International travel can be intimidating, with so many factors and the expense of it all feeling so far out of reach. I am here to tell you to that if we can do it with a family of 7, so can you! It does take planning, some squirreling away of funds, lots of research, flexibility and ingenuity, but it can be done.
We began looking into taking a family vacation, hoping to visit NYC or DC with our five kids. Flight prices seemed exorbitant and when comparing them to international flights, I couldn’t justify spending MORE money to visit NYC than to visit Paris or Munich.
So, we began researching POI’s and things to do in various international cities that were the same price or cheaper than airfare/hotel/cost of living to NYC. And boy did we score some insane deals along the way and learned many lessons- some by sheer luck and others the hard way.
With the right mentality and preparation, international travel is as affordable, or often times MORE affordable, than traveling to big cities in the US. I am hoping these tips below can save you time, money and some legwork when planning your trip.
Tip#1: Purchasing flights requires research, and please whatever you do, do NOT purchase directly through the airline. That is just old school.
Some of our favorite websites to purchase airfare are Skyskanner, Justfly.com, Kayak.com, Hopper.com, Google Flights, and for international intra-country – EasyJet. We began looking around about a month before we purchased our flights, getting a feel for trends in pricing and availability. Once we determined what a ‘normal’ price for our desired itinerary looked like, we were able to keep our finger on the pulse until a crazy deal hit. Once it did, we booked immediately. We booked our flights about 8 months in advance. I have also heard that if you book last minute there are also deals, but I think that would require more flexibility than we were able to afford on this trip. I signed up for alerts on all of the aforementioned websites for our desired itinerary, which I received almost daily and actually explored almost daily. Once we did finally book our flight, we paid about $521 roundtrip in and out of Paris (this included insurance), with connecting flights Paris-Krakow ($59/each), Krakow to Munich ($80/each) and finally from Munich back to Paris ($80/each). This seemed like the cheaper way to go, and we didn’t mind the extra day in Paris. Honestly, going back, I would say pay the extra $215 up front and create a multi city itinerary so you do not have to take that last flight right before your fight home. We just recently secured a multi city itinerary into Paris and out of Berlin for about $515/person. I think since we booked on a Tuesday and in December for the following November, we just got lucky. I followed the same processes and flight prices had been up closer to the $600-700 range per person. I almost did not book them, and glad I did, because prices have increased again. I also monitor the flight prices for a few weeks and months after we book, to see if we truly did get the best deal and to continue to examine flight price trends and so far, so good. Make finding a great deal on airfare your JOB! It will be well worth it in the end.
Tip #2: Red Eye flights FTW!
If you don’t already know this, always plan to arrive to your destination as early as possible in the morning, to avoid losing that day of travel. We landed in Paris at 11am and it took us over 2 hours to get from the airport to city center, due to purchasing train tickets, waiting for our train and also train delays once en route. Our next trip, we arrive in country at 7:55am, so that will give us time to get to the hotel and still have a full day of sightseeing. Once you land and get situated, DO NOT STOP! I repeat, do not stop. Do not try to nap or get rest of any kind. This day needs to be full and long, ending with a late dinner and even dessert to keep you up as late as possible. This will allow you to adjust to the time difference almost overnight.
Tip #3: Kosher Meals are a big DON’T!
We also read and had been told by numerous sources that if you preorder Kosher meals for your flight, it will likely be better food and better quality. Big FAIL! First of all, each meal was served with an attendant basically running up the aisle yelling “SPECIAL BREAKFAST (or lunch)” at us whether we were awake or not. Not a pleasant delivery. Then, the meals were actually sad. Lots of mediterranean style couscous, parsley salads, no meat, and the airline had the nerve to serve us FISH on our last flight home. FISH?!?! Who does that? My hubby swears it was pretty good, I wouldn’t even open mine. Microwaved fish gives me the chills. So needless to say, do not choose a Kosher meal when flying international. We regretted it big time.
Tip #4: Try on every outfit, down to accessories, before packing.
We were going to be gone for 10 days with varying weather, one themed event, and two travel days. Here was the breakdown of what I packed:
2 pairs of jeans – both skinny
1 cute statement skirt
1 pair of denim overalls
3 t -shirts – 1 plain, 2 with details such as phrases or neckline details
2 button up shirts – one chambray, one white
1 white ruffle/eyelet top
1 cream silk camisole
1 grey wool blazer
1 denim jacket
1 cardigan sweater
1 utility/khaki jacket
1 pair of black ankle booties (These are super comfortable and have been tried and true – DO NOT GAMBLE ON A NEW PAIR OF SHOES!)
1 pair of adidas sneakers
1 pair of leggings
1 hooded sweatshirt
(Then the obvious – 2 pair of pajamas, 9 pair of underwear, 5 bras, 8 pairs of socks, travel size toiletries, minimal makeup, razor, medicines we may need.)
I wore everything I packed, and was able to switch tshirt/outerwear combinations to refresh my outfit and feel put together. The trick was to try every outfit on before it was packed.
Also- I was specific when choosing outfits – knowing which outfit went with which occasion. For the day we went to the Underground Wielickza Salt Mine, I wore my hoodie to keep warm, to Paris I wore my statement skirt with denim jacket. Every outfit was planned out to the day, and I pretty much stuck to the plan.
