Five Family Vacations on a Budget
Affordable destinations to visit as a family.
Spring break, Christmas break, summertime and long weekends: As parents, every break your kid has from school brings pressure to plan a fun trip for the family. But not everyone’s savings account can handle a 4-person plane trip to Disneyland or Cancun every time school lets out. Let’s face it: Family vacations are expensive.
Still, there are many ways to plan a family vacation on a budget. Among the simplest is finding an affordable destination. Here are 5 vacation ideas that won’t break the bank.
Sounds expensive, right? But with a little planning, seeing California doesn’t have to bust your budget. If you’re flexible about where you start and finish, you can hunt for affordable flights in and out of several major airports. San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and even Sacramento are good places to start or end a California adventure.
There is luxury up and down the coast, from Newport Beach to Carmel. But there are also miles and miles of state beaches like Crystal Cove and Cardiff-by-the-Sea, where camping by car or RV offers prime real estate for less than $50 per night. (Use reservecalifornia.com to search campsites and find availability.) And there are no private beaches in California,1 so if you can see the ocean, you can go put your toe in it.
If your family enjoys a good car trip, taking a budget-friendly family vacation in Texas offers a great mix of relaxing fun and engaging culture.
Again, look for cheap flights in and out of the major airports in Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. Depending on the length of your trip, you can hit each of those major cities. Use a trusted travel app to find affordable lodging. For families, renting a home or apartment usually works out to be cheaper and a little more comfortable if you don’t mind staying in someone else’s house.2
Once you’re settled in, don’t blow your budget sampling these cosmopolitan cities’ upscale dining scenes. Instead, consult the local media and find cheap, authentic gems, preferably with outdoor eating areas where your kids have room to roam. Look for Texas barbecue in Austin, burgers in Dallas, breakfast tacos in San Antonio and Tex-Mex in Houston. Try websites like Eater and Thrillist to find recently updated stories about local dining options.
There’s rich history to explore in San Antonio, starting with the Alamo. In Houston, Splashway Water Park and the popular Houston Zoo offer great family fun. In Dallas, the super-kid-friendly Dallas World Aquarium and Perot Museum of Nature and Science are great places for kids to experience hands-on learning about the wider world.
You may also consider traveling to West Texas, which offers 2 of the country’s most underappreciated travel destinations in artsy Marfa and gorgeous Big Bend National Park.
The Rust Belt in summer
On TV, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit are often punchlines. But in reality, they are wonderful places to visit. This is especially true come May when the snow has (mostly) melted, and the Rust Belt becomes a great option if you’re looking for family summer vacation ideas on a budget. The sun is out and both the baseball and summer arts seasons are in full swing. Fly in and out of Pittsburgh and Detroit, in either order, and stop in Cleveland along the way.
Once in town, find a cozy vacation rental near the cities’ revitalized downtowns, hopefully within walking or share-biking distance to the ballparks. And don’t miss the art museums. Cleveland’s Museum of Art, Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum and the Detroit Museum of Art are 3 of the country’s best places to introduce kids to modern art, with bold images and bright colors that will make museums feel as accessible as the local zoo. If that’s not up your kids’ alleys, just go to the zoo: All 3 cities boast great ones. And for families with older kids, build in a stop to Cedar Point, a roller coaster mecca on the drive between Cleveland and Detroit.
Ski … the Mid-Atlantic?
Planning a winter vacation on a budget can be a black diamond of a challenge. Camping is too cold. Christmas in the Carribbean sounds amazing until you start looking at prices. Skiing is perhaps the most obvious choice. But during peak season, the top resorts are crowded and expensive.
That’s where East Coast skiing comes in. If you live within driving distance or have friends who do, consider spending winter break on the slopes of the Mid-Atlantic. The resorts don’t offer the majesty of Lake Tahoe or Colorado, but you also won’t deal with the same big crowds or prices.
Family-friendly resorts like Snowshoe in West Virginia, Wisp in Maryland and Seven Springs in Pennsylvania, among others, offer plenty of snow and ample elevation change. Lift ticket prices stay well under $100,3 and all these resorts are within easy driving distance of Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia.
National parks on a budget
“Glamping” is all the rage. But doing Yellowstone, Yosemite or any national park doesn’t have to be costly. There are plenty of ways to save.
Peak season for most national parks falls between May and September,4 so consider planning around your kids’ spring break or even Thanksgiving. Look for the parks’ occasional “free days,” when admission fees are waived. Upscale hotels and vacation homes near national parks can be pricey, but camping is far cheaper. You can book a campsite for as little as $15 per night inside Yellowstone.5
Whether at the beach, in town or on the slopes, traveling is a great way to build family bonds and make family memories. By sticking to your family budget, you can hopefully make these memories while keeping your finances on track.
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- “Coastal Act and the California Coastal Commission,” Beachapedia.org (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2018, from: http://www.beachapedia.org/Coastal_Act_and_the_California_Coastal_Commission
- “Pros and Cons of Choosing a Homestay Over a Hotel,” Consumer Reports (May 3, 2017). Retrieved April 10, 2018, from: https://www.consumerreports.org/vacations/choosing-homestay-rental-over-hotel-pros-and-cons/
- Liftopia (n.d.) Retrieved April 11, 2018, from: https://www.liftopia.com/region/mid-atlantic
- National Park Service Proposes Targeted Fee Increases at Parks to Address Maintenance Backlog, National Park Service (October 24, 2017). Retrieved April 3, 2018, from: https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1207/10-24-2017-fee-changes-proposal.htm
- Camping at Yellowstone (n.d.) Retrieved April 11, 2018, from: https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm