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Traveling with kids can seem impossible. I’ve shared my best budget travel tips from the past year of adventures!
Last year I decided to make traveling a bigger part of my life. It would have been nice if that decision came along with a bigger budget to support these adventures, but it didn’t. I was determined not to let this stop me. Inspired by my favorite panel from the BlogHer 17 conference (titled: You CAN Travel the World Right Now, Regardless of Your Circumstances), I made the decision to start traveling more, no matter what.
During this panel, I was especially inspired by Natasha Nicholes who blogs at House Full of Nicholes. This amazing lady shared her stories about traveling with kids in tow and on a budget. Natasha started talking about road trips, and dropping details about how her family packs lunches, spends wisely on the road, and carefully plans their routes. A light bulb went off as I remembered my own road trip days.
Back then, I would consider myself well prepared if I had $200 cash in my pocket and no job to get back to. My friends and I would pile into a car, make some semblance of a plan, then hit the road for weeks at a time. This was before smartphones or travel apps, before Yelp or even major travel tv shows. We went out in search of something, anything worth seeing, and counted on finding places to rest, eat, and explore along the way.
Of course, it would be awfully hard to travel that way these days. Even as an admittedly lenient parent, I know that traveling with kids means making plans. We need to know where we’re heading, how long we’ll be on the road, and that we have a safe place to sleep when we get there. Kids need to stop more, to eat more, and to be kept busy along the way. In short, they need to be considered – a lot.
What kids don’t need are gourmet meals, five star resorts, or pricey souvenirs. I’m not saying that we NEVER splurge on any of these things but we definitely don’t make them a priority. We’re more interested in the things that money can’t buy: unforgettable landscapes, spectacular views, connecting with nature, and spending quality time together.
With the following tips in mind, we’ve managed to hit up FOUR national parks in the past year. I’d be lying if I told you that all of this travel hasn’t put a dent in our savings account. It certainly has made our budget a little more precarious, but knowing that we’ll probably never be independently wealthy, I got tired of waiting for our ship to come in to go out and see the world.
We make choices all the time about where to scrimp and where to spend. This year I chose to blow a little extra on adventuring as a family – but it wouldn’t have even been possible without finding ways to save along the way. Here’s what I’ve learned!
Where to Stay
Embrace Tent Camping – Camp sites are so much cheaper than hotel rooms. While you will need to invest in some basic equipment (like a tent) this item is likely to pay for itself in no time. Camping can also be really, really fun, and a great way to force your children to spend time with you. A tent is only SO big, after all.
Reserve Park Cabins – If tents aren’t your thing, check out the options in and around state and national parks for cabin rental. There are usually plenty of simple (often primitive) camp cabins available for rent. Keep in mind that these almost always require reservations, and really popular parks and seasons may book up months ahead of time. You may also need to bring your own bedding!
Look for Campers and RV’s on Homeaway or Air BnB – I have absolutely fallen in love with staying in other people’s RVs. These tiny homes on wheels have everything you could need AND they are often priced far below other homes in the same area. To clarify, these aren’t usually meant to be driven anywhere. Instead, they act as mini rental homes and are often parked in the backyards or driveways of the owners. We’ve even found whole campsites made up of revamped buses and campers. When you are traveling with kids, the privacy and the novelty are huge payoffs as well.
Reach Out to Friends and Family – Whenever possible, stay with friends or family for free. We spent three weeks camped out in a tent in my uncle’s backyard last year and it was GLORIOUS. Better yet, it was free! Make sure to be a good guest, clean up after your kids, and offer to buy groceries and help out around the house. A thoughtful gift to your host is not a bad idea either – especially if you are staying for more than a couple of nights.
How to Get There
Road Trips Rule – A huge advantage of family road tripping is that it costs about the same to travel with one child as it does with three. You can also pack your car with groceries, camping equipment, and water to cut down on expenses along the way. Long drives while traveling with kids can be challenging, but I would argue that flying can be equally exhausting and time consuming depending on your destination. If we can drive there within 8-10 hours we will almost always take our car.
Airfare Apps & Sites – If you do choose to fly, I have a few different strategies to secure a low fare. My favorite app for shopping flights is called Hopper. You can use Hopper to track the price of flights for trips you are planning and alert you when the rates go up or down. It can also help predict when these changes will happen – letting you know the best time to make your purchase. Unfortunately, not EVERY airline is included in their search, so it pays to also check out any airlines that fly from your local airport that you don’t see listed on Hopper. Frontier and Southwest, for example, are often really cheap, but aren’t listed on Hopper.
There are also quite a few email subscription services (like NextVacay) out there that are designed to help travelers pounce on outstanding deals as they pop up. These often focus on big ticket flights, like trips to Europe or Asia. I don’t subscribe to any of these – only because I feel like it takes a level of spontaneity that we just don’t have at this stage of life to take full advantage.
