[Editor's Note: Today's WCI Network post comes from Physician on FIRE and is all about a past vacation he took with his family. Wondering how FIRE advocates and other frugalistas go on international trips? Well, this is what they look like.]
Last fall, my inbox teased me with a remarkable deal. Paris for $410 Roundtrip.
I clicked where the e-mail told me to click for further details. Amazingly, the deal offered lined up with time I had off from work and partially coincided with our boys’ spring break.
The flights were on Icelandair, an airline I’ve flown on a couple prior trips to Europe. As I have twice before, I took advantage of the free stopover option, extending our layover on the way home from a couple of hours to a couple of days. Within an hour of receiving the e-mail, our family of four was booked for a trip to France and Iceland. After visiting Florida over spring break two of the last three years, embarking on a European vacation would be quite the departure for us.
Pre Flight Preparations
We wanted our boys to be excited about the trip, but also to understand that it wouldn’t be all about them or entirely for them, like a family vacation to Florida tends to be. Amazon Prime had some videos that highlighted our destinations, including a show specific to touring Paris with younger children, and we saw the highlights of Iceland in another.
Our local library had a book about Paris aimed squarely at the grade school crowd. A kind cousin sent the boys a care package that included a Mission Paris book that sent our boys on discovery missions at many of the major attractions throughout the city. There were practical considerations. We had to apply for passports for the young ones with plenty of time to spare. One of their pictures was rejected for too much smiling of all things. The kid’s eight. He’s happy. Give me a break.
My wife and I also viewed Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris a second time, and borrowed tourist books on both Paris and Iceland from the library, and renewed them to take on the trip.
Our cell phones work worldwide on wifi, so we knew we could keep in touch without much trouble. The AirBNB apartments we rented were equipped with wifi, and the apartment in Paris had a washing machine, so we would be able to pack light.
How We Spent $500 a Day
This is a money blog with a side of travel, so I’ll be reporting on our trip from a perspective that focuses on the cost and value of our various adventures.
We vacation much in the same way that we live our lives. We don’t splurge often and don’t like to waste money, but we target our spending to get the most bang for our buck in the areas that matter to us most. To some people, that will be food, and it’s really easy to splurge on food in Paris and Reykjavik. Others like to pay for comfort and luxury in travel and accommodations.
We like food, but we’re not foodies, and we’re perfectly happy with three-star accommodations. We’re most interested in seeing the sites we want to see, snapping the photos I want to shoot, and making sure the boys get a rich cultural experience.
I’ll break down our choices and costs by category:
That covers just about everything other than gifts we bought for friends and family back home, but I’m not gonna lie — that was just Icelandic beer and booze from the Keflavik duty free shop.
European capitals are typically easy to navigate by subway and train. Paris is no exception. We probably hopped on and off the subway 30 times and never waited more than four minutes. The express RER trains come a little less frequently, but zip you across town with fewer stops.4th arrondissement.
The morning of our first full day in Paris, we bought 3-day Visite passes for unlimited public transportation within zones 1-3 (we never left zone 1). We would have bought a 4-day pass, but they don’t offer that flavor. On the fourth day, we bought 1-day passes.
Day five, we bought the 5-zone pass on the RER train to Disneyland Paris, and bought one-way tickets back. Day six, we bought one-way tickets to our departing airport, Charles de Gaulle, which, although further from the city than Orly, is an easy single train ride away. For four of us, it still cost just about as much as the taxi from Orly, though.
In Iceland, we rented a car. Gas, like everything else under the midnight sun, is quite expensive at nearly $8 a gallon, but we wanted to drive the Golden Circle and have transportation to and around Reykjavik, so the car was a no-brainer at under $60 a day for two days.
What about airport parking back home while we were away? I planned to park at a shuttle lot near the airport, but when we pulled up, it was full! We phoned a friend who lives reasonably close, and asked if we could park in the driveway. Thank you, friend!
I dropped the family off at the airport, parked at our friend’s house, jogged the 3.1 miles to the light rail transit stop, and joined my family at the airport shortly thereafter. I could have taken an Uber (I did on the reverse trip when we got home), but an impromptu 5k seemed like a good idea at the time.
I snapped this photo of geese walking on water with my phone along the route.
Total Transportation Costs:
- Iceland Car Rental $113
- Iceland Gas $50
- Paris Taxi: $37
- Paris Public Transport: $198
- “Parking” = Uber + Light Rail: $13
- Four Roundtrip Flights: $1,668
- Total: $2,079
Paris and Reykjavik are known to be a couple of the world’s more expensive cities. A small hotel room in a central location in either city starts at $200 US and goes up from there. Traveling as a family of four, we were not enthused at the thought of squeezing into a few hundred square feet, listening to our youngest snore (he was getting over a cold), looking for laundromats (or packing 3x as many clothes), and eating every meal out.
