When you hear the phrase “budget family travel,” do you envision cheap motels and ramen noodles? Throw those thoughts out of the window because you can truly have a wonderful vacation on a budget, but not cheap!
As the name suggests, budget actually means knowing how much you want to spend and sticking to it. There’s nothing wrong with a cheaper hotel outside of the tourist area, a bed and breakfast, or using discounts. Did you know that AARP hotel discounts can take up to 20% off? Psst … you don’t need to be 50 to become a member. Don’t forget about AAA membership discounts for car rentals, hotels, theme parks, and so much more.
If you have kids or have vacationed with young family members, you know the challenges of traveling. There’s the incessant questions about arrival time and snacks, not to mention the complaints of boredom. All of this can make a vacation suck from the start. With some planning and our brilliant tips, you too can have a budget family travel experience.
While these tips are still awesome, check out the following helpful links for more up-to-date budget-friendly family travel hacks:
- Luggage deals
- 23 Cheap Places to Travel in 2023 — With 70+ Free Things to Do!
- 15 Travel Hacks to Make Flying With Kids (Much) Easier
- 5 Healthy Travel Hacks for Your Next Big Adventure
- 12 Money-Saving Tricks to Make Gas Prices Less Painful
As always, download the Krazy Coupon Lady app to stay in the know about all of your favorite stores and products.
Limited Time Offer: Earn a $25 Lyft credit when you book a stay with Hilton.
1. Before a trip, freeze a bunch of PB&J sandwiches for ready-made meals.
I’m a big snacker regardless of a flight or road trip, so I know how important they are when vacation time comes. One good idea is freezing premade peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They’ll tide over your travel buddies until you can get to a restaurant.
2. Book a private room with kitchen access at a hostel.
Popular among European families, hostels offer a great alternative to hotels and vacation rentals if your clan plans on spending most of the day out and about in the city. Hostels are for short-term stays and resemble dorm rooms. They offer simple accommodations: beds, bathrooms (private and shared), and kitchen access so you can cook your own meals to save money.
In larger cities, private rooms with multiple beds and private bathrooms start at just $35 a night. However, costs vary greatly depending on amenities and location. If you’re on a budget, hostels are a great option, but understand that you won’t have the same privacy as you would with a traditional hotel stay.
3. Bring food on board flights to ease ear pressure.
Flying with kids is tough enough, but when the cabin pressure changes and their ears start to pop, it can be painful. To ease ear pressure, it’s important to encourage swallowing (or yawning). Bring a lollipop, their favorite snack, a pacifier, gum, or a carbonated drink. Or feed young infants around takeoff time.
4. Fill a binder with printables, games, and other fun things for kids to do on the road or plane.
For road or plane trips, you have to keep electronics charged, but you should also have a few backups to stave off boredom. Assemble custom binders with crossword puzzles, coloring sheets, crayons, and various games. To help you, we have some of the free best road trip games for families, adults, kids, and app lovers.
5. If traveling overnight, change kids into their pajamas before the flight to make sleeping easier.
Get kids in sleep mode by changing them into comfy pajamas before boarding a plane — especially when you’ve booked an overnight flight. If you’re worried about the germs from sitting on those airplane seats (like I would be), have them wear baggy jogging pants and a zip-up jacket over their pajamas. That way, you can easily pull those off instead of changing their entire outfit.
6. Keep kids quietly occupied with DIY sponge blocks.
Sponges are cheap, so this family vacation tip will help you stay on budget and keep kids occupied. Use a serrated knife to cut a few sponges into 3/4″ strips and hand them over to kids for quiet playtime in the car or plane.
7. Consider alternative airports when booking flights.
The cost of flights is crazy right now, but one way to lessen it is by picking a different airport. Chicago, NYC, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. all have at least two airports. Check the prices for each in the location you’re visiting. Even if the airport is a little further away, there’s likely public transportation nearby that will get you and your people to where you need to go.
8. Travel in the off-season and pay 1/5 of the price.
Expect to find the best deals on hotel and vacation rental accommodations, as well as flights, if you avoid vacationing during the summer and around the holidays. Many airlines offer great Cyber Monday deals for trips during January – March, so try to plan your trips around this time to save big. Here’s the best time to book flights by airline.
