We’ve witnessed a lot of amazed faces lately, mixed with congratulatory remarks and the occasional pat on the back. For anyone reading this who doesn’t know, it’s because Yashy and I just took the trip of a lifetime, a 148 day adventure through Europe and Africa, along with our 5 year-old daughter and 3 year-old son. It’s a journey that has been incubating in Yashy’s mind for many years, and for the last two years, she has casually thrown the idea into conversations we’ve had about our future. Then last August, the digital marketing agency where I worked closed its doors after 20 years, and I found myself inspired to pursue new ideas, and Yashy had the perfect one.
So we decided that the time was right to leave Toronto for a few months, giving the kids a chance to live in new worlds before both would start school in the fall. Since both of us have worked full time since graduating with MBAs in 2007, we were in a financially stable situation and were able to take a risk. Yashy quit her corporate role and we started planning. Argentina was the first destination we considered. We spent part of our honeymoon there and have yearned to revisit the region, but it was not to be. For multiple reasons, including price and proximity, we decided to start our adventure in Spain.
We have written about the trip extensively on this site and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, but there is one element of the trip that we have not discussed, money. Perhaps the number one question we receive when we describe the trip is what it all cost. Not everyone asks out loud, but I can often tell when people want to know the financial details. A one week vacation for a family of four will usually cost at least $2,000, often much more, and here we were planning a 21 week getaway. Prior to the journey, I did not have a set budget in mind. Our plans were not concrete and we expected to keep moving during the trip, choosing our destinations based on the accommodations available. Mainly, we were just going to focus on spending responsibly and seizing every opportunity to save.
In the end, we spent a little over $24,000, but if you are considering a similar trip, I must warn you that that figure only partially represents the cost. Two factors not included in that amount are the salaries we would forfeit and the fact that this trip focused heavily on creating content for our blog and YouTube channel so we ended up trading our marketing services for access to some attractions. Yashy started Baby and Life almost six years ago and family travel has become a key component of the site and we do receive the opportunity to attend events and explore attractions at no cost in exchange for the work that we do. Two of the budget items included, accommodations and activities, are low because of products and services that we featured on the site.
Here are the different budget considerations and the purchases we made in each category.
Budget Area 1 – Home Rental and Moving Costs
We have a condo in downtown Toronto. It’s a pretty desirable location and we initially thought that it would be easy to find a renter. We advertised the unit as a fully furnished short term rental, initially setting the rent at $3,500 per month. After getting exactly 1 inquiry during the first week of the listing, we decided to lower the rate to $3,000. Interest was still low. After discovering the limitations of the short term rental market in Toronto, we contacted a realtor to help us find a tenant, which would cost us a ½ month’s rent if the realtor found a renter. We also spent $164 to list the unit on various sites, and in the end, it was with a $5 boosted listing on Kijiji that we found a tenant to rent the place for $2,400. We were lucky, since paying the realtor would have cost $1,200.
To prepare the place for showings, we had moved out most of our clothes and personal belongings. The movers cost $600 and we were fortunate to have friends who generously offered to keep our stuff in their basement, saving us the cost of a rental locker. We also needed to forward our mail through Canada Post, which was $135 for 6 months. The money we made from renting the unit was about $200 less than what we pay for condo fees, property taxes, and our mortgage, but I am not going to factor that figure into our trip budget as those are sunk costs that we pay anyway.
Total Home Rental and Moving Costs: $934
Budget Area 2 – Transportation
Over 148 days, we visited 35 cities, and also journeyed into the Sahara Desert. We used every available mode of transportation, including Ubers, taxis, subways, streetcars, buses, ferries, planes, trains, and automobiles, oh, and camels. Since this was one of our biggest expenditures, we worked hard to keep these costs low. We walked any distance under 3 km, took subways rather than taxis when we had the option, and even opted for long distance bus rides over high speed trains (if the time difference was reasonable). Had we more of a set schedule, we likely could have saved money buying plane and train tickets well in advance of our departure date.
We do regret renting a car to drive through Southern Spain when the train would have been a cheaper, and possibly more comfortable, option. The price of gas and highway tolls are steep in Europe. Plus, parking in European cities is a nightmare; I am pretty sure there is no Spanish word for ‘parking garage’. The European rail system is excellent. If we were allowed a do-over, we would have have skipped two of our car rentals periods. The first was a 9 day rental in Southern Spain and the second, a 10 day rental in Southern France. The only rental we were thankful for was the car we used to travel through the beautiful La Rioja wine region in Northern Spain.
Total Transportation Costs: $10,948
(includes 5 flights, 3 coach rides, 9 train journeys, 2 ferries, a 5 day Moroccan tour, 19 car rental days, plus various taxis and subway rides)
Budget Area 3 – Meals
Let’s start with dining out. Living in Toronto, we tend to eat out a lot. The food here is so good that the expense is unavoidable. We spend about $600 per month living in the city and would happily spend three times that. Over our 5 month trip, we spent an average of $1,050 per month, so our family was spending an average of $450 more per month eating out. We realized early in the trip that we would have to largely ignore the Michelin star restaurants we frequently passed and so the trip was not the culinary adventure we had hoped to experience. That will have to be for another time. However, we had a lot of great meals and, as you can see by the budget difference, we did indulge on a regular basis.