Airbnb to the rescue!
Our criteria for an apartment in both locations were specific. Two bedrooms. A kitchen. Within walking distance of the town center. And no more expensive than a hotel.
We were able to find a place in both cities that met all our criteria for about $160 a day, and we had quite a few places to choose from.
In Paris, we had a seventh-floor apartment with views of the Eiffel Tower, Parthenon, Notre Dame, and Sacre Couer. Within a block, we had a small grocer, a bakery, and a few small cafes. A few blocks further, we had metro stops and a supermarket. We were on the “Right Bank,” a block north of the River Seine. It was a great location.
The Icelandic apartment was a quirky setup in the basement of a home about a block away from the large pond known as Lake Tjörnin, and a few blocks south of downtown and the main shopping district along Laugavegur. There was a public swimming pool (these are a big deal in Iceland) within walking distance, but we chose to drive to a couple better ones that were equipped with waterslides.
If you haven’t tried Airbnb before, I recommend it, and I can save you $40 if you sign up through this link. Be sure to read reviews and understand that you’re usually staying in someone’s place. Expect to see some personal effects, have a half-full pantry, and in Europe at least, there may not be a coffee maker, much to my wife’s chagrin.
Total Lodging Costs:
- Paris Airbnb $1,010
- Iceland Airbnb $321
- Total: $1,331
There were no vegetables. My wife wants you all to know how I deprived her and our once-growing children of any vegetables.
I did pick up a salad mix once and bought some frozen cauliflower in Iceland, but compared to our normal diet, vegetables, like us, were on vacation.
As I stated, we’re not exactly foodies, and I’ve got more food aversions than I like to admit. We’ve also got American kids that eat like most American kids, so fine dining was not on our menu.
Our first evening in town, we sat down at an outdoor café where little English was spoken. We ordered the fixed price meal of the day, and a chicken quesadilla for the boys. I’m not sure what we ate — there was an appetizer that was cheese and tomato based, the main course had shrimp and some kind of food in a hollowed out squash, and a dessert that was the yummy love child of crème brulee and bread pudding.
After dinner, we went grocery shopping.
Breakfast every day consisted of fruit, bread, and cheese. We picked up fresh baguettes daily and packed sandwiches with cheese and three or four kinds of meat (deli ham, prosciutto, salami, chorizo) to go. We generally had our dinners out, but sauteed a couple kinds of fish at home one evening in Paris.
In Iceland, on average, everything costs about double what you would expect to pay. By the time we were settled in our apartment, it was past dinnertime, and we somehow ended up at the mall. A plate of subpar Chinese food was $17 USD and a footlong sub with a drink was over $10 — and that was the daily special.
After looking over a few menus at the mall and downtown, we decided to do some grocery shopping. We somehow spent nearly $100 for two days worth of food. That included a nice big chunk of marinated salmon, more sandwich supplies, gelato, chips, crackers, cheeses, breakfast cereal, and four cans of a Redbull knockoff that was the bargain of the trip at 59 Icelandic króna (about $0.55) or half the price of a diet cola.
There was no coffee. I get nasty looks when I book a place that doesn’t have a machine where you push a button as you roll out of bed and have fresh coffee by the time you wipe the sleep from your eyes. I got nasty looks in two countries.
The French apartment had only instant coffee, and the Icelandic one had a malfunctioning French press (you’d think the French place would have had a French press, am I right?). My wife jerry-rigged a drip system and somehow survived. I get my fix from diet soda, which was not hard to come by in either destination.
There was beer. While on vacation, I crave good beer in the evening as much as she needs her morning java. The Carrefour Market in France was the best source for all our grocery needs, including €0.55 baguettes, and it was a superb beer stop. 33 cl bottles of Chimay and Duvel for ~ €1.50. Six packs of Leffe Triple and Hoegaarden for ~ €5.50 and €4.50. €3.00 to €4.00 bombers of IPA. Six evenings of quality “imports” set us back less than $40 USD.
In heaven, there is no beer. In Iceland, there is no affordable beer. The first evening, I bought three singles for $13 and decided to save them for our last night. I bought a $29 six pack of an Icelandic Imperial Stout at the duty-free shop, which was actually a nearly 50% discount from the shelf price at Vínbúðin.
Total Food & Drink Costs:
- Paris Restaurant & Snacks: $146
- Paris Grocery & Drinks: $124
- Iceland Restaurant: $25
- Iceland Grocery & Duty Free Shop: $122
- Total: $417
Experiences are where it’s at. There are plenty of great travel experiences that don’t cost a thing, but you can’t experience the views from the top of the Eiffel Tower without paying for the right to go up there.
