Traveling with your family is a great experience for bonding and really getting time to focus being together. But coming up with money to travel is tough! Vacations can feel impossibly expensive and make you feeling hopeless.
But with these tried and true money-saving tips for family travel, you’ll find a way to cut your budget down to something you can afford so you can actually get out there and travel with your family before the kids have grown up!
1. Drive rather than fly
For families (especially big families), driving is almost always going be a LOT cheaper than flying. You pay for gas (and wear and tear on your car) only once for the whole family, and don’t have to worry about all the little costs that go into flying; parking at the airport, renting a car at your destination, overpriced airport food and drinks, and more!
Sure those long family road trips can be tough. But when you consider that you have to arrive at the airport nearly 2 hours before your flight PLUS flight time PLUS the time it takes to pick up luggage and get a rental car (typically over an hour for us), driving starts to seem a bit more tolerable.
2. Rent a condo or a house rather than a hotel or resort
For bigger families, going on vacation can be hard- you need 2 (or more) hotel rooms, which means $$$$$. Plus it’s just inconvenient to have your family spread out in two spaces. Most hotels can’t guarantee adjoining rooms, or don’t offer them at all. So larger families are forced to book costly suites, or have everyone squeeze in and sleep on the floor. Even for smaller families, hotel prices at popular vacation destinations can be extremely expensive.
Sometimes, hotels just aren’t a great option for families.
Renting a condos or rental homes on VRBO or AirBnb is a wonderful family-friendly option when traveling. Often the cost is lower than a hotel, and you can get a bigger place with a kitchen and more!
3. Cook as many meals as possible
Another benefit of renting a vacation home is that you will likely have access to a kitchen. Cooking some of your meals, rather than going out to eat can reduce your costs BIG time.
For younger kids, or picky eaters, it can also be really nice to stick to your normal routine and a menu rather than trying to find something acceptable 3 times a day, and begging them to eat.
Even if you don’t have a full kitchen, you can buy supplies to make sandwiches for lunch, or just have some hearty snacks around. Even those smaller steps can make a big difference!
4. Skip the rental car
Between car rental fees, parking fees, and gasoline, the cost a rental car can be significant. If you aren’t doing a lot of driving around, take a look at public transit options, airport transfers, and what is in walking distance.
If you are going straight to a resort, or a have a hotel in a great location, there is a good chance you can get by without your car, and save some money.
5. Minimize the souveniers
Take tons of photos, and you’ll always have the memories. You won’t need the souvenirs!
Let’s be honest- most souvenirs are cheaply made, and end up just taking up space when you get home. I know some people adore their souvenirs, and maybe it’s worth the extra money to buy a few. But for many of us, it’s something we feel like we SHOULD buy. But you totally don’t need to! And every dollar you DON’T spend on souvenirs is another dollar saved towards your next vacation!
6. Don’t overpack
Bringing a ton of luggage for your family can mean hefty luggage fees that can really make a difference in your travel costs. Be sure to take advantage of any free luggage benefits you might get from your credit card, or loyalty programs. Any suitcases, beyond what you can get for free, get EXPENSIVE fast.
At $30-50 per bag EACH way, the luggage cost for your family is definitely something you won’t want to ignore. And don’t just try to fit into one GIANT suitcase- if you go over the 50 lb weight limit, you’ll have to excess luggage fees of $100 or more each way.
So pack carefully, and check out our guide to packing light even with kids for tips.
7. Travel offseason
When you travel makes a HUGE difference in how much you’ll pay for your vacation. In fact, carefully choosing when we travel is our number one method of saving money on family travel.
Traveling during the high season can mean hotels are easily 2-3 times as much as the low season, plus high season can means crowds are everywhere.
In general, the high season is summer, the 2-3 weeks around Christmas, and spring break (March- late April) – when school is out and families with kids can travel freely.
However, for individual destinations, high and low season don’t always match up. So even if you are bound by the school schedule, just like many families, you can still find a deal if you look carefully.
For example, high season in Hawaii is winter, when many want to get away from bad weather at home for a sunny break. So even though crowds start to pick up again in the summer, you are still in sort of a shoulder season. And if you can get there in early June, you’ll find some great deals.
