Over the last few weeks many dear friends from home have gotten in touch to let us know that they're seriously considering taking us up on our standing offer to host everyone in Spain this summer. How exciting! We don't know who will be more eager for their journeys... them or us! Welcoming our family and friends from home is such a delight, especially since we've taken the plunge and decided to extend our time living here in Barcelona.
We miss our loved ones and can't wait to share the beauties of our adopted city and country with them!
Planning an international adventure, especially if you haven't traveled much in Europe before, can feel daunting! There are so many options... so much to choose from... and it's hard to know where to start!
Understanding this, I decided to put together a blog post highlighting answers to a couple of questions several friends from home have asked... little tidbits that could help anyone thinking of trying to bring their family abroad on a shoestring.
Book Your Flights Early
If you're seriously considering traveling in Europe for the summer, get your international flights now. The earlier, the better. (Late January is an ideal time to buy, but March is better than May!) Don't wait, thinking you'll get a better deal in the future. Bite the bullet and just purchase them! You'll be glad you did.
July and August are the most popular times for travel in Europe, and don't forget that most Europeans also take a month of vacation at this time of year. Our city, Barcelona, feels a bit empty in August as many businesses and offices are closed while their employees go on holiday at the seashore. So, airlines are able to fill every seat on their planes with foreign and domestic travelers, keeping fares sky-high at this time of year. A last minute ticket in the summer can run you many thousands of dollars, pounds or euro... purchasing the same ticket in Winter or early Spring could save you a bundle.
Try to book your flights on a Tuesday or a Wednesday... if you look at flight calendars for various airlines you will see that these are typically the cheapest days of the week to fly, and published fares drop on these days as well.
Your tickets will be cheaper if you aren't picky about sitting together on a flight, or about where you want to sit. That said, I often pay the extra $40 a ticket to make sure my family can sit together near a bathroom because with kids, you don't want to be multiple aisles away from your adult traveling partner or the bathroom when your little person needs to 'go potty'. I've also flown to Europe multiple times with just my children, which has been just fine, but absolutely better when we are sitting together.
Make Your Money Work For You... Accrue Airline Miles
Let's face it, if you have to pay for groceries, school tuition or daycare anyway, you might as well get something for it! My husband and I both selected credit cards that accrue airline miles on our favorite airlines (him: American; me: British Airways). Most airlines have relationships with credit card companies I think!
You can see if your favorite airline offers the chance to build up free miles by using a certain bank's card. I use my Chase British Airways Visa card to pay for everything (medical bills, soccer team fees, you name it) and then immediately pay off the monthly bill in full out of our checking account.
Thanks to these credit card programs we've earned several free tickets to Europe and also additional tickets at vastly reduced costs. It's completely legal and completely worth it! I highly recommend looking into how to make your money work for you! How wonderful if your daily errands and Starbucks can help pay for your once-a-year bucket list adventure!
Airport Security Lines: Be Patient and Prepared
I think we'd all agree that airport security is necessary these days, even when it's a pain.
The main thing is to be mentally prepared for it, especially if you're flying into a big international hub like Heathrow or Charles De Gaulle.
Try to remember that you can only bring certain types of toiletries and that anything that's like a gel, creme or liquid needs to fit in one sandwich ziploc sized clear plastic bag.
It actually really helps to be traveling as a family, because since I have three children, I get to bring one plastic bag for me and one for each of them (4 bags!) and so we have room for all of the toothpaste, shampoo, body wash and lotion we may need in those little bags.
If you bring bottles of anything that are larger than 4oz they will be confiscated at the airport (this includes drinking water) so do yourself a favor and pack correctly in advance.
You can find small travel-size bottles at stores like "Bed, Bath and Beyond" or on Amazon.Com.
It will save you a huge headache to have your toiletries correctly sorted out when you are going through security and customs.
Expect to go through a full body scanner when you arrive in Europe. Plan on taking off your jewelry, passport carriers, wallets, shoes, boots, belts and anything else the security team wants to put through the x-ray machine.
Twice my children have been subjected to a full body scan at Heathrow (when they were little no less, ages 4 and 6 the first time) but I understand the principle... there are no exceptions. My four year old's Doc Marten zipper boots may have been concealing something; so better that they check than not.
I try to smile at the workers, thank them, and comply patiently with their demands... because ultimately they have an awful, thankless job dealing with irritated travelers all day long. They keep all of us safer and I appreciate how hard they work to make sure that our planes can do their job and get us to our destinations!
Consider A Home Exchange
If you've always wanted to visit Europe but can't fathom how to pay for your entire family to do so, I recommend that you seriously consider a home exchange. Whether you live in a big city or a small town, you might be surprised by how many Europeans might be interested in exchanging lives with you for a week or two!
We all take for granted the things that make our areas of the world interesting and cool. In my hometown, San Diego, it's pretty easy to find reasons why a European family might want to visit. We have beaches, mountains, sailing, surfing, golf, theme parks, delicious food and a good nightlife to offer... and that's just the beginning!
You might think to yourself, "Oh, who would want to exchange with me... I have only a one-bedroom apartment with no view." Put yourself in the shoes of someone from Europe though, who has always dreamed of coming to your country or city. To them, a one-bedroom apartment in California, New York or London might seem like paradise! A outdoorsy adventure in Colorado or Arizona might be the thing they've been dreaming of since they were little. Being able to come to your hometown and live there for free might be the best thing they could imagine!
