13 Expert Tips for Family Travel on a Budget

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Whether you’re throwing the kids in the minivan and heading out to see the Grand Canyon, or jumping on a jet and heading to Paris for some croissants and a tour of the Eiffel Tower, the truth is, it can cost a lot more when you travel with kids.

Before we traveled with our kids, we just had to worry about airfare for the two of us, and hotel rooms that would fit a couple. Today, our airfare costs are now times four instead of two and while we’re gone, we also need more room for the kids to sleep. Plus, we need more reliable access to laundry since kids are messy.

In hot countries, we also find that the kids are a lot more susceptible to extreme heat and humidity, so we often use air conditioning to keep them happy and comfortable. All of that adds up to spending more on family trips than when traveling as a couple.

Despite the extra cost and logistics, we love to travel with our kids, and we’ve traveled with them to every continent except Antarctica.

Kids on the Beach in Cancun at Chokmal

No, we definitely didn’t win the lottery, and we don’t have a huge trust fund. We can travel with our kids because we’ve discovered ways to save money on family vacations that lets our dollar go farther and last longer.

So whether you’re staying someplace for a day or a week, here are some tips for saving money when traveling with kids.

Stay Longer

Yikes, that doesn’t seem to make sense, now does it?

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter family with the frog choir show

At the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

However, we’ve found that that the longer a trip lasts, the lower the per day cost.

The reason for this is simple. When you have more time, you have time to do things differently. Instead of renting a car or taking expensive tours, you can can jump on a bus and see something on your own. You can slow your schedule down to see what you want to see, exactly how you want to see it.

Expert tip: Condo and house rentals can be less expensive the longer you stay. On sites like Airbnb and VRBO, we’re found time and time again that we’ve been able to rent a condo for two weeks for the same prices as for a full month. We’ve found this to be true for rentals we’ve booked in Spain, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Mexico, among other places. Get $35 off your first Airbnb rental with this link.

Bonus: Longer vacation.

Con: Figuring out a way to get extra time off work and potential lost income (though you’d be surprised how much time you can get if you ask and make sure it’s not your companies busiest time of the year).

Travel Farther

We realized long ago that there’s a cost to living no matter where you hang your hat at night. It’s just that there are many places where you can live much cheaper than in North America.

Tamarindo Beach Costa Rica

The beach in Tamarindo, Costa Rica

So while it might be tempting to jump in the car and tour a few States or Provinces over, jumping on a plane and heading someplace different might end up costing you less. This is especially true if you do some of your own cooking while you travel.

Bonus: Wine in Southern Europe is $2 a bottle

Con: Getting out of your comfort zone (but maybe this is actually a plus!)

Eat in

Now eating in on holiday doesn’t sound appealing, but the reality of eating out with kids everyday for a week or two is enough to deter even the hardiest of family traveler.

Blooming onion snacks Victoria House Belize

Let’s face it, kids can be temperamental and fussy at times, and making sure they’re always on their best behavior can get tiring awfully quickly. I wish I could say our kids ate everything we set in front of them, but that’s not the case. We have days where the kids both turn up their noses if the mac and cheese is simply the wrong consistency.

My suggestion? Eat breakfast in your room before heading out and eat every third supper in. Keep it simple, with a bowl of cereal and fruit for breakfast and make your simplest (yet favorite) supper. The kids will enjoy the comfort of home and you still get to eat out most nights on your trip.

There’s one surprising bonus to this – you get to shop at your destination. It can be a lot of fun to browse markets and find new foods and products all over the world!

Bonus: The kids will have more energy for the day if they can eat and then play while you get the day’s activities ready.

Con: You have to buy groceries and cook (though we love browsing in different grocery stores around the world since it gives us a great understanding of popular dishes and eating styles).

Snack time

It doesn’t matter if they’re two or ten, kids have smaller stomachs and need to eat more often than adults. Instead of wasting the entire family’s time and money in a restaurant, pack snacks for on the go.

