As a family of five we are always on the lookout for affordable family vacation ideas. The more mouths to feed and tickets to buy the harder it is to get everyone on a trip they find not only fun, but memorable.
Some of you are going to notice that camping is nowhere to be found on my list. The reason is that going out and pretending to be homeless is not a vacation, it’s torture. So don’t come up in here talking about camping, because homelessness is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.
When doing family vacations on a budget you have to look at every possible angle of saving money during the vacation. So I put together this master list of ways to do a cheap family vacation.
Cheap Family Vacations
Before we start on all the other ways to save we need to focus on our destination. Once you have your destination then you can focus on saving money on everything else.
- Check Your Dates – Every destination has peak and off peak times for travel. If you are going to the mountains that make a ton of money on skiing they are going to make most of their money in the winter. Disney drastically cuts prices for the first week of December when almost no one is going.
- Check Edge Dates – If you cannot go during the completely off peak times, check out dates where less people tend to go. Weekend after Labor Day is a good time to hit most of the theme parks. You may not get the absolute lowest price, but the prices will be lower and the lines not nearly as long.
- Get Discount Tickets – Some places will sell tickets at a discount if you shop very early. Others have discount for AAA members, AARP members, or military. If you or someone you know falls into one of these groups then you can probably get a discount on the tickets you purchase.
- Let Your Travel Cost Decide – Before the birth of our second child, Amy and I decided that we were going to take a long weekend trip without child #1. We found an amazing deal on airfare to Orlando and planned our whole trip around that destination. If you can find an amazing travel and lodging deal you can always find stuff to do if you are voting in a city.
- Look for Local a Deal – Groupon, Living Social and other local deal websites push deals for different cities every day. If you are looking for a specific city there is not better place than these daily deal websites. There are usually some local sites that are not as nationally well known as the two above so be on the lookout for those as well.
- Stay Local – Kids don’t have to have super expensive vacations every year. We tend to think giving the the biggest and the best is what they need, but what they need is experiences.
I am in the middle of planning a week over the summer where we take three day trips and two local attractions. All of these will include history, fun, and a little travel. What they don’t include is a ton of money. This will be memorable for all of us and also not super expensive.
Cheapest Travel and Lodging
I am going to cover specific ways to save money on your family vacations for both travel and lodging, but there are ways to get your travel costs down to almost zero. You can use travel rewards credit cards you can rack up enough points to get your flights and hotel stay. If you have good credit and can spend the minimum amount over 60-90 days you can also rack up a bunch of points when you sign up for new service. See this post on GoodFinancialCents.com for details on how to rack up the points. If you sign up for Jeff’s email list you will get a notification when they are going to do a special webinar on how to take advantage of the bonus points and travel all over the place for pretty much free.
Finding the Travel
OK we’ve got our destination. Now we need to cut the cost of getting there. Whether it’s planes, trains, or automobiles you want to make sure you are getting the best deal.
- Driving – If you are driving then there are a few keys to keeping costs low. We will cover food in the next section, but gasoline is going to be the big one here. While gas prices are currently down that isn’t always going to be the case. You can use apps like gasbuddy to see where the cheapest gasoline is along your route. Once you know where your stops are going to be you can use road trippers for local sites near your gas stops.
- Flying – Flights can be pretty expensive, especially if you are taking multiple children with you. The cheapest flights are going to be in off peak times. Other options are getting a deal from the travel websites. There are frequently round trip fares that are dropped dramatically on sites like Hotwire who tries to fills tickets that the airlines weren’t able to fill.
Another option is to sign you and your kids up for a frequent flyer miles program. You do not have to be 18 to be a frequent flyer. People have signed their kids up at age three and found out years later they have enough for a round trip ticket. The airlines have ways to earn miles without flying so check each airline and see which one works best for you.
- Cruises – While cruises are a combination of travel and vacation this is a great time to take a cruise. Not only did the cruise industry overbuild for their demand, but the recent problems on cruises has caused people to limit their cruise activities. So basically it’s a great time to go cruising. Look for deals at off times just like your tickets above.
