Okay, this is going to be a long one, but hopefully will be one of the more helpful posts I will write. I’ve heard a few times that it seems like we are always going somewhere. Well that isn’t exactly true, although we may travel slightly more than the average family. But if we’re not traveling, I’m planning. And because I like to plan, I am always looking for ways to save money on family travel which helps me justify that extra getaway here and there. We make a respectable living, but are by no means rich so I like to save money where I can and where it makes sense.
My kids are 6, 8 and 10 now and we’ve really only started traveling with them outside of visiting family over the last few years. In that time, I’ve learned a few things about having a great vacation experience without completely breaking the bank. I will qualify that statement and say that my goal is never to take the cheapest vacation possible. What it does mean is that I do a ton of research in preparation for every trip to ensure we are taking the most cost efficient trip we can for what we want to do and what we can afford.
My tips aren’t related to getting a travel credit card and/or using miles to travel. There are several sites that can school you on that strategy. My tips are for the family that takes that one big trip or maybe even takes a few trips each year and doesn’t want to play the rewards credit card game. It’s for those that just want to plan your family trip as cost effectively as possible. Here are some of the ways I have found over the years that make for a great cost saving vacation.
Know where you’re going and when you’re going as far in advance as possible
You know that saying ‘The early bird gets the worm’? Yeah, well that definitely applies when it comes to flight travel savings. And when I say early, 8 months to 1 year is typically how far in advance I plan family travel. Sure, there might be the occasional weekend trip or trip to visit family that is debated and decided on last minute, but for major trips, I always start planning at least 8 months in advance. This can particularly help save you money on flights. Getting your flights right after or not long after dates are released almost always gets you the best fare. At the very minimum, you should know where you’re going and start keeping an eye on flight prices. Our last 2 trips, I purchased our plane tickets 6 months in advance. Just 2 months later when I went to look at the flights the price had risen $100 per ticket. For our family of 5, that’s no chump change. We flew to San Francisco for $850 including baggage fees. I would say that $170 pp round trip for a cross-country flight is pretty good. Hotels are a little easier to get good deals closer to your trip date although I still recommend that you begin looking well in advance. Hotels often run specials throughout the year and you also run the risk of the best family friendly hotels being booked if you wait and are traveling during peak vacation or holiday times.
Have no loyalty to a particular airline
This may be controversial. I’m not saying don’t join the loyalty programs. Absolutely join as many as you can, but when you’re trying to save money on a family vacation let that be a secondary consideration. Unless you are traveling regularly for work or some other reason in addition to your family travel, the money you save going with the airline with the best price will far outweigh any benefit you get from a particular airline loyalty program.
Don’t discount that discount airline
Low cost airlines generally get a bad rap, but we have so far had great experiences with Frontier Airlines. I have admittedly never flown Spirit Airlines due to the horror stories I have heard, but we decided to give Frontier a try a couple of years ago when we saw tickets to New Orleans for $80 round trip. Yes, you have to pay for bags and carry-ons, but even with the cost of checking a couple of suitcases, the cost was about $520 for our family of 5. WHAT!! I knew I was winning with that one and I was sold. Check out my full review on Frontier Airlines. No, they aren’t perfect, but so far so good for our family.
We did join Discount Den, which is the discount program that Frontier Airlines offers. The cost is $49.99 a year. The difference on ticket prices for Discount Den members versus non-members varies (could be $10, $50, $75 or more), but has saved us money on every flight we have taken on Frontier. And it saves even more compared to other airlines. For our family of 5, the Discount Den membership literally paid for itself 3 times over on our very first flight. I will gladly fork over that $50 per year for the savings it provides. So the gist of all of this is to say, when it comes to flights…play the field. And give Frontier Airlines achance if your journey’s end point is on their list of destinations.
Be prepared to take flights at odd times (i.e. super early or super late flights that nobody else wants to bother with)
No, it’s not the most convenient, but we’re trying to save money here and you can literally save hundreds of dollars by doing this. And besides…you’re going on vacation; you can sleep on the plane and relax when you get there. I worried the first time we did this, especially with young kids, but I needn’t have worried. They were so excited to be going on vacation that they totally fine. We encouraged napping on the plane so that the crankiness didn’t kick in later and had our usual stash of snacks and plane activities to keep them busy otherwise.
