Budgeting and Saving for Affordable Family Travel, with Holly Johnson
Welcome to The MapleMoney Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. I’m your host, Tom Drake, the founder of MapleMoney, where I’ve been writing about all things related to personal finance since 2009.
Are you planning a family vacation this summer? Vacations can often be a source of stress for parents, especially if you have young children, or you’re going into debt to fund your trip. Finding a way to save in advance for your trip will go a long way to ensuring your summer adventure is a relaxing one.
My guest this week is Holly Johnson, from Club Thrifty, who joins us to discuss how she makes the most of family travel. According to Holly, affordable family vacations start long before the trip, by reducing expenses and budgeting in advance. Our conversation covers a lot of ground – everything from making travelling with kids easier, to the best places to find deals on flights, and why Holly will book a condo, or an Airbnb, over a traditional hotel room any day.
She even shares her #1 tip on saving money for travel. It’s an episode you don’t want to miss, right here on The MapleMoney Show!
Our sponsor, Wealthsimple, offers a better way for you to save. Smart Savings has no fees on deposits and withdrawals, and they offer higher interest rates than the big banks. Visit Wealthsimple today, to find out more about Smart Savings!
- How Holly found freedom through self-employment
- Designate a savings account just for travel
- Holly shares her #1 tip on saving money on travel
- How to save money on hotels
- When on a trip, set a spending limit for kids
- Holly’s advice on using credit card rewards to fund travel
- Using Google Flights to find flight deals
Are you planning a family vacation for this summer? Sometimes these vacations can really wear down the parents especially if your children are young or you’re paying for that trip with credit. You’ll come back feeling much more relaxed and refreshed if you can enjoy the experience and you’re not raking up debt from the trip. Holly Johnson from Club Thrifty joins us to discuss how she makes the most of family travel starting before the trip by reducing expenses and budgeting in advance. Then we get into how to save the most money and get the most value for your vacation dollar.
Welcome to The Maple Money Show, the podcast that helps Canadians improve their personal finances to create lasting financial freedom. Our sponsor, Wealthsimple, has a better way to save. Smart Savings has no fees on deposits and withdrawals and they offer higher interest rates than the big banks. You can find out more about Smart Savings at maplemoney.com/wealthsimple. Now, let’s chat with Holly…
Tom: Hi Holly, welcome to The Maple Money Show.
Holly: Thanks for having me on.
Tom: I wanted to have you on because I know you do a lot of traveling with the family and it’s one of the big topics we have on Maple Money. I want to get into your story a little bit. I know there was a point where you decided travel was important to you and you changed your finances to make that happen. Can you go back to when all this started—when you decided to fix up your finances so you could attain goals like that?
Holly: Sure. My husband and I used to work in the funeral industry. We worked a lot of hours and made a really nice living but not as much as we earn now. More importantly, we only had about 15 vacation days a year and those were also our sick days. Then we were trying to have kids so there were definitely points back in 2008 to 2010 where I said, “Wow, my life sucks because all I do is go to work, take care of a small child and go home and do chores then go to bed.” And our vacation back then was visiting family members out of state. Eventually we started our blog, clubthrifty.com in 2011 and over the course of several years we were both able to quit and do it fulltime. I definitely don’t miss the days of having PTO but I love the freedom of self-employment and I feel like so many people wait their entire lives to retire and then they want to travel and go places. I think self-employment has given us the opportunity to go and literally do anything we want for as many weeks a year as we want, while we’re still young and can enjoy it. So, that’s what we’re trying to do. Also, the funeral industry kind of put things into prospective too because we see lots of people dying in car wrecks and things like that. I remember this one time a guy died on his final day of work. It was his final day of work. He had put in 30 some years in the company. They threw a party for him and then he died that night. He and his wife had all these plans to go on a cruise to Alaska and do all kinds of stuff and he never got to do any of it. I just think it’s such a shame so we are trying to live very intentionally and travel is a part of that.
Tom: My friend Jimmy, who retired happy here in Canada, points out traveling in a retirement is a bit of a myth anyway because when you actually hit retirement are you really going to travel all year? You might just go for a few weeks anyways and the rest of the year you still need to know what you want to do outside of travel.
Holly: Right, exactly. And then you never really know how your health is going to be. Nobody knows if you’re going to be in good enough shape to travel. A lot can happen so we’re just trying to strike while the iron is hot and do as much as we can with our young children.
Tom: When you first decided you wanted to do this—to get your finances in order and go travel, what steps did you take? Did you start budgeting and tracking expenses?
