Budget-Friendly Vacation Tips for Families

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Would you like to travel with your kids and see the world? Not sure you can swing it on a budget? Try these budget-friendly vacation tips to make it happen.

A group of people in Tuileries, with girl in blue shirt looking at the camera.

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For the first 15 years of our marriage — we’re approaching 23 years now — we traveled very little. Between work, babies, pregnancy, and debt, there really wasn’t the energy, money, or time off to make vacations happen.

Over the years since we paid off our last debt, we’ve been able to change that. Each year we spend a few weekends at my in-laws’ home near Santa Barbara. Some years we’ve been able to go to Monterey or Mammoth. And now, for the second time, we’re taking the kids on a big European adventure.

Whether our trips are big or small, it’s always a great time to get away from our everyday, unplug, visit family and friends, and see something new. Provided we can afford it.

As you can imagine, traveling with six children neither easy, roomy, or inexpensive. We do a fair bit of planning and problem-solving in advance, trying to make the most of what we have and continually looking for ways to improve future travels.

Budget-Friendly Vacation Tips for Families

The following are just a few of the lessons we’ve learned about how to save money or stress when on vacation. We’re using these budget-friendly vacation tips when we head to Great Britain later this spring:

Borrow, rent, or buy a GPS if you don’t already have one.

Once upon a time a Global Positioning System seemed like a luxury; now every phone and tablet has some kind of system. And for good reason! A GPS can save you gas, some stress over being lost, and some fights with your spouse.

Now the problem with the smartphone-operated GPS is that you might not always have cell service where you’re going. Sometimes the coordinates are wrong. Sometimes…. you miss your turn because a big semi-truck is blocking your view on the autoroute and you didn’t know your exit was approaching. Ahem.

For our UK road trip, we don’t want to get lost. Driving on the other side of the road will be challenging enough. We could rent a regular satellite GPS from the car rental agency for $200. Instead, my husband found a brand new one loaded with UK and US maps on Ebay for $75. We’re testing it out now before we go so we’re familiar with how it works in advance.

A young girl standing next to a body of water.

Do some homework and find out all there is to do at your destination.

Talk with people who’ve been there. Scour the internet for information on your vacation spot of choice. Read restaurant reviews. Read blogs that tell you all there is to know about Disneyland. Browse your library’s database or Amazon for books on your destination.

Basically do your homework.

Now, you may say you can just search the internet when you get there. Yes, yes, you can. But, with this plan you can find yourself in the middle of Paris with a dead phone after a full day of travel and no francs — because you can’t find the bank — to buy a map from the newspaper stand on the street, so you use your rusty French and your cute smile to get the newspaper vendor to give you directions to your hotel.

You could do that. Or you could print out a few maps and write down a few directions… just in case.

Find out what the locals have to say.

We always laugh when we read guide books and reviews about places we know well, like Santa Barbara. Sometimes they are spot on. Other times? Not so much.

Talk to the locals. If you know someone who knows someone who lives there, ask if you can email them. I am forever grateful to Rhiann, Nikki, and Katie, sweet British moms who’ve let me bug them to no end, asking questions about our upcoming trip. It really helps to know people “on the ground” where you plan to visit. (Thank you, ladies!)

Read blogs for the locale you are going to visit. Many will offer ideas on restaurant and attraction deals.

Family picnicking on a bench in London.

Don’t take a vacation from bargain shopping, else you will pay through the nose.

If you and your budget are okay with splurging, go for it. Otherwise, find ways to economize while you’re on vacation so that you can stretch your travel dollar.

Ways we’re doing it:

  • choosing a budget hotel without the frills (no gym, pool, or laundry services)
  • renting a car at a great price (we found it through Expedia)
  • researching homeschool discounts to the attractions we want to visit
  • picnicking/preparing quick no-cook meals instead of eating at restaurants
  • following Money Saving Expert so we can know about deals in the UK

Keep your frugal ways at home and abroad. If you need to make a trip to the grocery for snacks and breakfast supplies, scope out the sales, just like you would at home. Choose snacks and treats based on what’s on sale. If you’ve got the space and are traveling domestically, bring your coupons with you in order to maximize your savings.

