7 European destinations ideal for a cheap family vacation
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If you’re ready to get back to Europe with your family after the pandemic temporarily paused travel, you’re not alone. All signs point to a very active tourist season this year on the European continent. According to the European Travel Commission, 3 out of 4 Europeans want to travel to another European country this summer, and data from Allianz shows that travel from the U.S. to Europe is up over 600% from last year.
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Prices for airfare and hotels have already been skyrocketing for summer travel both within and outside of the U.S., so choosing an affordable destination is more important than ever, especially if you have your heart set on Europe. If you have a stash of points and miles, you can use them to fly and stay. But most importantly, being in a cheaper European destination ensures you can save money on food, activities, drinks and more for the whole crew.
The destinations on this list are both family-friendly and on the more affordable side, allowing you and your whole family to enjoy a summer vacation in Europe on a budget — even during what may just be a record-breaking tourist season.
Portugal is one of Western Europe’s most affordable countries, and Porto, located in the north, is the perfect destination for families on a budget. The city is easily walkable, with colorful tiled buildings and art nouveau architecture to admire. Kids will enjoy free activities like walking across the river via the double-decker Dom Luís I Bridge or taking the city’s funicular and cable car (for a low price).
The stunning Livraria Lello, one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world, costs 5 euros to enter (free for children 3 and under) but the ticket price will go toward your purchase if you buy a book. And when the kids need a break, you don’t have to feel guilty about taking them for a cheap and easy meal at a McDonald’s when traveling abroad — Porto’s McDonald’s is frequently dubbed “the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world,” complete with stained glass and chandeliers.
If your family loves castles and horses, a sunny getaway in Seville, Spain, makes for a great vacation without overspending. Although tickets to the famed Alcazar palace are 14.50 euros per adult (1 euro for children under 13) — kids will love the massive gardens where they can run and play after touring the inside of the castle — you could make this a full-day activity. Afterward, riverside strolls and wandering the winding streets of the city center are free. In and around Seville and nearby city Jerez, there are plenty of stables and farms to ride and view purebred Spanish horses.
Dining in Seville can be cost-effective as well. Some local spots will give you free tapas when you order a drink, and a glass of wine can cost as little as 2.50 euros. Renting bikes is another affordable activity that can keep the whole family occupied. And children and adults alike will love visiting the fairytale-like Plaza de Espana, complete with footbridges and towers (free). Between the square and its neighboring park, there’s lots of space for the little ones to explore while parents enjoy the sunset. Just note that it gets extremely hot during the summer — but the upside is that Seville is usually cheaper during this time.
Visiting the Greek islands with a family takes a bit of patience and organization. Budget travelers might want to avoid expensive islands like honeymoon-oriented Santorini or party island Mykonos, but may not want to stray too far off the beaten path. Rhodes is an easy answer. It’s more cost-effective than other islands and visitors can fly there from hubs like Athens, London and Munich. For the best hotel rates, consider traveling outside of the summer high season.
Rhodes has many beaches with shallow waters like Tsambika Beach, complete with ample parking and amenities. The island offers many activities besides just enjoying the sun and sand. Ticket prices for nature reserve Valley of the Butterflies, complete with waterfalls, a petting zoo, a monastery and a museum, range from just 3-5 euros per adult and are free for children under 12. And kids can check out vintage toys and play with many of them at the Rhodes Toy Museum, where entrance is free.
One of the most affordable capital cities in Europe, Budapest features some interesting and educational activities for traveling families. And if you’ve already made it to Europe, consider flying Hungarian low-cost carrier Wizz Air to Budapest from a number of European hubs. The airline is no-frills, and I wouldn’t recommend it for long-haul flights, but it’s a cost-effective way to get the whole family to Budapest.
When it comes to activities, the Children’s Railway is one of the most distinct: a train that runs along about 7 miles of track through the Buda Hills that’s entirely operated by children. Ticket prices are less than $2 (800 Hungarian forints) for adults and less than $1 (400 forints) for kids. The Budapest Zoo and Botanical Garden is reasonably inexpensive with adult tickets costing around $9 (3,339 forints) and kids tickets $6 (2,225 forints). Complete with a butterfly garden and a petting zoo, families can spend the whole day here.
Paris and the French Riviera can be expensive for families on a budget. If you’re dying for a jaunt to France but can’t afford some of the most popular spots, consider an alternative French region like the Dordogne, which is northeast of Bordeaux.
Parents can still indulge in that coveted French wine and cheese, but there’s also plenty for kids to enjoy. The region has hundreds of castles, as well as a number of prehistoric caves to explore. And when it comes to castles — you don’t always have to pay to go in. Sometimes, spotting them from the town or the car is just as fun. During your French road trip, plan to stop in some of the area’s quaint riverside villages like Beynac-et-Cazenac or La Roque-Gageac. There are also plenty of nature activities like easy hiking, kayaking, fishing and even camping offered throughout the region.
Popular Italian family-friendly destinations like Tuscany and the northern lake district can be easily explored with the kids in tow, but they can also be expensive. Instead, consider a visit to Italy’s largest island, Sicily. With two main airports on opposite sides of the island, Catania (CTA) and Palermo (PMO), fly into whichever one has the better deal and plan your trip around that particular area.
Sicily has it all: incredible, affordable, delicious cuisine, beautiful villages in the Val di Noto, rich Italian culture and traditions, stunning beaches and even the volcanic Mount Etna. Speaking of Mount Etna, it’s free to climb up to 2,500 meters (or drive up to 1,800 meters, if your kids are small), an activity that can be done year-round. You’ll need to take a tour to go any higher or summit.
Children will love the cable car in Taormina, and there are affordable agriturismos, or Italian farm stays, around the island that the whole family will love — complete with pools, farm-fresh cuisine and sprawling outdoor space. If that’s not enough, locals basically eat ice cream for breakfast (granita), so your kids will definitely be sugared up and happy on a family trip to Sicily.
Your kids might not be able to properly pronounce Slovenia’s capital, but they’ll love visiting it thanks to the gorgeous bridges spanning the Ljubljanica River and the greenery of Tivoli Park.
This is a destination where getting a tourist card can really make sense. The Ljubljana tourist card offers cardholders a free guided city tour, a free funicular ride and entrance to the castle, a free riverboat cruise, four hours of bike rental, free travel on public transport and admission to more than 20 different attractions (including the arboretum, various museums and the zoo) and even bus transport between the airport and city center. Prices range from 16 euros for a child’s 24-hour card to 40.50 euros for an adult’s 72-hour card when purchasing online.
Featured photo of Sicily by Sandro Bisaro/Getty Images.
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