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7 Cheap & Fun Family Vacation Ideas That Your Kids Will Love

By Jacqueline Curtis

family vacationThe family vacation is practically an American institution. Whether it’s a trip to Grandma’s house or a long-anticipated vacation to a Disney theme park, vacations allow you to spend quality time with your family as you make lifelong memories.

Of course, vacationing with a large brood also means shelling out more for everything: food, lodging, entertainment, and attraction tickets, to name a few. But just because you’re on a tight budget doesn’t mean you need to skip the family vacation.

There are ways to plan a family vacation without going into debt or paying a fortune. Being smart about getting the most out of every dollar makes it possible to enjoy your trip without sacrificing fun. It’s the best of both worlds: making memories with your family and avoiding sticker shock when all is said and done.

Cost-Effective Family Vacation Ideas

I’ve taken my kids on two vacations this year, neither of which were exotic or expensive. And even though I didn’t take my kids to see architecture in Europe or to find elephants on an African safari, we had fun, created memories, and snapped a ton of scrapbook-worthy photos. My kids are seven and four – they’re happy to stay in a hotel and go swimming. I’ve learned vacations aren’t about the destination so much as the experience, which means a cost-effective plan can be as enjoyable as a pricey vacation.

Here are some of the best ways to score a memorable trip on the cheap:

1. Plan a Staycation

Whether you visit a historical site, national forest, or a few local city hangouts, by booking lodging where you live and sticking close to home, you can get the vacation experience without the expense of travel. Look for cheap attractions and tours, and ask your hotel whether they offer a discount for local residents. One of the best places to find staycation deals is through group deal websites such as LivingSocial, Travelzoo, and Groupon. Most of these sites offer deep discounts on everything from hotels to food and activities.

Doing something out of the ordinary, even if it’s close to home, can help create a vacation-like atmosphere without requiring an extravagant trip. Whether you choose to go camping at a nearby campsite, or you stay overnight in the city to check out the opening of a new museum, you don’t need to drive or fly to find a vacation spot.

2. Get Active

If you think about it, most of the attractions and events you pay for on vacation are passive activities. It costs a lot of money to catch a baseball game, go to the movies, see a play, or wander around a theme park, and yet, these activities don’t always lend themselves to family bonding. That’s why I favor active itineraries instead. Not only does a hike through a national forest or a bike ride through town cost a lot less than show tickets, these types of activities give you a chance to talk and connect with your family.

Some active vacation ideas include:

  • Hiking
  • Rafting
  • Ropes courses
  • Zipline courses
  • Cycling
  • Camping
  • Geocaching

Check for nearby ropes or leadership courses that take private participants. For a fairly low admission fee (the ropes course near me charges $15 per participant and $30 for a zipline tour), you can add an amazing element to your cost-effective vacation.

family swimming

3. Book Through Owners

Hotels can be expensive, and some don’t even offer that many amenities. The trick to getting the most bang for your buck is to look for lodging that offers more than just a bed and a bathroom.

I love the site Airbnb. It provides owners of condominiums and vacation homes the ability to list their properties for a lot less than you would spend through a traditional hotel website. For instance, a full-service condo listed on Airbnb by its owner in Miami Beach, Florida costs $134 per night, while a comparable hotel room in the same area costs upwards of $267 per night.

You can specify the size and amenities of the lodging you’re looking for, and in most cases, you can score extra perks, such as a working kitchen and on-site gym. I love being able to work with the property owner instead of a hotel. In fact, my friends and I take a yearly girl’s trip to Park City, Utah and use Airbnb to find lodgings large enough to accommodate 15 women. This type of flexibility makes it an excellent resource for bigger families or family reunions.

Other sites, such as VRBO, HomeAway, and FlipKey, offer similar services, so compare options and prices before you book to make sure you’re getting the best deal. Finally, read renter reviews before you book with a property owner – you want to make sure the property lives up to its hype.

4. Package Up

While it may seem more cost-effective to search separately for the best deals on airfare, car rentals, and lodging, I’ve found that you can save big by booking a full package. Online travel sites, such as Travelocity, Expedia, and Orbitz, offer many options, but you might want to check with a travel agent for package deals too. Some travel agents can offer killer deals you can’t find online.

