By Claire Trageser
June 03, 2019
Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images

Summer is on its way, and if you have kids, that likely means complicated summer camp plans. But it also could mean time for a family vacation. Trips that take everyone in the family away from their routines — parents from work and household responsibilities, kids from school and homework — can be a great bonding experience for families and give each family member a chance to see new things.

But taking the whole family on vacation can be expensive. Factor in airfare, hotels or home rentals, even campgrounds, plus food and supplies — and maybe a house sitter or pet sitter while you are away — and it all adds up fast.

Four in five American families planned to take a summer vacation in 2018, according to a survey done by the website Nerdwallet. The parents in those families said they planned to spend on average more than $2,200 on those trips. The vast majority (71 percent of families) said they would likely spend more than $1,000. And, the survey found, a majority of parents were going to charge at least part of their vacation on a credit card.

Luckily, there are lots of ways to take family trips together without racking up credit card debt, or even spending too heavily. Take advantage of some of the following tips to have a fun summer trip without breaking the bank.

1. Be flexible.

If you can make a flexible travel schedule work you will save considerably on airfare and hotels. Plan a vacation for a mid-week stay, rather than one that spans a weekend, recommends Devon Nagle, head of communications for the travel booking website Priceline.

“Or choose your destination and then price out the cost of the hotel for the length of your trip over multiple different time frames to spot the lowest rates,” she said. “Compare costs for a stay that begins a day or two earlier, or ends a day or two later than you'd originally planned. The savings may be considerable.”

2. Stay outside the city center.

You can often save a lot of money by staying a bit outside the center of a city with all the tourist attractions and then taking public transit or traveling in to see the sites. These sleeping arrangements might also give you a quieter spot at night and give you a chance to see part of a city you wouldn’t visit otherwise. And, the travel to the city center on public transit can be part of the fun.

3. Know where to look for deals.

Lots of airlines, hotels and other travel companies offer deals through social media, newsletters and mobile apps that you can use to your advantage. “Companies often highlight special travel deals and promotions on a daily or weekly basis and send it straight to your email if you sign-up,” says Nagle, the Priceline spokeswoman. “Priceline offers exclusive deals to followers on Twitter and newsletter subscribers. Priceline also offers mobile-only deals if you search for hotel accommodations via its app or your mobile browser. “

4. Book early.

If you are planning trips around big summer holidays like Memorial Day, Fourth of July, or Labor Day, it’s best to plan ahead and book early.

Nagle, the spokeswoman for Priceline, says their data shows that hotels and flights prices hold steady until about 12 days prior to May 25, the start of Memorial Day weekend. At that point, flight prices start to rise. An average Memorial Day weekend flight costs $239 per ticket 12 days before the weekend, but then prices begin to rise, he says. The average price for a flight booked one day before May 25 is $313 per ticket.

For the Fourth of July, prices start to rise even earlier. Priceline data shows that hotels and flights prices hold steady until about 16 days prior to July 4, but then start to rise, Nagle says. An average Fourth of July flight costs $214 per ticket 16 days before the holiday, whereas the average price for a flight booked one day before July 4 is $304 per ticket.

For Labor Day, prices start to rise 10 days before the holiday.

5. Or book at the last minute.

If you can hold off on booking hotels until right before your trip, you may save some serious money. Try apps like HotelTonight that allow you to search for last minute deals, or use features like Priceline’s Express Deals search.

“Hotels, even some luxury, will often offer steep discounts, sometimes more than half off, to travelers who will book the hotel based on its star rating and neighborhood, rather than its specific name,” says Priceline’s spokeswoman Nagle. “You will know the rating, neighborhood, amenities and the experience of fellow travelers before you book. Once you book the vacation, all relevant details will be disclosed. Such deals often exist for last-minute travelers in particular, but can also be found weeks in advance.”

6. Use your kids to get deals.

There are lots of restaurants, hotels and attractions with deals for kids, so try seeking those out when you make your travel plans. Also, some places go the extra mile to offer discounts to families with kids. For example, all eight of the Great Ohio Lodges (www.greatohiolodges.com) in state parks in Ohio offer a “Stays for A's” program, where for every A on a child's report card, the lodges will knock $10 off the nightly rate. Of course, there’s a limit, $50 per night, or 5 A's.

