HOW TO TRAVEL LONG-TERM ON A BUDGET with kids
Updated: Nov 10
People often ask and wonder, how can you afford to travel long-term as a family? No, we didn't win the lottery or receive an inheritance. For starters, we were fortunate enough to have profited from the Vancouver real estate market when we sold our home. While luck was certainly on our side, we also worked hard to pay off our mortgage during our 10 years of home ownership. Not having to pay rent or a mortgage while we travel lets our money go further.
(Below: Our old home before we sold it. Yes, we gave all that up for the love of travel!)
There are many travelers out there who are able to sustain a nomadic lifestyle with a steady flow of income. Perhaps one day we will get there! Our funds, however, are (for the time being) finite, so the longer we can make it stretch, the longer we can keep traveling. This motivates us to try harder to save money any way we can.
If you are not used to already being budget conscious in your daily life at home, then it might be more of a challenge to adapt to being a budget traveler. SAVING MONEY MEANS MAKING COMPROMISES, some of which you might not be willing or able to do. Through many mistakes made along the way, we have learned a lot from our past and present travels.
Below we share some of the best ways we save money when we travel. This includes specific tips on choosing destinations, finding cheap accomodation and transportation, money management tips, plus how to save on food, sightseeing and shopping.
(Note: Covid obviously complicates every aspect of travel, like entry restrictions, airfare prices, covid tests required for flying/entering a country, mandatory quarantine on arrival, etc. These tips were written, with the idea that one day, safe, "normal" travels will resume worldwide.)
Selecting your destination(s) will likely have the greatest impact on your budget. It does depend on where you are travelling from and how you will reach your destination. How much you spend once you get there will also impact how long you can stay there. For instance, our one month budget in Vietnam was just a little more than one week in Japan (this excludes flights and visa costs). Check out sites like nomadlist.com or numbeo.com, to give you a realistic idea of costs, and choose your destinations wisely.
Some people have specific bucket lists or places they have to see. But traveling cheaply means being FLEXIBLE and OPEN-MINDED. Consider destinations that were never on your radar or are less popular. Many Eastern European countries, for instance, have so much to offer, yet get often overlooked compared to the more popular Western European countries.
(Below: Laos, one of our favorite countries in South East Asia)
This is an obvious one, but AVOID TRAVELING IN PEAK SEASON, if you can. Check if there are any major national holidays and festivals when and where you are going. Prices will be inflated if demand is high.
QUALITY over QUANTITY. This one is tough because too often people have only a certain amount of vacation for the year and want to cover as much as possible during their limited time. The result is that they choose way too many countries or cities to visit. The places we've loved the most are often the places we've stayed the longest. The truth is, the more you travel, the less you care about how many countries you've been to. Slow versus fast travel is ONE OF THE BEST WAYS TO SAVE MONEY. In other words, if you are moving around less, you will save money on transportation as well as accommodation.
When researching where to go, it is worth taking into account the VISA COSTS. For example, Georgia allows Canadians, among other nationalities, to stay a whole year visa-free. Whereas, in an overall a cheap destination like Thailand, it cost us $335 CDN for a one month extension for a family of 4, after our initial free month on arrival (for Canadians). Costly tourist visa extensions in Vietnam during covid-19 was a big stressor, with prices as high as $145 USD per person, per month, which luckily we were able to avoid.
Many people are all about the cheap flights, since airfare will eat a large chunk of your budget. How much ACCOMMODATION COSTS, is also important because this will be the bulk of your expenditure once you get to your destination. You can do a quick search on airbnb, agoda, booking.com to see how much BEFORE choosing your destination. Even within the country, some cities can be very cheap compared to others. For instance, we found that accommodation in Danang, compared to touristy Hoi An is cheaper in Vietnam, even though they are only 30 mins drive away from each other.
If you are going to Europe, check the TOURIST TAX. It can be as high as 2-3 Euros per person, per night. Children are often exempt or pay half price. If you decide to stay a month, these costs add up. Even countries like Japan has an "accommodation tax" which is often separate from the hotel bill.
Staying in one country, or one city/town for at least a month will give you huge savings on lodging. We've had more than 60% in savings for one month's accommodations. If you stay at least 3 months, the discounts can be more significant. We stayed at a large, modern, 2 bedroom apartment in Dalat, Vietnam (photo above) for $600 CAD/ $440 USD a month. The nightly rate for this place can be over $100 CAD/ $73 USD, but staying a month ended up costing us only $22 CAD/ night (including utilities).
IF YOU ARE USING AIRBNB, always reach out to the host via private message first and see if they are willing to discount further, especially if you are staying for at least a month. Hosts appreciate being able to book off a whole month and we have found many are willing to come down on the price. It never hurts to ask, though your chances of getting discounts in developed countries are much lower. We've saved a lot of money by politely requesting a discount prior to booking.