Summer through Christmas is considered the low season for Costa Rica. Though it’s also considered the rainy season, you can expect to have plenty of sun (typically 5 hours or more a day), and temperatures remain warm at around 80F, so you won’t mind a little rain.
Similarly, Tahiti’s off season and rainy is mid winter. This means lower prices, but still more than 6 hours of sunlight a day, making it a fantastic winter break destination.
8. Fly on off days
Flights can be substantially cheaper if you can fly out on off days, like Tuesday, Wed, or Saturday. MOST people want to head out on vacation on Thursday or Friday, so those flights fill up a lot faster and prices are generally higher.
Google flights has a great feature that helps you compare prices based on the day you leave. If you search in google flights for you dates and destination, and click Date Grid, and then Price Graph, you’ll see clearly which departure days are cheapest.
9. Purchase Flights on Tuesday or Wednesday
The day of the week you actually purchase your flight really does matter! Prices typically go up on the weekends when EVERYONE is browsing flights, and reach their lowest prices on Tuesday or Wednesday. Start looking early, and watch prices for a bit so you can be sure you are getting the best deal for your particular situation.
10. Look for bundles
Bundling hotel, flight, and maybe even car together CAN save you money. Make sure you check for bundles on sites like Expedia, Priceline, or Kayak offer bundling packages that SOMETIMES beat the cost of booking separately. If you have a Costco membership, Costco Vacations has limited vacation packages, but typically good deals on the ones it has.
But keep in mind, these bundles are sometimes a deal, and sometimes they cost more than booking flight and hotel separately. So you have to do your homework and make sure you picked the best option. Also, remember that booking sites often don’t have access to low cost airlines, like JetBlue or Southwest.
11. Use a travel agent
Seems counter-intuitive doesn’t it? But, in fact, most travel agents don’t charge you anything for their service. And as experts in their field, they can find you the best deals. Travel agents can end up saving you quite a bit of money on your family travel! Pick an agent that specializes in family travel and will make your trip EXTRA special.
Many agents post tons of great deals on social media. So pick a few great ones to follow. You might find a vacation deal that you didn’t expect, and wind up booking a dream vacation! Just recently, a travel agent friend posted a fantastic sale at one of my FAVORITES, Aulani, and we had to jump on it.
12. Look at alternative Airports
You never know which airport will have the cheapest or best flights for your particular destination. Make sure you take a quick look at all the airports in your area for the best deal.
We live basically right in the middle between Seattle and Vancouver. So, of course, we always check both airports for the best deal. However, there are two smaller airports, Bellingham and Everett close to us that we always check out as well. And usually, the flight prices and times out of the bigger airports are better. But, sometimes those small airports have AMAZING deals. We find that flying out of Everett routinely saves us over 30% on flights to California.
If your primary airport is a tiny airport, you MIGHT even think about a longer drive to a major airport. For families, especially bigger families, it’s worth the hassle to tack on a few more hours of travel time, and maybe even a hotel room, to save a couple hundred dollars per ticket.
13. Use flight trackers and sign up for flight deal alerts
Flight deals can be totally random, and deals can disappear quickly. To make sure you always know about these deals first, set up price alerts for any destinations you are interested in on one of the MANY sites that do that. Google flights, Kayak, Travelocity and MANY others. Typically, for these price alerts, you can put in your airport of choice, and you destination. Often you can put in quite a few flights you’d like to track. Then you can set it up to alert you when the price drops by a certain percentage, or a dollar amount.
If you are the type of family that just want to go on vacation anywhere there is a deal, check out some of the flight deal sites, like Scott’s Cheap Flights, Next Vacay, Thifty Traveler, and the Flight Deal. These work at a little bit differently in that they show you ALL current flight deals, so you’ll have to do some scrolling to find anything you are interested in. But it’s a great way to be notified of a fantastic deal even if you WEREN’T looking for it.
However, it’s important to note that all except the Flight Deal are paid services (and Scott Cheap Flights has a paid and a free version), costing around $40/year to be notified of exceptional deals. But if you are a frequent traveler, and consider family travel an essential, spending a little could end up saving you a lot in the long run So it’s something to consider!
14. Shop around for your deals on activities
For families, activity costs can be huge. Those $50 per person tickets to the zoo, or $100+ per person amusement park admission tickets add up FAST, so every bit of cost savings makes a difference, and there are certainly deals to be had.