Holly: When we worked in the funeral home we made a nice living. I don’t remember how much we made but it was less than six figures, together. I made about $38,000 a year so we had plenty of money and good jobs but not tons of money. We had two car payments, spent a lot of money on convenience items like groceries, eating out because we were so busy. Daycare for the kids and a lot of stuff like that so we did start budgeting. We drastically cut our expenses and threw all the money toward our debts. Just kind of snowballed them. We use zero-sum budgeting which I’m sure you know is a type of budgeting that you spend all the dollars you earn on paper every month. Over the course of a certain amount of time we paid off our car loans and moved on to student loans. And we actually just paid off our house last year.
Tom: That’s great. We have loads of episodes about getting this under control but specifically for travel how would you suggest someone does something like this? Do they set up a different savings account or at least track a goal for this?
Holly: I definitely think that’s important. We have a travel savings fund where we set aside “X” number of dollars in every month. It’s a high-yield savings account. I think if you just try to do it with your regular savings account it’s easy to spend that money elsewhere on braces for the kids… Not that those things aren’t important—but I like to save for different things so I have different accounts for different goals. If you can save whatever you can per month in a travel savings account that’s earning interest, I think that’s really smart. We didn’t really start traveling a lot until we were debt-free though. We had more expendable income to start saving for travel because we no longer had car payments or student loan payments.
Tom: And like anything else it certainly makes much more sense to save up in advance instead of putting it on a credit card and having to pay that off months after the fact. You’re still making that same monthly payment but you don’t have as much power with that money.
Holly: It does make sense but it surprises me how many people charge their vacations then pay for it when they get home. I personally think that would be a terrible way to end a vacation, with a credit card bill. You can make the same payment to a savings account where, BOOM, you have the money. Then you can go on vacation and truly enjoy it because you’re not going to be paying for it for the next year and a half.
Tom: Yeah. Basically every year right now we try to have at least one decent family trip that we actually have to fly for and everything. We save up across the months which makes the amount a bit smaller. Just like any other annual expense like Christmas or something like that. Break it down into 12 smaller chunks instead of trying to figure out where to come up with this four-figure amount for the trip.
Holly: Right, exactly.
Tom: Okay, so we’ve kind of covered how to deal with your current financial situation and how to start saving up for travel but let’s get into what really can help make travel cheaper. If we could just go through any tips you have around reducing the cost of travel.
Holly: My number one tip—and this applies to anyone, anywhere, with any budget, is to be flexible with where you want to go. I talk to a lot of people about travel and saving money on travel and the biggest I see with people is they get their heart set on one destination and they can only go on certain dates. That is the absolute worst way to save money on travel. It happens all the time. Somebody says, “I want to go to Aruba but I’ve got to go the week of December 12 to December 19,” or something like that. Well, then you’re pretty much stuck with the options that are available; the flights that are available, hotels (and whatever the rates are). But let’s say instead of saying you have to go to Aruba, what if you say you’ve got six different Caribbean islands you can go to? Or if you want to got the Europe or Asia, having five or six destinations and comparing the pricing on those is such a huge thing. The second thing is being flexible with dates which is hard with families with kids. But if you can be flexible with dates it makes a big difference. We almost always fly on Tuesdays if we can because it’s always considerably cheaper. Maybe it’s not Tuesdays for you but maybe if you check, instead of flying from Saturday to Saturday you can fly Monday to Monday; something like that can make a huge difference.
Tom: And it’s also less aggravating. I try to avoid the airports on weekends.
Holly: Oh gosh, yes. That’s very true.
Tom: Another thing I’ve seen specifically for Canadians in this case is some of the different destinations will have Canadian-specific deals. I’m taking my family to Disneyland this year and there is actually a Canadian deal where there is an extra discount just to try to get them to come out within a certain time of year. It’s doesn’t apply in the summer though.
Holly: That’s awesome!
Tom: How about hotels? Are there any ways to save money on hotels or is that tougher?
Holly: Well, it depends. I always try to keep an open mind. We stay in everything from word-side motels that make my husband cringe to $1,500 a night luxury hotels if we pay with points, not with money. I always try to be flexible. I think one thing that really works for my family, because we have two kids aged seven and nine, is we try to look for airbnbs when we can and when it makes sense. Especially in big cities because it’s nice having a separate sleeping area for the kids. And we have a kitchen where we can make breakfast and lunch in because dining out is one of the most expensive parts of travel no matter where you are. I often find that a cheap airbnb will be a lot cheaper than a hotel and they’re without a lot of the trappings that get you to spend money like when you’re at a resort where there are resort fees and $16 cocktails and stuff like that. I think an airbnb is more of a home experience so there are more ways of saving money.
