5 Money-Saving Family Travel Tips

Here's how to travel with your kids without breaking the old sow.

Boy, are we feeling it. You know how it is — no matter how well-prepared you were for vacation, you always end up with extras. It adds up. The month after vacation is always crunch-time for us.

And somehow, when in rains, it pours. When our credit card is already rough from vacation, well, that’s when the car needs fixed. Or the annual home insurance is due. You know how it is…

Times are tough, but travel is a huge priority to our family. We’d rather spend money making memories than buying a nicer car or adding onto the house. But we’d rather spend more time traveling for less, if possible.

With that in mind, I searched the web for tips for families trying to save money on travel. I found some great resources (for me, and I hope for you, too!). One really surprised me. Here’s what I found:

  • Wejustgotback.com. A few of the tips they shared:
    • On our vaction last year we planned a road trip up the coast of California to visit all the colleges in which my kids were interested. I booked my visits with the school in advance, used my hotel points to book my hotel rooms, and hit the road. We kept a cooler in the truck with fruit, juice, water, and sandwich fixings. We agreed that breakfast and lunch would be “picnic style” but dinner would be something to look forward to. The kids loved picking our restaurants for dinner and I liked saving the money. I also printed a list of all the Costco locations along our route with gas stations and planned my stops for gas accordingly. I watched my speed to ensure I was going no faster than the speed limit and I ended up getting close to 4 more miles to the gallon and saving over $100 on gas than I had budgeted. Planning our trip took me about a week, but both my kids said it was the best vacation yet. –Catherine from Carlsbad, CA
    • On our last two family vacations, we stayed at hotels that were running “kids eat free” deals. Three meals a day, over four or five days, really added up to a lot of savings. –Brenda from Burlington, VT
      Editor’s Note: Smart move. Holiday Inn has been a pioneer on this front, offering free meals for kids 12 and under since the 1970s!
    • Dying to try out a nice restaurant? Make lunch the big family meal out. A restaurant’s lunch menu is usually less expensive than its dinner version, even when dishes are identical. Then keep it cheap and cheerful for dinner. –Editor
  • family-travel-scoop.com. Some of their best advice:
    • Travel during the low season or shoulder season to get deeply discounted prices on hotels.
    • You can save a lot of money by skimping on accommodations. Look for somewhere that is affordable, clean and safe so you can spend more money on sightseeing and activities.
    • Hostels often have low cost family rooms with private bathrooms and can be a fun economical place to stay.
    • Look for activities that are free for the kids or give a child’s discount. Some cities offer free museum entrances on certain days. Check if there is any combination ticket packages that give you entrance to multiple sites for a lower rate.
    • Check out the local parks for a free or low cost activity. Your kids will have a blast making new friends and trying out the playground equipment.
  • Goodhousekeeping.com. How they suggest saving money:
    • Just Say No to Hotel Bills … and camp under the stars instead. Unplugging from our high-tech world gives kids a memorable time communing with nature. Granted, it’s not for everyone (it’s a tad awkward to change a diaper in a tent), but those who are game will find themselves in a gorgeous setting, bonding over life’s simple pleasures. And it’s one of the best bargains in America. Instead of paying $200 or more per night in season at the Bar Harbor Inn in Bar Harbor, ME, you could stay in stunning Acadia National Park for about $20 per night — saving enough for at least a car payment!
    • Don’t Leave Home Without … your ID cards. Students, people in the military, seniors, and even AAA members can get discounts on fares and even entrance fees at museums, theme parks, and more. Check out the Websites of your destination to see what kinds of discounts are possible before you visit for the biggest savings with the least disappointment.
    • When booking a hotel room, “concierge floors often cost a little more, but sometimes a hotel will upgrade you just because you’ve asked. Either way, it’s worth it,” says Jean Chatzky, Today’s financial editor and the author of The Difference: How Anyone Can Prosper in Even the Toughest Times. “These floors have lounges where you can get free breakfast, snacks, and sodas, plus hors d’oeuvres at night. They save my family a lot on food.”
  • Walmart.com. Surprised? I was! Here are a few good tips:
    • Once you arrive at your destination, head to the city’s visitors’ center or chamber of commerce. You’ll find local promotions, such as discount coupons, free attraction information and more. Some major cities also offer “go cards” or “city passes,” which offer a 30- to 50-percent savings on entertainment, dining and shopping prices. Lastly, scan local newspapers or free brochures for additional discounts, special events or activity ideas.
    • Can’t afford a family vacation this year? Play a tourist in your own town, and plan a “staycation.” Find your local visitors’ center and look for deals just like out-of-towners do. Visit nearby attractions or picnic at the closest state or city park. Also, enjoy local freebies like concerts, craft classes, festivals and outdoor-park movies.
  • Top-Travel-Tips.com. Caters mostly to the international traveler, but some tips are still applicable:
    • Many museums don’t charge admission fee and those that do often offer free admission on certain times, like during the last hour of the day or on certain evenings during the week.
    • If the water is safe to drink you can re-use water bottles instead of always buying a new one. If you have to buy water it can be more economical to buy large bottle and keep it in your room and fill smaller bottles to take with you on excursions.
    • Your choice of transportation while on holiday can have big impact on how much you spend. Check distances, walk if you can, use buses instead of taxis when you can’t walk… except late at night. Then always take official taxi… if you really must stay out late.
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