How to plan an affordable vacation in 9 steps
October 31, 2023 7 min read
Is a family vacation a hot topic during dinner? No destination is off the table if you know how to travel efficiently with kids. And a little planning could go a long way toward saving money while making memories.
Learn how to turn your family vacation dreams into a reality and plan an affordable and fun getaway for the entire family.
Planning your family vacation in advance can give you time to find deals and compare prices to find the best ones.
Finding ways to cut costs through budgeting, research and credit card rewards and benefits might help reduce stress.
Using itineraries, schedules and packing lists can help you stay organized and avoid stress as your vacation approaches.
Setting realistic expectations and planning downtime to rest and recharge can help kids handle the excitement of new experiences.
9 tips to plan family travel on a budget
Trying to plan an unforgettable family getaway creates enough pressure on its own. Couple it with attempts to keep costs down to make it kid- and budget-friendly and it gets even harder. Thankfully, there are plenty of people out there with expertise who can help.
But there’s no need to go it alone. Follow these nine tips from family travel bloggers.
1. Start planning early
With so many choices to make—about things like budget, destination and travel dates—it’s a good idea to start early to avoid unnecessary stress. Nicole Hunter, mom of four and blogger at Go Far Grow Close, begins planning a family vacation months in advance.
“The reason is twofold—choice and cost,” Hunter says. She explains that the sooner you book, the more likely you are to plan the perfect vacation with a reasonable budget. Last-minute booking prices for airfare and hotels can be steep. And reservations for museums, parks and other entertainment can fill up fast.
When choosing a destination, Candice Criscione of Mom in Italy suggests visiting places with fewer tourists. It might be more affordable for your family to travel off the beaten path.
She recommends Bolzano in Northern Italy, a small city at the foot of the Dolomite Mountains. “There’s so much to do there—explore castles, eat gelato, hike—and it’s less expensive to visit than Rome or Florence.”
It may also be worth scheduling your trip during your destination’s offseason. You’ll have to consider your kids’ school calendars as you’re figuring out where to go. If you can figure it out, you might deal with smaller crowds and better prices.
2. Build a budget
Ever gone on a family outing and been shocked by the bill? You’re not alone. Setting a travel budget ahead of time can help you plan for more family fun without breaking the bank.
Marcy Fitzpatrick of Fitz Travel Bits adds up airfare, lodging, transportation, entertainment and tip expenses to determine the total cost of a trip beforehand. “By pricing out the itinerary, I know if it is a trip we can afford,” she explains. She then adjusts a few budget items if the price is too high.
Her family of five flew to Hawaii on a pricey flight. To compensate, they rented an affordable neighborhood condo instead of beachfront property. “We filled our days with hiking and beach-hopping instead of expensive tours.”
Keri Baugh, blogger at Bon Voyage With Kids, also teaches her children how to budget on vacation. Her three kids bring their allowance money to buy souvenirs. “This way, they can learn money management,” she says. “And I don’t have to say ‘no’ when they ask for a souvenir.”
If you’re traveling internationally, it may be helpful to get a sense of the currency exchange rates as well as foreign transaction fees you might face. You may have to also factor in the cost of traveler visas or the cost of a temporary visitor driver’s license if you decide to rent a car.
3. Decide how to get there
Once you’ve picked where and when to go, it’s time to decide how to get there.
Is your vacation spot within driving distance? Can your kids ride peacefully in the car for several hours? If so, a road trip might be the way to go. It’s often more cost-effective, and all that car space can hold extra snacks and entertainment for little ones.
But as Manny Oliverez of Favorite Grampy Travels says, “If driving sounds stressful, fly.” Flying with kids gets you from home to holiday faster. Oliverez often picks a nonstop flight when traveling with his grandchildren to avoid mid-layover meltdowns.
Or “get creative with your flight budget,” Fitzpatrick says. “Is the price lower to fly in or out of different airports?” While en route to Morocco, her family flew to Madrid in neighboring Spain for half the price. They then jetted across Europe to their final destination of Marrakesh.
4. Cash in on rewards from your travel credit card
For families planning a vacation on a budget, a travel rewards credit card may help. Travel credit cards let cardholders earn rewards on everyday and travel-related purchases, which then might be redeemed to lower the cost of flights, accommodations and beyond.
“I have cashed in my Capital One rewards to cover hotels, restaurants and gas,” Baugh says. “And you can book through Capital One Travel to redeem rewards and get great prices.”
