Traveling light and on the cheap

Who says you need a lot of money to travel? To have adventure and experience nature's beauty?

One of our family goals is to experience natural beauty and adventure and to encourage other families to do the same. But a real barrier for people is the cost of accommodations and simply getting from point A to B with children. After all, you need a van with a monthly payment when you have kids. Don't you??

You'll have to forgive my sarcasm I just get so very tired of the pervasive and destructive North American belief that a small to mid-sized family requires a large vehicle with a large trunk, large gas tank and large price tag.

Cost is a real travel concern so let me share something with you; our family took 5 separate trips this past summer with a budget of $500 ($100/trip).

I don't like to talk hard cash very often because people squirm at the mention of money and what's cheap to some is expensive for others and I don't like the comparison game. But as far as our family is concerned 3-4 nights away from home in a beautiful place for 100 bucks total for 5 people is a good deal.

Trips we took:

How we did this:

  1. We own a tent, the best investment we have ever made in traveling light. We can take our accommodation with us anywhere: campgrounds, farmer's fields or into the backcountry. I wrote a whole post on the subject of tent travel on our adventure blog. If you want to travel on the cheap with children you really should consider tenting. Our biggest summer travel expenses are the site fees for campgrounds which average $20/night. Still cheaper than any other option. If you avoid campgrounds and are willing to set up camp in the National Forests with no services you can go places for free.
  2. We pack all our food at home ahead of time, and it's paid for out of the monthly grocery budget. Lots of work - yes, but well worth the investment of time (easy for me to say since Damien does most of this work).
  3. We save gas money each month for trips. We have a set amount of money we spend on gas each week. Our budget is a little higher than the actual cost so every month we are able to save some gas money for trips.

Accommodations, food & gas - what else is there? We go places to experience the natural beauty so we don't spend money on touristy type things except for the occasional soda or latte.

While we're on the subject of going places with children I'd like to point you to Damien's latest article, Going Light.

Going light for us means having adventures with our 3 children in our 16 year old car, taking only what we need and teaching our kids you don't need a bunch of stuff to enjoy life. Really, you don't (except maybe a good tent and a nice camera).

The next travel adventure we are planning is a trip after Christmas that involves CouchSurfing and hostel stays. I can't wait. I'll also add this; you are welcome to stay in our home or pitch your tent in our back yard if you are traveling to Maine. We won't even charge you a $20 site fee!

What about you? How does your family travel on the cheap? Please share so we can learn from each other.

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  • Candelion

    Candelion on Nov. 2, 2009, 11:18 p.m.

    My family has always tried to stay with family-friends or relatives when we go anywhere... Unfortunately, my mother has never liked camping or anything to do with tents. I will own tent someday.. So, we try to stick to our connections. We don't always have a one, but when we do, you can bet that their floor will be covered by our masses ;) In fact, my mom and I are trying to plan a trip to the Grand Canyon this Christmas where we will stay with some friends in Flagstaff. My siblings and I have never been, and I've heard that the canyon is absolutely gorgeous with snow. We normally like to go on hikes and stay away from buying things also, but I don't know if I'll be able to resist paying to go on the glass look-out deck. It sounds pretty awesome, but I'll decide if I want to shell out the forty dollars when we get there.


  • Naomi

    Naomi on Nov. 3, 2009, 12:50 a.m.

    I am SO with you on the car thing. Glen and I really felt bad about getting a loan (however small it is) to get our current vehicle, and only did so because we had already been borrowing a vehicle for a few weeks with less and less hope of getting our 15 year old minivan back on the road. Anyway, we have budgeted paying it off quickly - debt is not good for anyone!

    As for cheap travel with families, we love taking day trips to go on adventures with our kids. We haven't managed any overnighters yet, but I'm really looking forward to kids being out of diapers (which will be a while, seeing as I'm pregnant again, lol) so we can be more adventurous.

    In the meantime, Glen and I love to share stories about our inexpensive trip to Ireland for our honeymoon. 11 days for two in under $2,000, including airfare, accomodations, food, and bus fares. I shopped for quite a while before I found really cheap airplane tickets, and we mostly stayed in private rooms at hostels. Not the high life, but we were there for the scenery anyway. If you ever go to Ireland, which I'm sure your whole family would love, you HAVE to go to the Killarney national park. We spent two days walking through the woods, climbing a mountain, seeing a waterfall, visiting a castle, and walking around a HUGE lake, all in this park, it was amazing. Glen took some really good pictures if you're ever interested in dreaming! I hope someday we can take the kids there too, but obviously it will cost a bit more with additional seats on an airplane, so it will take a bit more budgeting.

    Long story short, I love cheap adventures!


  • Naomi

    Naomi on Nov. 3, 2009, 12:51 a.m.

    Oh, and we had considered just bringing a tent and skipping the hostels, but seeing as we were going in December we weren't sure how well that would work. Maybe next time!


  • shelli

    shelli on Nov. 3, 2009, 1:32 a.m.

    I very much admire you and agree! I would love to do the tent thing, but I married someone who is not into roughing it at all. So, we don't take vacations. However, I think when the kids get bigger we'll do more day trips to the mountains. And we'll take longer trips when we can afford it. Though we'd never sacrifice our savings for vacations as I know people who do.

    We would like a bigger car, but we're going to get by with my Matrix for as long as possible. My hubby has a civic. We both feel that you should buy the most reliable cars possible and then keep them until they die!


  • Spring

    Spring on Nov. 3, 2009, 3:12 a.m.

    I have to admit we do have "one of those" big vehicles that drinks its share of gas. (Not a full size SUV, but next step down). BUT, being musicians, who cart 88-key (full sized) keyboards, guitars and drums, AND 3 kids, around on a weekly basis, we can't get by without it. We DID, however, make sure Rich's "new" car (an '86 BMW) is a 5 seat-er, so we can bop around in that when we don't need the tank for gear. And of course, for his 1-hour commute!

