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Ultimate Guide to Budget Family Travel

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Traveling to new places as a family opens up a whole new world (literally!) of experiences, cultures, food, and – most importantly – lifelong memories. 

And although there’s a wide perception that traveling as a family is expensive, it’s actually fairly simple to enjoy budget family travel. No, we don’t mean visiting places no one’s ever heard of or making so many compromises that you miss out on any actual fun. We’re talking beaches, theme parks, cruises, major cities…the whole enchilada!

It’s true that the costs associated with kid-friendly vacations add up quickly, but with efficient planning, flexibility, and some out-of-the-box thinking, you can enjoy all sorts of surprisingly affordable family vacations. 

That’s where we come in. At Wanderu, not only are we budget travel experts, we’re budget travel aficionados. We want to help you book that dream trip sooner rather than later, and save money when you do it. Our easy-to-use app lets you compare bus and train fares with a single search, and as a bonus, our blog is filled with family vacation ideas. 

So let’s dive into our best tips for family travel on a budget!

Saving Money While Planning Your Family Vacation

Winston Churchill once said, “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.” That’s exactly why we’re sharing five foolproof tips for planning budget family travel. These money-saving tips come in clutch before you depart on your incredible family vacation.

When to Travel

One of the best budget travel tips is to consider when you travel. For example, major holidays and school breaks such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring break are typically the most expensive times to travel across the board. Everything from airfare to accommodation and even activities spike in price during these times. 

On the flip side, traveling during off-peak times or in the “shoulder season” right before or after major holidays (such as the week before Labor Day, rather than the week of) is a fantastic way to enjoy affordable family vacations.

Another idea, regardless of the specific dates of your trip, is to vacation longer. Hear us out — “slow travel,” as the digital nomads and van lifers have dubbed it, often works out to be cheaper or at least similarly-priced in the long run. Defined as stays of two weeks or longer, slow travel typically involves renting an apartment or vacation home. Many hosts offer significantly discounted rates for longer stays, plus, if you’re staying in one place you’ll save money on transportation.

Picking an Affordable Destination

Another essential in planning budget family travel is choosing a relatively affordable destination. Many, many factors go into how expensive a place is, so in addition to obvious costs like flights, don’t overlook things like rental cars or other transportation options, parking, restaurants, and excursions/activities. 

A destination within driving distance of your home may seem like the best option, but if accommodation and entertainment are notoriously expensive, that changes things. Some places, including Orlando, Florida, and Williamsburg, Virginia, consistently prove to be some of the best budget-friendly U.S. vacation destinations for families — especially if you skip the flight and get there by bus.

Along the same lines, you don’t necessarily have to stay close to home to enjoy family travel on a budget. Far-flung places like Southeast Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, in particular) are known to be extremely affordable, so if you manage to score a deal on flights, you can take a bucket list-worthy escape with your family for roughly the same cost as staying domestic.

It’s also common knowledge that higher demand = higher prices, so when picking an affordable destination, choose less-trendy or up-and-coming places. With a bit of research, you can often find a cheaper alternative to your dream vacation spot. For example, Maine over California or the Georgia Coast over Florida.

Booking Cheap Transportation

It’s not always possible, especially when taking baby friendly vacations or weekend getaways with kids, but if you can ditch traditional transportation methods, you can save quite a bit of money.

For example, taking a bus or train to your destination is almost always substantially cheaper than flying. Even if you do fly, is it possible to skip renting a car once you arrive? If you stay somewhere particularly walkable, like many beach towns, you may be able to get away with taking a rideshare, shuttle, or public bus from the airport to your accommodation. This is one of our best budget family travel tips, as you save on the car itself, plus gas and parking. 

Wanderu comes in especially handy here, as our site allows you to compare the cost of bus and train transportation, as well as rental cars, in one snappy search.

Finding Budget Accommodation

Accommodation is often one of the biggest expenses on vacations, but thankfully, there are ways to find deals. 

First, accommodation outside the city center or a couple of blocks off the coast will always be cheaper. Plus, staying a bit further from tourist hotspots gives you a chance to really immerse your family in the local culture!

You may also be able to save on the nightly rate if you book multiple nights. Many hotels and short-term rentals offer deals like ‘Stay 4, Pay 3,’ so often, the longer you stay, the easier it will be on your overall budget. Of course, mid-week stays are also less spendy than weekends.

Another excellent budget travel tip is to book an apartment or home instead of a hotel room. Having more space, access to a kitchen (and maybe even laundry facilities), and a dedicated parking space can save on eating out and many other costs. 

If your family is outdoorsy or adventurous, consider roughing it and booking a campsite or “glampsite” to save some serious dough. There are many unique family-friendly options throughout the US, and most offer amenities like community kitchens and/or outdoor grills, Wi-Fi, laundry facilities, and even onsite entertainment.

