After Ross and I paid off our student loans (more on that story here) we wanted to travel… but we didn’t want traveling to hurt our financial goals.
So we decided to go to New Zealand, Ross’s dream destination, and spend the least amount of money that we could. Think couch-surfing, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and sleeping in our car when we couldn’t find a couch to surf on cheap.
When we went to Europe (my dream destination) the following year, we carried our enormous backpacks everywhere we went because we were too cheap to rent lockers, we slept in train stations and on trains, we couch-surfed, we ate more peanut butter and jelly (but we did remember to buy trail mix this time for some variety!), and only paid to use a public bathroom once… because I was desperate (I still can’t believe they make you pay to pee in Europe! I’m over it, honest.)
When we had kids, we knew we still wanted traveling to be a part of our life.
But since I was quitting my job to be a stay-at-home mom, our budget was even tighter than it was before.
So we took what we had learned from traveling cheaply as a couple and figured out how to have a fun family vacation on a shoestring budget.
In this post, I’m going to show you how to set your vacation budget, give you some budget-friendly travel ideas, and tell you how to stick with your budget, even when you’re on vacation.
How to Plan a Fun Family Vacation on a Tight Budget
1) Determine Your Budget for the Vacation
The first thing that you need to do if you are on a tight budget is to sit down with your monthly budget and determine exactly how much you can afford to spend on this vacation.
Be sure to talk with your spouse or significant and come to an agreement on an amount that you are both comfortable with.
When you vacation shop first, you will probably be disappointed when you can’t afford your dream vacation. So always start with the budget… then look at which vacations you can afford.
2) Prioritize Your Spending
When you are on a tight budget, you have to choose where you want to allocate your money.
You won’t be able to afford spending a lot of money on eating out, fancy hotels, and exciting excursions.
But, you can probably spend more money on one of those things if you are frugal in the other two areas.
When we were traveling to our dream destinations before we had kids, we chose to travel, sleep, and eat very cheaply. That way we could spend more money on some fun experiences that we had always wanted to do, like skydiving and bungee jumping in New Zealand.
We wouldn’t have been able to afford to skydive or bungee jump if we hadn’t determined before our trip that we weren’t going to spend much money on meals and lodging.
So prioritize what you are going to use your money for before your trip to make sure that you spend the money where you want to.
Decide which of the three areas you are going to spend some money on and which two you are going to be frugal in.
3) Brainstorm Ideas for Your Vacation
Now that you know your budget, you can decide what type of vacation that you can afford.
Here are some ideas to get you started!
1. Visit Family
Visiting family for your vacation will save you a lot of money on lodging and food.
If you don’t want to be a financial burden to your family by staying with them, offer to pay for groceries! It will still be a much cheaper vacation that if you go to a hotel and eat out for every meal.
We are lucky enough to have family living in Hawaii right now and were able to have a really fun vacation while staying with family in a lovely tropical location.
Since we have family that live all over the US, we usually plan our trips to visit someone and do some sight-seeing at the same time.
2. Visit Friends
Just like visiting family, visiting friends is not only fun, but it will save you money on your family vacation.
A vacation doesn’t need to be far away from home. We love visiting friends that are only a couple of hours away just as much as we love visiting friends that are states away!
3. Go Camping
If you don’t have friends and family on the route that you want to take, bring your camping gear!
Not only is camping a great way to spend time in nature with your family, it is a lot cheaper than staying in a hotel or hotel alternative like AirBnB or VRBO.
Another reason I love camping is that campsites often don’t have WiFi or cell service. This forces everyone to put down their devices and truly spend time together.
If you want some help planning your camping meals, check out my post How to Create Your Perfect Camping Meal Plan!
4. Go on a Road Trip
Instead of flying to your destination, try taking a road trip instead!
We have driven a lot with our kids from the time they were tiny to get them ready for the bigger road trips that we wanted to take.
Neither of our girls was particularly fond of their car seats when they were babies, but we kept taking short 2-3 hour road trips whenever we could to get them used to it.
By the time our younger daughter wa 15 months old, we were able to go on a multiple-day road trip with happy campers in the back seat!
The only thing that we did to make them a little bit more excited about being in their car seats for so long is we got them each one new toy that we gave them for the trip. Our second daughter got a Buckle Toy, and our first daughter (who had just turned 4) got a Doodle Pad.
If you still aren’t sure about taking a road trip with your kids, check out the post How to Survive a Long Roadtrip with Young Kids for tips on how to make the trip fun for everyone!
5. If You Need to Fly, Use a Credit Card to Get Points
When Ross’s brother moved to Hawaii and we knew that we wanted to go see them, we immediately got an Alaska Airlines credit card and began accumulating points.
Since we signed up when bonus miles were available, it didn’t take us too long before we were able to go to Hawaii with only needing to pay for 2 tickets (our younger daughter was under two, and our older daughter was able to fly on the companion ticket.)
If you know that you need to fly somewhere, see if you can find a credit card that you can earn miles with.
6. Have a Stay-Cation
If your budget doesn’t allow for you to do any of the above ideas, have a stay-cation with your family!
There are probably a lot of fun things to do close to your home that you’ve never done before. Are there fun restaurants that you have been wanting to try? Has a new water park opened up in your area? Are there gardens to visit or hikes to go on?
Take some time off work, put away your phone, and pretend you are on vacation with your family right in your own city!
4) Make Your Decisions And Begin to Prepare
1. Set Aside Money Every Month for Your Trip
It’s never too early to start saving for your trip.
You won’t be disappointed if you end up with more money to spend on your vacation than you originally thought, but you will be disappointed if you come up short.
You could even put a spare change jar in the kitchen so your whole family can see the goal and easily contribute to it.
2. Make Arrangements for Your Trip
This is when you want to check with any family or friends to see if they are available for you to stay with them, book hotels, book airline tickets, and anything else that you can purchase and reserve ahead of time.
Many things get more expensive as the date approaches and you can save money by booking in advance.
3. Meal Plan and Eat Out Sparingly
If you need to save money on your vacation, meal plan before you go.
Plan which days you will eat out and which days you will make your own food.
Do some research ahead of time on the local favorites so that you can be sure to go to the good places while you are there.
We have saved so much money on all of our trips by meal planning and going to the grocery store instead of just hitting the restaurants.
It’s not to say that we don’t go out to eat at all, but we plan on which meals we are going to eat out and we try not to impulsively go to restaurants just because it seems more fun at the time.
Check out How to Meal Plan for Your Road Trip for more ideas on creating your vacation meal plan.
4. Research Free Things To Do Before Your Vacation
No matter where you are going (or if you are going nowhere at all!), there are free things to do.
There is no better way to make your budget stretch even farther than by taking advantage of cheap or free things to do.
5) Pay Attention to Your Budget When You Are On Your Vacation
If you are on a tight budget, make sure you aren’t overspending when you are on vacation.
It can be really easy to get caught up in #vacationmode and start making it rain everywhere you go, but all those little expenses add up.
If you don’t want to be paying for your summer vacation from now until Christmas, keep track of all of your spending either with pen and paper, through the Mint.com app, or by using cash for everything!
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