How to Plan a Family Vacation on a Budget: 11 Steps to an Affordable Family Vacation

Going on a family vacation does not have to break the bank.  There are a ton of ways to save money so that your vacation is affordable, and so you can do more of the things that you enjoy.  Planning a family vacation on a budget takes a little more forethought and creativity, but it does not mean that your vacation has to be lame!

There are two points at which you can save money. First, there are a TON of ways to save money while planning the vacation and second, there are a bunch of ways that you can save money while you are on vacation.

Travel Planning (before departure)

1. Setting a Budget for a Family Vacation

Setting a budget is the benchmark for planning a family vacation on a budget and not breaking your bank. Ideally, you won’t go into debt on your vacay, and knowing your budget up front will help keep all family members in line. 

If you set a budget, you will be inclined to spend less, and you can start saving for your vacation before leaving.  Line items in your budget will include transportation, accommodations, rental car, attractions, food, souvenirs, and gear/equipment.

Once you figure out a budget, you can do two things. First, you’ll start saving for the vacation.  If your budget is $2000, and you have six months to plan, then begin squirreling away $333 per month. Second, you’ll break down how much you need for big-ticket items like transportation and accommodations, and how much you’ll need once you are there.  If you break it down this way, then once you arrive, you’ll have an understanding of how much you can spend each day.

2. Select Your Destination

Selecting your destination may be the single biggest factor in how much your vacation costs.  Your destination will dictate how expensive your accommodations will be and also whether you can drive or you’ll have to fly. 

Avoid Tourist Hot-spots & Expensive Destinations

If you are planning a family vacation on a budget you probably aren’t going to the Amalfi coast or the French Riviera. (But even if you went to those places there are still ways to shave costs).

If you go somewhere like Disneyland, it’s going to be a lot more costly than going to a National Park or the beach. For example, the Delaware beaches are popular, but they are not as expensive as Disneyland.

Consider a state or National Park

The National Parks are very family friendly and can be a fun and affordable getaway.  Some parks are remote, and so airfare may be prohibitively expensive. If a National Park is too far then check out a state park!  

National and state parks tick all of the boxes for a family vacation on a budget.  I was never a naturalist or into nature vacations, before I met my husband.  Now, we visit a National Park every year, and I love them!  Last year we went to Zion National Park, and it was Uh-mazing. Even if you aren’t sold on a Park vacay, check one out before you discount the idea.

Search Prices, Not Destinations

This is one area where you can find the biggest savings. If searching flights, you can put in your city of origin and dates, and the search engine will give you a map of destinations and prices.  (See below for more details on the various search engines.)  If you are open to any destination, this is an excellent way to select one with a cheaper airfare.

Alternatively, you could pick a few cities and research flight prices to see which one is the cheapest. 

Look for Deals & Offers

Most airline sites have a ‘deals & offers’ page. Check that out for any good deals with appealing destinations. Also, check out https://www.costcotravel.com/ for vacation and cruise packages.

Scott’s Cheap Flights: If you are flying internationally, sign up for Scott’s Cheap Flights, he sends good deals straight to your inbox.  He has a free and a paid subscription.

Consider Staying Local

If you go somewhere within 3 or 4 hours of your home, you will save money on airfare and gas.  You’ll also most likely be familiar with the area, and that can help you save in other ways as well.

3. Pick Your Dates of Travel

In deciding when to travel be as flexible as you can with your dates. Even being flexible one or two days on either side of your vacation could save you hundreds of dollars.

Try to Travel Off-season

The shoulder seasons are great! Between April and June and from Labor Day through October are great times to travel.  Also, consider pulling your kids out of school for a day or two, if that’ll considerably reduce your costs.  Check your destination to make sure there are no festivals or crazy events going on, or your ‘off-peak’ travel can turn into prime time travel.  

Plan Ahead, or Alternatively, Get Last Minute Deals

What you do here depends on your risk tolerance. Planning, two-three months in advance will usually yield the best deals.  When I was single and pre-kids I was all about the last minute deals, but not so much anymore.  

