We're baa-aack! This summer's big trip (vacation is a term my wife and I reserve for travel without children; trip refers to travel with children) was to Spain, and I thought it might be worthwhile to share the tips and tricks that made this one wonderful, as well as the fails that we'll learn from going forward.
We began in Washington D.C. for a friend's milestone event followed by just under 3 weeks that we chose to divide between Madrid, San Sebastian and Barcelona. It was delightful, but this post will ignore the destinations in favor of the tips and tricks that allowed us to pull it off on a budget.
It All Started When We Got Carded
First and foremost came the airline tickets to and from Spain, a $3700 value that cost us exactly nothing. That was thanks to his and hers Chase cards, whose bonus points played out as follows:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve @ 60,000 point signup bonus
- Chase Sapphire Preferred @ 60,000 point signup bonus
- His and hers Chase Ink Business Preferred @ 80,000 point signup bonus each
Total bonus signup points from 4 credit cards: 280,000, which were enough to purchase 4 round trip economy tickets to and from Madrid.
For those looking to learn how to use credit card points for fun and adventure, I'd suggest either Physician on Fire's introductory article to credit card points or the Mad Fientist's specialized travel card application comparison tool. You should know both sites stand to make a referral fee if you use their links (I, sadly, do not).
For those seeking role models on how to deploy credit card spends on the Advanced Placement track, Dr. McFrugal is my go to Rumplestiltskin in modeling how to spin credit card points into free travel and hotel stay gold.
For family travel, I love Airbnb. 90% of the time I'm extremely happy with accommodations, which is more than my prior hotel experience had been, although my tastes admittedly run toward the budget end of the spectrum.
I read all the reviews a place has received before booking. This usually filters out the places with weird sewage smells, unresponsive or tyrannical hosts and 6am jackhammer projects across the street.
Next we look at non-negotiable amenities:
- Since we always travel carry on with a four day supply of clothing, we seek a functional washing machine.
- Decent wi-fi keeps my wife's business venture afloat while I can update the blog as I go.
- Proximity to a grocery store and a bakery are equally critical to our travel savings plan, since breakfast and lunch cost pennies when consumed or prepared at home.
- For summer in Spain, we verified that every place we rented had AC. It reached 104 while we were visiting, and the cool down time during peak heat was crucial to keeping the kids from spontaneously combusting.
- Finally, if I have weird arrival times I reach out to hosts in advance to see about letting us in early. The first Madrid hostess who let us in at 10am instead of 3pm was a life-saver with jet-lagged kids following a 10 hour time change. Airbnb is cozy like that, where instead of violating corporate policy, it's more akin to asking a favor of an aunt you don't know very well.
On the fence? This Airbnb link gets you $40 off your first booking (I earn a small referral fee).
A Lidl Planning Goes A Long Way
Now is a good time to give a well-deserved hat-tip to Justin at Root of Good, whose savings during his family's travel to Europe continue to be a source of inspiration. He introduced me to Lidl, a large discount grocery store chain that we visited a couple of times our prior summer in Greece.
This summer, we spent many mornings frolicking in those deeply discounted aisles to pick up fresh produce before heading out sightseeing.
My son has (for better or worse) inherited his father's habit of remembering the price of a consumer good and comparing it across vendors. He was blown away by the 29 cent baguettes sold at the Lidl bakery section, compared with costs in excess of a Euro at swankier artisanal bakeries we also visited. Avocados, a staple of our diet as Californians, were remarkably affordable there as well.
At our Barcelona Airbnb we'd eat breakfast, walk a few blocks to the local Lidl on the lower level of a stunningly rebuilt neighborhood market, and stock up on lunch: fresh peaches, plums or bananas, guacamole or hummus, a small bottle of balsamic vinegar, olives, and a couple of baguettes. It all got split between my backpack and my wife's along with chilled water bottles. Daily lunch costs averaged 6 euros total for the 4 of us, and everything was fresh.
Our budget for afternoon gelato every few days far exceeded our lunch spending for a family of four, but that was entirely in accordance with our values.
A final tip - those pitifully small plastic water bottles you are offered on the plane? We kept a couple and tossed them in the freezer every night, then pulled them out to act as ice packs for our lunch. We drank them as they melted.
On the hottest days, I'd additionally freeze one of two plastic 1 liter bottles we reused and carried with us so the kids always had something to hold against their foreheads, freezing the complaint regions of their cortex before the words could be articulated.
Traveling with kids meant taming fantasy expectations to meet reality. Our routine consisted of one major destination (cathedral or museum) per day; one neighborhood to wander aimlessly around and get to know; one break from the peak heat hours where folks could nap or have a bit of quiet time alone if they desired; and a nice dinner out.
We mixed it up a little by visiting old friends living in the Madrid suburbs who were gracious hosts and gave us a taste of local life and a wonderful al fresco lunch together.
I also planned a street art walk culled from online sources that was a hit and livened up our appreciation of masters of both brush and spray can.
We also offered each of the kids the opportunity to plan a day. My son declined, while my 11 year old daughter planned one of our favorite days in Madrid - a self-guided street tour of some medieval neighborhoods she'd found in a Rick Steves guidebook at the library, a public market where we broke our lunch routine to enjoy some tasty empanadas; and one of the oldest churro and chocolate bars in Spain, which she found on Yelp and selected because one of the reviewers complained it was "too sweet with overly thick chocolate" - my daughter's preferred forms of excess.
The day's rest stops alternated between our Airbnb apartments and, surprisingly, the air conditioned behemoths that are Spanish department stores. El Corte Ingles is the Spanish Macy's, and the ground floor electronics sections often included a gallery of virtual reality demonstrations where passersby were invited to try on headsets and strap into devices that simulated flying a jet fighter, riding in a toboggan, or exploring a tropical island inhabited by dinosaurs.
The catch was you tried these simulations in front of a window display where others could watch the devices flip you upside down and every which way. The kids thought it hilarious to watch their folks flip upside down, and the department store became one of their favorite rest stops.
I had no desire to rent a car, since given our limited time we wanted to get to know 3 cities instead of speeding through 10 towns. I found some wonderful explanations of the Spanish rail system here, and subsequently booked our train tickets 6 weeks in advance via this website.
Trains were comfortable, clean, and had outlets so we could do some work on our laptops while the kids read books on their kindles.
We were thankful to have packed ample food supplies in our day packs for the longer trips as the food sold on the trains looked like slim pickings.
Got any travel hacks that might help us on our next journey?