Money Matters

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

We've rounded up some of the best family vacation ideas that everyone from toddlers to grandparents will love.

Isn’t it wonderful to travel with children? The beautiful little version of you, holding her little hands and smiling at her curious and excited gestures. I can truly say that the meaning of life becomes clearer after a newborn and the purpose of living sensibly becomes your first priority.

In fact, a father can go to great lengths when it comes to providing his children with proper knowledge, even when it comes to travel when his children start to grow up and reach the age of 10.

Planning a family vacation can be stressful. There’s a lot to consider, from finding homestay accommodation to choosing a destination with activities your entire crew will love. Fortunately, we’ve narrowed it down to seven types of family trips, so you can stop stressing and start getting excited about all the amazing memories you’ll create while traveling together.

Whether you’re planning an intimate getaway for your kids and spouse or a multigenerational trip with your whole family, we’ve rounded up some of the best family vacations that everyone from toddlers to grandparents will love.

Family vacations are practically an American institution. Whether it’s a trip to Grandma’s house or a long-awaited vacation to a Disney theme park, vacations allow you to spend quality time with your family while creating memories of a lifetime.

Of course, vacationing with a big family also means spending more on everything: food, lodging, entertainment, and attraction tickets, to name a few. But just because you’re on a tight budget doesn’t mean you should skip family vacations.

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 ride without sacrificing fun. It’s the best of both worlds: creating memories with your family and avoiding the shock of etiquette when all is said and done.

Affordable Family Vacation Ideas

I took my kids on two vacations this year, neither of which was exotic or expensive. And while I didn’t take my kids to see architecture in Europe or meet elephants on an African safari, we had fun, made memories, and took tons of scrapbook-worthy photos.

My children are seven and four years old, they are happy to stay in a hotel and go swimming. I learned that vacations are not so much about the destination as they are about the experience, which means that a profitable plan can be just as enjoyable as an expensive vacation.

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

1. Plan a vacation at home

Whether you’re visiting a historic site, a national forest, or some local city hangouts, by booking accommodations where you live and staying close to home, you can get the vacation experience without the travel expense. Look for cheap attractions and tours, and ask your hotel if they offer a discount for local residents.

One of the best places to find vacation home deals is through group deal websites like LivingSocial, Travelzoo, and Groupon. Most of these sites offer deep discounts on everything from hotels to food to activities.

Doing something out of the ordinary, even if it’s close to home, can help create a vacation atmosphere without the need for an extravagant trip. Whether you choose to camp at a nearby campground or spend the night on the town to see a new museum opening, you don’t need to drive or fly to find a vacation spot.

2. Stay 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 attend a baseball game, go to the movies, see a play, or stroll through a theme park, yet these activities don’t always lend themselves to family togetherness. That’s why I prefer active itineraries.

Not only does a hike through a national forest or a bike ride around town cost much less than tickets to a show, these types of activities give you a chance to talk and connect with your family.

Some active vacation ideas include:

  • Hiking
  • Rafting
  • rope courses
  • zip line courses
  • Cycling
  • Camping
  • geocaching

Check nearby ropes or leadership courses that private participants take. 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 profitable vacation.

3. Book through owners

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

I love the Airbnb site. It gives condo and vacation home owners the ability to list their properties for much less than you would spend through a traditional hotel website. For example, 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 more than $267 per night.

You can specify the size and amenities of the accommodation you’re looking for, and in most cases, you can get extra perks like 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 an annual girls trip to Park City, Utah, and we use Airbnb to find accommodations big enough to fit 15 women. This kind of flexibility makes it a great resource for large families or family reunions.

Other sites, like Vrbo , HomeAway, and FlipKey , offer similar services, so compare options and prices before you book to make sure you get the best deal. Lastly, read tenant reviews before you book with a property owner – you want to make sure the property lives up to your expectations.

4. Pack

While it may seem more cost-effective to shop separately for the best deals on airfare, car rental, and accommodation, I’ve found that you can save a lot by booking a complete package. Online travel sites such as Travelocity, Expedia, and Orbitz offer many options, but you may also want to check with a travel agent for package deals. Some travel agents may offer great deals that you can’t find online.

You may also consider booking a vacation package directly through your airline. I recently got a great deal on airfare and a hotel in Maui when I booked through US Airways – it was $200 cheaper than if I had booked my hotel and airfare separately, and even cheaper than the deals I found on the travel websites. Find the best deal by quoting airfares, hotels and car rentals separately, then compare the total with a variety of package deals.

5. Book through the club stores

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

Even if you don’t have a Costco club membership, you can look for 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 for travel discounts, 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 add up to an experience that reduces stress and creates memories. However, staying in prime beach real estate will cost you, especially if you look at popular vacation destinations. That doesn’t mean you have to skip the beach entirely. The United States offers 88,633 miles of coastline to explore, so you should be able to find something more affordable.