9. Get off the plane last … or first.
When flying with the kiddos, you have a quick decision to make — get off first or last. Consider the number of bags/luggage and seat assignment. If you were fortunate enough to be seated in the front of the plane, take the opportunity to assemble everything to deplane with the rest of the passengers.
If you’re already in the middle or rear, let all other passengers in the seats behind you get off the plane first. That way, you won’t feel rushed and stressed to get out of their way. Of course, if you have a connecting flight, get the heck off the plane first.
Keep in mind that many airlines provide priority boarding to families with young children so at least you can get settled at the start. This tip may not save you money, but it’s a general tip to think about when traveling.
10. Create backseat pockets with a shoe organizer for long car rides.
Shoe organizers are a Godsend on road trips (and closets, of course) because you can stuff them with everything you need to keep occupants busy. Think snacks, hand sanitizer, markers, toys, and tablets. Even stuffed animals, baby wipes, and water bottles. No more stopping at the store to pick things up along the way.
Related: 19 Travel Snack Hacks Every Parent Should Know
11. Camp along the way.
Camp for free at national forests, or pay a small fee (around $20 per vehicle, depending on location) at designated campgrounds that also offer bathroom and shower facilities.
Traveling in an RV? You can even park overnight for free in many Walmart parking lots — just call ahead to ensure the closest Walmart participates.
12. Rent RVs for as low as $1 a day.
One-way destination RV rentals trips are quickly growing in popularity as a thrifty alternative to traditional vacations. You’ll have to book your cheap RV rental in advance, though, so plan ahead and keep in mind that the cheapest rentals go quickly. Since these rental deals tend to be for one-way trips, you’ll also need to arrange return travel plans.
Here are some companies that offer cheap RV rentals:
- Imoova.com – Imoova offers one-way relocations of both campers and cars for $1 a night, plus applicable fees (like gas). A security deposit is needed, and there is a mileage cap. This option is perfect for bigger families wanting some additional space or an easy option to run into town for supplies without taking the big vehicle. It’s also for tent campers or road trippers who need a car but not the bulk of an RV.
- Transfercar.com – This relocation service helps rental companies shuttle their vehicles between branches by renting both recreational vehicles and cars at $5 or less per day for one-way trips. Drivers must be 25 years or older with a valid U.S. driver’s license. Fuel may or may not be included when you book.
13. Create countdown games for breaks and the ETA to your final destination.
Instead of hearing “Are we there yet?” every 10 minutes or so, start a new countdown each time you get back in the car for another leg of your road trip. For instance, you could hang a banner over the back of the driver seat with blocks of time to tear off as each hour passes.
14. Transform a lunch box into a travel Lego case.
Legos are great and all, but they can get lost easily on a vacation. Make it simpler on yourself and your builder by adding a few Legos in an old lunch box. They can play in the box and close it when it’s time to exit.
15. Schedule a meal break for long car rides.
Eating on the road is fine, but at some point, everyone needs to stretch their legs, use the restroom, and eat a real meal. If you’re not at your destination yet, pull over at a rest stop or set up an eating station in your trunk or hatchback. Better yet, break out those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches you premade.
16. Have kids make their own edible snack necklaces before a trip.
No need for kids and parents to shuffle through a snack bag — just have kids nibble on their necklaces. It’s like a healthier candy edible necklace. Use snacks with larger holes like cereal and pretzels and feed them through an elastic cord or dental floss.
17. Create an “I Spy” bottle filled with rice, small toys, beads, buttons, and other colorful objects.
Sensory toys can be expensive, so make your own to support your budget family vacation. Fill an old juice bottle with rice, pom poms, beaded necklaces, and anything else that’s brightly colored. Make it a game and let kids count the number of purple items or guess how many pom poms there are.
18. Use bike-sharing to cover more ground and save on parking.
Rather than spend money on renting a car — and parking — consider renting bikes to get around your destination. They’re cheaper, environmentally friendly, and an awesome way to get to know your vacation spot on a more personal level. You just need a credit card to rent a bike and can return your rental at any bike parking station in the city.
These cities offer great bike-share programs:
- New York
- Washington, D.C.
- Portland, Oregon
- Minneapolis – St. Paul
- San Francisco
19. Use Amazon Prime Now for last-minute necessities delivered right to you.
Amazon Prime members now get free 2-hour delivery (varies by location) on pretty much anything — toiletries and groceries for your travel needs. Even steamers and irons for any wrinkled clothing you happen to pull out of your suitcase. Use our tips on how to remove wrinkles without an iron.