Research Free & Cheap Activities

Children are easily pleased, so you don’t have to spend much to have fun on family vacations. With just a few minutes of research, you’ll find that even perennially popular hot spots like Miami have tons of free things to do. You can also search sites like Groupon for city passes that offer discounts to several attractions.

Here are some general ideas for free kid-friendly activities in any area:

  • Hiking
  • Hitting the beach
  • Find murals in a city for photo-ops
  • Free walking tours
  • Go on a DIY scavenger hunt
  • Free entry days to local museums
  • Visiting a state or national park

For some budget inspiration in some of our favorite destinations, check out our guides to the best free things to do in Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, DC, New York, Seattle, Philadelphia, San Diego, Vancouver, Portland, Montreal, Baltimore, and San Antonio.

Saving Money While You Travel

We’ve given you plenty of tips for planning family travel on a budget, but how do you save money once you arrive? We’ve got you covered with three fantastic ways to save money while traveling with kids.

Saving Money on Dining

One of our very best budget family travel tips, regardless of where you’re going, is to eat in whenever possible. Look for accommodation that has a kitchen, or at least a refrigerator and/or microwave, so you don’t have to eat every meal out. Make a grocery store your first stop in town, or if you’re driving, bring supplies from home.

Even better, look for hotels that offer perks like free breakfast or complimentary social hour.

You can also do some research on nearby restaurants to find out which ones offer kids-eat-free deals, happy hour, and other promotions.

Make Use of Hotel Freebies

Hotel freebies are a valuable resource when it comes to enjoying family travel on a budget. We mentioned that picking a hotel with free breakfast can save quite a bit of money, but there are other included goodies you should take advantage of, as well. 

Use the hotel’s toiletries, enjoy any complimentary drinks or snacks, and feel free to ask for extras. Don’t go overboard, of course, but it’s perfectly acceptable to request one or two rounds of refills, and to take those items home. Hotels don’t reuse or refill guest toiletries, and anything left behind often gets tossed out. 

Plus, hotels might offer complimentary bike rentals and other experiences that can fill a whole day with fun for the family.

Insider tip: Ask the front desk if they have board games, movies, or other activities for kids. Many hotels loan these items out, but they don’t necessarily advertise it. 

Spend on Experiences, Not Souvenirs

It’s important to remember that memories always matter more than material things. Your family is certain to remember that helicopter flight over NYC rather than the T-shirt you picked up in one of the city’s souvenir stores. 

Consider honing your photography skills to frame an epic photo and agreeing to buy an ornament or something similar that the whole family can share. 

More Budget Family Travel Tips

Aside from ways to save money while planning kid-friendly and baby-friendly vacations, and things you can do on your trip to save a bit of dough, here are a few more things to keep in mind for your next family getaway.

Age-Appropriate Family Vacation Ideas

Your specific needs and wants will be completely different if you’re traveling with babies versus teens, so be sure to keep that in mind when choosing a destination for a weekend getaway with kids. A highly walkable city is ideal for both, but a family with a new baby will want to skip the adventure-filled trips that include whitewater rafting or horseback riding.

Planning a multigenerational trip with grandparents or other family members, or even bringing kids of several ages, also needs to be approached differently. Some of the best vacations for kids under 10 may not necessarily be ideal for elderly relatives or even older teens. In these situations, seek out destinations with lots of different activities. Suggestions include theme parks, beaches, cruises, national parks, dude ranches, and major cities like San Francisco, New York, and Chicago.

Travel with More than Just Your Family

Traveling with a friend’s family or invited extended family is another of our favorite budget family travel tips. This allows you to share the cost of things like accommodation, food, a rental vehicle, and fuel. Plus, you may also be able to swap childcare on a couple of nights and sneak away for a date!

Travel Off the Beaten Path

We touched on this earlier, but it’s worth mentioning again. Visiting lesser-known destinations, “hidden gems,” will almost always be significantly more affordable than popular hotspots. Fewer people traveling means prices for accommodation, food, transportation, and local activities will all be a lot more reasonable.

Another benefit of going to off-the-beaten-path places is they’re less crowded overall. Less traffic, a lower chance of activities selling out, and not waiting excessive amounts of time for restaurants are all better for families.

A limited budget doesn’t have to mean limited travel. Using some of these budget travel tips and family vacation ideas, you can get away with the kids and create long-lasting memories more than you probably expected!

As you start planning your next family vacation, turn to Wanderu. From travel inspiration on our blog to one-stop shopping for train and bus fares, rental cars, and hotels, we make it simple and hassle-free to book kid-friendly travel. Head to our website or download the Wanderu app today, and get vacationing ASAP.

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About the author
Taryn Shorr

Taryn Shorr

A classic Type A personality, Taryn's favorite aspects of travel are the planning and meeting new people. She's most drawn to the mountains and has a knack for quickly finding the best happy hour in new destinations. When she isn't writing for Wanderu or traveling, Taryn runs her own blog, Chasing Trail.

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