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Budget-Friendly Family Vacation Tips
My husband and I used to make all sorts of excuses as to why we could not go on trips. That is until we looked at our bank statements and realized with the money we spent on gifts for birthdays and holidays, clothes, and local attractions such as fairs and street carnivals, we could have saved for a family vacation and made long lasting memories.
We have since gone on several trips together as a family, some big, some small, some with super tight budgets, some with fairly loose budgets, some with practically non-existent budgets that we improvised on and threw together at the last minute. All of them fun and full of memories. Travel has become very important for our family. It helps us bond and keeps away the every day stress of work and school.
Here are some tips on what we have learned and what works for us. I hope you find this information helpful when planning for your next family adventure.
Small Trip, Big Memories
- Big vacations (i.e. Disneyland or Hawaii) are nice, but take more planning and saving to accomplish.
- Vacations to lesser known venues or places closer to home are often more affordable with the added perk of having smaller crowds.
- Parks, Beaches, festivals, and community events may offer free or low cost vacation outings.
- Weekend getaways are a nice alternative to long vacations for those that do not have time or money to go on vacation.
When most people think of the all-American family vacation, Disney, extended road trips to see national memorials, and trips to the Caribbean may be the first things that come to mind. All of which may be financially difficult or even impossible for the average citizen. With careful planning and saving all of those big trips are possible but may take some time to achieve without bankrupting your family.
Whether you have a place in mind or don't mind staying fairly local, a little research may help you find places to go and things to do within your budget. Look into nearby attractions such as smaller theme parks (such as Busch Gardens, Legoland, and Seasame Place), zoos, aquariums, or any other venues your family may be interested in visiting. In many cases, these lesser known venues have less traffic than the more well known vacation spots, saving you a lot of time you would have spent waiting on lines or pushing through crowds.
What can you do for free? Parks and beaches are typically free to visit or require a small fee for upkeep and parking. Look into any festivals or community events going on at the time you plan to go.
If you are looking to take a family vacation soon but do not have the funds to go to distant lands and far off places it is still possible to have a fun filled family vacation--you just need to look at things on a smaller scale.
If it is not possible for you to take off an extended amount of time for work, or if you cannot afford to stay at a hotel or resort for more than a couple days weekend retreats offer a nice alternative. Instead of planning for a week long vacation, start with a weekend getaway.
Planning & Financing
- Planning far in advance gives you time to save comfortably and determine your trip.
- Overestimate the cost of necessities on your trip and budget for an emergency fund.
- Work out a itinerary for your trip that clearly states what you will do and when to help stay on budget.
- Start saving once you have decided on a budget and timeline.
Questions to Ask When Planning:
- Where do you want to go?
- When do you want to go? Is this an off or peak season?
- How long do you want to stay?
- Who is going?
- Where do you want to stay? How much will it cost?
- How are you going to get there? How much will it cost to get there and back home?
- What do you want to do? How much will it cost?
- What necessities are you going to need? What will be your budget for these things?
- What are some ways to cut costs?
When I consider the trips we have taken, planning--above all else--is the biggest element to the success and ease of our trip. I now try to plan as far in advance as I can manage, this can be anywhere from a month to a few years in advance. Financing goes hand in hand with planning because this is how you will be able to make your trip happen!
First, when it comes to planning, we decide on where we want to go and find out how much it will cost to go there. Then we make a list of all the things we need while we are there; hotel, food, transportation, emergency funds, etc. And find out what they will cost. I typically overestimate our expenses so we have some wiggle room when we are there. Next we decide on all the things we would like to do while there and determine those costs.
It is helpful to work out the timeline for all of the things you want to do and work out where everything is in proximity to each other. You may find that you don't have enough time to do everything you want to, or that some things you want to do are too far out of the way in comparison to everything else. Or you may decide that you need to take more days than you anticipated to fit in everything you want to do. Build a schedule for your vacation, including meal times, shopping, and periods of rest.
