Post Summary: The ultimate guide on how to do family travel on a budget from former full-time family travelers. Our best travel tips, hacks, how-tos, and budgeting advice for family vacations on a budget.
Do you dream of traveling to charming or adventurous destinations together as a family? Who doesn’t, right? Family travel is where lifelong memories get etched into the storybook of a family. But if you’re like most families, you’re probably wondering…is frugal family travel even a thing?
Absolutely. Family travel on a budget is possible! With the right know-how, resources, and proper planning, you can learn how to afford family travel.
Traveling with a family does provide a good dose of challenge and hearty problem solving, but money doesn’t need to be the reason you don’t travel together.
Here is our complete guide on budget family travel, including planning a family vacation on a budget and tips for reducing costs. It’s long and thorough and based upon our own trial and error experiences.
*This family travel on a budget post may contain affiliate links, which means we might earn a small commission if you purchase from them. This is at no extra cost to you. We only suggest what we think is truly awesome.
HOW TO DO FAMILY TRAVEL ON A BUDGET
Family Travel Is A Priority
I present this one first because I think there has to be a mental shift in your perspective if you desire to travel with family. Finding the means to travel as a family is a priority for us. It’s never IF we’re going to travel; it’s WHEN are we going to travel.
I say this with caution since I know there are people ready to clamor and shout, but but but I have work! But but but the kids are in school. I know. Those are all real and valid points, and I would never reduce the realities of everyone’s day-to-day circumstances. Let’s be clear that travel with family requires the privilege of time and finances.
AND, if what you want is to travel, you’ll have to open a window (just a crack) in your mind to allow for the possibility of making travel happen for your family.
Just Say No To Spring Break Travel
If you’re looking to do family trip on a budget, you have to stop traveling during the high season. It’s basic supply and demand. The more people traveling, the more expensive lodging and airfare will be. If you choose to go to Florida in April during spring break, hotels will be astronomically expensive. If you fly to Europe in July and August, airfare will be at its highest.
Visit Arches National Park in winter or Paris in the fall, and you can cut your hotel and airfare costs by 40-70%. We visited Glacier National Park and Whitefish, Montana, in winter and paid $95 a night for a room that costs $400 a night in the summer. I kid you not!
Just because you’re traveling in the off-season doesn’t have to mean cold weather and rainy days. We traveled to Croatia in October when the cruise ships and crowds had left, and we had 80-degree days and plenty of sunshine.
An extra perk of traveling in the off-season is the crowds are gone. We traveled to the Virgin Islands with our son in the off-season, and it was delightfully quiet. Imagine an entire picture-perfect beach with only a handful of people.
In addition, look into traveling right after a major holiday. Instead of traveling on the 4th of July, Memorial Day Weekend, or Labor Day Weekend, look at getting away right after that to see if you can get better hotel and airfare rates. You’re almost always guaranteed a cheaper stay.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Traveling in the shoulder season or after a major holiday is one of the most tried and true tips on how to afford family travel. Research a destination you’re interested in and find out when their off-peak times are.
Consider Taking Your Kids Out Of School
Traveling in the off-season can be difficult when you have kids in school. Consider taking them out for a short period to have your fantastic budget family getaway.
I know. I know. It’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s disruptive, your school might frown on it, and some kids might not want to miss school.
This is a personal decision that you and your family have to figure out. If you’re hesitant about pulling them out of school, talk about it with their teacher and listen to their concerns so you can work with them to find a solution. Perhaps you have to schedule time on your vacation for the kids to do homework or lesson plans. It’s a great thing to do on the flight! Or maybe you work with the teacher to figure out a time in the school year when it’s not as burdensome for them to leave. For instance, not going right before a big project or test is on the schedule.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Take your kids out of school for a short period of time to get the best off-season rates.
Travel Where Your Money Goes Further
If you’re looking to learn how to travel cheap with kids, you have to expand your mind outside of typical “family destinations” like Hawaii and popular theme parks. You need to travel where your money goes further. Instead of Hawaii, consider other destinations with just as stunning (maybbe even better) beaches like Panama, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Instead of France or Italy, consider other magical countries in Europe like Montenegro, Bosnia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. These places are just as charming and, if you travel in the off-season, ridiculously cheaper than other popular European destinations.