Eligible Capital One rewards cardholders can earn extra rewards on trips booked through Capital One Travel. It has unique features to help you find great deals and book flights, hotels and rental cars with confidence.
If you’re not a Capital One cardholder yet, check to see whether there’s a Venture travel rewards credit card that’s right for you.
5. Plan affordable activities for your kids to enjoy
Planning activities can be trickier for a group than for a solo traveler, but it’s possible to keep every family member happy.
“I always consider the ages and interests of my children before picking a destination and choosing activities,” Hunter says. Her family has traveled to 45 countries—from the jungles of Borneo to a tiger safari in India—since the kids were toddlers.
Criscione agrees: “I find if everyone has something to look forward to on the trip, they have a better attitude about activities they’re less interested in.”
Visiting an unfamiliar area? Need ideas for cheap or even free things to do? “Families can check out family-friendly blogs and social media groups,” Baugh suggests. “You can ask questions about destinations and get ideas for things to do.” She also looks for activities that immerse her family in the local culture. In France, they took painting and cooking classes. In national parks, they look for kid-friendly hikes.
And fun can be free—or close to it. Affordable activities for kids include exploring outdoor parks and beaches, shopping at farmers markets and attending discount days at museums. Baugh recommends researching discount ticket packages to popular attractions. If you travel often within the U.S., annual passes to places like national parks might also save you money in the long run.
6. Make an itinerary
Here’s the thing about traveling with kids: Energy can be a commodity. “Kids can’t always travel at the pace of adults,” Baugh says. “Have a plan but leave room for flexibility.”
Her family books their favorite activities first. If there’s still spending money left toward the end of the trip, they use it for bonus activities. “This is a money-saving hack that keeps us on our vacation budget,” she explains. “And by discussing the itinerary in advance, we avoid feeling like we missed out on something on our trip.”
Criscione recommends scheduling just one activity per day. Building in time for naps, reading or a snack allows kids—and chaperones—to recharge. And adults can find time on the itinerary for their own travel urges.
“Sometimes adults want to see something that isn’t typically for kids,” she says, “but you can make it fun for everyone in the family.” Criscione suggests hosting a scavenger hunt in an art museum or swinging by the gift shop after. And if there are multiple adults traveling, you could take turns having a solo afternoon.
7. Pack like a pro
A quick way to spend cash that could’ve stayed in your wallet is by having to buy items you forgot to pack. According to travel packing pros, a packing list ensures you and the kids have what you need when you arrive.
“Get kids involved in packing,” Baugh says. She keeps a list of nine items each kid needs in their carry-on: water bottle, snacks, book, tablet, headphones, change of clothes, sweatshirt, blanket and sketchbook with colored pencils.
“It makes packing less stressful for parents,” she admits.
Hunter also reminds families to keep documents organized. She brings a file folder to hold IDs, passports, boarding passes and printouts of reservations.
8. Save money on meals
When hunger strikes, snacks can be an easy fix. And carrying a bag of your kid’s favorite snack could save you from buying the nearest $10 sandwich or ice cream cone.
Buying groceries to prepare meals can save your family a chunk of the vacation budget. Baugh and her family try to stay in homes or hotel rooms with kitchen space to cook. “This helps cut down on costs of eating out,” she says.
Eating at local restaurants can be part of the travel experience, though. By saving money on meals here and there, there might be more room in your budget for the best bites.
9. Manage your expectations
It can be tough for kids to adjust to a new environment while traveling. “Be more flexible than you’d normally be,” Criscione says. She lets her kids have more screen time, stay up later and eat more treats than normal while on vacation. The small leniencies can add up to smoother travel.
Oliverez says his grandchildren benefit from scheduled downtime. “Sometime during your vacation, have a free day to sleep in, lounge around by the pool, shop or let the kids lead for the day,” he suggests.
Things may not always go as planned. Moods may fluctuate. By managing expectations, you can leave room for surprise and delight.
Affordable family vacations in a nutshell
Planning a budget-friendly family trip can feel like a lot of work. But if you start far enough in advance and follow the tips of those who have done it before, you’ll be able to unwind with your loved ones and enjoy all that your destination has to offer.
As you plan and prep, remember that Capital One Venture travel credit cards let you earn rewards on all your purchases—before, during and after your next vacation. Already got credit card rewards burning a hole in your pocket? Your next family getaway is calling.