Don’t Forget Baggage Fees – When you are comparing flights, remember to check on which airlines charge what for baggage. Since traveling with kids almost guarantees having baggage, this can become a huge factor. Some airlines even charge for carry-on bags, so be careful! Sometimes it ends up costing less to pay more for a ticket that includes free baggage.
Fly While They are Small – Kids under two are not required to have their own seats or their own tickets on an airplane. Of course, not every parent is comfortable with keeping their kids on their laps and prefer to purchase their kids tickets so that they can travel in a car seat the whole time. This is totally a personal choice, but if you want to save some cash, your little ones can ride for free as lap infants for their first two years. Just remember to bring some ID for your little ones to prove that they are under two. A birth certificate or immunization record usually works fine, but check with your airline about specific requirements before heading to the airport.
Travel by Train – Train travel can be a great way to enjoy the journey while saving a little money along the way. This is especially helpful if you won’t need to rent a vehicle at your destination. We haven’t tried this yet, but were totally enthralled when a friend of ours described seeing plenty of families traveling with kids in regular coach seats – even on overnight trips! Amtrak seats recline all the way, turning into cozy cots for sleeping – and most children enjoy this novelty enough to go along with this unusual sleeping arrangement.
Playing the Points Game – Always sign up for free points programs. Even if takes you years to earn a free flight, that freebie is going to feel pretty awesome when it does come along. When it comes to choosing airlines, try to pick your favorites and keep loyal to those airlines when possible so you can build points for every trip.
If you are able to take on a credit card, this can actually be a great way to earn free flights or train rides as well. Just be careful to pick your card and brands REALLY carefully. Make sure that the requirements to earn free flights are realistic for you, that the fees and APR aren’t outrageous, and that you’ll be able to earn points in various ways. It’s also really important to make sure that airline has a great variety of destinations from your local airport. I keep a Southwest card, for example, and earn points by using the card, shopping through their website’s retail portal, renting cars (with added discounts) and of course, purchasing airfare.
What to Eat
Find a Grocery Store – Preparing as many of your own meals as possible is one of the surest and easiest ways to save money while traveling with kids. Meals out add up quickly! Look for simple staples and convenience foods that will work well with your accommodations. Even if you won’t have a stove or a fridge, there are lots of things (like PB&J sandwiches) that can be made on the go.
Pack a Lunch – Again, making your own meals really pays off. Lunch and breakfast are particularly well suited to this strategy since there are so many lunch and breakfast foods that can be prepared without fuss. Think cereal and boxed milk in the morning and brown bag sandwiches at lunch. This kind of food may not be thrilling, but hopefully your location is!
Cook on the Road – Back in the old days, we used our propane stove to cook ramen at highway rest stops. We washed dishes in the bathroom sinks and ate right out of the cook pot. Road trip meals do not actually need to be much fancier than this. Find a safe location for your kiddos, pull out your camp stove or some paper plates, and fix something quick and easy. This is a great time for junk foods you might otherwise not indulge in. Mac n cheese, Knorr sides, and canned chili are super easy, and totally acceptable road trip food. If you want something healthier, bring a cooler and a cutting board along so you can fix something more complicated.
Look for Local Favorites – When I’m in a new place I am always on the lookout for those everyday regional foods that the locals are eating. Don’t tell me where to eat. Tell me what to eat! Breakfast tacos in Austin, bagels in NYC, steamers in Maine! Often, (but not always) these foods are also pretty cheap – or at least available pretty much everywhere. When we do hit up a restaurant while traveling, I try to go for things I can’t get at home.
Be Water Wise – Buying water by the bottle is not only expensive but also kind of crappy for the environment. To avoid excess guilt or spending, I try to be smart about how and where we get our drinking water. If you have a car, try bringing jugs of water to fill your re-usable drinking bottles when you can’t find a public place to fill them. Bonus points if you brought a re-usable water jug from home! Water jugs made for camping are perfect for filling at home before your trip begins. If you aren’t traveling by car, bring along your re-usable water bottles and fill them from public water sources whenever you can.
Renting Cars – We save a ton of money by shopping around for rental cars. I often use the discounts on my preferred airline to compare rates, then I make my reservations as early as I can to keep them low. While it is tempting to always pick the economy car, I have learned the hard way that these can not always hack it at high elevations! Think about your terrain before settling on a car, and don’t forget to join every loyalty program you can to rack up those points. Another way to save is to pick up and return your car at the same location. One way trips are a lot more expensive.
Ride Sharing with Kids – It’s perfectly legal in many cities for a child to ride in the back of a taxi cab without a car seat (or sometimes even without a seat belt). But that doesn’t make it safe. Even at low speeds a child can get seriously injured without a proper car seat, and for me, the risk of harm to my kiddo just isn’t worth saving a few bucks. Some ride sharing services (like Uber) offer the option of choosing a car with a carseat. This isn’t available in every city, so make sure and check what your options are before deciding whether to rent a car, use ride sharing, or go with public transit during your trip.