Many of the cheaper alternatives listed above can be done with a daily budget of $50-$100 a day. We spent eight days in Nicaragua and paid $800 per person, including airfare! Yes, airfare will probably be your most expensive item, but we’ll get tips on finding good deals later.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Traveling on a budget means trying out destinations that aren’t as “popular” but are easy on the wallet. If you have a dream destination like Hawaii, google “cheap alternatives to Hawaii” and see what comes up.
Credit Card Points Are Your Friend
Credit card points are one of my favorite ways to earn money for a trip. Many people opt to use debit cards as their sole card, but not using credit card points to your advantage is letting your money go to waste!
Now let’s be clear, the following advice is ONLY if you can pay your total balance every month. If you can not, this advice is not meant for you. Any points you earn will quickly become worthless with the interest you pay by holding a balance, not to mention the health of your credit score.
Some people go really in-depth into the points world. They hold multiple credit cards, do all the sign-up bonuses, chat on points and miles forums, and have intricate spreadsheet systems detailing their credit card points. That is not me. I keep it real simple. I use the credit card that’s best for my spending habits, and that’s it. While there are credit cards that offer great rewards for travelers, it’s only beneficial to you if you travel A LOT. Why get a card that offers Uber credits, lounge access in airports, and 5X points for airfare if you only go on a trip once a year?
I use the American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card because it’s a cashback card that offers 6% back on groceries, 3% cash back on gas and transit, and a $300 sign-up bonus. Because groceries are our biggest credit card expense, it’s a no-brainer for us to have a card that gives us 6% cash back on groceries. Last year, I earned $900 in cashback. If you’re saving for a big trip, $900 goes a long way to help cover airfare or lodging. You can learn more about it with my referral link to the Blue Cash Preferred Card.
A common travel hack is to open up a credit card with a big sign-up bonus to capitalize on that extra windfall. Most sign-up bonuses for credit cards entail spending a certain amount of money within an allotted time, for example, $5000 in the first three months. For me, it’s only worth it if your everyday expenses are that much or if you know you’ll be buying a big-ticket item like a new washer/dryer or plane tickets.
Another way to capitalize on the sign-up bonus is to sign up for a hotel credit card like Marriott or Hilton which both offer a generous sum of points at sign up. That lump sum of points could get you a few days free in a hotel. A great choice if you know you have travel plans in the future and want to reduce lodging costs. Just make sure to get the credit card several months in advance to ensure you have the points for when you need to book.
We also use the Southwest Credit Card since we fly Southwest a lot, and it’s a convenient airline for our needs. I discuss it in the “choosing a family-friendly airline” section.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Let your spending earn you money by using a credit card with a great cashback or points system that you can use toward your family travel budget.
Price Compare Home Rentals and Hotels
There was a time when peer-to-peer rental services like Airbnb and Vrbo offered the best bang for your buck when traveling as a family. With rising service fees and outlandish cleaning fees, I’m not entirely convinced that home rental services are the best way to go. That being said, it’s still the first place I look when scouring out lodging deals for a destination. When making a price comparison of a hotel to a home rental, you’ll want to budget in the extra perks of staying at a home rental which includes a kitchen to cut down on eating out, multiple rooms, laundry, a backyard for your kids to play in, and the privacy of your own home.
In general, if you’re only staying somewhere for one to two nights, a hotel will be cheaper since the cleaning and service fees can make the final bill more expensive than a hotel. If you’re staying for longer, a home rental typically wins out.
When looking for a hotel, take advantage of a site like booking.com that offers immediate discounts for email subscribers and a straightforward cancellation policy. The cancellation policy is great when you’re in the travel planning stage because you can book something and secure a rate while continuing to look for better offers. Booking also has a free loyalty program that offers 10-20% off, free breakfast, and upgrades if you consistently book with them.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Compare home rentals to hotels to see where the best price is, but don’t forget the value of having your own kitchen, more room, and private space of a home rental.
