10 Ways to Save on Your Dream Family Vacation

The experts from TravelingMom.com answer all your burning budget-vacation questions so you can plan the trip of a lifetime—without breaking the bank. Get ready to steal their top 10 sneaky, money-saving strategies! 
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1. What are some creative ways to save for a vacation—and how can I get the kids involved?

Make saving more tangible for kids by letting them actually see the pile of cash grow. Ohio TravelingMom Tonya Prater suggests creating a “travel wish jar.” Have the kids cut out pictures of places they want to visit and paste them onto a jar. Then talk about how everyone can help fill it up. Perhaps Mom and Dad agree to take their lunch to work, and the kids agree to wait for that hot new flick to come out on video instead of buying expensive theater tickets and snacks. 

2. What is your top budget tip for a family trip to Disney World? 

Besides bringing along your own snacks and water, don’t buy souvenirs in the parks! Instead, make your own Disney magic by finding mementos and princess dresses for less. One shoo-in for deals: Disney’s Character Warehouse at the Orlando International Premium Outlets mall. It sells the stuff for lower prices than you would pay at Disney resorts and parks. Or look online before you go. Check sites such as Craigslist and eBay to see whether anyone is selling a gently used princess dress or tradeable Disney pins. Sneak the treasures into your suitcase before you head to Orlando. Then, when the kids are out of the room, put the treats on their beds as a surprise. 

3. What are some costs that people forget to plan—and that can really bust a budget? 

Extra fees are the name of the game in travel these days. We’ve all heard about the outrageous costs for carry-on bags and resort fees at hotels. But some of the most avoidable vacation costs are ones that fly under the radar. A biggie to pay attention to: costs that involve your car. Parking, tolls, gas, and rental-car insurance can quickly get expensive. Research other options, such as public transit, cabs, and Uber for getting around. If your hotel charges steep parking fees ($60 or more per day in some urban locations), check apps such as SpotHero for nearby parking at a fraction of the cost. Also consider your hotel location: It might be worth it to book more expensive lodging closer to activities if it means less money (and time!) lost in transit. 

4. Do all-inclusive spots tend to be good deals for families? 

The best thing about all-inclusives is never having to pull out your credit card during the trip. You know before you leave how much the vacation will cost, because the room, food, entertainment, and drinks are already paid for. The key is to read the fine print so you know exactly what you’re buying. If the all-inclusive includes alcohol but you don’t drink, it might not be the best deal for you. If you want to scuba dive, make sure that’s not an extra charge. If you are traveling with ravenous tweens, the unlimited food option can make all-inclusives a really great deal.

But to know for sure whether an all-inclusive is the best way to go, you have to do some math, says Dia Adams, Travel Hack TravelingMom. Make a list of everything that’s covered in the all-inclusive package (meals, drinks, activities, etc.). Then price out a comparable hotel room or vacation rental in that area. Subtract the cost of that hotel room from the cost of the all-inclusive. That’s how much money you would have to spend on food, drinks, and activities for an equivalent experience. If you would spend more buying your vacation à la carte, the all-inclusive might be the right fit for you. 

5. How do you make the most of hotel and airline points?

Unless you truly are a frequent traveler who rides only one airline or books with one hotel chain, the best way to rack up points is on a credit card that allows you to “spend” points on a variety of airlines, hotels, and rental-car companies. Then use that card for every purchase, from groceries to morning coffee to your cable bill. (Just remember: This is only a good deal if you pay off the balance in full every month so you aren’t racking up interest faster than you rack up miles.) Once you have the points, spend them wisely. Sign up for the company’s e-mails so you will know when a destination goes on sale, and be ready to jump on the deal. 

