If you're a frugally minded mama like myself, and you and your family have thought of vacationing beyond the local campground, you may be wondering how to go about planning an affordable yet still fantastic family vacation.
Here are a few things that I have learned in my experience of planning both domestic and international trips:
1) Research, research, research!
This cannot be stressed enough! Do not settle on any tickets or reservations until you've researched at least 4 or 5 options.
Initial research should give you an idea of general flight, hotel, and car prices, as well as the attractions that you are interested in and a skeleton itinerary. Start by using online travel services such as Travelocity, Expedia, Hotwire and Priceline to begin to gauge prices. Use travel sites such as Lonely Planet or Fodor's to start to get some ideas about the place you will be traveling to, as well as simply googling things like "travel arizona children" or "attractions grand canyon".
From here, put together an estimate of what the cost of your trip will be. If it's coming up too high, consider what areas you can skimp in. For us, we don't care about fancy accommodations. We would prefer to have more money to allow us the freedom to eat without stress, and do all of the activities that interest us. You may feel differently. What are the priorities for your family?
Once you've worked through these steps, you can get down to business and really dig in to find the absolute best deal on each part of your trip.
2) Booking together isn't always cheaper
Through the travel companies would love to be your one-stop shop by having you book your flight, hotel and car all in a neat and tidy package, you will most likely be missing out on some deals by going that route. If you do some careful comparisons of these "deals" (compared to finding each component of the trip individually), you will see that they really aren't the deals they're cracked up to be.
3) Bidding for a deal
It's now become one of the more popular ways to try to find rock bottom deals for traveling. Sites like Priceline and Sky Auction encourage you to either bid against other would-be travelers or to "name your own price". These sites have the potential to be very valuable to you if:
- You've already done the research and know exactly what a good deal would look like
- You've determined your bottom line. For example, when using Priceline you don't get to choose your flight time, specific hotel, etc. You set your price, win it, and then find out what you've already bought. It's important to consider these unknown factors, compared to the available deals that you already know are out there, and then you will have the ability to pick and choose whether bidding is worthwhile. If an extra $10 a night is worth it to you in order to know exactly which hotel you will be staying in, set your Priceline limit at $10 below what you'd like to be paying, and resolve to walk away if that bid isn't accepted.
- You are very aware of the fees and taxes that will be added on. Always, always check and know exactly what your total costs will be before making any decisions.
Tips for flights
- Children under 2 fly free, on a parent's lap, so plan your dates accordingly if you have little ones nearing their birthday
- If you can, keep your dates flexible. Often it is cheaper to fly on a Saturday, while the Friday may cost $15 more a ticket. It doesn't sound like much, but it can add up fast if you're buying children's flights as well. Some travel sites have search options designed to let you search using flexible dates. A great option to use is Expedia (be sure to check the box that says "my dates are flexible"). I just did a sample search on flights from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale in August, and came up with a price range of $191 to $309, within an 11 day span- that's a big difference!
- Look at smaller, independent airlines as well (which are usually not included on the major travel site searches). A few examples are:
- When you find a great deal, snag it! Good deals don't last for long, and if you wait, you may just miss out (I know this from experience!)
Tips for Accommodations
- First, consider the many varied options out there: Hotels, motels, camping, yurts, hostels, house swaps, B&Bs, etc. There is so much beyond the traditional hotel, and many of the other options are much cheaper, and can even be more enjoyable! Personally, we will be staying in a private room at a hostel in Flagstaff for our upcoming Grand Canyon trip, where we will have kitchen privileges, hot breakfast included, laundry machines and more, for a mere $45 a night!
- Do consider bidding for hotels on sites like Priceline. I just scored two nights at the Crowne Plaza in Phoenix for $50 a night! Just remember- do your research first!
- Change it up! When we went to Europe 2 years ago, I found that different types of accommodations were cheaper in different cities. In Rome, we stayed in a very small but lovely private hotel. In Florence, we opted for a camping hostel, where the tents are permanently set up on raised concrete, and include cots and basic bedding. In Edinburgh, we stayed in a quaint Bed & Breakfast, where we had a gorgeous, clean and very large room, delicious hot breakfast (could have done without the blood pudding, though!), for the same price as a private hostel room, and half the price of the cheapest hotels. While living in Japan, we went even cheaper than a hostel and chose to take the train out to the country each night to camp (we carried our tent on the bus we took up to Kyoto).
Tips for Rental Cars
- Go with the smallest car that suits your needs. You'll save on rental costs, as well as gas most likely!
- Avoid most of the bigger name companies. They tend to be significantly more expensive, unless you come across an amazing deal.
- Again, try your hand at bidding to "name your own price"
- Compare many sites. In my recent search for the cheapest rental car, my favorite comparison sites were Hotwire, Travelocity, Expedia, Priceline and CarRentals. I looked at the individual rental company sites, and generally they weren't cheaper than the travel sites, with the exception of a few smaller companies that were not always included in the searches. Try Fox, Advantage and Dollar.
- If you have AAA or BCAA, or even an Entertainment book, check the types of deals and discounts that are offered for members. You may find a free upgrade on a weekly rental, or perhaps a 20% discount, etc. Just make sure you compare it to the other deals out there, as these discounts are usually for the bigger, more expensive companies.
- Consider whether you need a car at all! Some cities have
excellent public transit, and if you choose the location of your
accommodations carefully, you may find that the need for a car just
Tips for Attractions
- Get an Entertainment book or online membership! You will find many 2 for 1 entrances to attractions, as well as 2 for 1 entrees at the local restaurants.
- Look for a city pass. These passes are your entrance ticket to the most popular attractions in a city or area, for a discounted rate. By buying the one pass, you can go to any attraction included over the course of one week (for example- it varies from pass to pass). Some examples are the Seattle CityPass, ShowUp Now for the Phoenix area, and the Go Los Angeles Card. Visit CityPass for several other major North American cities available.
Tips for Eating Cheaply
- As mentioned above, the Entertainment book can help you make the best of having to eating out (or depending on your perspective, getting to eat out!) by offering 2 for 1 entrees.
- Try finding an accommodation that includes a breakfast, or even one that allows kitchen privileges (such as a hostel, or some B&Bs) or a motel with a kitchenette.
- If your hotel has a mini fridge, find a local grocery store (which just adds to the experience of visiting a new place), and stock up on breakfast foods (unless included), and lunch and snack foods so that you can brown bag it as much as possible.
- Bring a stash of easy to carry snacks that your family enjoys. To Arizona, we will be bringing fruit leather or bars, rice cakes, granola bars that are wheat free (as we are all sensitive to wheat), and a box of mineral drinks mixes to add to our water bottles.
- Bring a water bottle for each family member, and fill them up each time you're able to. Buy large bottles of purified water from a local grocery store to keep in your hotel room, or the trunk of your vehicle, to do refills.
Lastly, once you are there and you have done everything you can do to make your trip as affordable as possible, just relax! Enjoy your vacation, knowing that some extra expenses will pop up unexpectedly (as they always do), and choose to cherish every minute of the trip that you have worked so hard to plan and save for!
Though it may appear to the contrary, Stephanie does not spend most of her time planning vacations! She is delighted to be a follower of Christ, a wife, mother to two children, homemaker, and homeschooler. In her "spare time" she maintains the blog Keeper of the Home, gardens organically, studies nutrition and natural living, and enjoys cooking up nourishing foods for her family.