Consider Camping, Glamping, or an RV Rental
If hotels and home rentals are too steep, a camping trip is ideal for family travel on a budget. When we were planning a trip to Yellowstone, we were blown away by how expensive the hotels were in the park. The only way we could swing it was to camp in the park. We spent seven days camping in the park and paid roughly $225 for our entire stay. $225 is not even enough to cover one night at a hotel in Yellowstone! Plus, we entered the park on one of their annual free days, so we didn’t even pay to visit the park.
Camping does have some significant upfront costs (buying a tent, sleeping bags), but the good thing is you can use it repeatedly, allowing the investment to be worth the price. You can also look into renting camping gear from REI if you don’t want to own camping equipment.
If camping isn’t how you love to vacation, you can look into renting an RV, travel trailer, or campervan through the peer-to-peer site Outdoorsy or the campervan rental site Escape Campervans. You can rent a cozy RV and stay at a lovely campsite for a long weekend or try a long road trip exploring the National Parks of the East Coast or the beaches of the Pacific Coast Highway. You could even boondock and find free camping spots to further reduce your costs.
KEY TAKEAWAY: If hotels and house rentals are too expensive, look into camping or renting an RV as an alternative.
READ NEXT: Our Best Tips For Camping With A Toddler
Find Alternative Lodging
A unique way to do family travel on a budget is to do a home swap. The basic idea is you swap homes with someone in a destination you would like to visit. Typically, you would need to come up with an agreement with another family, but Home Exchange has made it easier by also offering the ability to stay at someone’s house without needing to swap. That’s convenient if you don’t live in a location where people want to visit.
You can sign up for free, but if you register you get a bunch of free points that could get you three to five days at a coveted destination for the cost of a $175 registration fee. My advice is to at least sign up for free to get some signup points. Browse around the site and you’ll see that it’s a fantastic choice when looking for cheap ways to travel with family. You can use my referral code here to get extra sign-up points.
Score Cheap Airline Tickets
That title is a little misleading because I’m not sure I would ever call plane tickets “cheap,” but there are certainly ways to reduce the costs of airline tickets. As a general rule, you’ll want to try to fly from Tuesday-Thursday. Weekends tend to be more expensive simply because more people are traveling.
I suggest using Skyscanner or Scotts Cheap Flights when looking for good flight deals.
Scott’s Cheap Flights is a paid membership program with a pared-down free version. We started with the free membership but ended up upgrading because we liked it so much. They send out emails with mistake fares, and you can sign up to get specific updates to certain areas and airports. If you’re flexible, you can use it to inspire travel. We once saw a deal for a round trip flight to Japan for $170. It was insane! It took everything we had to not immediately board a plane to Japan. You can learn more about Scott’s Cheap Flights here.
Skyscanner is another excellent tool that is essentially an aggregator. With so many different aggregator sites to choose from, it comes down to ease of use. Skyscanner is simple, straightforward, and best of all, you can sign up for price alerts and get notified when prices drop for a flight path you want to take. That’s a KEY feature and something you’ll definitely want to do if you have a set destination in mind. You can also use the site to browse cheaper destinations. Just put “everywhere” for where you want to go, a departing airport, and they’ll show you a long list of options. You can learn more about Skyscanner here.
If you can remain open about our destination, a good tactic is to see where you can get cheap flights and choose to explore that place.
Don’t forget to check out smaller airlines that might not appear in aggregator searches like Avelo Airlines and Frontier. They are budget airlines that reduce amenities (drinks, choosing your seat) to bring costs down.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Use smart tools and price alerts to find cheaper flights, but also be open to not having a set destination and traveling to a place where you can score low-cost flights.
READ NEXT: How To Survive Flying With A Baby
Choose Family-Friendly Airlines
When choosing an airline, most people will understandably pick the cheapest airfare, but don’t forget to include extra costs that airlines tack on to the price. The cost to check luggage for a family can easily be an additional $100 for a roundtrip flight.
