The cost of travel has been rising faster than inflation this year. That’s a rough situation for all travelers, but when you’re on vacation with your kids, the final price of a trip can triple, quadruple or even quintuple if you’re not careful.
So let’s be careful—but also carefree. After all, there's no point in going on vacation unless you take a break from your cares, too. Here are my top 14 tips for traveling inexpensively with children, including babies.
Be savvy about when you book travel: Recent research looking at tens of millions of purchased airfares and hotel nights shows that when you pay can make a big difference in how much you ultimately spend. Briefly: Six weeks ahead is the pricing sweet spot for most airfares, with Sunday being the least expensive day, statistically, to make your air ticket purchase. For hotels, booking 3 months ahead for resorty areas (Hawaii, the Caribbean, Florida, etc.) generally yields the best rates.
Time is running out on free flights for your baby: Yes, traveling with kids under the age of two takes more patience and more supplies than traveling with older kids. But if you want to fly long distances with your family, it's significantly cheaper if you don't have to pay for a seat for your baby.
Travel in the off-season: If you are still a parent with just a baby or toddler, take your big trip in late September, October, November, early December, or January. That's when leisure travel slows down because most folks are at work and school-age children are in class. The last two weeks of August can also be a smart time to hit the road because so many schools start then (or have athletic teams that practice then), so you’re competing with fewer travelers.
Do Disney when your child is 5 or older: The cost of a Disney World or Disneyland vacation is so exorbitant that many families can only take one. So why not do that big trip when your child is old enough to remember it....and actually enjoy it? I give this advice as a mom who had a disastrous Disneyland vacation with my then-3-year-old daughter. She was terrified of the costumed characters and so overstimulated by the action that the meltdowns came fast and furious. After just two hours in the park, she begged to go back to the hotel pool…. every single day (we were there for four nights). My experience, I hear, is a common one. Don’t make the same mistake I did.
Grand Canyon | My Good Images / Shutterstock
Ideas for affordable family vacations
Do a national park or state park rather than a theme park. And camp: One of the greatest joys of having children is rediscovering the simple pleasures of life through their eyes. So even if you think your camping days are behind you, trying it with a kid in tow will be a blast. I promise. Plus the kid will never ask why you couldn’t afford a hotel. They’ll just be excited to be snuggling up in a sleeping bag next to you, making a campfire, and sleeping outside.
The national and state parks of the United States and Canada are not only affordable to visit, but they also encompass some of the most stunningly majestic places on the planet. That's true whether you decide to introduce your children to geothermal wonders at Yellowstone, the largest living things on earth at Redwoods National and State Parks, or to the planet’s most scenic hole in the ground (the Grand Canyon, pictured above). Special perks for families at the USA's national parks include the free Junior Ranger programs that many administrate. That will give your wee ones a slew of activities to complete in each park.
Look at family camps: If the idea of pitching your own tent is too hardcore but you still want to have a nature-oriented family vacation, consider enrolling in a family camp. They're like sleep-away camps for kids, except the entire family attends. As at a classic summer family camp, there are color wars, campfires with singing, and classes in everything from lanyard making to canoeing. Family camp prices tend to be quite reasonable, and meals and accommodations are simple in the extreme, ranging from cabins to tents. Families consistently create longtime memories in these places. To find a family camp that’s right for you, head to the American Camping Association's camp finder tool.
Go on an RV Vacation: RV parks are wonderfully tot-friendly places, primarily because so many families patronize them during school break periods. Your kid won’t have any problem finding playmates. In addition, many have the types of amenities you usually find at high-end resorts, such as access to lakes, swimming pools, playgrounds, and loaner toys (jump ropes, Nerf shooters, sports gear, and more). If you'd like to figure out whether RVing is right for your family, rent before buying. Websites like Outdoorsy and RVShare list options from the major rental companies and individuals who rent their vehicles. Often, the latter group's prices are quite affordable, but read all of the reviews before booking one (just as you'd do before booking an Airbnb). I have more advice on renting an RV for the first time here.
Try cruising: Family togetherness is nice, but when parents need some adult time, being able to send children to a ship's kids club is a godsend. On Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Disney Cruise Line, in particular, kids' clubs are off-the-charts entertaining, often divided by age group, and packed with dazzling attractions like ropes courses, water slides, circus schools, arcade games, and more. Many cruises offer affordable nightly rates, and special deals for families. That’s especially true of MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises, both of which allow passengers under 18 to sail free when they’re sharing a room with their parents (though port charges and other fees are still levied). Holland America Line, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian Cruise Line periodically offer friends-and-family-sail-free deals, so keep an eye peeled for those (most of their websites list the current deals) or ask a cruise agent to alert you when the next one of those promotions goes on sale.
Picnic instead of doing a restaurant meal for savings | oliveromg / Shutterstock
Other ways to save on family travel
Be flexible on destination: With the cost of airfare (you’ll excuse the pun) soaring, sometimes simply choosing a destination where the flight costs are lower can mean big savings, especially for large families. Such booking sites as Skyscanner, Skiplagged, and Google Flights allow users to search without specifying a destination to get a list which options are cheapest. Simply input your home airport and instead of a specific destination city, enter the word everywhere. Boom! Flights will appear in order of cost, and you may find yourself wanting to visit a place you might not have considered before.
Home swap: Not only does this method allow you to stay for free in a destination, but many families can also choose to swap with one another so that they can both stay in homes that have already been child-proofed and equipped with baby gear (high chairs, cribs, strollers) and/or toys. Many folks also swap cars so they won't have to pay extra to rent them. Top clubs for swapping include Home Exchange, The Vacation Exchange, and Holiday Swap.
Cook your own meals: A home swap is ideal for this, and so are vacation rentals and extended-stay hotels that come equipped with kitchens. Savings on food costs be significant, and parents won’t have to deal with kids kicking up a fuss in restaurants.
Get a points credit card: Nothing beats free, and when you are able to accrue a lot of miles/loyalty points by using the right card for everyday purchases, you may find yourself staying in nice hotels and/or flying without paying a cent. For our collection of advice on the pros and cons of using credit cards this way, click here.
Buy a season pass: If you plan to take your family to an amusement park, splash park, or ski resort for an upcoming vacation, getting an annual or season pass will often pay off in just two visits. Not only will your entry be covered, but many passes also give the bearer free or discounted parking and discounts on food and souvenirs. Many types of passes also cover entry on many places across the country, so if you pay in one place, you might be able to play for free in another as well.
Look for promotions for free skiing for kids: Speaking of skiing, many resorts and states give free lift tickets to children. These include:* Colorado, which has a program allowing kids in 3rd through 6th grades to obtain a Passport for free skiing. In addition, some individual resorts in Colorado allow kids under 12 to ski free.
* Idaho’s Passport Program allows kids in 5th and 6th grades to ski free.
* Michigan’s Cold Is Cool free skiing passport grants free lift tickets to kids in 4th and 5th grades. Unlike the other states' programs, it is only for state residents.
* New York’s program covers free weekday skiing for kids in 3rd and 4th grades.
* Utah has a passport program for most of the state’s resorts. It gives the freebie for three days to children in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. If families want to ski longer, they can purchase a 45-day passport at $69. In addition, there’s a program for Utah residents under 12 which gives them 1 free ski lesson and 5 days of free skiing at Park City resorts.
* Vermont’s ski passport is for 5th Graders and costs $20 a year for unlimited skiing (with an accompanying adult, of course).
Those are my top tips, but I'd love to hear yours! Please visit us at the Frommer's Facebook page to share what has worked for you on your own family vacations.