Utilize Public Transportation – This sometimes works really well, and sometimes not. With kids, it can be a little tough to work around bus schedules, long rides, noisy trains, and small spaces crammed with strangers. Some children are cool with all of these factors while others melt down right away. If your kiddo is game, this can save you a lot of money, but if you haven’t tried it yet I would suggest having a back up plan.
Tip: Look up public transit apps for the city you are visiting to make planning your routes quick and easy.
Get on a Bike – If you’re kids are old enough to safely bike long distances, consider renting bikes instead of a car to explore parks and small cities. Just don’t forget to pack helmets!
Things to Do
Ask the Locals – A friend once told me that the best way to find cheap or free things to do in a city was to ask people who live there. Makes sense, but it isn’t something I always remember to do. Try striking up conversation with the people you meet during your travels. This includes the fellow working at the gas station, hanging out at the local taco joint, or even other families traveling with kids at your camp site or hotel.
National Park Passes – Annual passes cover entrance fees for your whole car full of people at hundreds of National Parks, Forests, Wildlife Refuges, and Recreation Areas across the country. Most national park passes last seven days, which is often plenty of time for you to explore one park. If there is any chance that you’ll visit more than one park in the same year, I highly recommend springing for an annual all-park pass. It can pay for itself by the second or third park per year. Passes are FREE for military members and families with 4th graders at this time and there are also great discounts available for seniors and permanently disabled individuals.
Deal Sites – There are tons of sites on the web sharing budget travel deals. Some are awesome. Others are on sale for good reason – they stink! Before you buy any deals for your trip, make sure and check the reviews for the attraction or restaurant on another web site to make sure it will be worthwhile. By the way, my personal favorites are Groupon and Travelzoo.
Library Books – Check your local library for travel guides to your destination before you hit the road. Cell service can be spotty while you are on an adventure, so having a hard copy travel guide handy can be hugely helpful. (Hello, maps!) I love borrowing these books since I am likely to only use them once!
Double Decker Bus Tours – This is one of my favorite ways to explore a new city. While it is absolutely a tacky tourist thing, it is also a wonderful way to get your bearings in a new place and decide which places to stop for a closer look. Tickets for these kinds of tours can sometimes be pricey, so we don’t ALWAYS spring for it. But when we get a deal or have the budget, I’m a big fan.
Free Walking Tours – Many cities and parks offer free walking tours. This is a great way to tire out your children and to learn more about the place you are visiting. Plus, it’s free!
Getting Time Off
Day Trips – No matter where you live, there are probably quite a few places to explore right in your own backyard. When you are feeling the itch to explore, try taking a mini trip to check out your local destinations.
Long Weekends – Some people think we are crazy for spending two days in the car to spend two days in a national park, but I am certain that if we wait for the perfect time to make a trip we will never get there. I’d LOVE to have a whole week to explore a new place, but with my husband only getting so many paid days off in a year (and me getting none) we don’t always have the luxury of long trips. Long weekends are a great way to make the most out of two vacation days. Just line them up with your weekend and boom, you’ve got a mini vacation.
Work on the Way – If it’s possible, working while you travel can open up a whole new level of flexibility. My husband is in retail, so he doesn’t have the option of working remotely, but I do! I have worked from all over the world, which allows me to stay in faraway places for weeks or months. I work by day and explore during nights and weekends. This past summer I tried this out with my son in tow, spending three amazing weeks in Maine, and we loved every minute.
Defend Your Vacay – Everybody wants your days off, but they are yours to use as you please. It can be tough to choose between visiting family, working on projects at home, and hitting the road. It’s your choice, so choose wisely and be sure to leave yourself enough days to travel.
Maximizing Your Plan
Pick a Great Launching Point – Sometimes your destination is really just your home base. When my husband and I visited Las Vegas this year we spent most of our time driving to other places! By finding a city within easy driving distance to multiple locations you can make the most of your airfare!
Early to Bed, Early to Rise – If you get your kids nice and tired by day, they will (hopefully) sleep all night. Since you’ll probably be stuck with them while they snooze, making the most of the day is really important. Hit the road each day as early as you can while traveling with kids – especially if you have a lot of driving to do.
Set Goals for Each Day – I like to set goals instead of making plans. That philosophy allows us to enjoy the ride without putting a ton of pressure on the day. We hardly ever make it to every spot we want to see, and it helps to be OK with that. Put the things you want to see most at the top of your list, then work your way down. Whatever you end up getting done that day will be enough to make a happy memory.
Stop and Enjoy the Moment – Speaking of memories, that’s the whole point of this family travel thing, right? So make sure you are taking time to relax and appreciate the journey. Watch your kids while they discover the world. They will be slow. They will complain. That’s just what kids do. They will probably not respect the schedule you had in mind for the day or understand when you don’t let them raid the gift shop. But believe me, they will be learning and loving the experience as much as you – maybe more. And they will remember these trips for the rest of their lives.
How do you save money while traveling with kids? Share your budget travel tips and tricks in the comments!