How this Family of 4 Traveled the World for $130 a Day

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a blog post on family travel on this website so today, I’m excited to introduce to you Cliff from Live Family Travel. His San Francisco based family spent ten months traveling the world on a career break. They homeschooled and enrolled their kids in schools overseas, spent time with family, saw the world, and bonded as a family. And, they did so, on a budget this nomad is impressed with. Today, Cliff is going to share how his family did it – and advice for other families looking to do a big round the world adventure.

My dream of taking my family on a world tour began in Nicaragua in the summer of 2012 with my two daughters, who were three years old and six months old at the time. Most people thought my wife and I were crazy to go to Central America with two little girls. But, for three weeks, we relaxed at the beach in San Juan del Sur, rode horses through the countryside, and hung out in the bustling town of Granada.

It was an experience we vowed to repeat.

Over the next couple of years, we traveled together to various destinations, including Puerto Rico, Peru, Argentina, and Guatemala. We enjoyed these short trips but, the more we traveled, the more I wanted to go longer – I wanted a year-long trip around the world.

In 2015, that dream became a reality as we spent 10 months traveling in 10 countries.

But to make that happen we needed to be creative with how we saved and spent our money.

How We Saved Money and Budgeted for Our Trip

My family lives in one of the most expensive areas in the world: Silicon Valley outside San Francisco, California. Housing prices are extremely high and the overall cost of living is higher than most cities in the United States. I worked as a marketing manager in technology companies while my wife took care our two daughters.

After our trip in Nicaragua, we decided that we would make family travel a priority in our lives. From July 2012 to December 2014, we saved approximately $40,000 USD, which equates to $1,333 USD per month. Saving that much money on one salary in one of the most expensive areas in the world was not easy. It took some crafty saving skills, but here is what we did:

  • I worked freelance jobs. I earned extra money for work on short-term marketing projects, in addition to my full-time job. Now with the on-demand gig economy, there are many great options to earn extra money, including Uber, Lyft, and Wonolo.
  • We refinanced our mortgage. With a lower interest rate for our home mortgage, we saved over $500 USD per month.
  • I reduced my 401(k) and 529 contributions. Instead of putting all of my savings into my retirement account and my daughters’ education accounts, I decided to reallocate about $500 USD per month to our travel funds.
  • We reduced our spending. We cooked most meals, capping our food budget at $1,000 USD per month. We also stopped buying unnecessary electronics, clothing, and toys, limiting our discretionary spending to $500 USD per month.

By earning more, spending less, and reallocating a portion of my savings to travel, our travel budget gradually increased to a point where we felt comfortable enough to take time off to travel the world.

But in order for this trip to really make financial sense, we needed to do something about our house while we were away. We did this by renting our house with a family found through Craigslist. Thankfully, this area is in demand and after accounting for our mortgage, insurance, and taxes, we were making $500 USD per month profit from the renters, which helped pad our travel fund.

Additionally, we sold our SUV, which ended our $700 USD per month loan payment. We also sold all our furniture and about 80% of our electronics, clothes, shoes, and toys through Craigslist and some local Facebook groups. In total, we made about $5,000 USD from these sales.

With about $10,000 USD of extra money from rent payments and selling our stuff and the $40,000 USD in savings, we created a budget of $50,000 USD for our trip. We knew we had to make our money stretch as far as possible by being savvy with how we saved and spent on the trip.

For more information on how you can save money for your own trip, click here.

How Much We Spent

Below is a list of some of the expenses of our trip per country visited. (Later I’ll go into more detail about how we accomplished this.) With this information, I hope you realize that extended family travel around the world can be affordable and realistic. All you need is a curiosity to explore the world, flexibility, and a bit of budgeting skills.

Honolulu, Hawaii 

  • Duration: 1 month
  • Accommodations: Free, stayed at my mother’s place
  • Transportation: $800 USD
  • Flights: $2,400 USD
  • Total: $6,000 USD

Phuket, Thailand

  • Duration: 3 months
  • Accommodations: $2,000 USD ($667 per month for one-bedroom apartment)
  • Transportation: $400 USD ($133 per month)
  • Schooling: $2,100 USD ($350 per month per kid)
  • Visa extensions: $200 USD total
  • Flight from Phuket to Hangzhou free with Star Alliance points
  • Total: $8,000 USD

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

  • Duration: 3 days
  • Accommodations: $150 USD
  • Flights: $435 USD
  • $750 USD total

Hangzhou, China

  • Duration: Approximately 2 months
  • Accommodations: Free, stayed at my wife’s parents’ place
  • Schooling: $400 USD total for 2 months ($100 per month per kid)
  • Total: $2,500 USD

Europe – Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands

  • Duration: 2.5 months
  • Accommodations: about $5,200 USD (average of $71/night) for 73 nights
  • Food: $3,500 USD (average of $47 per day)
  • Shopping and leisure activities: $1,500 USD (average of $20 per day)
  • Schooling: $800 USD for 4 weeks in Barcelona ($400 per month per kid)
  • Flights and transportation: $5,000 USD
  • Total: $16,000 USD

Hong Kong

  • Duration: 3 days
  • Accommodations: Free, stayed at friends’ place
  • Flights: Free stopover in Hong Kong on the way back to Hangzhou from Europe
  • Total: $300 USD

Hangzhou, China

  • Duration: Approximately 2 months
  • Accommodations: Free, stayed at my wife’s parents’ place
  • Total: $2,500 USD

Flights to Bay Area: $2,000 USD

Further Reading: Check out a breakdown how we spent our money in Europe.

