Planning - Budgets - Entertainment
Everyone has different ideas about what they want to do on a vacation; some things are free and others can be expensive. It is quite possible to spend very little money on visiting attractions if you are willing to get the 'lite' version - which is quite often more than enough! However, if you have a genuine interest in something then it may be worth the cost of admission, especially if you'll kick yourself afterwards for not doing it.
Many museums and attractions have a free day once a month or reduced rates later in the day. There are tourist passes/cards if you are interested in visiting a lot of sights but if you're traveling with kids then that may be overly ambitious. Theme parks are fun but can obviously get expensive, but parks, hikes, and people watching are all free!
There are many ways to keep costs down, for instance taking an elevator to the very top of the Eiffel Tower costs an adult 13.40€ and a child (aged 4-11) 9.30€. The elevator to the second level is 8.20€ per adult and 4.10€ per child, while taking the stairs is 4.70€ adults and 3.20€ for kids. You can only walk up to the second level but it's still very high and you get a great view - plus you just saved 29.60€ for a family of four! Yes, it's a bit of a workout but it's very manageable if you're in reasonable shape; our 5 year old walked up the entire thing without any help, although our 3 year old needed to be carried part of the way. Consider it a work-out for all the brie in Paris!
Often just looking at the outside of a museum and visiting the lobby and gift shop gives you a taste of what's inside and whether or not it is worth it. In Bilbao, Spain we intended on going into the Guggenheim Museum but the crazy line-up threw us for a loop. Instead we walked the perimeter, took a bunch of strange photos (it's really an interesting building!) and perused the gift shop. We had to weigh the length of the line-up with the attention spans of all members of our family and the uber-cool outdoor Guggenheim playground won in the end. It was still worthwhile and we felt we had (at least sort of) experienced the Guggenheim.
Here are the costs of admission (*subject to change!) of various monuments and museums to get an idea of what to budget;
The Louvre (Paris) - 10€/14€ depending on what you want to see, free for kids under 18
*Free the first Sunday of the month and July 14th every year. Also free for teachers - check here)
Hanging upside down in playground (Barcelona/Frankfurt/St. Tropez) - free!
Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) - 12.50€/kids under 18 free
Sagrada Familia (Barcelona) - 12.50€/10.50€ 10-18/kids under 10 free
Gondola ride up Montjuic (Barcelona) - 9€ adult/6.50€ kids (return ticket)
Sitting on park bench watching crazy people (Amsterdam/Paris/Rome) - free!
Canal boat tour (Amsterdam) - 12-18€ per person (usually 1 hour trip)
London Eye (London) - £18.60 adult/£9.54 child 4-15/under 4 free (save 10% if book online)
Tower of London (London) - £8 adult/£3 child
Riding a red double decker bus (London) - £2.20 adult/children under 16 free
You really can spend as much or as little as you'd like. Simply standing underneath the Eiffel Tower may be enough for you and the same goes for many other monuments and churches. We have visited many cities with the intention of going inside it's major attractions only to veto that idea after seeing a long line-up or encountering incompatible weather. (It's not fun to stand on top of the Arc de Triomphe when it's pouring!) Besides the Guggenheim, we encountered the same line-up issue with the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres. By veto-ing the Salvador Dali museum we discovered the Toy Museum which was completely enjoyable to all members of our family and cost only a few euros each for admission.
Alternatively, for the price of an ice cream cone you can have a very enjoyable afternoon in a local park - Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, Hyde Park in London, Vondel Park in Amsterdam to name just a few; all are open to the public and free to explore. You mingle with locals, perhaps enjoy a local snack, and the kids get to run around and act like kids! Of course you're not going to spend your entire European vacation watching your kids on the jungle-gym, but putting a few of those free afternoons into your schedule not only saves money, but saves sanity too!