Unless you are one of the lucky few, one of the single most limiting factors in planning a family vacation or “bucket list” travel adventure is cost. A family getaway can be expensive and the farther away you would like to go, the more that price tag goes up. Traveling on a budget (even an extremely limited budget) is not as hard as it may seem. As a first responder with a wife who works from home around my schedule, we’re not hauling in a Silicon Valley paycheck. We love to travel though and it’s a priority for us when budgeting. Here are some of the tips and tricks my family uses to afford travel.
Set your budget.
It may seem obvious, but figuring out what an affordable family vacation means to you will give you parameters to work within. For our family, we set a summer vacation budget and then divide it into thirds – getting there, eating, and lodging. Since we usually drive, and that keeps the cost down, extra activities like mini golf would come out of the getting-there section. This division helps give us an idea of the range of room rates we’ll be looking for at hotels.
Number #1 Family Vacation on a Budget tip? Minimize!
Minimize your plans; Minimize your packing; Minimize your time. Can’t afford a long vacation? Take a short one. Don’t fill every second of the day with stuff to do (especially if it costs extra). Take it slow. Packing? If your stuff doesn’t fit in one medium size suitcase and 1 carry on size bag then you are bringing too much stuff. Leave it behind. Adopting a minimalist attitude towards travel is perhaps the single best way to reduce costs the most.
Use the extra space you just made to save TONS of money by packing a car with snacks, picnic lunches, a cooler full of drinks, and other nonperishable foods. Road trips become much more affordable when you don’t have to pay for snacks and meals!
Cook in your hotel room.
Make homemade meals on the road by staying in a hotel that has a kitchenette. Hotels like Hyatt House, Homewood Suites, and more can accommodate families of all sizes and have amenities to be able to prepare a hot meal. Preparing a budget-friendly hot meal doesn’t have to be complicated. These days with the advent of meal boxes most grocery stores have excellent selections of prepared foods or food kits. Kids picky? Let them have a Lunchable and put on a movie while you and your partner prepare a grown-up meal and pretend you’re on a date.
There are MANY beautiful National and State Parks out there that are begging to be explored. The Best part? They can be explored cheaply, especially the ones that are less well known or are hard to get to. Before moving to Texas I had never heard of Big Bend National Park. Now it is easily one of my favorite places on this earth. You don’t need to be a diehard outdoor person to appreciate National Parks. Some even have hotels, restaurants, and cabins for rent in addition to good old fashion camp sites. Visit during the off season to get the parks to yourself. While entrance fees to State and National Parks are usually very affordable you can save even more by purchasing an annual pass for $80 . This pass is also great for big families because it will admit the passholder and 3 additional adults 16+ plus kids in the same car under 15 are free. There are plenty of discounts on this for seniors and military too. So get out and explore all the family-friendly National Parks that the United States has to offer.
Find free attractions for a family vacation on a budget.
There are tons of free things to do if you look hard enough. There is a great section on TravelingMom dedicated to things that are free in the 50 states. Some of the best kid-friendly favorite destinations have TONS of free attractions, like Washington D.C., New York City, and San Diego.
Agree upon a souvenir budget ahead of time.
Also be sure to include the kids in this discussion. Add-ons and extras can really kill a well planned budget. By setting a clearly defined, and rigidly adhered to, “souvenir budget” ahead of time, you are better able to resist spending your hard-earned dollars on all those clever little trinkets that catch your eye along the way. Tell the kids that they will have a certain amount of money to spend on “whatever you want”. This provides a valuable learning opportunity for the kids with regards to managing their own money. My parents did this with me when I was little, and it taught me quite a bit about “value and worth” while I weighed the pros and cons of buying different things along the way.
Flying to your destination may be cheaper than you think.
There are many good articles out there that cover the best way to land travel deals on airfare, which I will not even attempt to get into here. Basically, if you are flexible and willing to look at a range of dates, times and even cities to land in you are ahead of the game.
Pick your destination based on a deal.
If you really want to be ballsy, plan a vacation around where you can get to the cheapest. My wife once planned a trip for me to go to Iceland solely because she found an error fare. Now Iceland is notoriously expensive but with the error fare we were able to plan a 10 day trip at around $1500 out of pocket. Families can plan in this same way. Sometimes we browse Southwest deals this way as well. I mean, we didn’t plan to visit St. Louis, Missouri, but for $39 tickets? We’ll do it.
Think about times of week as well. Washington D.C. is a favorite vacation spot of ours because of its abundance of free museums and because it’s so walkable. During the week in D.C. and into the surrounding areas of Virginia, room rates can run extremely high. However, if you go for a long weekend, that room gets significantly cheaper.