6. Try a volunteer trip.

Especially for international travel, volunteer trips are great ways to save money and have a more immersive experience while you travel. For one example, check out Animal Experience International, that has 26 different volunteer programs including a wildlife rescue program in Guatemala. The all inclusive program includes onsite housing, training and meals, and volunteers work on feeding and cleaning the animals.

7. Rent out your house while you're away.

Make up for some of the money you’re spending on your trip by renting out your own home while you are away. Websites like AirBnB and VRBO make it pretty easy to set up a home rental, and you can hire a cleaning service to pick up after your guests so you come home to a clean house.

8. Consider a home swap.

Even better than renting your house may be a straight up home swap, where you trade lodging with another family. They stay in your house, you stay in theirs, and no one has to pay for a hotel. Try websites like HomeExchange, HomeLink, and Intervac Home Exchange to set it up.

 

9. Try a resort with deals.

Family resorts can make trips easy — they have food and activities all in one place. And they don’t have to break the bank if you book the right one. Lesley Cohen, a luxury travel advisor with the travel company SmartFlyer, recommends booking a club level room so the kids can snack all day. She also recommends booking a resort with a complimentary kids club. “Many places are charging $150 per kid for a half day program whereas some luxury resorts have it included,” she says. Oh yeah, and pack sunscreen, because it’s way more expensive at the hotel shop.

10. Try the “Robin Hood Hack.”

There’s an easy way to still save money after you book a hotel, says Doron Nadivi, the chief commercial officer at a new app company called Pruvo. “Hotel prices tend to drop 40 percent of the time after hotels are booked and can drop up to 72 percent off the total reservation amount,” he said. If you use the app Pruvo, it tracks price drops for existing hotel reservations and notifies the customer. (You could also set a reminder to check the price again periodically before your trip.) Then you can call and request the lower rate.

11. Add family trips to your business travel.

If you have summer business travel plans, adding a family vacation on at the end can be a great way to save money. “If I can, I get the family to join me on a business trip by adding some time before or after to explore, relax and share the destination with my family, says Joel Brandon Bravo, the vice president of TransPerfect, a language solutions and technology services company, and formerly managing director at Travelzoo UK.

12. Try local experiences

Getting away from the highly touristy attractions and experiences can make a trip more memorable and end up saving you a lot of money. Tourist attractions will overcharge people because they know they have them hooked. “But knowing a bit about the culture or language

can help you navigate foreign places a little easier,” said Bravo of TransPerfect. “Putting yourself in the shoes of a local, rather than relying on the touristy places, can save you those hiked up prices and crowded attractions and give you a more authentic experience.”

13. Learn about other discounts.

Families with disabilities can save 10 to 60 percent on some hotels, says Daniel Keebler, the marketing director at accessibleGO.com, which helps travelers track these deals using a traveler's club called clubGO. “Whether a family member has a mobility issue, a child with autism, a spouse with arthritis, disabled veterans, or a family member who is blind or deaf, accessibleGO helps families with disabilities save money on their next hotel stay,” he said.

14. Find a place with a kitchen.

When booking travel, families usually worry about the biggest expenses, like airfare and hotels. But once you’ve gotten to your destination, your three meals a day can add up. James Kaiser, the author of guidebooks to Costa Rica and several U.S. national parks, says those restaurant meals can easily add $200 or more a day.

“One of the best ways to save money is to stay somewhere with a kitchen so you can prepare meals at home,” he said. “If that's not possible, shop at a supermarket for basic foods to make breakfast, like bagels and cereal, or lunch and then splurge on dinner. You can easily save hundreds of dollars.”

15. Ship your stuff instead of checking bags.

If you are going on a camping trip or some other travel that requires a lot of gear, it might make more sense to ship your luggage ahead of time instead of paying checked bag fees at the airline. There are now services such as LugLess that make it easier.

For bulky items like diapers or last-minute needs like snacks, also consider ordering to your hotel or rental. For example, Amazon offers same-day delivery at some Disney World hotels.

16. Beware extra car rental fees.

If you need to rent a car for your trip, if possible, avoid car rental locations that are inside airports, which are often more expensive, says Miguel A. Suro, a personal finance blogger at The Rich Miser. He uses the website Autoslash to find a cheap rental.

He also recommends bringing your own toll transponder to avoid fees from the rental agency, declining all insurance from the rental company (after calling your insurer or credit card company to make sure you're covered in rental cars) and declining all prepaid gas options, and filling up the tank before returning the car.

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