Once you are happy with your schedule tally up your estimated expenses then round up to determine your goal amount to save. This may seem a bit backwards, but this is when I start to decide when we should take our vacation.
At this point I determine the very least amount of money we can save towards our vacation per pay period (you can decide per week or month or however you get paid). Then I divide my goal amount by what we can save to determine about how long it will take to get there. Now we have a potential time to travel.
I then research the weather during that time of year and if there are any special events going on at that time. I also use Hopper to see what plane ticket prices will be like around the time we are considering. After all that research we are finally able to settle on the dates of our trip.
In some cases, like at resorts or certain theme parks, you can put a down payment on your trip and gradually pay it off over time. This work really well for my family because we are terrible savers--getting better!--but still pretty terrible. You may have to save a bit first before you can even put the down payment on it.
Be mindful of the places you want to travel to. Exchange rates can vary drastically country to country. Some countries are way more affordable to travel to than others. A quick search of what the most affordable places to travel are may give you some inspiration on where you can go on a budget.
Money Saving Tips
- Cut down on splurge spending and expensive outings before trips.
- Eat out less.
- Invest in durable, long lasting items.
- Have a weekly/monthly saving goal.
- Sign up for mailing lists with places you want to go to and travel companies to receive coupons and discounts.
Since we started our family journeys we have cut back on a lot of unnecessary spending so we can save for our trips. We often opt out of fairs and carnivals now if we are planning a trip, as these can become really expensive for just a day of play. We pack our own lunches, eat out less, and are more strict with our grocery list and work harder to not waste food (a great habit to build even if we weren't planning to travel!). My husband and I spend a lot less money on toys and clothes for the boys, opting instead to buy them durable items to wear as they need them and a few special toys we know will last some time and that they will really appreciate.
Having a goal in mind really helps me realize that splurging isn't always in my best interest. A small desire of today could hold my whole family back from fun memories tomorrow.
If you are a AAA member you have access to various discounted vacation packages, hotels, and car rentals. If you drive a lot this is a good membership to have as it includes roadside assistance. Dues only need to be paid once a year for renewal. I use AAA to book discounted hotels and rental cars when we need them.
Join the mailing lists of theme parks, resorts, and airlines you like. They will often e-mail about exclusive offers and limited time specials that can save you a lot of money. Bahia Principe, for example, has Happiness Week where they offer up to 55% in savings for a trip to one of their all-inclusive resorts and, in some cases, up to two kids could stay free. That's over $1,000 in savings!
- Research whether flying or driving would be most cost effective when traveling to places you could do either.
- When considering driving, factor in the cost of maintenance/oil change to your car before the trip, pit stops, tolls, and fuel.
- When considering flying, factor in the cost of a rental car or taxi fares.
- Determine if secondary transportation is even necessary once you have reached your destination.
- Research public transportation options available at your destination.
When on a budget determining the most cost effective mode of transportation is important. Flying is faster, but typically means a rental car will be needed or taxi fare and plane tickets can often be expensive. Yet, driving may still not be the most cost effective option for travel when you consider gas prices and the necessity of an oil change before travel.
Alternatively, look into buses and trains as a means of transportation to get to your destination. These options come with the same cons as flying, but may be cheaper depending on when and where you are traveling.
Do your research. If you are staying at a resort you may not have to leave during the duration of your stay and a shuttle to and from the airport may be provided for you for free or at a discounted rate. In this case, if you can find a good price on airplane tickets air travel might be your best option.
You should also consider public transportation systems available at your destination.. In some places public transportation is the very best way to get around, in other places it is not great at all. Either way it is good to know what your options are.
Driving & Car Rentals
- Factor pit stops into your plan and set a budget for them.
- Research car rentals to get the best price.
- Consider purchasing a travel booster seat to avoid rental fees when renting a car.
- Skip to the "Food" section to see tips on saving money while road tripping.
