One of the complaints I have about the way I was raised was that my parents barely took us out on vacations while we were kids. While my cousins had stories to tell us about the fun places they visited and fun people they met, all we had to counter were stories about fun in the backyard. I hope those of you with kids will not raise kids that feel left out of the travel circuit as we did when we were kids. If money is an issue, here are a few tips to help plan the frugal family vacation. Or you can also look up some money making ideas to try and raise some cash before your vacation.
Before the trip
Budget and save for the trip
Determine well ahead of time that you want to take a trip with you family that year and how much you are willing to spend on it. Remember vacations are luxuries, and it doesn’t make sense to go into debt to indulge the travel bug. Based on your other circumstances, set aside a budget for a trip and start saving for it well ahead of time.
Plan a rough itinerary ahead of time
Once you have a number in mind about how much you can afford to spend, start looking for vacation destinations that fit your budget. If you are planning on dream vacations that cost a lot, start planning for off peak periods when the crowds are less and it will cost less. Be flexible with your dates. When you choose a destination, make sure that there is a good mix of paid attractions and free fun – so that for every day that you spend the big bucks for park admission, you spend a couple of days on activities that are free or cost very less (example, lazing on the beach, hiking the trails at a national park etc).
Book ahead of time
Next plan whether you want to fly or drive. If you choose to take a flight, look for bargain airfare online and book early. Here is a list of 19 sites for finding great airfares. If on the other hand you choose to take a road trip, then start by looking at this list of 8 cool sites for road trips. One other site that I have used before and found to be very handy for planning road trip is the Rand McNally road trip planner. And next determine your options for lodging. Do you have relatives or friends that you don’t mind piling on? Do you prefer places with a kitchenette so you can cook a stray meal and some money? How about a vacation rental? Here is a list of 10 sites for finding great hotel rooms. Currently, for finding good bed and breakfasts or vacation rentals, I just use Google search :( So if you have a site that you use often for finding cheap deals on these digs, I hope you will share it with me and the readers via comments.
Collect coupon books for your destination
Depending on how long you plan to spend on the vacation, you may want to plan ahead and collect a few coupons for the place. For instance, obtaining the entertainment book for the place can save quite a bit on food and entertainment. They generally cost $9.99 to $25 depending on when you buy them, and you can sell the book after it is used on ebay (with a list of the coupons that have been used). Or you can go to restaurant.com and purchase $25 gift certificates for under $10. Remember though that there are many catches that you need to watch out for when you buy the restaurant.com certificate. For entertainment, there are many sites that sell coupons for particular destinations. For instance mousesavers.com claims to have 200 pages of discounts for your next Disneyland vacation, vegascoupons.com has a ton of coupons to use on your Vegas vacation, skicoupons.com has coupons for ski destinations and so on. The best way to find these local coupons is to try Google search ("your vacation destination" & "coupon") and scan though the sites that show up. Finally, don’t forget that several hotels offer free breakfast – so choosing a hotel with free breakfast can save you the money spent on one meal every day!
During the trip
Give your kids spending money ahead of time
Kids tend to get extremely excited while on vacation and want to buy everything that they lay their eyes on. In order to avoid ugly tantrums and overspending, give your kids some spending money ahead of time. As a matter of fact, having them save some money for the trip (and maybe matching it dollar for dollar) may not be a bad idea to help them understand the cost of spending on souvenirs and trinkets.
Speak with the locals to find the local digs
Stores in the tourist areas generally have a “dumb tourist” markup on everything they sell. If you don’t want to spend this markup, speak with the locals and find out the places that they spend their money at. You may be amazed to find shabby looking seafood restaurants that offer the most delicious seafood for reasonable price, local farmers markets where you can find organic local foods and nice handmade handicrafts that would make great souvenirs etc.
Rearrange the trip so you need car rental for only a few days
If you are going to spend the entire day in the amusement park and if your hotel offers a complimentary bus ride to the amusement park, it does not make sense to have a rental car sitting in the parking lot all day! Plan you vacation in such a way that all the days that you are not interested in the car rental are closer together, and you can pick up the rental mid-way through the vacation. Watch out though – some can rental companies offer huge discounts for weekly rental, in which case you may just be better of getting the rental car for the entire vacation.
Bring your own entertainment and even food
If you are taking a road trip and have room for it in your car, then you may want to pack your DVD player and a few DVD’s to relax in the evenings after a hectic day of vacationing. Or you may want to pack in some of your board games to have quality time with the family while lounging after supper. You can stop at a local walmart and stock your room with inexpensive snacks and cold ones so you do not have to get them from room service when your kid gets a urge for the midnight snack or the spouse gets the urge for a cold one.
Plan your meals
Most places have different prices for the lunch menu and dinner menu. So plan on having a nice hearty meal at lunch time and a quick stop at the fast food joint or room-made snacks (if you have a kitchenette) for dinner. Also, if you can pick up sandwiches and take it with you in small picnic size packs to amusement parks where food tends to be extremely expensive, you could possibly save some more money. And do not forget to carry your own water bottles or soda!
After the trip
Find inexpensive ways to print your family photos
When you return back from the trip, your vacation is over but the expenses are still not done. While many people these days have switched to online photo archiving and sharing, some still prefer to print hard copies and save it to albums or scrapbooks. When you print your pictures, make sure you can save some money. xpbargains has a list of the latest deals for online photo printing. Consumersearch.com has a review of some of the digital printing services.
Find great ways to reuse the souvenirs
It is likely that no matter how careful you are, you have picked up a handful of souvenirs and trinkets that you find extremely tacky or silly when you come back home and open the boxes. Find ways to put them to good use. If they are small, you can mark the date of your trip on the back with a permanent marker and turn it into a Christmas tree ornament. Also remember that one man’s thrash is another man’s treasure – so see if there is interest for it on eBay or Craigslist.
Hopefully, the tips here have stoked the burning desire in you to take your family out on a vacation this year. Be safe and enjoy – before you know it your kids will be all grown up and the time the make memories will be long gone!
*Image Credit: Photograph by mallix [via Flickr Creative Commons]
PS:This article was featured as an Editor's Picks in the Festival of Frugality #137 over at Frugal Homemaker Plus. Head on over there for some really good reading...
Use cash back credit cards during trips. Find credit cards using credit card comparison websites.