Family travel on a budget is possible, and these cheap travel tips will help you stretch your money while creating new memories.
It’s estimated that 83% of Americans traveled last summer. At an average cost of $1558 per person for one week, that’s a whole lot of dough. Traveling with family can add up quickly, making a family vacation cost about as much as your health insurance deductible. Ouch.
Our commitments to spending more time with family and friends can dent your budget or credit card. Luckily, living below your means means learning how to plan a trip on a budget. Use these cheap travel tips to help you plan this year’s family travel on a budget.
Planning for Family Travel on a Budget
When planning for family travel on a budget, three main pieces create the trip of a lifetime:
- The travel dates you pick
- Your budget
- Your destination
Be flexible on your travel dates.
The number one rule of traveling on a budget is to be flexible. You’ll save a ton of money if you can be up in the air on dates or destinations.
- Travel off-peak season.
Go to a different destination than everyone else during the high season. You’ll end up paying way more for everything than if you travel during the off-season. Plus, it’ll be much less crowded. Also, don’t travel during school holidays, such as spring break. Again, pricing for everything from flights to hotels is more during these peak times.
- Check out price variations on flights depending on the days traveled.
When searching for airfare, there is often a calendar with pricing for each day. Traveling mid-week tends to be cheaper. To find cheap airfare, check out Google Flights. Not only can you view a calendar of flights with pricing, but you can set alerts that will let you know when the price dips for the dates and destinations you want. I love using this to keep an eye on flights for dream vacations.
- Consider staying over on Sunday night.
Sunday night rates are usually cheaper than Friday or Saturday nights since everyone heads home on Sunday.
- Try picking your destination based on where you can get a cheap flight.
If you need help traveling during a specific time, use Google Flights or my favorite, Scott’s Cheap Flights, to find affordable travel destinations that fit your schedule.
If you cannot change locations or dates, you can save money by finding ways to trim your budget. If you’re set with a specific weekend or place, we’ll have to trim the budget with cheap, outside-the-box travel tips. There are four main categories where you can cut your budget and still have a great time: food, activities, transportation, and accommodation.
Create your travel budget.
If you want to learn how to travel cheaply, create your travel budget. This can be a rough guestimate of how much your vacation will cost based on the number of days, people, and destinations.
What should I include in a travel budget? Depending on how you’re traveling and with whom, you’ll want to plan for the following:
- A place to stay
- Rental cars, taxis, Uber, or public transportation
- Travel Insurance
- Snacks, eating out, or groceries
- Tips for hotel staff, drivers, tour guides, etc.
- Activities such as theme parks, zip lines, etc.
- Spending money
- Must have trinkets or souvenirs
Obviously, a weekend trip budget will be much cheaper than traveling around Europe with a family. However, it’s about deciding what’s important to you. Some people are foodies and want to dine at the finest restaurants. Others are all about the activities and couldn’t care less what their hotel room is like. Take some time to rank what’s important to you, and then work on cutting the costs on items that aren’t a priority.
Choose your destination wisely.
Traveling to destinations outside of the usual tourist areas can help you save when doing family travel on a budget. A trick to figuring out cheaper locations is to check the general cost of living. If it’s a higher cost of living area, the accommodations and local transportation will cost more.
If you’re traveling outside the United States and want to do some international family travel on a budget, there are some factors to consider when selecting a location. Some factors to think about include the exchange rate, visa fees, and potential bank or credit card fees.
Now that you have a budget, location, and dates, let’s dive into saving money on accommodations, flights, food, and activities.
How to save on transportation when planning family travel on a budget
While traveling by car is the cheapest way to travel with family, the recent drop in the cost of flights makes flying a close second.
No matter how you get there, transportation is generally the highest cost. Here are some great cheap travel tips to help you trim down your transportation costs.
Booking flights on a budget
- Go directly to the airline website to purchase your tickets.
While I’ve never tried it, some people swear by booking directly on the airline’s website once they’ve found the flights they want. You’ll likely hit any other deals or sales by booking directly.
- Compare the cost of booking two one-way flights.
Sometimes booking available flights, or one-way flights, can be cheaper than booking round trips. Using a comparison website should help determine whether this budget travel tip will work for you.
Consider open-jaw fares if you’re wondering how to travel on a budget in Europe. An open jaw is where you fly Point A to Point B, then on the return trip, fly Point C to Point A. This is a great way to save if you’re traveling internationally or are planning a vacation with multiple destinations.
Some websites to try are:
- Be flexible on which airports you fly into and out of.
Flying into a smaller (or bigger) airport nearby can also be cheaper. Check out other close airports to see if you’re not missing on potential savings.
