Our Debt-Free Trip to Greece with Kids

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All your questions answered and then some. Here are the companies we used, what we packed, and how we traveled to Greece with our family of five (while guarding our budget!).

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Recently, our family hit one of our biggest debt-free milestones. I say biggest because it felt big, not because it was the most expensive. In the past 10+ years, we have bought multiple cars, purchased our little townhouse fixer-upper without a mortgage, and refilled our emergency fund I don’t know how many times thanks to medical emergencies.

However, this milestone felt bigger for several reasons. First, it was completely optional. Many families dream of buying a home. Many own cars. This goal was very unique to our family. We wanted to travel with our kids. It was my Why. It was the dream that fueled those little daily decisions and helped me say no when I really wanted to say yes.

You guys asked a lot of questions about how we did this trip – where we traveled, what companies we used, “can you just tell me everything,” etc. so I shared those answers here.

Obviously, a lot of preparation went into bringing our family to Greece, so I will do my best to breakdown what would have been the most helpful for me when planning an overseas trip for our family.

(Wondering why we chose Greece? The short answer is that we are Greek and have family who still lives there. Go here for the bigger answer.)

On a Budget?

Firstly, this is not a European-Vacation-on-a-Tight-Budget post. After careful thought, Chris and I decided that for our very first overseas trip with three small children, efficiency was more important than extremely budget-friendly. That being said, we are always very selective about how we spend money. So this is a European-Vacation-With-Intention-AND-a-Budget post.

As a result, we took longer to save for the trip, and some of our other goals – like replacing the 20-year-old family car – were pushed back. We chose to spend more where it mattered to us. Traveling with our kids is important to us.

Our goal was to prioritize what we cared about and said no to rest. In fact, this is very similar to how we approach everyday life. We tried really hard not to do anything just because people say you’re supposed to do it when you go to Europe (like tons of touring and sightseeing).

This was our trip, and we planned it for our unique people.

So it was amazing. It was exactly the trip that fit our personalities, we did exactly what we wanted to do, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was our version of traveling to Europe with kids.

If you are planning a big trip, I highly encourage you to make a list of your personal priorities. Knowing what you deeply care about and what you don’t will make it easier to plan and budget your trip.

me and chris

Buying a Package Trip vs. Going it on Your Own

Traveling internationally can be intimidating. However, since I used to live overseas, and Chris has also traveled extensively, we have never purchased a package trip. As a result, I can’t speak to which is better. Each person’s personality and priorities are different.

If traveling overseas and dealing with a language barrier terrifies you, or your focus is mostly site-seeing and knocking awesome views off your bucket list, a package trip might be more your speed.

Chris’ and I had a different goal. We had been to Greece before, we speak some of the language, and our goal was to visit family and take it slowly. We prefer an immersion experience – staying in a home, not a hotel, finding a favorite restaurant, exploring without a schedule or destination, etc. This can be a little uncomfortable and awkward, but it’s the speed we prefer.

Priorities

Here was our personal list of priorities. We wanted our trip to be:

  1. Safe(ish)
  2. Efficient/simple
  3. Low-stress
  4. Have great wifi at the house (for work)

Activities that were important to us:

  1. Visiting family
  2. Beautiful (free) sites for walking and running
  3. Fun and interesting food
  4. A place for the kids to play when we weren’t out
  5. A museum (my son’s only request for Greece)
  6. Tour Mycenae (we went by ourselves with no tour guide)
  7. Climb the 999 steps to Palamidi Fortress

Here are the companies and resources we used to make our family trip to Europe happen:

Turkish Airlines

One of the most highly-rated airlines in the world, and for good reason. Everything about our experience with Turkish Airlines was excellent.

What We Loved:

  • Choose your own seats ahead of time (so our group of 7 all sat together)
  • 2 free checked bags per ticket
  • USB charging ports at each seat on most flights
  • Video screens with movies and games for the 10-hour trip
  • Excellent food (like, really, really good food)
  • Complimentary toys for the kids on each flight (great quality that they will keep for a long time)
  • They offer free bus tours to Istanbul if you have a long layover (awesome)

How We Saved Money:

  1. We flew right before the tourist season started. Ticket prices to Europe increased dramatically after we flew.
  2. We chose flights with long layovers and awkward times – 8 hours on the way there and 7 on the way back. This was a little much, but the Istanbul airport has many lounge areas with couches where you can nap, and excellent food and shopping. Although the language barrier made it more difficult to ask directions and find some of the amenities, we felt safe and well-cared for.
  3. Istanbul Airport and Turkish Airlines offer complimentary bus tours of Istanbul if you have a long layover. On the way back home, we tried it and loved it! It’s a very touristy experience – big bus, photo-ops, a tour guide. And it is FREE! Since Istanbul is in both Europe and Asia, we added a country and continent to the list of places we’ve traveled as a family.

