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| by KATE POCOCK|
Family Travel Ink
How Families can Travel the World on the Cheap
“Well, it must be nice to be rich,” shouted out our next-door neighbour as she watched myself, my husband and our three kids piling into an airport car for yet another escape from Toronto. We were running late for our flight so I didn’t stop to argue. But we are definitely not a champagne and caviar family. In fact, we live in an unrenovated 97-year-old house with no cupboards and plumbing pipes with attitude. We shop at garage sales for Christmas presents and encourage funky clothes from the 60’s for our three teenagers. When it comes to trips, it’s the same. Sure we could plonk down a pile of cash for an all-inclusive vacation at a Caribbean resort where the drinks flow free and they’d better! But by doing a bit of research, and packing our sense of adventure, we’ve been able to take our kids to Europe, the Caribbean and to interesting sites in the U.S. and Canada without spending what our neighbouring family spends on their golf games. Sometimes we’ve come back not only with intriguing memories but also with money left over. And we’ve immediately put these pennies aside for our next travelling adventure. Here’s how your family can do the same:
Transportation:Flight Deals Most of the major airlines including Air Canada offer bargain weekend fares on the Internet. They come out early Wednesday morning and are booked fast. The catch? You have to leave on Friday and return on Monday or Tuesday. Also, look for new air routes reported in the newspaper. When Virgin Atlantic starts offering service from Toronto to London this spring, you can bet that there will be special prices to fill those first flights.
Take the Train Opt for a train instead of a plane, especially if you are traveling to a large city. You’ll save the cost of airport taxis and avoid the expense of airport snacks if your flight is very delayed. We have also booked hotels near the station, so that we could walk to our accommodation. We once jumped at a deal of $99 return between Toronto and Chicago. The train took 11 hours so I wouldn’t recommend it with small kids. But if you’ve got teens who enjoy being plugged into Walkmans for hours on end, try it. VIA Rail doesn’t charge at all for kids under 12 who are accompanied by an adult (as long as you purchase in advance). Students of any age with an International Student card get 40 percent off their fares. Amtrack in the States does likewise. Some trains on the Toronto-northern Ontario route carry special canoe and bicycle cars so you can save the cost of canoe or bicycle rental and arrive at your wilderness destination relaxed.
In Europe, families can travel on special tickets. In Italy, we once booked the Italian Kilometric ticket that can be used by one to five persons. Our whole family traveled 15,000 kilometres around the country over a period of two weeks for under $300. In Switzerland, we booked a family ticket allowing kids under 17 to travel free. Some trains offer special play space cars with toys and climbing equipment at no extra charge.
Cruising Deals Look for re-positioning cruises (when a ship has to travel from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean for winter cruising or vice versa) or new routes that need filling until they become popular. There are so many ships being built that two-for-one prices are common. If you’re the type of family that wants in on every bingo game or dance contest, then you probably won’t be spending much time in your cabin. Choose an inside cabin to save pennies for shore excursions instead. The cruise ship operators will advise against taking local cabbies. But you can often arrange a shore excursion through the local tourist office that could cost half of what the cruise company wants. It’s often cheaper too to buy your supplies such as bottled water, sunscreen, etc. when you’re in the local port.
Accommodation:Try a Home Swap No fees for accommodation if you’re swapping homes with another family. Several organizations ask for a fee to register and then you’re free to contact members in countries around the world. It really works if you can swap with kids the same ages as yours. You’ll arrive to find bikes and toys that are age-appropriate. Some families also swap cars and pets so you’ll avoid transportation or pet-sitter costs. Company names T.K. (Rachel- Anita Draycott whom I work with at the Air Miles magazine just did a story in the latest Money Sense mag re home swaps and companies. Since I put her on to this in the first place, I am sure she won’t mind if we give a few company names and numbers.)
Room with A View Sometimes travel agents can get you the best hotel bargains. But sometimes, you can get a better deal by reading the guidebooks, looking at the pictures in the tour books and faxing hotels directly for their best rates. Usually, the hotel will fax you right back and you can begin negotiations. We once heard back from a lovely Swiss hotel with monstrous prices. “Is there anything cheaper,” we faxed back. Well, yes, there just happened to be an old stone house in behind on the hills that they rented out when they were at capacity. It was half the price, and parents and kids could have their own rooms. It turned out to be a lovely villa with terraces and stone statues. It’s worth it to ask if the hotel has less expensive sister properties. We have stayed next door or down the road for less and still made use of the big resort with its pools and activity programs. Don’t forget about day passes to a big resort. It’s possible sometimes to stay at a smaller less expensive property and buy a family pass for a full day at a luxurious resort.