Choosing a place within WALKING DISTANCE to sights, markets, and restaurants will save you on transport costs (and lower your carbon footprint). Your airbnb can be a super good deal, but if it's in the countryside and it means that you have to rent a car or take expensive taxis everywhere, then it may not be such a money saver after all. Below: ECOPARK in Hanoi may have been far from the Old Quarter, but we had access to free shuttle bus service all throughout the city.
If you JOIN EXPAT, TRAVEL OR PROPERTY GROUPS ON FACEBOOK, you can search and post what kind of place you are looking for. You can get a lot of deals messaged to you, giving you the opportunity to privately negotiate a better price. Avoid going through an agent. Third party reservation sites (like Booking, Agoda, & AirBnB) take a percentage of the price, so deal directly with the owners, whenever possible. If you can meet in person, even better.
When you are traveling as a family, your options can be limited as not all hotel/guesthouse rooms can sleep 4 people. If it seems like they only have rooms for singles and couples, contact the place directly to see if they can make special arrangements, like add a bed in a room, for instance, which might be cheaper than getting two rooms. In Muang Ngoi, we saved money by being able to sleep in one room with a mattress on the floor for the kids, instead of getting two rooms.
If you are an animal lover, consider housesitting as a means to save money on accommodation. Trustedhousitters.com is hugely popular, but it can be a bit competitive so it may take time, flexibility, patience and experience to build up your profile. There is also workaway.com, where you can have lodging and sometimes meals provided for in exchange for work, such as teaching english, farm work, etc. We have considered these options but we have found it can be more challenging (though not impossible) to find house-sitting and workaway opportunities when you have young children.
The best way to get deals on flights are 2 things: be flexible with WHERE and WHEN you want to travel. Signing up for alerts is a good idea. Clearing your cookies on your web browser may or may not help. Searching for flights on Google Chrome's "incognito mode" apparently can also help. Both are questionably effective, and personally, we haven't found a significant difference when doing so. However, we still do it, as it has occasionally actually saved us money.
Be sure to carefully check the airline's extra baggage fees and carry-on weight and size limits before your final booking. Some flights, especially budget airlines, may appear cheap at first glance, but additional charges such as check-in luggage, seat selection and meal purchases can add up.
Walk, and use local transportation like buses and the subway, if there is one. Look into metered taxi versus grab/uber or shuttle services and compare prices.
Taking a night train can save you on a night's accommodation, but keep in mind, this generally means you board late in the evening after checking out of your last hotel. It can make for a long, tiring day, especially if you have young kids. We took a night train in Thailand from Trang to Bangkok and paid a little extra for late check out from our hotel (photos below).
In general, we try to avoid night buses as much as possible.. When it comes to SAFETY, it is better not to cheap out. If there is a way to travel by train, we will always take this option over bus. If buses are the only option, we make sure that it is from a reputable, well-reviewed company.
Choose a credit card with ZERO FOREIGN TRANSACTION FEE. This is up to 3% of savings. FOR CANADIANS, as it stands, the only two credit card choices without this fee are HSBC World Elite Mastercard, and Home Trust Visa. The latter is our back up credit card. There is also a third option: The Rogers World Elite Mastercard charges you 2.5% on foreign transaction fees, but gives you 4% cash back on international purchases, so you still come out ahead by 1.5%. Only thing is, you have to ask for that cash to be credited into your account at the end of the year, or you can use it to buy Roger's products.
Even though your credit card may not charge you, the person/business making the transaction might, so always ask if there is a charge. Small independent businesses are more likely to add a surcharge compared to big chain supermarkets and restaurants. It is often an additional 2-3% of your total bill. It is worth comparing this fee with ATM withdrawal fees and see which is higher.
Choose a card that allows you to COLLECT POINTS, but read the fine print prior to committing, as some point systems are better than others, specifically for international travel. We chose HSBC WORLD ELITE MASTERCARD for our main credit card. Their points system is pretty generous, especially for travel expenses, and despite the annual fee (which is waived in the first year), it is still worth it as it also doesn't charge you for foreign transactions.
Use an app to track your travel budget. We use TRABEE POCKET. Very easy to use, and it converts your currencies so you can see how much you are spending in your home currency. The pie chart visual is also very handy. There is a free version without the pie, or you can upgrade for a one-time fee. Trail wallet is another popular choice, but only available on IOS. Below is a sample of Trabee for 3 weeks in Laos.
Research how much bank fees cost when withdrawing money from ATM's. There is a huge variation in local BANK FEES depending on which bank you withdraw your money from. Always try to get the maximum amount allowed.