Breakdown by Expense Type

  • Flights: $9,000 USD
  • Other Transportation: $2,000 USD
  • Accommodations: $7,500 USD
  • Schooling: $3,300 USD
  • Food, shopping, and leisure activities: $17,750 USD

GRAND TOTAL: $39,550

To get an idea of how much your dream destination costs, check out these free travel guides. 

How We Saved Money During Our Trip

In order for our travel budget to last 10 months, we had to be efficient with the way we spent our money. We did this in a number of ways:

  • We used our frequent flyer miles. In total, I used 250,000 miles for free airplane tickets on Star Alliance airlines on this trip: 100,000 of those miles came from signup bonuses for Chase Sapphire Preferred credit cards for both my wife and myself. After $4,000 USD spent on each card, we were awarded the signup bonus of 50,000 points, which were converted 1:1 for Star Alliance miles. It’s our travel credit card of choice because there are no foreign transaction fees. Another 100,000 of those miles came from the accumulation of miles through flights flown by all four of us in the previous years. The remaining 50,000 miles came through spending on the cards over two years. A great site I use is The Points Guy and Matt has a great book on the subject too.
  • We purchased cheap flights. For flights that were paid in full, I used travel comparison sites like Google Flights and Kayak to find the best prices. In Asia and Europe, there were many budget airlines that made flying economical, so those flights didn’t take a huge chunk of our travel budget. For example, for all four of us, one-way flights from Venice to Barcelona were $420 USD on Vueling Airlines and round-trip flights from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur were $435 USD.
  • We stayed at our parents’ places. For about 45% of our time away from home, we stayed with my mother in Honolulu, Hawaii, and my wife’s folks in Hangzhou, China. Not only did we spend quality time with our extended families, but we also saved a ton of money on accommodations. While our situation is unique in that we have parents in different parts of the world, there are great options for free housing, including sites like Couchsurfing, Servas, Hospitality Club, and housesitting opportunities. It’s not as easy as what we had but it still works and is an option families can use!
  • We rented Airbnb apartments. Especially in Europe, where accommodations costs can be expensive, we stayed in furnished apartments ranging from a studio in Paris to a two-bedroom apartment in Barcelona for an average of $71 USD/night. Our accommodations costs were much cheaper than if we had stayed in hotels. (If you’re new to Airbnb, get $35 off your first stay!)
  • We did free activities. There are lots of free activities to do with kids while abroad, including going to beaches, parks, markets, shopping malls, churches, and outdoor festivals. Even for expensive cities like Rome and Barcelona, there were always free things to do. For example, from having read an article in National Geographic, we went to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona on one of its free Sundays, and we walked around the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona to watch the various street performers.
  • We cut our transportation costs. In Phuket, we rented a moped (for all four of us!) for $133 USD per month. In China, we took cheap taxis or rode the bus. In Europe, we rode the subways or the buses, which were not expensive (e.g., $1 USD per bus ride in Florence and Barcelona). By taking public transportation or walking whenever possible, we kept our daily transportation costs low.
  • We cooked most meals. With a kitchen at our parents’ places or our Airbnb apartments, we ate a majority of our meals at home, especially in Europe. When we ate at restaurants, we ate simply or at inexpensive lunch buffets (e.g., $10 USD for a Japanese lunch buffet in Florence). In Asia, eating at restaurants was fairly cheap, so we didn’t need to cook at home as much.

For more information on how to save money while you’re on the road, click here.

****

Family travel can be stressful, with all the planning, movement, logistics, new time zones, new languages, different foods, and taking care of the kids. It’s never really a vacation with children, because the majority of your time and energy will be used to take care of them.

But family travel is also very rewarding. 

When you travel together, you collect memories and build the bonds of your family through the shared experiences of being in different countries, interacting with different people, speaking different languages, and eating different foods. By getting out of your comfort zones and traveling the world, you allow your family to learn and grow in ways that could never happen at home.

One of my warmest memories (and there are many) comes when we were living in Barcelona, Spain. We found a trilingual preschool (English, Spanish, and German) that allowed our daughters to enroll for the entire duration of our stay in Barcelona. They became immersed in the Spanish culture and language, made local friends, and went on many field trips. It was amazing watching them learn to interact with the locals, learn a culture, and grow as people. They developed a cultural understanding that just wouldn’t have been possible if we had stayed home. I know this is a positive experience that will live with them forever.

Whether for three weeks during a winter break, three months in the summer, or a full year, budget family travel is possible. Traveling through 10 countries in 10 months with my family was a great learning experience and a dream come true. Despite all the headaches, fevers, upset stomachs, hot days, lost items, frustrating situations, and everything else that we went through during our trip, it was all worth it and we grew closer together as a family.

And there’s no better feeling than that as a parent.

Cliff Hsia is a writer, husband, and father who is determined to live a better-than-normal life by traveling the world, slowly and purposefully, with his wife and two young daughters. He writes about travel, parenting, and lifestyle design on his blog at Live Family Travel. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.