- Book your flights on the weekend.
I’ve never thought to try this, but it’s rumored that booking your flight during the weekend means that it’ll likely be cheaper. Corporate travel bookings tend to happen during the week, so prices increase.
- Travel on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.
Most people travel on the weekends, so flights are often cheaper during the week. Tuesdays and Wednesdays have the lowest flight pricing, so consider booking those days to fly cheap with a large family.
- Try a budget airline.
Budget airlines are cheaper because they don’t offer extra snacks and drinks during the flight and charge for bags. Try saving a lot of money by booking with them if your flight is just a short jaunt.
However, be wary of budget airlines that charge you for checking bags and carry-ons. We were traveling to Florida this year, and a budget airline wanted to charge $120 for a carry-on for a two-hour trip! That extra cost can add up quickly, causing these cheaper flights to become more expensive than other airlines. Always check baggage fees and restrictions before booking your flights.
- Kids fly free before the age of 2.
On most airlines, kids fly free before age two because they don’t need a seat booked. Just remember to bring plenty of entertainment, a fully charged tablet, and many snacks to keep them busy.
Local Transportation & Family Road Trips
- Ask a friend or family member to drop you at the airport.
Not surprisingly, parking at the airport can get pricey. Ask a family member or friend to drop your family off to avoid the fees. If that’s not possible, check Groupon for discounts for the local park and ride lots near you.
- Use free airport and hotel shuttles.
If you want to avoid renting a car altogether, use the airport and hotel shuttles to get to and from the airport. These are usually free and can save you the stress of navigating a new city and finding your hotel.
- Try alternate transportation.
Once you’re at your destination, consider alternatives to renting a car. You can Uber, walk, rent a bike, or use public transportation. Most larger cities have buses, subways, and even trains to help you get to the best tourist attractions.
Consider booking a hotel (with cash) central to everything you want to see so that you can walk when possible and take public transportation the rest of the time.
- When renting a car for family travel on a budget, try Turo.
Turo is a rental car agency in which you rent a local person’s car instead of from a rental company. It’s cheaper, and you can find rentals with unlimited miles. They’ll also work with you to determine good pick-up and drop-off locations, so you’re not tied to doing so at a specific spot.
- Relocate a vehicle.
Why not get paid to drive? There are many companies out there that will pay you to relocate a vehicle. If you’re headed to the exact location anyway, you can get your gas covered and make some extra bucks while at it!
- Make sure your car is in tip-top shape.
If you’re headed out on a family road trip on a budget, make sure your car is just as ready as you are. The cheapest way to travel by car is to ensure it’s well-maintained and prepared for the trip.
- It’s important to check tire pressure and get an oil change. While you’re there, have the attendant top off any fluids and check your air filter.
- To make your car as fuel efficient as possible, keep your speed under 65. Studies show that going faster than 65 lessens your car’s fuel efficiency.
- And for the love of Pete, don’t pull a Griswold and overpack or drag something behind you!
- Use gas cards and gift cards.
Use gift cards for gas stations you’ve been given or purchased at a discount through Costco or other stores. It’s much better than letting them gather dust in a drawer!
- Try apps like GasBuddy.
GasBuddy is a great app that can help you find the cheapest gas in your area. Plus, you can plan your road trip using their app, telling you when and where to stop for gas—no more guessing on where the best places are to stop.
- Avoid toll roads.
You can tell it to avoid toll roads when using Google Maps or other apps like Waze. Not surprisingly, you can save a good chunk of money when you don’t use toll roads or the turnpike.
Cheap Accommodations for Family Travel on a Budget
One of the best travel tips I know of is considering alternate places to stay. While hotels are friendly, they tend to be the priciest. If you are up for a bit of adventure and trying something new, I recommend considering one of these accommodation alternatives to get a better deal:
- Go camping.
If you want to know how to travel cheaply in the USA, look no further. Camping is one of the best ways to cut travel expenses and enjoy the great outdoors. You can stay in a national park, at an HOA campsite, or somewhere between. To get started finding the perfect spot, check out Camping-USA.com.
- Rent an Airbnb.
This is one of my favorite cheap travel tips. Depending upon how many people you have and your length of stay, you can easily rent an entire house through Airbnb for much more affordable than several hotel rooms. With more people to split the cost, it turns out a ton cheaper, and you often have more options than you would at a hotel.
Even better, you have a kitchen to cook in (or use the fridge to stash your booze). With some easy meals and drinking at the rental, you’ll save a ton of cash. All of this makes Airbnb the perfect one for cheap family vacations!
