Subways, Buses, and Backpacks: 6 Frugal Travel Strategies for Kids

by Suzita Cochran   |   July 9, 2012

New York

I bumped into my friend Sarah the other day. As we stood in the hot, dry Colorado air, I asked about her summer. Turns out she and her family had just returned from their annual trip to Norway, where her husband’s parents live. 

I tried to contain my jealousy, which I found wasn’t easy in 100 degree heat. Ah, peaceful, idyllic, never-sweltering Scandinavia. Staying with grandparents, eating delicious dairy products, and sleeping between crisp, clean linens. A vacation where your biggest concern is which berry patch to visit each afternoon.

My family had recently returned from a different kind of vacation. On our trip, my husband Todd and I discussed how helpful it would have been to have relatives in some of the East Coast cities we were visiting. Not only would this have lowered the price tag of the vacation, but it would have allowed more downtime between explorations. And there probably would have been fewer wrong turns and buses taken during our forays.    

For this year’s vacation, we extended our familiar Washington, D.C. trip, where I have family, to include New York City and Boston. As our three kids get older, they are increasingly interested in U.S. history and geography. Our home state of Colorado only has so much to offer in these departments. Additionally, a while back our 13-year-old attended a lecture by Peace Corps volunteers. By the end of the talk, he was inspired to do a future Peace Corps stint—and his enthusiasm has been consistent for over a year. 

As Todd and I have pondered our son’s travel visions, we’ve realized that, although our kids are excited about seeing the world, they have few skills for the budget traveling they’ll probably undertake in college and beyond. Although we won’t be able to offer them Europe any time soon, frugal travel is something we can definitely provide! Since we didn’t have family in New York or Boston, our latest vacation was an ideal time to begin actively teaching our kids “feet-on-the-ground” travel.  

For starters, our trip involved no rental cars, taxis, and Broadway shows or expensive activities. But there was a train (from Washington, D.C. to Boston and back through New York), as well as subways in three cities, local buses, and many miles of walking—with stops for frappés, cannoli, or deli sandwiches, depending on the city. In the end, we discovered that feet-on-the-ground travel was not only inexpensive, it was also a green way to travel—another skill we wanted our kids to learn. 

Six Frugal Travel Strategies We Used:

1.   Pack light

Frugal travel means a lot of walking over varied surfaces. In our experience, a backpack worked best because it allowed both hands to be free. The children (ages 13, 12, and 9) carried their clothes and raingear in their own backpacks. At times, we walked miles through cities and rode subways wearing our backpacks, so it was vital that they were compact and light. 

2.   Be alert in new places

Having our hands free of luggage allowed us to be more alert during our big-city explorations. Being aware of our surroundings kept us safe from unexpected traffic, but also encouraged us to take in the details of each new place. People-watching became one of our most enjoyable travel activities. Teaching the children to remain alert while traveling also helped them notice earlier when we’d become lost, which inevitably occurred.

3.   Use travel mistakes as teachable moments

One early morning, we were the sole group at the bus stop that our guide book recommended. Something didn’t seem right, since it was rush hour and there should have been people waiting with us. We scanned the area and noticed a crowded stop across the street and up a hill. This turned out to be the stop we needed. Safely ensconced within the correct bus, we took our kids through the thinking process that led to the right bus. If in doubt, follow the crowd. Bad advice for middle school life, but wise counsel when traveling. Chances are the crowd knows the correct way. If not, ask someone in the group for further help. 

4.   Ask three people for directions

If all three give you the same answer, you can assume it’s correct. We were surprised at the inaccurate information people and our guidebooks gave us in big U.S. cities. Additionally, we talked to our children about who to ask for help when traveling. (For example, someone who is currently at work and wearing a uniform and name tag, such as a subway employee. If they couldn’t find a person of this description, we gave them the same advice we do in our hometown: “Look for a mother with young children and ask her for help.”) When we needed assistance during our trip, we often had our kids be the ones to ask for directions (while we stood nearby).        

5.   Face the unexpected with a sense of humor, and your kids will likely do the same

When you find yourselves crammed into a Boston T (the rickety green line no less) with more rowdy Red Sox fans than should be able to fit in one train, laugh about it. Make eye contact with your kids through the sea of jerseys, and let them know that this is, in the end, funnier than it is uncomfortable. It’s these crazy or embarrassing vacation moments that become the stories your family will retell.  

6.   Let your kids do as much of the travel planning and executing as possible

Teach your children how to read city and subway maps, and bus schedules. Have your kids figure out how much money your family needs to ride the subway. Then have them buy the tokens (with your coaching). Let them plan your route as much as possible. Allow young children to hand the money or pass to the bus driver and to push the stop button when it’s time get off.

Our feet-on-the-ground, frugal vacation helped our kids become fully engaged with the places we visited. They have strong memories of the sites we saw, the people we met, and, as our nine-year-old recently reminded us, the smells we experienced. “This place smells like the Hudson River by the ferry,” she recently exclaimed at a lake in Colorado. Our children quickly became adept with numerous systems of public transportation as well.

I still have a soft spot in my heart for Scandinavia. Perhaps our children’s solo travels will take them there some day. But in the meantime, Todd and I are laying the foundation for our future solo travelers to explore the world with budget traveling tools at their fingertips, and small carbon footprints on the road behind them.   

Suzita Cochran is a child and family psychologist and mom of two boys and a girl who lives in Boulder, Colorado. At her parenting blog, Play. Fight. Repeat. ( she writes on topics such as helping kids “stop at enough” in today’s overflowing-with-options-and-items world. Follow her on Twitter @playfightrepeat and Facebook.