Budget-Friendly, Big Family Travel

Years ago I had big dreams of jetsetting around the world. I had been a French major and lived a year in France. That year I traveled to Austria, Germany, and explored the south of France.

The following year, hubs and I went to France on our honeymoon. A year later we traveled to Honduras.

The next year I became a mom. And traveling came to a screeching halt. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to continue traveling. We did. But, it either was too expensive or too much work. And then more kids came and more debt. Travel was an impossibility.

Our children are more important to us than traveling the world.

Rethinking family travel.

A few months ago, hubs and I were talking about what we would have done differently had we had a smaller family. We concluded that we might have traveled more. That gave us pause.

And the motivation to figure out how to make family travel a bigger piece of our family life pie.

We don’t want our family size to impede us from the experiences we really want for us and for our kids. While we also realize that we’ll need to give it a bigger piece of our budget as well, we’re still looking for ways to make it budget friendly for our bigger-than-average family.

Here are some things we’ve done this past week as we ventured forth on our second annual fall vacation.

1. Rent a condo.

Once you get a family larger than four people, you will encounter hotels that are resistant to booking your entire family in one room. If you choose the hotel route, make sure that you request connecting rooms. Vacation is no fun when the parents have to stay in separate rooms.

For our purposes, we reserved a three bedroom condo for the same price as two regularly priced hotel rooms. Not only did we get the added benefit of extra space and togetherness, but we also had a full kitchen and living area for hanging out.

2. Go in the off season.

We have vacationed only three times in our years of parenting, each during an off-season where the crowds are diminished and the prices are lower. This has made vacation much more restful than going when everyone else does.

We paid about a fifth of the regular price on accomodations. Holy smokes! We could never swing such accommodations any other time of the year.

3. Enjoy nature for free.

Last year we vacationed in Monterey and Mammoth, both areas with plenty of public space to roam and enjoy the great outdoors. This past week we returned to Mammoth. We were unconcerned about paying for our family’s entertainment. Nature is usually free.

(And the ski lifts weren’t open yet!)

We were able to hike, play in the early snow, and swim in the condo’s heated pool.

4. Take your own food.

While it was a little work to pack a week’s worth of food for 8 people, it was so nice not to have to find the right restaurant, unless we wanted to. I brought chili fixings, lasagna, pasta, hot dogs and brats, and enchiladas as well as quick fix breakfasts and lunches. We ate well without the stress of grocery shopping while on vacation or hunting for a good restaurant.

5. Pay cash.

Living debt-free has changed a lot of things. We don’t worry about paying for something that we enjoyed last year. And we also enjoy the trip more knowing that it’s paid for. It has made a world of difference to be have breathing room in our budget.

It takes some work to get to that place. I know. But at the same time, I think it’s a good goal to have.

There are lots of  creative ways to make a vacation a reality, even if you live on a budget. I remember childhood family friends saved all their spare change in a 5-gallon water jug. That was their vacation fund. Brandi’s story is inspiring in getting her family to Disney on a budget. Erica and her husband are traveling the world. Lana and her family bought a vacation home.

Vacations don’t have to be pie-in-the-sky dreams, even if you have a large family. If you plan ahead and think outside the box, you can create budget-friendly family vacations.

 What do YOU do to save money?

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  1. We’ve found renting a condo or town home to be a great option when traveling with friends or extended family. Having a kitchen for at least breakfast and lunch saves quite a bit of money while each family having their own space saves quite a bit of sanity.

    I don’t know, I think my husband and I are going to have a lot more fun having our own room on our upcoming vacation 😉 It’s times like these that I appreciate having older children!

  2. This summer we did a 12 day, 4000 mile camping road trip with our 3 kids (not an exceptionally large family) and I’m amazed at how much we saved with camping in tents or “kamping kabins” instead of 1-2 hotel rooms! We stayed at KOA campgrounds all but 1 night. It was so nice to be able to spread out and not all be crammed into a small hotel space. We still had bathroom facilities and even laundry facilities everyday. The kids loved the entertainment for them (pool, “jumping pillow”, etc). We ate “at home” for most of the breakfasts and lunches (oatmeal or donuts & sandwiches in the car). The kids LOVED camping so much. We went to Yellowstone and Mt Rushmore and saw the most amazing geological sights along the way. The kids will always remember this trip and want to go back again. A ringing endorsement!

  3. Growing up in a large family, all of our vacations involved campgrounds or staying with extended family. Not always the least stressful, but cheap. I love the idea of renting a condo on a beach for a low-key vacation with my kiddos that takes advantage of nature.

  4. Disclaimer: I am a travel agent specializing in what I know best – large families and families with special needs.

    Having said that, I highly recommend speaking with a travel agent when planning your trips. We do so much research for every client, making sure they get not only the best deal, but the *right* deal for their unique family. There’s nothing that makes me (as a mom) cringe more than bringing 4 young, energetic kids into a hotel only to discover it caters primarily to business travelers!

    Planning ahead is definitely a must – if you know 6 or 12 months ahead of time when and where you want to go, you (or better yet, your travel agent!) can watch for promotions and deals to that destination. If you can be flexible on your dates, especially if you travel during the week or on the “off” season, you’ll get much better rates. I love to travel during the “off” season because the staff are usually much more relaxed and able to take extra time with us.

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      Thanks for the advice — and the disclosure! So many people spam the comments, I appreciate your being upfront! 🙂 Great ideas, esp about looking for family-friendly locations.

