How to save money on family vacations

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?

More about...Frugality, Travel

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woecki
woecki
5 years ago

regarding the mobile dvd-player: i use an old notebook for that. just ensure to fix it properly (some straps do it ).

Tina in NJ
Tina in NJ
5 years ago

When I was a kid, we camped, first in a pop-up trailer, then a mini-motorhome. That way, we could bring the cats and the dog across the country with us. Because we’re a blended family (I married a widower with a child), my kids are 9 years apart in age. Finding a family vacation for all of us is no easy task. And don’t get me started on disconnecting them from their phones! The older one is almost out of college, so he may be on his own, with the possible exception of a last big trip, probably next year.

Short arms long pockets
Short arms long pockets
5 years ago

I have said this before on other posts but the best hotel alternative is a vacation rental. It is possible to rent a really nice apartment for around the same as a single hotel room – but with 2 or 3 bedrooms to accommodate the whole family. Separate bedrooms allow you to deal with different bedtimes. Having a kitchen allows you to save money on food. We tend to make our own breakfast, and buy supplies for packable lunches – so we can spend our money on eating out in the evening. but even if you do take-out – you… Read more »

getagrip
getagrip
5 years ago

We have used campgrounds, cabins, hotels, motels, B&Bs, rental homes, and rental apartments. Always pays to look because you never know what will fit your need if you are a bit flexible. We’ve rented homes where it didn’t make sense to rent multiple hotel rooms. We’ve rented hotel rooms when we wanted to be in the middle of things. We’ve rented cabins or stayed in campgrounds when the weather and season and closeness to where we wanted to be made sense. Your attitude makes more of a difference IMHO than the accomodations you typically use just to sleep in and… Read more »

Belle
Belle
5 years ago

I love vacation rentals, but it’s often something you have to do the math on. The vacation rental with a kitchen that is further from the center of the action and requires a rental car and parking fees may not be cheaper than the close-in hotel with a full hot breakfast and snacks in the evening where you can use public transportation. (Especially if you have kids that still need to nap)

This sort of thing drives me nuts, but it’s the price of a good family vacation.

MoneyAhoy
MoneyAhoy
5 years ago

We are struggling to keep our vacations cheap now that our kids are thrown into the mix. We have fixated on camping within 1-2 hours because this seems to be the cheapest and the kids absolutely love it. Airfare puts us into a whole new realm of costs, but we have not really explored miles reward credit cards yet. Seems like we need to give that a try going forward!

fasteddie
fasteddie
5 years ago

Driving is a lot more than gas. A 2000 mile trip is 1% of your car’s lifetime, or more. Thats $3-400. Also 2/3 of an oil change and 7% of a set of tires.

Jeff
Jeff
5 years ago
Reply to  fasteddie

For most modern cars 2,000 miles is a drop in the bucket as far as wear and tear go and it’s only 2/3 of a oil change if you’re still throwing away money by changing it every 3,000 instead of every 5,000 or 10,000 miles like most service intervals have been for the past decade.

Kassy
Kassy
5 years ago
Reply to  Jeff

Most modern cars get more than 200,000 miles? If not, then his 1% estimate is correct.
His 7% is correct for 30,000 mile tires.
You could argue, and I’d agree, on the oil change but that is the cheapest of the 3 things cited.
On average, a medium sized sedan costs about 60 cents a mile to drive. If you go frugal(do your own oil changes and some other maintenance, keep it 10+ years to 200,000 miles, etc) you may drop that to 45 cents or so. But that is still $900 for a 2000 mile round trip.

Jeff
Jeff
5 years ago
Reply to  Kassy

Unless you buy a Chrysler then, yes, you should have little trouble getting to 200k miles or more. Many cars don’t make it that far because they get destroyed in accidents, like my last one did at 145k. My current one just passed 125k and still runs as great as it did when I bought it used at 56k.

Most all-season tires will easily last for 40k as well. It’s sport tires that last only for 20-30k.

Kassy
Kassy
5 years ago
Reply to  Kassy

On further research, Kelly Blue Book puts 2014 Honda Accord Sport as the best 5 year cost to own car in the mid-sized sedan category. Pegs it at $0.44/mile to drive. Lets say that you are going to be more frugal than that. You get it to $0.35 by doing lots of your own maintenance, driving the speed limit, etc. A 2000 mile trip is still $700. And if you had to stay overnight in a hotel that is another $55-$120 depending on where you are in the country. All I’m saying is that the cost of driving isn’t just… Read more »

Jen
Jen
5 years ago

One of the things we’ve loved about homeschooling is the freedom to up and go whenever it works best for us…which often means off-peak seasons, when rates are at their lowest and crowds are smaller. I am not suggesting everyone start homeschooling, of course. It’s just had a lot of perks for *us*.

We’ve also planned a lot of our vacations around where we have family, and we’ve stayed with them at least part of the trip. Again, not ideal for everyone (some families, man…), but definitely a money saver for us. Plus we like our families.

Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
5 years ago

We have family scattered around the globe and whenever we go on holiday we are invited to stay with family. We also keep our doors open so other family members can visit for a week or two without having to pay for expensive hotel rooms. This has probably saved our family thousands over the years. I really enjoyed reading your experience.

Brian @ Debt Discipline
Brian @ Debt Discipline
5 years ago

Great tips Holly. We just cash flowed a great family vacation. By shifting our planed dates by 2 days we were able to save $1000 on airfare, but agree once children are in school you are at mercy of their school calendar.