There’s no law that says you have to be frugal on vacation. If you’ve got the cash, you’ve got my blessing to splurge. But, if you’re on a budget or just want to make your vacation dollars stretch a little more, then you might want to do some advance planning. A few minutes researching a vacation attraction can save you a few bucks later.

How do YOU swing budget-friendly vacations?

Originally published March 25, 2010. Updated April 29, 2017.

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  1. Jessica i stumbled upon your website and loved it. You have a ton of great ideas and advise. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Now that our 2 children are a little older (3 and 5) my husband and I want to take more mini-vacations. We went on an over night ski trip a couple months ago.

    Rates go down on the weekday, so we stayed Sunday night. I researched specials at the resort and found a 1 night weekday hotel rental that was $10 cheaper than the standard room rate PLUS it included 2 lift tickets. That’s an additional $90 savings!!

    I packed snacks, breakfast and lunch so the only food expense was dinner Sunday night. Planning and remaining at least a little frugal stretches our vacation budget. The money we saved almost adds up to another trip.

    Thanks for your tips!

  3. As of February, 2010, all Drury Inss across the U.S. began their complementary hot breakfasts and hot ‘Kickback’ dinners…plus 3 FREE cocktails to each adult each evening. We (4 of us & a dog) took a 3 day weekend trip in Feb. and stayed at a Drury to check it out…we didn’t have to buy ANY meals the entire weekend! Their hot breakfasts include eggs, bacon and sausage, biscuits and gravy, belgian waffles, cereal and more…their dinners change each evening, one night was chili dogs, salads, baked potatoes and other things, the next night was spring rolls, chicken tenders and more…they always have nachos and cheese, soda, tea & juice, salad, baked potatos, and more…PLUS each evening they open their new cocktail bar, where each adult staying there gets 3 FREE alcoholic drinks. What this means is having to spend less money on food while on vacation. We were a family of 4 (and a dog, because Drury Inns are pet friendly), stayed for 3 days and 2 nights and spent less than $275 the entire weekend (hotel and fuel…that’s it!).

  4. My favorite site is tripadvisor.com In my opinion, it saves money because it is pretty good about telling you which restaurants, hotels, or activities will be a waste of your time and money. It’s written by actual people (to be sure it’s not from the hotel staff, look for write-ups from those who have more than 2 or 3 posts!) and has not done us wrong yet!

  5. I can’t say enough about our GPS. We recently moved to a new state and I feel it has been very valuable helping me to navigate our new surroundings. My husband travels for his job all over the US and Canada. He is on a plane somewhere 3 weeks out of 4. Having a GPS has saved countless hours (and paper ie downloading and priting mapquest directions) of his time. By traveling with his own GPS it saves a considerable amount of money over renting (unless you are doing it occasionally) a unit from the rental car company. We program the addresses he will be visiting into the unit before he leaves for his trip and he is all set when he gets into the rental car.

  6. Jessica,

    If you ever need help getting around San Diego just let me know. I’ve lived here my whole life (and no I will not admit exactily how long that is. 🙂

    I think some great way to save on family trips are to stay in a condo or hotel with a kitchen so you can make some of your own meals.

    If your family is small enough you could also visit a city where you know someone and can stay with them.

    Great post Jessica. I really need to plan a trip somewhere.

  7. Great tips!

    When my family of 7 took a road trip last summer, we stayed in a hotel that had suites with a mini kitchenette so that we could make our meals in the hotel room rather than eating out for each meal. I brought some food with us but I also went shopping at a local grocery store as well.

    We did eat out on occasion too and we usually just eat off the dollar menu at the fast food restaurants. If we ate at a nicer restaurant, we order water to drink or we would share a couple of sodas. 🙂

  8. as a wedding gift, my parents gave my husband & i a week of one of their timeshares in newport beach, CA for our honeymoon. so we were in a condo w/ a fullsize kitchen. we ended up eating about 2/3 of our meals in our condo and went out for the others. we were staying at a marriott property (and i’m sure other chains do this too) and they had all sorts of discounts on local attractions through the concierge. so we were able to go whale watching, to a state park, and to a few other local places (restaurants mainly) with some discount or deal as long as we were flexible. also my husband found a great deal at a local car rental company so we rented a car for about 1/2 the price of a nat’l chain and didn’t have to pay for the under 25 insurance because we brought proof of insurance from home. it was pretty sweet…so basically, i just wanted to share that there are great deals to be had with traveling if you plan ahead and can be flexible.