- Rentals – When you get a rental car the best bet is to bid on your travel. This is done through Priceline’s name your own price tool. I will typically go to Hotwire, see what rentals are going for and then bid 30% less on priceline. I keep doing this until I get back to the price on Hotwire.
If you aren’t careful your lodging can cost you as much as everything else on your trip. Use these ideas to kill the prices on your vacation lodging.
- Rent a House or Condo – If you are staying in a hotel then you are going to up your food costs. Having to eat out all the time really increases the daily food budget. The other secret is that there are tons of people who want to rent out their entire vacation house or condo. You can see individuals and management companies renting out these types of home on VRBO.com (this stands for Vacation Rental By Owner).While you are looking you might look at sharing a house with a close friend or family member. You can frequently get a nicer property for not much more and if it has enough rooms you are good to go. My wife’s family has done plenty of vacations together and cut everyone’s costs by renting large beach houses together.
- Hotels – Hotels can be pricey or they can be very affordable. Your best bet is going to be bidding on the price of the room using Priceline. If you are going to be in an area for a week I suggest going with an extended stay place that has some sort of cooking available. Once again this cuts the cost of your food significantly
Affordable Food on Family Vacations
Food is a major expense if you are going on vacation and if you are hitting a major theme park the cost of food there is outrageous. Here are some tips to reduce your food costs:
- Stay away from Dine-In Food – Whenever you can you should try not to eat out. That being said you can make it easier on yourself than actually cooking. Higher end grocery stores are now stocking hot bars where you can pick up ready made meals for much less than what you would pay for a dine-in dinner. Not only that, but one 2-liter drink can be less expensive than a single drink at a dine-in style restaurant (or even fast food sometimes).
That being said, pizza and buckets of chicken can be very affordable for a medium sized family. My family has just tipped over the one pizza mark, but two Little Caesar’s pizzas for $10 is pretty affordable for a family of five.
- Eat Out at the Right Times – If you are going to sit down at a restaurant then lunch is your best time. The prices at lunch are much less than if you dine-in at dinner and they frequently do specials that make it a better time to eat. Breakfast food is the cheapest food to make and they still charge you similar prices, so find ways to eat breakfast in your hotel or rental. You will save the most money by eating breakfast and dinner in and lunch out if necessary.
- Get an All Day pass – The theme parks make a HUGE profit on the food they sell. I mean drinks are basically water with a little syrup and they charge three dollars or more for the small. If you have an all day pass you can get there early, take a few hour break in the heat of the day to get lunch and rest up, and then head back out in the evening for the fireworks.
- Restaurants Specials – Restaurants are constantly running specials. If you have kids under 12 then you should check out the huge list of kids eat free offers. This is great for sit down dinners.Another great option is to go and download the app for the chain restaurants that will be in your area. The best restaurant apps will provide coupons and great discounts. I use them around town all the time.Finally be on the lookout for coupon books. If you are in a tourist area then there will be coupon books that have promotions for local restaurants as well as local attractions.
Many people only need pictures to have great memories of the experience with their children. Others really enjoy taking a piece of the vacation with them. Here are some ides for keeping your sovenir prices low.
- Go for the Trinkets – My kids are all younger than seven and all love getting something small from wherever we go. The pressed pennies, and thing of this nature work great as their souvenir and they enjoy looking back at the pictures of the trip while holding that trinket.
- Go Colectible – If there are items that you can find at each location that are similar but mark the specific location. For example, the national parks have hiking stick medallions. You can get one at every national park and decorate your walking stick. This is a great way to take the memory with you without breaking the bank.
- Give them a Budget – Instead of putting restrictions on particular items give your kids (or spouse) a specific amount of money to buy their souvenirs. This teaches budgeting and puts them in control of what they get.
Going on vacation is great but you can keep from breaking the bank. The best thing you can do is make sure your entire vacation is paid for so that when you get back the bill from that vacation doesn’t follow you home.