The spring break/summer vacation season is upon us and it’s time to think about a FAMILY VACATION!
Or maybe not.
For so many families, this is only a time to dream of a family vacation; to stare longingly at an ad for the ultimate Disney World vacation or to sigh and groan while flipping through 114 photos an old friend has posted of their family cruise to the Bahamas.
Oh, if only…
Vacationing becomes very costly very quickly and for many families, a getaway of any kind can seem like an absolute impossibility. But I truly believe family time away from the routine and responsibilities of home will not only refresh the entire family, but do much to strengthen the family unit. For that reason, if for no other, I think family vacations are important.
Of course, I can’t pretend to know everything about your financial situation, your job, your health, or your other life circumstances. Maybe a family vacation really isn’t a possibility for you right now, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be in the future!
Just for perspective, we’re a one-income family. We don’t have a lot of money for extravagances like vacations. And yet we have found we can take little trips with our kids. Maybe we can’t do it every year and maybe the trips we take aren’t our dream vacations, but that doesn’t mean we can’t spend special, quality time together as a family.
So may I offer a few simple tips for making a family vacation more affordable for your family?
- Plan for the vacation you can have instead of bemoaning the one you can’t.
I would hate to think I wasted so much time longing for something beyond my reach that I missed out on the things totally within my grasp!
Listen, I have my own idea of the perfect family vacation and if it happens for us sometime in the future, I will be delighted! But I’ve decided I would rather focus my time and attention and savings on trips that are very doable, not on the ones that may or may not ever happen. Granted, it’s possible if I wait 10 years I might save enough for the dream vacation, but then 10 years will have passed without me ever taking time away with my kids. Sorry, but kids grow up too quickly for that kind of thinking! Honestly, isn’t it better to have smaller, simpler getaways more often than to scrimp and save and stress for ONE lone, extravagant vacation that may or may not mean more to my kids than a weekend camping trip?
|Cumberland Falls — Beautiful. In-state. And FREE! My kids probably talk more about this 3-day trip than any we’ve ever taken.|
Consider what kind of vacation is realistic for your family. Maybe you can’t spend two weeks in Destin, but you could spend a few days at a local lake. Maybe you can’t afford a full week in the Colorado rockies, but you could afford a weekend in the Ozarks. Both can provide a wonderful memory-making experience for your family. Both can be refreshing and relaxing.
Even what has come to be known as the “stay-cation”, staying at home while visiting local attractions, can be very rejuvenating, so long as you’re willing to set aside the regular routines in order to relax and enjoy one another, just like you would do on a vacation away from home. Refuse the temptation to obsess over housework or other chores and spend every day of your stay-cation relaxing or seeing the sites with family.
- Focus on quality, not on quantity.
It would be nice if we could choose to return from our vacations only when we were ready to return, but I think it’s safe to say that for most of us, limited days off from work or financial constraints make that sort of thing impossible. But a vacation really doesn’t have to last two weeks or more to be refreshing and fun-filled.
One of the best vacations we ever took as a family was an in-state trip that lasted a mere 3 days! My kids STILL tell stories about that weekend and beg to revisit the places we went. We enjoyed ourselves so much and crammed a lot of fun and memory-making into that 3 days.
So don’t underestimate the power of a short getaway! Do what you can to make those days special for your family, no matter how many or how few of them you have.
|The Dairy Barn: an old-fashioned, mom-and-pop burger and ice cream joint we discovered on our way to ride the Big South Fork Scenic Railway, another one of those in-state gems we’ve learned about through a little research.|
- If possible, travel during the off-season.
People usually choose to travel in the summer because the weather is warm and wonderful and the kids are out of school, but keep in mind summer is generally the most expensive time to travel. Gasoline and hotel prices are usually at their peak, though, depending on your planned destination, sometimes travelling at the height of autumn color or around Christmastime can be very pricey as well.
What is considered peak tourist season in the area you plan to visit? Are you willing and able to travel before or afterwards?
Regardless where you plan to visit, keep in mind January is almost always the least expensive month for a vacation. Cold weather and the after-Christmas money crunch make January a less-than-desirable vacation time for many families, but airlines, hotels, attractions, and even restaurants will often slash prices to attract customers during this slow month. If you can take advantage of the savings, it can definitely pay off to do so!
- Tie a vacation onto other travel plans.
So you’re planning to travel to attend a graduation in May or a wedding in August. Might it be possible to tag a few vacation days onto the trip? Could you make a swing through a nearby city or attraction and spend some time there with your family?
I have some friends who just recently tagged a family vacation onto their visit to a homeschooling convention. We just did the same before visiting a conference. Several times when my husband has ministered away from home we’ve used the opportunity to do something together as a family, like when we visited the Creation Museum. Thinking ahead this way can provide some great family vacation opportunities.
You’re going to be travelling away from home anyway. If you have some time and a little extra cash, why not turn your travel into something more?
- Learn all you can about your destination.
It takes time and WORK, but this is the absolute BEST advice I can give for making a vacation happen for your family: RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH!
Read about the area you’re planning to visit. Learn about local events and attractions. Carefully explore your options for accommodations. Yes, doing so can be incredibly time-consuming, but it can also save you a great deal of money!
