Traveling on a budget can be difficult, especially when you're taking a family vacation with multiple children. However, whether your family loves national parks or plush resorts, road trips or cruises, there are always ways to trim expenses without sacrificing fun or luxury.
The key to planning an affordable summer family is making common-sense choices that keep costs under control. From planning a trip at the right time to avoid surge pricing to booking one airline ticket at a time, there are many handy tips to help you cut expenses on your vacation.
Aim for Summer Fringes and Avoid Surge Pricing
Planning a budget-friendly summer vacation is easier if you can travel when other people can't because travel prices—for hotels, flights, and car rentals—are virtually always calculated using a surge pricing model that's based on supply and demand. Additionally, since the majority of U.S. destinations are "drive-to" vacations, prices at popular getaway spots tend to mirror regional school calendars and are at their highest when local kids are out of school.
When vacationing outside your own region, time your trip so that you arrive when local-area kids are either still in school or back to school. This means traveling at the beginning or end of the summer, depending on where you live and where you're going.
In Florida and the Southeast U.S., kids go back to class in early August, which means that traveling from August through Labor Day is significantly cheaper during this time of year. In fact, it's one of the least expensive times to visit Disney World. If you live in the Northeast and your kids are likely still on vacation, late summer is one of the best times to go.
On the other hand, kids in the Northeast are still in school through most of June. If you live in the South or West and your kids get out of school in May, the weeks between Memorial Day and mid-June present a fabulous opportunity to spend a week at a wonderful Vermont resort at a reduced price. At the award-winning Tyler Place Family Resort in northwestern Vermont (one of America's Best All-Inclusive Resorts for Families), early- and late-season rates can be significantly less expensive than those during the peak summer season.
Book Fights When Airfare Is Cheapest
Although domestic flights typically go on sale up to 11 months before the date of departure, knowing when to book your travel itinerary to find the cheapest flights in advance can greatly reduce the cost of your overall trip.
According to CheapAir's "When to Buy Flights" guide, the best time to purchase tickets on most domestic flights is between 21 days and six months in advance, and the lowest price-range occurs between 52 days and three months before you plan to travel. You can sometimes get find some last-minute deals and specials on airfare, but it's better not to risk a high-priced ticket when trying to budget for your vacation.
Book Airfare One Ticket at a Time
Passengers on the same flight often pay different prices for seats in the same section of the plane for a variety of reasons, but one reason is that many airlines group seats into price buckets. Unfortunately, if you book tickets in a bundle, it will only place you within these individual buckets unless you're forced to separate.
When you search for multiple seats on a flight, the airline will look in the lowest-price bucket first. If there are not enough seats left in that bucket, the airline will move up to the next-cheapest bucket and look for your required number of seats there. The airline keeps moving up until it finds a price bucket with the number of seats you need.
To help mitigate price increases that might be necessary to keep your large family in the same bucket of seats, you can also just book each seat individually at the lowest price you can find. However, this method might separate your family for a long flight, so act fast and compare group rates and individual seating to see if it will work for your needs.
Check for "Hidden" Resort Fees at Booking
At many upscale hotels, resort fees are often hidden in the paperwork you fill out at sign-in (or when you reserve your room online). A resort fee is a mandatory charge that typically covers services and amenities, but these are typically included in the room rate at other hotels.
Travelers hate resort fees because they are often a surprise when it comes to paying for the reservation. A hotel may disclose its resort fee somewhere on its website before check-out, but you typically have to search for it. Resorts do this so that they can advertise room rates at a lower price than the actual amount you pay for your stay.
These fees are unavoidable and mandatory at most resorts and hotels. As a result, you should make sure you search the venue's website for information about this fee before you lock in the cost of your accommodations. Some resorts charge lower fees, so it's helpful to compare the final prices of your top picks before you book your trip.
Another great way to cut down on some of your food expenses is to find local restaurants (and chains) that offer free or reduced-price meals for children under a specific age. From hotels offering free continental breakfasts to special nights at family-owned diners and restaurants, there are plenty of ways to snag free (and nearly free) kids' meals on vacation.
While your options may vary by city and state, some nationwide chains like Dickey's BBQ and Golden Corral have specials for children no matter where you go. However, whether you're visiting Utah, Houston, or Atlanta, check with the locals for the best budget-friendly restaurants in the area.
Fix Some of Your Own Meals
When budgeting for a family vacation, it’s super easy to underestimate how much you’ll spend on food. When your family eats out three meals a day for an entire week, your total food bill can skyrocket from what you're used to with cooking at home.
One obvious way to slash your food bill is to book a vacation rental property where your family has access to a full kitchen and cook for yourselves. Fixing snacks and just one meal a day in your vacation digs can save you hundreds of dollars over the course of your getaway.
However, the downside for some families is that you don't get hotel services such as housekeeping and fitness centers at these private accommodations. To avoid this, you can instead stay at one of the dozens of extended-stay and all-suite chains whose large family accommodations feature a kitchen along with other standard hotel amenities like a pool or room service.
