12 Ways to Save on Vacation

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Vacations are a wonderful opportunity to reconnect as a family, relax, and reenergize. And if you can save on vacation? So much the better!

12 Ways to Save on Vacation | Life as Mom

Vacation season is upon us! I know this because we went to the beach last week for date night. The place was packed, even after 6 pm. Summer and vacation season are well under way.

For years we had to forego true vacations due to finances. In past years we were too broke to make them a reality. Now that we are debt free, we have a little more wiggle room to allow for real live vacations (read: those you take just for fun, not to visit family or for work purposes). It was a thrill of a lifetime to be able to take our kids to Europe a couple years ago. It’s something that we couldn’t have done if we hadn’t budgeted and economized, but it was still an amazing experience.

Currently, we’ve got one staycation in the works for this summer and are also scoping out the right time to head back to Mammoth Lakes, a locale that we are slowly getting to know and claim as our own. The kids really want to go to the snow again soon.

While we can finally take vacations, we still like to do it on a budget. Else, we won’t be going on very many. Travel for a family of eight is more expensive than it used to be. To save on vacation is to actually take them!

Here are 12 ways to save on vacation:

1. Plan a staycation.

Who says you have to go anywhere? Depending on where you live, planning vacation days at home can be just as fun and a little less expensive than getting out of Dodge, even if you treat yourself to a few local splurges.

Check out Amy’s tips for planning a great staycation, including planning for meals out and unplugging. If you live in San Diego (or plan to visit), you’ll definitely want to review all the San Diego fun available. Want to enjoy another city, check out this list of nationwide staycation locations.

A staycation can be as simple or as elaborate as you want it to be. For our anniversary in May, FishPapa and I headed to a local beach town sans kids and lived it up, going to our favorite restaurants, sleeping in, and otherwise taking a vacation in our own backyard.

12 Ways to Save on Vacation | Life as Mom

2. Buy, rent, or borrow a GPS or download a good navigational app.

On our last trip to Mammoth, we missed our turn which took us a couple hours and a million miles out of our way. It cost us both time and money in gas. The same kinda happened on our France trip where we had no GPS and a missed turn on a windy French country road is easy to make and quite problematic to remedy.

Be sure you know where you’re going and have a great map, or better, great GPS to guide you on your way. Domestically, I love the Google Maps app.

3. Consider the cheapest mode of transportation.

For our family, road trips give us the biggest bang for our buck. Our SUV holds 8 people plus all our stuff. Taking the train or flying would be less convenient and a lot more money, depending on where we want to go. We used all kinds of transportation in Europe, but having a car or “people mover” for most of our miles still penciled out as the best way to save on vacation transport.

Your situation may be different. Maybe you live right by the train station or airport. Maybe you’re a party of two or three. Airfare might just be cheaper than gas, so count the cost before you hit the road.

When we do need to book flights, I subscribe to several reliable airlines’ newsletters. They regularly send updates on sales and specials so we can get the best rate.

12 Ways to Save on Vacation | Life as Mom

4. Pack your own food and drinks.

Whether we’re taking a trip to Disneyland or heading for a week at the lake, bringing our own food allows us a number of perks: money savings, healthier eating, and convenience.

At Disneyland, we’ve packed plenty of snacks as well as a full lunch for the crowd and bottled water, juices, and chocolate milk. (The security guards saw it all at the checkpoint, so I assume it was cool to bring it in.) We do the same to save money at Legoland as well.

We might buy a few treats on our adventures and maybe splurge on a restaurant meal, but packing our own or grocery shopping in our vacation locally can easily save us hundreds of dollars in food as well as allows us to eat when we want and accommodate my daughter’s nut allergy.

For longer trips, I usually pack a number of freezer meals to take on vacation as well as some pantry stable items that come together for quick meals. Not only does this save me time on meal prep, but it saves us a ton of money. This savings allows us to enjoy a meal or two out or to upgrade our accommodations.

