How to Plan an Awesome Family Vacation on a Budget

Taking a family vacation doesn't have to break the bank, especially if you can be flexible about timing and opportunistic when you see a great deal. It will be important to focus on where the family wants to vacation, have a budget that fits within your means, and then arm yourself with knowledge about package deals and last-minute savings via reputable websites.

From vacation ideas to money-saving strategies, here's what you need to plan a budget-friendly family getaway with the kids.

  • 01 of 21
    Family at sunset, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley
    Armin Adams / Getty Images

    Called "America's best idea" by the historian Wallace Stegner, our national park system offers families a wonderfully affordable way to visit our most cherished and beautiful landscapes, view wildlife in their natural habitat, learn about geological and cultural history, and appreciate the great outdoors. 

    Each year, there are designated free days at the national parks. Plan your trip to arrive on one of these days. Consider a pass if you plan to visit quite a few parks over the year. 

  • 02 of 21

    Have an Extreme Outdoor Adventure

    Family biking on a wooded trail

    Caiaimage/Paul Bradbury/Getty Images

    Trade in the long car ride and unhealthy foods that are typically associated with vacation, and head out on an extended family bike ride or hike. With all the family-friendly bike trails and hiking trails that are spread out across the country, it’s really easy to hit the trails and just go for miles. While this type of trip takes more planning and commitment than most, it couldn’t be more budget-friendly. Pack food and camping gear, and you won’t have to pay for much more than a nightly camping fee. And just think how cool it would be to say that your family hiked 25 miles or biked 100 miles. Showing your kids that they can accomplish big things is a very good use of vacation time.

  • 03 of 21

    Go on a Grand Tour

    Jelly Belly Factory

    Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

     Lots of factories will allow you to tour their facilities for free or a nominal fee. These behind-the-scenes tours allow kids to see how everything from tractors to jelly beans are made, and often come with free samples and swag. Line up a route of factory tours in an area that you’d like to explore. Then, add in a free walking tour at each stop along the way.

    Most mid-to-large size cities have self-guide tours that you can download to your phone, as well as guided tours run by freelancers, who work for tips. They can be a really interesting way to explore a city, and often lead to discovering hidden gems that you’d normally miss.

  • 04 of 21

    Take a Learning Vacation

    Digging for fossils

    Yicai/iStock/Getty Images Plus

     Everyone has things they wish they knew how to do. Start a conversation with your family to find out what those things are. Then, plan a trip around making some of them happen. You could learn how to ride horsesdig for fossils or sign up for a basketmaking workshop. There are so many possibilities, and since you'll be coming home with a new skill, you're sure to get your money's worth.

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  • 05 of 21

    Give Voluntourism a Shot

    Family helping to frame a house

    Hero Images/Getty Images

    Use your family vacation time to do for others, instead of doing for yourself. Research volunteer vacation opportunities, until you find something that excites your whole family. Then, find out what you need to do to get accepted into the program. You could help build a Habitat houseclean up hiking trailswork on a farm or tackle a project overseas. There are so many fun possibilities.

    These types of vacations often come with free room and board, but spots fill up fast, so you need to plan far in advance. Be sure to check age requirements before you apply, so you don’t waste time going after opportunities that aren’t open to your family.

  • 06 of 21

    Visit a Big City

    U.S. Capitol Building

    Allan Baxter/DigitalVision/Getty Images

    You may pay more for a hotel room in a metropolitan area, like New York City or Washington, D.C., but all the free activities, cheap eats and affordable transportation options more than make up for it. Take in a bunch of free museums and historical sites; use an app to locate food trucks when you get hungry; and bounce around town on the subway.

    Just do a search for “free things to do in (insert city)”, and you’re bound to uncover more activities than you have time for. Who knows? You may even uncover cool things, like free outdoor movies, that only the locals are privy to.

  • 07 of 21

    Attend One of the Longest Yard Sales in the U.S.

    Family Shopping at a Yard Sale

    Ariel Skelley/Digital Vision/Getty Images

    Take your family on an epic shopping spree without blowing your budget. Nearly every state hosts an annual miles-long yard sale where thousands upon thousands of vendors come out to sell their wares. You'll find antiques and designer goods for the grown ups, as well as plenty of toys and clothes for the kids. There's truly something for everyone, and since the prices are negotiable, you won't have to worry about overspending on souvenirs. 

    Find campgrounds along the route to keep costs down, and get your fill of local fare from all the diners and food vendors you encounter along the way.

  • 08 of 21
    Family running on beach
    Getty Images

    The secret to planning affordable family vacations is having a game plan that's simple and surefire. There's a way to set up a never-fail, no-brainer system that will ensure you are always able to find a great getaway at an affordable price. 

    The idea is to create a repository of deals and special offers that you can turn to every time you plan a vacation. You'll get these offers by signing up for hotel deals, some directly from the hotel and some through travel websites. The same goes for airline offers.

    Many hotel chains and certainly many airlines have loyalty programs. If you are a member and rack up enough points or miles, you will save on your next vacation. 

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  • 09 of 21
    Family beach vacation
    Getty Images

    If it's spring, it must be time for Daily Getaways from the United States Travel Association (USTA). This spring series of travel flash sales offers savings of up to 50 percent off regular prices. This past year more than 20 of America’s top travel brands teamed up with the USTA to offer travel deals unavailable anywhere else. 

    All offers are available on a first come-first served basis and are non-refundable. Watch the USTA website next spring.

  • 10 of 21
    Kids on La Jolla Beach
    Courtesy of San Diego Tourism Authority

    Itching to get away but don't want to spend a fortune? Grab the kids and start packing. Early spring through ​Memorial Day weekend is one of the year's secret seasons—and spontaneous travelers can reap some of the biggest savings. The other shoulder season is fall after the kids have returned to school.

