The entire point of travel is to experience, so of course you’ll have to budget for experiences. Plan experiences intentionally to ensure your dollars stretch as far as they can.
This is a very personal decision. What works for my family won’t necessarily work for yours, but I’ll explain how I make these decisions. I hope that explaining how I plan our experiences will help you make decisions about your family’s experiences.
Figure out the absolutely necessary experiences
For every family, some experiences are absolute no brainers. For example, we knew that we weren’t going to to go to Rome and skip the Coliseum or the Vatican. We couldn’t go to Barcelona and not go to La Sagrada Familia. When we go to the United Kingdom, we will absolutely be visiting the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio Tour. Decide what you absolutely have to do.
It’s important to spend some time thinking about this. If part of your family’s reason for choosing to go to Amsterdam is to see the Anne Frank House, then you must put this experience at the top of your list, no matter what it costs. We wanted to see Mont Saint Michel when we went to France. After doing some research, I realized that we would get a lot more out of the experience if we spent the night there. The island becomes a lot less crowded after the tour buses leave for the day. It turns out that the island has a limited number of rooms, and they rent for much more than my target nightly lodging price. I decided to spend more than our budget for that one night of lodging, and we spent the evening exploring a largely deserted monastery. It was worth it.
How I screwed up our must-see experience
When we went to the Vatican, I paid significantly extra for “a less crowded tour”. I read enough trip accounts to realize that the basic tour package wouldn’t be a great experience for our kids. I hoped that by spending the extra money, we would have a better tour. It turned out that I should have spent MORE money. Our tour was still very crowded, and although we weren’t packed into the Sistine Chapel like sardines, we didn’t get the awe-inspiring experience I would have preferred. In fact, I think my family has been turned off of the Vatican for life. Anytime the Vatican is mentioned, my husband and kids flatly state that they have no desire to go there again. (I, on the other hand, might ditch them for another chance to visit the Vatican’s museums if and when we make it back to Rome again.)
What I’m saying it to think about which experiences are most important to your family, and do some research to see if spending more money on them will make them better. Fortunately, that’s not always true.
Experiences don’t have to be expensive
Some of our best experiences have been free. Although this particular example is no longer free, our family attended a real fashion show at The Galeries Lafayette in Paris. While researching Paris, I found that the historic store has frequent fashion shows, which were free to attend at that time. My kids were impressed to be “on the list” and were enthralled by the experience. We spent a couple of hours exploring the store after the show, and my budding fashionista found a “leather” jacket that we ended up buying for her birthday. It was a great souvenir from the trip, and she wore it until she outgrew it.
We also sought out the playground at the Tuileries while in Paris. After reading several positive reviews, I knew it would be a great place to spend an afternoon. We ended up spending a couple hours watching our kids run around with about thirty other kids. I have no idea how many languages were being spoken, but there were many. It was fantastic, and again, totally free.
Plan for experiences that your family will actually enjoy
You don’t have to go everywhere on the “must see” list for the city. You know your family best. In general, try to stick to the experiences that they will enjoy and get the most out of. In Barcelona, we paid to visit Park Guell, but not Casa Batlò or Casa Milá. I knew my family would enjoy seeing the structures of the Park. I also knew that a single file tour through a building wasn’t really their cup of tea—particularly when it cost $100 for a family of four.
Don’t crowd your schedule
Don’t try to do too much in one day. I’ve found that for my family, a maximum of two experiences a day is ideal. We usually try for one in the morning and one in the afternoon, but we don’t always see that much. I’ve found that we enjoy our visits much more if we aren’t rushing to see everything in one day. This is where remembering that there are no once in a lifetime trips comes in handy.
A day for us might consist of a museum visit in the morning and a trip to a specific park in the late afternoon. We spend the rest of the day wandering and exploring, with no specific agenda. We’ve found great parks to hang out in, interesting stores to explore, and occasionally a church or museum that wasn’t on the list, but that proves to be irresistible. Of course we also wander into most grocery stores and bakeries.
My goal is for us to be pleasantly tired at the end of the day. We want to be excited about what we will see the next day, not exhausted and cranky.
Think about your family’s preference and ideal pace, and plan for experiences that result in wonderful trips and lifelong memories.