Every parent wants to give their kids that dream-vacation experience and, let’s be real, it’s just as much for you as it is for them. But let’s be even more real: By the time you pay for the trip without any extras, the inevitable anxiety over how much this vacay is going to cost you sets in hard. Like, you’re currently setting up a Pinterest board filled with creative ways to make Ramen noodles every night.
You aren’t alone in this panic-driven state of budget-consciousness. Did you know that the average cost of a family vacation is upwards of $1,979? Don’t panic, though. Because while vacationing with kids can be expensive, it doesn’t have to totally break the bank. You’ve just gotta tap into some of the clever ways to save money on a vacation with your little travel buddies.
After all, whether you spend $500 or $5,000 (breathe!), a family vacation isn’t just a financial investment; it’s an emotional one, too. Recent research suggests spending money on experiences — not things — fosters more happiness. You know what, though? It seems safe to say that those priceless memories will make you happier if they don’t come with a price-tag that could outright buy you a compact car.
With that being said, here are eight ways to save money on a vacation with kids (some of which you can plan for ahead of time) so you can enjoy your special experiential moments without stressing too much about your bank balance.
1. Be Flexible When Booking Flights
Granted, you may be working with a very specific window where your work or kid’s school schedule is concerned. But if you do have a little wiggle room with dates, it could benefit you in a big way with airfare. Often, just flying in on a weekday during a high-travel period can shave hundreds of dollars off the ticket price. The same principle applies to booking early morning or late evening flights and visiting a popular travel destination during its off or “shoulder” season.
2. Go Halfsies
Heck, go threesies or foursies even! In other words, split the costs with friends or family members. You can find some incredible deals on large vacation homes through sites like Airbnb and VRBO. Most of the time, you’ll end up getting more space for your dollar than you would have with a hotel room.
3. Have a Food Strategy
When you look back at the ruinous pile of receipts in your bag after your trip, you’ll probably find that food was one of your biggest vacation expenses. Kids love to eat, and destination restaurants don’t come cheap. So, go in with a plan. For starters, if you do book a hotel, look for ones that offer free continental breakfast. Even if you don’t do any other special meals during the day, your kids will feel like they got something fun and exciting they don’t get at home (seriously, watch their faces when you introduce them to the waffle maker station).
If you do your research ahead of time and don’t mind going to a chain restaurant — let’s be real, kids are going to have the same three kinds of meals wherever you go — you can find dozens and dozens of national chains that offer free food for kids on certain days or with a parent’s meal purchase. Not sure where to start looking? No sweat, we’ve gone ahead and done all the work for you with our list of nearly 100 restaurants where kids eat for free, some even include teens!
If you go the rental home route, hit up the local ALDI — or affordable grocery store of choice — to stock up the kitchen so you don’t feel tempted to eat out every meal. You can also pack some of the snacks you buy on long days out to keep hunger at bay. Breakfast is the easiest meal of the day to do this for. If you load up on some staples like cereal, milk, eggs, and bread you can save yourself quite a bit of money by the end of the vacation.
4. Become a Deal Hound
Two other restaurant-specific tips? Start perusing cost-saving sites like Restaurant.com. You can purchase gift cards at a discount, and then find local restaurants to apply them toward to shave down your dining bill. Also, do a little research on local restaurants that offer free meals to kids under a certain age or which promote a kids-eat-free night. That same strategy can work great with certain boutique or chain hotels that offer kids 17 and younger to stay in the same room as their parents for free. Those savings could add up if you’ve got a couple of teenagers.
If you are a fan of cruising, you should know that many large cruising companies like Carnival offer plans where kids under 12 sail for free. Older kids can stay in their parents room for a nominal additional fee, when compared to full fare costs.
Similarly, you can save a tidy sum by searching out discounted admission to local attractions on sites like Groupon and Living Social.
5. Look Into Annual Passes or Memberships
You might be thinking, Why on earth would I buy an annual pass for a place I don’t even live? Here’s the thing: By the time you buy one-day tickets to a top attraction, you’ll realize it’s probably more cost-effective just to buy a seasonal or annual pass. Not to mention, this gives you a built-in excuse to go back to the area! As an added bonus, sometimes the purchase of an annual pass to one attraction includes free or discounted tickets to neighboring attractions.
If you’re currently a member of a science or children’s museum where you live, you may already be poised for savings. Museums around the country boast impressive reciprocal networks that offer discounts up to the full cost of tickets. Check to see if your membership falls under the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC), the Association of Zoo and Aquariums (AZA), North American Reciprocal Museum Association (NARM), Association of Children’s Museums (ACM), Southeastern Reciprocal Membership Program (SERM), Reciprocal Organization of Associated Museums (ROAM), or the American Horticulture Society (AHS).
6. Be at One With Technology
Take a break from idly scrolling Instagram to rack up some savings. When you book activities online, they’re often priced less than their in-person ticket-booth-required counterparts. Sometimes you’ll even get a discount for booking in advance. Look at you, adulting and go-getting — all in one fell swoop.
And while we’re on the subject of technology, download all the apps. Road tripping it? GasBuddy will point you in the direction of the cheapest fuel. We already discussed Restaurant.com, Groupon, and Living Social. The TripAdvisor app makes it easy to find the lowest price on everything from food to lodging. Skiplagged and Skyscanner can be your go-to apps for budget airfare. Spend a little time on your phone’s app store now and your wallet will thank you later.
7. Ferret Out Free Activities
Thanks to Pinterest, you can find guides for free things to do in practically any vacation area. Anywhere. These guides are often filled with photos and smart little mom hacks, to boot. What a time to be alive, right? Living in the digital age (aka the era of Pinterest) definitely has its perks. But don’t neglect a little old-fashioned sleuthing as well. Checking out the local area’s “city paper” can unearth lesser-known deals like pay-what-you-want days at area attractions.
8. Set a Souvenir Cap
Oh, the money we’ve all spent on kitschy souvenirs for our kids! This is a tough one to avoid since it’s so heartwarming to give your kid that one special thing they just can’t possibly live without. It will be a memento they can treasure, you tell yourself. If you aren’t careful, though, your vacation can turn into a relentless souvenir-shopping trip. So, go on the trip with a souvenir cap set. Whether it’s a dollar amount you assign or a number of souvenirs allowed (or both), doing so could curtail your vacation spending considerably. Not to mention, you’ll have less to try to Tetris into your bags for the journey home.