Planning a round the world trip with kids is more complicated than setting off with boots and a backpack when you’re twenty something, with no one to worry about but yourself. You might have been tempted to just “wing it” and sleep in whatever hostel you could find a bed in, or even under a bridge in a pinch, when you traveled by yourself. But as a parent, you worry about where you end up staying and if you and the kids will be comfortable. It’s a valid concern, and one worth giving some careful thought to as you plan your trip. Of course there will always be those moments of discomfort that can’t be planned for, or avoided, but you can certainly minimize those by considering your options and preparing your kids up front.
So let’s think about the options, shall we?
Hotels are an obvious answer to the lodging on the road question, but frankly, for us, they are a last resort. They’re great for a “first night” somewhere, when you’re hot off the plane, tired, when just need to crash and get your feet on the ground. We sometimes book a hotel for our immediate arrival. Beyond that, we find them to be expensive, impersonal, and insulating from the culture we’ve come to experience. With six in our family, we often need three rooms (outside of the US and Canada it is rare to find rooms set up for more than 3 people, and you can’t tuck a 16 year old in around the edges in the same way you can a six year old, trust me!) They’re also not very family friendly; anyone who has had a kid meltdown in the lobby of a Sofitel knows what I’m talking about.
If you do opt for a hotel, resist the urge to go with a name brand you recognize. Why? Because your money is being funneled straight out of the country into a multi-national corporation and not doing much good locally. Look for small, family run hotels that will spread your money deeper in the regions you visit. Family run hotels also tend to be more child friendly, as often the family running it lives on site, providing ready-made playmates and a true cultural exchange for your children.
Most family travelers don’t think of hostels as an option. The idea of a “youth hostel” makes us think of young people, a party atmosphere, and the fact that we’re too old to be let through the door. There are some hostels that have an age cut off of 30, and others which have a minimum age of 18 for lodgers, but the vast majority throw the doors wide open to anyone, from babies to octogenarians.
For “by the night” accommodation, we’ve found hostels to be the most family friendly option on several levels:
- They are inexpensive
- A six bed dorm room becomes a private room for us (you can buy the empty beds if you really want privacy!)
- The kitchen simplifies the food situation with young children
- The common rooms are almost always a relaxed affair
- The other residents tend to have an attitude of togetherness instead of insisting on their right to quiet perfection (as happens in hotels)
- They promote interaction instead of isolation
Our kids have learned some fantastic things in hostels, and made some great friends. I love to see them bellied up to the bar in the kitchen swapping travel stories with the twenty somethings and fast becoming mascots of the common room. Of course they’ve seen the “good, the bad & the ugly” too… but we’ve got to practice “say no to drugs” somewhere, right?
Try a hostel on your next test trip, and see how it goes!
Couchsurfing is definitely possible as a family. We made use of a site called Warm Showers, that is like couchsurfing for cyclists, when we were bicycling for a year in Europe. We met some fantastic people that way and had some of the very best moments of our trip as guests in fellow travelers’ homes. Of course having kids complicates matters a bit, and it’s harder to find lodging through couchsurfing type sites when you’re looking for six people instead of one or two, but it certainly can be done. Whether it’s a good fit for your family depends on a lot of things, from your hosts, to your particular needs, to the flexibility of your kids and their ability to be good guests in a stranger’s home.
Make an account on Couchsurfing (or Warm Showers, or another similar site!) and host a few guests while you’re planning your trip. It’s good karma for your coming journey, and it will give you a feel for how the system works and the kind of folks you’ll meet as you go.
Holiday home rentals
When we discovered that fully furnished houses could be rented, inexpensively, anywhere we wanted to go, it changed our lives. Literally. A quick Google search for “holiday homes” or “vacation rentals” will turn up a dizzying array of options that you can search by country, by price range or by number of beds, among other things. There are hundreds of thousands of empty homes waiting for you to move in, right now. They can be rented by the night, quite often. They can certainly be rented by the week, and they can be had at shockingly affordable rates by the month or longer.
