7 ways to save money on a family vacation

Tips to save money on vacation with your family

Of all our fondest childhood memories, few survive the test of time like family vacations. That trip to the beach. That long car ride. That epic camping trip. We never forget the great travel moments of our youth. But all those ice cream breaks aren’t free, and as families grow, so do vacation budgets. Here is a guide for parents looking to save money on vacation.

1. Build a budget

It can be hard to include travel in your family budget since the timing and costs of trips can be difficult to predict. If you don’t already keep a budget, creating a vacation budget might be a good way to start learning the basics. It will also let you focus on the fun instead of worrying about the finances.

So as you begin trying to determine how to save on vacation, start by studying your checking account to track your past spending habits. Then estimate how many trips you will take each year and how much they should cost. If your kids are old enough, you might include them in the budgeting process. That will help them understand the importance of planning and saving for travel.

2. Choose a destination

When booking family travel on a budget, choosing an affordable destination may be the best place to start. Camping is often a great way to experience natural beauty on a budget, whether in the mountains or on the beach. In an era of urban renaissance, many mid-sized American cities—think Kansas City, St. Louis or Nashville—are worth visiting for a weekend or longer, and their downtowns are often clean, safe and packed with cool, casual bars and restaurants. And even obvious destinations like Florida or Hawaii can be done on a smaller budget if you find a way to travel during the low season.

3. Don’t fear the road trip

Long family road trips are the stuff of cinematic legend. But the days of “I spy” and wrestling with sprawling road maps are long gone. The technologies in our cars and phones have made long car drives more comfortable and enjoyable with GPS, climate control, music apps and the magic of audiobooks and podcasts. 

Depending on where you live, there are likely amusement parks, mountains, beaches or historical sites within a day’s drive. If your kids are young, you may want to break a drive of 6 or 7 hours (or more) into smaller chunks, finding interesting places to stop along the way. Either way, by simply eliminating airfare, car trips can make the best family vacations on a budget, as long as you have a few phone chargers and plenty of snacks.

4. Flexibility for your finances and fun

If you’re looking for ways to save money on vacation, it might pay to be flexible. Search for flights for a few destinations that your family is interested in traveling to. But instead of locking yourself into a specific week or weekend, look across several dates when you might be free to travel. When you see something affordable, snag it. Even if it means taking an extra day off work, the trip will be memorable for its spontaneity and will help reinforce the importance of travel to your family.

5. Staycation’s all you ever wanted

Sometimes you just need a change of scenery. If you need out of the house, but you can’t afford to pile your family onto a plane, consider a staycation. Find a hotel, resort, vacation home and even campsite nearby. If you don’t know where to start, try your city’s website, which likely offers tourism tips for activities in your own backyard. Or search for nearby parks.

Pack the car with treats, games and maybe a bathing suit and hit the road. Bonus points if your hometown has a resort with a pool or an amusement park. You never know: 20 years from now, your kids may still be talking about that epic trip 30 minutes up the highway.

6. Extended family fun

People often save family visits for the holidays. But if your extended family has space to host you, consider building a trip around visiting them. Wherever they live, they probably aren’t far from an interesting historic site, cultural experience or hot dining scene. And while you may worry about imposing, they may be thrilled to show off their hometown and their everyday lives. Just be sure to be flexible about dates so you don’t throw them off schedule.

7. Live like a local

The internet is a never-ending ocean of vacation planning websites and cheap vacation tips. But it can also suck you into tourist traps, including expensive hotels, overpriced meals and overcrowded destinations. If you’re worried about how to save money on vacation, it can be cheaper and more fun to live like a local.

For a large family, check short-term rentals instead of hotels to see if you can save on lodging. If you’re trying to figure out how to save on vacation meals, local newspapers and websites offer insider guides to unique local restaurants, where the food might be cheaper and tastier than the large eateries on the beaten path. You can eat in more easily and even entertain, if your host allows it. You’ll also save on parking and won’t accidentally splurge on room service or the minibar.

It’s never too early—or too late—to start making memories with your family. And with a little creativity, you can build a memorable family vacation without breaking the bank.

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