If you decide to drive you absolutely must factor in the time it will take to drive into your schedule. You should add a rest break every four hours, and if your kids are young, plan for quick breaks for every two. Look at the map and schedule your stops. Google Maps is actually a very helpful app to do this.
If you need to rent a car you may be able to pay for it beforehand, or you may want to wait until you are closer to the trip. Rental rates for cars are pretty standard, but will also depend on what is available at the time you are looking to rent.
If you rent a car and your child still uses a carseat or booster, you will have to factor in the rental price of a seat from the company.
If your child uses a booster, it may be worth it to invest in a . These are what my children use now and they are awesome. They fold up small enough to fit in a book bag and are not too heavy. They are also very simple to use. Another great thing about them is that even if you choose to take cabs or travel on buses or shuttles your child can still ride safely. They can easily be set up on any seat with a seatbelt and just as easily packed up and put away. I bought mine when they were still crowdfunding, but they are now available online for $40. They aren't for just small children either. Since the seat is adjustable older kids who are bothered by their seatbelt strap getting in their face or rubbing their neck can use the mifold to get their seatbelt sit more comfortably (and safely) over them. It is by far my favorite thing I have ever bought for my kids. mifold Grab and Go Car Booster seat
Airplane Ticket Tricks
- Use sites like Hopper and Kayak to find great ticket deals.
- When possible, travel during the week to save money.
- Check ticket prices between 11AM - 12PM during the week.
- Take a gamble and buy one-way tickets (read more below--this is VERY RISKY!)
Hopper is a great app to use when buying airplane tickets. It will let you know when the best times to fly and buy tickets are. It will also notify you when plane tickets are at a really good rate.
There are a few airplane ticket tricks that may help you get better prices that many people have already heard such as buy on Tuesday, search Kayak incognito, and avoid traveling on holidays and weekends.
There are a few other tricks for those that like to take a gamble and live dangerously.
I am not one of those people, I don't like taking risks, I am not a gambler--I am a planner. My husband, on the other hand, loves to play high risk games and granted--this airplane ticket trick did end up paying off big time.
The trick is this, buy a one-way ticket to your destination. Then between 11am and noon two to three days before your intended return flight start to search kayak for cheap flights for a single person. At this time, unsold tickets are put back into the inventory and the airline (in particular JetBlue) just wants to get the seats sold. We found tickets as cheap as $25 for a one way trip from Florida to New York, but because I was so convinced it was a glitch ended up with $40 tickets.
It worked out for us that time, but it could have gone horribly wrong if we never came across the cheap tickets, missed our chance to buy them, or there weren't enough left to buy for our whole family. It is absolutely a high risk game and you should definitely have a back up plan for when things go wrong. Our backup plan was to drive back home in the rental car and take a few added days off.
If this is a trick you want to try, I'd suggest experimenting with it first. Every day, take a look at kayak between 11am and noon to see what tickets are available a few days from now. Try and find some of the super cheap inventory tickets. Honestly, this is not a method I like to use so I haven't spent a lot of time trying to figure out the science behind it. With enough fiddling you may be able to determine the best times to try this.
Packing for a Flight
- Try to travel with only carry-on items when flying.
- Pack an extra bag just in case everything won't fit coming back.
- Pack less by picking out versatile items that can be worn a variety of ways multiple times during your trip.
- Use bundle packing to save space in your luggage.
- Keep items you do not need access to in your carry on bag.
- Keep your liquid bag and items you may want to use during the flight in your tote.
When I go on planes I tend to only take carry-on luggage if possible, but I always pack a fold-up bag just in case we accumulate more stuff than we can shove in a carry-on.
I prefer this because one, we don't have to pay for our bags. Two, we don't have to check in my bags or angst over pulling them off the carousel when we arrive. Three, there's no way our bags could get lost in transit. I had this happen to me before. It was before I had kids. I can only imagine how much more miserable that experience would have been if it had happened when I was traveling with my family.
