8 Money Lessons I Learned From Three Weeks in Europe


In early June, my husband and I took a bucket list trip to Europe with our kids. While we've visited countless countries worldwide as a couple, this was our first "big trip" with our daughters, ages six and eight. In addition to the four of us, we took a family caregiver to help with the kids and give Mom and Dad a break. Over the course of 19 days, we spent time in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. The entire ordeal was exhausting, but it was an absolute blast!

Fortunately, we planned far enough ahead that we didn't spend too much out of pocket while we were there. By leveraging travel rewards credit cards and setting a daily spending budget, we were able to get the entire trip, which would normally cost $20,000 retail, for around $3,500. (See also: 5 Steps to Getting a Free (or Close to Free) Vacation with Credit Cards)

In addition to the virtues of planning ahead as a savings strategy, we learned numerous financial lessons during our travels. While we were aware of most of these lessons already, seeing the world through our children's eyes served as the perfect reminder of the reasons behind some of our most important financial decisions.

Here are a few lessons we relearned thanks to our trip abroad.

1. Failing to plan means planning to fail

One of the most expensive components of our trip was dining, mostly because there were five people in our group. No matter how cheaply you try to eat, feeding five people three meals a day means your food budget adds up quickly.

While we tried to minimize our food costs by eating breakfast in our condo and searching for budget options, there were times where we didn't plan ahead and paid a steep price for our lack of preparation.

One meal in particular stands out. We traveled by train to Rome in the morning and arrived in early afternoon without researching restaurants or stores in the immediate area. In a tired and hungry daze, we entered the first restaurant we walked past near Piazza Navona.

Unfortunately, we paid big time for this oversight. Not only was the food overly touristy (pictures on the menu — blech), but our lunch set us back nearly $90. If we had searched ahead of time, we would have known we could have found much cheaper (and probably tastier) options had we walked a block in the other direction. (See also: 4 Secrets to Eating Great Food for Cheap While Traveling)

2. Expensive does not equal better

That meal also served as a reminder that expensive isn't always better. We paid $90 for a lunch that was mediocre at best on that particular day, but at other times we enjoyed meals that were absolutely delicious and downright cheap.

One that comes to mind was a meal we had in nearby Florence, Italy. In order to keep our food budget under control, we started researching local restaurants once we arrived. Eventually, we stumbled upon a sandwich shop — Panini Toscani — that was uber-cheap but was also the third highest rated restaurant in Florence.

We wound up eating there twice. The food was delicious and convenient, and our total meal for five people was less than $20 both times.

3. Even budget trips can be fun

By the time we got to Switzerland (our last stop), I was pretty tired of spending money in general. So, when we had our final "free day" in the country, I spent some time looking for something fun and affordable to do. (See also: 7 Countries Where You Can Travel on $30 a Day or Less)

Eventually, I remembered a town we drove by that had the most beautiful, clear-green lake I had ever seen. After looking up the details, I found that the tiny village of Lungern had a public beach and a few waterslides with a daily admission cost of about $5.25 per adult.

This relatively cheap day was probably the most fun we had. All of us swam and rode waterslides the entire day, stopping only to have a low-cost lunch.

It just goes to show that budget travel can absolutely be fun, and that you don't have to spend a ton of money to enjoy yourself.

4. There's more than one "right way" to do things

One of the most rewarding components of travel is watching my kids react to the many ways other countries handle things differently. My kids were obsessed with euros, for example. They couldn't understand why anyone would choose to offer two euros in the form of a coin.

I also had to explain why we didn't tip as much as we normally do. Since workers in Europe are paid higher wages, you don't have to tip 15–20 percent like you do in the states.

While we could argue all day over which way is better, I told my kids there is more than one "right way" to do things sometimes. (See also: 7 Countries Where You Don't Have to Tip at Restaurants)

5. We actually need very little

While I wasn't sure we could pull it off, we made it through the entire trip with just carry-on luggage and two school-sized backpacks of stuff. It helped that one of our condos had a washing machine, but I was still amazed we enjoyed ourselves without many comforts from home.

This just goes to show that most of us don't need a lot to be happy. We need clothes, food, and shelter, but everything else is optional. We can be happy and content without having a bunch of stuff to bog us down.

6. Most people are honest, but not everyone

Most of the people we dealt with abroad were both kind and honest — except for a couple of small incidences. First, we encountered a taxi driver who tried to charge us $28 (instead of running his meter) to take us four blocks in Rome. Not only was this outrageous since we'd paid $7 for the same ride earlier that day, but it was illegal for him to do this since the city of Rome regulates official taxis.

Second, when we got home from the trip, we received a fraud alert from Chase. Apparently, someone had swiped our card information and tried to make a purchase in Peru.

This kind of stuff happens no matter where you are, so it's important to always stay vigilant. (See also: 7 Ways to Protect Yourself From Theft While Traveling)

7. Exchange rates matter

Whenever I travel abroad, I almost always struggle to keep track of the currency exchange rate and how it affects everything we buy. But, since a single U.S. dollar is currently worth just .87 euros, this is an important detail to keep in mind. If something costs 10 euros, for example, you're actually paying $11.55.

While I used a credit card with no foreign transaction fees to pay most of our expenses, I tried hard to impart this lesson on our kids. No matter where you are in the world, chances are good the money isn't worth the same as at home. And, if you don't pay attention, you could wind up spending a lot more than you think!

8. Some experiences are worth the money, even if they're expensive

While we definitely saved a bundle on this trip due to the way we leveraged credit card rewards, we still spent $3,500 of our hard-earned dollars. On top of that, I probably spent 30–50 hours planning not only our credit card rewards strategy, but our hotels, flights, and trains.

The thing is, I don't regret a single cent — or a single second. Over my lifetime, I've learned that some experiences are worth the money and the time, even if it seems like a lot.

It's hard to put a price tag on a fun family trip that exposed us to cultures in a completely different part of the world. I believe it was priceless. Some memories are worth saving up to splurge on. (See also: How to Build Your Best Travel Budget)

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