Purchase ahead of time
Costco often has gift cards that offer a discount off of tickets or admission fees, sometimes 20% off or even more for certain activities. Check your local Costco- sometimes they have surprising deals. Or you might need to hit Costco at your destination.
Sometimes, you’ll even find a significant cost savings JUST by booking online before you arrive.
City Pass or Combos
Many cities offer CityPass deals or combo tickets, where you can get admissions to 2 or more of their main attractions for a significant discount in price. This is only a good deal if you intend to do several of the areas main attractions, of course, so make sure you really did plan to use everything in the combo deal.
CityPass usually saves you 40-50% off the list price IF you are planning to do all the main attraction. Prices are usually $80-100 per person and include all 4 or 5 of the main attractions for that city.
Membership might make sense?
If you are visiting a zoo, aquarium, or museum, look into memberships. Sometimes a family membership pays for itself with only 1 or 2 visits. For example, if you are a big fan of the Seattle Aquarium, and love to visit with your family of 5 (2 adults, and 3 children over the age of 4), EVEN if you qualify for the Washington resident discount, you’ll pay the same for an annual membership as you would for ONE visit. Plus you’ll get membership benefits (like discounts on food and the gift shop and free guest passes). And if you have a larger family, the membership is actually cheaper than a single day admission.
And some of the membership programs are HUGE. For example, the North American Reciprocal Museum Association has museums, aquariums, zoos, and more ALL over the country. So if you become a member of this association or others like it, you’ll get free or discounted admission to every other participating program. It can add up to some serious savings.
15. Come prepared
Make sure you have water, snacks, diapers, or any other necessities before you get to a resort, or other high-cost area. You can end up paying a significant ‘convenience fee’ for these smaller items if you wait until you are at a theme park, zoo, resort, or whatever. And often, it’s totally fine for you to pack these things in.
It can end up saving you quite a bit of money if you stop by a grocery store for some basic snacks, bottled water (or else we pack our water bottles), and any other necessities we might want.
We’ve found that diapers are marked up 200-300% at resorts. Bottled water markup can be even higher at theme parks, or top attractions. And even just a granola bar for a hangry kid can end up costing $8+. So even these small things can really add up.
If we are vacationing at a resort, we make sure to pack in some quick breakfast foods, easy snacks, and milk, if we have a mini fridge, at a minimum. For visiting theme parks or similar all-day outings, we pack water bottles, Clif bars, and maybe one or two other snacks to keep costs down without much effort.
16. Stay at a particular hotel or vacation rental longer
Hopping around from hotel to hotel, or vacation rental to vacation rental can end up adding a significant cost to your total vacation budget.
Hotels often offer deals if you stay at that hotel longer. For example, 5th night free, deals or discounts on stays at least 4 nights are fairly common if you keep your eyes out for them.
For vacation rentals, staying longer can be even more important. Many vacation rentals charge a one-time service fee, cleaning fee, owners fee, etc. So if you stay only one or two nights, the nightly cost can be outrageous. But if you stay a week, the nightly cost goes down significantly.
Of course you aren’t going to save money by making your vacation longer. But, staying at just one hotel or vacation rental rather than moving around on your vacation can end up reducing the cost more than you’d expect.
17. Consider ‘renting’ a timeshare
There are SO many ways to book lodging these days. Browing different booking sites, or searching VRBO or a lower-cost vacation rental are a given. But did you know that many even major hotels and resorts have timeshares, so you can ‘rent’ the timeshare from an owner, often at a much cheaper rate?
Las Vegas has a TON of high-end hotels (MGM Grand, Venetian, Vdara, Tahiti Village) have a timeshare/condo component. So deals can be found on these resorts if you can find an owner looking to rent them out. Sometimes, service is more limited (no daily cleaning, etc) than just booking a room from the hotel, but the cost savings can be SO big that it’s totally worth the inconvenience.
Disney also offers a timeshare-type program (though they don’t consider it a timeshare) called Disney Vacation Club. The program works a little bit differently than a traditional program in that members purchase points that can be used at ANY Disney Resort. Of course, some members aren’t able to use up all their points, so they can ‘rent’ them out.
Using services like DVC Rentals, you can check prices for any Disney Resort, and request to book rooms, if available. Note that they only have suites and villas. BUT because the costs can be so much lower, suites on at the DVC rental price can be the same price, or even cheaper, than a regular room booked directly.