You may also want to look at booking a vacation package directly through your airline. I recently scored a great deal on plane tickets and a hotel in Maui when booking through US Airways – it was a full $200 cheaper than if I had booked my hotel and airfare separately, and still cheaper than the deals I found on travel websites. Find the best deal by pricing airfare, hotel, and car rentals separately, then compare the total to a variety of package deals.

5. Book Through Club Stores

It’s an unusual way to book a vacation, but club stores such as Costco offer vacation-planning services with great deals on attraction tickets. For instance, a Disneyland vacation package booked for November that includes park passes and lodging at the Paradise Pier Hotel costs $2,603 whether you book through Disney or through Costco. However, Costco members get more for their money, receiving benefits like a character dining experience, a $20 Disney gift card, and other goodies.

Even if you don’t have a Costco club membership, you can browse options on the Costco Travel website. If you find a great deal through Costco or another club store, it might be worth the cost of membership to score discounts on travel, even if it’s just for one trip.

6. Visit the Beach Less Traveled

Beach vacations are basically the Holy Grail of family vacations. Sand, sun, relaxation, and family time all add up to a stress-reducing, memory-making experience. However, staying on premium beach real estate is going to cost you, particularly if you set your sights on popular vacation destinations. That doesn’t mean you have to skip the beach altogether. The United States offers 88,633 miles of coastline to explore, so you should be able to find something more cost-effective.

Instead of heading to pricey Miami or Southern California, consider the gulf shore of Alabama or the beaches in Galveston, Texas. Or, skip the pricey vacation in Orange County, California for the laid-back vibe of San Mateo County, California. Other beaches include the Oregon and Washington coastlines, or the East Coast between South Carolina and northern Florida. A beachfront hotel in San Diego in July costs about $234 per night, while a beachfront condo on the Oregon Coast at the same time is about $100 per night – that alone is significant savings.

In addition to less expensive lodging, less-frequented beaches feature lower-cost food and activities. If you really want an insider’s opinion, ask friends, family, and acquaintances who live near the water about their favorite spots. Getting a local opinion helps you avoid some of the pricey tourist traps while providing you with an authentic local experience.

If you’re far from any beach, lake vacations are another option. My family loves to vacation on Lake Powell in southern Utah. There’s an entrance fee of about $30, then camping on the shore is free. The other expenses include food and fuel – totaling about $400 for a week in the sun. Check out areas like Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin, Lake Tahoe in Nevada, the Finger Lakes region of New York, and Lake Havasu in Arizona.

7. Work (on a Ranch) for the Weekend

Believe it or not, you can find cheap vacations at working farms and dude ranches all over the country. While it’s definitely a seasonal activity, think about how much your kids would love learning about farm life, collecting eggs, taking care of animals, and even horseback riding. And, since you earn your keep while staying on a working farm, it’s usually pretty cost-effective. These hands-on experiences feature rustic lodgings – usually a cabin or a room with bunks – and also provide meals you share with other families visiting the farm, giving you the chance to enjoy camaraderie with other suburban families.

The Flying L Guest Ranch located just outside of San Antonio, Texas charges about $90 per day for adults and $40 for kids and teens to experience an all-inclusive vacation featuring horseback riding, swimming, and even miniature golf.

New York City-area families can find a quick escape at the Malibu Ranch in Milford, Pennsylvania. Located about 75 miles outside of New York, this ranch offers weekend packages for $500 per family. While this may sound pricey, food and accommodations are included, along with attractions like a guest rodeo, fishing, a shooting range, cattle drives, and campfires for four. It’s an excellent way to expose your kids to new experiences without breaking the bank.

Keep in mind that not all dude ranches are cheap vacation options. Boutique-style ranches can be seriously expensive, so make sure you add up the costs of food, lodging, and activities before you commit.

family camping

Vacation Planning Tips

Get more for your money by putting a plan in place to ensure you squeeze every smile and mile out of your dollars:

1. Set a Budget and Stick to It
Figure out your family vacation budget before you even start looking. According to CNN, the average American family spends about $1,200 on a family vacation, reserving about 5% to 7% of their household income for vacations. But, the bottom line is that you should spend what you can afford, setting and sticking to your budget from the very start.

