I often get asked how our family is able to travel when we're on such a tight budget. I don't go around posting my bank account balances online or anything, but spending so much time as a single mom and now being married to a retired military vet people know we aren't exactly rolling in the dough!
Here are a few budget-friendly travel tips I always use...
1- Be Realistic: As much as I dream of cross-country road trips and elaborate beach vacations they just aren't in my budget at this point. When I'm deciding on a travel destination I examine our financial situation at that time. I research prospective spots to get a general idea of hotel, gas and entertainment costs to figure out if something is doable or not... from there I choose a vacation spot that is financially realistic for our family.
2- Plan ahead: I typically start planning my vacations a year in advance, Planning early is crucial for traveling on a tight budget. It gives me a good solid savings goal to shoot for all year and it allows me to keep my eyes out for good deals. I repeatedly check groupon for the area we'll be traveling to so that I can find deals on hotels, food and things to do. We went to Las Vegas over Christmas and were able to attend a show for $30 a ticket. The regular price was $75 each ticket, which was not in my budget, but at $30 it was a splurge I was willing to take since it was a special occasion. I once stayed in a bed and breakfast for only $50 a night using a deal I found on a deal site and I've taken my family to a nice hotel with a full kitchen for spring break for only $30 a night as well. The deals are there if you watch for them early! Be sure to read the fine print for blackout dates to make sure you'll be able to use your deal on your travel dates.
3- Break down your financial goal: I use a divided coupon-size accordion file for my vacation savings. I have it labeled: gas, hotel, food, car trip, tickets and extras. I figure out how much money I'll need for each of these areas of our vacation. I do so much better shooting for smaller goals and it gives me great satisfaction to know that I now have enough for gas, then hotel, etc. Saving $1,000 is overwhelming, but saving a couple hundred at a time is doable for me. It's a total mind trick, but it works for me! Don't forget that if you're taking unpaid time off of work then you need to save the money to make up that difference as well. You don't want to come back from vacation and instantly have to stress about not having enough money to pay your bills.
4- Find ways to bring in extra cash and figure out what you're willing to sacrifice: If you're like me then the extra money doesn't magically appear just because you want to take a vacation. I look for ways to bring in extra cash like selling vintage or household items on facebook, babysitting or crafting to sell. When I took my kids to Disneyland a couple of years ago I put half of the money I made from each vintage market I sold at into my vacation fund. Eating out less and cutting down on "extras" at the grocery store can give you some extra money to stash as well. I used to have a yard sale every summer and all the money I earned went into my vacation fund. If I get a tax refund I always put part of it towards my vacation goal. Every year I ask my kids if they'd rather have gifts for Christmas or take a vacation. Year after year they choose vacation. They still get small items in their stockings, but all the other money I would be spending on Christmas goes towards our trip.
5- Research: I always spend a lot of time researching free and cheap things to do in the area we'll be vacationing. I check out the menus of all the restaurants I'm thinking about so I know how much a meal would cost there. It's good to know hours of operation, costs and everything else about the places you'll be visiting. I don't like surprises while traveling because surprises always cost extra money!
6- Choose the right hotel: When we travel as a family I only choose hotels with free parking, free wifi, free breakfast and a fridge and microwave in the room. A pool is a big plus, but it's not a deal breaker if the hotel doesn't have one. Sometimes a hotel with all my non-negotiables is a little more money than another hotel without, but it always saves me money in the long run. I can usually find a hotel with everything I want for $40-65 a night.
7- Cook in you room: Finding a hotel with free breakfast means we only have to come up with two meals a day while on vacation which saves a lot of money. We typically only eat in a restaurant once during the whole time we're on vacation so I make sure it's a nice-ish restaurant (within my budget). I always have it planned ahead of time. The rest of our meals are eaten in our hotel room. I rarely cook in the microwave at home, but I'm pretty dang good at it when we travel. I plan my menu ahead of time and be sure to pack a couple of microwave safe bowls, a square glass baking pan, a wooden spoon, can opener, etc. I typically pack what I can out of our fridge and food pantry at home and then hit a grocery store once we've arrived at our destination... and yes, I do find out where a grocery store is ahead of time. I love .99 Only stores when I'm traveling. We don't have them back home, but I've had good luck finding groceries there both in Nevada and California. They're cheap and the packages are small which is great for a motel room so we don't waste food.
You can also cook meals ahead of time and haul them in a cooler on vacation... then all you have to do is reheat them. This saves even more money and time, but it takes more planning and work at home.
8- Involve your family in your planning: If everyone is excited about the vacation and aware of the budget and the plans there aren't any false hopes and expectations. My kids know how many meals we'll be eating out, if we'll be stopping for food on the road or packing a lunch, etc. They also know what kind of splurges we'll be making. When we went to Disneyland I budgeted in one Disney meal a day as a special treat. They were super excited about that because we don't usually eat in theme parks. On our last Vegas trip the show tickets were a splurge. Sometimes there aren't any splurges because money is super tight and they know that too.
I've always had my kids save their own money for souvenirs. If they're spending their own money on vacation then they're a lot pickier about what they buy. I have a goal to take my teens on a cruise in a little over a year. I told them that I want them to save the money to cover their own passports and I told my daughter who will be graduating cosmetology school this year that she's going to probably have to cover her cruise as well since she will be working full time and not living at home anymore. The older the kids, the more they can contribute financially to their vacation. It's a great responsibility teacher.
9- Drive: My kids have never been on a plane. Even "cheap" airfare adds up when you have multiple people in your family. When gas was at its highest it was still cheaper for us to drive... believe me I always checked! Driving also allows us to pack food for the drive and the motel which saves even more money.
The last two tips aren't really tips, but vacation alternatives. Some years I just haven't been able to swing a "real" vacation, either because of finances or just because hauling young kids across a couple states was a pain I didn't want to deal with. (When my kids were young all three of them got car sick if they were in a car more than 20 minutes!)
10- Camping: I know not everyone loves camping, but we love spending a few days in the mountains, at a hot spring or by a lake. We take at least one camping trip every summer and sometimes we take several during the course of a summer. It's inexpensive and fun! If you're looking for a cheap getaway for your family don't rule out camping. If you don't have a tent or camper then you can find a campground with cheap cabins. They usually run about the same price as a hotel room, but you save a lot of money because you're cooking instead of eating out and not spending money on entertainment.
11- Staycation: When my kids were really young we took a staycation every summer. We'd head to Salt Lake City which was about 30 minutes from us, stay in a hotel with a pool, eat in restaurants and visit local museums, zoos and other attractions. A couple of the years we didn't even stay in a hotel. We just got up each morning and played tourist all day long for 3-4 days in a row. We spent very little money, got to sleep in our own beds at night and the kids still felt like we were on vacation because we did all kinds of fun things we didn't usually do. The kids loved it and I loved not traveling with little kids! This works with older kids too! There are a lot of things they want to do around town that are out of my price range, but taking a staycation allows us to do them since we save on gas and hotel!
I hope I've given you a few ideas and the courage to travel! It makes me sad when I have friends that want to take their kids on vacation but don't feel like they can afford it. For me it's a priority, so I make it happen! When my kids grow up and move out they're going to remember the vacations we took together as a family and not if I had a new kitchen floor or a nice furniture. I'm all about the memories! Happy memories is one of the best things I can send my kids out into the world with!