- Crash at a friend’s or family member’s house.
We’re not all lucky enough to know someone in Italy with a fantastic guesthouse and willing to put up with a family world travel budget (dang it). However, chances are you know someone that lives in a pretty fantastic place and is willing to let you crash. Bunking up with a friend or family member is one of the best cheap travel tips to save money.
Obviously, offer them some form of compensation in return – whether it’s money, cooking for the week, or rewiring the electricity in their entire house – so that they are okay with ever opening the door.
By bypassing having to get a hotel room and being a polite houseguest, you’ll save a ton of money and become closer to someone you want to spend some time with.
- Try housesitting or house swapping.
Trying creative accommodations like housesitting can offer you a free stay and the luxury of having all the basics, like a kitchen to make food. If you’re up for it, companies like Trusted Housesitters allow you to housesit and sometimes even pet sit.
- Stay in a hostel.
I stayed at a working commune-type place in Switzerland once. Hostels tend to lean more towards that than the horror movies I avoid watching. Hostels are a great cheap hotel alternative if you’re brave enough to try them.
And really – you’re likely to spend little time there, so why pay for private rooms? So what’s the big deal about sharing a room with fellow budget travelers? If you’re comfortable, check out your cheapest options on sites like Tripadvisor. Tripadvisor is full of great reviews, so you can get honest feedback about everything from places to stay to activities in the area.
If you’re still planning on staying in a hotel
Okay, fine – you’re not the super adventurous type. That’s cool; I get it. If you still want the security or luxuries of hotel living, here are some cheap travel tips that will still help you save on hotel rooms:
- Don’t get the best room.
How much time are you spending in your hotel room anyway? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Only get the best room possible if you’re looking for a place to crash between outings. You can easily trim your budget by not opting for the penthouse suite and getting something clean, simple, and budget-friendly.
- Always stay in the same place.
Staying loyal to one hotel brand means you can sign up for their hotel rewards program and earn points. These points are the best way to figure out how to travel cheaply in the USA or internationally.
However, if their pricing is always higher than other options, I would stick with the immediate savings of a cheaper room versus earning points. Hotel reward programs only work if you frequent the hotel enough within a year to accumulate enough points to redeem them for free stays.
- Stay longer.
Staying over a Sunday night is cheaper, and visiting more than one night can sometimes work out to a discount. Some hotels reward customers with free or discounted nights if they stay longer.
- Call the hotel directly to book your stay.
By calling to book your stay, you can ask for a discount while you’re booking the room. You can secure a few days in advance if you like to live dangerously. They could have empty rooms they’re happy to fill at a discount rather than let them sit empty and make nothing on them.
If you go this route, you’d have a couple of backup plans in case there’s a cheerleading competition in town that weekend, and every hotel is booked!
How to save on activities when traveling on a budget
Most of these cheap travel tips will work for you, depending on your vacation plans. It’s just picking and choosing what makes sense for your family, trip, and budget to figure out how to travel with almost no money:
- Research your destination.
Before heading out on your trip, find travel bloggers, Facebook groups, Instagram accounts, or local websites that can provide cost-effective activities and places to eat. Do your research and discover what tourist attractions (like a theme park) are worth the money and which to skip.
Once you’re on vacation, don’t be shy. Make friends with the locals and find out where they go to relax or have a great meal. Chances are you’ll find something off the beaten path that you would never have found otherwise.
- Find free events in the area.
Often you can find free activities through local websites. Some attractions have free days, or you can get free admission through your credit card, AAA membership, AARP, or a student ID. Look for other interests, like free walking tours on the city’s commerce website, or ask local people for cheap travel tips in the area.
- Use attraction coupons found in brochures and tourist booklets.
You know the giant case I’m talking about – with a bazillion brochures and flyers in the hotel lobby. They’re hard to miss since you usually stare at them while checking in. You can also find them in local restaurants or ask for extra brochures at the hotel’s front desk. Or, check out ShowTickets before you leave to get your attraction tickets early!
- Talk to the concierge.
The concierge can not only help you get tickets or find activities, but they can help you find savings as well. They’ll know the cheapest ways to attend events and attractions and where to find discounts.
- Look for city tourism cards.
We used these city tourism cards in New York City, which worked out great. You get entry into over 100 attractions for a fraction of the price. Plus, it helped us plan which activities we had to see while there.
They were easy to use, and you had to register for only a few attractions. Otherwise, they covered everything from city bus tours to the Empire State building! These are two of my favorites: CityPass and Sightseeing Pass.
- Check local tourism boards, websites, and visitor centers for discounts.
