Did you know the average cost of a family summer vacation is upwards of $1,600? What’s more, families said they expected to spend almost $600 on Thanksgiving travel alone in 2014. Traveling as a family can be expensive, but you don’t need to break the bank just to take some (much-needed) time away with your kids. From taking advantage of savings sites to simply packing smarter, there are many ways families on the move can avoid spending a ton of money.
We reached out to some experts in the field for advice on how to stick to a budget (and save some cash) when traveling with a brood. Here are 11 of the best tips we heard.
1. Perfect the art of pass-buying.
It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s not always cheapest to purchase day or week passes for attractions like water parks, amusement parks, or ski mountains. In fact: “It’s almost always better to buy the year-long or season-long pass to absolutely everything,” says Lindsay Sakraida, director of content marketing at DealNews. The full family passes usually pay for themselves in two trips, Sakraida says, and they tend to include VIP benefits like coupons, freebies, and entry to special events.
2. Get some mileage out of that “Baby on Board” sticker.
Believe it or not, traveling when your kid is a baby is the ideal time to do so. “I know the thought of traveling with a newborn is daunting, but children under two fly and stay for free in most places,” says Kaamna Bhojwani-Dhawan, founder of Momaboard.com. “Airfare adds up quickly!”
3. Remember that timing is everything.
If you can, consider allowing the kids to miss a few days of school around the breaks—it can make a big difference with airfare. “Flying Tuesday to Tuesday or Wednesday to Wednesday will save a family of four hundreds of dollars in airfare for winter and spring breaks,” says Robin Hutson, publisher of Luxe Recess, a luxury hotel directory for parents.
4. Find strength (and lower costs) in numbers.
To really save some cash, consider inviting other family or close friends along on your getaway. “Especially when it comes to lodging, you can save a lot by inviting other families to join you and split the costs,” says Linda Cabasin, editorial director at Fodor’s Travel. Renting a house through a service like Airbnb or HomeAway with friends who have kids of similar ages to your own can be a triple win—you’ll save some green, your kids can play together, and the adults can relax while the kids keep each other company (or hang out with a babysitter, who you can also pool your money to pay!).
5. Get smart about packing.
Less is always more when it comes to packing for kids, but there’s more to it than that. Get to know the best travel-friendly products that can save you money when traveling with kids, too. “Hiring a car seat with a rental car can often set you back over $5 per day,” says Erin Bender, founder of the blog Travel With Bender, who has been traveling around the world with her husband and two children for years. “We use an inflatable BubbleBum car seat to avoid these exuberant fees.”
You should also make sure your suitcase matches the standard carry-on size (9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches) to avoid paying a checked-bag fee. (Bonus: It’s a lot harder for the airline to lose!) Remember: Your kids get carry-ons, too, and are likely to use less room than you, so use that as extra space for whatever won’t fit into your own luggage.
6. Bring what you can from your vacation home or rental.
You’ll need to check the rules at any amusement or theme parks you’re visiting, but if you can, stock up on essentials from your vacation home base to bring with you on your days out. “Take refillable water bottles to avoid buying water, and bring sunscreen from home, because sunscreen prices always go up on an island or in a theme park,” Bender says.
Erin Gifford, a family travel writer and founder of Kidventurous, suggests packing lunches if possible, as well. “Make bag lunches every day, but make sure to have several options,” she says. “On our road trip, my plan was to pack lunches each day for me and the kids. That worked for the first few weeks, but then we got really, really tired of peanut butter and jelly. I tried tempting them with Nutella, but it was too late. I could have saved more if I’d had a few more bag lunch ideas up my sleeve. Instead, we hit fast food chains more than I would have liked.”
7. Research, research, research.
Save a ton of money by doing research on your destination ahead of time. For starters, buy attraction tickets online whenever possible. “Many times you can get better prices online over buying tickets when you arrive,” Gifford says. “Even better, when you go to an attraction’s website, you’ll often find out about special promotions, like certain days of the week, or after-3 p.m. deals. For example, we went to Roaring Springs Waterpark in Boise a few weeks ago, and they have $13 Thursdays, so instead of $23, you pay $13 per person from 3 to 8 p.m. That’s a pretty big savings.”
Cabasin also recommends signing up for local deal sites (Groupon, Living Social, etc.) before traveling. “This is a great way to find cool activities and restaurants in the area you’re visiting—and get great bargains at the same time,” she says. “Most sites can save you an average of 50 percent.”
8. Enlist your kids as accomplices in money-saving.
Gifford starts each child with $5 and then a daily stipend of $1 to spend as they please. “I didn’t think of this as money-saving before I started doing it, but it certainly saved me from having to buy all four kids snacks, drinks, and whatever else at every gas station or attraction any time just one of them wanted something,” she says. “If they want a treat, they can decide whether it’s worth it to spend their money. Most of the time they opt out, or they actually looked at the prices when buying treats.”
9. Be savvy with your rewards points.
Smart travelers know to use up those rewards points before they expire—unfortunately, we sometimes forget. “Check the balance of points you have earned from loyalty programs or credit card purchases and, if you can, use those to book your hotel, airfare, or rental car,” Cabasin suggests.
This can be a great way to save on groceries when traveling as well. “Pick credit cards that offer extra bonus points at grocery stores, where most families spend the most each month and buy all food with that card,” Hutson says. “We have paid for all of our food at Disney World this way, using the Disney Visa, but other cards offer great perks for groceries, too.”
10. Opt for low-key fun over popular destinations.
Speaking of Disney, remember that not every trip has to be Disney World. “Children will be happy when parents are happy,” Hutson says. “So consider a destination where the parents’ interests are highlighted. Kids can be happy anywhere new with ice cream or cookie and parents who are happy, relaxed, and paying attention.”
11. Think twice before renting a car.
Depending on where your travels take you, renting a car for the entire time might not be necessary. Using taxis or Uber to get to a few distant places could cost less than paying for something day-in and day-out that you’re barely using.