My family and I recently returned from a week-long, road-trip adventure through much of Spain, Andorra, and southern France. We covered about 2,000 miles in eight days. Since our return, I have been surprised at how many people have asked, “Why drive?”, when we could have easily hopped a cheap flight to another country and arrived in a matter of hours. Why would we cram the family and eight days’ worth of stuff in the car and drive such a considerable distance? A road trip affords an enormous amount of quality family time, and is a great way to connect with each other in the absence of TV, social networks, and the stresses of everyday life. A road trip is also a great way to experience a country or a region in a more in-depth and personal way. Driving your own car means you can be flexible and alter your schedule to see what you want to see, but it’s really more about the journey than the destination. Anyway you do it—by plane, train, or car–travelling with a family is expensive…it just is. For anyone considering a European vacation, “road-trip style,” here are a few travel tips we have learned along the way to keep costs in check and help make the trip fun for everyone.
Tip #1–Chain Hotels
European hotel rooms are small and it can be difficult to find a room large enough for a family where you don’t have to pay for two rooms every night. If you opt to stay at a chain hotel, while it may not seem very “European,” there are a lot of benefits, and the fact is that by the time you get there, you are so tired that you really don’t care that it doesn’t have a fancy sink and a bidet. When your focus is on seeing the country, the inside of the hotel room becomes less important. There is comfort in consistency, which chain hotels almost always provide. We stayed almost entirely in a U.S. based chain hotel and never paid more than $100. per night for a family of four. The biggest benefits to hotels like this are that they are often located in suburban areas, just outside the city, and very close (walking distance) to public transportation. Parking is usually free, or nominal, and you can just leave your car and take the train or bus to and from the city. Join whatever “priority” or membership club the hotel has, as there is always some benefit to this. If Wi-Fi is not free, they usually waive the fee for preferred members, and Wi-Fi is essential to planning your next days’ travel. Best of all, chain hotels almost always include breakfast for free–a variety of innocuous food that everyone will eat. EAT this food.
Tip #2–Bring Snacks
Find a local supermarket and stock up on healthy snacks for the car. I packed a jar of peanut butter, some crackers and baguettes, and a bag of oranges from home, which travel well and don’t need to be refrigerated, and we bought things along the way as needed. One of the biggest expenses on a long trip is dining out. With free breakfast in the hotel, and snacks in the car to stave off hunger, we only ate out one meal a day. And on this subject, when you do eat out, eat whatever the region is known for, and ask for a recommendation from the hotel. Hopefully you’ll want to experience the cuisine of the local area, and if you’re going to pay a lot for a meal, you want it to be good!
Tip #3–Toll Roads & Gas
When driving in Europe, be prepared to pay tolls. Expensive tolls. Often. We paid almost $200.00 in tolls alone on this trip, and while we were expecting to pay tolls, we had no idea what the extent or cost would be. Plan for this. While it seems excessive at times, many toll roads/tunnels/bridges afford a more direct path to your destination, and the roads are well-maintained and easy to travel. When gassing up, don’t buy gas at the first place you see, unless it seems like a good deal based on what you’ve been seeing along the way. Gas runs on average $7.00/gallon, so it pays to shop around a bit. These savings add up over 2000 miles.
Tip #4—Make it Fun for Everyone
Especially if you are travelling with children, and even if you’re not, make sure everyone on the trip gets to do something that they really want to do. Each person should have opportunities to choose an activity/museum/event/historical site or whatever is of particular interest to them. Children, especially, will be much more interested and engaged in the journey if they feel they have some ownership of the travel plans. Older children may enjoy reading travel books along the way to learn about each destination and see what might be there which is of interest to them. Having a say-so in the plan for each day gives everyone something to look forward to, and makes it much more enjoyable.
Tip #5–Roll with it
Car trips are an adventure, and there will be highs and lows. Your kids will pester each other when they get bored. You will get grumpy. You will drive the wrong way down a one-way street and find three lanes of traffic heading straight for you. You likely will live through it. You will contemplate jumping out of your vehicle moving at high speed. But, you will also share countless experiences together, and a lot of laughs and the good almost always outweighs the bad. And, the bad always makes for a funny memory when it’s had time to fade a bit. Your kids will remember the journey, maybe even more than the destination, and you will have shared a fantastic adventure together. Safe travels, my friends!