6. How can my large family travel without spending a fortune?

The four major expenses for a family trip are transportation, lodging, food, and activities. And you’ll want to try to save on each one, because they add up fast when you’re talking about a big group. For getting to your destination, head to places within driving distance or that you can score an airline deal on. “When an airline offers discounted tickets to a certain city—any city—that’s where we go,” says mom of five Heidi Gollub, Big Family TravelingMom. “Last year, we took trips to Chicago, Las Vegas, Denver, and Atlanta, just because tickets went on sale for $15 to $35!” (Gollub signs up for airline e-mail newsletters so she knows when fares go on sale. Then she pounces.)

Once you know where you’re going, the best way to save on housing and food is to rent a house or condo with a kitchen. You get way more space for your money compared with hotels, and you don’t have to eat out for every meal. Finally, save on activities by looking for free things to do wherever you are. (Many world-class museums, for instance, have certain hours each week when admission is free.) 

7. What are some things that just aren't worth cheaping out on?

Don’t always choose the lowest-cost hotel—at least not without some serious investigation to make sure the rooms are nice and the neighborhood is safe. Spending your nights worrying about your security, wondering whether the room is infested with bedbugs, or hoping the spring-breakers down the hall will stop partying can ruin your vacation. Even if you’re on a tight budget, look at nicer hotels before you book. They often run specials (buy two nights, get one free). Sign up for the company’s e-mail alerts so you won’t miss the chance to jump on a great deal. A clean room with a good bed in a safe neighborhood is always worth a few extra bucks.

8. Sometimes it's unavoidable to travel during peak times and holidays. Is there any way to save money even then? 

Flexibility is the key to getting travel deals. Even within the confines of the school calendar, there are ways to be flexible. For example, look at flights a day before or after your preferred travel dates. Flying home on Saturday night rather than Sunday afternoon could be much cheaper. (As an added bonus, you’ll still have most of the day at your destination, but you can save the cost of the Saturdaynight hotel stay.) Be flexible about carriers too. Some of the smaller airlines offer prices that the big boys don’t, but be sure to check the details so all of your savings aren’t eaten up by baggage charges and other extra fees. You can also reduce costs (and get a cool, one-of-a-kind experience) by choosing destinations that are less tourist-focused. For example, a week in a midsize city with great museums and lots of free things to do can be much more affordable (and just as fun!) as a winter beach vacation in the islands. 

9. What should you keep in mind when booking through travel-deal sites?

These sites are great. They buy up unsold seats on planes, rooms in hotels, and vacation packages at resorts, and then they resell those at a discount. They provide amazing deals— unless there’s a problem with the booking. If, for example, you get to the hotel and the front-desk clerk can’t find your reservation even though you have a confirmation number from the site, you could be stuck. The airline, hotel, or car-rental company might not be able—or willing—to do anything to fix it.

The best way to use a discount site is to scour it for research. Once you find the best price there, go directly to the airline, hotel, or resort company, and ask them to meet that price. Chances are, they will. Then if there’s a problem or you need to make a change in your reservation—cancel your stay, change your dates, ask for an upgrade—you will be working directly with the company. If you can’t convince the company to meet the price, go ahead and book through the third party, but only after carefully reading all the fine print for hidden fees and cancellation policies.

10. How can we save on special family activities such as ziplining and snorkeling?

First, and this is very important, make sure you do the thing that you really, really want to do, even if you have to pay full price. That advice comes from my in-laws. They had always wanted to see the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and ride in a hot-air balloon. They finally got to the festival, but they didn’t take the balloon ride! It seemed too expensive. To this day, my father-in-law will tell you: He doesn’t remember how much he saved by not taking that balloon ride, but he does remember the regret that he didn’t do it.

Still, there is no reason to pay full price if you don’t have to. Look for discounts on Groupon, Travelzoo, or Goldstar. Call the local tourism board or Chamber of Commerce to ask about coupons and deals. If you can’t find a discount, do it anyway. A year from now, you won’t remember how much you paid, but you will remember the joy you got from doing that thing you always wanted to do.

TravelingMom.com is an online family-travel magazine with more than 60 contributing writers from around the world. Cindy Richards, who wrote this story, is the site’s editor-in-chief.

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