Youth Hostels These friendly abodes aren’t just for traveling backpackers anymore. Family hostels are springing up all over the world with adjoining rooms, group cooking facilities and a family atmosphere. Once you’ve become International Hostelling members, you can pick from, hundreds of choices including a floating yacht in Stockholm, a mountain chalet in Banff, Alberta or a lighthouse in Oregon. Rates vary but are cheaper than hotels and you’ll be able to cook your own food. To become members, call Hostelling International at 1-877-848-8737.
Timing is Everything Forget the Caribbean for Christmas or Europe at the height of the summer season. Plan to visit in the off-peak times for the best rates. We once flew to London, England at the beginning of February on a British Airways special and paid $45 each night for all five of us in two large hotel rooms right near the British Museum. We had the city and the top floor of the double-decker buses to ourselves. The weather was balmy and we didn’t have to fight for tables in popular Covent Garden. Similarly, prices down south are slashed during the summer. Your travel agent can advise on special deals such as the Family Escape program for Club Med (choose a week and they’ll choose a Village for your family—you must have kids 16 and under—for a much reduced cost) or a similar program operated by Signature Vacations.
Excursions, Activities and Tours
Munchies Don’t forget to pack jars of peanut butter, dried fruit, crackers etc. for impromptu snacks during delays. And once at your destination, make a beeline for the grocery store to stock up on local foods. Bring along a set of plastic bowls, cups, plates and extra utensils as well as a Swiss army knife or equivalent for cutting up bread, cheese or fruit. We’ve had more great picnics in foreign countries and even airports. If you want to splurge at a restaurant, ask the hotel staff where they like to eat for an important occasion. We’ve bypassed expensive touristy restaurants on the advice of taxi drivers and chambermaids to find home-cooking style eateries with a staff who welcome the kids and even give them presents. Ask about restaurants with special hours when the drinks come free or kids eat free. If there’s a gang of you, it’s often cheaper to employ a local cook than to eat at a local restaurant. We’ve had wonderful meals delivered to our accommodation by locals who are proud to serve up their national dishes.
Canadian At Par Ask your travel agent about Canadian At Par programs. Some family resorts such as the all-season Smugglers’ Notch Resort near Stowe, Vermont offer Canadian At Par weeks when booked in advance. Some U.S. states such as Virginia, Texas, and Pennsylvania offer special loonie-saving programs with coupon books during the year. Similarly, until April 30 SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay are accepting Canadian dollars at par for single-day and multi-day tickets when booked with a tour operator such as CAA (Canadian Automobile Association).
Free Museum Days Check with the local tourism offices for free days or periods at top tourist attractions. For instance, the Royal Ontario Museum is free to families on Fridays after 6 p.m., the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art is free during the first Tuesday of every month. Some zoos and even the water parks at Walt Disney World offer slashed prices toward the end of the day. Good resources for families traveling on a budget are FamilyFun magazine and Frommer’s Budget Travel, available at most major newsstands.
Cheap City Tours We’ve had the most entertaining (and most eye-opening) tours on local public transportation. For under a dollar often, you’ll be able to ride around town for hours. Ask the tourist offices for the most scenic routes, or the routes where you can stop off with the kids to visit music stores, toy stores, etc. Sometimes, you can buy family transportation passes before you arrive. By purchasing the three-day London Travel card beforehand, we were able to take the tube straight into the city from the airport for no extra, thus eliminating the $100 taxi fare. And the red double-decker buses in London took us past many tourist sites.
Memorable Souvenirs Look to the post office for interesting stamps, the bank for coins and colourful paper money (the kids will spend hours at home afterward with such collections), shells from the beach and other found objects. My sons went nuts in Holland collecting the colourful paper coasters and wrapped sugar cubes at every café. For presents for folks back home, visit the local grocery store where the items may not be gift-wrapped but are so much less than at the expensive airport shops. 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 at local stores. The recipients have been thrilled.
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Kate Pocock and Dustin Sacks.