There are multiple online platforms you can use to arrange a home exchange, but the one we've used in the past is called HomeExchange.Com. We have high confidence in this company and how it is run, and we've had mainly great experiences.
Putting together a house profile on HomeExchange.Com is not unlike putting together a dating profile on something like Match.Com.
You take nice photos of your house in good lighting... emphasizing any good points like a garden, a well-appointed kitchen, a view, a fireplace... really anything that you think is the best part of your home. Along with the photos you post a little 'bio' of your home and its finer points, along with a description of the neighborhood. Do you have restaurants in walking distance? Do you have a bicycle or surfboard they could borrow while staying at your house? All of these things serve to make your ad attractive and welcoming.
There is a one-time yearly cost to advertise your home (and you can choose different levels of price, as I recall) and then you're off and running! You will be AMAZED at how many offers you are likely to receive... not just from families in other countries, but a lot of times from families in your own country!
In our first year on HomeExchange we received approximately 300 offers of exchanges. I am not kidding. 300! We could have been traveling all of the time, if we weren't working.
The hardest part is to find a family that wants to exchange with you at the same time you want to exchange with them... in an area that you really want to visit.
Sometimes a family will want to exchange with you in June but your vacation isn't until August. Sometimes a family from Finland will want to come to your home, but your dream destination is Bali!
Finding a perfect match can take real time and work... you might have to sift through 50 or 100 offers to find the right one. Or maybe, you'll get lucky on your first try!
Señor Aventura and I advise that you be as candid as possible with potential exchange partners from the get-go.
Are you a meticulously tidy person that wants to return home to find your house EXACTLY as you left it? If so, be clear about that from the beginning! Make sure you're well matched to the other family.
Are you a large, laid-back and relaxed family that isn't going to mind a little wear and tear, but also wants to be sure that the other family feels the same way? Be honest and clear from the beginning.
A few summers ago, we participated in two exchanges. One was amazing! The other... not so much.
The difference lay in the attitude of the exchange partners.
The Italian exchange family that year had completed 33 prior exchanges and so when their sink got stopped up and needed to be unclogged while we were staying there, they were supremely relaxed about it. "If you do not break a dish, scratch the floor and clog a toilet, it will be as if you have not lived at all!" the father kindly exclaimed with a smile and then called for plumbing help.
We felt incredibly grateful and quite at home (and are still very good friends to this day with his family).
Our French exchange family with one child had never done an exchange before and they had expectations that did not match the reality of travel with three small American children. We were horrified upon arrival to find that they had only a snow white sofa in the house and no extra blanket or sheet in the entire house to cover it with. (We went out and bought one.)
Ironically, it was their own cat that got mud on the white sofa after a rainstorm during our stay! When they arrived home to find this spot on the sofa, DVDs out of order, pieces from board games played with and not properly returned to the right areas of their boxes, and a spoon somewhere on the floor - they were furious.
We received a long list of itemized problems, all of which were very tiny. We realized then our mistake... we'd not understood that personality plays a lot into a home exchange. They should have exchanged with a different kind of family that was similarly fastidious. We should have found an exchange partner that was more relaxed about little things.
Despite that one bad experience, there are so many positives to a home exchange! It will give you the chance to live for free, like a native, around the world... and other than your flight and entertainment, your living costs will be just as if you were still at home! We recommend exchanging homes very highly and would certainly exchange again in the future!
Rather Than A Hotel, Consider An AirBNB!
We are a family of five.
This means that we cannot possibly book a single hotel room, even with double beds. We exceed all occupancy restrictions (Max = 4) and sometimes have been told we must book three rooms!
(Um, so if there needs to be an adult in each room, the 11 year old is supposed to stay all by himself? Hahahah, he'd love that.)
For us, AirBNB has been a travel revelation. For the same price as a single hotel room, our large family can stay in the comfort of an actual apartment or house in a real neighborhood!
In an AirBNB we have access to a kitchen, laundry, WIFI and all of the comforts of home.
We can have multiple bedrooms so that everyone has privacy, gets a good night sleep and can be well rested for the vacation! Some AirBNBs even have toys, games and movies for us to enjoy.
Many come with parking spaces for our car, which can be key when you're staying in a dense city with little to no street parking for non-residents.
We also like knowing the people who are actually renting their homes out... and having their support if anything may go wrong.
For example In our last AirBNB stay, the WIFI was down and with a few simple texts to the owner, the entire situation got sorted out right away. We've even made friends with a few of the families whose homes we've rented!
Our family has used AirBNB almost 30 times in the past three years (no joke!) and we've had only one or two less positive experiences... including the bed bugs in Paris, when AirBNB stood behind us 100%. Mostly it's been amazing, and some of the homes have been insanely luxurious.
My best AirBNB tip... read all of the reviews written about each apartment, to get an honest and authentic understanding of what your experience will be like.
Try to steer toward the apartments that have earned the largest number of (positive) reviews. If 3 former guests have given a place 5 stars, it carries a lot less weight than when 90 guests have given a place 5 stars!
We work hard every time to leave each AirBNB as clean or cleaner than we found it, so that when we contact potential hosts, they know from reading host reviews on our profile that they will be working with an honest, responsible family.
Okay... that's all for now! It's a lot to wrap your head around... but you can do it!!!
Good luck and happy trip planning. You'll never regret taking these steps toward making your travel dreams come true!
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