Stayed at a Hotel the First & Last Night

Because our flight to Athens arrived at 2 am, we stayed at the Sofitel Hotel attached to the airport. This was an expensive choice. However, it was one of the best we made – for multiple reasons.

Navigating a new city with notorious traffic in a new country in a rental car with young kids in the middle of the night after a grueling flight was a recipe for disaster. Instead, we slept at the hotel, took long showers, and had lunch at the attached restaurant before picking up the rental car.

Our flight leaving the country was at 5 am, so we stayed at the hotel the night before we left as well. This was also an excellent decision. The hot water at our guesthouse didn’t work well for the 2 weeks we were in Greece. While this is perfectly normal in Greece, staying at the hotel ensured everyone was clean and relaxed for the long trip home.

Renting a Car

After extensive research, we used Auto Europe for our car rental. This company shops different rental car places and has discounts. They had good reviews, good rates, and plenty of selections – our party had seven people in it and we needed a vehicle big enough. We rented a five-point harness car seat for the 4-year-old as well.

greece house

Renting a House

For our trip to Greece, we used AirBnB. In the past when Chris and I traveled, we stayed with people we knew. However, there are five of us now – seven with my parents, who came with us – and that’s a little much to ask of distant friends and family.

We chose a house described as “traditional.” Turns out that was a cute word for Grandma’s-house-that-we-kinda-cleaned-up-and-threw-on-AirBnb. It was charming, adorable, and quirky. We loved it.

The traditional family home had excellent wifi, a full kitchen, a washing machine and line to dry our clothes, and a big yard for the kids to play in when we weren’t exploring the country.

While there were plenty of sterile, Ikea-furnished rentals in the city we visited, we wanted a more authentic experience. We absolutely got it.

$6 thrift store day bag was perfect!

Where We Stayed

For the bulk of our family trip, we stayed in Nafplio, Greece. It’s a charming coastal town that our relatives tell us is the prettiest city in Greece. It’s also a popular tourist destination without being a hub where every package trip stops at (like Santorini, Korinthos, or Athens).

Nafplio has a cute, walkable downtown area, coastal running and walking paths, beaches, and enough gyro and gelato places to make our kids think it is the height of luxury. The wholesome atmosphere and public playgrounds made it an ideal place to bring kids.

Nafplio is just a short drive to the hill village where Chris’ family lives. In fact, while chatting with the owners of our favorite gyro place, we discovered they were actually from that village and we were related! Cue small world comment.

As with many tourist destinations around the world, many people spoke enough English for us to order food, buy groceries, etc. We spoke enough Greek to handle situations where people didn’t (like the farmers market).

(Go here to find out how we saved money on food while in Greece.)

Packing

Our goal while packing for this trip was to keep everything minimal and efficient. I am an avid follower of WonderlingFamily and Art of Simple Travel, and they provided plenty of tips to help us keep packing simple and efficient.

We toyed with the idea of only bringing carry-ons but ultimately decided against it for a few reasons:

  1. Turkish Airlines offers free checked bags
  2. We were only going to one destination so if we lost a bag, it wasn’t a big deal to go back to the airport and pick it up
  3. Greece is a well-developed country. If we were going to the third-world, I might consider carry-ons only in case we lost bags (been there done that)

Carry-ons

Everyone (including the 4 year-old) carried a backpack with:

  • Change of clothes
  • Sweater
  • Activities for the trip
  • Tissues
  • Granola bars and other snacks

Chris and I had a few extras between the two of us:

  • Minimal medical supplies
  • Basic toiletries
  • Gum for take-off and landings
  • Sunglasses
  • Laptops, chargers
  • Phones, chargers
  • Electrical adapters for the wall sockets (which are different from the United States)
The best foodie gifts: dried oregano, chamomile, thyme, Greek mountain tea, honey, and homemade cheese.

