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Family Vacation Tips: Indulge Your Wanderlust Without Going Broke

Money-saving travel tips can keep travel within reach

By Sharon Van Epps

Our family loves to travel. The everyday grind of work, school, and sports limits our time together, and vacationing allows us to reconnect and make memories. At 14, 15, and 16, my kids now possess the maturity and stamina to go anywhere on the planet, but with kiddie discounts a thing of the past, getting there isn’t cheap. Besides the obvious ways to save—camping trips and staycations are classics—what family vacation tips can help families indulge their wanderlust without going broke?

Five years ago, Karen Dawkins of Clayton, North Carolina, pulled off the seemingly impossible: a week in Paris for her family of five for just $7,000. When friends started asking for advice, Dawkins launched a blog, “Family Travels on a Budget,” and a travel guru was born.

“We make vacation part of our budget, just like retirement and college,” Dawkins says. “For the Paris trip, which cost more than our allocated budget line item, we ate lots of beans and rice to cut back on groceries and added more to the vacation budget.”

Family Travel Tips

The family took the same budget borrowing approach to the holidays: At Christmas that year, they stuck to Paris-themed gifts, like a guide to the city’s museums—a tactic that not only saved money, but also heightened everyone’s anticipation for the trip.

Dawkins is relentless in her pursuit of bargains. She relies on the websites Momondo and Scott’s Cheap Flights for airfares, uses Trivago for hotels, and turns to Booking.com for vacation home rentals. She’s also a fan of travel rewards programs. (Earning points with credit card purchases can also help, provided you don’t carry a balance.)

Limiting yourself to one or two carefully chosen loyalty programs will help accrue rewards, Dawkins says, and she should know: She once booked a seven-day Caribbean cruise for her entire family with points. Out-of-pocket costs for that trip—including airfare to the port, excursions, and gratuities—totaled less than $900.

Dawkins’ money-saving example is inspiring, but what if a hectic schedule allows little time for bargain hunting? Try getting your teen involved in the research. Making it a family project gets more brains working on cutting costs. Your teens also learn about smart shopping, and they’ll have more buy-in into the final itinerary. Kim Flodin, a New York mother of three, always asks her daughters to find the best local street food and hole-in-the-wall gems at their destination.

Finding Savings

Enlisting the help of a travel agent may also save time and money, particularly for complicated itineraries.

“Travel agents know things like: When is it cheaper to book as a package? Which airports are better?” says Kelly Rubingh, owner of Family Travel Agency in San Carlos, California. Rubingh is a professional with industry connections. As such, she’s positioned to obtain upgrades, airport transfers, and perks for her clients at no additional cost. Just be sure that the travel agent you work with will also provide these services for free—many do. Alternatively, be sure that any cost is worth the savings they can provide.

Rubingh is the mother of two teenage boys, and she acknowledges the challenges of scheduling trips around high school classes and activities. School breaks may be the easiest time to get away, she admits, but not the most affordable. You’ll pay more for traveling during the winter recess, plus you’ll face maximum crowds at popular attractions like Disney.

To get the best deals, Rubingh recommends vacationing at the start or end of your teen’s summer break, when other schools may be in session. Whenever possible, she says, “avoid traveling Saturday to Saturday. If kids can miss just one day of school to fly home on a Monday, the savings will be substantial.”

Of course, family trips don’t need to be elaborate to be special. I’ve discovered that even the simplest weekend getaways provide an opportunity to bond with my teens and even get them talking. Spending time together, sharing new experiences, and taking a break from the everyday grind. This is what family travel is all about, no matter where you go.

Sharon Van Epps

Sharon Van Epps is a writer, wife, mother of three exuberant children via international adoption. Passionate about child welfare, conflicted and amused about being a soccer mom. Follow her on Facebook