Inexpensive Family Travel in Europe June 2012
November 21, 2011 10:19 AM   Subscribe

How can my family and I (including 3 children) travel to Europe for at a reasonable cost next summer? We are open to flying into pretty much anywhere in Europe, as I think we can travel within Europe pretty cheaply once we get there-it's the cost of getting there from the West Coast of the US that has me worried. Of course, there is

We have two adults and 3 children (15, 6, 2), flying from Oregon. We are open to buying separate tickets to the East Coast if that will end up being significantly cheaper. We have been tentatively talking about Spain and Portugal-Portugal seems inexpensive, and my eldest is a wannabe artist, so Barcelona would be fabulous-but we're pretty flexible at this point. We are planning on renting apartments, and are shooting for about 3 weeks (maybe a week each in 3 places). Can travel any time from mid-June through Labor Day (constrained by school schedule, unfortunately).

How do we shop for airfare, and when is the best time to buy? Should we grab some frequent flier tickets to the East Coast now and then shop for the US-Europe portion later? Is there a city in Europe that is typically the cheapest to fly into? And where would you go, with kids this age? We are low-maintenance, love good food, hope to shop for groceries and cook in our apartment much of the time, want to be somewhere we can walk, but will use train or rent a car to get between cities. Speak only a smattering of Spanish and a little more French.

We also have friends in Helsinki for two years, and have the opportunity to go visit them. It's such an expensive city that I can't imagine we'll ever make it there without this free food and lodging opportunity; thoughts about adding this on?
posted by purenitrous to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
paris. rome. berlin. skip london. their unbridled hostility and contempt of americans (i was there for 6 months) made me vow to never return. i'm reccomending rome after having only been there for 7 hours. it is flatly magical (well, so is paris)...but, the sheer AMOUNT of ancient ruins poking out of everywhere is just flatly absurd. ditto for venice, but maybe not with children. also venice is stupid expensive.

not sure about flights TO europe (which, yes, i realize is the main thrust of your question...though you might consider also searching flights out of JFK and domestic flights on a bargain airline to get there), but within europe...RYANAIR. the absolute cheapest flights.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:40 AM on November 21, 2011

If you're considering Helsinki and are looking for other northern Europe places to visit, you should consider Copenhagen. It's the most childrenful city I've ever been in, very walkable with beautiful parks (and I was there in midwinter), expensive to eat out but not bad for groceries, full of bicycles (including amazing ones that you can put your children inside of - these were everywhere, even in December), etc.
posted by bubukaba at 10:51 AM on November 21, 2011

Sorry you had a bad time in London. I feel obliged to stick up for the rest of the country and point out that York, Bath and Edinburgh exist as alternatives. We do rather lose out on cost at the moment, although not perhaps as much as Helsinki.

One thing I would say though is that Ryanair is, without a doubt, the worst airline I have ever flown with, and I cannot think of a better way to have a stressful, unenjoyable holiday. Easyjet and BMIBaby have nearly comparable pricing and do a much better job of hiding the fact that you're cattle. They also fly into more real airports - Ryanair has this trick of dumping you 40 miles from your destination.
posted by cromagnon at 10:56 AM on November 21, 2011

If you're travelling with kids then, unless you want to visit people/places on the East Coast, fly direct to Europe or, at the least, on a single itinerary where one airline is responsible for getting you to Europe. Book as soon as possible. We're talking about high season here. The savings possible by ticket-buying brinkmanship are not worth the stress for this kind of trip.

You need a better idea of your itinerary. The savings by adjusting your European country of arrival airport to fit your itinerary (rather than the other way around) are not likely to be huge, especially once you count for hotels or even a few hours in somewhere like London. Also the advantages of having a single itinerary for the main chunk of travel are considerable. Start pricing up return flights from Oregon to Barcelona vs. say Oregon to Heathrow. Right now I get $1300ish vs $1400 per person in coach on Consider going to a travel agent, just to see if they can do better than you.

