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5 Ways to Cut Costs on Your Family Vacation

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Looking back on pics and family memories from vacation, every dollar and ounce of effort was well spent. Instead of skipping a trip, try these budget-friendly tips instead.
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Traveling with my husband and three kids took a lot of planning over the years. It was especially challenging when they were under age seven and I had to pack all of our suitcases (my husband’s included—or else he’d wear the same tee-shirt and shorts for a week and steal my sunscreen). And the budget was usually pretty tight. But looking back on those photos and family memories, every dollar and ounce of effort was well spent.

So instead of skipping your trip, try these five budget-friendly tips. 

1. Explore the great outdoors.

From North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway to California’s Los Padres National Forest, there are more than 77,000 reservable recreation facilities in 2,000 locations in the U.S. managed by different government agencies. You can book your place under the stars at http://www.recreation.gov/, a one-stop reservation site.

Search by location or activities, from fishing and boating to biking and hiking. The map search is particularly helpful. When you click on a site, a description and photo of the facility pops up, with details on public lands, trails, streams/lakes, roads and museums within 20 miles. You can also use the site to book tickets for specific tours, like New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns or Independence Hall in Philadelphia. (To reserve a private campground, check out ReserveAmerica.com, a service owned by Ticket Master.)

If you don’t have the budget to spend a week in the great outdoors, plan a weekend or day trip to a local hiking area. Check out www.Americantrails.org, which offers information on 900 different trails in 50 states. Also check out the U.S. National Parks and Monuments site at http://www.us-parks.com/ and a guide to state parks at the National Association of State Park Directors website, http://www.naspd.org/.

2. Rent a timeshare, vacation home or swap for (almost) free.

Before you book a hotel, consider renting an apartment, home or timeshare from the owner. We’ve had tremendous luck with both Airbnb and vrbo.com (vacation rental by owner). In one instance we rented a four-bedroom home in a gated community with a pool just 15 minutes from Disneyworld for $125 a night. Shopping and cooking a few meals at home saves a small fortune. Just be sure to ask about maintenance or cleaning fees and taxes. (Compare your deal to local hotel costs on another travel site, such as hotels.com).

Traveling with my husband and three kids took a lot of planning over the years.

If you’re comfortable offering your home to a stranger, you can vacation in their pad for free through a home exchange. Home swaps have been around for decades but the web has made it a breeze to find exactly what you’re looking for on sites such as HomeExchange.com, intervac.com and geenee.com. (Some of these charge a fee for membership.)

3. Stock a cooler with snacks for road trips, and plan ahead for meals.

Planning a trip.

Photo by Rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Pack a cooler with healthy snacks, such as fruit, mini carrots, cheese sticks, nuts, yogurt, goldfish, water and low-fat milk. Pre-portion the snacks ahead of time rather than handing the kids the whole bag. Easy lunch options include whole grain bread, lean deli meats and cheeses and peanut butter and jelly. Or consider pulling off the road and going to the supermarket, where you can hit the deli or salad bar. Pack a blanket or sheet, a couple sets of plastic utensils and plates and a serrated knife for cutting fruit—and you’ve got an instant picnic.

If you do go to a restaurant, make lunch your main meal of the day. Pick up a free guide from the state or city’s visitors bureau, which usually offers restaurant coupons. Split entrées between two people, and store leftovers in your cooler. If you’re staying in a hotel or motel, aim for lodging with the free breakfast buffet as well as a mini-fridge and microwave in the room.

4. Go all-inclusive at a family camp.

My parents took the ten of us kids on exactly two official vacations. We drove from Chicago to a family resort called Pennellwood in Berien Springs, Michigan. I have vivid memories of the rustic cabins, hay rides, campfire sing-a-longs, boating on Lake Michigan and being summoned to communal meals by a cowbell.

Affordable, old-fashioned family camps are still thriving—and some cost as little as $1,000 for a week, including meals. The American Camp Association, which accredits camps, offers a website where you can search for a family camp by location and price. YMCA Camps also offers a state-by-state guide.

5. Plan ahead for cheap fares.

If you know your itinerary a few months in advance, you can set up travel alerts on websites such as fly.com, hipmunk.com and kayak.com, and they’ll send you an email when the fare changes. If you’ve got tons of flexibility, sign up directly with the airlines to receive email alerts on cheap last-minute fares. Also, follow your favorite carriers on Twitter to catch special deals.

There are a million different airfare search sites, from Expedia to Travelocity to Orbitz, that allow you to search and book. But you have to pay a commission. So I use itamatrix.com, which was built by a group of MIT scientists in the 1990s, and powers some of the other search sites. ITA Matrix offers enormous flexibility: You can check the best fares for your desired travel day as well as the days before and after; or price a round trip ticket that arrives and departs from two different cities. You can’t book there though. Once I find my flights, I head directly to that airline’s website to buy the tickets.

And you never know, your kids may get more than memories out of your budget vacation. When Michael Arndt accepted the Academy Award for best original screenplay for his film, Little Miss Sunshine, he thanked his family for the inspiration. “When I was a kid, my family drove 600 miles in a VW bus with a broken clutch,” he said. “It ended up being the funnest thing we did together.”