From my series on frugality: in my first post I shared some principles and tips for surviving on a small budget, in my second post I shared tips for saving money when buying groceries and eating out, and in this article I hope to give some tips for vacation.
Sure, you can survive without ever taking a vacation or stay-cation; until the past few centuries, hardly anyone could afford to leave home on a yearly basis, but now travel is much cheaper so we can go for it! Don't be a slave to wanderlust, but remember there is much value in taking time to celebrate, rest, recharge, and make memories. One book I’ve read, Disciplines of a Godly Family by Kent Hughes, even considers family vacations a spiritual discipline. Whether you care about your spirituality or not, I think everyone agrees vacations are a really good idea.
However, vacations can be so expensive and might not seem doable with your budget. So here are some principles and tips for making them cheap. (By the way, that year that we made less than $20,000, we were still able to afford a cruise and a road trip!)
Here are two principles to remember followed by some tips. Since I only have four years’ experience of planning family vacations, I’m still learning and growing in this area so I would love to hear some tips from readers!
1. Be Flexible With Your Schedule and Arrangements
Don’t be a typical tourist! If you’re willing to be flexible with your situation and especially your schedule, you can save a ton of money.
Here are some ways that fleshes out:
When You Go
-Oftentimes prices are much cheaper in off-peak season, and it’s impossible to measure how much more enjoyable your experience will be without the crowds.
Here’s an example: A 3-Day Park Hopper to Disney World is $235 per ticket. If you’re a Florida resident, you can get a weekday pass to all four parks for the whole year (minus some block-out dates during the busiest times) for $239.63. And chances are you’ll have enough time to actually go on a lot of rides because the lines are significantly shorter during the week than on weekdays and summertime.
-Cruises are significantly cheaper in May, August, September, or mid-December because students are finishing up the semester or it’s hurricane season. I’ve been on twelve or so cruises with my parents and they’ve all been during these time slots. Sure, I’ve missed the first and last day of school before, and yes, my first cruise was during Hurricane Katrina so we had to be re-routed, but it was all worth it. :)
Side note on cruises: Royal Caribbean is far superior than Carnival and it’s worth it to pay a tiny bit more for a much better experience. Subscribe to their emails because they occasionally have “Kids Sail Free” promotions, which saves a ton.
-If you check for plane tickets on Google Flights, you’ll be able to see not only when flights are cheapest by a helpful bar graph, but if you look on the map you can see where flights are cheapest…plus they compare the prices and schedules of most airlines. I’ve found round-trip flights to Denver for $116 and to DC for $50.
Where You Stay
-Sure, go to a famous destination (such as Washington, D.C., for example) but that doesn’t mean you need to stay in a $300+/night hotel. If you use a site like Air BnB (use a friend’s link for $25 off!), you can rent out someone’s whole apartment in a good part of town for around $100/night. If you’re willing to stay in a room at someone’s house or you’re okay with being a little further from the most popular areas, you can find a room for cheaper, and maybe breakfast will even be provided. :)
Note: I can't guarantee a perfect experience using this site. Our most recent Air BnB host was not very hospitable and the listing was a little misleading, but we still think it was worth it because the location was so awesome and definitely 1/3 of the price it would've been if we stayed in a hotel in the same part of town.
-You can also use Groupon Getaways, Amazon Destinations, Living Social, Travelzoo, etc. to find deals on rooms that could be half off or more. The catch is you might have to go only during a certain window of time (and possibly last-minute) so, as stated earlier, if you can be flexible with your schedule you’ll save a lot of money.
-If you’re going to more of a nature-destination (ie Smokey Mountains) as opposed to a city or theme park, consider camping (which could be free) or staying in a cabin. This is especially a good deal if you’re going with other people and you can split the cost. For example, you can stay at a cabin in Red River Gorge, KY (which is amazing) that sleeps 8 for $125/night plus tax and a $35 cleaning fee. That includes a stocked kitchen and a hot tub on the back deck. If you split that with one or two families---or several single friends---it’s quite a fair price :)
2. Live Like a Local
-Buy groceries and bring Ziploc bags. Agreed, no one wants to cook while on vacation, and if you can afford to eat out for most of your vacation, some of your favorite memories might happen in the fun local eateries.
But if you’re able to have a little bit of self-control and bypass the $8 Dippin Dots till you get back to the room, for example, your whole family can feast on the $4 half-gallon of ice cream you bought at the grocery store.
If you spend $5 on a pack of water bottles and freeze them before you go out for the day, you’ll have cold water bottles whenever you need one and you won’t have to pay $3.50 per bottle.
If you plan just a tiny bit ahead and wash and pack some Ziploc bags full of grapes before you start your day, you’ll have a refreshing snack waiting for you and you won’t have to pay ridiculous prices for the same thing at a food kiosk.
And if you are willing to cook a bit while on vacation---this is another benefit of staying somewhere through Air BnB, because you can have access to a full kitchen---you’ll save a ton of money by making a simple breakfast and packing sandwiches and snacks for your day so you won’t have to buy overpriced and poor-quality meals while you’re on your day’s adventures.
If you don’t have a rental car or way of getting to the store, you can use a site like Instacart to choose what you want and someone will deliver the groceries to you. Use a friend’s link (here's mine) and your first delivery will be free plus you’ll get $10 to spend from whichever store you choose---even Whole Foods or Costco---and they can deliver in under an hour!
Even if you use Groupon and other deal sites locally, you might not think of using it when you’re out of town. Set your location to wherever your destination is and check out what kind of deals you can find!
This summer we visited Linville, NC, because we wanted to see Grandfather Mountain. I was a little bummed that admission was $20 a person, but then I found a Groupon that cost $20 admission for two people. I also used a 20% off coupon code and got some cashback from Ebates so I ended up paying quite a bit less than half the price.
Remember you can also eat out using Groupons!
-Talk to and read from locals.
If you can go to a place where a friend has lived at some point, you can get the insider tips and save a lot of money. You can also try to find the personal blogs of locals (Pinterest has helped me find these), which might be immensely more helpful than the typical travel sites. Also, once you arrive at your destination, try to find the locals and ask them for tips.
For example, I just went to Washington, D.C. and the popular thing to do is take an Old Town Trolley to see the sights (online sale price is $39/person for two days of hop on/hop off.) But the locals told me to take the DC Circulator, a pleasant public bus which literally costs $1 per person for two hours of hopping on and off around the National Mall (or any of the other circuits.) Sure, it wasn't narrated like the Trolley tour, but next time I will study beforehand so I can offer an informative tour of my own to the family.
Hopefully some of these tips can help! Now go take a vacation and don't go into debt over it :)
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My name is Hope.
I'm 25, married to a former skater dude, and raising little people ages 5, 3, 1, and not-yet-born. I like lime green and sarsaparilla, and I wear my Crocs until they melt. (Florida problems.)
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Articles I've Written on Other Sites:
Youth Ministry's Family Blindspot - Christianity Today