  5. I love this! Vacations can be cheaper…it just takes a thinking ahead of time. I’ve packed food too and yes, it was soooo much easier than trying to find something to eat that everybody would like. ahhh… great post!

  6. Great suggestions. We’re already coming up against budget issues with our vacation dreams and we’re only a family of four! Love the condo idea.

  7. This is new territory for us also. I grew up with only one sister and we were not impeded by family size during our vacations. But I know have four children and it really does make travel more complicated and a heck of a lot more expensive. Our kids are still pretty young, but one of these days I hope we are able to get on the vacation bandwagon again. I grew up in Europe and would love to take my kids there, but there are awesome places in the US and I haven’t seen most of them myself! AND, bonus – travel makes for great homeschooling lessons.Thanks for these tips.

  8. We are a family of four and we only rent condos now. Best way to go. I find that in the end it is cheaper and you can make meals there and do laundry! It is perfect for our family and the only way to travel for us!

  9. If renting a condo isn’t an option, look into extras that many of the hotels are beginning to offer.
    Comfort Inn, Drury Inn and Embassy Suites often offer evening snacks which can be quite substantial and at the Drury and Embassy Suites, could easily serve as dinner. All three of those hotel chains also offer complimentary hot breakfast, as do many others.

  10. We’ll be going on a road trip in the spring and driving a lot. We’ll be taking lots of our own food to cut down on cost. Does anyone have good ideas on lunch/dinner meals that don’t have to be heated? I’ve thought of things like chicken salad, pasta salad, sandwiches…What else could I make that won’t have to be heated while out on the road? Thanks!

  11. Love those ideas, and I definitely agree with taking food with you to save on money. Those meals can really add up! How do you go about finding condos to rent that are legitimate offers?

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      We went through a resort hotel that was all condos. They are timeshares that they make available to the public. We felt good going that route because we could always complain to the management if there was a problem.

  12. Giving our kids the opportunity to travel and experience new places is a priority for us as well. And while we weren’t blessed with a large family, we still have to do vacations on a small budget and thought your tips were great. We live near the beach now but before we did we’d always get a condo. It’s much more enjoyable than a hotel room and you get the added benefit of the food cost savings. And we’re always scoping out the free nature activities.

  13. Totally off topic but you look very young in that picture. 🙂

  14. We do the condo thing too and just love it! Many times we’ll do a nice lunch and a stay in dinner (or vise-versa) driving thru picking up some cartons of really good frozen custard for desert. Sometimes we’ll go out for both, Subway works nicely for lunch if we split the sandwiches. 3 for our fam of 6. (4 daughters ages 17 to 28). Pizza in a nice restaurant works too, that way we get the ambience of a nice restaurant. Sometime it’s nice to go to the grocery store and pick up frozen casseroles and bags of frozen veggies. That way it’s still a vacation, no muss no fuss but we are in our budget. One beautiful place is in Branson Missourri. Silver Dollar City is extraordinary for a family. If you arrive after 3pm you may go the next day free. Music shows are in this beautiful park along with rides and nature galore….think the Christy novel. Also they have the College of the Ozarks there with a wonderful museum and gorgeous grounds and things to see and do. We love it there. Memories galore! : )

  15. Oh I love this!

    When we really sat down and looked at our life last year we came to the same conclusion –Travel More with the kids!

    We sold most of our stuff and live in an apartment now so we can save money and have less to take care of so we can ‘take off’ easier.

    We took off for 5 WEEKS this summer and traveled over 6000 miles all in a small gas friendly car, camping and doing most of our cooking. It was an awsome memory… now just to save up to do it again 🙂

    Planning is huge… know where you are going to go and have lodging figured out ahead of time. This can really add up if campsites are full or can’t be found… sleeping in the car doesn’t work with kids 🙂

    Here are pics of our crazy time:

  16. How do you go about finding the condo to rent?

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      We have stayed in “resorts” that are also timeshares. They rent out available units on behalf of the owners. But since they operate like hotels, there is a lot of recourse if there is something wrong. Plus, there is no cleaning fee and there is daily housekeeping.

  17. Love this topic. We have 5 kids and want to travel more. We’re in the process of selling our house and downsizing to be less bound to stuff and more free to live. Looking at ways to travel easier with so many children. Hotel rooms are low on the list. Thanks for the ideas.

  18. Hi,
    I also have a family of 8 . My kids are between 2-14 years old. I live in Israel .
    I like to travel but the thought of entering our 9 seater car with everybody cramped in with more than occasional disputes) for hours of drive is disconcerting. My husband thinks everybody should have permanent seats- and that would solve part of the conflicts and that we (or especially me- as I am the main chauffeur ) should insist on that all the time. Do you have any experience with such problems?
    Thank you, C

    • Jessica Fisher says:

      We bought a slightly larger vehicle a few years ago to offset some of those troubles. We had an 8-seater van and moved to a 9-seater SUV. That helped some. We’ve also moved kids around to see what was the best configuration in terms of getting along, etc. The kids do tend to keep the same seats, in part because two are still in carseats and only 2 of the bigger kids are big enough to sit in the front seat, per airbag/state law regulations.

  19. Totally agree with “Nature is usually free.” We’ve been traveling with our youngest 7 of 9 dc for 8+ months now, from Canada to Baja and now back in the USA for the summer before heading to mainland Mexico. Much of that time has been spend out in nature, camping and playing. Makes adventure feasible.

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