Vacation Time! When to Save, When to Splurge

by Laurie Ulster
Originally Published: 

Like most families, we like to take advantage of the summer break from school to go on vacation.

Let me rephrase that.

Like most families, the kids and I like to take advantage of the summer break from school to go on vacation. My husband, left to his own devices, would forego traveling altogether, especially if an airplane is involved. But I love traveling, and I love exposing the kids to new places that you can’t get to just by hopping in the car, although road trips are fun too.

That leaves all the planning to me, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. So when I saw this article about when to splurge and when to save on a family vacation, I checked it out to see how I measure up. I did great! Here are the combined resources of U.S. News, and me, to help you out with where to spend the extra money, and how to save on the other stuff.


Space is the issue, for us. Cramming the four of us into a hotel room and forcing us to share a bedroom with the kids is purgatory, not vacation. So here’s what I suggest:

SPLURGE if it’s a hotel. Get the suite that has a separate room for kids. It’s worth it every single time. I remember nightmarish hotel rooms where baby naps had to happen in the main room while we hid in the bathroom, or worse, give up bathroom use for two tense hours. My kids are long past the nap stage now, but they go to bed a few hours before we do, and I’d like to keep it that way.

SAVE and still get the space, by renting an apartment instead. Airbnb, Housetrip, and HomeAway are all options. We did this in both London and Paris, and rented great apartments in really good neighborhoods. We got separate rooms, a kitchen, and no hidden costs—everything was prepaid. We loved having more space and a kitchen and fridge when we needed it. We’re doing it again this summer, and I managed to get us a 3-bedroom house for less than any hotel room in town.

U.S. News says to stay with family or friends, which is a great way to save…if you really really like them and you know you can be good guests. Otherwise, it’s a nightmare for everybody, and tension does not a nice vacation make.


SAVE if you’re staying in a hotel, and find somewhere that includes breakfast. Only once was the free breakfast so deplorable that we started going out for bagels instead, but usually it’s pretty passable. Plus it’s really nice to have that first cup of coffee before facing the outside world.

SPLURGE if you’re somewhere famous for good food. In Paris, we sat in a cafe every morning with croissants and coffee and juice, and it wasn’t cheap, but it was Parisian. And we loved it.


SAVE by booking ahead, or going online first to get discounts. A lot of cities have passes to multiple museums, if that’s your thing, or discounts for booking in advance. Another way to save? Find alternatives that are just as good. If you’re visiting NYC, for example, you can take the Staten Island Ferry for free and see the Statue of Liberty, the skyline, and spend an hour or so on the water, which is lovely.

SPEND when everyone really needs some coddling. When our kids were exhausted from traveling to Paris, but we didn’t want to waste the day, we spent a little extra for a boat tour on the Seine, so we could see the city without having to exhaust them. Until later.


SAVE anywhere you can. Seriously. Flying costs a fortune these days, so don’t spring for seats that are closer to the front, and don’t spring to book seats early. Save your money for when you get there. And don’t pre-board! I have yet to see the advantage in spending MORE time on an airplane.


SAVE on lunch. Kids don’t need restaurants. If the weather’s nice, get some sandwiches and go find a beautiful park or somewhere scenic, and dine al fresco.

SPLURGE on one really great meal experience they’ll remember. For us, in London, it was high tea, because I wanted my kids to experience it. My son has been hosting his own high tea afternoons ever since, so it was an experience with lasting impact. (His friends are pretty confused by the whole thing, but they’ll learn.)

Here’s my very last tip, and it has nothing to do with money. My father taught me this, and I don’t care if your kids are 2 or 12 or 20, or if you’re traveling without them: A rest period in the afternoon is essential. Just come back to your room, put your stuff down, take a load off, and chill. You can sleep, you can read, you can even plan the rest of the day, but take 90 minutes to wind down. You can trust my dad on this one. Even my kids say so.

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