Vancouver Foodie Tours The Best of what to see do and eat in Vancouver British Columbia

Whether that means cutting up some local fruit to take with you, or a couple of packages of Handi-Snacks or squeeze applesauce packages, it’s up to you. The reality is that no one wants to deal with a hangry child, at home or on vacation, so take something with you whenever you go.

Bonus: Not having to stand in long lines for things you can buy at the corner store for a fraction of the price.

Con: Snack prep time (however checking out local fruit and snacks can be an adventure in itself).

Bundle and save

Just like shopping in bulk saves you money, buying attraction passes all at once can save a lot as well.

I’d love to say that we practice this ourselves, but we find that we travel too last minute, and like to leave our options open most of the time. That said, using multi-passes and city cards can save you a lot of money if you plan on visiting a lot of attractions.

Using a company that offers city tourist passes for multiple places all on one card not only saves you from standing in long lines (especially in summer) but if you’re an energetic family it allows you to save tons while getting to see some of the best sites a city offers. We like GoCity Cards and CityPASS cards, as they cover a lot of European and North American cities.

Get CityPASS deals here.

You can see GoCity passes here.
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If you’re in the UK, be sure to check out PlusVoucherCode.

Bonus: Families can split up and visit different attractions depending on what their interests are.

Con: If you don’t visit enough attractions, these multi-passes aren’t a great value (though it does force you to get out and see more).

Family Discounts

Does your family size make the Brady Bunch look small? If so, many major attractions around the world have deals for large families.

We usually find that our family of four doesn’t get much of a deal, but if you have five or more in your family then the savings can add up quickly. If you’re a group of eight or 10 you can usually get group rates (sometimes even on airfare!) so if you’re traveling with another big family it’s worth looking into group savings.

Bonus: Renting a limousine or van for a big group is often cheaper than taking a bus.

Con: The logistics of group travel can be a challenge (though you might get to ride around in a limo!)

Kids stay or eat for free

This is one of our favorite discount tips for travel with kids!

Girl running down the dock at Victoria House Belize

Some parents don’t know that most hotels, even all-inclusive hotels, don’t charge for kids under 12. Sure, you might need to pay for their flights if you’re going somewhere far, but once you’re there, the kids may not cost you a dime. The same goes for restaurants, lots of restaurants offer free food for toddlers and even small children.

Bonus: Most resorts offer free kids clubs during the day that will occupy your kids while you relax by the pool and drink margaritas.

Con: Kids over 12 often don’t qualify. Our oldest just turned 12, and we’re feeling the pinch a bit (though he can now babysit so that’s a plus).

Rent a house

Sure, an all inclusive down in Cabo might sound divine, but you can likely stay twice as long if you stay in an Airbnb or VRBO house or condo.

You might have to do a little more cooking, but with the money you save you can hit some of the nicer restaurants. You’ll also have more space for a little extra privacy than a hotel room would offer and there will be more areas for the family to spread out so when you’re tired from your long day of adventures, everyone gets their own space to relax.

Bonus: You can even do your own laundry.

Con: You can do your own laundry (though at least you can rest assured it will come back and be in one piece when it’s done).

Kids fly free before age two

Want to sit on the beach in Bali or go visit family on the other side of the country, but the thought of three airplane tickets leaves you in a cold sweat?

In Old Havana, Cuba back in 2007, when Cole was just a baby. We may have changed a bit, but Havana hasn't.

In Old Havana, Cuba back in 2007, when Cole was just a baby.

If you have a child under age two, there’s good news, as nearly every airline offers free flights to kids under age two. Sure, they have to sit on your lap for the entire duration but chances are, at that age they’re going to anyway.

Bonus: Strollers and car seats aren’t included in your baggage restrictions.

Con: You’ll have a wiggly kid in your seat for the flight (though that might make your neighbor move to another seat giving you and your family the entire row).

