Family vacations don’t need to cost an arm and a leg. With proper planning you can see the sights and gather a lifetime of memories on a budget.
Family vacations can build a lifetime of memories. Better yet, you can do it on a budget. Vacations with children don’t have to include five-star hotels, first class airfare or pricey theme parks.
Planning and booking six months to a year in advance is the best way to find travel deals. If you can travel off-peak or off-season, you’ll likely find lower rates. So places like ski resorts in summer or national parks in spring are a good low-cost bet.
As you plan, involve your kids. Look at maps or Web sites of where you might go. If your kids are old enough, suggest that each plan a day on the trip.
Be sure to build flexibility into your plans, too. Pre-trip research that includes a “Plan B” helps when you hit roadblocks like “sold out” or “closed for repair” signs.
Before you leave home, stock up on basics. Sunscreen, batteries, drugs and first aid supplies can be very expensive in vacation spots.
Getting deals, cutting costs
Don’t be afraid to say you want a deal when you make arrangements. Ask whether there are discounts for members of auto clubs, AARP or even school and civic groups.
The Web is a great place to find cheap lodging and transportation. Take the time to compare your options, though. Some packages may look great but may have restrictions or cost more than buying things separately. Note that some airport hubs have cheaper fares, too.
You may find discounts online for hotels.
Look for lodging where kids can stay free. Consider staying just outside the tourist area, too. About 15 minutes more of travel can really reduce hotel rates.
Cutting down on food costs is another way to save money. Look for:
- Restaurants with a children’s menu
- Rooms with a refrigerator to stock some meals
- Hotels with free breakfast buffets
- Vacation condos, house rentals or hotel rooms with kitchens
Buy attraction tickets in advance, too. Associations, the hotel desk or big box discount stores may sell them for less. This will help you avoid the ticket line as well.
The National Park Service (NPS) includes 391 areas in the U.S. There are military and historic parks, monuments, battlefields, lake and sea shores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and hiking trails. The NPS Web site has information about all its parks.
Entry fees for national parks are low, about $25 per carload for a week. Passes good for one year’s worth of entry to any park are $80. Seniors can get the pass for $10.
Many parks have low-cost lodging on site or reasonably priced hotels nearby. And if you choose to camp, the cost can’t be beat.
Cities are a treasure trove of museums, zoos and events. And many of their attractions can be reached by public transportation.
How about Washington, DC? Entry to all 19 Smithsonian museums, which includes the National Zoo, is free.
Sometimes, lodging in the heart of a big city is expensive. You may get a better deal if you stay outside the city. If you’re traveling to San Francisco, for example, staying in nearby Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, may be more affordable. You can enter the city via ferry and ride trolleys and bus connections to parks, zoos and museums. Low-cost meals can be had in farmer’s markets or in Chinatown.
“Home” rules still apply
No matter where you go, always keep a close eye on your kids. Hold their hands in crowded markets, squares and streets. Carry recent pictures of your kids and make sure each one has an ID card with their name, parents’ names and where they’re staying.
Try not to act like a tourist too much. Dress modestly and leave expensive jewelry at home. Such actions can thwart crime and help your kids avoid a traumatic event.
A little planning and a dash of safety can bring you home from vacation with a fuller wallet and a glass overflowing with family memories.