Size restrictions for your luggage vary from airline to airline but generally speaking are about 22" x 16" x 9". Checkout this chart to see what your airlines restrictions are.
Technically, each passenger (your kids included) is allowed two carry-on items. A carry-on bag and a purse, tote, or laptop bag. So for our family of four we were able to bring on 4 carry on bags and 4 totes.
When it comes to packing those bags I first try to pick out versatile clothing items that can be worn more than once during the trip. Things like jeans, shorts, and dresses can be worn multiple times with varied accessorizing if you want to switch up the look. There are various products you can pick up that or DIY to keep your items fresh and clean during your trip.
After picking out the clothes I pack them up in the most space saving way I can by bundle packing. Folding items individually actually takes up more space. I can usually pack about a week's worth of clothes for myself in one carry on.
I like to pack gum, snacks, and various things to keep my boys occupied during the flight in their carryon bags. This can include light weight books, coloring books, crayons, paper, play dough, stickers, ear buds, puzzle toys, etc. I pack all their items in a simple drawstring bag they can carry on their own.
If needed, I will also put their quart sized ziplock bag of travel sized items in their bags as well, though usually two zip lock bags of items split between my husband and I are plenty of what we need.
In my purse/tote I keep small packets of snacks, a book to read, a journal, our travel itinerary, my own ear buds, cash, my phone, two phone chargers, and maybe a couple small items that didn't fit in the carryon.
Packing for a Roadtrip
- Pack anything you feel you may need during your trip, anything you use on a daily basis, and anything you may need in bad weather to avoid unnecessary expenses.
- Bring your own car entertainment and snacks (check out the "Food" section).
What is true for packing for a flight is sort of the opposite for us when we go on road trips, though it is limited to the size of our trunk. I still try to pick out versatile items that can be worn more than once, but we bring our soap, shampoo, lotions, hair products, and even toothpaste along with us. Basically, anything we use on a daily basis we try to bring along with us so we won't have to buy it when we are away.
We also bring vacation items and various other items we may need like beach toys, deflated pool floaties, beach blankets, towels, umbrellas, rain jackets, extra sweaters, and so on. We just try to avoid buying anything we already have at home. I try to keep the trunk organized so that we know where each item is, but this isn't always easy. By the time we are finished packing for our road trip it feels like we are taking home with us!
I pack my boys a similar tote to what we bring on the plane, except I will also add Legos, toy cars, and other small toys that may be lost in a plane but are fine in the car. I also include a water bottle, cereal, orange or some other fruit, and some small snacks in their bags so they can help themselves when they want something. Considering how young they are, they are actually pretty good at not eating everything at once and even if they do, we keep a cooler in the back with them and plenty of food items up front with me.
Alternatively or in addition to their bags I also put together some homemade surprise eggs using old plastic Easter eggs (I basically reuse the same ones every year unless I need a different size haha). I put stickers in them, more Legos or special Lego pieces like wheels or propeller pieces, something I made them, occasionally a candy treat, crayons in colors I didn't pack in their bags to renew their coloring interest, pretty much anything that will distract them for a little while. Then every couple of hours, or when it seems they are getting a bit irritable, they get a new egg.
We play games like "I Spy" or we let the kids make up their own games and teach us the rules, that's their favorite thing to do. If they seem like they could use a nap I play David Bowie's narration of "Peter and the Wolf" and before Peter catches the wolf they are knocked out.
- Stay with friends or relatives when possible, but don't overstay your welcome.
- Consider all-inclusive resorts.
If possible, stay with friends or relatives that have the space and would enjoy your company. We have saved thousands of dollars just by staying with friends and relatives for a couple of days while on vacation. If this is something your interested in, make absolutely sure that your friend/relative would not mind that you stay and that YOU would not mind staying with them. Staying with a relative that you don't vibe well could turn a vacation into a prison sentence.
