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Big fun, small price: 10 Budget-friendly vacation ideas

Heading off for a vacation this summer? Many families will be hitting the road and air on trips this summer. Here’s how to keep your next trip budget friendly.

Family outside cabin

According to a recent TripAdvisor survey, 92 percent of families are planning a vacation this year — up from 88 percent in 2009. Before you join them, you should know that travel doesn’t have to be an expensive venture. In fact, family fun can be had on a budget with a few good ideas and tips.

SuitcaseHit the road

Family packing car

Traveling by plane used to be an economical way to take a family vacation — you could get there fast and for close to (or less than!) the cost of driving. Not so anymore. These days, the cost of air travel has increased dramatically, and airlines tack on fees left and right.

“The family road trip is the cheapest way to travel, especially with airlines tacking on all kinds of extra fees and [with] flights booked solid for the foreseeable future,” says Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, co-founder and editor of the family travel site

Kelleher suggests looking for a destination that’s within driving distance from home. Ask families in your area where they go. Hit the travel and tourism websites of nearby states — you might just find the perfect destination.

>> 8 Budget-friendly family vacations

SuitcaseIf you must fly

If you want to go farther and fly to get there, keep costs down by avoiding heavy air travel times (namely, Friday and Saturday). “Being flexible with your travel dates can save you money when shopping for flights, as fares can differ depending on the day of the week. In general, you’ll pay a premium if you fly on Fridays or Sundays,” says a TripAdvisor expert. Also, limit your luggage — you will pay extra for it.

SuitcaseTry a cabin

Believe it or not, cabin rentals can be economical, fun accommodations. Cabins are available at campgrounds across the United States and Canada. Nightly fees vary widely, as do the cabin accouterments (for instance, some don’t have bathrooms — you have to use a communal one instead), so do your research and find one that meets your needs for comfort.

In many cases, you have to bring your own linens and cook outside (on a grill), but a minifridge is typically available to help with storing food. Bonus: You and the kids can gather around the fire and roast marshmallows for s’mores before bedtime. Score!

>> 5 Fun family vacation ideas

SuitcaseGo in the off-season

Beaches are always popular in the summer, as are ski resorts in the winter. But what about heading somewhere that isn’t in peak season? This can save considerable money. “Visit the big city on a summer weekend. City hotels that rely mainly on business travelers during the work week find themselves much emptier on weekends — especially during the summer, when conventions are less common. The result: Rates plummet at many top hotels for Friday- and Saturday-night stays through August,” suggests Kelleher.

>> 10 Ways to save for a family vacation

SuitcaseTake the fuel-efficient car

Naturally, you want take your larger family vehicle, but if you won’t be driving much once you arrive at your destination, consider taking whichever family vehicle is more fuel efficient. With gas prices hovering near $3/gallon again, this will save you money getting to and from your destination.

>> Camping in an RV – A good vacation option for families

SuitcaseRent a place with a kitchen

This is a big one: Stay somewhere with cooking facilities so you can cook your own food. You’ll automatically save money because you won’t be forced to eat out for every meal. Plain. And. Simple.

Travel experts say that this is a major way to save cash when you travel with your family. “When budgeting for a vacation, families often underestimate how much they’ll spend on food. But when your family eats out three meals a day, every day, for an entire week, your total food bill can easily hit quadruple digits,” says Kelleher.

>> Tips for finding family travel deals


Consider suite-type accommodations, which have kitchens, or rent a house or condo for a week. “Weekly rates often offer big savings over hotel rooms. Vacation rentals also offer plenty of space and great amenities for families, ranging from video games and private pools to barbecues and beach toys,” says the TripAdvisor expert.

SuitcaseGet camping

Looking for something truly adventuresome? Pack up the car with your sleeping bags and tents and head to a campground. Camping can cost as little as $20 a night, leaving plenty of money to spend on excursions and other adventures while you are traveling. Check out Reserve America and KOA to find campgrounds near your destination.

>> Home-sweet-tent: Luxury camping tips

SuitcaseStay a little farther away

Choosing a hotel in the next town over from your intended destination can save you big time. For instance, while a hotel near Sturbridge, Massachusetts, will cost in the hundreds, one just over the border in Connecticut might run less than $60/night — and it’s only about 10 minutes away!

Do your homework, though. “Be sure to check which hotels and attractions other travelers have found to be the most family-friendly on their trips,” says the TripAdvisor expert.

>> Are we there yet? How to organize your family’s travel time

SuitcaseBuy your souvenirs ahead

Heading to a theme park? Souvenirs at places like Disney and Hershey Park are expensive, so hit the dollar store before you go, and scour the Internet for souvenirs. Your kids will still love them, but they won’t cost you an arm, leg and kidney.

>> How to save money at Disney World

Or skip the souvenirs completely and focus on pictures instead. “Instead of buying gifts, share your vacation experience with family and friends by taking pictures of your adventure and creating an online photo journal. Get the kids involved in writing about the trip,” suggests travel expert Jenny Reed, who writes Travel Talk with Jenny.

SuitcaseTravel together

Many families love traveling together for a lot of reasons. It’s a good time, because more people equals more fun — and what kid wouldn’t want to vacation with their friends or cousins? Traveling as a group means you can divide some expenses, too.

>> Stress-free family travel guide

“Are there several families you know that would like to vacation this summer? Plan a trip together, rent a vacation home and split the costs of food and gas,” says Reed. Indeed, renting a house for a few more people won’t raise the weekly rent much, but it will lower your costs because you can divide it between the families.

SuitcaseParty like a local

Sure, tourist destinations are interesting, but they are also costly. Instead, immerse yourself in the locale you visit by checking local newspapers, websites and the like for cheap and free things to do.

For instance, if you visit Cape May, New Jersey, nearby Wildwood is a lot of fun — but you can head to the Cape May Zoo for free. You also can pick up some good info from the local business association. “Search for the local visitor’s bureau online and ask for a visitor’s packet,” says Reed.

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