When you are planning a family gap year, it is impossible to picture what your trip will actually entail – unless you are someone who plans every aspect of your trip before leaving home!
We did not plan our family round the world trip in advance. When we left our home in England we knew where we would like to visit but we had only organised the first two weeks of transport and accommodation.
Planning our trip as we travelled meant lots of late nights and snatched moments to research and plan our next accommodation. Sometimes it was hard to fully live in the moment because you were always thinking ahead.
However, keeping the route and schedule flexible enabled us to follow our evolving interests, act on recommendations and take advantage of last minute deals and offers.
So it has been interesting to collate our transport and accommodation statistics and compare them to what we imagined our family gap year would be.
I did not start blogging until we returned from our trip so none of our accommodation was gifted or discounted. Maybe one day!!!
Our Family Gap Year
I do not think I would have predicted these accommodation statistics before our year long, family round the world trip.
We were surprised by the results!
Hotels – 25
Airbnb/self catering appt – 13
Freedom campsite – 18
Hostel – 11
Campgrounds – 10
Overnight train – 10
Friends and family – 8
Bed and breakfast – 4
Hospital – 1
Ger – 1
Overnight ferry – 1
Tips for staying in hotels as a family of five
I would never had predicted that we would stay in so many hotels!
In our shorter family holidays previous to our family gap year, we never stayed in hotels as they were always out of our budget.
However during our trip we learnt that hotels could provide surprising value for money for a travelling family.
Stay in one room!
Our family of five stayed in one room at every hotel on our trip (with the exception of hotels in mainland China).
We discovered some hotel chains allow five people to stay in one room and prioritized these chains in our searches. Staying in one room may be a squeeze and involves sacrificing any privacy but it saves the budget!
Popular global chains such as Radisson Blu and Holiday Inn allow five people in one room as long as the children sleep in existing beds. If we booked through a third party website such as booking.com or hotels.com, I always emailed the hotel directly to double check five were allowed to stay in one room.
Furthermore, all the motels we stayed at during our road trips in the United States allowed five in one room.
Top tip – if you are going to squeeze three children into one bed, turn the bed (or the children!) sideways. Beds are longer than they are wide, so by turning the bed 90 degrees the children will have more room to fit in! It works every time.
Sometimes a hotel would only allow an extra person if we hired a roll away bed but this was at a minimal cost of around £10.
Get fed for your money!
We always stay in a hotel that includes a good breakfast. This is always good value for money when travelling with three hungry kids.
Plus, if you ‘carry out’ a few items of food, you also have lunch covered!
After two months on trains through China and travelling on the Trans Siberian Railway in Russia we treated ourselves to the Radisson Blu hotel in Helsinki. After living off noodles and porridge for two months we could not believe the incredible, colourful array of food available for breakfast. Our kids still talk about ‘The Breakfast’ today!
We have also stayed in hotels offering ‘Happy Hours.’ The Royale Parc Suites in Orlando, Florida offered one hour of free beer every evening – we never missed it. The gorgeous Wanchai Dorset hotel in Hong Kong offered a ‘Happy Hour’ on a sweet cart every night in the lobby. Our kids never missed it!
It is possible to self cater in a hotel
Self catering is one of the best ways for travelling families to stick to their budget.
It is sometimes possible to self cater in a hotels. You can have the benefits of an Airbnb type accommodation but with the added benefits of a hotel such as security, swimming pool – and no cleaning fee!
One of our favourite hotels during our trip was the excellent Element Harrison in New Jersey, U.S.A. Our two queen bed room also had a small, excellently stocked kitchen enabling us to cook every night of our stay. We had breakfast included and free hot chocolate and marsh mellows in the lobby.
We also self catered at The Jockey Club in Las Vegas, Royale Parc Suites in Orlando (we saved a fortune not eating in the Disney parks) and at the stunning Guacamaya Lodge in Costa Rica.
A better location with good transport links is worth the extra cost
Hotels are often centrally located to the sites you wish to visit thereby avoiding the need for taxis or using public transport.
If you factor in potential additional transport costs, a centrally located hotel can sometimes be better value for money than a private rental further away from the city centre.
We try to stay a hotel that provides a shuttle transfer from the airport or train station.
