European Family Vacation: 5 people, 22 days, under $5k. Really.
So, you want to take your family to Europe? Excellent. You’re not crazy — well, maybe a little. It’ll be an adventure, but don’t think the experience starts when you leave the house or board the plane.
You’re an intentional parent. Your adventure starts today, so make the most of it.
First, you need an excuse [maybe].
If you knew my wife and I, you wouldn’t think we’d wait for an excuse. We have consistently selected travel opportunities over socking cash away. Over the years, we’ve been blessed with more than a few unique opportunities to travel.
For this trip, we had an excuse: to celebrate the close of my doctoral studies.
Way back in 2010, I signed on for a PhD program at the University of Edinburgh. Our burgeoning family of 4 spent three incredible months in Scotland that summer to kick off the program. We loved those memories, and we were overdue for a return trip (or a first one for the youngest).
We work hard to infect our kids with the travel bug — with food, art, sport, and culture. The wall behind our dining table holds a gigantic IKEA map of the world, and our kids play “find that country/city/body of water” games almost daily.
When they learned we had a trip to Europe in the works, they lit up — so we got them involved.
Next, make a plan.
We had about three weeks to travel, and had to visit Edinburgh. Everything else was up for grabs. We also had a tight budget — under $5,000. Recap: 22 days, 5 people, total expense (including air) not to exceed $5k.
Step 1. Bookend the trip with airfare.
Someone put WowAir on my radar. They’re a low-cost carrier out of Iceland, and they offer a variety of European destinations with the option to stop-over in Iceland. We’d be flying out of LA, and after playing around with dates, we secured roundtrip to Edinburgh for just under $345 per person. There are other search options, and you really have to play around with dates to get the best rate (for example, check out justlyfly.com).
The catch? Luggage would be (very) limited to a small carry-on and a personal item.
Wifey accepted the challenge. I hit the purchase button.
We’d spend 5 days in Iceland on the front end of the trip, then have around 17 days anchored in Edinburgh.
Step 2. Dream about additional destinations.
We wanted about a week in Edinburgh, so we had ten days to play with and near endless options. Nearly every Western European capital popped into the discussion at some point. Here’s where the kids had their biggest impact.
What did they want to see?
We spent a week or two dreaming about all the possibilities. At the same time, I scoured the web for cheap flights, rail passes, and ferry tickets between the leading candidates. In the end, some combination of cheapest and most exciting won out.
We booked an overnight train from Edinburgh to London, a flight from London to Paris, and a flight from Paris to Edinburgh. With travel days locked in, we turned to lodging.
Step 3. Research fun stuff to do.
You’ve already started — with the pro/con lists — but now you have some focus. I skipped this stage completely, since wifey is the Research Queen. By the time we left, she had restaurants, museums, outings, and shows planned for the whole trip — all optional, of course.
All that planning made selecting accommodations simpler — we knew, roughly, what we wanted to prioritize on each leg of the trip.
Step 4. Lock in beds.
For us, this meant lots of time surfing AirBNB [affiliate link] for the perfect flat. Our itinerary landed us in 3 cities for more than 3 nights each (a tipping point for AirBNB value). We used hotel points to lock in our two nights in London, the overnight train saved us a night, and we booked a flat in Reykjavik, Paris, and Edinburgh.
AirBNB worked great. In each city we found a place with at least one room so mom and dad could play after the kids went to bed. In Iceland, we had a car, so a homestay on the outskirts of the capital worked. In Paris and Edinburgh, we found searched for flats in the city center, prioritizing walkability.
Locking in the right place took some time — lots of emails back and forth with different hosts. We negotiated a bit, and asked to squeeze our third child into a home listed for four. In the end, we made some new friends. Our Iceland hosts brought over toys for the kids, and our Edinburgh host shipped us a lost dolly.
Settling in for more than a couple of nights also helped each stage of the trip feel a bit more like home. I loved being able to wake up, drink some coffee, and plan the day while the kids journaled. In the evenings, we were able to put the kids to bed at a reasonable hour.
For the two of us, every night was date night, even if we couldn’t leave the flat.
Step 5. Network.
Once you know where you’ll be when, tell the world — or at least folks in the places you are going. We spent several days with an old college roommate and his family outside of Glasgow, and another day touring St. Andrews with former students. We also ran into old friends whose vacation overlapped ours. All these encounters made the trip even richer.
We also talked with folks who knew more than us. One of my co-workers grew up in Paris. She kindly mapped out several kid friendly sightseeing days — keeping terrain and transit in mind. Because of her recommendations, we enjoyed the world’s best ice cream.
Remember those super cheap tickets we purchased? Yep. No luggage. Wifey upped her packing game, and we made it work [we may have worn our jackets on the plane — layers anyone?].
The result nothing short of miraculous: four small bags and a backpack, each less than 10 lbs, for the five of us, for 22 days. We washed our clothes at each AirBNB stay, and wifey accessorized with extra scarfs and a few charity shop finds along the way.
Next, go. Lock the front door and go.
Then, it was time to go. We loaded up and headed to LAX. We had an amazing time. It would take me another thousand words to highlight all the adventures we had — and that still wouldn’t do the trip justice. We spelunked in Iceland, saw Aladdin in London, and experienced the election in Paris. Edinburgh felt like home — if we could, we’d spend a month or two there every year.
Last, remember together.
The best part about the trip — we still talk about it all the time. Our kids make learning connections we never would have expected — especially for art, history, geography, and literature. And we made it work on our budget, too. We pinched by eating in for most breakfasts and lunches, so we could splurge here and there for a broadway show or extravagant dinner.
In the end, the trip was worth every penny. Now we just need to save up for the next one. I think the kids earmarked Greece and Italy.
That was our trip, and it was one hell-of-an-adventure. Now, it’s your turn.
What are you waiting for? The market is flush with travel deals and folks are itching to go. Start planning your next adventure today!