5. Take an emergency bag of OTC meds and be sure to pack toiletries.

It wouldn’t be a vacation without someone getting sick or forgetting their toothbrush. A few too many times we’ve paid through the nose for OTC meds or replacement toiletries while on vacation. Now, I pack extras as well as an emergency kit so that we are prepared for the unexpected.

12 Ways to Save on Vacation | Life as Mom

6. Check for online deals.

If you plan to do site seeing on your trip or visiting a local attraction, be sure to check their website before you go. Often you can find good deals directly through the attraction’s website. For instance, Colonial Williamsburg gives a discount on their 3-day pass if you buy it online. Legoland California offers you 5 days for the price of one!

When I was planning our trip to Europe, I used the internet extensively to research our trip, find the best hotels, and help us save on vacation fun.

7. Buy group coupon deals.

If you’re heading out of town or just staying home, consider buying group coupon deals that reflect your family’s interests and tastes in food. I’ve since lost track of how many of these sites are out there. I’ve purchased some Groupons (head’s up! referral link there) that have worked really well for us on vacation.

Keep your eyes open for something that you were already planning on doing or buying. Do not buy it unless you’re sure you will use it. If it’s not your town, you may be stuck with something you can’t use once you go home.

12 Ways to Save on Vacation | Life as Mom

8. Book your hotel online.

We’ve always made online reservations for hotels and been quite pleased. Many times we’ve found out about deals. While we still need to call the hotel about the fine details (connecting rooms, no feathers, etc), we’ve had great success.

My current process is to research accommodations on Trip Advisor, read reviews extensively there, and then hop on over to Booking.com where I can book for a party of 8. Many online agencies don’t allow reservations for 8. Thankfully, one does.

Be sure to check out my friend Amy’s great tips for saving money by booking your hotel online. She is an expert globe trotter.

9. Go in the off season.

Even though summer just beckons you to go someplace else, often the off-season is a better time to go to get the best deals. Hotels will dramatically reduce their rates if the alternative is to have a host of empty rooms. This is our general MO. We rarely travel in the summer or over Christmas, preferring to travel in shoulder season where the conditions are still nice, but the prices are lower than in full season.

Think outside the box. Visit a ski area or the desert in the summer time; head to the beach in winter. If you’re flexible about your travel times, you can save a boatload of money.

10. Rent a condo instead of a hotel room.

Since we are such a large party, we have a choice between renting two rooms or finding a condo. We’ve found the condo to be more beneficial in many ways. We save money – a condo is typically less money per night than two rooms. We have more space – condos include living space and kitchen areas. We eat better – we can more easily cook our own meals in a condo.

I highly recommend renting an apartment or condo for your next family vacation.Many time share resorts will rent empty units to regular folk. You can get great deals this way with all the amenities.

Now, one caveat, we typically find such accomodations via hotels, resorts, and time shares that run like hotels, but feel like homes. We’ve not ventured into AirBNB and the like, because with six kids, I’m not willing to risk it on somebody’s home business. Other folks have had great experiences. Do what feels right to you.

12 Ways to Save on Vacation | Life as Mom

11. Rethink your souvenir purchases.

On a recent trip to an historical site, I came across all kinds of cool things to buy the kids that perfectly suited the time period. They were also cool things that I could buy online for less.

You know you can buy that Disneyland sweatshirt for much cheaper online; why buy it at the park?

Note the princess tshirts on clearance at Walmart for three bucks, bought the day before we went to the Happiest Place on Earth. My girls were happy to have Princess shirts, they didn’t care where they were purchased.

Likewise, we’ve purchased Disney pins off Ebay for super cheap. The kids had fun things to trade without Mama and Papa spending a fortune to make it happen.

We tend to confuse souvenirs with experiences. You don’t have to buy the thing while you’re having the experience. Buy it before or after and pocket the change. The memory will still be there!

If your kids really want something from the trip, consider those flattened pennies. For $0.51 that’s the cheapest souvenir money can buy.