Also, consider taking short weekend trips.  Instead of going on week-long trips consider 3-4 day trips, like a Friday-Monday or Saturday-Tuesday. Also, traveling on a Tuesday-Thursday can save you some dough on airfare.

4. Planes, Trains & Automobiles: Plan Your Mode of Transport

Aside from accommodations, mode of transportation may be your single most significant cost.  Depending on where you are going, driving will usually be cheapest.   

If flying, you can still plan a family vacation on a budget, but you have to be more strategic about it.

Saving Money While Flying

Search Engines: Use a good search engine to search for the lowest prices for your destination and dates.  You can also put in your home city and search for the cheapest destinations and dates.  After you get the best price/destination deal, go to the airline’s website and try and book directly through them. 

A few of the best search engines are:

  1. Momondo: They have a ‘go anywhere’ function, where you can put in your city of origin, select dates, and it will give you hundreds of destinations on a neat and nifty map. They also have a nice graph to show you if your flights are cheaper in the week prior or the week after your dates of travel.
  2. Skyscanner: Skyscanner also has the ‘select everywhere,’ by date function.  Also, you can put in your city of origin, select a month, and it will give you prices to 100’s of destinations, on a handy map.
  3. Kayak: If you find a reasonable price on Kayak you can set up price alerts via email; they will notify you if your fare has gone down. Another nifty feature on Kayak is that it will give you advice on whether to buy now or wait for a better price.  Additionally, Kayak will combine flights on multiple airlines to come up with the best price.
  4. Google.com/flights: When you enter your origin and destination cities, click on the date, and you will see prices below each date, with the cheapest in green. After you run your search you can select ‘date grid’ or ‘price graph,’ and it’ll give you price trends for the surrounding dates.

Watch Out for the Nickel and Dimeing

(I’m looking at you Spirit airlines).  If you get a great deal on a flight, chances are you are going to get nickeled and dimed at some point.  That’s ok. You just want to know that it’s going to happen before it happens.  In my experience, the three ways you get nickeled and dimed by an airline are in baggage fees, in-flight snacks, and seat selection. 

Baggage Fees: You can combat the baggage fees by only bringing carry-ons.  Alternatively, you could bring one checked bag for the whole family, and a few carry-ons. (One exception to this is Spirit Airlines, they charge more for carry-ons than checked bags).  Also, make sure to stay within the weight limits. If your luggage is overweight, that’s the quickest way to blow money.   

Snacks: Bring snacks. I have a two-year-old, so I always have snacks in my purse. I also don’t want to pay $6 for a small pack of goldfish.

Seat Selection: If your airline charges for seat selection the easiest way to save is to not pre-select a seat.  When you check in for your flight, the airline will assign you a seat.  If you don’t pay for seat-selection and you want to sit with your family, I’d recommend checking in as soon as you can.   Typically, you can check-in within 24 hours of your flight.  Some airlines will seat you all together, when traveling with children, even if you don’t pre-select a seat.

Use Miles or Points to Book Flights

Try to use your credit card or airline miles to book flights.  Even if you can only get one ticket with miles, that’ll save you a few hundred dollars.

5. Plan Your Accommodation

First, you have to decide what type of accommodation will work best. Besides camping (which is the absolute cheapest) you have hotels or Airbnb/HomeAway.

Hotels: If you book a hotel try and get one with a free breakfast.  Also, try to get one with a fridge and a microwave.  Lastly, if you can find one, some hotel rooms have kitchens in the room (I’m looking at you Home2Suites).

Two good sites for booking hotels are hotels.com and booking.com.  I like to book with hotels.com because your 10th stay is free.

Airbnb or HomeAway: These are great because you have an entire kitchen and you’ll be able to save on the third biggest vacation expense, eating out. If you do go for an Airbnb or HomeAway, check out this post on booking one for families.

