9 Ways to Save Big on Family Travel

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I recently made a serious rookie mistake en route to spring break in Disneyland with my 7-year-old daughter and my 3-year-old son.

I forgot to pack snacks.

As such, I found myself standing at the check-out counter of one of those airport convenience shops at O’Hare International Airport, forking over almost $30 for three bags of crackers, two candy bars and two bottles of water.

Poof! There went my stash of cash.

Many travel pitfalls are amplified when you have kids, but you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did. These simple tips will keep the cost quotient of your family vacation low and the fun level high. With just a little preparation, you can save yourself a lot of cash … and a lot of headaches.

A Better Family Travel Plan in 9 Steps

1. Remember—Some Kids Fly Free

When you’re trying to decide whether you’ll drive or fly somewhere, remember most airlines allow kids under two to fly for free (be sure to check your carrier’s specific policy before booking). This most likely means you’ll have a kid on your lap for the duration of the flight, but how often do children younger than two stay in their own seats, anyway? Also look for flights scheduled during off-peak hours–those airfares are generally less expensive, and you’re more likely to have an open seat next to you.

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2. Check Those Booster/Car Seats

The cost of checking your luggage with an airline has skyrocketed, but many carriers will allow car seats and strollers to be stowed free of charge–just double-check before you leave the house. (Tip: You’re going to want that stroller in the airport, especially if you have a tight connection, but you can check it at the gate for free.) Also, parents traveling with young children (think infants and toddlers) are allowed one extra carry-on in addition to the standard allowance of two. So, you can bring your laptop bag, your purse and your diaper bag … if you really want to.

3. Fend Off the Snack Attack

There’s something about airports that make kids extra hungry. Maybe it’s trekking from one gate to another, or maybe it’s the novelty of seeing all those snacks for sale. If you don’t want to fork over a fortune for some fish-shaped cheese crackers, stock up on goodies before you leave the house. Parcel them out into small sandwich bags, and you’ll be thanking yourself when your wallet is still fat and happy when you arrive at your destination. Bonus: This also acts as a great way to distract fidgety kids on the plane, and works equally well if you’re driving. Gas station and rest stop snacks are pricey, too. 

4. Leave the Kitchen Sink at Home

When you’re traveling with young children, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to pack every single toy, book and blankie they own. However, most airlines will charge for overweight bags, in some cases as much as $50. Leave all that gear at home. Instead, bring one or two favorite toys or books (although, if you have an iPad or iPhone, they can probably get all their entertainment through that). The same goes for gear like portable cribs. Call your hotel before leaving—most will lend you one for free.

5. Skimp on Dinner

My kids are especially prone to what I like to call “Vacation Appetite Syndrome.” They rarely finish a full meal while we’re on the road. If you’re going to be eating in restaurants while you travel, you can save a bundle by skipping a separate kids’ meal and ordering an entrée your child is willing to share with you.

6. Bypass Fast Food

Depending on how far you’re traveling (and whether your kids are actually young enough to get those free seats we talked about in No. 1), road trips could be less expensive than traveling via plane (although the price of gas is expected to rise dramatically by the summer months). Fast-food pit stops en route can really eat up your budget, though. Instead, skip the drive-thru window and make a detour to the nearest grocery store. You can stretch your legs and choose some healthier snacks and meals that cost less than a burger and fries. Many grocery chains sell pre-made meals and sandwiches to go, and you can pick up drinks and fruit for the road.

No grocery store in sight? At least pick the healthier fast food options for your child.

7. Save 10% on Beverages

Pack a reusable water bottle or sippy cup for each child in your carry-on luggage (empty, of course, per TSA rules) or suitcase, and fill it up from the water fountain. Keep it with you at your destination, as well, filling it when and where you can, even at restaurants. You can save up to 10% on every meal by bringing your own drink.

8. Find Free Activities With a Secret Internet Search

Many cities and popular vacation destinations offer lots of reduced-price or free activities and admissions for kids. Before you leave, make sure you try one special search that will help you turn up this info: Click on the “More”button at the top of a Google page and pick “blogs.” Then type in “family” and the name of the city, or “moms” and the name of the city. Many cities have spawned boutique websites (the fancy term is “hyperlocal” sites) dedicated entirely to what to do with kids in that town. For example, Indianapolis With Kids covers fun things to do there, while Mommy Poppins covers kids’ activities in New York City, Los Angeles, Connecticut, New Jersey, Long Island and Boston.

Sometimes you’ll even find helpful resources like a list of where kids can eat for free. There are also national sites, like My Kids Eat Free, that cover this very topic. It’s easy, and it kills two birds with one stone–you’re armed with a list of cool stuff to do and you’re keeping cash in your pocket.

9. Get Cultured for Less

Plenty of museums also offer special programs for kids that may include a special rate for families, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which offers a one-hour workshop for families at The Cloisters, free with the price of admission. The majority of the exhibits at The Smithsonian are free of charge, too.

When museums and other tourist destinations offer student discounts, they often mean high school students and up, not just those with a college I.D. For example, at the Chicago Field Museum, students with a valid high school or college ID (including graduate students) can get a reduced rate.

Tell us—how have you saved money on travel with your kids?

Amy Hatch, pictured here with her children, Emmie, 7, and Henry, 3, on their recent trip to Disney World, is a freelance writer, editor and the co-founder chambanamoms.com. She is based in Urbana, Illinois.

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  • Sjdemo

    when we moved 2000 miles across the country with a toddler i did serious planning for the trip. aside from packing four reusable grocery bags full of snacks and sandwiches, we invested in a plug-in cooler for fruit, cheese, and milk. i also mapped our four day route noting which towns we’d be in after so many hours of driving, then i found the local playgrounds in those towns so the boy could get some running around time to balance out the endless hours of dvds he was going to sit through.at first some of my family thought i’d gone way overboard, but after a couple days they realized it was genius and were glad to minimize unplanned stops.