Wiggles @FirstYouGetTheMoney
Wiggles @FirstYouGetTheMoney
5 years ago

It seems many people struggle to keep vacations cheap because their budget goes out the window while they’re on vacation. It’s too easy to splurge and justify impulse buys and expensive excursions with the thought, “Well, I’m on vacation after all so I might as well!” A good tip to keep vacations cheap is to make an actual vacation budget before you go. This will help over spending on souvenirs and other excessive spending.

Jeff
Jeff
5 years ago

We have a spreadsheet for our vacations breaking it down by travel costs, accommodations, dining, activities, etc. I do as much research as I can ahead of time and we have at least our major activities already planned out and often paid for in advance like with show tickets and such. I bring the spreadsheet with on a laptop as well so that we keep the costs reigned in and there is a portion of the budget that is allocated for miscellaneous activities that we decide to undertake while there. Also make sure to budget for souvenirs, we forgot to… Read more »

Melody
Melody
5 years ago

I used the credit card rewards tip for my trip to Hawaii. The other thing I recommend is to think about renting a condo instead of a hotel. This gives you access to kitchen where you can prepare your own meals. That saves me a ton of money in Hawaii where a single trip to a hotel buffet can cost $50 (no joke). Read about “How I Spent Less Than $1000 on a Trip to Hawaii” here: http://www.herown.net/?p=1107

Cherie
Cherie
5 years ago

one thing that helped us when the kids were in elementary school was not worrying about school vacation times – our children were pulled out at least one week per year and we really never had an issue – now that they’re all in middle and high school we’re stuck with school vacations – too much missed, impossible to coordinate with eight or nine teachers each – but it was nice while it lasted. I know it’s not for everyone, but it worked for us. Now that we’re on school vacations however not only are the destinations pricier during those… Read more »

Laura
Laura
5 years ago

I’m not a big traveler nor am I a travel agent, but I have to book and process travel reports as part of my job and I’ve learned a couple of things that others might find useful: 1) On personal travel, buy travel insurance. My sister has health issues and got travel insurance when planning a trip to a convention in London. Sure enough, she needed surgery and spent those dates in the hospital instead. I don’t know exactly how much the insurance saved her but it was in the four figures territory. 2) If you go with a cheapie… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
5 years ago
Reply to  Laura

“3) If you need to fly around a holiday, check the price of a ticket if you fly on the actual holiday as it may be substantially cheaper. One of our travelers saved us $1.5K on a ticket to India because he was willing to fly on New Year’s Day. And not surprisingly, tickets for departures at certain times come up cheaper than others; it may be worth it to you to get up earlier instead of paying for the privilege of trying to work 3 more hours before catching your flight.” And sometimes the airport will by much less… Read more »

Golfing Girl
Golfing Girl
5 years ago

We try to get to the beach every year and have stayed at several different places. We found a set of condos on the less congested end of the beach and had my friends been able to commit earlier, we could have gotten one more bedroom in our unit for relatively very little (about $500 for the whole week) and having them pay 1/3 would have made it really cheap. Having a full kitchen for a week will save us a ton on eating out. We also scoured the dates for the very cheapest rate while school was out and… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
5 years ago

Our family of four travels twice a year to visit family 10 hours away. One way we save money is to pack a picnic lunch with plans to stop at a rest area to eat. It gives us a chance to get some fresh air and the children usually have space to run around and burn off some energy.

Lulu
Lulu
5 years ago

I’ve found the best way to save money is on food. 1. Order water. Drinks are $3 each for a soft drink these days. If you have a family of 4, that is $12 before you have even ordered any food! Even Disney World will give you a cup of ice water for free. Bring some pre-packaged crystal light to add to it for the kids. 2. Stop at a grocery store. On a trip to the Bahamas, I had transportation from the airport to the hotel stop at the local grocery store. Instead of purchasing food in the gift… Read more »

Lauren {Adventures in Flip Flops}
Lauren {Adventures in Flip Flops}
5 years ago

I don’t have kids and travel solo, but aside from school scheduling, this stuff holds true for people without kids, too! 1. I carry a Nalgene everywhere. Even in countries where you can’t drink the tap water alot of guesthouses and hotels will have water towers you can use. 2. Eating as locally as possible is always a good choice (I personally find food to be part of the experience, so unless I’m camping or at the beach, I don’t really want to cook). Little holes-in-the-wall often have great, cheap, food. 3. This is not necessarily an option for people… Read more »

Kassy
Kassy
5 years ago

Whether driving is cheaper depends on the opportunity cost.
For me I could drive 13 hours(realistically a 2 day drive with two preschoolers) or I could work an extra day(or actually two since we have to come back also) and fly.
The money I make working those extra days dwarfs the extra flying cost.
Admittedly that is only true if one’s income is high enough. You have to do the math and figure it out.

Jeff
Jeff
5 years ago
Reply to  Kassy

True, if you have to overnight once or more during the drive there (and again on the way back) then the accommodation costs alone can wipe out the savings of not flying. Sometimes driving only works if you want to make it into a roadtrip, have the extra days to spare, and have places you’d like to visit on the way there and back.

Heather
Heather
5 years ago

Thank you for this post! We’re in the process of planning our summer family vacation, which we had already decided would be a car trip. The tips here have helped with some of the other ideas around planning this trip. Thanks!

Mary
Mary
5 years ago

We typically drive if it’s 10 hours or less, but over that we fly. My husband works a rotating schedule and almost never has weekends off, so our vacation days off are truely 5 days, not 5 plus 2 weekends. Also, it can be a vacation in itself to not drive for a week.

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