Let’s be honest, taking any vacation with the whole family, like a March Break getaway, can be a daunting experience. It’s not always easy to relax and unwind while also managing kids, expectations and the vacation budget.
Whether you’re hitting the slopes or soaking up the sun, holiday spending can spin out of control in those spontaneous moments which, ‘seem like a good idea at the time.’ Weeks later, reality hits when it’s time for the bills to be paid.
Travelling affordably (and contentedly) with my family of five means seeking out some creative strategies to cut costs without also cutting out the fun.
So whether you’re thinking of flying south for warmer weather, or driving to a nearby destination, here are some tips that can help lower the costs of a family vacation.
Set a budget (and stick to it). No newsflash here: having a budget is the first and most important step to preventing overspending once you hit vacation mode. I like to put a little extra money into a separate savings account every month well in advance of a vacation, to pad the budget and ensure I have the funds to pay off holiday credit card charges right away.
We also work out ahead of time what our “daily cap” on spending will be for food and activities and then plan around those limits. Giving our kids their souvenir money in cash before we leave helps manage the “gimmee-gimmees”, and is good practice for them to work within their own modest budgets.
Talk to a travel agent. From all-inclusive packages to great deals on last minute flights, it can really pay off to book your trip with a travel agency. We got great deals on our hotel, airport shuttle and admission tickets to Disneyland with a travel agent a few years ago. Plus, it saved us hours of time researching our options and helped us bypass taxi lines and the park’s ticket gate upon our arrival.
The extra bonus? Booking with an agent meant we paid for our flights, hotel, admission tickets and transportation ahead of time, avoiding the sticker shock of credit card charges post-holiday. All-inclusive holidays offer the same appeal: finding one within your budget, and paying up front, means you can opt to spend very little money once you’re there.
Look outside the box for flights. Travelling mid-week and off season (October, January and February) is the best way to save on flights, but I’m often amazed at how much you can save just by booking your departure even one week before Spring Break begins. Using frequent flyer programs or co-incentive credit cards are also popular and effective ways to fund a family vacation. We take advantage of one airline’s travel reward card that offers free checked luggage and “companion flights” for as little as $99 return. Looking outside the main airline carriers can also pay off: many smaller, regional airlines and discount carriers have amazing deals to great international locations for a family holiday.
Choose a hotel with the little extras. Staying in a no-frill motel is an easy way to keep holiday costs low, especially if you’re not spending much time in your room. But even a simple suite with a partial kitchen or mini-fridge means you can make some or all of your meals. Ditto on hotels that include breakfast with your stay.
Complimentary parking and airport shuttles, kids-stay-free programs and discounted and/or complimentary admission tickets on ski lifts, local attractions or even public transit, are all ways you can boost savings with a hotel booking.
You can also look outside of hotels and motels for your accommodation. We stayed in a vacation rental apartment in central Paris a few years ago, offering us way more space for our large family at a remarkable price, as well as a full kitchen, dishwasher and washer/dryer.
We often choose to camp on road trips (even Disneyland has a number of campgrounds nearby and one on site!), but if tenting isn’t to your taste, keep in mind that many campgrounds offer more “upscale” trailers or yurts for rent at budget-friendly prices.
Save on food the DIY way. You know you’re going to have to eat on your holiday, but you can cut down on costs by limiting restaurant and take-out meals. I’ve been known to pack plastic dishes and cutlery and plenty of wet wipes in my checked luggage so I can serve up breakfast in even the simplest of hotel rooms.
Bring your own re-usable water bottles and refill them at public water fountains, and stock up on grocery or convenience store basics upon arrival, so that snacks and lunches are on the cheap.
On road trips, we picnic at rest stops or small-town playgrounds along the way for fun and fresh air. If we do eat out, we love a good old buffet-style restaurant (preferably off-site of any main attraction) that offers something for even the pickiest of eaters.
Cut down on the little extras. Take public transit versus renting a car where possible, pack your own strollers and gear vs. renting on-site, and look up free and low-cost public events happening at your destination while you’re there.
Discuss with your kids ahead of time how much you’re willing to spend, if at all, on special event and activity extras at any main attractions. Be creative about souvenirs and shopping. For our trip to Disneyland, we bought Disney-themed t-shirts at home from our local mall, and surprised the kids with them the morning of our departure – for about one third of the cost of souvenir t-shirts in the park.
At the end of the day, saving on a vacation takes some prep and planning, but making lasting memories without breaking your budget is a happy ending everyone in the family can appreciate.