Some of the major chains that offer this all-inclusive hotel experience include Candlewood Suites, Comfort Suites, DoubleTree by Hilton, Embassy Suites by Hilton, Extended Stay America, Hyatt House, Mainstay Suites, Residence Inn by Marriott, SpringHill Suites by Marriott, Staybridge Suites, and TownePlace Suites by Marriott.
Stay at New Hotels and Resorts
For some of the best prices in the hotel industry, look out for soft launches of newly-constructed or renovated resorts and hotels. Oftentimes you'll have to browse local newspapers (or Google) to see what's opening soon in the city you're visiting.
Unfortunately, these introductory periods at new hotels are often fairly short—usually less than three weeks—so you'll have to act fast and have a little luck to find a new hotel opening when you're planning your trip. Additionally, the property will likely still be working out a few kinks and putting on the finishing touches, so you might not have access to all the advertised facilities.
Skip the Hotel and Get a Vacation Rental
For a week-long summer vacation with the kids, many families like the idea of spreading out in a beach house or a condo instead of in a cramped hotel room. Very often—especially for large groups—a vacation rental can be a substantially cheaper option than a hotel.
Depending on your destination and local vacation rental agencies that are available, you can often snap up some great deals when traveling all around the world. However, you can also check well-regarded national and international rental websites like Homeaway and VRBO, Flipkey, Rentalo, AirBnB, and Vacation Home Rentals to verify the best prices before you go.
Vacation rentals offer a unique way to experience local life, especially if you're staying longer than a couple of days. Vacation rentals, unlike some hotels, also offer discounts for booking longer stays, so be on the lookout for "long-term" rental options.
Go to Free Events and Attractions
When it comes to entertaining your family on a budget-friendly vacation, costs can really start to add up when you're paying for popular tourist destinations, especially when you have a large family.
One of the easiest ways to make your vacation dollars go further is to mix in as many free activities as possible into your itinerary. Even in big cities like New York City or San Diego, which can be pricey places to visit, there's a lot of free fun to be had for families willing to do a little research.
Be sure to check the local paper when you arrive, too, as many smaller events and attractions that aren't highly publicized are often free. These small events and activities are a great way to meet locals, find out about other great deals and experience something off the beaten path for tourists.
Theme park getaways are popular with families, but they certainly aren't cheap. Fortunately, there are some ticket-buying tricks that apply to pretty much every theme park, and they can help you chip away at the cost of tickets.
To pay the lowest possible price for admission to most theme parks, you should always buy tickets in advance, preferably online as the walk-up ticket price is much higher than online. Additionally, if you plan on going more than once to parks like Six Flags, getting a season pass will save you in the long run.
Ask for a Refund if the Price Drops
As mentioned, pricing in the travel industry is based on supply and demand, which means that prices go up and down all the time. In fact, between the time you book a trip and the time you take it, there's a very good chance that the price you paid for your hotel room, rental car, or airline ticket will have dropped.
There are three genius websites that can track your purchase and remind you to get your travel refunds if the prices go down: Tingo for hotels, Autoslash for car rentals, and Yapta for airfare refunds. You can use these in tandem to rebook your hotel room or car rental automatically at the lower price or receive an alert that you're entitled to an airline price-drop voucher.
Buy Gas When It's Cheapest
If you're planning on driving across the country, remember that gas prices can fluctuate from day to day. As a result, you might want to fuel up before or after you've slept—depending on if the price is expected to go up or down.
Fuelcaster is a free online resource that predicts whether gas prices will rise or fall within the next 24 hours based on market trends and crude oil costs. The site will also tell you which local gas station is cheapest; since gas prices can vary by as much as a dollar or more from station to station within the same zip code, Fuelcaster can potentially save you $20 per fill-up.
Alternatively, some phone apps like Fuel Finder or Waze identify gas prices at nearby stations along your route, but these also rely on user input for updating stations, so the listed price might not be current. When you're driving a long distance, though, the listed prices are typically accurate enough to predict which upcoming towns on your route have the cheapest gas.
Head to the Cities in the Summer
Major metropolitan areas like Boston and Chicago aren't cheap cities to visit by most standards, but when business travelers take a summer hiatus and sizzling temperatures send locals to the beach or mountains, opportunities arise for vacationing families to snag an affordable stay.
Some of the best places to find summer hotel promotions are city tourism websites, which typically feature a page for special offers or hotel deals. For instance, Choose Chicago features a page for hotel deals, Visit Orlando has great discounts on local attractions, and Visit Music City lists all the best travel packages available in Nashville.
Even smaller cities like Scottsdale (Experience Scottsdale) have tourism websites or at least online resources like the city government's website where you can typically find information about travel deals and things to see.
Whether you've got young grandkids or a house full of teenagers, one of the silver linings of turning 50 is that you're eligible for AARP membership, which gives you more ways to save on family vacations.
Membership in the AARP costs $16 a year (as of 2018) and allows you to take advantage of discounts on a slew of products and services, including many travel services. Popular hotel chains in the United States (and abroad) like the Hilton Hotels give AARP members and their families a percentage off their bill.
You can also get access to special tours and vacation packages for people over 50 years old, as well as discounts on travel websites like Expedia, lower admission prices to national parks and related activities, and even dollars off your car rental with an AARP membership.