Once you're in Europe, if you are flying with Children and value low stress, or you have a lot of luggage, and you can get organized and book the internal European flights with a few months notice on Iberia or whoever, avoid the low cost carriers. The budget airlines will not be able to get you from Spain to Finland without going via Britain or Germany, and they do not offer multi-leg itineraries, so you're looking at booking 20 tickets (with associated luggage fees) to get a family of 5 from Spain to Finland, and they are not responsible if you miss your connection. If you must: Easyjest and BMI are just about OK (although with luggage fees don't count on it being significantly cheaper). You will regret flying Ryanair solo without luggage, never mind with a family and connections to make. Ignore anyone who suggests it.
posted by caek at 11:01 AM on November 21, 2011

I should add: go in June rather than July. Many European countries are in school until mid-July, so flights will be a little cheaper, and places like Barcelona will be slightly less crazy.
posted by caek at 11:06 AM on November 21, 2011

their unbridled hostility and contempt of americans (i was there for 6 months) made me vow to never return.

What on earth? I'm a born Londoner, and I even live with a girl from California, and neither of us have never encountered this. I know plenty of Americans, Australians, Indians, Bangladeshis, Italians, Taiwanese, Pakistanis, Chinese, etc etc etc. London's amazing, and about as multicultural as you get in Europe. The only possible hostility I could imagine is in areas with busy commuters towards tourists - there's a bit of impatience when it comes to dawdling, like a toned down version of what you find in NYC.

Anyway, London's amazing, and I can wholeheartedly recommend coming here if you can afford it. It is a very expensive city, and if you don't have someone to stay with (no room in my overcrowded place, sorry :( ) then the cost may well be prohibitive. Still worth looking into IMO.

Re: Helsinki - I had a very nice time there, but I was only there for a short period of time. I wasn't aware of it being particularly child-friendly, but I did come across lots of galleries and museums, which may be nice for the art-oriented child. The tourist office had a nice guide to art in the city, if that helps.

I'd also second Copenhagen - it's a beautiful place, and Christiania is well worth visiting if it's still around when you get there. The English comprehension there seems to be very high.

I can recommend lots more places to visit, but it's difficult to look at from the perspective of your requirements. I would echo (many times) the call to ignore Ryanair.
posted by Magnakai at 11:07 AM on November 21, 2011

Best answer: I can't really advise on specifics of getting to Europe from the West Coast, but can suggest some general ideas. Try flying into international hubs (Heathrow, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona) and pick-up up any additional travel you need from cheaper airlines in Europe like Easyjet or Wizz Air. From when I looked last year for tickets to Europe, flying into London was a good option.

For looking for travel, try the ITA travel Matrix, Skyscanner, or Kayak. The matrix is my favorite because it's the most flexible, and can let you pick an airport within 200 miles of where you are to check for better prices over a month long period (i.e if you are flying to Barcelona, you can tell it to include airports within 200 miles to look for cheaper tickets). It will also let you book multi-city tickets fairly easily. Only drawback is you can't book on that site like you can on Expedia or Kayak. But its fairly easy to look up the flight numbers and book it on the airline's site. Kayak is useful in that it will send you email price alerts for specific itineraries.

On preview, nthing avoiding Ryanair. Norwegian Airlines is a good alternative if you end up flying to Helsinki/Scandinavia.
posted by snowysoul at 11:10 AM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry for the vagueness of the question-I realize it makes it hard to answer.

Snowysoul, thank you so much for the link to the Matrix. I hadn't heard of that site before, and it's very helpful. Just playing around with it so far, I've learned that I can fly out of Vancouver CA for cheaper than we could fly out of NYC; and stumbled on $900 flights to Paris on a couple of days in June, returning 3 weeks earlier, far cheaper than anything else I've seen. While I appreciate the suggestion to go with what's simple, Caek, if I can save $400-600 pp on 5 tickets, that's an enormous savings (and Paris! Yay!) :).