If you are a Costco member, don’t forget to check their pricing and benefits
Costco Travel can be a great way to save money on family travel. And when you aren’t saving money, you’re at least getting something back. We booked our September 2016 Disney Dream cruise through Costco Travel. The price was the same as it would have been if we booked directly through Disney, but we also received a Costco Cash Card (aka Costco Gift Card) upon our return from the cruise. Sweet! I spend plenty of money in that store so it was definitely put to good use.
Always look for coupons and promo codes
I don’t know how many times I have been about to purchase something and thought about at the last minute that I should look for a promo codes. I mean the box is always there so there must be some codes out there right? 8 out of 10 times I find one. This is true for products and services. Retailmenot is my go to site and app for codes. When it comes to family vacations, their are often promo codes or discounts for attractions you’ll visit or for things you need to buy. If you’re thinking ‘I don’t have time to search for coupon codes’, then at the very least you should go to the websites for the attractions you plan to visit and purchase your tickets through the site. At many places there is usually a few dollars discount just for purchasing your tickets online instead of at the door. Depending on where you are traveling, discounts can also be found by purchasing attraction tickets in bulk through things like CityPass or Go Card which are booklets that include tickets to multiple attractions at a steep discount to what you would pay if purchaseing individually. Read my post on Getting the most bank for your attraction touring buck to see if this might be a good option for your family.
Learn how to use and work discount travel sites such as Hotwire and Priceline Express Deals
I primarily use these sites for hotels and car rentals although not for every trip. These sites can save you tons of money compared to booking directly through a hotel, but because you don’t find out what hotel you get until after you have committed and paid, you MUST know how to use them. I definitely have standards for where I will stay and as a family of 5, enough space is also super important. I have learned how to figure out with a fairly high degree of accuracy what hotel I am most likely to receive. This is based off of using information like hotel star rating, amenities, location and number of reviews and comparing the potential unnamed option to the information on sites such as TripAdvisor and Expedia. This is not only an option for 2 or 3 star hotels. It is great for 4 and 5 star hotels as well. From a hotel’s perspective, they would of course prefer that you pay the $300 or $400/night rate, but they would also prefer to get $150 or $200/night versus the $0 they would get by leaving the room empty. The closer to your travel date, typically the better deal to be had in this case.
I don’t always use these sites though. As a starting point, I always check TripAdvisor for reviews then check directly at the hotel websites for hotels I am interested in. Sometimes I can just find a hotel I like at a price that I am comfortable with and reserve it. I always check for special rates or promotions the hotels themselves are having (4th night free; ‘stay and play with free breakfast’, etc.). I like booking direct because you have the ability to easily cancel or change your reservation. Sites like Hotwire can be especially great though, when traveling to more expensive cities. As was the case on our trip to San Francisco, the city itself and subsequently the hotels are very expensive. So as I searched hotels I gathered plenty of information about the hotels in the area we were looking to stay, used that with the information I mentioned above to narrow down to which hotels I was likely to be offered, feeling fairly confident it was likely to be 1 in particular. Knowing I would be comfortable with any of the potential options, I took the plunge and booked through Hotwire.com. My prediction was correct (Hyatt Centric Fisherman’s Wharf) and we ended up having a great stay at a cost about 1/3 less than we would have paid booking directly through the hotel.
And finally, be open to visiting places that you may not have initially been considering
I mentioned we recently came back from San Francisco. We had a great San Francisco Family Adventure. It wasn’t initially on my list for a family trip, probably because I had already been there even though my husband and kids had not. However, as I was casually researching flights for various destinations I thought ‘what the heck, the family hasn’t been there, let me see what the flights look like’ and what do you know there was an excellent deal from Atlanta to San Francisco. The trip ended up being so much fun. While it had been only a few years since I was out there for work, traveling with family was like seeing it for the first time. I’m so glad we got to have that experience. So as you’re thinking about places to travel with your family, look at cities you might not normally consider. If you have young kids check out lists such as ‘Best Children’s Museums’ or ‘Best Aquariums’, see where you can get the best flight deal (or maybe which is in reasonable driving distance) and then see what else the city has to offer and build your itinerary from there. Your ultimate goal is to spend quality time with your family, making great memories. You can often achieve that in the places you least expect.