Tom: How has airbnb been for you? I’ve heard people with these horror stories where they find out what they thought they were renting isn’t quite the case. Have they been okay for you? Can you trust the ratings on the site?
Holly: I’ve probably stayed in somewhere around 30 airbnbs and never had any problems but I totally believe a lot of people because I’ve seen pictures that have been shocking; places that have been totally misrepresented, that aren’t nice or they’ve lied about something. I’ve had good experiences but I read reviews and research. And I always email them ask if their wifi actually works because I stayed in a rental condo with my parents once that had wifi but you had to plug into the wall at the kitchen counter to use it. So I always ask people what the wifi situation is really like because we have online business and need it. Do your research but don’t sweat the small stuff either. People complain about everything and I’m pretty easy to please. If something isn’t perfect I usually overlook it.
Tom: Yeah, and I guess that really applies to hotels too. I look on Trip-Advisor for reviews and a hotel might be awesomely reviewed but then there’ll be that one time where someone had rust stains all over or found a bug or something.
Holly: I travel to have fun, not to knit-pick hotels so if something isn’t quite right… I mean, I’ve asked to move rooms when something is really bad at a hotel but very rarely.
Tom: We both have a couple of young kids each so we’ve had to deal with traveling with kids. What tips do you have in regard to that? Not just for saving money but also for our sanity. Any ideas on traveling with kids specifically?
Holly: I definitely think staying in a condo instead of a hotel is how I stay sane because I’m not sleeping with my kids. They need their own bedroom so we usually get a two-bedroom or one-bedroom with a foldout couch in the living room because I am not sleeping four deep in a hotel room with my seven and nine-year-old. It think that’s one way to make everyone miserable, honestly. And it shocks me when people do it for long periods of time. Like, don’t go on a two-week vacation with two double-sized beds and expect to have fun. It’s too much closeness, in my opinion. That’s one of them. We do a lot of long trips with the kids—like two-week trips. I plan a lot of downtime so we’re not overscheduled. Other than that we just try to have fun and spend time together. In terms of saving money with kids there’s a lot of saying, no. Because my kids always want ice-cream and souvenirs—this and that. They have a spending limit with money they can spend on trips. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. I think that helps.
Tom: That’s a great idea, just giving them that set budget amount.
Tom: I know what that’s like because we’ve gone on a few different trips where there’s constant spending between candy and toys and everything else. So, maybe I’ll try that on my next trip. How about all-inclusives? Is there any way to save money there?
Holly: I love all-inclusive resorts. We usually stay in middle-of-the-road all-inclusives. There are very expensive ones, very cheap ones. Some of the really cheap ones skimp on the food and it can be kind of gross. We stayed in a couple in Mexico that I wouldn’t go back to just because they were super low-end. The people were nice but the food was disgusting and the walls were super thin. I would say when it comes to all-inclusives, be flexible about the destination because if you’re going to an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean, a beach is a beach for the most part so don’t get your heart set on one destination. Consider several, including the cost of flights, hotels and everything else.
Tom: Do you look at last minute deals at all where someone’s got a week they can take off work and their kids are available to leave too, do you recommend some of these last minutes sites?
Holly: Sure. I don’t do it myself. I always plan a year or so ahead for everything we do. But if you can get a last minute deal, by golly, go for it.
Tom: Yeah, I’ve never made that plunge either for the same reason. I like to plan ahead. I do like the idea though that you can kind of set aside a week where someone with a fulltime job can say that’s their week of vacation. Like you said, be flexible and see what the deals are a week or two out.
Holly: Yeah, exactly. As long as you’re willing to go with the flow. I feel like that wouldn’t work for my personality. I would be freaking out that I didn’t have plans for that week.
Tom: My worry too would be that I couldn’t find anything even though I’ve seen newsletters that have 30 different options for that week. But for some reason I have this fear that I wouldn’t be able to find something if I waited until the last second like that.
Tom: Again, going back to dealing with it as a family trip, are there any tips about dealing with the actual travel part—like on a plane going through airport security?
Holly: On saving money or just in general?
Tom: Either way actually. I tend to think, especially with travel, anything that makes your trip better or adds value to the trip as well?
Holly: Well, my kids are seven and nine so I always bring tons of snacks everywhere I go. Partially to save money but also because we might be on a plane or in a line somewhere and I just like having food to pull out like crackers—something simple. We try to do a lot of train travel when we can, especially in Europe where it’s really easy to get around. I think that’s infinitely more comfortable for families than flying. So we’ll take a long train versus taking a shorter flight just because it’s more comfortable, the kids are happier and it’s just kind of an experience in itself.
Tom: I’ve never considered that. I’ll have to look at it. I know with credit cards you know the American credit cards. But just in general, can you walk us through some of the ideas of how reward cards can help us get travel potentially for free?