How sad is it that I didn't even consider going to a travel agent? I always plan my own travel, but haven't booked an international flight for 8 years...I forget about that option.
posted by purenitrous at 11:31 AM on November 21, 2011

Don't give up on direct flights! E.g. I see Vancouver to Barcelona for $1050 in June. But yes, you're right, if you're very flexible then the good deals are indeed flying into Paris, Heathrow and Frankfurt, simply by the law of averages, and Paris and London are destinations in themselves of course. Travel agents are mostly useless, but this is one situation when they can more than pay for themselves, and they may be able to figure out all in one go with a good multi-city itinerary (PDX-Barcelona, Lisbon-Helsinki, Helsinki-PDX).
posted by caek at 11:39 AM on November 21, 2011

London is phenomenally expensive; you can usually get decent offers on flights there even from the West coast, but it is an expensive city - and who knows what is going to happen with exchange rates. I'd think about Northern England/Scotland if you want to do the UK on a budget. And if you're thinking of taking the trains around the UK, booking them in advance saves a lot. But if you're on a real budget England and Scandinavia don't strike me as good choices for a family (unless you have people you can stay with, that is). And London can be very anti-American if you're unlucky. I'm Irish and didn't hit this until I travelled there with a Canadian; I still remember the time someone walked up to him in a pub and accused him of being responsible for the Vietnam War (this was before 9/11, so I am guessing that was all they could come up with off the top of their head). That's not everyone, to be sure, but direct confrontation from drunken people occurred a little more often in London than I would think normal.

In general, if you want to travel around within Europe without a car, Southern Europe tends to be cheaper. Trains are cheapish in Italy, though the odds of going through a trip next year without a strike might be quite low. A friend just came back from Slovenia and raved about it and I have heard nothing but good things from people who have travelled through the former Yugoslavia - beautiful, historic, great people, good transit, relatively cheap, etc. It's also relatively compact and might be more easier to cover properly than other regions. I recommend Hungary as my most wonderful visit on mainland Europe for a while, and it has the added bonus of being very easily accessible from Germany and Austria by train if you don't want to always fly. There's a fast train from Budapest to Vienna.

Unless you can guarantee that you will never need to check a bag, I'd avoid Ryanair. It can be cheap but extra charges for luggage and 'extras' can soon eat up what you've saved. And be sure the airport isn't so far outside the city they claim it is near that what you save won't be eaten up by other fares to get there.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:57 AM on November 21, 2011

Have you looked at Icelandair from Seattle for flights? Also, check Condor. Condor tends to let you have a connecting flight from Frankfurt to another European city for the same price as flying to Frankfurt. For some reason, Condor shows up on Orbitz but not Kayak.

Train tickets in Europe tend to be cheaper if you buy them in advance. At least in France, they usually became available three months before the travel date. It may be worth looking into travel cards for trains if you will primarily be using trains. For 12-25 year olds, a Carte 12-25 (12-25 Card) can save you up to 60% on train tickets and costs about 45 euros. Switzerland has a half-fare card and also some card about kids travelling cheaply with parents.
posted by carolr at 11:57 AM on November 21, 2011

Try German Wings for flights out of Portland and Seattle to Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg; Germany's a good start/end point for intercontinental travel, I often find good deals out of Frankfurt/Munich. Seconding for finding local airlines.
posted by Ellie Higginbottom at 12:14 PM on November 21, 2011

If you own your house, check out home exchange. I have never used this service but I looked into it a bit a while back and people seem to be mostly happy. It doesn't answer your question about flying cheaply but it could offset some of those costs.
posted by little miss s at 1:57 PM on November 21, 2011

Since no one seems to have mentioned this yet: please bear in mind that London is hosting the Olympics next summer, and that this will likely have a major effect on costs of going anywhere near London (and crowds if and when you are here).

I would suggest going somewhere in Germany. Munich or Freiburg im Breisgau might be good options for a base for a week. Munich has all sorts of museums and places of interest, and Salzburg (for the Sound of Music tour), Neuschwanstein (the fairytale castle) and many very old towns are within relatively easy reach. Freiburg is a beautiful spot on the edge of the Black Forest (with a mountain touching the city centre) that is a very easy distance from Alsace and Basel, Switzerland. Freiburg also has (unless things has changed) lots of music and theatre in the summertime. Many (if not most) German people speak English, although you will be more warmly received if you try to speak German.
posted by sueinnyc at 2:41 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

As sueinnyc said, don't even THINK about London in the summer of 2012. It's expensive at the best (cheapest) of times, and with the Olympics it's going to be completely full/crazy.