If we have to take a taxi we usually have to pay for two taxis to fit us all in. If we book a transfer we have to book a larger vehicle and the children are charged the same rate as adults. Neither option is cost effective for us.
Wherever possible, we use public transport but if we are arriving after a long journey or late at night, a hotel shuttle bus is a welcome sight.
Join rewards programs to benefit from your stays
Most hotel chains offer loyalty programs; join any and every program you can.
Third party websites also offer reward schemes. Hotels.com offer one night free for every ten nights stayed. This benefit can really add up in a one year round the world trip!
Booking.com offers Genius prices for regular users.
Sometimes you just need a hotel!
We found that sometimes we needed to stay in a hotel. We needed a good bed, comfy pillows, clean sheets and a hot shower we didn’t have to queue for.
The kids benefited from swimming in a hotel pool, accessing board games and satellite television!
Take advantage of low season travel
Planning our accommodation as we travelled enabled us to take advantage of last minute deals and offers. As we tried to travel in low or shoulder season we were able to secure some great discounts.
For example, I emailed a four star beachfront hotel in a location we wanted to stay in to ask their availability and cost. Their quote was too high for our budget so I politely declined stating our budget but thanking them for their time. I then received a reply offering accommodation at our budget in a ‘soon to be demolished’ bungalow on the hotel complex.
The ‘soon to be demolished bungalow’ was a gorgeous two bedroom seafront chalet; the last to be upgraded on the complex. It turned out to be one of the nicest places we stayed in our year away and our children quote it as their favourite hotel.
Staying in an Airbnb or private rental
Airbnb’s or private rental through companies such as VRBO or Owners Direct are cost effective for a travelling family – especially if you do not try to replicate your home (ie. a bedroom each!).
We book properties with at least one bedroom and good kitchen facilities for self catering. We stay close to sites we wish to visit to minimize further transport costs and always stay at properties with reviews from other families.
Don’t be afraid to ask for a discount if you are considering a longer stay or are travelling in low season.
We try vary the style of our Airbnb’s to enhance our travel experience. We choose a mix of rural and urban homes as well as quirky properties. One of our favourite Airbnb’s was a 200 year old mining cottage in beautiful Arrowtown in New Zealand. Or our fabulous, rural log cabin near Santa Elena in Costa Rica. We saw skunks, coatis and Blue Morpho butterflies in the garden which was full of tropical plants, flowers and banana trees.
One valuable tip I learnt during our family gap year is to use Google Earth to check out the surrounding area of a potential private rental. This is a very useful tool to gauge how close you are to major roads, nightclubs, shops etc. I only started using this after we stayed just metres away from an all night nightclub in Buenos Aires …
There are pros and cons to using Airbnb and we have learnt many tips which you can read about here.
We met some lovely, welcoming hosts through our Airbnb stays on our family round the world trip. Friendly hosts who were willing to pick us up tired and dirty from train stations, who took us shopping for food or who helped to arrange transport or medical visits when we needed to.
However, we have also stayed in properties with varying degrees of cleanliness that did not match their online description either in size or location! Plus, we found Airbnb’s a little isolating for our travelling family so during our trip to decide to ‘mix up’ our accommodation more often.
Freedom camping is just as it sounds – you can camp for free if you are self contained (have a toilet) in your camper van or motor home.
Sites are basic, often with no facilities at all and vary from urban sites to scenic, isolated spots. Wherever you camp, try to camp with other campers – there is safety in numbers.
There are set rules such as ‘first come, first serve’, move on if the site is full, one or two night maximum stay, keep noise to a minimum and above all, leave no litter or trash. We sadly saw this abused a couple of times but the majority of local and international campers respect these rules as they know how valuable a resource freedom camping is.
If you are hoping to freedom camp in Australia and New Zealand download the Campermate app. This brilliant app will show you the free and low cost sites in your current area.
I would have predicted before our trip that we would stay in more hostels than any other accommodation due to their budget friendly reputation.
But unfortunately for families, hostels are not always the cheapest option.
If your children are under 18 (or younger in some countries) you must book a private room. If the room has more beds than you need, you must pay for every bed in the room. This often pushes a hostel out of our price range.
