Family travel can be expensive, there’s no doubt about it and if you’re budget isn’t lottery winning unlimited, it can feel like there aren’t many opportunities to be adventurous. Our family has found some creative ways to stretch our travel funds that make it possible to take more adventures. In fact, last year we visited nine states and at least twelve cities outside of our home state and while my dreams still include exotic luxury travel, I’m pretty fulfilled in my wanderlust, especially knowing we’re not breaking the bank to do so.
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3 Way to Make Family Travel Affordable
It’s a big part of any travel budget and one I’d love to splurge on all the time because trying new restaurants and regional foods is half the fun of exploring a new place. But in order to afford more trips, I know I have to keep food spending in check. I try and do a good amount of research ahead of time so I know what we want to purchase and what we want to pack. These are the things that always go in the suitcase.
- Breakfast foods – Eating out for breakfast is one of our favorite things to do and it’s also the meal that my kids are most likely to find something on the menu that they like but it certainly adds up if grabbing a sitdown breakfast every morning so I try to pack some easy breakfast foods for most mornings. Granola bars, oatmeal packets (heat some hot water in the hotel coffee maker), and peanut butter and bagels all make for easy grab and go breakfasts that get us out the door and first in line for attractions. If there’s a grocery store nearby I’ll grab some yogurt and bananas to round it out. Even better, look for a hotel with free breakfast. The point being that saving money on this meal leaves more for ice cream cones later in the day.
- Snacks – Even without worrying about the budget, snacks are an essential travel item to prevent hangry meltdowns (kids and grown ups). I’ve found that having some small bags of nuts, animal crackers, fruit snacks, and other favorites keeps us moving when we’re exploring a new place. I love not worrying about exactly where we’ll be at meal times since we can always stretch our time by offering a few snacks. We keep everyone more stable by having a few less sugary options and then I don’t feel guilty when we do splurge for something special. Bonus, you end up with some extra room in your suitcase for souvenirs once you’ve eaten through that bag of goldfish.
- Water bottles – I’m not a big soda drinker and my kids don’t do much juice so our prefered drink is water and I can’t stand to pay $3 for a bottle so I’m a stickler for making sure we pack water bottles for our adventures. The kids each have this Nalgene cup. We use them every day and they are super durable and don’t leak. I like this smaller Nalgene for day trips but if it’s hot and I know we’ll need a lot of water, we tend to grab a case of water at the grocery store where I can get 24 bottles for the same price as a single bottle at a restaurant. I know they’re not great for the environment but they are lightweight for carrying in a backpack and we only buy them when we travel so I don’t feel too bad.
Attraction costs can add up extremely quickly for a family of four and now that my “baby” is past the magic 3-and-under-are-free age it’s quickly becoming a huge expense to visit many places. I tend to be drawn to the quieter places anyway since I don’t like to deal with hot angry tourists so we’ve found some ways to make sure we are exploring a city or new place without blowing our budget. Do we still check out some cool attractions? Sure, but we tend to balance that out with some quieter free places which sometimes end up being some of our favorites. I always make sure I research these three places ahead of time.
- Libraries – I’ve blogged about our love of trying new libraries before. They’re usually quiet and uncrowded and offer my kids some downtime from the hustle of traveling. We always head for the kids section where my boys love to check out the new toys, puzzles, and computers. I find a quiet place to sit and my husband and I both take advantage of the free wifi. A quick Google search before your visit can give you the local library’s schedule and you might even find that there is a storytime or craft you can take advantage of.
- Parks – Even on a well-planned vacation, my kids can still get antsy so having some free play time to run and let loose is essential. My favorite way to do that is to find local parks. I like to look for a local mom/parents website who has reviewed the area playgrounds (Pinterest is helpful for this) so I can find unique parks with interesting features but any local park with a playground works. I also include beaches and state parks in this category since the cost is either free or quite inexpensive. If two or three of our vacation days are spent on these outdoor low-cost activities it leaves room for some more costly attractions and allows us to stay longer in an area we want to explore.
- ASTC Passport – While this is not free up front, it is a fantastic investment and has saved us hundreds of dollars in admission fees to science and children’s museums. The ASTC Passport can be purchased at any member site so if you have a local museum that participates you can start there. Then use their helpful list of reciprocal members to see what venues are available near your travels. We’ve found stops for road trips and rainy day/winter escape locations almost everywhere we’ve visited and managed to hit up 7 different locations besides our home museum. I can’t tell you how much we love this program and it makes attractions so affordable by offering free or significantly reduced admissions fees to hundreds of museums around the world.
While I would love the time and budget to travel for months at a time, the reality for our family right now is that our travel time is often limited by school and vacation days (we follow a balanced calendar for school and get two week spring and fall breaks but also a very short six-week summer). In order to make travel fit in this stage of life I’ve had to get creative. Don’t rule out smaller adventures like these to tide you over while you’re planning your next epic adventure.
- The Next Town Over – We often plan a one day outing to a nearby town, even if it’s just 20 minutes away. There are small towns surrounding our bigger city that have interesting downtowns, a fun donut shop, or a local park that can fill up several hours of exploring for our family. Don’t discount these smaller excursions as a way to keep adventuring. We’ve had lots of fun and I’ve been happy to show my kids how they can keep being curious even when they can’t hop on a plane or highway.
- The Nearby City – Living in the “Crossroads of America” does have its advantages and one of them is that there are at least a dozen cities within 8 hours of our house. While a road trip to Pittsburgh or Louisville might not seem as exciting as a week in Fiji, it still is a chance to explore a new city and spend a night or two away from home. These quick weekend getaways are a chance to recharge my traveling batteries and it shows my kids different parts of the country. Don’t rule out checking out the nearby city that you think doesn’t have much to do. When you look at it with the eyes of a tourist, you might be surprised.
- The National Park or State Park – Our travel budget is pretty small these days while I’m taking a step back from working full time and so we’ve had to get creative with our budget. One of the best ways we’ve stretched our money this fall was to purchase a state park pass and make a concerted effort to check out some of the parks nearby. So far we’ve visited four parks (you can see my reviews here and here) and even stayed overnight at one of the state park inns. Because the attraction is the park, we don’t spend very much and our costs have been quite low. Don’t forget about these resources as you’re trip planning. You’re already paying for them as a taxpayer, you might as well take advantage.
I hope this list is an encouragement to you in finding ways to keep exploring even when the budget is tight or to stretch your idea of family travel so you can pack in a couple of extra trips this year. These tips have helped our family keep finding new adventures and I can’t wait to see where 2017 takes us.
What are some of your favorite ways to save money when you travel? What’s working for your family right now when it comes to trip planning or budgeting? I’d love to hear your best ideas so leave a comment below!