Our recent vacation to France has only been our second trip outside of the country together.
It’s expensive to travel internationally as a large family and though I want to encourage those with kids to travel together, I also understand if you want to wait till you feel the time is more ideal, especially if your kids are still very little. We don’t have family overseas that we can stay with or visit, we don’t even have friends who will host me and my kids, or to hang out with us and show us the best spots for local families. Like most people, we are winging it on a budget.
Now before I go ahead, I want to mention that I was on assignment with Expedia for part of my vacation with my family, so it was sort of work/vacation thing. I also want to mention that The Parking Spot and HomeAway were partners in our trip, but we use the parking service every time we travel on extended vacations and we had already picked our vacation rentals long before HomeAway became a partner. I want to make this clear to point out that the tips I share here are based on tips that have truly made our family travel experiences more affordable and manageable in the past.
In this post I will talk about the logistics of the trip, most of the things you should consider during the planning stages.
Taxi vs parking at the airport
I have done both. When I travel on my own and my husband can’t drop me off or pick me up, I call a car service to commute to and from the airport because going there I am usually nervous about making my flight. Coming back, I am usually tired and just want to get home.
When I travel with my family, I prefer to drive the car to the airport. A couple of years ago we discovered that it is actually more cost-effective to park offsite with The Parking Spot. I don’t even know how many hundreds of dollars we paid before my husband finally checked into their services and I swear, we haven’t looked back since.
Whether you take a cab or choose a parking service, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Both require that you budget costs into your travel expenses. The taxi is obviously a one-time fee upon the moment of service, where as The Parking Spot charges a daily rate, but the difference – and why we choose the parking service option – is that you have the convenience of a shuttle from the terminal straight to your car and we don’t have to worry about potential surcharges if we get stuck in traffic, or because we requested a larger van to transport our large family home.
We call, reserve our parking spot and when we pick up our car it is waiting for us with parking already paid for. It’s a great service, but it felt even more so when we arrived from our long trip back from France. Everyone is always really friendly and professional too, making our return home even sweeter.
Driving vs train in France
When we started planning our trip, we were hoping to do a road trip. I had already driven through France and I was confident that it would make for a wonderful experience. However, once we looked into car rentals we realized that it might break our budget.
We rented our car through Avis. There are much less expensive options, such as Europcar or Auto Europe, but finding an automatic, large size vehicle that can hold 5 people and all of our luggage is not easy, as these companies tend to have more manual, small vehicles in stock.
A lot of the train stations (gare in French) have the car rental offices on the premises, so it was easy for us to pick up the car from Toulouse, in the Midi-Pyrénées, which we had planned to tour around and explore (you can read all about our Midi-Pyrénées adventures in Reinventing the storybook dream, the travelogue on Expedia Viewfinder, which I wrote while visiting there).
When we looked into dropping the car off in Paris the price went from high to astronomical. We considered the cost of gas, tolls, parking (which can be hard to come by in larger cities), plus with traffic and hours of driving we decided instead to travel with Rail Europe tickets which we purchased online.
Purchasing the tickets online is not only convenient, but also a money-saving option. We purchased multi-city passes and chose First Class cabins. We did this because we wanted to make sure we would have the space and comfort, and because we found a great deal online. And despite the cost for these train tickets, it was still less expensive than the fees associated with dropping off the car at a different city and the additional week and a half rental. Plus, we were super comfortable and no one had to drive.
Train travel through Europe is the way to go, to save time and money. Just beware of the occasional strike.
It’s important to note that during my time in France before the arrival of my family, I got to experience a train strike which are fairly common there. I will say that aside from train delays and several reroutes that turned a three-hour travel date into a nine hour travel day, I was one of the lucky ones as I wasn’t in a situation where I was stranded over night. But, if you take the train, especially if you take the train during the summer months, just keep this in mind. Always have a back up plan. Lucky for us, this striking episode was resolved by the time my family arrived.
Hotel vs Vacation Rental
I will admit that from the second we decided to plan this trip, I knew we would be doing a vacation rental. I knew this because the hotel rooms in France tend to be very small and what is often offered as a breakfast option would never be enough to appease my very hungry boys. We also would’ve needed to rent two rooms, maybe not even connected, which would have hiked up the cost even more.
I always tell families traveling to Europe to go with the vacation rental option. It’s just so much more convenient and in the long run, way more affordable. In Toulouse we rented a country home. I shared all I learned about renting a gite in France.
But in Bordeaux and Paris, we rented apartments that we found through HomeAway.com and we absolutely loved both choices.
