“Family vacation” and “frugal” are not words often heard or seen in the same sentence. Between airfare, lodging, food costs, and various hidden travel expenses, you can quite easily and unwittingly end up going over budget. By planning wisely, an affordable and FUN family vacation is still feasible.
You can’t get away from expenses altogether when travelling, but you need to be prepared for them and look for ways to diminish them. If you are like the average American, your top travel expenses will be food, public transportation, lodging, auto transportation, recreation/amusement, and retail spending. So how do you cut down on these costs?
Our top tip is all about LOCATION. While major cities have their own unique lure, they can also be highly crowded with likeminded visitors, especially during peak tourism seasons. Fortunately, there are other countless places to visit in the U.S. that can offer families a great vacation.
Choosing a less populated but equally enjoyable city–or something less urban–can also be easier on the wallet. So whether you’re hitting the road or flying in, you may want to consider some of these destinations where a family of four can have fun for under $850!
1. Camping and outdoor fun
Instead of California, try Colorado.
Sure, California’s beaches are great, but where can you hike, bike, swim, climb a mountain, go horseback riding, raft the rapids, and fall asleep under the stars all within a short radius of each other?
Colorado is an outdoor lover’s paradise, boasting 42 state parks. You can camp lakeside and wake up to the sights and smells of the majestic Rockies in the background. The pristine beauty of Colorado is a frugal traveler’s best friend, as nature is generally cheaper than man-made attractions. You can stay in many of the parks for a little over $15/night for a campsite. Most campsite amenities include electrical hookups, hot showers, and restrooms, with some also offering playgrounds and laundry facilities.
TRY A YURT: If you’re looking for a totally new experience, try a night in a yurt. Historically, nomadic Mongolians lived in these transportable round huts made of a light wooden frame and wool felt. Today, campgrounds have started offering yurts as an alternative camping experience for the modern traveler. Learn more about yurts in Colorado here.
HEY KIDS: Check out a family activity backpack full of guidebooks, binoculars, bug boxes and more at select Colorado Parks. The Colorado State Park website also includes family-friendly camp cooking recipes and other trip-planning resources.
2. Beach and sun
Instead of Florida, try South Carolina.
Yes, Florida is infamous for its idyllic images of its beaches, but it’s not the only name in the game. Myrtle Beach in South Carolina has been a favorite travel destination for Americans looking for a relaxing weekend (or two!) for decades. To cut costs over the length of your stay, look for hotels that offer added efficiencies, such as a built-in kitchen–you can save on breakfast and other meals and use the fridge to store fixings for a picnic lunch on the beach. By cooking and eating-in for a half dozen meals or so, you can easily save hundreds of dollars. The Ocean Plaza and the Atlantic Paradise Inn are two of many affordable hotels that offer full kitchens with rooms. They are also beachfront, which makes spending the day in the sun a breeze—just walk out onto the sand and you’re there.
HEY KIDS: The famous amusement park, Family Kingdom has free admission, but you do pay for the rides. The Boardwalk has festivals and family-friendly events such as Kid Carnival Monday nights. The Franklin Burroughs-Simeon Chapin Art Museum is free and offers workshops for kids at no charge during the summer.
3. Family and the city
Instead of New York, try Massachusetts.
So you want to visit a major bustling city, but you’d like to come home with your wallet mostly intact? Boston is full of living history and much of it is free to the public. The Freedom Trail is a red painted pathway that runs through downtown from the Boston Common to Bunker Hill, and it can easily occupy a family for a day or two. Depending on how fast you cover ground, you can visit Benjamin Franklin’s grave, Paul Revere’s house, the site of the Boston Massacre, historic Faneuil Hall, the Bunker Hill Memorial, and both the New and Old State Houses in a free self-guided tour – all within a single day! Pick up free maps and visiting brochures available in the Boston Commons information booths and you can be on your way to a great adventure through young America’s history.
TAKE THE T: Boston’s public transportation system covers most of its major tourist attractions. Unless you’re planning to head far out of the city, a rental car is typically unnecessary. The train and bus service is available to and from many smaller towns around the Boston area, and only take 10-30 minutes travel time to the city center. Travel like the locals do and save big.
HEY KIDS: If you find yourself with an open afternoon, you can take the kids to the Frog Pond or check out the Swan Boats. It’s only $1.50 per child and $3.00 per adult to paddle a Swan Boat around the lake next to actual swans.
4. Southern charm
Instead of Illinois, try Georgia.
There is a lot to do in Chicago, but it’s not cheap! Atlanta is another big city, but it has much to offer a family on a budget. It is a city rich with culturally and historically significant monuments and landmarks, especially those pertaining to the Civil Rights Movement. There’s the Jimmy Carter Museum, where kids 16 and younger get in free and is only $8 per adult. The Fernbank Science Center is entirely free unless you want to spend a few dollars on a planetarium show for the family. Centennial Park offers live music many days of the week, including the Fountain of Rings, one of Atlanta’s most recognizable attractions. The interactive water show occurs four times a day, 365 days a year. You can check the schedule (and songs) at their website. You can take a self-guided tour through the Georgia State Capitol or stop by at the Governor’s Mansion, both free. Another family day trip could be the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. Admission and parking are free to this multi-building tour, which includes his birthplace, the church where MLK gave sermons, the “I Have A Dream” World Peace Rose Garden and the Freedom Road exhibit.
FESTIVALS: Atlanta is home to a wide variety of festivals, many of which offer plenty of free activities. The Sweet Auburn Spring Festival, American Craft Council Craft Show, and the Atlanta Ice Cream Festival (popular with kids!) are only the few of many – you can find more festivals here.
5. Remember the Alamo
Instead of Texas, try… Texas?
While Austin remains a popular destination for those visiting the Lone Star state, San Antonio offers a cheaper yet historically rich alternative for traveling families. San Antonio has plenty of activities on the River Walk alone to keep the family entertained. Though you can walk it, many families opt to cruise the river instead. To explore San Antonio’s unique history, bring the family to one of the four missions run by the National Park Service. They offer free hour-long guided tours with no reservations necessary. As an added bonus, the facilities have biking, hiking, a museum, bookstore, and historical movie screenings. Nearby is the Alamo, which also offers free admission and historical talks on the hour. Another fun place observe the culture in San Antonio is the weekly farmer’s market. Stop by on Saturday mornings and pick up a fresh breakfast while supporting local farmers.
SPEAKING OF FOOD: Texas is infamous for Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine, and San Antonio is no exception. There’s a bountiful number of budget and family friendly restaurants so it won’t be hard to find one to suit your taste buds. Oh, and don’t forget to try the guacamole.
GET OUT OF TOWN: Drive about an hour and a half north of San Antonio and you can visit the LBJ Ranch – Lyndon B. Johnson’s beloved home. Pick up a free permit to conduct a self-guided tour of the grounds in your vehicle. You can stop by the Johnson’s ranch house, known as the Texas White House, and pay $3 per adult (kids are free) to tour inside.
Recap: Rules for a budget friendly family vacation.
When planning a family vacation (or any vacation), it’s important to remember that the more popular a destination, the more likely it will be spendier. To help cut costs without minimizing the experience, remember this general guideline:
1. Find a less populated location that still fulfills your vacation needs and wants: environment, culture, weather, activities.
2. Book a hotel that offers a built in kitchen and/or complimentary breakfast. Don’t plan to eat out for every meal of your trip.
3. Research free and low-cost activities, such as festivals, museums, parks, and tours.
While we’re at it, we want to know, what are your trips for frugal family travel?