7 ways to save on your next family vacation
Traveling with a family comes with some unavoidable expenses. Whether you're paying for airfare, food or activities, there are more people to cover, driving up the cost no matter where you go, when you travel or what you do.
As my kids have gotten older — and are now too old to be lap infants on airplanes — I’ve had to become a lot more strategic about how I plan and book travel. From ways to save on meals to how to rein in costs when flying, I have several suggestions to help you keep money in your pocket every step of the way.
Here are my top tips for saving money on family vacations.
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Create a vacation fund in your savings account
I pay for as much of my trip as possible with points and miles, but it’s inevitable that there will be something else (like souvenirs and tips) that I’ll need to spend money on. When these situations arise, I turn to automatic bank account transfers.
By having an ongoing vacation fund in my savings account that I automatically transfer money from my checking account into every week, I ensure I have plenty of money at the ready whenever I'm traveling. I simply set it and forget it, so to speak, and watch money incrementally accrue in my vacation fund.
Then, when the time comes to pay credit card bills, I use money from my vacation fund to cover purchases made while traveling. This helps me feel like I’m keeping my fun money separate from my day-to-day money and saves me from having to drastically alter my normal spending habits at home to prepare for a trip.
Related: 8 strategies for getting more value on your next vacation
Choose a hotel with free breakfast or other complimentary meals
A hotel with complimentary breakfast is so much more than a hotel with free breakfast. That’s because you can also take time at the breakfast spread to grab a few yogurts, granola bars and pieces of fruit to pack for snacking on throughout the day.
Additionally, hotels that offer free breakfast, like Marriott’s SpringHill Suites, tend to offer larger guest rooms to accommodate more people, all for lower nightly rates than their luxury counterparts. You may find that on-site amenities (think: spas and full-service restaurants) are more limited, but if the goal is to save money, you may not be too worried about this trade-off anyway.
While not all hotels extend the offer of free breakfast to everyone in your room, know that they may provide complimentary meals for kids. For example, kids 11 and younger eat free at all Holiday Inn hotels. Several properties, including Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo, also offer complimentary meals for children younger than 5.
All-inclusive resorts that cover food and drinks in room rates are growing in popularity, too, so be sure to also consider these types of properties when researching lodging, especially in places where they're prevalent, such as the Caribbean and Mexico.
Related: 11 all-inclusive beach resorts families can book with points
Book a vacation home and cook
One of my favorite ways to explore a new destination is to rent an apartment or house in a neighborhood rather than a busy downtown area. By doing this, I’m able to get a ton of space for my family to run around in, plus multiple bedrooms and a kitchen.
While renting a vacation home can sometimes be as expensive as staying in a hotel, you can help offset the cost by cooking your own meals. My family regularly does this instead of eating out, which has helped us always come out ahead.
Before confirming a stay, I reach out to the host to ask how close the nearest market or grocery store is. Once we arrive, one of the first things we do is go grocery shopping for a few staples — such as sandwich-making essentials and breakfast items — to stock our refrigerator with.
We treat ourselves to a few meals out here and there, but, for the most part, we stick to eating at our rental home. Because we trim our vacation food costs, we're able to put the money we save toward other things like museum tickets. Our philosophy when it comes to food on family trips is to spend no more on groceries or eating out than we would at home for the same number of days.
Related: When a vacation rental makes more sense than a hotel
Skip checking a bag — or choose your flights carefully when you need to
I’m team carry-on for as long as I can be, especially when traveling as a family. Checking a bag as a family can mean spending $100 or more each way — or at least $30 per person — when flying, depending on how big your clan is. That’s an unnecessary expense I try to avoid paying as much as possible.
To bypass the need to check bags, I use packing cubes for each member of my family. This helps us keep our clothes compact and organized no matter where we go and how long we're away from home.
Before any trip, I make sure we have everything we need by doing the following:
- I pack one person at a time to avoid mixing up items or forgetting something.
- I focus on packing outfits, not individual items, and roll each outfit together as tightly as possible so no items are missing from an outfit when we grab it to wear.
- I exclude any items that will not fit in a packing cube to avoid taking up too much valuable space in a suitcase.
- I place toiletries in packing cubes next to shoes, and these items go in the side of the suitcase that zips up so I don't lose track of our bathroom essentials.