Checking in these locations is excellent for fun local freebies, like free museum days. Plus, it’s not always the obvious touristy things you’d think to do, which can help you find new and different experiences.
- When booking activities, always search online for discounts first.
Often you can find coupons on websites like retailmenot.com or Groupon for local activities.
- Avoid tourist attractions.
Or, do the ones you really want to do. Even though it’s there and advertised all over the place, there might be better options for your family that make more sense and cost less.
How to Save on Food During Your Family Vacation
- Eat out for breakfast or lunch.
Since breakfast and lunch are cheaper than dinner, you’ll save money by only eating out for the less expensive meals. Then grab something cheap from the grocery or have leftovers for dinner. Check out my favorite dirt affordable meals to save some cash.
- Take advantage of continental breakfast or snacks provided by the hotel.
On the other hand, complimentary breakfast is free breakfast. Often there are some fantastic snacks during continental breakfast that you can grab and use as snacks for later. By timing it right, you could eat a late breakfast, a snack, and an early dinner and save by skipping lunch altogether.
- Find restaurants off the beaten path.
Main tourist streets – like the Strip in Vegas or Bourbon Street in New Orleans – will cost much more because they’re smack dab in the middle of the tourist area. A rule of thumb is to walk 4 – 6 blocks away from the main tourist areas to find cheaper restaurants. (Of course, it goes without saying to avoid risking your safety for some cheap grub!) Learn more about how to find the best affordable places to eat while you’re on the go.
- Eat street food.
Depending on your feelings about food carts and trucks, these can be the cheapest option for a lighter lunch or dinner at reasonable prices. Plus, you’ll get authentic local food you might need help finding elsewhere.
- Book a room with a fridge and a microwave.
If you stay for more than one night, booking a room with a fridge or microwave can be a perfect way to cut food costs. Whether you’re storing leftovers for later, cold water to take with you on outings, or preparing meals, it’s a great help in trimming your food budget.
- Use Yelp to find great eats in your price range.
Yelp is the perfect app/website for finding what you want to eat. You can search by price, type of food, or location. Yelp reviews help to take the guesswork out of finding a great restaurant within your budget.
- Bring snacks with you.
Whether hiking, road-tripping, or cruising the Riveria, always bring snacks and water. Carrying a refillable water bottle will also help to avoid spending extra money on overpriced drinks. Often there are ample opportunities to fill it up. For example, bring your empty reusable water bottle to the airport and fill it once you pass security. It’s a great way to avoid spending money in the overpriced gift stores that can be found at the airport.
- Pack a picnic.
My sister packs a picnic for every family trip in the car, which is brilliant. It gives the kids a chance to get out and stretch their legs and saves money on food at the same time. A total win-win!
This is also a great way to save while on vacation. Finding a local grocery and buying snacks for a picnic is a great way to enjoy your destination’s parks and monuments.
- Shop at farmer’s markets and local stores.
While in Switzerland and Paris, my husband and I stopped at the local markets to pick up cheese, bread, and salads rather than eat at another restaurant. It’s a great alternative to another overpriced restaurant meal without waiting for seating and paying extra for tips.
- Figure out food before being hungry.
Or, hangry. If you get hangry, you know what I’m talking about. There’s nothing worse than trying to find food when you’re starved and angry. Plan at least a couple of hours to get a general good idea of where your next meal is coming from.
Otherwise, you’ll eat anything, anywhere, to curb your hunger (and anger). Planning ahead means your stomach and wallet will thank you!
- Take advantage of happy hour.
Plan to have dinner during happy hour. While it is a bit early, chances are you can find a restaurant that has happy hour pricing. It’s the perfect time to split some appetizers, has some drinks, and not pay an arm and a leg.
- Share plates at a restaurant.
Sharing is caring, in this case…for your wallet. Sharing plates can help with saving money, and your kids aren’t going to eat that entire thing anyway, right? Also, skipping drinks and going for water can be another great way to save while eating out.
- Order groceries for your room.
We did this when we went to Disney, and it was really helpful in saving money for breakfasts. We got everyone fed for much less money than hitting the hotel restaurants every morning before we took off for the parks. Plus, we had snacks for when we got back.
We got a free six-month membership to Instacart through my credit card, so the delivery was also free. Check your credit cards or bank to see if they offer something similar.
Additional general tips for family travel on a budget
These are some tried and true additional savings ideas to get you within your travel budget. While they didn’t fit the above categories, they’re still worth mentioning!
- Travel during off-peak season.
If you’re wondering how to travel cheaply in Europe, try avoiding the high season. Off-peak or shoulder periods can be the best time to travel for dirt cheap.