You’ve heard the advertisements for all the online travel sites, so I’m not going to list those here. But whether you’re searching for cheap hotel rooms, rental cars, or airline tickets, carefully compare prices and never assume the price offered by any of these sites is the cheapest. Several times I’ve contacted hotels directly and got a cheaper rate than I could find online. And just recently we were able to get a cheap rental car from a small local company that wasn’t listed with any of the big travel sites.
And when it comes to finding lodging, be sure to check out one of my favorite sites, Vacation Rentals By Owner. VRBO offers literally thousands of vacation rental properties in places all over the United States…houses, cabins, condos, houseboats, apartments…often at far better prices than you’ll find through rental agencies because you’re dealing with the owners directly. My husband and I just recently rented a 2-bedroom, 2-bath cabin with more than adequate room for our family of 6 for the same price as a hotel room, but with lots of privacy and added amenities like a game room and a hot tub, in addition to a full kitchen.
Access to a kitchen can provide huge savings all by itself, but I’ll get to that in a minute…
Look for discounts on attraction and event tickets, keeping in mind that the internet does NOT always offer the best price and sometimes includes added processing fees. Check to see if there are combination tickets available if you’re planning to visit more than one attraction. Remember that some attractions offer family passes and others offer discounts on particular days of the week or after certain times of the day.
Visit local visitors’ centers or tourism commissions for coupons on hotels, attractions, and restaurants. And don’t forget to take advantage of AAA discounts to all of these if you’re a member.
|My recent view over morning coffee. Not traveling at peak season saved us a bundle on our cabin. Scouring VRBO saved us even more!|
- Think ahead to save on meals.
Use those visitors’ center coupons I just mentioned! Often they can provide a considerable savings and sometimes also introduce you to local, family-owned restaurants you may never have discovered otherwise.
If your kids are breakfast-eaters, a hotel that offers a free continental breakfast can save some considerable cash. And don’t be afraid to inquire exactly what the hotel means by “continental” or “complimentary” breakfast. For some it may mean a box of doughnuts; for others, it means a large bar offering hot breakfast foods. My boys are true breakfast lovers, so a lousy or non-existent continental breakfast is usually a deal-breaker for us!
There are scores of websites that offer information about kids eat free days and nights at various family restaurants. Catching the deals on the right nights can save quite a bit. Be sure to call ahead, however, since this information can vary from city to city and in certain tourist areas may not be applicable at all.
Remember that in most sit-down restaurants, lunch is cheaper than dinner, often for an equal amount of food. It may be wisest to eat your largest meal of the day at lunch and then snack or do fast food in the evenings. Of if you’re blessed with a fridge and microwave in your hotel room, you may also be able to feast on leftovers!
Consider cooking. Maybe you’re like me and look forward to a vacation so you don’t have to cook every night, but doing so, even part of the time, can add up to BIG savings when you travel. That’s part of why I love VRBO! Most of their rental properties offer full kitchens stocked with cookware and dishes, so you always have the option of cooking meals rather than eating out. Since food is often one of the largest travel expenses, that can save you a bundle!
I even remember my mom packing the crock-pot along on some of our vacations when I was a kid. She would fill it in the morning before we left to sight-see and supper would be ready by the time we got back. When I was a kid, I thought everybody traveled with a crock-pot in tow! 😉
- Seek out FREE activities and attractions.
There’s some truth to the old saying, “The best things in life are free!”
Fun doesn’t have to come with a huge price tag. Some of the most enjoyable things we’ve ever done together as a family cost us absolutely nothing. Take advantage of free national, state, and city parks for camping, hiking, biking, fishing, etc. Inquire about free museums, historical homes, cemeteries, or battlefields you might like to visit or even free local factory tours you might be interested to take. Find out about local festivals, arts and crafts fairs, music venues, or flea markets that offer free admittance.
- Pray about it.
I believe God cares about the things we care about. Now that’s not to say He thinks I need the 3-week trip to England I’ve been dreaming of, but it does mean He knows when I’m longing to bless my family with a few days away and He cares that I’m trying to be frugal about it.
I also believe God rewards our mindfulness of Him. I can’t tell you the times I’ve prayed about finding a cheap hotel room or asked for God’s guidance in where to stay and when and then been blessed in my effort. No, that doesn’t mean God drops 5-star hotel rooms in my lap, but on several occasions I think He has helped me make wiser decisions and helped stretch our dollars in ways that didn’t seem possible on paper.
Call me crazy if you want, but I can even offer a little testimony here! I had scoured through SCORES of cabins online in search of one the right size in the right location at the right price. Nothing seemed to be working out and, discouraged, I finally thought to pray about it. Afraid there would be nothing available the longer I waited and resigning myself to pay more than I had hoped, I put a call through to make a reservation and literally as I was giving my information to the manager, the dates were blocked by the owner. I was so disheartened by it! But would you believe that very night I stumbled across another cabin I had somehow overlooked before, and ended up getting a larger, nicer cabin for well over $100 cheaper for the week than the one I had just tried to reserve?! Don’t tell me God doesn’t care about the things that matter to us!
|NOT the cabin we stayed in, mind you. But my kids would probably have been just as happy here!|