family. We visited 7 cities in 8 days: Nuremberg, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Vienna, Hallstadt, and Salzburg. Again, we couldn't afford to visit all of these places if we tried to go to them individually, but by stringing them together on a road trip we could get much more travel bang for our buck.
Ireland Road Trip: We did fly to Ireland and rent a car there, but because Ireland is on the Euro and costs are lower there, this trip was less expensive than our similar British road trip which had no airfare or car rental expenses.
Northern Italy Road Trip: There are so many places that we wanted to see in Northern Italy, that a road trip made the most sense. Cinque Terre, Pisa, Florence, and Milan. The toll roads in Italy were a killer- they add up fast! But overall, this was still an affordable 9 day trip.
Less expensive destinations to fly to: These are some places that we have visited (or will visit) by flying. We either think it is too far to drive, or airfare is inexpensive, or a combination of the two.
Rome: As far as MAJOR European cities go, I think Rome was one of the cheapest for us to visit. It is very walkable, food is affordable, and we flew on Ryanair.
Croatia: We also flew to Croatia on Ryanair, and stayed at a family campground type of resort which was much cheaper than a hotel. We did a few tour group type things there because we didn't have a car, but it is such an affordable destination that it was totally within our budget to do that. Plitvice Lakes is still one of our favorite places we have ever seen.
Greece: This is one we have planned for 2018. Greece's economy is pretty weak right now, which makes it a travel bargain. We are going to do a Mediterranean Cruise (with MSC budget cruise line) and visit Athens, Olympia, Santorini, and Corfu, as well as Brindisi, Italy and Kotor, Montenegro. I think a budget cruise can be a great way to see a lot of places.
Iberian islands like Ibiza or Mallorca: Now, Ibiza wasn't really a kid friendly destination, but Rob and I enjoyed it and it was an affordable anniversary trip. We plan to visit Mallorca with all of the kids before we leave Germany and have heard great things about it's history, beaches, and other sights.
Barcelona: I think Spain and Portugal are both affordable places to fly to and to stay, but so far we have only made it to Barcelona. We flew on Lufthansa (which is a nice airline) and I think our tickets were less than $90 each. We also stayed in a nice apartment just a few blocks from the beach and it was very inexpensive.
Splurges: When I was a kid and people would ask, "If you could go anywhere in the world..." I would always answer London. Of all of the places we have visited, Rob feels like Iceland just speaks to him. Sometimes the place that you MOST want to visit is not budget friendly, but if it is the place you MOST want to visit, than it is worth saving for. These are some of those places for us, and how we tried to keep the costs down.
London: We only spent 3 days in London when we went, because that was all we could afford. We flew on Ryanair, and stayed (then we were a family of 4) in a very small hotel room that included breakfast. We took public transit and walked everywhere. This was also a celebration of our 4th anniversary. I LOVED IT.
Iceland: We traveled to Iceland on our way to the US to visit family. Icelandair allowed a free stopover which meant that we didn't have to pay airfare to get there. Once there, we rented a car and stayed in a cabin out of the main city. We bought groceries and had breakfast and dinner at the cabin and only ate out for lunch. We also traveled during the off-season in October which meant less crowds and lower prices.
Anywhere in Scandinavia: Rob and I both really wanted to visit some of the Nordic countries. I priced a trip to Norway the first time we lived in Germany (to see the famous fjords) and we decided we couldn't afford it. Living here the second time we finally made that trip to Norway by doing the super fast Norway in a Nutshell route, and by staying at a campground for a few nights. We also splurged on a Baltic Cruise (on budget cruise line MSC) which allowed us to visit Copenhagen, Stockholm, Tallinn, and St. Petersburg for less than we could have traveled to one of those destinations. (Though it was still a big trip cost-wise.) In 2018, Rob and I are planning to visit Finnish Lapland, without the kids, and do some bucket list items that they could not participate in.
Great British Road Trip: Rob has talked for years about the Isle of Skye and wanting to go there. I just could not figure an affordable way for us to do that... except as part of a bigger road trip. This was our longest (15 days) and most expensive European adventure, but we did it as cheaply as possible (driving our own car, staying in airbnbs, doing laundry along the way, buying groceries, etc) and I have no regrets. It was worth every penny to get to Bath, Windsor, the Lake District, Wales, Skye, the Scottish Highlands, Loch Ness, Edinburgh, and so on. Sometimes, it is worth the splurge.