As parents, we all know there is a huge difference between a vacation and a family trip. A vacation is an adults-only getaway that is full of relaxation, lingering meals and experiences, and refueling for the return to real life. A family trip is when well-meaning parents travel with their offspring in order to parent them in a different location for a few days. Very little about a trip with kids is relaxing, lingering, or refueling. But somehow, family trips still hold some of my favorite memories that I will cherish forever. With two young kids, our vacations have turned into family trips, and we strive to make the best of it.
As a family that chooses to live frugally, out of both necessity and as a lifestyle, we always try to keep costs down on family trips without cutting any important corners or missing out on experiences. While we weren’t able to schedule a family trip this summer, we have a fall trip in the books.
Here are the ways we’re preparing and planning our trip with frugality and fun in mind.
1. Use Google Flights Tracker
This is my husband’s world, but he explained the process to me. When we’re thinking about planning a trip that involves flights for our family of 4, he begins tracking the possible flights using Google Flights. Through this free Google service, he is able to set search parameters to our specific destination and dates to search for the cheapest flights across all airlines (excluding Southwest Airlines- Google doesn’t track SW for some reason). Once he sets the parameters, he’ll usually track those flights for a week or two to determine trends in pricing, then purchase the tickets on whichever day they’re at their lowest price. (Side note: While Spirit Airlines often comes in at the lowest price, we do not fly Spirit because of their exorbitant add-on fees and lack of a family-friendly flight experience.)
2. Go Off-Season
Know what’s beautiful in April? Paris. Know what’s beautiful in September? Paris. But going in September, as we did, will cost you a lot less than going in April. As a general rule for most destinations, airline tickets, hotel rooms, and even some experiences and attractions tend to cost less during off-season months. I actually prefer traveling during non-peak, off-season times because I feel like we get a more authentic, less tourist-ey experience. And as an introvert, I’m easily overwhelmed by big crowds of tourists, especially if my kids are in the mix, so traveling off-season ticks many of my boxes- it’s the frugal option that keeps me sane and anxiety-free while we’re away.
3. Go Somewhere You Have Friends or Family
My husband’s family has a house on Lake Michigan, so guess where we’re going this fall… Lake Michigan! We get to stay at the lake house there and earn our keep by leaving the house cleaner than when we arrived, chipping in for groceries, and paying a small portion of what we would pay for a hotel or condo. Of course, we don’t always travel to places we have friends or family who are willing to put us up, but having that option for about every other trip keeps costs down on the whole.
4. Stay Somewhere with a Kitchen
If possible, stay in a place that has a kitchen, or at least a refrigerator and microwave. We are a family that values good food and dining experiences. However, dragging my kids into restaurants three times a day for a week or more is not high on the list of things I like to do. Plus it gets super expensive! So when we’re on a family trip, we make it a point to stay somewhere that has a kitchen. Then we stock up on a few grocery items at a local grocery store when we get there. We try to eat one meal per day at “home,” which usually ends up being breakfast or dinner as we’re out doing fun stuff during the day.
5. Have a Staycation or Go Somewhere Close to Home
This is a well-worn piece of advice, but it’s a good one! On Mother’s Day weekend this year, we packed up and drove about two hours to a nephew’s high school graduation party. Instead of turning around and driving back home the same day, we decided to make a weekend of it and stayed in a local hotel that had a pool. My kids still talk about what a great weekend we had. Their favorite part (apart from the pool)? “Talking” on the landline phone in the room! Who’d have thought? So we’ve decided that we’ll make it a tradition and go someplace close to home each Mother’s Day weekend. Nothing fancy or expensive, just some time together in a new environment, provided that the environment has a pool and a landline. And maybe a spa for momma.
6. Make Your Itinerary Before You Go
My husband is the Itinerary King. He’s armed with a detailed schedule weeks before we embark on a trip. He creates room for flexibility, though, so it’s not set in stone. But planning at least a loose itinerary in advance is a great way to save money when you’re away from home. Before we leave, we research our destination location for attractions that are free or have reduced price days. You’d be surprised how many museums, aquariums, zoos, and other attractions have either free or reduced admission days. It’s such a huge letdown when you show up at the museum only to realize the day before or after would have been free. So we plan ahead to go to those places on free or reduced days. Easy peasy!
7. Don’t Underestimate (Free) Local Spots
It was hard for me to accept when we first started traveling with our kids, but not every second needs to be big, shiny, and expensive. One of my kids’ absolute favorite things to do when we’re on trips is to check out the local parks and playgrounds. We’ve even learned that one parent can take the kids to a local park while the other parent gets a nap! And then we switch the next day. A local playground will easily knock out an afternoon, and I know we all enjoy the downtime. So just do a little Google research to find the local playground talent in your desired destination.
There ya have it! While we try to live and travel frugally, we also don’t cut too many corners, cheap out, or even jump through any complicated hoops to save money (you will NEVER catch me on Groupon, for example, but that’s a post for another time…). We just use a little common sense and strategic planning to make our time and our money work for us the way we want it to.
What about you? What are your frugal travel tips?