I’d recommend comparing total prices (for your entire stay, not per night) between some hotels and an Airbnb at your destination.  Sometimes one is clearly more economical, but sometimes it’s a closer call. 

There may be other factors that you consider in picking your accommodation.  Sometimes you stay at a hotel because you want turn-down service and a ready-made breakfast, and other times you select an Airbnb because you want more solitude, so weigh all of those factors into your decision.

Lastly, try to use miles or points for accommodations.  Lots of credit cards accrue miles that you can use at hotels.  Also, check your loyalty programs to see if there is a way to earn free hotel stays.

6. Car Rental

A few good sites for searching car rentals are kayak.com, skyscanner.com, and carrentals.com.   Also, check out Priceline.com if you are not picky about which company you go with as they still offer Express deals.C

Car Rental Insurance

You usually don’t need to purchase car rental insurance from the rental car company. Check with your own car insurance company to see what coverage you have on rental cars.

Also, if paying with a Visa or Mastercard, you will have some car rental coverage by virtue of paying with those cards.  You should also note, that to receive the Visa or Mastercard coverage you typically have to decline the additional coverage offered by the rental car company.

  1. Contact Visa here, before renting a car to find out your benefits.
  2. Contact MasterCard here, before renting a car to find out your benefits.

7. Check For Membership Discounts

Are you a member of a professional organization, AAA, AARP, or some other organization offering member discounts?  Lots of times professional organizations will offer discounts to its members, on hotels or car rentals.

Travel Planning (Post-Arrival)

8. Eating While On Vacation

Eating on vacation is potentially the third largest expense, after transportation and accommodations.  This can add up fast, so try to pack picnics and eat at ‘home’ as much as possible.

If you are driving, consider packing a cooler with as much food as you can, to avoid eating out.  If you are flying or if you don’t want to bring all of your food then visit the grocery store when you arrive in town. 

Get a hotel with a fridge, so you can stock up on snacks, breakfast and lunch foods.

Some of the places that we visit are pretty remote (backwoods of Montana) so check the grocery store situation when you arrive.

I mentioned this above, but try to get a hotel with breakfast included and fill up on breakfast.  There is also no shame in taking a banana or a muffin from the continental breakfast, for a mid-morning snack. 

Lastly, make sure always to have a reusable water bottle.  It really burns my britches when I have to pay for bottled water out and about.

9. Eating Out While on Vacation

Eating out on vacation is one of the easiest places to blow your budget, and can be prohibitively expensive for those planning a family vacation on a budget. 

If you want to eat out go at like 2/3pm and share a few appetizer plates, then have snacks for ‘dinner.’ Alternatively, get takeout and bring it back to the house/hotel.  You will save money on tipping and pricey drinks.

10. Attractions

Check out Groupon or Living Social deals for your destination.  Lots of times you can find a Groupon for an activity that you would like to do.

Check out museum websites for discount or free days. Also, many museums have reciprocity agreements. If you have a membership to a museum near your house, check to see what if any other museums you can visit for free or at a discount.

Lastly, kids three and under are free lots of times, so squeeze in the vacay before your kid turns three.

11. The Little Things Add Up

If you are trying to run your family vacation a budget, it’s the little things that can get out of control. Souvenirs, drinks at dinner, food at the amusement park, candy, and toys, can all add up.  When I’m on vacation I can be a little bit loose with the purse strings, so rein that in.

Takeaway

Taking a family vacation on a budget doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun or that you have to cut out all of the extras.  Whether your budget is $500 or $5000, you want to work within those confines and not rack up debt.

You also don’t want to pay for things that you don’t have to (overweight baggage fees).  If you keep your spending in check, you’ll be well on your way to affording the next vacation.    

Let me know if you implement any of these and how they work for you! Also, if you have any other tips for taking an affordable family vacation drop me a comment below. 

Baby on a beach, father in the mountains-Family Vacation on a Budget-Affordable Family Vacation

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