  9. One fun thing to do is take factory tours (look up Factory Tours USA). We have stopped at two ice cream plants – one in Tennessee and one in Georgia where we toured and then were able to get HUGE ice cream cones for $1. Another idea came from the Economides book (America’s Cheapest Family) where they suggest you buy an Entertainment Book for the place you are going. You will have lots of coupons and if you wait and buy the book now through the summer, they are extremely cheap.

  10. “There’s no law that says you have to be frugal on vacation.”

    I really appreciate this statement. Just last week my husband and I took a five-day, four-night vacation to San Diego. Our first baby (it’s a boy!) is coming in June and we figured this would be our last chance for a long time to take such a vacation.

    Having read so many tips recently in the blog world on how to vacation frugally, I had it in my mind that we’d grocery shop and eat as many meals as possible in the hotel room. I felt this pressure (self-imposed, I’m sure) to vacation as inexpensively as possible.

    But when I talked to my husband about this, he wasn’t on board. He wanted it to be an all-out, nice and relaxing vacation, even if it cost us a lot more. After a little arguing, I finally submitted to his decision and I am so glad I did! It was probably the most fun and relaxing time we’ve ever had and I know that he appreciated that I didn’t spend the entire time freaking out about the expense and making comments on how we could do it cheaper “my way.”

    Yes, we spent A LOT of money. But that’s ok. We had a wonderful time and it will probably be a long time before we can do anything like this again!

    1. SMART! And quite honestly, once that baby gets here, there will be plenty of opportunities to practice frugality. 😉 Congrats on the new one and making a wonderful memory with your hubby!

  11. I LOVE my Garmin. My husband has used a few different GPS units (rental cars, etc) and prefers Garmin hands-down. And I agree, GPS is great for finding gas, restaurants, etc.

  12. We look for hotels that have free breakfasts. The best is if you can can get at good deal at Residence Inn. Depending where your destination is and how far in advance you can book, sometimes you can get rooms for under $75 a night. Not as cheap as a Motel 6 – BUT they have a full hot breakfast included. Eggs, sausage, yogurt, the works. Even your picky eaters can find something. Fill up and skip lunch (or just do a small snack) and you have just gotten a great deal. Also hotels with a fridge or mini fridge. You can bring your own drinks and snacks – even out of your regular coupon stockpile from home. We try to have only one restaurant meal a day on vacation. If you do all 3 it can add up quick- even fast food!

    I also look for coupons in those travel magazines you pick up at gas stations. Discounts off attraction tickets.

  13. I just wanted to warn you that if you get the GPS, make sure you always take it down and stow it before getting out of the van! We usually do but for whatever reason forgot on a trip we took last summer and when we got back to the van the next morning it had a smashed window and no GPS! Right in the hotel parking lot! They are a very high theft item! But so so helpful!!

    1. Thank you for that reminder! I was just reading that in the reviews of the mounting systems, to get one that is easily removable.

  14. I enjoyed your tips. Even though I seem to have a built in GPS and can navigate trips well, I think being able to find a restaurant, gas station, etc. in an unfamiliar place would be nice.

  15. I say almost weekly since I have gotten my GPS – WHAT IN THE WORLD DID I DO BEFORE THIS?????? I love love love my garmen!

  16. You are so right about the “marriage-saving” qualities of the GPS! We bought the TomTom XL340 on Black Friday, just in time for a trip up to Wisconsin. Even though I grew up there, a lot has changed, and it was nice to plug in hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and rest stops! It was definitely worth the money!

  17. I have been wanting to go on a road trip for awhile! I’m hoping something soon, but with the boys schedules, I’m not quite sure when we will fit it in.
    Thanks for the tips!

  18. My husband and I both have Iphones, so we don’t need the GPS we have. It was a gift about a year ago from my mother, but we never use it and don’t need it – can you use it? I’m talking free, here…..I’m looking for your email address so I can email this to you directly.