While Southwest Airlines isn’t an illustrious airline with a highly developed tiered class system or a fancy airport lounge, they are GREAT for family travelers. What do we love about them? Everyone gets two bags checked for free. While I love to pack light, traveling with a family often means a lot of stuff, so getting to check your luggage for free is ideal.
Whenever you’re searching for flights, remember to go direct to Southwest since they NEVER show up on aggregator sites like Skyscanner or Kayak. Cross-reference the prices and factor in the cost of checking luggage.
Southwest is our ideal choice since they have multiple options for domestic flights, affordable tickets, free checked luggage, and they have a companion pass!!
The companion pass is a benefit you earn where a single person can fly with you FOR FREE for the year you earn it and the following calendar year. Anyone can acquire the pass by applying for a Southwest Credit Card and flying 100 one-way flights or earning 125,000 points.
Most people won’t be able to swing either of those in a year, though it’s not impossible, especially if you’re using a Southwest business card and you have high business expenses. If you can be really organized, and you have a lot of high ticket purchases to make, many people try to earn the pass at the beginning of the year so they can use it for almost two years.
Realistically, your best bet is to get a companion pass when they offer it as a promotional bonus for signing up for a credit card. That’s how we did it! We signed up for the credit card and earned the companion pass plus a slew of bonus points. We did it right before we knew we were going into a year of high travel and used it countless times. We saved well over $1000 using our companion pass for one year. Also, we were traveling with a child under two, so three of us got to travel, and we only paid for one person. It felt like winning the lottery!
Get on their email list and keep an eye out for when they do the Companion Pass promotion. I notice they do it about once a year. You can use our referral link here to learn about the different Southwest Credit Cards.
*Many people don’t like Southwest’s open seating policy where it’s first come, first served for seats. Families traveling with young kids always get to board between the A and B groups, so you’re guaranteed to sit together. We’ve never had a problem getting seats together.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Don’t forget about the cost of checking luggage and factor that into your budget. Also, don’t forget about Southwest Airlines since they don’t appear in aggregator searches.
Use Turo For Car Rentals
If you’re at a location that requires a car, the first place to look for budget car rentals is Turo. It’s a peer-to-peer car rental service, and you can find GREAT DEALS. We have used the service twice and love it. We used it when living in Asheville when we needed to rent a car for two months. We paid $10 a day for our rental!
Typically, there is a set destination for picking up and dropping off, but the great part of using Turo is you’re dealing with a real person. One time we didn’t even have to drop off our rental at the airport since it was more convenient for the car owner to come to our home rental. We literally left the car on the street where our Airbnb was, and he picked it up himself. It was so easy!
KEY TAKEAWAY: Car rental prices are at an all time high. See if you can get a better deal at Turo, a peer-to-peer rental service.
Embrace The Road Trip
You can do all the travel hacking in the world and still not be able to find cheap flights. Even if you find cheap flights, if you have a large family, the deal isn’t so great when you multiply it by six. When flying is out of your budget, it’s time to embrace the road trip.
Yes, gas is expensive, but it’s still cheaper than flying. We are a family that road trips A LOT, and I tell you, once you do it a few times, you realize it’s really not that bad to be in the car for that long. In fact, we made a cross-country road trip in our renovated vintage camper with our three-year-old! The road trip will always be the top choice for anyone looking for how to travel cheap with family.
Do some research to see what is nine to ten hours from you. Or make a family road trip that extends over several days where you hit up a few different places spread throughout an area. An epic family bucket list item is to make a Utah National Parks road trip.
KEY TAKEAWAY: When flights aren’t doable for your family, pack up the car and go on a road trip.
Limit Eating Out
Not eating out every night is perhaps our biggest tip for when you’re trying to do family travel on a budget. We never eat breakfast out and often try to do all three meals at home. And I’m someone who LOVES to eat out. Believe me, I would much rather enjoy fresh local food than make turkey sandwiches for lunch, but it’s a small sacrifice to make for the pleasure of traveling and being together.
If you still want to enjoy eating out while on a family vacation, try to do two meals at your rental or hotel and one meal out a day. At the very least, eat breakfast by bringing cereal, milk, yogurt, or oatmeal or staying at a hotel that offers complimentary breakfast.