Some hostels have small rooms to hire such as the excellent, centrally located Generator Hostel in Copenhagen and or Meininger in Berlin which is just steps away from the central rail station.
We try to get a room with an ensuite bathroom otherwise we end up accompanying three children on multiple trips to the toilet.
Hostels can be a great place to meet other travellers and it was good to have a conversation with another adult! We enjoyed a community BBQ at hostel in Puerto Madryn Argentina and ate communal meals at the Tua Fua Fales in Samoa.
But large busy hostels led to sleepless nights due to doors slamming or late night room parties. We often had to wait for shared showers or cooking facilities.
We took 10 overnight train journeys and I will make many more given the chance! I love travelling by train.
Travel by train feels adventurous, allowing you to slow down and enjoy the scenery of the country you are travelling in rather than flying over it. Train windows provide a snapshot of people’s lives.
On a sleeper train, you to go to sleep in one landscape and wake up in completely different environment. I will never forget falling asleep to fields bursting with sunflowers in northern China to wake up to the endlessly flat grassy plains of the Mongolian steppe.
Cabins on overnight trains are cosy and comfortable though my 6 ft 5 husband might disagree! We took a couple of overnight train journeys (Brisbane to Cairns and San Francisco to Seattle) where we ‘slept’ in our seats. These two trips were enough to convince me of the value of a cabin!
We stayed in a couple of campgrounds 10 campgrounds using a camper van and motor home but most of our campgrounds stays were in a rental car with no camping equipment at all!
Many campgrounds offer basic chalets or dormitory accommodation. You can park your car outside your chalet and use the same self catering and washing facilities as the regular campers. If you are road tripping in New Zealand, check out the Top Ten chain of campgrounds.
We also stayed on unconventional fairground sites on our road trips in New Zealand and Australia. These large open spaces are barely used during the year except for state fairs and agricultural events. To generate income, local authorities permit campers, camper vans and motor homes to stay for a minimal fee of around $10 per night.
Unfortunately, our trip involved one hospital stay. I spent one week in Christchurch hospital in New Zealand after being diagnosed with typhoid.
The painful and distressing experience was a sobering reminder that travel is not without risk and sometimes, trips do go wrong. It also reinforced our belief that a good, comprehensive travel insurance policy is worth every penny.
I will be forever grateful for my quick diagnosis and for the wonderful care I received in the hospital from both the medical and non medical staff.
I would not chose this accommodation option frequently as the cheapest cabins are and I don’t like feeling hemmed in!
Our overnight ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm was certainly a memorable travel experience!
The duty free shops were packed all night with travellers who had taken the trip with empty suitcases just to stock up on alcohol and return to Helsinki on the next ferry. The karaoke bar was full of ballad singing Finnish lorry drivers. Waking up to a stunning sunrise entering the Stockholm archipelago was something I will never forget.
Top tip – buy a cabin for four people and a sleeper seat for the fifith person. Then squeeze in together. It is much cheaper than buying a cabin for five.
We were lucky enough to spend one night in a remote ger on the Mongolian steppe, a few hours drive from the Mongolian capital UlaanBaatar.
We could not find a tour we liked so our hostel owner arranged for us to stay with a family he knew and accompanied us on the trip. There are lots of tourist camps on the steppe and after seeing the regimented rows of identical, luxury gers we are glad we did not stay in one of these camps.
We regret not staying longer. The landscape, peace and stillness was unique. The nomadic family we stayed with were warm and welcoming. Plus, we were treated to one of the most incredible starry nights I have ever experienced.
Our stay in a ger will stick in our memory as it had the most isolated toilet in the world! Trying to find the tiny wooden toilet hut in the middle of the night was like trying to find a needle in a haystack in the dark. Four times…
We were fortunate to stay in incredible places, welcoming homes and met some lovely people.
In our year away, we only left one pre paid accommodation early because it was so bad. Wherever you stay, don’t forget to do an initial safety check and to trust your instincts. If somewhere doesn’t feel safe, it probably isn’t.
You can read more tips on how to travel safely with children here.
Where has been your favourite accommodation on your round the world travels? What type of accommodation was it?
We would love new recommendations!