2. Account for Extra Fees
When booking a hotel or adding up airfare, it’s easy to forget about unpublished fees and additional expenses. Resort fees, taxes, parking, baggage fees, and add-ons can drive up the cost of your family vacation. Leave wiggle room in your budget to account for extra fees to make sure you know how much you’ll be spending. I like to read reviews on TripAdvisor to see if a hotel has hidden fees that aren’t clear on booking website.

3. Book Free Attractions
Sure, you could go to a Disney park or see “Wicked” on Broadway, but there are lots of  free attractions that give you the vacation experience for less. Nature-based activities, such as hiking, cycling, and sightseeing, are usually free or cheap, but you can also look into factory tours and inexpensive museums. Try running an Internet search for your vacation spot’s free attractions. This way, you can save up your vacation money for a few of the more expensive attractions.

4. Ask for Upgrades
Hotels and attractions often have upgrades available for qualifying guests, but you usually have to ask to get them. I’ve gotten upgrades on everything from airfare to hotel rooms simply because I asked the reservations staff if there was anything else available for upgrade. When staying at the Hyatt Regency in Maui, part of the hotel was under construction. By simply asking for a room in another area of the hotel, my husband and I were upgraded to an oceanfront room for free. Even if the hotel staff says no, you have nothing to lose by posing the question.

5. Look for a Fridge and Microwave
When booking vacation accommodations, two of the things I look for are a fridge and a microwave. Eating while vacationing can be seriously expensive, so I love having the option to reheat leftovers and store food in my room. My family recently traveled to San Diego, and while we splurged on room service and restaurants a few times, we otherwise ate only the food we stored in our room.

6. Ask Your Teen for Help
Teens can be a serious asset when it comes to scouring the Web for great vacation deals. After all, your teen is probably an Internet whiz already. Enlist his or her help by providing a budget, lodging restrictions, and attraction ideas before challenging him or her to find the best price. Delegating the task saves time, and in all likelihood, it’ll save you money, too.

7. Buy Souvenirs Off-Site
Theme parks and attractions make big bucks by selling souvenirs, so expect to pay a premium if you purchase memorabilia on site. Instead, head off-site to pick up a few tokens. Even big box stores like Walmart and Target usually offer cheap memorabilia at stores located near theme parks. Take Disneyland, for example. An autograph book bought on-site costs $8, but you can score a small Disney journal for about $2 if you shop at Walmart instead. If your kids are simply dying to buy a souvenir at the park, set a budget and stick to it. Once the budget is spent, remind your kids that there’s nothing left in the pot for non-budgeted items.

8. Ask for Contributions
If your child’s birthday, graduation, or other special event coincides with your upcoming trip, ask grandparents and other family members to contribute to the experience instead of buying gifts. For instance, grandma could foot the bill for a special activity that you’re planning while on vacation, like a surfing lesson. That way, your kids get a great experience without blowing your budget.

9. Be Flexible
Lucky for you, there’s always some sort of travel or vacation sale going on. By keeping your dates flexible, you’re bound to find a better deal than someone whose dates are set in stone. With a more flexible mindset, you could nab a cheap Groupon deal for river rafting or snag a less expensive hotel room by traveling during the week or on the off-season. While it’s not always possible to drop everything and go, an open mind goes a long way toward helping you locate the best deals.

Final Word

Remember, family vacations are a luxury, not a necessity. Even if everyone else’s family spends their summers at the beach, that doesn’t mean it’s worth racking up debt just to keep up. Instead, be creative and stretch your resources to afford a family vacation. Ultimately, it’s up to you whether you stay within your vacation budget, but if you do, the resulting peace of mind will help you enjoy your vacation even more.

What’s your favorite way to save money on vacations?

Jacqueline Curtis
Jacqueline Curtis is an experienced style expert, and she focuses on getting high fashion on a tight budget. She writes for several online publications, including her own fashion blog, How Not to Dress Like a Mom, and specializes in fashion, finance, health and fitness, and parenting. Jae grew up in Toronto, Canada, but now resides in Utah with her husband, two kids, and prized shoe collection.

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