How to Take Family Vacations for Less

Vacations are a massive expense for families across the United States. The average household takes at least 1 big vacation a year and pays around $1,100 per person for the pleasure. 

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A third of those also take between 2 and 3 smaller vacations at a cost of $300 to $500 apiece. If you have a big family and a quest for adventure, you could be spending in excess of $8,000 a year.

That’s a lot of money for something that will only last a week or two and will create no lasting value. However, parents need vacations to stay sane, kids need them to explore and see the world, and they’re a great way for families to have some bonding time. 

So, don’t give up on those expensive vacations altogether and simply focus on the ways you can save money and bring those costs down.

Check Flights and Accommodation First

The majority of travelers focus on their desired destination before they look at the cost. They’ll decide, for instance, that they want to spend Spring Break sipping sangria and eating tapas in Barcelona, and only when they’ve fallen in love with the idea and decided upon the dates will they look at the flights and accommodation.

This is a very costly way to travel. You’re taking your business to the travel sites; you’re making a request and asking them to fulfill it. You might be confident about your ability to find the cheapest flights on your chosen dates and the cheapest prices for your chosen hotel, but it’s not the cheapest holiday you can take.

Instead, add some spontaneity to your trips. Stick a proverbial pin in the map and see where your budget takes you. In most cases, you can get a similar (or better) experience for much less. You’ll still see the world, you’ll still travel for miles, but at the end of the day, you’ll have a few extra grand in your pocket.

Let’s use the Barcelona trip as an example. This wasn’t chosen at random—it’s actually one of the top ten international destinations for US travelers and it’s also one of the most visited cities in the world.

If you had booked a vacation from March 7 to March 13, 2020, the cheapest flights would have cost you around $2,200 for a family of 4 (an average price taken from the country’s 5 biggest airports). A large family room in a central 3-star hotel would add just under $1,000 to the total, while food, attractions, and transport would add between $100 and $200 a day. Assuming an average of $900 for the week, that’s a total vacation cost of $4,100.

On the same dates, you could fly to Madrid for between $400 and $600 less. Everything else would cost roughly the same and you’d still enjoy metropolitan Spain, but you’d have more money to spend on attractions.

Instead of visiting Rome, the number 1 destination for US travelers, take a trip to Berlin. The flights are similar, but Berlin is considered one of the cheapest capital cities in Europe. The food, accommodation, and attractions are considerably cheaper than cities like Rome, Paris, and London, but there are still many great sites to see. If you’re happy to give Europe a miss, a vacation in Cuba, Mexico or the Caribbean would save you on flights as well as food, attractions, and accommodation.

And these are just a few examples taken from data extracted several months prior to the aforementioned dates. If you actually book before these dates and make value your priority, you’ll find some rock-bottom prices on last-minute flights and accommodation. 

Stay in the United States

29% of Americans have never left the country—a staggering statistic when you compare it to other countries. Visiting another country, preferably on another continent, is something that every American should do at least once. However, it’s not something you need to do every year just to have an enjoyable vacation.

The US is vast and diverse. There are many destinations to explore, many experiences to have. Stop focusing so much on seeing other countries and start focusing on seeing your own. The average American has visited just 12 of the 50 states, and most of those 12 are in the vicinity around their home state.

This country is home to some of the most visited cities in the world, cities that Europeans and Asians travel thousands of miles to see, and for you, they’re only a long drive or a short flight away. Here are just a few of the great family-friendly vacation hotspots in the United States:

  • Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: Lots of budget accommodation, some great attractions, and a nightlife that will keep the parents happy as well.
  • Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin: The “Water Park Capital of the World” is home to some of the best rides and is a great way for the family to enjoy a relaxing, cooling holiday during the summer.
  • Poconos, Pennsylvania: Although there are some premium options here, including Camelback Lodge, there are also multiple budget choices. If you’re looking to take your family back to nature and enjoy some Fall scenery, you can’t do much better. 
  • Las Vegas, Nevada: Although it’s often considered to be the home of hedonism, Vegas has a little something for everyone. You don’t need to spend your money gambling when you can watch shows, visit the chocolate factory or the aquarium, explore the many copycat landmarks or head for the Adventuredome.
  • Orlando, Florida: The ultimate destination for families seeking a magical holiday in the Sunshine State. It’s home to some of the country’s best attractions, including Disney World, and while it can be expensive, there are some budget options available if you don’t stay within the resort.