Choose a bank card back home that has a low or NO FOREIGN ATM TRANSACTION FEE. For Canadians, at BMO for instance, if you upgrade to the premium plan, you can get unlimited foreign ATM transactions for free outside of Canada and the US. There is a $30 monthly fee that is waived if you have a minimum of $6000 in your chequing account. These savings may not sound like much, but $5 Cdn for each ATM transaction over the course of a year can be a lot of money, especially considering a lot of ATM's around the world have very low maximum withdrawal amounts.
(Above: Meticulously clean and organized supermarkets in South Korea)
EAT LOCAL or SELF CATER - It may seem as though self catering is always going to be cheaper than eating out. In parts of Europe and North America, getting an accommodation with kitchen facilities and cooking for yourself can increase your savings considerably. However, in many parts of Asia, like Thailand and Vietnam, eating out is often cheaper than cooking at home, which is kind of AWESOME. It helps to eat at local restaurants and avoid touristy places with english menus. Supermarkets, especially those that sell imported goods, are obviously higher priced than going to the wet markets and street stalls. For us, indulging in cheese while in Asia has been our biggest weakness! But when traveling long-term with kids, you have to allow yourself to make exceptions! It's all about that fine balance between budget, and comfort!
LEARN THE LANGUAGE at least enough to exchange a friendly greeting, ask basic questions and understand the numbers. They are less likely to overcharge if they think you've been here a while, and they will respect you for trying.
AVOID BUYING BEVERAGES at restaurants. Often times, they will offer free drinking water or tea, otherwise, we bring our own water bottle, like our 1L Nalgene, or our insulated LARQ BOTTLE, which has an attached UV filter. This is not only to save money, but to save plastic and be healthier.
Look for PROMOTIONAL OFFERS. We've eaten from 5 star restaurants at a fraction of the cost, due to covid-19 specials, and found lots of deals like "kids eat free", 2 for 1 meal deals, free drinks coupons, etc. We even stumbled upon a grand opening of a frozen yogurt place offering all treats at half price. Local facebook groups can be handy for that.
When staying in one place for a long time, you will get to know more restaurants and street vendors. Frequenting the local places with the better prices can save you a bundle.
Whether it's a UNESCO World Heritage site, or your favorite movie of all time was filmed there, it doesn't mean you need to see it. BE SELECTIVE with what you want to see and do. Just because everyone raves about it, doesn't mean you will love it too. Many sights can be overrated and a waste of money and time, especially if there are crowds and line ups.
IF YOU HAVE KIDS, you will know that they would rather spend the day at the beach or playground, which costs nothing, than go see ancient temples and museums. You don't ALL have to go everywhere together. If only one kid or adult wants to go and has a genuine interest in something, you don't have to drag everyone else too. In Japan, for instance, Owen wanted to go to the Samurai museum and Molly preferred to go window shopping, so we split up. (Also nice just to get the kids apart from each other once in a while!)
Research FREE outings like city parks, farmer's markets, playgrounds, temples, animal shelters, churches, beaches and hiking trails. For instance, there were lots of things to do with kids in Busan, Korea that were easy on the wallet.
If you do want to check out a paid sight, always try to FIND ONLINE DEALS FIRST. Paying at the entrance will almost always cost more than paying in advance. Check out the many apps available, like Klook and Traveloka.
The best way to curve those consumer urges is by traveling light. We realized from previous trips that many of the things we bought were not as precious as we thought and we eventually got rid of them. You don't have to travel carry-on if you feel that isn't do-able. Perhaps instead of a 70L pack, you can downsize to a 60L. The less room you have, you will be forced to buy less. We travel with 2 Eagle Creek Global Companion 40L backpacks (see FULL REVIEW) and 1 expandable 35L wheeled, Eagle Creek Load Warrior luggage.
In the beginning, our kids have had the hardest time resisting the urge to buy souvenirs and toys, but we started them on a small allowance and told them they would need to pay for these things with their own money. They also would need to be able to fit it in their backpacks and, of course, carry it. This has significantly reduced the number of requests to buy things, especially as their packs got heavier. With time, they have become more discerning in their purchases, and hopefully learning to become savers rather than spenders.
Bargaining is still very common in developing countries, especially in Asia. It is a learned skill that you get better at the longer you stay in a country and understand the standard prices. (Yet another reason to slow travel!) Learning some language basics is key. Our general rule is, pretty obvious, never buy the first thing you see. Always check a few places to compare prices. Most importantly, stay friendly, calm and respectful. Bargaining for us, isn't so much about saving a few bucks and getting the lowest price possible, but more about making sure we get a fair price and avoid getting royally ripped off.
While we acknowledge that we are profoundly privileged to be able to travel for as long as we have, traveling long term with kids is a lot more possible than most people think. We travel comfortably, but we are not luxury seekers by any means. It definitely takes effort every step of the way, and there are certainly compromises that need to be made. Is it worth it? ABSOLUTELY.