Instead of heading to expensive Miami or Southern California, consider the Gulf Coast of Alabama or the beaches of Galveston, Texas. Or skip the expensive Orange County, California vacation for the laid-back vibe of San Mateo County, California.

Other beaches include the Oregon and Washington coasts, or the east coast between South Carolina and northern Florida. A beachfront hotel in San Diego in July is about $234 a night, while a beachfront condo on the Oregon coast at the same time is about $100 a night, that alone is a significant savings.

In addition to less expensive lodging, less frequented beaches have lower-cost food and activities. If you really want an expert 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 expensive tourist traps while giving you an authentic local experience.

If you are far from any beach, lake vacations are another option. My family loves to vacation at Lake Powell in southern Utah. There’s an entrance fee of about $30, then camping on the shore is free. Other expenses include food and fuel, totaling about $400 for a week in the sun. Visit 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 tourist ranches across the country. While it’s definitely a seasonal activity, think about how much your kids would love to learn about life on the farm, collecting eggs, caring for animals, and even horseback riding.

And, since you earn your keep while staying on a working farm, it’s usually pretty profitable. These hands-on experiences feature rustic accommodations, usually a cabin or bunk room, and also provide meals that you share with other families visiting the farm, giving you the opportunity to enjoy camaraderie with other suburban families.

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

Families in the New York City area can find a quick escape at 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 seem expensive, food and lodging are included, along with attractions like a guest rodeo, fishing, a shooting range, cattle drives, and campfires for four. It’s a great way to expose your kids to new experiences without breaking the bank.

Keep in mind that not all tourist ranches are cheap vacation options. Boutique ranches can be very expensive, so be sure to add up the costs of food, lodging, and activities before you commit.

Vacation Planning Tips

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

  1. Set a budget and stick to it
    Calculate your family’s vacation budget before you even start looking. According to CNN, the average American family spends about $1,200 on a family vacation, setting aside 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 early on.
  2. Be aware of additional fees
    When booking a hotel or adding an airfare, it’s easy to forget about unpublished additional fees and expenses. Resort fees, taxes, parking, baggage fees, and add-ons can add to the cost of your family vacation. Leave wiggle room in your budget to account for additional fees to make sure you know how much you’ll spend. I like to read reviews on TripAdvisor to see if a hotel has hidden fees that aren’t made clear on the booking website.
  3. Book Free
    Rides Sure, you could go to a Disney park or see “Wicked” on Broadway, but there are plenty of free rides that give you the vacation experience for less. Nature-based activities like hiking, biking, and sightseeing are often free or inexpensive, but you can also look for inexpensive factory tours and museums. Try doing an internet search for free attractions at your vacation spot. This way you can save your vacation money for some of the more expensive attractions.
  4. Request Upgrades
    Hotels and attractions often have upgrades available to qualifying guests, but you usually have to request them. I got upgrades on everything from airfare to hotel rooms simply because I asked the reservations staff if there was anything else available to upgrade. When I stayed at the Hyatt Regency in Maui, part of the hotel was under construction. By simply requesting a room in another area of the hotel, my husband and I were upgraded to an oceanfront room free of charge. Even if the hotel staff says no, you have nothing to lose by asking the question.
  5. Look for a fridge and microwave
    When I book vacation accommodations, two of the things I look for are a fridge and a microwave. Eating out on vacation can be very 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 splurge on room service and restaurants a few times, we only ate the food we kept in our room.
  6. Ask your teen for help
    Teens can be a huge asset when it comes to scouring the Web for great vacation deals. After all, your teen is probably already an internet whiz. Enlist your help by providing a budget, accommodation restrictions, and attraction ideas before challenging you to find the best price. Delegating the task saves time and, in all likelihood, will save you money as well.
  7. Buy souvenirs off site
    Theme parks and attractions make a lot of money selling souvenirs, so expect to pay more if you buy souvenirs on site. Instead, head outside of the site to collect some tokens. Even big box stores like Walmart and Target often offer cheap souvenirs at stores located near theme parks. Take Disneyland, for example. An autograph book purchased on the site costs $8, but you can get a small Disney journal for around $2 if you shop at Walmart. If your kids are just 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 is nothing left in the jar for non-budgeted items.
  8. Ask for contributions
    If your child’s birthday, graduation or other special event coincides with your next trip, ask grandparents and other family members to contribute to the experience instead of buying gifts. For example, Grandma might foot the bill for a special activity you’re planning 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 vacation or travel sale going on. By keeping your dates flexible, you are sure to find a better deal than someone whose dates are set in stone. With a more flexible mindset, you could score a cheap Groupon deal on river rafting or snag a less expensive hotel room by traveling during the week or off-season. While it’s not always possible to drop everything and walk away, an open mind goes a long way in finding the best deals.

Final Words On Cheap & Fun Family Vacation Ideas

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, get 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 is your favorite way to save money on vacation?

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