All inclusive packages can be a great vacation investment because all you have to worry about once the vacation is paid for is what extra excursions you would like to go on. Depending on the resort, you may not even need or want to spend money on doing anything else.
Food is one of the most expensive things you could pay for during a trip--especially if you are road tripping!
If we are going on a road trip we try to plan out our meals and bring them with us. Here is a list of things we buy in bulk to eat on the road instead of buying overpriced (and typically unhealthy) rest stop food:
- individual snacks; crackers, granola bars, goldfish, veggie sticks, raisins, etc.
- fruits and veggies that travel well (or well enough); apples, oranges, pears, peaches, plums, carrots, cherry tomatoes, sweet peppers, grapes
- water and reusable water bottles
- peanut butter
- mayo and mustard packets.
- chips & salsa
- rice crackers or sticks
In a cooler we keep:
- frozen water bottles
- cold cuts
- yogurt cups
- hummus cups
- homemade smoothies
- ranch dressing
- carton of juice
A lot of this is food we buy when we go food shopping anyway so we already have it. We can typically fill our bellies well enough to not need to eat out until we want to.
If you aren't road tripping it may not be in your best interest to pack a whole bunch of snacks and food--especially since it will be a pain in the butt to get through customs at an airport or just to carry in general.
In this case, pack empty reusable water bottles that you can fill up as needed during your stay. If you are worried about germs, there are lots of different water bottles now that can filter your water.
When arrive at your hotel or before you set on your trip search the closest grocery store then buy some food for your stay from there and keep it in the mini fridge. Buy snacks that can be carried and eaten during the day. If you are going to a theme park they will have their own snacks but this will prevent you from feeling obligated to pay high prices for short lived treats.
This has saved us a lot of money and stress too. Whenever my kids groan that they are hungry while we are adventuring I just pull out a snack and give it to them. I like to keep the snacks I have in my bag a surprise so they never know what they might get.
First Aid & Emergency Kits
I always travel with my own little first aid kit (or two). It's as cost effective as it is super useful. In it I have:
- Band-Aids of various sizes
- pocket Neosporin
- alcohol wipes
- hand sanitizer
- towelettes & alcohol wipes
- pocket bug spray
- a sunscreen stick
- children's Benadryl pills
- Tylenol pills
- DayQuil pills
- a couple tampons
- some panty liners
and a few other random things. I put my kit together mostly with stuff I already had at home.
I also like to pack a little Emergency kit which includes:
- needle & small spool of thread
- safety pins
- bobby pins
- hair ties
- a couple buttons in various sizes
- super glue
This way if I find a little tear in our clothing, or have a bit of a wardrobe malfunction we are better prepared to fix it without actually having to buy new clothes. Our goal is always to only spend money on things we want, not things we end up needing.
Spending & Souvenirs
- Set a daily spending budget and "rollover" funds day by day.
- Wait until the end of the trip to buy souvenirs when possible.
- Ticket stubs and found items make for good free personal souvenirs.
- DIY souvenirs made from found items or small trinkets from your trip are meaningful and will save you money on gifts.
If you are on a budget it is helpful to set a daily spending limit for your trip and "rollover" funds from previous days that went unused. I typically like to wait until the end of the trip to buy things that I would like to take up because I usually expect to want to do extra activities we may not have planned for and don't want the fact that I bought souvenirs to get in the way of it.
I personally find that attraction tickets and various other items you may pick up along the way make the best personal souvenirs and they can be turned into things like magnets or even jewelry. We also collect sands, shells, rocks, and press flowers from our trip as well for free souvenirs of our adventures.
When buying gifts for other people try to have a set list of people in mind. I'm pretty bad at this and often buy more things than I need in an attempt to have something for everyone. As a result, I now have a growing pile of trinkets from my various travels. I am not very happy about that, haha. Since we typically go on vacations to the beach I think I will stick to beach in a bottle souvenirs from now on.