You might even find that a friend or a family member has a timeshare they aren’t able to use one year. Or, do an online search- there are TONS of timeshares for rent all over the world, often for a great price.
You want to be sure you understand all the differences between a timeshare and a regular hotel. For example, DVC members don’t get daily room cleaning, but they DO get free parking, and garbage removal every day. Each timeshare is going to be a little different, but usually you aren’t giving up anything TOO huge.
18. Understand all the costs
When making family vacation decisions, make sure you understand all the little fees. They can really add up and skew the prices you THINK you are paying.
Sometimes, hotel can tack on daily ‘resort fees’ exorbitant parking fees, wifi fees, and more. So a hotel that APPEARS to be cheaper can actually wind up costing quite a bit more by the time you check out. We’ve seen extra fees over $100/day tacked on at the end of our stay. You defintely won’t want to overlook those costs. Be sure to read the fine print and understand the TOTAL costs before making decisions based on costs.
All-inclusives SEEM like a great deal up front, but when you add up all your costs, you might find that they end up costing you MUCH more than you’d pay to buy everything separately. Now perhaps the benefit of an all-inclusive is more in the convenient than in price, and that’s totally ok! But make sure you don’t fall for the ‘cost savings’ myth because that isn’t always the case! Especially if you aren’t planning to take advantage of all the higher-priced activities included.
On trip to Norway, we were warned there would be tons of tolls, making driving expensive. But we definitely didn’t understand just how expensive it would wind up being. The tolls for a couple of days of driving was around double the price of the (already pretty expensive) rental car cost.
Another example of package deals that don’t always make sense would be amusement park meal plans. If you are really careful, and make sure you use the ENTIRE benefit, they CAN be a good deal. But for most, you end up eating what/when you want. So the meal plan can end up costing more than just purchasing a ‘la carte.
19. Maximize the free activities
The BEST way to save on activities is to not pay for them at all. There are tons of free activities EVERYWHERE you go. Often those free activities are the best ones out there.
Most of the time, heading out to the beach, or the park won’t cost you a dime and you’ll have a ton of fun. Hiking, or exploring the outdoors is a favorite for our family, and it really helps us get to know the area we are visiting. And science agrees – being outside makes kids happy. My kids are TOTAL beach babies, so we can easily spend a week playing in the sand for no cost (beyond the cost of getting there!).
Cities are packed with amazing free activities for families. Many museums offer free days, and some are actually free all the time (though we recommend leaving a donation if you can). Public libraries often have TONS of really great free activities.
Just taking a stroll around town and taking in the sights costs you nothing, and can be a great way to explore a new city.
20. Try Camping
The cost of lodging is often the BIGGEST portion of your vacation cost, and can be a killer for families. Even if camping isn’t your thing, cutting your lodging down to a FRACTION of the price might change your tune. Many families that prioritize traveling choose to camp as it allows them to travel much more frequently even if their don’t have a huge vacation budget. Camping can open up TONS of destinations to families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it, and it’s definitely worth considering.
Sure there is an initial investment- you’ll need a quality tent, sleeping bags and pad at a minimum. But you’ll easily pay off your investment after just a skipping hotels just a handful of times.
Other families make the bigger investment of purchasing a camper. That will lock you down to only traveling where you can drive, but staying in a camper is easy and convenient for families. You can keep whatever you need in your camper, and just be ready to go. It becomes a familiar place for your kids, making sleep easier.
21. Plan Ahead
Start the planning process early- we’d recommend 6 months to a year in advance. That gives you plenty of time to browse for good deals, watch flight prices, and never end up in a panic paying last minute prices.
If you have the basics planned, you can sign up for low-fare alerts and be ready to book whenever a good price pops up.
For low season and shoulder seasons, hotels will often offer sales or discounts, but you have to carefully watch for those deals to be announced. Same goes for activities- sales are periodically announced. If you give yourself plenty of time to wait and watch, you’ll be sure to catch any sale that is announced.
Waiting until the last minute, or purchasing in a panic because prices are going up is a sure way to overspend on your vacation. Give yourself plenty of time. Relax and enjoy the process knowing you have plenty of time.
How does your family cut costs on family travel?