Amazon will even deliver local restaurant takeout to your hotel door in case you and the fam are too tired to dine out. Prime Now is available in most major U.S. cities, but you have to be an Amazon Prime member. Not a Prime member? Sign up now for a free month.
20. Travel to cities with lots of free attractions.
Whether you’re driving or flying, getting to your destination is half the battle. Attractions on a shoestring budget? It can be done with some research. For example, Washington, D.C.’s National Mall not only allows you to see the monuments, parks, statues, and museums for free, but you’ll burn lots of calories with all of the walking.
In addition, many major cities have city passes to save on sightseeing costs. Viator.com has a thorough breakdown of passes available. For example, Chicago’s CityPASS has a discounted rate for the top attractions and can be used up to nine days from date of purchase.
Related: 17 Brilliant Beach Hacks You Must Try This Summer
21. Eat local to save money.
The tourist areas are great, but they’re overpriced. If you booked a hotel, ask the front desk staff for recommendations. Or use your favorite food app, like Uber Eats, to see what’s near you.
You can also find food trucks, buffets, and eateries where kids can eat for free. Even stop by farmer’s markets for fresh food. Making your own food is fine, but since you’re on vacation, let someone else cook. And you better get your birthday freebie if you’re traveling. Lunchables will certainly come in handy between meals.
22. Pick a hotel with free breakfast.
Hotel rooms with kitchenettes are nice, but if that type isn’t in your budget, find one with free breakfast. You’ll get a free meal (which is already built into the nightly room rate), milk, juice, tea, water, and coffee. I consistently use this tip even when I’m not traveling with my family. It saves a lot of money. Breakfast for a family of four can easily be $25 if you head to a fast-food restaurant. Use that money for a souvenir.
While you’re living it up in the hotel, childproof on the go with duct tape. Cover those sharp corners and electrical plugs for a temporary fix when away from home.
23. Ask for a refrigerator in your hotel room.
Some hotel rooms already come with refrigerators; others come with fridges packed with snacks and beverages you must pay for if removed. Call your hotel in advance and request a room with an empty refrigerator to store milk, breakfast foods, leftovers, and other family necessities.
24. Use hot water from the coffee maker to heat baby bottles.
Hotel coffee makers are so useful for things other than coffee. Some modern hotels have Keurig machines, so you don’t have to pay for coffee. In fact, use the room’s disposal cups to transport your free coffee. Coffee makers are also good for oatmeal, hot cocoa, noodles, even hot dogs!
25. Make your own individually packaged snacks.
Another snack idea for your budget family vacation is to prepack snacks like trail mix, M&M’s, and potato chips. Keep a stash in your carry-on bag or purse to pass out when hunger strikes. Trust me, this tip isn’t just for kids.
26. Organize outfits by day in resealable bags.
Get kids ready quickly and save space in your luggage by packing daily outfits in zip bags. If you have an infant or toddler, add their clothes to your luggage. That’ll be one less bag to bring.
27. Use public transportation.
Rental car prices are outrageous and rideshare services aren’t much cheaper. If you can, use public transportation to save money and travel faster (especially on the train).
28. Book your vacation on non-school holidays or on weekdays.
Parents, if you think booking your vacation during non-school holidays is smart, other parents are thinking the same thing. Not only are the rates cheaper, but it’s a getaway for you, too.
Don’t forget about traveling during the week. For example, I booked a cabin for my family of four for three nights during the week. I saved about $100 a night compared to the weekend.
If you’re worried about missing homework assignments, reach out to teachers in advance (like a week ahead); your kiddos can get the work done before you start your vacation. If you have toddlers or infants, they won’t miss school.
29. Give kids their own spot to sleep in a hotel room by changing the direction of a bed’s pillows.
With a big enough bed, you can create fun sleeping areas for little kids. Divide the pillows as shown and have them sleep under the comforter. It may not seem that creative to you, but kids love to break the monotony.
30. Choose the right credit card for travel.
As much as we plan on sticking with a budget, cash can still be tight. The bright side is that there are many credit cards that give major travel perks you can use on vacation. Use a cash-back card or one where you can earn points for travel-related purchases.
For instance, the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card lets you earn points on online grocery purchases, dining, and travel. There’s even a sign-up bonus of 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.