We’re more than a little loyal with how much we LUV Southwest. For those who aren’t familiar, Southwest Airlines doesn’t have change fees. You can book your trip and then if you need to change or cancel you use your confirmation number (which holds onto the funds from your original ticket) to book the new one. The funds stay good for 1 year from the date you purchased the tickets. Life happens, and knowing that you can cancel without losing money is invaluable to us. It also gives us a good chance to snag a deal and then make sure hotel prices in the area aren’t too out of whack with what we planned on spending.
Be willing to put in the miles.
If you have a large family like me, driving is going to be the best option most times. If you’re willing to put some time in on the road you can save money. My wife wrote this article outlining some of the factors we use to determine whether we fly or drive.
I used to be anti-minivan. Now, that thing gives us freedom. We can load that thing up and take off for a few nights. Another car wouldn’t offer us that opportunity.
Looking to keep your family vacation on a budget? Pick the right hotel.
Much like flying on a budget, there are many articles out there that do an EXCELLENT job of discussing the Inns and Outs (I made a pun…. Funny) in squeezing every cent of value out of your hard earned dollars without sacrificing quality accommodations. Personally, I am a BIG fan of “Suites” from chains like Homewood Suites, Residence Inn and more that have two rooms. The kids get crammed into one, while my wife and I get the other giving us peace and quiet. And alone time, which makes every vacation better.
One thing other than room rate to keep in mind when picking a hotel: how important is location to you? If you can avoid a rental car or parking fees by choosing a slightly more expensive city center hotel it might be worth the splurge. If most of your desired activities involve a drive anyways, then pick a hotel with free parking a little on the outskirts to save and possibly be able to afford more space.
But what about Disney?
Destination locations like Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California are notorious for high admission prices. There are still ways to afford Disney trips though. There are several articles on TravelingMom that do a far better job of explaining but basically set your budget then watch for dining plan deals, 5th day free offers and hotel sales.
Look for every way to save money.
Hunt for sales or go during less popular times. Sometimes bundling airfare, hotel accommodations and tickets for admission can also earn hefty savings. You can use sites like Groupon and LivingSocial to look for discount tickets. Restaurant.com can help bring your food bill down. Whatever you do, just be sure to read the fine print. It’s not saving money if you buy a $25 restaurant gift certificate for $4, and it requires you to spend $75 on a Tuesday at noon, while you’ll be there Thursday-Sunday.
Travel off season.
While ski slopes may be pricey in the winter, that price drops in the summer and fall months. Shifting the way you think of a vacation destination (beach, ski, winter, summer) can open up new possibilities for travel. You can mountain bike at ski resorts in the off season, explore restaurants and just enjoy the beach in the fall. Then head to leaf-peeping locales after the trees are bare. Early summer is a great time to visit large college towns. There are less folks in town doing business with the college so hotel room prices drop, and with many students gone it’s less crowded and attractions sometimes put out specials.
A beach vacation benefit of the off season? Snagging rooms with amazing ocean views. Added bonus? No crowds.
Watch your timing.
Even the timing of your activities can impact your experience and the price tag. Activities that one would consider family fun like amusement parks, water parks, mini golf, horseback riding and more tend to be more crowded during school vacations and weekends. Look at their websites and social media for specials. Heading there on a Tuesday or Wednesday could save money on your family trip.
Discounts for being a bad-ass.
A little plug here: MANY places, from hotels, vacation resorts, destination locations, Disney World, cruise lines, theme parks and even restaurants, offer discounts to active duty military, law enforcement, and first responders. For instance, Schlitterbahn (a water park chain in Texas) has “Heroes Weekend” twice a season where military and first responders are FREE, and each one of their family members are ½ off. A site called Heroes Vacation Club is the ultimate in planning a family vacation on a budget. You can get a multi-room apartment at resorts all over the world starting at $349 per week. Whether you’re a paramedic, firefighter, member of the military or police officer look into discounts that can help your family save. Teachers should also look for discounts.
For everyone else? Check with your employer. Sometimes there may be discounts that you didn’t realize were available.
Embrace the outdoors.
Outdoor activities tend to not break the bank. Hiking trails are often free, and with a little research you can find difficulty levels that are appropriate for the whole family. A beach getaway can be about exploring nature and not doing extra added cost activities. Niagara Falls is an awe-inspiring work of nature. You can pay $8 to park and then hike and view the falls to your hearts content. The entire Western U.S. is filled with park after park with landscapes that look out of this world.
Family Vacation on a Budget- it can be done!
It all comes down to discipline: The simple fact is that the biggest reason why traveling is so expensive is because most people believe that traveling is expensive, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. With a little bit of preparation and by remaining steadfast in your commitment to frugality, cheap and fun family vacations are possible. It just requires a shift in mentality. Focus on what is important to the experience, and disregard the rest. Most of the crap that one sees at a tourist trap is just that: crap. The experience, memories, and pictures you take are what lingers and they don’t cost anything extra. Your budget vacation selfie at a photo opportunity will look the same as someone who spent ten times as much to get there.
What is your best family vacation on a budget tip?