I'm partial to Amsterdam Airport (my parents live 15 minutes away!) but have heard that other people also consider it their favourite airport. The train station is directly in the airport. You could fly to Amsterdam, and take a train to Paris (or many other places) without even leaving the building.

I've also heard good things about flying into Frankfurt and starting a trip from there, but haven't done that myself.
posted by easternblot at 3:47 PM on November 21, 2011

I did a very successful house swap (and I was renting) with a couple in Paris. I also found it cheaper to buy train tickets in advance from the US. Being in a apartment meant I could eat more meals at home. I enjoyed shopping at the local grocery store, like a native, which gives you the best of both worlds, i.e. buying local, new products but still being able to find familiar stuff and products for kids who might be a little finicky or grumpy and want the familiar.

June is still off-season and will be cheaper than July or August, but a swap may be harder. Take a look at JetBlue and Southwest to the East Coast, I found that was cheaper one year.
posted by shoesietart at 4:25 PM on November 21, 2011

Best answer: Not sure how this thread ended up being about London.

I think Portugal and Spain is a great idea. Lisbon is an amazing city, still inexpensive compared to most of Europe as you point out. I always point it out as the Europe that Americans really want to see: Still an Old-world city with quarters with labyrinthine streets, amazing food and wine, history, a cafe culture like Paris. Despite having a bit of tourism, not yet ruined by tourism. Many parts of it feel like an undiscovered secret. An enchanting place.

I'd recommend Lisbon and then going out to Sintra as well. Sintra is like something out of a fairy-tale. A lone forest in a mountain full of fairy-tale castles like THIS and THIS.

If you want to go to Madrid after that, you'll have to fly. Rail links between the two countries are not that great. Madrid is still also relatively cheap by European standards. Besides the city itself, a trip out to Toledo is really worth it.

From there, you can take rail to Barcelona. Barcelona is a very different city than Madrid. The Catalan culture, the proximity to France, give this city a different feel. It feels more European than Madrid, which is more Spanish.

Regarding timing, mid-June is a great time to be in Lisbon. The whole month is full of festivals in honor of the city's patron saint. And in mid-June is the highlight of the festival. Families come out of their houses in the old quarters, set up a grill and grill and sell sardines and beer to all passersbys. There's also just random bands playing on street corners. I go every year.

You can try looking for flights from the US using Kayak. Airlines to look at (where I've found the best flights) include Lufthansa and USAIR and, in Europe, Air Portugal (TAP). Newark and Boston have a large expat Portuguese population so try looking through flights through there.
posted by vacapinta at 1:26 AM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Go to a travel agent and at least get some quotes. You might be able to find it cheaper on the internet, but many travel agents now have price matching guarantees. And they're fast!

I would advise against booking connecting flights separately. If the first flight is delayed, then you're buggered.

Deutsche Bahn is an excellent website for train travel all through Europe. Seat 61 is the go to website for non-plane travel info. You can pre-buy cheap train tickets in a lot of countries, and train travel is great as a family. (I went from the middle of Germany to Vienna for 29Euros last year!)
posted by kjs4 at 1:37 AM on November 22, 2011

I',m going to Finland next year and it is possible to stay in an OmenaHotelli for abut £45 a night - so don't change your plans unless you do want to see your friends, as cheap lodging is out there.

I really want to go to Lisbon and Barcelona is just gorgeous. Might be worth looking into getting an Interrail pass for the Iberian peninsula?
posted by mippy at 8:12 AM on November 22, 2011

Maybe look into getting up to San Sebastian for a few days? It's on a beautiful bay (check the photo halfway down), the food is great, the old town is quaint and higgledy-piggeldy, there's a castle/fort on a hill, and it's a very different side of Spain (being firmly Basque.) Plus you're fairly close to Bilbao, with it's crazy Guggenheim Museum and a handy-dandy airport.
posted by Magnakai at 4:22 PM on November 22, 2011

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