Traveling is expensive! And bringing the whole family with you when you travel can make you feel like you’re breaking the bank every time you leave home. Or, if not breaking the bank, at least like you have holes in your pockets. Wouldn’t a wallet-friendly family vacation be ideal?
Unfortunately, you’ll never fully avoid feeling the pinch that comes from traveling together as a family. But there are ways to save, even with the kids in tow. With a little preparation, you can avoid returning home without feeling like you need a second job to pay off the vacation. Keep these tips in mind the next time you’re planning a family vacation. You’ll be amazed by how much you save!
1. Choose Your Travel Destination Wisely.
Most people pick a travel destination based on what they want to see— the beaches of the Caribbean, the architecture of Madrid, the towers of Machu Picchu. Traveling with a family, though, requires a mindset change. While the Caribbean, Madrid, and Machu Picchu may all be at the top of your destination list, they’re probably not realistic family vacation locations.
Instead, pick a location based on affordability. There is always something to do or see anywhere you go. If you can afford the vacation, you’ll have a lot more fun, even if you aren’t in some exotic place. Enjoy the thrill of watching your kids see something new and stop worrying about how “cool” or “picture worthy” your destination of choice is perceived to be. Keep your vacation wallet-friendly and you’ll be sure to vacation again.
Travel Local (Relatively Speaking).
Some travel gurus will tell you not to limit yourself when planning a trip. It’s possible, they say, that the cost of living where you live is so high that traveling farther afield can be less costly. If you live in the United States, for example, a trip to Costa Rica or to Kenya is going to be a lot cheaper than a trip to Chicago or Miami.
This is true! But don’t forget the hidden (and not so hidden) costs of travel for your family. Simply obtaining passports and necessary vaccines for travel to another country is expensive. Then there’s the cost of plane tickets, extra charges for luggage, and possible car rentals. You also need to factor in safety. If you’ve never been to the country you’re traveling to, your lodging is more likely to be in a location where costs are higher. This is because you’ll want to stay in places you know are safe.
All that is not to say it can’t be done. But, the best way to take advantage of the lower costs of a foreign destination is to stay for longer. A longer stay allows you to explore more, and to find the restaurants or hotels that will give you the best bang for your buck. It also allows you to take advantage of public transportation systems. Mass transit will save you money, but it won’t save you time, and time is a commodity during a short vacation. A longer vacation can also make the cost of flying worth it.
If you can’t take the time off to vacation somewhere for a month, stay close to home. Most of the time, it will cost you less in the end.
Consider Location Costs.
I live in the United States. The cost of traveling to one state over another can vary greatly. If I’m taking a family vacation to New York City, for example, it’s going to slim my wallet a lot more than if I’m taking a family vacation to Yellowstone. This is especially true if I live in the west.
Before you plan a family vacation, take some time to consider what it’s going to cost to eat, stay, and play where you’re going. Think about other locations that might be lesser-known, but just as fun. Many times, trips off the beaten path will cost a lot less.
Do a little research on the cost of family activities before you go. For example, a trip to Washington, D.C. (definitely not off the beaten path) can actually be very family and budget friendly if you stick to sights along the National Mall where everything is free.
Check the Weather.
Weather might not seem important to factor into a wallet-friendly family vacation. But always consider the weather before you travel anywhere. Weather and climate have a huge impact on the cost of traveling. If a sunny beach vacation is what you’re seeking, it may be worth it to you to pay the exorbitant amount it will cost you to head to San Diego for a few weeks during the summer. Same thing if you’re hoping for great skiing—Denver might be a great, but expensive, location for your family in February.
But if you and your family are willing to travel during off-season to a certain city or state, do it! Entire beach houses in San Diego can be cheaper in September or October than a cramped hotel room in May or June. And in Denver, you’ll find plenty of biking and hiking to do while you stay in a ski lodge there. And because you won’t be doing any skiing, you’ll be paying a lot less.
If you’re willing to be flexible with plans during your vacation, travel during off-season. Your wallet will thank you.
2. Travel With Others.
I’m an introvert, and traveling with another family is never something I want to do. I feel more exposed when I travel. I’m in unfamiliar territory, I’m often tired, and when I’m with kids, I’m always stressed. Having to worry about making sure all the people crowding up the mini van behind me are happy is the last thing I want to be doing while I’m on the road. Sometimes, it might be worth the cost to go it alone with your own family.
But, if you want a wallet-friendly family vacation, travel with others for the savings to add up. This is especially true for lodging. Whether it’s a beach house, a motor home, some hotel rooms, or a camp site, splitting the cost of lodging with others is ideal. You can almost halve the cost of your vacation instantly by simply being willing to have the kids share rooms or sleep on the couch.
Another advantage to traveling with others are the babysitting exchanges that can happen. If each family takes turns watching the kids during the evenings, you’re free to see a show or eat out every other night of your trip without having to fund the kids.
If you can travel well with parents, siblings, or close friends, invite them on your vacation with you and slash the cost of gas, lodging, and nights out exploring.
3. Focus on Where You Eat When you Travel, Not What.
Planning for food while traveling is the hardest part of the whole vacation. Somehow, I can plan every aspect of a vacation, except for food. The thought of meal planning, cooking, and transporting food makes vacationing a bear. I really hate the thought of packing and icing a cooler. It’s a lot easier to just eat every meal out. That mindset, though, can make family vacationing cost prohibitive.
To avoid the temptation of eating every meal out, remember to keep eating simple. It really isn’t too hard to keep the kids full and happy on a simple, yet still healthy diet. Essentially, you just need to remember to grocery shop.
Here are a few tips we’ve learned over time for creating a wallet-friendly family vacation:
Never Eat Breakfast Out!
