How we planned our European trip on a budget

This winter, the Pit Stops for Kids crew will be heading to France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy. Our entire trip has been planned with budget in mind, by necessity! If your family, like ours, wants to plan a European trip on a budget, we have tips below!


We will travel in an off-season.

Yes, Paris in springtime is lovely, and Scandinavia in the summer is just about perfect. But airfare and lodging prices soar during peak time periods. Everyone knows that when on a budget, one of the easiest ways to save money is to travel in the off-season, but with kids in school and sports, we know this is easier said than done. Think outside the box: I was surprised to learn that if booked far enough in advance, the Christmas holiday season was very affordable, with cheaper airfare than in spring. We were able to book a trip that didn’t force the kids to miss any school days but still fell into a budget season period.

If you do book a winter holiday trip, go with the flow of the Christmas and New Years’ holidays, taking advantage of special events and offerings. Instead of lamenting that you won’t be able to have the exact same trip you’d have in June or July, look for festivals, religious ceremonies, and celebrations that are unique to this festive season. For instance, I was bummed we wouldn’t be hiking in the Dutch countryside during our December trip, until I realized we’d be able to experience Belgium’s famous Christmas markets.

We finalized our travel dates around the best airfare.

Instead of deciding on our exact travel dates, then finding airfare to work around them, we kept our departure dates loose and finalized them around the most affordable airfare. This allowed us to use calendar tools on airline websites to find the cheapest fare within a 3-4 day window, each way. For example, for the Alitalia flight we booked from San Francisco to Paris, the price was $200 less if we flew on a Thursday rather than a Friday. On our return, flying on New Year’s Day is significantly less than flying the day after. Read how to find the lowest airfare for any trip.

We booked apartments instead of hotel rooms.

Hotel rooms are hard to come by economically for a family of five in major European cities. Instead of trying to cram into a room or booking two rooms per night for our family, we are using HomeAway and AirBnB vacation rentals. We enjoy booking directly from locals, because they can often give us extra tips and hints for our city travels, recommend restaurants, and give us directions to grocery stores. We’ve never had any problems booking through the above sites. Here’s an example of our savings:

  • Paris mid-range hotel room that sleeps 3: $200/night ($2,000 total for two rooms for five nights)
  • Paris apartment rental that sleeps 5: $100/night ($550 total for five nights including taxes and fees)

We priced lodging, transportation, and tours a la carte.

It can be easier to book lodging and tours in one package from a number of tour operators, but we dislike large group tours and don’t want to stay in hotels that cater to large groups. Instead, we booked individual tours in both Rome and Paris. (We’ll be touring with Fat Tire Tours and Overome.) While this seems like an extravagance, it’s actually less costly because we’ve gotten our lodging for a good price, and we’ll have the benefit of touring in a much smaller group.

We opted for longer stays per location.

Instead of giving into the temptation of changing location every few days, which would bump our transportation and lodging costs considerably, we have opted to stay overnight in only three locations over 15 days. This gives us time to fully explore each area, and keeps our lodging costs as low as possible (five nights in an apartment rental is far cheaper than five separate nights in five different accommodations). We can also forgo Eurail type ticket packages in favor of one-time fares because we won’t be taking trains very often.

We price compared trains vs planes.

Once our transatlantic flight plans were set, we needed to figure out how we’d travel from city to city within Europe. Don’t assume train travel will be cheaper than airfare. For our travel from Paris to nearby Belgium, the train was our best option, but leaving Brussels, it was far cheaper to grab a flight on an economy airline to Rome than to take the train to nearby London, for instance. We are using EasyJet and RyanAir for our internal flights. These airlines are bare bones, but for short flights, we’re willing to make this sacrifice.

We’re not renting a car.

Car rental in Europe can get expensive, as it can anywhere. We will be buying prepaid metro tickets for each major city we’re visiting, and will be relying on bus and train schedules everywhere we go. Would driving a car be more efficient? Sure, but we’re happy to see the sights in a more leisurely manner via public transit for the tradeoff of not having to navigate roads. Be sure to budget for public transit, and note that if you have anything larger than a family of four, taxi cabs will not likely be economical. Note: the only exception to our public transit rule will upon our arrival in Paris. After a long transatlantic journey, we know we’ll be tired. I opted for a private town car to pick us up at the airport and deliver us to our apartment. This ‘luxury’ costs less than getting two taxi cabs. (We’re using Blacklane.)

We’re eating street food and shopping in grocery stores.

For us, having our own kitchen in each of our apartment rentals just makes more sense than eating every meal out. While we will certainly eat some meals in restaurants, we plan to enjoy the multicultural experience of shopping in local grocery stores and making our own meals. When we booked our apartments, we looked for rentals with grocery stores within walking distance. For lunches, when we’ll be out in cities exploring, we plan to buy foods at delis and stores for picnics and try street foods in cities.