1. Opt for houses over hotels
“House and apartment rentals are a much better value for families,” says Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommer’s Guide Books and Frommers.com opens in a new window and a mom of two. You usually get several bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room for the cost of one hotel room. Plus, you don’t have to pay for parking and eating all of your meals at restaurants. “I know my kids pick at their food at restaurants, then as soon as we get back to the hotel room, they say ‘I’m hungry.’ So having a kitchen can be a huge budget and sanity-saver,” she says. Homeaway.com, VRBO.com, and airbnb.com all rent apartments and homes in the U.S. and abroad.
If you prefer to stay in a hotel, Erin Gifford, author of the family travel blog Kidventurous.com opens in a new window and a mom of four, recommends room77.com opens in a new window. The site searches for room rates across many of the major booking engines (think Expedia.com and Hotels.com) as well as thousands of hotel sites, then shows you all of the rates at once so you don't have to spend your valuable time hunting for deals. Once you settle on a destination, call the hotel directly. They’ll often match or beat online offers, with a better cancellation policy to boot.
2. Be flexible on flights
When booking air travel, don’t forget to click on the “show flexible dates” feature, which lets you compare prices within a few days of your preferred travel window. If you can adjust your travel days, it can often save you hundreds of dollars. As can flying out of a different airport than your usual hub. On my family’s holiday trip to Austin, we flew out of Providence, RI, and back into Hartford, CT. One airport was an hour further from my house, but a family member was able to drive us, and we saved around $275 per ticket. Flights also tend to be less if you book on Sunday (about 11 percent for domestic travel) and if you stay over a Saturday night, according to a 2016 study by Expedia and Airlines Reporting Corp. See this for a handy chart of the most kid-friendly airlines opens in a new window and which amenities they offer families.
3. Keep rates low on rental cars
To save on ground transportation, Erin Gifford recommends autoslash.com opens in a new window. “Book your rental and the site keeps looking for a better price, even searching for coupons on the web, and re-booking you as appropriate. Even better, you get emails telling you they found a better deal and how much money they saved you. It's my favorite.”
4. Take a pass
Traveling regionally? Check with your local library to see if they have free passes to area attractions such as museums and aquariums. Many will let you check them out, just like books and DVDs. And if you have a membership to your local children's museum or science center, it may just come with a pretty awesome perk: Reciprocal free admission to more than 300 other museums and science centers around the country (see the list at the Association of Science - Technology Centers opens in a new window). Plus, consider this: If you plan to visit even one of the partnering institutions during your vacation, it’s probably worth purchasing a membership to your local organization if you don't already have one, particularly since you'll get to reap the benefits all year long (can you say, "Another rainy Saturday?").
If you don’t luck out with a pass, check museum, aquarium, and other attractions’ websites for special offers and discounts before you go. Many waive admission one day or afternoon a month.
5. Consider season tickets
“If you’re going to an amusement park, don’t assume you need to purchase daily or weekly passes. You might be better off buying the season tickets,” says Pauline Frommer. “They’re usually paid off after just two visits and some parks, such as Six Flags, will let you use them at their other parks around the country.”
6. Use tech to find tickets (and more)
I’m a big fan of both Groupon opens in a new window and LivingSocial opens in a new window to locate deals on everything from walking tours to restaurants to museum passes and kayak rentals in the cities I’ll be visiting. Just enter the location of where you are going, then Search “Restaurants” and “Events & Activities” on LivingSocial; search “Restaurants” and “Things to Do” on Groupon.
7. Don’t forget the free stuff
Sure, you want to hit the main tourist attractions wherever you’re visiting, but some of the best stuff in life actually is free, especially when kids are concerned. For both expert and local recommendations, Erin Gifford searches Google opens in a new window and Pinterest opens in a new window for “best free things to do in ...” whichever city she’s planning to visit. You’ll turn up listings for local parks, carousels, performances, amazing hikes, and so much more.
8. Have kids help you save
The best way to head off constant requests for trinkets, treats, and souvenirs? “Give the kids a vacation spending budget,” says Pauline Frommer. “Set an amount of money that they can spend on mementos and extra treats at the very beginning of the trip and stick with it. Not only will this be a marvelous exercise for them in learning how to budget their money but you won’t be dealing with a constant barrage of requests all the time.” In other words, you’ll bank money, teach your children some important lessons about saving and budgeting, and you won’t be the one having to say “no” 100 times a day. Now that’s priceless.
9. Be frugal with food
Restaurant meals can really add up, so my family packs snacks and picnic lunches as much as possible when we’re on the road. Even when we’re not able to stay in a house (see tip #1), we try to book a hotel with a fridge. I also always travel with instant oatmeal and utensils -- it’s easy to make this hot breakfast with water from the hotel’s coffee maker -- and at least a small, collapsible cooler to take in the car. And rather than pay $25 to check a bag at the airport, I’ve been known to ship my son’s favorite brand of sunflower butter to my hotel, but you can have groceries delivered to your hotel for a small fee (around $10 for a $60 order).
Pauline Frommer agrees. “Don’t feel like every meal has to be in a restaurant. Pick up supplies at a grocery store and picnic in a park or at a playground. It’s a great way to save money and it’ll be a lot more fun for your kids,” she says. And when you do want to sample some local food? Consider eating out at lunchtime, when prices are usually lower, and walk a few blocks away from the main tourist streets. The food will be more authentic and considerably less expensive.
10. Speak freely
Text and call friends and family whenever you’re on a Wi-Fi network, whether you’re out the country or just out of your service area, with free apps such as WhatsApp and Skype. They rely on your internet connection rather than your cell plan’s minutes, making them a true lifesaver when traveling with teens and tweens.
What you can do next
Family vacations should be a time for you to relax, recharge, and make memories that will last your kids’ lifetimes -- not worry about mounting expenses. Plan in advance and you’ll be able to do just that.