12. Pay cash.

I know, you don’t like to hear that. But paying cash is a better way. We feel so good on our vacations knowing that we really are enjoying the fruit of our labor — and not money we don’t have. We save for our trips and enjoy it to the fullest, knowing there won’t be a big bill to pay when we get home.

Research shows that you spend less if you hand over real money as opposed to swiping a card. You’re also more careful to track your purchases if you will eventually run out.

Granted, this does mean you need to be more careful about loss or theft. Using a travel money pouch or RFID wallet can help you store your cash, cards, or traveler’s checks more securely.

Vacationing can be a wonderful family adventure. And if you don’t bite off more than you can chew — or pay for — you will all have a wonderful time!

Other related vacation ideas:

What are some of YOUR favorite ways to save on vacation?

This post was originally published on May 24, 2012. Updated July 7, 2016.

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  1. We started collecting postcards from our vacations. We can usually get five for two dollars. We then write our favorite part/memory on the back. I store them in a 4×6 photo album. Takes up a little room, fairly inexpensive, and years later we take them out and remember the fun adventures we had.

  2. Such great tips! We’re planning a few days in Tahoe in September and we’re thinking about San Diego next Spring. Is Spring a good time of year in SD? Is there a bad time of year there?!

    I read the page with all the fun SD things to do and I can’t wait to take the kids there! I grew up in SoCal, so I’ve been to SD quite a few times, but hubby and kids have never been.

    1. Ha! I’m not sure there’s a “bad time,” but summer on the coast can always be overcast in the mornings. We call it June Gloom.

  3. Love these ideas, especially the one about souvenirs. There are often discount shops near places like Disney World where you can buy things for a fraction of the price. I am collecting links about vacation tips for moms. I would love for you to add yours to my new site. http://www.realmomresources.com/?p=100

  4. 1. Along the lines of timeshare condos for rent- consider a timeshare. Even if you don’t own/purchase one, the timeshare companies offer special deals to lure you in. We bought 3 days, 2 nights in Myrtle Beach for $99- came with $25 gift card for Bass Pro and if we check in Sun through Thu we get 4 days, nights. AND it came with 3 day, 3 night cruise. Yes, all that for $99…. and spending 90 minutes listening to their spiel and taking a tour. ***If you aren’t good at saying “no” in your best this-is-the-only-time-I’m-going-to-tell-you mom voice the first time they try to get you to buy, this option may not be your best choice. P.s. if you take the kids with and let them have a little more latitude than normal perhaps, I’ve found that sometimes 90 minutes end up more like 75! AND you usually get tickets to a local attraction or free dinner or something similar.

    We happen to own timeshare and take advantage of the fact that it comes with a kitchen- we prepare some meals ahead of time and pack our own groceries if it’s within reasonable driving distance. If it’s a longer drive/keeping things temp appropriate is difficult, we take dry goods and hit the local grocery store when we arrive. Also we also choose our destination to make sure it has kid friendly stuff so that we don’t have to go off site. Last years vacation went to the local fish hatchery (tour free), went fishing at the local state park (also free), spent a ton of time in the pool on site and checked out the archery equipment, basketball, volleyball, horseshoes as well as played board games in their rec center, watched the free Wednesday movie (with free popcorn), and there were some other activities we did on site. We only paid for dining out 1 time when we went into Branson to do some shopping.

    Museum memberships- always check your museum memberships for reciprocal/ participating museums. Most children’s museums, aquariums, zoos, science centers, etc. belong to some organization or another- which means you can have a St Louis Science Center membership that can be used at the Ft Wayne Science Central or the Science Center/telescope place in Miami.

    State parks are an awesome place to procure cabins for less primitive camping. http://www.campparents.org has a search engine that not only searches youth camps, BUT you can also search for youth camps that rent to others- another option for less primitive camping as many of these camps have cabins or dorm style lodging in addition to tents or more outdoorsy lodging.

    Wherever you select, be sure to contact the tourism bureau in that area- they will send you a tourism guide, map, and usually even some coupons for the area.