Most of our accommodations included a full kitchen and that gave us an opportunity to cook at home quite frequently, keeping our dining out costs in check. We discovered that the cost of groceries varies widely in Europe, with France and Croatia being generally more expensive than Canada, Germany and Spain being about the same, and the UK and The Netherlands a little less. Over the 5 months, we spent $600 per month on groceries, compared to the $525 we average in Canada.
Total Meal Costs: $8,389
Budget Area 4 – Accommodations
Thanks to a service we worked with called GuestToGuest, our total accommodation costs over the 5 month trip were just $2,300. The FREE home share service allows users to generate points by sharing their home. It’s similar to AirBnB except no money is exchanged. Anyone with a house or apartment that they are not using while on vacation (or a second home) should consider this service, as it allows users to accumulate points that can be used to rent accommodations while on vacation.
We spent all but 15 nights of the 148 trip in GuestToGuest homes, frequently getting the opportunity to meet our hosts while being afforded the luxury of a cared-for home with a kitchen, and often a bin full of toys, to the kids’ delight. We were fortunate to be working with GuestToGuest for our trip and so we did not have our home open for an exchange during the trip, but we’ll be doing so in the future (Canadian Thanksgiving is available if you’re looking!). Given that we paid $2,300 for the 15 nights that we did not use GuestToGuest, we realized substantial savings with the service. If you do plan on city hopping through Europe using AirBnb or Booking.com, expect to pay in the vicinity of $125 to $200 per night.
Total Accommodation Costs: $2,306
Budget Area 5 – Insurance
The main insurance we purchased was a comprehensive travel insurance plan, which included coverage for emergency medical expenses, trip delays/cancellations, and baggage loss, including theft. Most banks offer this type of insurance but we liked the rate as well as the coverage provided by World Nomads. The plan cost $1,157 for our five month trip. When signing up, we needed to indicate our destination countries but were later able to add Croatia and The Netherlands to the package for no additional fee. Happily, we never had to use it, but I felt secure with the insurance.
Perhaps the best item included in the package was the coverage for theft that included items kept inside a locked car or on our person (but not those in a locked hotel room). We had heard that cell phone theft is rampant in Spain and even experienced it first hand when a friend had her phone stolen at a restaurant in Marbella.
We also purchased an insurance plan on Yashy’s laptop, a decision we made two days before we left, after our son spilled water on her old laptop. The Geeksquad protection plan we bought for $28 a month from Best Buy seemed prudent. We never had to use that insurance either but it was a wise decision, given how frequently we moved and how wild the kids can get. Our last insurance item was called LugLoc. It’s a little device that I put into my backpack that has a built in SIM card. The device can provide its GPS location almost anywhere in the world. At a cost of $90, which includes six months of coverage, I enjoyed the peace of mind that it gave me.
Total Spent on Insurance: $1,362
Budget Area 6 – Phone Services
We actually saved money on cell phone usage! Both Yashy and I were able to put our Canadian cell phone service on hold. I am with Rogers and was only able to put the service on hold for 4 months at a cost of $7 a month, saving me $400 total. Yashy was able to stop her services for the entire trip and saved $45 a month. The $625 we saved was far more than the $137 we paid for SIM cards and data services in Europe and Morocco.
Total Savings: $488
Budget Area 7 – Activities
Most of the activities we did were blog features for which we we received complimentary access. In general, the tourist boards, museums, and amusement parks we contacted were happy to host our family in exchange for a couple hours of work. Other cities, like Manchester, had a number of free museums, while many places, like Madrid, offered free admission during certain days and times, usually on Sunday. For the whole trip, we manage to spend just $256 on museums and attractions by working remotely.
Total Cost: $256
We had a few other small expenditures here and there, like the $23 we spend on a new backpack after the zipper on Yashy’s $150 Lululemon backpack broke early in the trip. Of course, we also spend some money to buy a few gifts for friends and family back home and bought the kids the occasional toy. Those expenditures aside, the costs outlined above provide a comprehensive look at what you might expect to spend on 5 month family trip through Europe. I think that, had we not been working with GuestToGuest, we would have limited the number of cities we visited to between 5 and 15 and looked for monthly rentals. This approach would have reduced our transportation costs by roughly $3,000.
Or course the biggest expense of all is lost salary. If you are able to convince your workplace to take you back after a trip like this, then what do you have to lose? For us, we are likely faced with 6 to 12 months of lost salary each and so the cost of the trip is significant, despite a few contracts we completed while working remotely. However, we have always viewed the trip as a sort of mid-life retirement. We are using some of our savings now in lieu of spending them later in life, when we may not have the energy to embark on such an adventure. We are living the MasterCard commercial. The expenses are listed above; the experience was priceless.