Foolproof Ways to Save on Your Summer Vacation

  • 01 of 18

    Keep your getaways cheap and cheerful

    Kids on vacation jumping into pool with inner tubes
    ••• RUSS ROHDE/Getty Images

    Want to plan a budget-friendly summer vacation? Whether your family loves national parks or plush resorts, road trips or cruises, theme parks or quiet beaches—there are always ways to trim expenses without sacrificing heaps of fun or luxury. The key to planning an affordable family vacation this summer, and every summer, is making common-sense choices that keep costs under control. 

    Click through for tried-and-tested tips that can deliver significant savings on your family vacation.

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  • 02 of 18

    Aim for summer's fringes

    TylerPlaceFamilyResort_BananaBoat.jpg
    ••• Tyler Place Family Resort

    Planning budget-friendly summer vacations are easier when you keep two things in mind: First, travel prices—for hotels, flights, car rentals, you name it—are virtually always based on a surge pricing model based on supply and demand. And second, the majority of U.S. destinations are "drive-to" vacations. Consequently, prices at popular getaway spots tend to mirror regional school calendars and are at their highest when local kids are out of school.

    No-brainer tip: 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 US, kids go back to class in early August. Unsurprisingly, August through Labor Day are among 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...MORE times to go.

    In the Northeast US, kids 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 truly wonderful Vermont resort at a much 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 costly than those in the peak summer season. 

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  • 03 of 18

    Beware of resort fees

    Atlantis Paradise Island, Bahamas
    ••• Atlantis in the Bahamas. Atlantis

    At many upscale hotels, resort fees are a dirty little secret. A resort fee is a mandatory charge that typically covers services and amenities Note that these are typically included in the room rate at other hotels.

    Travelers hate resort fees because they are often a surprise. A hotel may disclose its resort fee somewhere on its web site, but you typically have to dig for it. And since the fee is mandatory, the cost really ought to be included in the room rate. But by imposing a resort fee, a hotel can advertise room rates at a lower price than the actual price of the stay.

    No-brainer tip: Before you book a stay at a hotel or resort, find out if there is a resort fee, which can add a sizeable chunk to your spend. 

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  • 04 of 18

    Book flights when airfares are cheapest

    Book Flights
    ••• Getty Images

    When it comes to super useful travel knowledge, nothing tops knowing when to book your flights. The booking site CheapAir.com crunched the numbers on nearly three million trips to find exactly how far in advance to buy tickets at their cheapest.

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  • 05 of 18

    Rent your own place

    HomeAway_Sanibel.jpeg
    ••• HomeAway.com

    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 a hotel room. Very often—especially for large groups—a vacation rental can be a substantially less expensive option than a hotel. 

    You can research your destination and go with a local vacation rental agency or try one of these well-regarded national and international vacation rental sites:

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  • 06 of 18

    Fix some of your own meals

    HyattHouse.jpg
    ••• Hyatt House

    When budgeting for a family vacation, it’s super easy to underestimate how much you’ll spend on food. But when your family eats out three meals a day, every day, for an entire week, your total food bill can skyrocket. 

    One obvious way to slash your food bill is to book a vacation rental property where your family has access to a full kitchen. The downside, at least for some families, is that not getting hotel services such as housekeeping and fitness centers.

    A middle ground is to opt for a big-family favorite and book one of the dozens of extended-stay and all-suite chains whose accommodations feature either a kitchen or a wet bar with a fridge and microwave. Even the latter will give you a lot of control over how often your family eats out. Fixing snacks and just one meal a day in your vacation digs can save you hundreds of dollars over the course of your getaway. As a bonus, you’ll typically get more space for your money in a comparably priced hotel room. Here are just some of the...MORE options:

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  • 07 of 18

    Get great deals to come to you

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    Too time-starved and money-strapped to plan a family vacation? Save time and money with this quick-and-easy system: 

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  • 08 of 18

    Snag free kids' meals

    Kids eat free at Holiday Inn
    ••• Holiday Inn

    Feeding a family on vacation can really add up, but happily there are places where you can snag free meals for kids.

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  • 09 of 18

    Score a great deal on theme park tickets

    Six Flags Great Escape Comet
    ••• Suzanne Rowan Kelleher

    Theme park getaways are popular with families, but they sure ain'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. Here are tried-and-tested ways to lower your theme park spend

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  • 10 of 18

    Get a refund if the price drops

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    ••• Stan Dalone & Miran Rijavec/Flickr Creative Commons

    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.

    These three genius websites will track your purchase and either rebook your hotel room or car rental automatically at the lower price, or send you an alert that you're entitled to an airline price-drop voucher.

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  • 11 of 18

    Try out the new kid on the block

    CabanaBay_Pool.jpg
    ••• Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Universal Orlando Resort. Loews Hotels & Resorts

    It’s a dog-eared page in the travel pro’s playbook: Stay at a just-opened luxury hotel and get in at the low introductory rate. Naturally, there are a few drawbacks. The intro period is usually fairly short—perhaps just a few weeks. And you can expect that the property will still be working out some kinks.

    No-brainer tip: Book a stay at a new hotel during the soft launch period and pay significantly less than the regular rate.

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  • 12 of 18

    Buy gas when it's cheapest

    Fuelcaster.jpg
    ••• Fuelcaster.com

    Did you know that gas prices can fluctuate significantly from day to day? So it might make sense to fill your tank today for tomorrow's road trip.  

    Fuelcaster.com is a free online crystal ball that predicts whether gas prices will rise or fall within the next 24 hours. For that road trip tomorrow, you might get the green light to fill up today or, perhaps, be advised to wait until prices fall in the morning. 

    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.

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  • 13 of 18

    Seek out as much free fun as you can handle

    BryantPark_FCC_AndreNatta.jpg
    ••• Andre Natta/Flickr Creative Commons

    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, which can be pricy places to visit, there's a lot of free fun to be had for families willing to do a little research. 

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  • 14 of 18

    Visit during restaurant week

    OrlandoBite30.jpg
    ••• Orlando Bite 30

    A vacationing family can drop a frightening amount of money on food. In the summer many popular destinations hold a tourism promotion known as restaurant week that can be a real boon for a family eating out three meals a day. Participating restaurants offer prix fixe lunches and dinners for less—sometimes much less—than the usual prices. 

    If you've got a specific destination in mind for a summer getaway, do a web search to see if there will be a dining promo this summer, and consider timing your visit to overlap with those dates.

    • Destinations with Summer Restaurant Weeks
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  • 15 of 18

    Snag a city hotel for a song

    AffiniaManhattan.jpg
    ••• Affinia Manhattan

    Major metropolises like Boston and Chicago aren't cheap city 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. Look for a page of special offers or hotel deals. Here are some examples:

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  • 16 of 18

    Over 50? Snag deals with AARP membership

    Disney World Discounts
    ••• AARP

    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 and allows you to take advantage of discounts on a slew of products and services, including many travel services.

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  • 17 of 18

    Search for one airline ticket at a time

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    Passengers on the same flight often pay different prices for seats in the same section of the plane for a variety of reasons. One reason is that many airlines group seats into price buckets.

    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. Keeping this in mind, here's a strategy that can save you money on your next vacation:

    • Ask Suzanne: Why Is It Cheaper to Buy One Airline Ticket at a Time?
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  • 18 of 18

    Save for college every time you go on vacation

    Got kids? During a typical year, you probably spend a chunk of money on family vacations and also put aside money for college. So why not do both at the same time?