    Don’t forget to cozy up to the locals- they are a great source for finding the best, local, affordable, hole-in-the-wall-with-great-food places!

  5. Before we went to Disney, I bought my son a Disney baseball cap that he had all the characters sign while we were there. I think it cost $3.00 and he loved it. We also camp or get cabins (KOA) or villas so we can eat breakfast, lunch, and snacks there. We rent movies or buy new games to play and always bring library books to read so we have some planned downtime even while seeing the sights. But I do like to treat myself to meals out. It is a vacation after all.

  6. I grew up in a family of 8 and aside from tent-camping, road-tripping, and packing our own food, my dad was always taking advantage of family memberships at museums (we did museums instead of amusement parks). With a large family, memberships usually pay for themselves in one visit (or less!) and often provide other discounts as well. For instance, memberships at some major zoos will give you entrance to other participating zoos, along with discounts at the gift shops, food vendors, etc. It’s a bit of an investment, but for a large family it’s totally worth it. (I remember my dad paying $75 for a membership to a museum where it would have cost $125 if he had bought individual admissions–and we got to visit again later that summer!)

    1. The season’s family pass is a great asset. Thanks for pointing that out!

  7. I love the idea of renting a condo instead of hotel rooms but how do you find them? I’m comfortable with the hotel websites but no clue for condos. Pls share 🙂

    1. I really have no idea how we stumble upon them. Our favorite places in Mammoth Lakes are actually time share condos that they rent to normal folks. We just found it doing an online search. I guess that’s what I would suggest. Search the area you want to go along with “vacation rental”.

    2. One that I have used several times is VRBO.com especially for the less touristy areas. In more touristy areas (Orlando, FL) I have fround them through the visitor’s center website.

    3. There are two big ones that I’ve looked at VRBO and FlipKey; we have rented a lot through VRBO, in California and also in Hawaii and Mexico. You can also try Craigslist – we found a place in Hawaii on Craigslist once.

  8. Thank you for your tips!! We are currently on our family vacation for the summer. Visiting family in GA (we’re from MN) – another great way to save money!

    We purchased a new GPS as part of this trip we searched and researched and ended up with the Garmin Nuvi 2595lmt. LOVE IT!

  9. We’re on the same wavelength once again! We just took a trip. We drove, cooked a lot, and went in the off season. Looking forward to reading the post about booking hotels online…

  10. My family and I bring our own snacks/lunches on trips, and also try to bring as much low cost entertainment as possible. Always going to the library before going on vacation is a big hit. 🙂

  11. We’ll be headed to Hot Springs soon with our camper in tow. We’re saving around $600 for the week by staying in our camper versus a hotel. We purchased Magic Springs tickets online and saved $10 each. We will be going to a grocery store when we get there and buying our food for the week. We’ll cook most of our food and do plan to eat out at least 2 times. I will be looking online for coupon deals to some of the places that we would like to visit.

  12. We LOVE Mammoth Lakes!!! My bro in law was a pastor there for 10 years and we were able to visit several times!! 🙂
    We head to Yellowstone in late summer/off season and are renting a house so I can prepare all meals. Just a little more a night than a hotel room but the savings with me cooking will be HUGE!!! Not to say healthier, too!!! 🙂

  13. We live in a beautiful place and try to make a point of really enjoying it and what’s nearby.

    It’s so easy to forget to enjoy what’s around you and to go far away for what you could have at home.

    That being said, when we do go on vacation, it’s a big one, driving halfway across the continent to visit family. And even with all the frugal tips, it’s expensive because of the gas costs.

  14. this is an add on to your souvenier tip – works best with littles – we stock up on clearance or dollar store themed gifts that go with our destination – at disney world tinkerbell sneaks gifts into our room – a surprise to be awaited while you’re out at the parks – not every day – but always hoped for – and nearly completely avoids the ‘souvenier’ need. Even for other destinations – sometimes the children find a themed sweatshirt sitting on their carseats before we leave [who needs to buy another if I got on sale months before someplace else?] or a random surprise here or there. I prefer not to waste my actual vacation time shopping if I can help it!