Like with renting a gite, you should expect to leave a deposit, as well as ask about any extra fees, such as linen rentals, parking costs, cleaning, etc. It varies by owner, but I definitely learned that it is better to ask if it is not made clear in the apartment description.
There will be contracts that need to be signed, plus money that will need to be wire transferred, so note the extra cost to you in that process.
We also did a Google Street search of all the places we looked at when address was available to make sure it was in an area we really liked. I am usually a pretty easy-going, go-with-the-flow type of traveler when it’s just me, or just me and my husband, but when I travel with my kids, I am not big on surprises, especially when it comes to where we will be staying.
The customer service with HomeAway was really great in answering our questions (long before we partnered with them) and I loved, loved their property selections (they have over one million vacation rentals listings around the globe!), though it’s important to keep in mind that it is a bit trickier to find an apartment in the specific spot that you want during high travel season to major cities, at short notice.Our apartments had a lot of little touches that made us feel right at home, like this comfy teddy bear on one of the kids’ beds in our HomeAway rental in Bordeaux.
View from our window in our vacation rental in Bordeaux.
We shopped, cooked, and rested in these apartments. My kids absolutely enjoyed the comfort and laid-back atmosphere of our rentals. It was nice to not have to be out for the cleaning woman, or feel trapped when the days were rainy or we were too tired to go out. I can’t say enough about it, it really made our vacation enjoyable.
Credit card vs Cash
My husband was all about getting his American Express points during this trip. Man, oh man, was he excited. But, American Express wasn’t always accepted. I would even say, it was rarely ever accepted. Our bank/credit card was better, but we couldn’t get gas with it, or always buy groceries with it. Cash was best, certainly better for when we ate at the smaller bistros (in the not so touristy areas). We don’t have a smart card, meaning, our bank hasn’t equipped us with a card that has the chip that is internationally recognized and accepted.
Ask your bank whether they offer a smart card credit card and if not, get a prepaid cash passport from Travelex. So much more convenient, especially for those of us who hate traveling with tons of cash. It’s secured, replaceable, and we saw tons of Travelex stations everywhere, so reloading the card isn’t difficult to do.
English vs French
This is a big one, because as Americans we are so used to expecting that everyone will speak English, no matter where we go. I would say that in Paris, yes. In major tourist attractions, for the most part, yes. But, if you plan on truly going out and exploring France, be ready to have a few French words under your belt.
When I was trying to get around the country during the train strike, I had to use all the French I could to get the information I needed, get new tickets for substitute trains, learn about waiting areas and departure times. When we had problems at a gas station because the pump wouldn’t take our card, I had to ask locals where the nearest gas station was where I could find an attendant who would accept cash. When we were in small town restaurants, I had to order for myself and my family and translate the menu to them, so they could decide what they wanted.Getting around in Paris without French was not a huge problem, though communicating with the taxi drivers and some store owners did need some knowledge of the language.
I needed to speak French more often than not, because I didn’t just stick to the touristy areas during our travels. And though I had studied French, I was rusty when I first got there. My husband downloaded Google Translate and it really helped him when he just needed basic information. Don’t let the language hold you back though, it’s all part of the experience, one which even my kids embraced after the initial intimidation with it.
Museum passes, city passes, and tours
Yes, yes, and yes. Invest in them all. We purchased the museum pass in Paris at last-minute because we wanted to get access to as many museums as we could in two days, and because kids under 18 are free. But for extended stays the Paris Pass, which offers all the benefits of the museum pass and more, is a better investment, especially if you are spending more than two days in the city.This view, from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, was made possible with the museum pass we purchased. We were able to skip past the massive line as well!
We decided to tour with City Wonders to access the Eiffel Tower and cruise along the Siene. Our tour guide, Jonathan, professed his love for history and culture and with that, we were guaranteed to not only got a lot of the information and history about the tower, but also managed to skip past the crazy long lines to get to the second level. For the top level, unfortunately, there is a line that you can’t skip, but the ticket is included in your tour costs. Cruising the Siene at sunset after a sunny day is the absolute best. Paris is a beautiful city, made if more so when viewing it from the water.
Even with all the planning and budgeting and scheduling, there is always something unexpected that comes up. But, with all these logistical details in mind, at least some of the bigger details are taken care of.
Vacationing with the family is always best when you have little to worry about and can better use your time to explore and adventure together.
Click here for more information on the destinations we visited, and a more detailed look into those wonderful HomeAway vacation rentals we enjoyed.