Checked Bags

  • 3 outfits each person (2 were already on us or in the carry-on)
  • 1 pair of pajamas each (with travel clothes standing in as the second pair)
  • 1 pair of sandals each
  • 1 swimsuit each
  • I had a few extra clothing items – sundress, hat, etc.
  • Toiletries (in small bottles or containers to save space) in this bag
  • Medical supplies (allergy meds, fever reducers for emergencies, etc.)
  • Laundry bag
  • Running/Work out clothes (me and Chris)
  • Gifts for the family in Greece
  • Extra empty duffel bag in case souvenirs happened

We also brought 2 booster seats in a duffel bag. We rented a five-point harness car seat for the 4 year-old in Greece.

Altogether, we had 3 small checked-bags for the whole family, one of which was just for the booster seats. For the trip home, our family gave us a few gifts, and we used the extra duffel.

What We Bought for the Trip

We bought a few items in preparation for the trip. Our goal was to keep it minimal and efficient.

  • 3 small electrical adapters (these ones had 2 USB ports so we could charge mulitple devices at the same time)
  • This toiletry bag with a hook
  • Oversized purse/day bag for our long walks in the city without looking too much like a tourist. $6 Of thrift store perfection.
  • A few leak-proof silicone travel-size bottles from Walmart
  • A few travel size containers from Walmart (for vitamins and makeup on the plane trip)
  • 3 refurbished iPad-minis with cases (cases weren’t super durable and broke a little on the trip)
  • 3 kids-size headphones (these headphones are amazing! The stretch-proof cord is perfect for kids)
  • 3 small drawstring headphone bags to keep their charge blocks, cords, and headphones safe in their backpacks

Everything else was either something we already had or we borrowed from family (this included a small rolling suitcase).

A note on dress: Americans tend to dress more casually than Europeans. We were mindful of this when we packed. We wanted to be both respectful of the culture and not stand out any more than necessary.

greece

Tablets on an International Trip

“Should we bring tablets?”

When you travel with kids, this is an important question. Our kids don’t normally use iPads. However, we had long layovers and it was our first time traveling internationally as a family, so Chris and I bought a few.

We purchased three refurbished iPad minis from Amazon. We also bought these cases (not super durable, but they did their job for two weeks). After discovering that earbuds just fall out of little ears, we bought these headphones. The headphones were fantastic. They folded up easily, and the cords are stretch-proof. The headphone bags kept their charge blocks, cords, and headphones safe in their backpacks.

Since our kids are normal modern children who adore screen time, we had one concern. We wanted the tablets to enhance our trip, but we didn’t want them to hijack it.

Before we bought the iPads, we had a conversation with our kids that included something like: “When people ask you what your favorite part about Greece is, you cannot say the iPads. Think of something else you liked, mkay?”

The tablets allowed us to pack books, audiobooks, tv shows, writing and drawing supplies, puzzles, and games with one small device. One of my kids is a voracious reader, and packing a bunch of books for him wasn’t an option. While this isn’t how we live our day-to-day life, the packing simplicity was worth it.

We loaded the iPads with:

In the end, the tablets were amazing. They kept the kids entertained when we were exhausted during long layovers, waiting in the hotel lobby, sorting out rental issues, and waiting at the airport. The kids didn’t really ask for them when we were actually in Greece (not what I expected), so the tablets served exactly the purpose we wanted: they enhanced our trip experience, and they didn’t hijack it.

Now that the trip is over, we plan to sell at least 2 of them.

Would We Do Anything Differently?

Honestly, this trip went exactly the way we hoped. I credit that less to us and more to the fact we didn’t have any flights go awry and no one crashed into us while we drove in a foreign country. That being said, I think doing these things helped set us up for success:

  1. Identified our priorities.
  2. Researched the heck out of our options. The more information we had, the better the decisions we could make beforehand.
  3. Stayed for two weeks instead of one. One week is too short a time in another country. If you can swing it, stay at least two weeks so you can get over jet lag and really enjoy your trip.
  4. Kept the plan simple. We had a short list of things we wanted to do, and we planned lots of downtime in between. This gave us the space to rest, linger over places we really enjoyed, and change our plans last minute.
greece

What About You?

What are your best travel tips? Share them below!

If you have any more questions, let me know in the comments! I could only share so much in one post, but I’m happy to help if you need more.

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