  15. I don’t have a recommendation on a specific GPS, but I’d say to get one that has free map updates. They can be almost as expensive as buying a new GPS.

  16. Good morning- thanks for hosting this great linky! I am responsible for the strawberry posts.. got a little carried away with this wonderful summer berry this week! Rebecca @ Natural Mothers Network ( Seasonal Celebration Sunday ) x

  17. Staycations are my FAVORITE! 🙂 I’d much rather stay home than go anywhere. I could qualify as a hermit. 🙂
    Thanks for hosting! I’ve linked up three:
    1. Does an Auto Lease Make Sense…Ever?
    2. 15 Ways to Decorate on a Budget
    3. We’re DEBT FREE And We Know It – our first music video. 🙂 Funny!

  18. My husband and I have been collecting the pressed penny souvenirs for years. Most places its only $0.51, but we are finding more that are running $1.01 like in Washington D.C. Sometimes the trade off is a free experience like the National Zoo. We even have pennys from the site where he proposed to me … It’s almost as priceless as the memory of that great day.

  19. Do either of you have a smart phone? My husband and I use ours as a GPS and they work great. One less thing to buy and mess with!

  20. So what is really funny is my post was on the very same topic! I still posted it though becuase I have a few different tips and hopefully people will still get something out of my post, too. Too funny, though.. great minds think alike I guess! 🙂

  21. If you have a smartphone, just buy the app. Way more economical than buying a seperate unit. Just make sure to invest in the car phone charger as it will suck on the life of your battery. We have navigation in the car, but still use the phone as it updates much more easily and often. We find it super accurate.

    Love Disneyland. We went on Thanksgiving and it was great, hardly any crowds. But the staff said if you wanna hit the least crowded day, visit on Superbowl Sunday.

    Love Legoland. Going for one day? A few months before, join the lego club and they’ll send you their magazine. Inside will be a coupon for a free kid ticket with adult purchase.

    Know of a favorite restaurant you wanna go to where you’ll be traveling. Check out restaurants.com for discount gift certificates. They often go on sale for $2-3 for a $25 certificate. You have a year to use them, but each one has different stipulations, so read them. Such as not good on tip or alcohol.

    Use the Cash!!! Last vacation, we’d saved up, but didn’t want to carry all that cash so we deposited it and were using the debit card. Card number got stolen and used to buy up stuff in Dubai and South America. Now we didn’t have enough to cover our hotel room. Our bank couldn’t get our money back until we filled out paperwork in their office 400 miles away. We had to borrow the kids money, $80, to survive on, and make arrangements with the hotel as we don’t have a credit card. Luckily we had packed most of our food so we mostly just had to pay for gas to get home. But it still was a big stress on my husband especially who didn’t want to explain to his kids why they had to save us rather than buy whatever they wanted.

  22. Our family is know for our last minute unplanned 1 night getaways, so we don’t book our hotels on line since we often don’t know our destination till we get there. However, we have found that we can get the best deals by picking a corner with 2 or 3 decent looking hotels driving up to one, and asking the front desk the rate, if we don’t like it we start walking away, 95% of the time the front desk person will shout out “what price were you thinking” and then match my price. We don’t low ball them but we always quote them back an number about 20 to 25 percent less than the number they gave us.

  23. We just went to Great Wolf Lodge (AWESOME!) and they have the option to put cash on your wristband. Then you just scan your band when you buy and get a receipt with your new balance. Since it’s a water park that made it really easy to get what we wanted and stay on budget. The band is also your room key. Super!

  24. If you really wanted to save money you could always stay in a tent. I know it’s not as popular, but our vacations have been the camping in the tent kind because that’s what we can afford right now.

    1. That is a great tip! We aren’t camping people, but I know lots of families who’ve really made that work for them. Thank you for adding that suggestion.