Free museum days

Want to go check out the Gugenheim museum, but know your kids won’t last an hour?

Cole Reina Sofia Madrid

A kid’s take on art at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid

The good news is that a lot of museums around the world, like Madrid Spain, have free museum days. Sure, they can be a little busy, but with that extra bit of saved cash you can afford that extra large mocha cappuccino. Just make sure you don’t take it into the museum, they frown on that.

Bonus: There are usually more kids on free days so if yours are a little hyper they’ll fit right in with the rest.

Con: Museum time with the kids (though there are some great children museums out there too).

Extra carry-ons

With the abundance of low cost airlines out there, you can save a pretty penny by sticking to a budget airline. Unfortunately, that low cost can get quickly eaten up if you have to pay for every bag you carry.

eBags Allura 22 hardside carry-on with brushed steel look and our kids at the airport

The good news is that every person, regardless of size, gets the same luggage allowance. That means that with many airlines, even budget airlines, your three year old is allowed a full size carry-on and a personal item. So instead of packing one massive bag for everyone, split your stuff up with a bag for each of you and get the kids to carry little backpacks with a few of their stuffies or toys so you don’t have to.

Don’t think you can manage carry-on only? Check out our post on how we travel carry-on only for a family of four.

Bonus: Smaller bags are lighter to carry, easier to throw in a trunk or boot and make looking for your kids socks much easier.

Con: If your kids are little, you’ll need to manage more little suitcases (though they will be lighter than a massive one and kids love pushing rolling suitcases around).

Bonus miles

Whether you generally fly with one airline or many, most companies won’t let you use your reward number for your kids flights.

It might sound like more work than you want to do, but if you fly with one airline more than the rest it makes sense to sign up each person in your family so they can start earning miles. Some miles can be spent on things like lounge passes and even on plane refreshments so they won’t go to waste.

Bonus: A lot of companies use the membership number to prefill your flight information when you go to book so you won’t need to enter everyone’s info every time you book a flight.

Con: The hassle of applying for, and managing, multiple rewards cards (sorry, no upside to this, it sucks but it’s worth it).

Bring your own car seats

This may sound like a no brainer, but if you’re flying somewhere and planning to rent a car once you’re there, you can save money by bringing your own child seat.

Road trip with the kitty cat

Car rental places often charge $7 to $15 a day for car seat rentals, so you can save a bundle if you’re renting for a while.

Pro tip! We used to buy car seats in foreign countries when the kids were young since it was less than half price to buy a brand new one than rent a beat up one for the week. We just gave them to other harried parents as we returned the car or left them in there. We even brought a few home and sold them since child seats fly free.

Bonus: You’re guaranteed to have a good seat if you bring your own.

Con: You need to lug the seat on the plane and to your hotel (though you can use some car seats in the plane to make the kids more comfortable).

Travel off-peak times

Yes, winter break, summer holidays and spring break make the most sense to take the kids on a cross country trip, however everyone else is also doing it. What that means is that prices are jacked way up, availability is limited, and you’ll face lineups everywhere you go.

Merida Peacock Feather Christmas Tree

Sometimes you make do with what you have… Cole and Jo with our peacock feather Christmas tree in Mexico

Instead, go a week before or a week after the holidays. You’ll get the same weather and the same experience, but with a fraction of the people and a fraction of the price. If you can, book travel before and after peak times.

Bonus: It’s easier to book time off from work in the shoulder seasons and you might be eligible to get double time if you’re the only one working over the holidays to help pay for the trip.

Con: You may have to pull the kids out of school for a few days.

Do you have any tips for saving money on a family vacation? Let us know! 

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One Response

  1. Samara

    Wow, this is a great post! So many awesome tips. We have a toddler and a baby, and I really want to be able to travel with them when they’re a little bit older, but we are worried about the cost of everything. You have some excellent ideas here that we can try. I am bookmarking this post for future reference!

    Reply

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