Look for Exchange Rates

Always look at the exchange rate and the cost of living before you fly abroad. Many Americans assume that their dollars will always stretch far no matter where they go, but while this might be true for Mexico and most of South America, it’s a different story once you hit Europe.

By focusing on favorable exchange rates at the time you travel, you can save tens and even hundreds of dollars on your vacation. For instance, if times are tough in the UK and the dollar goes much further than it has done it years, it’s time to consider taking a flight there. 

Watch for Scams and Barter

While basing your holiday on favorable exchange rates can help, it’s worth noting that you may be charged a lot more simply because you’re a tourist in a tourist area.

For instance, you can live like a king in India on a very basic wage, but if you visit tourist-heavy regions, you’ll pay more for food and accommodation. What’s more, the vendors will see you coming from a mile away and significantly increase their prices. 

If you think you’re being scammed, put your foot down, refuse to pay, and ask for assistance. In most cases, you’ll find that the locals are happy to help as they don’t want tourists to have a negative opinion of them and their country. If you’re charged a high price for an item, negotiate. In many Asian countries, this is common practice and the vendor will often start at a greatly inflated price on the expectation that you will offer much less.

Use Incognito Mode

Airlines have been known to charge more for specific flights and accommodation when users are searching for them. They use cookies to detect your activity and determine when you’re preparing to book a specific vacation, only to increase the prices during those dates. By using incognito mood when you compare flights and accommodation, they won’t have that information on you.

By the same token, you can use a VPN to search for cheaper flights. The prices are often lower for individuals from low-income countries. This sounds like a myth, but it’s something we have tested ourselves, with savings of up to 10% when comparing shoppers from India and the United States, even though no other details about the flight changes.

You can often save just as much if you switch your destination country to the same one that your chosen airline is based in.

Budget Very Carefully

Every traveler has been guilty of spending more because “I’m on vacation”. It’s an excuse we all tell ourselves when we pay over-the-odds for food, accommodation and mementos, even though there are cheaper options available and those mementos will be gathering dust in a cupboard before the month is out.

It’s not an attitude you would adopt at home, so it shouldn’t be one that you have on vacation, either. Before you depart for your trip, plan a careful and considerate budget based on a detailed itinerary. 

Don’t be one of those parents who insists on seeing everything, doing everything, and refusing to take a break, but make sure you know your options, understand how much they cost, and are confident you can afford them.

And, most importantly, stay away from tacky, overpriced gifts. Whether you’re buying them for yourself or for someone you know, these items never get used and are always a waste of money.

Pay Cash

Struggling to budget? It’s time to forget about the cards and start using cash instead. It’s easy to spend using a credit card and that’s why so many Americans get into so much debt. But when you have to hand over physical cash, it’s difficult and you’re more inclined to tighten your belt and make more sensible purchases.

If you’re worried about taking a lot of cash with you, simply set a daily budget and withdraw that money every day or every other day. Whatever you do, don’t start spending money you don’t have on credit cards you can’t afford.  

Most Importantly…Relax

If you ask the average family why they take vacations, they’ll tell you that they just want to relax, spend some time away from the daily grind and do something different. Yet, they are often more active on their vacation than they are at home, racing from attraction to attraction in a desperate attempt to see everything before their time is up.

This is a chaotic and expensive way to holiday. Instead, take your time, enjoy yourself, and don’t pressure your family into doing everything just because you may never return to that destination. There’s so much of the world to see—if you try to experience it all in short, two-week bursts, you’ll just end up broke, exhausted, and frustrated every year.