Holly: Obviously, we have different reward credit cards, different programs and everything but cards in the US—and I’m assuming in Canada too, do they have signup bonuses you can earn after you spend a certain amount of money within three months?
Tom: Yeah, for sure. There are signup bonuses. They’re not as great as the cards in the States but they might be worth a free flight within Canada maybe.
Holly: Well then, obviously, you’re going to earn points on your regular spending. What my family does is use credit cards for our regular spending on really boring stuff like groceries, insurance, gas, the kid’s lessons and stuff like that. And then we just pay it off every month just like if we had paid with a debit card. The key to using rewards is always paying your balance in full and never paying interest because you’re not helping yourself if you’re in debt and racking up high-interest debt and only earning something like one percent. It just doesn’t make sense. People do it all the time but I think rewards are for people who are disciplined and pay their credit card bills on time and live a debt-free lifestyle.
Tom: Yeah, that’s something I try to remind people of all the time because we talk about credit cards quite a bit on the show and the website. Like you said, if you’re paying a balance it kind of negates all that and then some.
Holly: Right. A couple of years ago one of my old neighbors messaged me and had just moved to Atlanta (I think) and was looking for an airline credit card to fly back and forth and I helped her figure out which one to get. Then, I kid you not, a couple of months later she emailed me looking for balance transfer card because she had racked up a bunch of debt and was paying a ton in interest so now she needed a balance transfer card to pay that off. Anyways, I always say that because I feel if I don’t say it, I’m giving people advice that may not help them.
Tom: I’ve said a couple times on the show in the past that I had this problem with credit cards back in college. It wasn’t for travel but I certainly get the point it’s not free money and you can’t carry a balance so you should make sure to pay them off. Also here in Canada in addition to signup bonuses, some of our cards just have decent perks that also apply to travel. Can you take us through some of the different travel insurances and everything that may be on credit cards?
Holly: Well, the credit cards we have in the United States, some of them have trip cancellation and interruption insurance which I’ve used before. One time my husband and I got stranded at an all-inclusive in Jamaica. It snowed in the southern US so a bunch of airports were closed down and we were supposed to fly into Charlotte and it was closed down. So we got stranded there two extra days and I filed a claim. They reimbursed me for our hotel and flight change and everything. But trip cancellation or trip interruption insurance, baggage delay coverage, travel accident insurance are popular perks you can get with rewards credit cards or travel credit cards that are travel related. I know in the United States you can use some cards to get a Global Entry or TSA pre-check credit which may or may not apply to you—I’m not sure.
Tom: Well, we don’t have any cards I can think of that offer that but we certainly have the Nexus side in Canada which is the same as Global Entry. But we have to pay for it. I don’t think any credit card offers that as part of their perks. I would love to see that though.
Holly: Yeah, for sure.
Tom: I remember the other thing I wanted to bring up was the idea of bringing snacks for your kids. As we’re going to Disneyland pretty soon, one of the things we’re planning on doing is also bringing breakfast. Now, we are stuck in a hotel where it’s going to be two queen-sized beds. We’re thinking about…
Holly: Sorry, I didn’t mean to rub it in.
Tom: Well, at least we’re only going for a week. I think we can survive a week. One thing we’re doing is pick up boxes of cereal that both kids eat. And they eat it without milk so we don’t have to worry about a fridge. This is going to do a couple things for us when it comes to Disneyland… Not that this is supposed be a show about Disneyland but it’s in my head. This is going to get them fed cheaper but it’s also going to be a lot more efficient to get out and start the day without starting the day with some hour and a half breakfast.
Holly: Oh yeah, I agree. When we go on big trips we usually dine out one meal a day, either lunch or dinner. Sometimes when we dine out for lunch we’ll pick up something for dinner and make it ourselves—something easy like sandwiches. But usually we go out for dinner. Breakfast is kind of a no-brainer to eat in your room. My kids eat cereal too but they also eat things like bananas and bagels. Stuff that’s easy to eat real quick.
Tom: Yeah, so you just stop at a grocery store and get your own little continental breakfast going.
Tom: Are there any other tips you think we should cover that maybe we haven’t brought up yet?
Holly: Do you want to talk about tools people can use to find good deals?
Tom: Sure. Any sites or anything like that. Most of them apply to both Canada and the US.
