"Well, it must be nice to be rich," shouted a neighbor as she watched us piling into an airport taxi for yet another escape from home. We were running late so I didn't stop to argue. But we are definitely not a champagne-and-caviar family. We live in an old un-renovated house with few closets and temperamental plumbing. When it comes to travel, we hunt out bargains so that we can roam the globe without cashing in our college fund. And yet, we've managed to ride the canals in Venice, swim with stingrays in the Caribbean and eat seaside in Mexico. Here are a few ideas for easy-on-the-budget adventures:
- Try a Hostel
Today, friendly "youth hostel" accommodations aren't just for roaming backpackers. Many Hostelling International (HI) properties now offer family rooms that sleep up to five (or even six) and a warm family atmosphere. A big plus is that hostels also offer TV lounges, Internet access, games rooms with pool tables or video games, laundry facilities and often a cafe or cafeteria. Many offer airport shuttle services, local tours and activities such as wildlife watching or biking along parkland trails.
One example: a family room at Point Reyes Hostel in California, just two miles from the Point Reyes National Seashore. Rates start at $60 for a double bed and a trundle bed and bunks for kids. Become a member of Hostelling International ($28 for adults, kids 17 and under are free) and get an additional $3-per-adult discount along with coupons for buying with local merchants and future free stays. Visit www.hihostels.com to pick from hundreds of choices; from a hostel with family facilities in Niagara Falls to a cabin besides rushing Athabasca Falls in Jasper National Park, Alberta. But be warned: these family rooms are often so popular, it's good to book months ahead.
- Try a Home Swap
No payment for accommodation? That's correct- if you're swapping homes with another family. Pay a registration fee of between $100 and $200, and then you're free to contact members in other states and even countries around the world. If you swap with families who have kids the same ages as yours, you arrive to find age-appropriate bikes and toys. Some families also exchange cars and pets. Contact HomeLink International (www.homelink.org), Intervac (www.intervac.com) or the HomeExchange (www.HomeExchange.com) featured in the popular movie The Holiday. Kate Winslet swaps her English cottage for Cameron Diaz's L.A. palace, sans kids of course. We're waiting for the sequel.
- Rent an Entire Villa
For ultimate space and privacy, especially if you're vacationing as an intergenerational group or have a pack of kids, rent a villa or vacation home. It gives everyone breathing room, and will come equipped with everything you need. Ask for interior and exterior photos and google the property to make sure that your rental abode is not in the middle of nowhere (unless that's what you want!).
Sites such as www.homeaway.com and www.vacapedia.com make it easy by listing pet-friendly homes or best beachfront locations amongst thousands of choices. Friends recently used www.vrbo.com to rent houses on the ocean in Spain and in British Columbia for family vacations. They wanted to buy both for keeps! As for price? A Trekaroo family recently rented a five-bedroom house (that slept 13) for two weeks in Scottsdale, Arizona for $3,000. Crazy!
If you really can't fathom life in a tent with three children under five, opt for alternative park accommodations. Rent a cabin or canvas yurt. At Allegany State Park in New York State, for instance (named in 2007 as a Top "Amazing Spot" in the nation), each of the seven Fancher Cottages (located in the historic Quaker Area of the park) sleep six and offer bathroom with shower, furniture, appliances, pillows, bedding, cooking utensils, dishes and coffeemakers. Many KOA campgrounds have homey log cabin accommodations. Even some big cities have campgrounds within driving distance so you can see the sights and still sleep by a lake.
For Europe, check out www.canvasholidays.co.uk for inexpensive luxury tents with kitchen and loo. We toured Brittany this way with three kids ages three, five and seven. At one place, Madame came across the lawn of a château campground with chicken and fries under a silver dome.
Seeing the Sites:
- Take an inexpensive City Tour
We've had the most entertaining (and most eye-opening) tours on local public transportation. Ask tourist offices for the most scenic routes, or the routes where you can stop off with the kids to visit music stores, toy stores, or attractions. On the #506 Streetcar in Toronto for example, you'll travel the world from Little India in the east end to Little Italy in the west end and end up with a romp through the fabulous playground in High Park. In London, England, we took the double-decker that swings by Trafalgar Square. For pennies, you'll get a fabulous tour that's more authentic than a tourist ride.
- Friendly City Greeters
Have a local resident guide you through kid-friendly parks or neighborhoods. Many world cities now offer this free service: New York City (www.bigapplegreeter.com), Houston (www.houstongreeters.org), and Toronto (www.toronto.ca/tapto) among them. On a recent visit to New York City, our friendly Big Apple Greeter took us on a fun walk through Central Park with a stop at the kid-friendly sculpture garden of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. In Houston, our effervescent greeter took us to the children's library. In Toronto, we toured Little India for bangles and samosas.
- Go on a Picnic
Bring jars of peanut butter, dried fruit, crackers and other non-perishable staples for impromptu snacks. Once at your destination, sprint to the grocery store to stock up. Bring plastic bowls, cups, plates and extra utensils as well as cutlery for cutting bread, cheese or fruit. We've had great picnics in many foreign places and even airports.
- Memorable Souvenirs
Visit the post office for interesting stamps, the bank for coins and colorful paper money (some kids will spend hours with such collections) or collect shells from the beach, feathers and other found objects. My sons were ecstatic in Holland collecting artsy beer coasters and wrapped sugar cubes at every cafe.
For presents for folks back home, visit local grocery stores where the items may not be duty-free but are so much less than at expensive airport shops or specialty stores. In Brussels, we found wonderful Belgian chocolates at the local supermarket for half the price of those in the elegant windows of chocolatiers. We've brought home coffee and ginger beer from Jamaica, crepes and mustard in fancy jars from France and hot sauces from the Southern states - all purchased locally. The recipients were thrilled!
updated: April 29 2009 by katep