How to Save on Your Next Family Vacation

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.

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5 Travel Costs Frugal People Don’t Pay


Most people shy away from the idea of traveling because they think it’ll be expensive.

In reality, traveling doesn’t have to be. If you make it a priority, if you are smart with where and how you spend your money, even the most extravagant-looking trip is within the realm of possibility. It can be even cheaper if you know what upsells and traps to avoid.

Here are five travel expenses frugal people don’t pay so you can make your next vacation more affordable.

1. Luggage Fees

Frugal people are typically practical people and as such, they tend to pack accordingly. Bring only what you need and no more.

This helps you avoid any extra luggage fees, whether it’s spending extra to bring two cases instead of one, or over-packing one to the point of paying extra for each pound over the limit.

Be sure to check the restrictions beforehand so you’re not hit with any surprises. Some airlines are very strict about carry-on dimensions!

Also, when you price flights, remember the luggage rules because one bag fee can turn the cheapest flight into the most expensive one.

2. Convenience Food

We all need to eat! One of the biggest expenses on any trip is food. You can save a lot by living like a local and going to the grocery store instead of restaurants every meal.

Get lodging that has a full kitchen, or at least a microwave or toaster oven, and a fridge. This can save you a ton if you’re staying at a place for a week or more. Bonus points if you’re staying with a group of people and can split the grocery bill and cooking duties.

If a kitchen isn’t possible, look for lodging that offers complimentary breakfast, or at least a cocktail hour.

Additionally, whether you’re traveling by air or by car, packing snacks is always a good idea. Airlines charge a pretty penny for food outside of what’s complimentary on the plane and buying food at the airport comes at a high premium.

3. Full-Price Airline Tickets & Hotel Stays

The ultimate way to be frugal with travel is by not paying for airline tickets or hotel stays. Seasoned “travel hackers” take advantage of travel credit cards and their big sign-up bonuses to travel the world for free. These points and miles translate into free flights and hotel stays. (You can check out our recent ranking of the best travel credit cards in America here.)

This technique isn’t for those currently in debt, or those who can’t trust themselves to stay within their budget when using a credit card. Purchasing things on credit and then letting interest accrue will negate any rewards. (You should also check your credit before applying since good credit scores will net you better terms and conditions. You can do so by viewing your credit scores for free each month on

If you’re responsible with credit, look into the various rewards programs out there, especially with your favorite airline or hotel chain. You can potentially save hundreds of dollars on the two biggest expenses associated with travel by signing up. Many loyalty cards and programs come with additional perks like free luggage and priority boarding, too.

Taking advantage of these types of rewards can offer big savings on any vacation. It could even get you to Disney World for free if you coordinate it properly.

4. Small Incidentals

How many times have you gone on vacation, only to realize you forgot a phone charger, toothpaste, razor or even worse, clothing or shoes?

What if the hotel is out of toiletries? Then you’re running to the nearest store to find what you forgot. That’s an extra expense you didn’t account for, plus possibly having to pay for transportation.

The best solution to this is to create a checklist of everything you need to take with you on trips. Review the list as you’re packing and you won’t forget anything.

If you do, ask if the hotel provides any complimentary items for forgetful travelers. I’ve often forgotten a razor and most hotels will provide one free of charge. It’ll be a single blade disposable razor, but it’s better than nothing.

5. Upsells & Upgrades

Unless rewards points can cover an upgrade, most frugal travelers opt for the cheapest seats. They avoid all the upsells as they’re booking their flight and select only what they need.

Beware of airlines that sell cheaper tickets but make up for it with fees on everything from bags to peanuts. You could end up tacking another $50 to $75 worth of charges on top of your ticket price.

The Rule of Thumb for Traveling Frugally

Being frugal involves practicality and focusing on the big picture. What’s the purpose of your travel? Is what you’re considering buying adding to the overall value of your trip? Is it a make it or break it situation?

If the answer is no, consider skipping it. The best thing you can do to ensure your travels are frugal is to prepare beforehand. You’re already halfway there!

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