Earlier this month, my little family of four embarked on a much-needed spring getaway to the Caribbean. I'm sure that doesn't sound frugal at all, but rest assured that it was. After a year of planning and a whole lot of strategizing, we were able to book that particular trip for what amounted to a boatload of hotel loyalty points, a bunch of airline miles, and around $700.
I know that isn't cheap by any means, but it was a good deal when you consider the fact that our trip price included round-trip airfare for four, a six-night hotel stay at an all-inclusive resort, transportation, and tips. Pretty sweet.
Still, this whole travel-with-kids-on-a-budget thing is getting infinitely more difficult. We used to be able to travel anytime — off-peak, off-season, and last-minute. But now that my oldest daughter is in school, we are stuck planning our budget travel for the school breaks that take place during spring, fall, winter, and summer. Needless to say, the school schedule sure does throw a wrench into my plans.
Travel is a priority for my family, which is why I go to great pains to find ways to circumvent the system and maximize our savings. Although I do write about money and frugality for a living, I am a travel writer first and foremost. And that is part of the reason it is so important to us — travel-writing is my bread and butter.
How to save money on family travel
We travel a lot with our children and, over the years, I have figured out some of the easiest ways to travel with kids without going broke — or losing our marbles.
Here are some of the best tips I have picked up and implemented over the years:
Tip #1: Credit card rewards make it easy to travel cheaply, but only if you do it right
We have used hotel loyalty points and frequent flyer miles curated from rewards credit cards to book airfare and hotel rooms all over the globe. It is a simple strategy — for the most part, all you need to do is sign up for rewards credit cards that offer these perks, meet the minimum spending requirement, and pay your bill in full at the end of each month.
But that last part isn't always so easy. I have seen great success with this strategy, but I've also watched many others fail to stay on top of it all. The bottom line: Credit card rewards can make your trip, but they can also break your trip. Taking advantage of these offers can be a godsend if you are organized enough to pull it off, but equally nightmarish if you are not. Only you can decide if the risk is worth it.
Tip #2: Plan ahead, way ahead
Whether you are using points and miles or cold, hard cash, it always pays to plan ahead. Keep in mind, that doesn't mean you necessarily have to book far ahead — you only have to start planning.
Once you have a destination in mind, you can start price-shopping hotels and airfare. If you are able to track pricing for several months before you book, you should already know what a good price for your particular trip looks like. Booking ahead is just as important when you are booking with points and miles, and that is especially true when you want to book travel during peak travel times such as spring break. Either way, when you are able to start planning your trip six to nine months ahead of time, you will be better off.
Tip #3: Think of everything and bring it with you
During our trip to Jamaica earlier this month, I happened to notice that the on-site gift shop was asking almost $30 for sunscreen. $30?!?!
I thought it was crazy, but I didn't have to sweat it at all. Because I knew that essentials like sunscreen would be seriously marked up once we got there, I brought six containers of sunscreen with us. That may sound like a lot, but we used all but the last one. Even better, the ones I brought from home cost only around $7.
This is exactly why it pays to think ahead and plan for anything and everything. If your kids love to have frequent snacks, for example, figure out what you can bring with you — and do it.
Do your kids need water wings for the pool? Hiking gear? Will they need a hat to keep their little faces shaded from the sun? Whatever is it, bring it with you if you can. Items that take up very little room in your suitcase can lead to huge savings down the road sometimes. The key is, thinking ahead and packing smart.
Tip #4: Avoid airfare at all cost
This probably sounds like funny advice coming from someone who just flew four people round-trip for vacation, but it is still solid. The truth is, most of the time we choose to drive instead of fly — even when we are going somewhere relatively far away.
For example, we often drive from Indiana to Florida for vacation. Sure, it's a 12- or 13-hour drive, but we can usually get there for less than $300 in gas and one day. Even though flying technically takes less time, the difference isn't all that big when you factor in the time it takes to get to the airport, find parking, check in, and go through security. And the savings are huge — $300 in gas beats at least $1,600 in round-trip airfare any day.
The bottom line: When you have a family, it will almost always be cheaper to drive instead of fly. (And sometimes, it is easier too.)
Tip #5: Bring something for your kids to do
Whether you are driving or flying, your kids will almost always be happier if they have something — anything — to do. My kids are young, so I usually just bring a few coloring books, crayons, and books along. However, you can bring anything that would keep your kids busy for a while.
Since my husband's family lives 13 hours away, we drive to visit them frequently. One of the best investments I ever made was an $89 dual DVD player for the back of the headrests in our car. I never thought I would be someone who would buy something like that; but the truth is, it's been great! My kids have spent numerous hours in the backseat coloring and watching movies, and my husband and I have experienced a great deal of peace because of it.
The goal of family vacations and travel
These are just some of the ways you can save money on family vacations and travel. Obviously, there are plenty of others — although many of them depend on where you live and the different kinds of destinations you plan to visit.
If you truly want to save money, the smartest thing you can do is plan ahead. Creating a vacation budget, creating a list of things to bring, and spending some time price-shopping for the best deal are tips that almost anyone can use.
But the main goal shouldn't just be saving money; it should be having a fun, interesting experience that your entire family can enjoy and remember. Because if family travel is about anything, it should be about spending time with family.
That's the goal for most people, and saving as much money as possible is simply icing on the cake.
How do you save money on family travel? What kind of difficulties have you come across when planning budget travel with kids?
Author: Holly Johnson
Holly Johnson is a credit card expert, award-winning writer, and mother of two who is obsessed with frugality, budgeting, and travel. In addition to serving as contributing editor for The Simple Dollar and writing for publications such as Bankrate, U.S. News and World Report Travel, and Travel Pulse, Johnson owns Club Thrifty and is the co-author of Zero Down Your Debt: Reclaim Your Income and Build a Life You’ll Love.