There are probably ways to sneak into Paris’ catacombs, but we took the safe route, paid the price of admission, and waited the two hours in line. The bones had been waiting for us for centuries, so two hours seemed reasonable. That was the longest line by far that we experienced on the trip.
When you’ve got six days to explore a city like Paris with a rich history and a main attraction on every other block, you’ve got to pick and choose your experiences, and try to squeeze in at least a couple each day.
Our whirlwind tour included The Louvre, aforementioned Eiffel Tower and Catacombs, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Sacre Couer, Opera Garnier, several other churches and historic buildings, numerous parks, playgrounds, and the happiest playground in Europe: Disneyland Paris and it’s neighbor, Walt Disney Studios.
Our boys (6 & 8) impressed us with their stamina and relative patience. They loved the subway system and probably walked at least five miles a day. We were out of the apartment eight to ten hours a day and they were troopers, even in places that weren’t particularly exciting for them.
It helped that we had the Mission Paris book and the promise that if they earned enough points, we would take them someplace amazing on our last day. A place I referred to as “le church de Saint Mickey (pronounced Mi Kay)” They didn’t get the joke, which made for a wonderful surprise.
Amazingly, four one-day passes to both parks only set us back $196. You couldn’t snag two one-park passes for that in the states.
In Iceland, we had grand plans to drive the Golden Circle which includes a continental divide, a geyser with the killer name Strokkur that spews hot water every five minutes, and a ginormous waterfall called Gullfoss.
We stepped out at Þingvellir to see the place where the tectonic plates are spreading apart at the same speed our fingernails are growing (true story).
We stepped into 40 mph winds to be pelted in the face by small hunks of slushy wetness. We sprinted to the crowded visitors center and back to the car a minute later. I snapped one quick photo and recalled how lovely the place was when my wife (fiancee back then) and I visited in June nearly ten years ago.
We were less than halfway to the geyser and waterfall when the road started to look impassible with accumulating slush and blowing snow. I’m no stranger to driving in inclement weather, but when the axles and muffler start to forge a path through the wet packed snow, it’s time to turn around.
We regrouped, took a few hours stroll through town, made dinner, and hit up a neighborhood swimming pool.
These pools are all the rage in Iceland. You can’t pass high school without being a proficient swimmer, and the geothermal energy keeps these mostly outdoor waterparks cozy warm year round. This was my third two-day stopover in Iceland in fifteen years, and I made my third pilgrimage to Laugardalslaug that first evening.
We found an even better pool at Árbæjarlaug the second evening. The weather became atrocious by the end of our third hour there, but you haven’t lived if you haven’t walked from the sauna to the 42° to 44° (107.6° to 111.2° F water) hot pot in a full-on blizzard.
Your blood is near boiling, your head and neck are at risk of hypothermia. On average, you’re just right.
Total Cost of Experiences & Admissions:
- Paris Experiences: $428
- Iceland Experiences: $38
- Total: $466
The Grand Total
Cost of our European Vacation:
- Transportation: $2,079
- Lodging: $1331
- Food & Drink: $417
- Experiences: $466
- Total: $4293
Altogether, this nine-day trip (which was essentially eight days in Europe plus travel time) cost us just under $4,300 or nearly $500 a day.
Extrapolated to a 365-day year, it would cost us $174,105 to live this way year-round, and that’s not accounting for any other fixed expenses. Of course, we wouldn’t choose to travel at this frenzied pace all year long.
How We Would Slow Travel Differently
With an early retirement feeling imminent, I view most vacations not so much as escapes, but as scouting missions. We see how our boys handle different environments and schedules (better than anticipated). We learn what it’s like to live and how much it might cost to be in these far-flung places.
We would stay further from the city center, perhaps renting for a month at a time at less than half the cost.
We would do one big paid experience every two or three days instead of two or three a day, and would have time before and after to learn more about the museum / historical site / iconic tower.
We’d be more efficient with grocery shopping and meal planning.
We would have reloadable public transport cards and would pay for trips as needed.
Beer drinking would resemble our home pattern of maybe three nights a week and not eight.
Adopting a slow travel mindset, we could probably stay someplace five times as long for about double the cost of a one-week trip. The airfare is a fixed cost. We probably would not spend much more on admissions to attractions. We’d spend more on food and perhaps more on lodging, but certainly less on a per-night basis.
Have you had an opportunity to slow travel? What’s your biggest travel splurge? Questions about traveling with kids? I’m happy to swap stories in the comments below.