Let’s run the numbers, shall we? In Phuket, Thailand (not Thailand’s cheapest destination) just for fun:
- The midrange beach hotel near the house we rented, nothing fancy, but clean and with a pool, had rooms that slept 3 people each. They ran $30 USD a night, per room – so $60 a night for our family. It was about a twenty minute walk to the beach. We stayed there the night before we flew to Singapore. We’d stay there again. It was fine. By the month, that would be $1800 USD.
- The house we rented for the preceding seven months, ten minutes walk from that hotel, a total of 30 minutes from the beach, with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a beautiful pool, even a washing machine (not standard in Southeast Asia) with good internet: $800 USD a month. It came fully furnished, we just walked in, dropped our backpacks, and we were home, with $1000 a month in our pockets and all of the comforts to boot.
Are you starting to get an idea of the possibilities?
Other places we’ve rented:
- Prague: Right downtown in Praha 2, a fantastic, airy, 3 bedroom walk up with hardwood floors, walking distance to every single thing in the guidebook, and on a bus route, too.
- Marseille: Twice, both apartments within sight of the cathedral on the central square. Absolutely idyllic.
- Hammam-Sousse (Tunisia): A gorgeous three bedroom apartment half a block from the Mediterranean with a sea view from every room. We lived on the beach.
- Cape Cod: The most adorable little fishing cottage on a peninsula surrounded by long beaches in a quaint, holiday town made for walking. Two sets of spiral staircases and a moon roof over the attic bed.
- Lago de Atitlan (Guatemala): A fantastic two bedroom casita on two acres of manicured gardens, right on the water. It came with a gardener and a night guard. We rented a kayak and spent six months eating our own avocados, bananas and limes and learning to make our own coffee from what grew around the front porch.
We’ve never paid more than $850 a month (and frankly, we could have paid much less most places!), which breaks down to $28 a day, or about $4.60 per person, per day for lodging.
Here’s the really big secret though, for those of you brave enough to trust the universe: the best of these places are found in person, not online. With anything you find online, the price will have been jacked up for the week long holiday market. Instead of pre-booking, show up, install yourself in a cheap hostel, and pound the pavement, asking locals what’s available. You’ll find the real prices to be half what you’ve scoped out on line, and some of the best locales never even make it to the web. That’s how we found our gem in Phuket!
Worried about your travel budget as a family? This could be part of your solution.
You’re getting excited about the possibilities after that last paragraph, aren’t you? Well, what if I told you that it gets even better. Or at least it can if you’re willing to make the effort.
House sitting or swapping is, perhaps, the best kept secret of long term family travel. Of course to swap, you have to have a house to trade (which we don’t!), but house sitting is available to anyone. Google it and see what comes up. We use TrustedHouseSitters.com and are spending the month right now in an adorable little three bedroom house in Paraparaumu Beach, New Zealand, walking distance from the sea, with excellent internet, and a cozy wood stove… for… FREE. The house even comes with a free dog, which the children are over the moon about! Of course the trade off is that we’re taking care of the house and the dog, but we’d be taking care of any place we were staying, right?
We’re headed to Australia next, one of the most expensive places to travel. We’ll be going local in a tiny town outside of Melbourne, house sitting for two months, not even any pets to mind, except a bowlful of fish. We’ll mow the lawn, and do what we love most, go deep instead of wide, while someone else takes their holiday without worrying about keeping the home fires burning. Everybody wins!
What would your travel budget for the year look like if you could arrange three house sits, in three of your pillar destinations, for two months each, reducing your lodging costs for half of your trip to a grand total of zero? Yeah. Let’s think about that!
We’re over five years into our one year trip, and let me tell you a secret: it’s cheaper than staying home. People ask all the time “how we do it,” and there are layers of answers to that question, not the least of which is conjuring the funding; making money as we go. But one of the big ones is adjusting your expectations and thinking outside of the box on several levels, a big piece of that puzzle of is lodging. Staying in hotels is expensive; anyone who’s been on vacation knows that. How do we manage to stay “on vacation” and live in these idyllic places for weeks or months at a time? We stay local. We avoid hotels. We stay in hostels instead. But we really prefer to call a place home, rent something comfy, let down our hair, and be a family in ways that are impossible in the tourist district.
Do you have questions about this? Drop me a line, let’s talk, I’ll share my secrets to further your dream!