Dos and don’ts for planning a budget-friendly family vacation.
Budgeting for a family vacation used to be a lot simpler. Sure, there were fluctuations in the price of accommodations and airline flights during “peak season,” and summer gas prices tended to be higher, but those things were pretty predictable.
The pandemic threw a monkey wrench into all that, closing the door on many traditional vacation options while making it a lot cheaper (and safer) to take a road trip … if you weren’t in quarantine, if travel restrictions allowed it, and — oh, yeah, if you felt safe.
Now, however, you may feel like you’ve got a case of whiplash. Gas prices are rising, as they usually do as summer approaches; but because they’d dipped so low during the pandemic, the difference is even more jarring than usual. Airline ticket prices are rising, too, as bookings are up 90% on early summer flights, and mid-pandemic bargain fares have all but vanished.
With the situation changing quickly, here are some dos and don’ts for planning a budget-friendly vacation.
Do define what you want from your trip
Are you going for a relaxing vacation at the beach, a family campout, or a trip that involves physical exercise? Take the kids’ limits into account, or pack a child carrier.
Will it be an educational foray to museums (great for teaching the kids about art and history), a photo trip, or something else entirely? Setting goals will help you define where you’ll go and how much you will need to spend.
Don’t forget to check the weather
Don’t let bad weather spoil your vacation. Research where you’re going — and when — to maximize your chances of hitting sunshine instead of showers (or worse). Download a dependable weather app (many are available for free) to keep you apprised of the long-range forecast. You can program each destination you plan to visit, so you can call up weather info at a click.
Do put safety first
Take your car to the shop for a thorough once-over before you leave, including a brake check, oil change, filter check, tuneup (if needed), and tire rotation and inspection. This doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Look for deals and coupons. You can get discounts through Groupon, and even use your GasBuddy card if you have one.
Be on the lookout for problems with your tires like underinflation, bulging sidewalls, and worn tread. Blowouts cause 200 deaths and 11,000 accidents per year. If you need new tires, look for the best deals, but don’t skimp on quality. Listen for squealing brakes, and watch for warning lights. If you do find yourself in an accident, it pays to know ahead of time what steps to take, just in case.
Don’t put off booking a flight
If you plan to travel by air, buy your tickets well in advance. The turnaround in air travel demand shows no sign of letting up, so you can’t expect prices to fall back to where they were — or even close. Not only fare well above mid-pandemic lows, but in some cases, they’re already higher than they were in 2019.
You can find discount airfares online at places like Travelocity and Priceline. And a number of airlines allow kids to fly free.
Do get your kids involved in planning
Identify some destinations that might appeal to the kids, whether it’s an amusement park, a campsite, or a town you know has a delicious ice cream parlor and engaging toy store. Ask them what favorite snacks they’d like to take along and what they’d most like to learn from your vacation.
Money-saving tips: Buying food is a lot cheaper at supermarkets than at fast-food restaurants or convenience stores, plus you can use coupons to save even more. When you do eat out, look for restaurants that offer discounts to children or, in some cases, allow kids to eat free.
Include money in your budget for souvenirs, so your kids will have a token to help them remember all the fun you had together.
Don’t neglect to check for deals
Even though the cost of traveling is going up again, that doesn’t mean deals are nonexistent. Online reservation systems can give you “hidden” or “exclusive” deals on accommodations and may give you a night free after you make a specific number of reservations. Some motels may offer deals that allow young children to stay at a discounted rate, or even for free.
Do plan ways to keep the kids engaged
Bring along fun and educational games to keep your kids from getting bored on the road or in the airport terminal. Choose games without too many moving parts, so they don’t get lost along the way.
Mad Libs is a fun language game to play on the road. You can buy an inexpensive deck of playing cards, or you don’t have to spend anything: You can make up your own games like asking your kids to look out for various road signs or landmarks as they ride along.
Don’t forget the essentials
If you’ve got very young kids, you’ll want to bring along things like a stroller and car seat. But don’t forget that your baby’s or toddler’s comfort level is important, too. New and unfamiliar surroundings can be scary, so bring along something that will make your little one feel safe, like a security blanket, favorite toy, or stuffed animal.
Do have all kinds of fun
Whatever destination or activities you choose for your vacation, whether you’re flying or driving, camping out, sleeping in a cabin, or staying at a five-star hotel, make it your business to have fun. Vacations don’t come along all that often, and the kids will be all grown up before you know it — so make the most of your time as a family.
Molly Barnes, Digital Nomad Life