With spring and summer breaks imminent, many families are already planning their vacations. A 2013 report by American Express puts the average cost of vacation for a family of four at $4,580.
But for most, that’s not an affordable family vacation. With many Americans in large amounts of debt, barely saving for retirement, and unable to cover a $400 emergency, spending $4,000 on a vacation is simply not an option.
That doesn’t mean you should give up on family vacations altogether.
Vacations are a great way for families to bond and spend time with one another. On top of bonding, it’s been noted that people who take time off from work are more productive and enjoy a greater sense of health and wellness overall.
There’s pretty compelling evidence that a family vacation is worth the money, but unless you can get around the hefty price tag, it might be a luxury families will have to forgo. If your family is looking for a budget-friendly trip that won’t require a vacation loan, you might want to consider some of these affordable family vacation options.
National and State Parks
National and state parks are perhaps some of the most under-recognized destinations in the country. Though a Caribbean vacation might seem more luxurious, a visit to a national or state park can compete on so many levels.
Each park varies on pricing, but day passes can start at $20 per person while campsite rentals can be as low as $15 per night.
When it comes to bang-for-buck, these picturesque park sites have so many options for activities that you’ll end up having to choose. Hiking, camping, rafting, and sightseeing are just a few of the low-cost, family-friendly things you’ll find to do.
The draw of national and state parks is in the wide variety and flexibility of the grounds. You will find parks with a variety of climates, landscapes, natural features, and accommodations. If you want something super-rustic, you’ll probably save more money sleeping outside in tents and cooking your own food over a campfire. If you prefer “glamping” or glamorous camping, there are parks with luxury-type cabins and lodges as well.
The key is finding a location that suits your family size, interest, and personality. A little research can help you find the perfect combination of affordability, proximity, and fun.
Stick Close to Home
No matter where you live, chances are you’re close to some place worth visiting by car, train, or bus. If you can’t spring for $350-per-person plane tickets, then driving four to five hours to a destination might be more palatable — and affordable.
What you save on airline tickets could be used toward experiences, meals, and nicer accommodations. Depending on where you live, you might find a nearby farm, amusement or water park, bed and breakfast, or beach that could be just as satisfying as that $4,000 vacation.
You could also stay hyper-local and explore your hometown or neighboring communities. Check with your city or county visitors’ bureau to learn more about local attractions and activities. There are also sites like TripAdvisor, Groupon, and Airbnb experiences that help local visitors find activities and tours according to interests. You’ll find specially curated experiences for small groups, large groups, or families, or arranged around activities like cycling, gastronomy, sightseeing, or crafting.
With the rise in these “microtour” offerings, your family may even be introduced to your very own neighborhood in a different way. More than likely, there are tons of things you haven’t yet explored right in your own backyard. You could stay at home for your local experience or in a nearby hotel for a true “getaway” feel.
Visit with Relatives
Haven’t seen Grandma and Grandpa in a while? Make it a vacation! Visiting with relatives like grandparents can mean intergenerational quality time plus savings on things like food, entertainment, and lodging. Even if your aunts and uncles live in the middle of nowhere, you can plan activities centered around family meals, outings, and games.
A family game night out in the country under the stars can be just as exciting as an all-inclusive cruise or resort stay. Movie night with cousins can be fun with snacks while catching up on old times. With a little creativity, you can make a visit with your kinfolk into an epic family vacation that won’t break the bank.
And the real perk? You can save hundreds if not thousands of dollars by crashing with family versus staying at pricey hotels.
Volunteer + Vacation
Family volunteer vacations are increasing in popularity as people want to engage in purpose-centered travel. Many families desire to give their children a sense of perspective via traveling so they can interact with people of different backgrounds, races, income levels, and types of upbringing. A volunteer vacation can be the perfect way to give back, enjoy family time, and save a little money at the same time.
The types of volunteer vacations will vary in focus, pricing, activities, and accommodations. Some programs will provide free or extremely low-cost lodging in exchange for service, but will not necessarily cover travel costs.
If your family is open to working with people or nature, there are some volunteer opportunities that might appeal to you. Farming, in particular, seems to have many opportunities for 1-2 week commitments, but there may be age restrictions for younger members of your family.
Working Weekends on Organic Farms (WWOOF) is a network of organic farming sites with over 160 worldwide locations and volunteering opportunities. You’ll have to choose a site and arrangement that would work for your family. You’ll explore listings to find hosts that can accommodate your lodging entirely or at a deep discount.
Websites like Workaway can easily connect you to host families abroad needing help for specific tasks and time periods. Each listing for housing and help will describe the volunteer commitment along with the types of accommodations available in exchange for that work.
Though prepackaged volunteer vacations and networking websites are a good place to start when researching options, don’t be afraid to arrange your own service outing. If you have the time to make phone calls and send emails, it might be worth the effort to create a unique experience designed to serve others that your entire family can take part in.
Go Where the U.S. Dollar Is Strongest
Lastly, you might consider traveling to places where the cost of living is relatively inexpensive. A favorable exchange rate plus a low cost-of-living index could help you vacation like royalty in some places.
The only caveat to this approach is that travel to some places can get very expensive. However, if you are strategic, you can use credit cards that offer travel reward points and miles or cash back to use toward travel to help offset some of the travel costs for your family.
Traveling to an affordable destination would be ideal if you plan to have a longer stay or take a deep dive into local food, activities, or amenities. If your family of four can vacation well on $50-$100 a day or less, it might be worth the plane ticket to get there.
For example, going to a country in South or Central America or the Caribbean could save you tons. Low exchange rates and low-priced accommodations could give you plenty of wiggle room to dine well and participate in varied experiences that would be more expensive elsewhere.
In Cuba, there are fairly nice accommodations that could start as little as $25 per night for an entire apartment rental. Though the convertible peso is pegged to the dollar, the national money is at a ratio of 25 to 1 USD. At this exchange rate, you can get upscale dining options for less than $5 per person.
There are many low-cost activities like walking tours or people watching in one of the many town squares in Old Havana. The museums are plentiful, educational, and interesting. It’s not uncommon to find live music in restaurants or at popular gathering places. Plus, nearby beaches are beautiful with many inexpensive options for dining and snacks.
Costa Rica is becoming a popular destination because it’s easy and affordable to reach from the U.S. One of the most biodiverse places on the planet, it has almost unlimited options for cheap, family-friendly excursions. The national parks are accessible by inexpensive bus rides and can be explored for little to nothing in terms of self-guided or guided tours. A search for lodging on a site like Expedia or Airbnb will produce many results for under $100 per night that can accommodate families of up to 4-5 people.
The whole point of the family vacation is to spend time together, bond, and create lasting memories. If you are flexible and creative, you’ll find that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to make that happen.