    Spring's last blog post... I am So Spoiled!


    • renee

      renee on Nov. 3, 2009, 12:07 p.m.

      I wasn't referring to you Spring! You have extenuating circumstances - instruments. But people with just the kiddos don't need a bigger vehicle just for the sake of the kids. Yikes, I always worry about speaking my convictions on this topic because I don't want to offend friends.


  • Denise

    Denise on Nov. 3, 2009, 3:25 a.m.

    i'll have to save a lot of gas money to make it all to Maine but something tells me it will be worth it. We've had the same tent for about 10 years. It works just fine!


  • nicola@which name?

    nicola@which name? on Nov. 3, 2009, 3:41 a.m.

    excellent post! we have enjoyed tent camping, too, but not nearly enough considering how much we did pre-kids. currently, we've done more (to use that obnoxious made up new word) staycationing. there is so much to see and do around here that we don't always normally have time to enjoy as a family. i have stayed in hostels A LOT. they are wonderful, but as a family (we did this a fair amount when i was a kid), it was a bit harder, although you can request family rooms at many hostels. in some, the stay includes breakfast. in most, you can bring and cook your own food, must have certain bedding with you (or pay to rent it), and often have to do chores for the hostel while there. also, and this is not an option most people have, we are extremely fortunate to have family that own a cabin that is ours for the using if we ask in advance (they rent it out to strangers to help pay for it, so we have to reserve, but don't pay). we feel soooo lucky about this last one. (and no, that isn't the lake. that is another story, we go as a huge group, and split a very small rental fee.) nicola

    nicola@which name?'s last blog post... weekend


    • renee

      renee on Nov. 3, 2009, 12:05 p.m.

      Friends with a cabin... got to get me one of those! My parents have a vacation-like home in Nova Scotia and we visit them once a year (11 hours away). I also feel very blessed for that opportunity.


  • Candelion

    Candelion on Nov. 3, 2009, 5:08 a.m.

    I think I've been really blinded by horror movies, because I always kind of thought hostels were not the ideal places to stay at all... As evident from the comments, this isn't the case ;) Anyone care to clear this up for me??


    • renee

      renee on Nov. 3, 2009, 12:08 p.m.

      I've only once stayed in a hostel, in Ottawa, Canada. We met up there as a whole family - my parents, my brother and sis-in-law and our family with 3 little kiddos (Brienne was a baby). It was great! In an awesome location downtown, we cooked our own food, met nice people and hung around town. We even celebrated Celine's 5th birthday there.


  • Kelly

    Kelly on Nov. 3, 2009, 1:37 p.m.

    My husband, three year old son (who we were potty training), and I(newly prego with morning sickness)spent ten days tent camping in South Dakota this past summer. It was (even with my words in parenthesis) our best vacation yet and totally doable. I wish we had been a little more thrifty- we didn't spend as much as we would have if we were in hotels, but we did eat out more than we planned and spent a lot on seeing the sites (Wind Cave, the Mammoth Site, Crazy Horse Memorial). I would recommend camping though- to anyone- regardless of money being a factor or not. There is something about snuggling with your family, in the chilly morning air that is priceless.

    Kelly's last blog post... Halloween- The WHOLE Month Long


  • Kika

    Kika on Nov. 3, 2009, 4:47 p.m.

    With regard to the vehicle thing, of course it depends. When pregnant with our third child we'd have prefered to keep our car but couldn't fit two car seats in the back and a third child. It physically didn't work. We drive a mini-van (paid for) and very regularly have extra kids with us too so I don't think our choice is extravagant (and I know you were not attacking others' choices just expressing your own thoughts/convictions which I greatly appreciate). It helps us that we choose to have just one vehicle as my husband is willing to walk to work.

    The travelling light idea sounds appealing but we are so inexperienced (and nervous) about camping... I dream about it so maybe one day we'll figure it out. The idea of hosteling with a family never occured to me... thought it was only appropriate for college-types :) I'll have to gather more information for our cross-country trip next summer (which will only happen if we can save the money:: no debt).

    Otherwise, we just don't travel much because even gas itself strains the budget. When we travel I always bring a bucket of snacks which includes fruit, homemade baking, lots of water... to significantly cut down on costs and eating junk en route.

    I know my response is long so I'll end here by saying that I admire your family's sense of adventure. By continuing to share how YOU do things, you get me thinking about how WE might incorporate a little more nature or adventure in our lives (a big weak point for us).


    • renee

      renee on Nov. 3, 2009, 5:38 p.m.

      I agree, car seats can be a real pain. Somehow we managed to fit 3 car seats in the back of our '93 Honda. We went into the store with measurements and choose our car seats based on if they fit. Sometimes I do wish we had a larger vehicle, like when Damien's mom is visiting and we need to rent for a weekend. Also we can't ever fit extra people, which would be nice. Nice, but not necessary.

      I appreciate your long response. Gas is a real problem but you are so close to really wonderful natural places so you don't have to drive too far to experience real beauty. (I think Banff has a hostel also).


  • jamie

    jamie on Nov. 4, 2009, 2:36 a.m.

    thx for the excellent post- gets people thinking! i have the small car/car seat problem, too. luckily my mom lends me her explorer when i need to fit a 3rd carseat... love your family's sense of adventure (my hubby likes camping once we get there, but complains all the way there)- reading your posts reconfirms my feelings of family togetherness in all parts of our life- trips, choosing to homeschool, etc. thx for your insights and ideas- and don't think i won't take you up on that FIMBY campground offer!! :) take care, jamie eastern LI, NY


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