- I strategically store travel necessities, such as electronics, snacks, toys and extra clothes, in backpacks so they're easy to grab throughout the journey to and from our chosen destination.
For longer trips, I try to lean on laundry services instead of packing additional clothes. Although there will be an additional cost when you do this, it'll likely be cheaper than checking bags. It will certainly save you in the long run if your bags get lost and you need to purchase replacements.
If you do find yourself needing to check one or more bags, know that there are a few ways around paying baggage fees. Consider flying Southwest Airlines, a carrier that allows each passenger to check up to two bags for free. Or, fly in a premium cabin of a carrier like Virgin Atlantic that includes at least one checked bag per person in the cost of tickets.
Another way to get a free checked bag is to pay for flights with certain cobranded airline credit cards. I regularly use my Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® (see rates and fees), which offers a free checked bag as one of its perks, since I'm accruing American Airlines AAdvantage miles that I hope to cash in for Qatar Qsuites seats next year, but you'll find that many airline cards come with this benefit.
Related: These 27 credit cards can get you free checked bags
Rent a compact car
Even though I enjoy the space and convenience of the small SUV I drive at home, when I’m traveling, I opt for a compact car to save as much as I can. Compact cars are usually the cheapest to rent, plus they often have better gas mileage, which will help you save money on gas in the long run.
For example, during a five-day trip to Kauai, Hawaii in February, we rented a compact car for about $80 per day. Had we chosen an SUV — in particular, the ever-popular Jeep — we would have spent anywhere from $100 to close to $160 per day. While that difference in price may seem nominal to some, it can quickly add up on a multiday trip.
To cut car rental costs even more, consider bringing your own car seats from home. In my experience, renting car seats can increase the cost of a car rental by upwards of $30 per seat, per day, so I try to rely on my own car seats as much as possible.
This was the case during a recent trip with my two kids who are still in car seats. Because I brought car seats from home instead of paying to borrow two car seats from the rental car company, I ended up saving roughly $300. Those savings helped me cover other vacation expenses like food and activities.
Related: Feeling the pain of record-high gas prices? Here's how to save money and earn rewards on gas purchases
Be flexible with your destination
Thanks to school schedules and other obligations, families don’t usually get to choose when they go on vacation. As a result, we sometimes find ourselves stuck with exorbitant prices when we are able to travel.
But all is not lost for family vacations during school holidays. You can still save a lot of money if you're willing to be flexible when it comes to picking a destination.
Subscription services like Scott’s Cheap Flights and The Flight Deal send flight price alerts months in advance. If you know when you can travel, you can keep an eye out for flights within your price range.
Alternatively, you can use Google Flights to explore destinations from your home airport by changing the search parameters to your preferred dates and leaving the destination empty. Google Flights will return flight options that fit your budget.
Don't forget to check TPG's travel deals, too. We regularly publish a number of noteworthy deals we find.
Related: Spare yourself the hassle and stress with these 8 perfect family staycation destinations
Use points or miles to cover some expenses
While I utilize all of the aforementioned tips to save money when planning a vacation, I admit that I cut down on my out-of-pocket expenses significantly by cashing in points and miles. Know, though, that paying for four of anything is going to cost you quite a bit more than paying for one.
Sometimes, I don’t have all the points I need to cover an entire expense like airfare for four people. When this happens, I book two tickets with miles and use cash for the other two.
I often do the same thing with hotel stays, too. I'll pay for what I can with points and use cash to cover any remaining nights.
If points and miles are not an option, turn to a credit card in your wallet. One of my favorite credit cards, the Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card, makes it easy for me to erase all or some of my travel-related expenses so I can save cash on items I can't always pay for with points, such as train tickets.
Related: The best travel credit cards
In order to afford to travel as a family of four, I make the most of every component of our trip.
To start, I set up weekly savings account transfers so I always have money tucked away for future trips. I also carefully shave off costs here and there by taking advantage of free meals at hotels, bringing my own car seats when renting a car and relying on carry-on bags as much as possible when flying, among other strategies. I regularly turn to points and miles, too, even if I don't have enough saved to fully cover a flight or stay.
While it's sometimes impossible to abide by all of these tips when you travel, if you're able to follow at least one, you're bound to save money the next time you and your family go on vacation.