    Some budget-conscious parents actually make arrangements to take their children out of school during these shoulder seasons for a family vacation, complete with class assignments and homework. 

  • 11 of 21
    Kids at Disney
    Matt Stroshane/Walt Disney Parks

    Want to go to Disney World without breaking the bank? You can grab a deal, find affordable fun, and squeeze extra value from your vacation along the way if you know how to go about it.

    Disney World ticket prices and room rates fluctuate according to demand and are at their highest during school breaks and seasonal holidays. The first rule in landing an affordable getaway is to come during a time when prices are at their lowest.

    There are also budget-friendly resorts and package deals for you when you visit this popular destination. 

  • 12 of 21
    Transfercar
    Transfercar USA

    Let's face it. Snagging a cheap rental car or vacation RV is good, but scoring a free one is much, much better. A new website offers the opportunity for savvy families to take a road trip for next to nothing.

    Transfercar offers the opportunity for savvy families to take an RV road trip for next to nothing. The company delivers a nice win-win for both rental car companies needing to transfer cars, camper vans,​ and RVs from location A to B and drivers looking for a way to cut travel costs.

    Just be flexible and jump on the opportunity when it presents itself. 

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  • 13 of 21
    Family Theme Park Vacations on a Budget
    Paul Bradbury/Caiaimage/Getty Images

    Theme park getaways are popular with families, but they sure aren't cheap. Happily, there are some golden rules of ticket-buying that apply to pretty much every theme park, and they can help you chip away at the cost of tickets. 

    Never, ever pay the walk-up ticket price at a theme park. Instead, visit the theme park website and print out your tickets before you go. Seasonal specials will appear on the website so look for those.

    By avoiding weekends and high-demand holidays you're likely to save on tickets. 

  • 14 of 21
    Top-deck fun on the Norwegian Getaway
    Norwegian Cruise Line

    Shopping for a family cruise? There are some savvy tactics to keep more money in your wallet while landing a fantastic getaway at sea.

    There are seasonal discounts, last minute traveler discounts and deals for special groups. 

    During the three-month period between January and March, known as "wave season," cruise lines offer some of their very best deals for the coming year.

  • 15 of 21
    Breakfast on beach patio
    Courtesy of HomeAway.com

    Renting rooms, or an entire home can save you a ton of money. Sites like HomeAway.com, VBRO.com, and AirBnb offer a range of accommodations from shared space to luxury homes with a pool. 

    The best reason for renting a home is that you'll have cooking facilities and a washer/dryer at your disposal, saving money on dining out and luggage fees.

  • 16 of 21
    Car rental counter
    Getty Images

    Want to keep your rental car costs from getting out of control? There are simple tips to ensure you will never pay more than you have to.

    Rental car prices are determined by surge pricing, which means they are based on supply and demand and rise and fall over time. There are websites that track this pricing for you.

    Another tip is to know what insurance coverage you have before you rent the car (auto insurance policies and credit card benefits often cover rental cars). Then, don't fall for any heavy-handed sales pitch to add on daily insurance if you don't need it.

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  • 17 of 21
    Rear view of young girl walking on a sandy beach by the ocean, sunset.
    Mint Images / Getty Images

    Looking for an affordable Midwest beach getaway this summer? A stay at one of the Ohio State Park Lodges might be just the ticket.

    Located in parks throughout the central and northern regions of the Buckeye State, the lodges offer a surprising array of beach experiences on lakes, rivers, and reservoirs.

  • 18 of 21
    Tyler Place bumper tubing
    Suzanne Rowan Kelleher

    Want to plan a budget-friendly family vacation? The key is making common-sense choices that keep costs under control. There are tried-and-tested tips that can deliver significant savings on your family vacation.

    Tips such as knowing when to book your travel itinerary to find the cheapest flights in advance can greatly reduce the cost of your overall trip. Travel experts share that the lowest price-range occurs between 52 days and three months before you plan to travel.

    Watch for deals by signing up for e-mail notifications with the major airlines that fly to the vacation destinations you are interested in. 

     

  • 19 of 21
    Boys swimming and splashing
    Beck Photography / Getty Images

    Looking for the perfect time to visit Orlando? You'd be hard-pressed to beat September, a month when hotel rates are at their lowest of the year and crowds have thinned with the back-to-school season. 

    Visit Orlando offers lists of coupons and special deals. Watch for announcements of promotional packages. And, of course, sign up for their newsletter.

  • 20 of 21
    Family Ski Trips on a Budget
    Ascent Xmedia/Getty Images

    Looking to score a great deal on a family ski getaway? Ski vacations with the kids are a ton of fun but nobody ever said they were cheap. From finding affordable airfare to locating deals, there are ways to save money and enjoy a ski trip.

    Look for a resort area near a major airport. For example, flights to Denver International, the largest hub for Colorado ski vacations, will typically be cheaper than flights to smaller airports during ski season. 

    There are resorts where children ski free. And there are small, family-friendly resorts that don't have a big price tag on their rooms and lift tickets.

    Check out spring skiing. It's the shoulder season and the snow is melting in the lower elevations This is an ideal time to find bargains, especially if skiing and boarding in your t-shirt and shorts sounds appealing. 

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  • 21 of 21
    Kid with skiis
    Keystone Resort

    The cost of family ski vacations can really add up—especially when you start shelling out for lift tickets, lodging, food, equipment, and lessons.

    That's why there's nothing better than a resort that lets you save some money. While a great many ski resorts offer free lift tickets for very young children (typically under age 5 or 6), the most family-friendly resorts also offer packages that include free lift tickets for older children, too.