Holly: My favorite site to use to look for flight deals is Google flights. You just Google, Google Flights. Then you can put in where you are—your home airport and where you want to go, and you can check a bunch of dates to compare against all the major airlines. But, I also like it because you can search by the region. Let’s say you want to go from Calgary to Europe but you’re interested in a lot of European destinations. You can just put Europe in and it will compare prices all over Europe for you. And you might find a really cool travel deal to a destination you wanted to visit or maybe one you hadn’t thought of. So I really like that. Another tip that is really important for my family that may not apply to everyone is to consider alternate airports. My family lives near Indianapolis. That’s our home airport. But we can very often save $300 per person or more if we drive to Chicago which is three hours away. So, if we’re going to do a long international flight we might drive to Chicago and even pay for an overnight hotel stay but still save $400 per flight which is $1,600 for four of us so it’s totally worth making the couple hour trip. Don’t only consider your own airport if there are other airports you’d be willing to travel to.
Tom: I know some people here in Canada who, if they’re close enough to the border, they’ll actually drive across into the US and fly.
Holly: Yes, that’s a good idea. And the difference can be huge. It can be huge.
Tom: Yeah, especially since it seems that flights from Canada are extra expensive. I don’t know if that’s because of fees or what but, if you can get across the border you can save money there. If you’re somewhere in Vancouver or Winnipeg, they’re all really close to the border—a quick drive. Less than you had to drive.
Holly: That makes so much sense. Mind you, you might have to pay to park your car or whatever but the difference could be thousands of dollars.
Tom: And, like you said, the way it adds up. That’s the same problem we have with four people in our family, every cost is multiplied. I like the Google Flights tip. I commonly use Expedia. It’s something I’ve used forever. I can’t say it’s better or worse than anything else. Are there any other sites you use? I’ve heard a lot of good things about Sky Scanner.
Holly: Some people use Sky Scanner. It’s pretty similar to Google Flights. I think you can accomplish the same tasks. I think on Sky Scanner you can also search by region. That’s probably my favorite aspect of using Google Flights because on Expedia you can search and do the same thing but you can’t just say you want to go to the Caribbean but you don’t care where. It just kind of makes it easier. I like the flight deal in secretflying.com. I think both of those share deals from Canadian airports. If you go to the flightdeal.com they share flight deals every day and a lot of them are only good for that day. But, you can find some really good deals. I’ve found deals like $400 round-trip to Europe but you have to book that day or it’s gone. So they’re very short-term. It’s not to leave that day; the sales are short so you have to be ready to book.
Tom: Yeah, and those deals are often somewhat specific with their dates, right?
Holly: Yes. Only certain days and certain cities. But I like to keep an eye on it because you never know. I’ve found quite a few good deals because I just happened to be looking at the right time.
Tom: I’ll check that out. I’ve seen similar sites. There’s probably loads, just like there’s loads of blogs. Just like those last minute deals, it seems like another good way to go where if you’re able to be flexible enough you can save some money.
Holly: Right. I was trying to figure out where we were going to go at the end of July and I used Google Flight and typed in Europe because we have lots of weeks of time where we can go somewhere. And I found round-trip flights out of Chicago into London and home from Edinburg for $460 each. So I just booked them. That was four of us round-trip for barely the cost of the airline taxes and fees. I think if you are open-minded and willing to book stuff you can save a lot of money.
Tom: Speaking of summer, what are your thoughts of traveling with your kids during the summer? My kids are the same age as yours and so far I’ve been kind of fearful of traveling in the summer just because it might be too busy.
Holly: We usually travel in the summer. I definitely think it’s busier especially depending on where you go. We usually go to Europe in the summer because we can go for three weeks at a time and it’s always way busier. So, I prefer to go off-peak if I can. It’s also because my kids have eight weeks off straight in the summer so it’s kind of a lost opportunity if we don’t go somewhere. This summer we are going for five out of the eight weeks.
Tom: And we both have kids of the age where we shouldn’t be pulling them out of school just for travel which I’ve done in the past.
Holly: Right, but a day or two here or there is not a big deal.
Tom: Yeah, fair enough. But when they were kindergarten to grade two aged, I didn’t really care if I pulled them out for a week. Well, this has been great. It’s given us lots of ideas on how people can save up and spend less on their trip. Can you let everybody know where they can find you online?
Holly: Sure. My website is clubthrifty.com and all my social media handles are @clubthrifty. You can find me online. I still write for lots of travel publications like US News World Report Travel and MSN Lifestyle.
Tom: Great, thanks for being on the show.
Holly: Thanks for having me.
Thanks Holly, for the family vacation tips. You can find the show notes for this episode at maplemoney.com/hollyjohnson. The show keeps growing every week but I need your help. If you have the Apple Podcast app on your phone, can you pull up Maple Money and give it a quick rating? Even better, leave a review as well and let everyone know what you think of the show. Thanks as always for listening and I look forward to seeing you back here next week.