For example, we went to Ireland at the end of February. Their high tourist season is April, May (spring flowers), July, August, and October. However, the weather was great (a little rainy) but warm enough that we didn’t freeze. We were able to get around easier and avoid the crowds for a lot of the attractions.
While some attractions were not open, it was well worth it. We even ate dinner at a restaurant one night and were the only patrons in the entire place!
Flights, hotels, and car rentals were much cheaper because it was also the low season. So instead of looking for affordable places to travel internationally, try figuring out when the off-season is for your international destination. If you can grab that window right before or after the tourist season, you can save thousands with these cheap travel tips.
- Cash in those credit card points.
If you have a credit card offering frequent flyer miles or some travel benefits, cash them in. If you’ve ever wanted to know how to travel for free, consider travel hacking. It’s not for the faint of heart, but travel hacking opens credit cards at the right time to score many points and get free flights or hotel stays. Another popular option is to optimize your flights on an airline like Southwest so that you fly enough to earn a free companion pass for the year and free flights.
- Find discounts through everyday places.
You’d be surprised at some of the places you can find discounts for travel:
- Costco or Sam’s Club: While I’ve never looked there, I hear great things about the vacation packages through membership clubs, including international travel for cheap. If you’re looking for an all-in-one option, this could be worthwhile if you already have a membership. Also, remember to buy discount gift cards there for Southwest or Disney when available!
- Groupon: Groupon has significantly discounted travel package deals all the time, especially for budget travel destinations and international locations. One of my favorite cheap travel tips is to sign up for Groupon’s travel emails to see what great deal you can score.
- Your employer: Some employers off perks such as discount travel packages through their corporate travel agent. Ask around and see if they offer any programs to their employees.
- Travelzoo’s Top 20: This weekly email has discounted hotels, flights, and flash sales activities. You can sign up here to receive the weekly top 20 deals email.
- Social media & newsletters: Follow your favorite brands so you’ll know when they offer an epic discount on a cheap trip you’ve had your eye on.
- Use your age (or cash) to get even more discounts.
Whip out your student ID or AARP membership to see if they offer student or senior discounts. Hey, it’s always worth a shot, right?
Also, try asking for a cash discount. See if paying with cash can also give you an extra deal. If you’re feeling courageous, try bargaining. In some countries bargaining on a purchase is expected.
Another favorite cheap travel tip is to try shopping where the locals shop to get the best deal. Buy your souvenirs from a local store rather than a tourist shop.
- Do the research and book the trip yourself. Use cashback sites to help you with discounts and earn cash back:
- Check out package deals. Sometimes hotels and tickets to attractions can be cheaper together than individually.
- Book your travel early – or very late to get the most affordable rates.
- Check for kids’ hotel discounts to see if they can eat or stay free.
- Try traveling overnight on buses, trains, or flights to save money on a night in a hotel.
- Check your hotel for a laundry room. You’ll pack less and have to check less luggage.
- Look for free parking.
- Rent baby gear like strollers or pack-n-plays. Or, check to see if the hotel provides any. Not having to haul all that can significantly help your sanity.
- Ensure your travel documents are current, so you don’t have to pay a rush fee to update them right before a trip.
- Ask about group rates. If you are wondering how to travel cheap with large family, group rates are the ticket!
- Buy a local sim card if you’re traveling internationally and are staying for a bit.
- Refrain from exchanging your currency at the airport. While it’s convenient, you’ll pay too much in fees. Wait until you’re at your destination to do so.
What is the cheapest way to travel with a family?
The most affordable way to travel with the whole family is to take a road trip or a staycation. You’ll save money on transportation or hotel, then pair that with bringing your food and you’ve got a cheap family vacation!
How much should I budget for a family vacation?
The current national average is $1200 per person. Assuming a family of four, you typically budget $4800 for vacation if you follow that logic.
However, you’re the only one who can say what a reasonable travel budget for your family is. Only you know how much you can afford and how much you want to spend. A vacation to Italy and a vacation to the local water park will vary significantly in price.
What is the cheapest place to travel with family?
Some of the cheapest places for affordable family vacations are the National state parks. With a small camping fee, you can do free hiking activities and pack your own food. Choosing a camping trip keeps the cost very low. Some specific parks to check out include:
- Yellowstone National Park
- Yosemite National Park
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Grand Teton National Park
- Arcadia National Park
Other great locations outside of national parks include:
- Gatlinburg, Tennesse
- Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
- Niagara Falls, New York
- Branson, Missouri
- Williamsburg, Virginia
Now that you know the best way to travel with family on a budget, leave your comments and suggestions below!