Saturday, May 6, 2017

Financial anatomy of a European vacation

This last week, Andrea and I returned from our first trip abroad after a very long time without any significant vacation. Aside from camping trips and weekend getaways with friends, our last vacation was before Jacob was born.

We decided on a trip to France, including Paris, Versailles, Marseille, and Normandy. Never before or during the vacation did we discuss any sort of holding back on our spending. Since this is the first vacation in a decade, we did what we wanted and we paid what we paid.

That said, I still kept decent documentation on our expenses because I'm a data geek, and I wanted to get an idea of what we can expect next time around. I started collecting receipts from coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores (we did a fair amount of eating by way local groceries, which surely saved us a ton of money), museums, and so on. After returning home, I crunched the numbers in a Google Doc, cross-referencing with our credit union and my credit card.

In summary, our expenses were as follows:

conversion fee€29.19
Grand Total€6,430.12

Some notes:
  • For simplicity, I converted everything into euros since most expenses were in that currency to begin with.
  • Dollar values, when applicable, are converted at a rate of 1.09 dollars per euro. This rate was roughly the same across transactions that I linked up between point-of-sale and what posted to our bank account. (Bing indicates the exchange rate was a little lower at the beginning of our trip and climbed the whole time.)
  • All those conversions incurred some type of fee, which at a glance seemed to be about 1% of the dollar equivalent of the transaction for both ATM withdrawals and point-of-sale.
  • "Coffee" covers when we went out for coffee, beer, wine, smallish snacks, etc. - not quite a meal but also not something from a grocery store.

Untracked Expenses

Due to my poor record-keeping during the trip, I wasn't able to keep perfect sense of expenses. The majority of our transactions were in cash, and when I lost or failed to get a receipt, that money dropped into this abyss. Fortunately, I still knew exactly how much cash we got from the ATM throughout the trip (€1000), so it's all accounted for.

(Side note: European cash is awesome. My pocketful of coins was frequently around €10, more than enough for two drinks and two snacks. Also, no dealing with tipping or with taxes, which are baked into the final price.)


My parents were awesome and flew out to Seattle to watch our kids, house, and dog for the duration of our trip. We paid for their airfare and their expenses during their stay, which was a steal for us - even a reasonably short trip to Minnesota for us requires we board Shasta for $500-1000. In all, paying for gas, groceries, their airfare, and incidentals incurred a reasonably small bump in the overall cost.

To be fair, Mom and Dad waived some of the expenses under the excuse that they got to spoil their grandkids at their own expense. Win-win-win.


A friend advised us to take Le Bus Direct from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Paris. This cost us €34. Had we done our research, we would have discovered the awesome metro system that would have (likely) cost us about €3.50 and maybe even been faster. Lesson learned.

The majority (71%) of our expenses in the transportation category, though, come from renting a car, buying expensive gas (something like $6/gallon) and paying tolls on the autoroute.

Lesson: take the train.


During our time in Versailles, some newfound friends advised us against going to Marseille on account of it being spring break in France. All the students and families were heading down to the coast, making the high-speed train tickets expensive (almost $250 for the two of us) and aggravating the already terrible Marseillais traffic. So we decided at the last minute to head to Lille instead. This gave us the opportunity to also make a quick side trip to Bruges, Belgium.

However, because of this last-minute change, we had to forfeit the Airbnb that we had reserved. This cost us a couple hundred dollars, but was probably worth it.

Quick Take-Aways

After it all, it appears that our two week vacation to France cost us a hair over $7000, which, given a few minor hiccups, was pretty reasonable. Next time:
  • Better planning on lodging will avoid The Marseille Problem of throwing money away.
  • Travel, insofar as it can be done without a car, should be.
  • Looking at currency exchange trends and executing at the right time can save a little bit, but probably not enough to make it worth it.
  • Grocery stores will still save a ton of money versus eating out.
  • Tours, while not an insignificant cost, should still be done to a great extent.
  • At-cost baby-, house-, and dog-sitting will beat all other methods of saving by a huge margin.