If we’re staying at a house rental, we bring groceries with us or buy some once we get there, so we have supplies in the house. Even if we’re staying at a hotel, as long as it has a mini-fridge and a microwave, we can make a few meals with that setup. Our go-to hotel meal with only a mini-fridge and microwave is Rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, ready-made salad packs, and bread and olive oil. Traveling with small packets like this Marconi Olive Oil are game-changers!
KEY TAKEAWAY: Don’t forget about the cost of food on your travel budget! Plan to have 1-2 meals at your hotel or rental to majorly cut down on costs.
TIP: If your hotel room doesn’t have a microwave, you can sometimes call ahead, and they’ll put one in the room for you. It’s worked for me many times!
Look For Free Things To Do
When planning your itinerary, try to do a few free things to curb costs. Waterfall hikes, days at the beach, and self-guided walking tours are excellent kid-friendly activities that are all FREE. Here is where Google is your friend. When researching your destination, do a simple search for “free things to do in XYZ” to discover some exciting options in the area.
National Parks are a great choice since it’s typically one flat rate per vehicle and lasts for seven days. For inspiration, you can read our article about 12 fantastic National Parks For Kids.
KEY TAKEAWAY: On your family trip, plan a few activities that are free to offset costs of pricy tours and activities.
Check Out Package Deals
I’m going to be straightforward; our family doesn’t tend to do package deals. But in the interest of giving you the best information possible on how to score family travel on a budget, I feel remiss if I leave package deals out of our article.
Heres’ the deal, a package deal MIGHT be cheaper, and it also MIGHT NOT. In my experience, it’s not more affordable, but it is definitely more convenient. For family travelers, convenience isn’t something to ignore. Sometimes it’s nice to have everything taken care of in one go. We are independent travelers who prefer to have more control over our choice of lodging.
My advice is to cross-reference and check out the individual costs of the flight and hotel to see if you’re truly saving money.
We can’t recommend any package deals personally, but Costco Travels seems to be the one everyone touts as having the best vacation deals. Check it out and see if their prices (plus the convenience factor) are cheaper than individually buying airfare and lodging.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Package deals could potentially save you money, but you should always individually check the direct hotel and airfare price to see if it’s truly saving you money.
Travel With Friends or Family
Consider traveling with friends as a way to afford family travel. Splitting the cost of a three-bedroom VRBO can significantly reduce your costs.
For example, say you’re planning a long weekend in Boise and needed three nights at a hotel. Three nights in June in Boise at a mid-tier hotel for one room would cost you around $700 total. An upscale three-bedroom home for three nights in June in Boise would cost also you around $700. Except, now you’re splitting it in half, bringing your total to $350, and you have a kitchen, backyard, a separate room for your kids, and free parking. It’s a no-brainer to me!
Plus, traveling with friends and family means your child or children have other people to bounce their all-consuming energy onto.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Traveling with friends and family can cut your lodging costs in half. Find good travel companions and make some memories!
Think Outside Of The Box
Finally, trying to do family travel on a budget requires flexibility, planning, and creative thinking. It might require more work, but there’s something so satisfying about working hard to pull it all off. Or is that just me?
Decide what’s most important to you and let that be the North Star that guides your vacation planning. For us, it’s always about exploration, ease, and having fun together. None of those things require spending a lot of money.
To have your dream family vacation on a budget, you might need to road trip to your destination, camp for two days, and stay at a home rental for three days to make the trip work. You might need to make all of your meals at home and enjoy free activities like playing at the beach or hiking to a lookout point. It might mean scrapping your vision of frolicking on the beaches of Hawaii and instead exploring the pastel homes of St, Augustine, Florida.
I can practically guarantee you that your children value time spent with their family in a loving environment more than they need expensive trips to far-flung destinations.
Are you ready to plan some epic family travel on a budget? We hope our post on how to afford family travel helps you out.
If you have any other tips or tools for planning a family vacation on a budget, let us know in the comments below. We love to hear tips from fellow travelers.
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