I also carried a backpack (linked here) to carry books, magazines and chapstick/essentials on the plane. Inside of my backpack, I stuffed my little travel purse which carried my passport/wallet/money, etc. This was PERFECT for when we reached the hotel room, I could dump my backpack and still have a purse to carry around my identification and wallet without carrying a bulky backpack.
Tip #5: Avoid checking bags by attempting to carry everything on.
At one point we each had a backpack, a carryon sized suitcase and a bag of souveniers/food that we were carrying. Though our cheap/economy flights were Carryon only, we went straight to the gate to with hopes of boarding with everything. I was stopped once at the gate and forced to check my carryon suitcase, but at NO CHARGE! Also, on our way home, one carryon was overweight and instead of checking it upon checking in, we took it through security. Unfortunately, due to the flight being pretty full, the porters were weighing and confirming size of carryon bags. Our carryon was overweight and we were sent back to check it, at the check-in counter. Because we did not check the bag initially, we did not have to pay the 50euro fee per bag. I am not sure if we got lucky or not, at one point my hubby was not happy that I just didn’t check the bags to begin with. My motto is worst case scenario, you will have to pay for the checked bag, but I will go as far as I can without paying. Make sure you get to the airport with plenty of time if you are trying to sneak a bag on.
Tip #6: Make sure you have local currency.
Everything we read and heard led us to believe that plastic was as good as cash, and it was actually better to use debit/credit cards for the exchange rate. This was a big FALSE! Not having cash in local currency affects your ability to tip among other things. We landed and panicked that we had no euros. At the airport in Paris, the ATM was actually out of Euro! We were unable to get any cash from the bank. Also, the exchange window had a long line and a less than speedy employee, so we had to wait about 45 minutes to get cash from the exchange window. We always found ourselves struggling to grab cash last minute and usually had to pay a higher exchange rate to do so. I recommend grabbing $100USD in converted currency before your trip, just in case. As far as using our debit card, yes it was convenient and yes we did receive the current exchange rate which kept getting better as our trip progressed.
Tip #7: Buy all the things.
Though we purchased plenty of goodies, there were things we passed up and wish we hadn’t. We were so concerned about space that we actually did not buy as many souvenirs as we wished. Yes we were short on space, but these are things you can’t get in USA, and if you love it, buy it and make space. Worth it. We did manage to purchase some french children’s books and magazines (I am obsessed with children’s literature), a book from Auschwitz, traditional bavarian outfits for Oktoberfest, I found a vintage military coat I had to have, various keychains, pins, patches, a german hat, and some french hand sanitizer and lotion. We definitely didn’t go without. Its just so fun to have products and items from your travels to keep around your home to remember your adventures. Our favorite souvenirs, by far, are photographs and memories.
Tip #8: Things are not as expensive as they are made out to be.
From everything we had read, vlogs we watched, travel books, friends advice, we were prepared to find things to be outrageously priced. Krakow we knew was going to be cheaper since the dollar to the zloty was very strong, and that proved to be true. Munich, however, we found to be very affordable. Prices were similar to US or sometimes even a little cheaper. Food, beverages, coffee were all cheaper than US. We were pleasantly surprised to see we could eat, drink and be merry during our trip and not feel like we were breaking the bank to enjoy ourselves. Liters of beer were around $11 US, large soft pretzels were around $4 US, meals were around $13-14US for delicious authentic German food, hotel for (4) people was around $350US per night. I will say, as far as hotels, we chose the more expensive experiences in the cheaper countries (Poland) and sort of went bare bones on things like hotel and transportation in the more expensive cities (Paris and Munich). Overall, we found prices to be on par or cheaper than we pay everyday in the US. ****Side note, we live in the Bay Area, so that may have something to do with being accustomed to high prices
Tip #9: Plan your daily itinerary, but be flexible
I used travefy.com to plan an itinerary in each city around major attractions, treats, experiences, stores, meals, etc. I was able to plot the points on a map and create a walking route that would give us directions and create the most efficient route to see all we wanted to see. This was huge and helped give me an idea of transportation time, make a thoughtful plan, also I was able to determine hours of operation for businesses we hoped to visit, ensuring we weren’t wasting time heading toward a location that was closed. The only fail was when we headed to the Catacombs, they were closed for renovation and I could not find this closure ANYWHERE on the inter webs. Travefy.com or similar sites will help you create your dream trip and ensure you won’t miss anything! However on the flip side, if you don’t make it to everything, this allows you to skip over beats you may not have time for. Having a running list of “things to do” and crossing them off as you go, helps make the most of your time abroad.
Tip #10: Plan to return from your trip on a Friday or Saturday, so you have at least one day before real life resumes
We actually did not do this on our trip. We came home on Sunday, landed at 1pm and were home by 3. This gave us a mere few hours to rest before the week began and we were thrown back into relentless routines. It would have been amazing to have an extra day to lounge around and ease back into life as we know it. Definitely lesson learned.
So there you have it, our advice from experience that we hope can help equip you for an adventure abroad!
Stay tuned and follow along @coolkidenterprises on Instagram as we take you along on our adventures!