Breakfast out with the kids is never worth the cost. And breakfast is the easiest meal to plan for. Cereal, fruit, bread, and milk are inexpensive, easy to find, and easy to store. If you skip the milk, in fact, breakfast doesn’t even require a cooler for storage and transport.
Simplify Your Lunches.
Of the three traditional daily meals, lunch is the hardest for me not to eat out for. When you’re on the go, whether it’s on the road or seeing the sights, lunch is the most inconvenient meal to execute. A quick stop for food frees up time, space, and energy. It’s hard to pass up a hamburger and a milk shake in the middle of a long day.
Simplifying will help diminish some of the stress of feeding everyone lunch. Peanut butter and jelly never hurt anyone. And you can be a lot more creative than that! Hard-boiled eggs, fruit and cheese, deli meet and crackers, nuts, apple sauce, and tuna fish are all kid-friendly lunch options that you can prepare ahead for and easily carry with you. Most of those options don’t require a cooler. And even the ones that do (the deli meet and cheese) have a few hours before they need to be stored somewhere cool. Most importantly, none of those options require any prep time besides a trip to the grocery store. Easy!
Deal With Dinner Ahead of Time.
The only thing that makes dinner hard is a lack of planning. Each day of your trip, decide if you’re eating in or out for dinner.
If you’re eating out, where do you think you’ll be when you start restaurant hunting? A quick internet search can help you know exactly how much dinner will cost. Make sure when you’re eating out that you don’t frequent the famous or most well-known restaurants. These are most often tourist traps. Find something else that is unique to your area, so you can experience the local culture, but that’s not billed as a tourist destination.
If you’re eating in, are you in a home that allows you to cook, or are you in a hotel room that severely limits your options? If you’re in a home, plan the menu ahead. Can you put together a crock pot meal before you head out for the day and have dinner ready when you get back? Or, can you plan a trip to the farmer’s market into your plans for the day and involve the kids in buying and cooking a meal unique to the area you’re staying in?
Always stick to a budget for dinner. Set a certain amount you can spend each night and don’t go over. If you spend less one night because you ate a light dinner in, make sure to roll the funds over to other nights so you can go big another night.
With minimal planning, dinner can be inexpensive and fun.
Make Eating an Experience When You Travel.
No matter what or where you eat, make eating an experience for your kids. Neither you nor they will remember a lot about what they ate on vacation. Instead, they’ll remember where they ate or how they ate.
Build meal time together into your vacation. Rather than pulling off to the side of the road for lunch, for example, find a park and have a picnic. Make the park a destination. We’ve eaten in parks with a timed geyser, with petting zoos, with streams running through them, and with playground equipment that has entertained even Mom and Dad. We’ve also made the mistake of eating on a curb outside a gas station in the hot sun, in a hurry to get to our next stop. Only after we ate did we discover picnic tables, giant trees, grass, and a stream. If only we’d planned!
Meals on an ocean pier, in a pioneer graveyard, at the top of a mountain, or at the base of a monument are much more memorable than meals in the car, or even meals in a restaurant. If you can plan where you eat, it won’t matter what you’re eating.
4. Travel to the Great Outdoors.
Playing outdoors is always less expensive than playing in. Hiking, biking, and swimming will cost your family a lot less than exploring museums, seeing shows, or going to amusement parks.
For a truly wallet-friendly family vacation, try hitting the national parks in any state you travel to. They’ll be out of your way many times, but the journey there can provide for a myriad of adventure and site seeing. You’ll also probably drive through miles of National Forest land on your way to a national park. You can camp free anywhere on National Forest land. Although you won’t have the amenities of a KOA or an organized campground, dispersed camping away from the crowds will not only be free, it will allow the kids to be as loud and as crazy as they want.
5. Teach Your Kids to Spend Their Own Money.
Giving kids an allowance to spend on vacation seems counterintuitive. But for a wallet-friendly family vacation, give it a try.
If you’re planning on spending a certain amount per child per day, consider giving a portion of that amount to your kids and allowing them to spend it instead. When the requests for ice cream or souvenirs role in, remind the kids they can buy whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as they’re the ones paying.
When forced to spend their own money, your kids will spend it a lot slower than they ask you to spend it.
It’s also a good idea to have the kids start saving money for your family vacation several months before leaving. This allows them to take ownership in the vacation. You can plan as a family what it will cost to site see, eat, and sleep and set goals for what you want to spend money on. If you’re already allowing your kids to do jobs around the house to earn money, they might as well spend some of it on the family vacation and save you a few dollars in the end.
6. Set a Travel Budget.
Require the same thing of yourself that you require of the kids— set a budget and stick to it! Leaving on vacation without setting a budget is asking for trouble, and is the antithesis of a wallet-friendly family vacation. When you’re traveling, it starts to feel like everyone you meet is only trying to take your money. And in a sense, that can be true. Don’t spend when you haven’t planned on spending.
This requires a little planning. But your budget doesn’t have to be exact. If you have a certain amount to spend, take some time to figure out how much you plan to spend on food, how much you plan to spend on gas, how much you plan to spend on fun, and how much you plan to spend on lodging.
Be realistic with yourself in making a budget, and don’t spend over the amount you’ve set. Most of the time, if you stick to your budget, you’ll arrive home having spent less than you planned to. And if not, you at least know where the money went and how the trip was paid for. This makes for a stress-free arrival home.
Enjoy Your Adventure!
Traveling as a family is expensive. But it doesn’t have to break the bank. With a little bit of planning and some flexibility, you’ll be guaranteed a stress-free, guilt-free vacation. And a wallet-friendly family vacation. There’s no reason to be worried about money while you’re on the road. Think about it before leaving, and set the worry aside. You’ll be glad you did, as it will let you focus on making memories instead.
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