Family vacations make for lifelong memories.
They can also make for eye-popping credit card bills.
Although travel may sometimes feel like a luxury you can do without, joint adventures are a smart investment in your family’s well-being. They're an opportunity to bond, feel connected and have fun together.
Thankfully, you can plan a family vacation without breaking the bank. Even the most popular family-friendly destinations are within your reach if you’re willing to be flexible and creative.
We've chosen four popular vacation spots for families: Hawaii, Disney World, Yellowstone National Park and San Diego (home to Sea World and Legoland), and broken down ways to save on everything from lodging to food and entrance to attractions. We also chose these places because each is relatively accessible from a different region of the U.S., so you stand a pretty good chance of finding a destination that's right for you.
Even if you're eying a vacation somewhere else, many of our suggestions will be helpful no matter where you go!
There’s a reason so many families say aloha to this chain of tropical islands, just five hours off the Western coast of the continental U.S. The beaches are stunning, the vibe is laid-back and there's no need to worry about passports. For most families, the main concern with a trip to Hawaii is the expense involved with lodging, food (most of which is imported, and therefore more expensive) and flights. We did some digging and found cheaper ways to get around those three expenses.
How to Save:
Move in to a condo. You can often find a condo unit with multiple bedrooms for around half the price of a couple of decent hotel rooms. VRBO and airbnb are good places to search. (Customer reviews are the key to finding a clean, comfy unit.) Condos tend to be cheaper than standalone vacation houses and typically are in a larger complex with family-friendly amenities like swimming pools and BBQ pits. If you have a larger family or plan to stay for a week or more, consider renting a home from a site like Home Away. (We found three-bedroom properties in Hawaii starting around $300 per night!) Most homes come with free beach accoutrements like sand toys, boogie boards, sun umbrellas, lounging areas and fully-equipped kitchens that allow you to cut down on the expense of eating out.
Eat like a local. In keeping with Hawaii’s nature-loving, healthy living vibe, farmer’s markets are a staple of local life on all the islands, a chance to support local growers and merchants and stock up on delicious fresh veggies and tropical fruits, allowing you to forego eating out every meal. Many of the local farmer’s markets, including those in Honolulu, feature vendors hawking yummy prepared food at below-restaurant prices. (Here's some info on Hawaiian farmers markets.) Another way to eat like a local is to get the Plate Lunch specials--otherwise known as a daily lunch special--at local eateries (prices typically range from $5 to $8), and avoid chain restaurants.
Pass on peak months. As with any tourist destination, flight, lodging and rental car prices for Hawaii come down a little during the off-peak seasons, generally May-June and September-November. The added benefit of visiting the Hawaiian islands during these relatively quiet periods is that the weather tends to be great, with less rainfall than during the popular winter months. Official hurricane season is from June to November, though there hasn't been a hurricane in Hawaii since 1992 and hurricanes aren't generally a huge worry there.
Walt Disney World
Disney World is the place of awe-inspired smiles and fun-induced giggles, and most parents dream of taking on the Magic Kingdom with their kids at some point. But all these dreams-come-true can come at a steep price. Fortunately, there are many ways to reign in your spending.
As an aside, we've been hearing a lot about Harry Potter World being the new "it" place for family vacations. If the land of the Wizarding Genius Who Beat He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is on your kids' bucket list, fear not. Harry Potter World is in Universal Studios, Orlando, so many of these tips apply to Universal, as well.
Stay away. You can save on a Disney vacation by staying at hotels more than five miles away from the entrance gates. Family-size rooms at properties like Cypress Pointe Grand Villas Resort and Quality Suites Lake Buena Vista run up to 50% less than comparable rooms at Disney resort properties, and many of these nearby hotels feature free shuttles to the theme parks. Search for a room on Hotels.com using “Distance to Walt Disney World” to sort the properties, and explore your options in the 5-10 miles away range.
Leave to dine. Eating at the theme parks is pricey, and there aren’t a ton of nutritious options for your family. Consider leaving the park for a few hours to dine in Downtown Disney or the Crossroads Shopping Center. Some recommendations include Earl of Sandwich for lunch and Sweet Tomatoes, which features an inexpensive all-you-can-eat buffet for dinner. Packing snacks and beverages in your backpack allows you to tide the kids over cheaply between meals. Just keep in mind that coolers aren't allowed inside parks—although who'd want to carry a cooler around all day, anyway?
Stretch it out. Considering your Disney World trip will probably be a once-in-a-blue-moon experience, and that the theme parks are huge and spending an entire day there may cause everyone to melt down, consider planning a four-plus-day vacation where you can enjoy some poolside and other non-Disney downtime together. The good news is that multi-day passes offer buyers a slightly discounted rate on daily admission prices.
Shop smart. By shopping for Disney merchandise outside of the amusement park—for example, at the Orlando Premium Outlets, where there’s a Disney’s Character Warehouse store—you’ll save serious money on those cute dolls and cool costumes your kids will be begging for. Giving your children a budget for souvenir spending teaches them important lessons in priorities and smart spending, too.
Yellowstone National Park
America’s first national park is still one of its most popular. It's a fun way to get in touch with nature, including grizzlies and bison and breathtaking landmarks like the Old Faithful geyser. Affordable rooms within the confines of the park go fast (it's best to plan as much as a year in advance if you hope to get one of them), so think outside the box when planning your Yellowstone vacation.
Camp out or stay cheaply. Campsites within Yellowstone National Park go for $20-$25 a night, making sleeping under the stars a surefire way to keep costs down. Other rustic and basic lodging options inside the park, including cabins and old-school lodges, can be affordable compared to pricier, private hotels near the park entrances ... but rooms for high season get snatched up as much as a year in advance, so early planning is key. Similar to the suggestion for Hawaii, you can also travel with another family and rent a large vacation home through VRBO, Home Away or similar sites; many 4-bedroom properties charge about $200 per night.
Choose the best airport. Increase your chances of finding affordable airfare by looking for flights not only into Bozeman, Montana; Jackson, Wyoming; and Cody, Wyoming—the three small airports closest to Yellowstone—but also to Billings, Salt Lake City and Denver. These major airports are a real drive from the park entrance, but may make up for car time with serious savings of up to $100 per ticket.
Go in the spring or fall. Try visiting Yellowstone in May before Memorial Day, and just after Labor Day, before many nearby accommodations close for the season, as room rates can drop by as much as a third.
Fuel up en route. Gas prices close to the park entrance tend to be higher than those 50 or so miles away.
This Southern California destination offers a ton of family-friendly activities, including Legoland, Sea World and the San Diego Zoo, not to mention miles of sunny beaches and the amenities of a real city, including great restaurants and shopping. This SoCal wonderland can be pricey, but it doesn’t have to be.
Forego hotels. As with the places above, you can find an affordable apartment, condo or home to rent on airbnb or VRBO.
Enjoy free activities. There are many money-making tourist attractions around San Diego, but beach-combing and people-watching are free. The 68-acre shoreline called Sunset Cliffs is a spectacular place for kids to explore tide pools, fly a kite and play in the sand—and for grownups to relax. Old Town San Diego is a touristy destination where you can stroll by historic buildings and soak up the history of the state.
Bid on tickets. It’s not a sure thing, but some thrifty travelers score major savings by bidding for tickets to popular, expensive attractions like Sea World on eBay.
Join Lego Club. Every time you purchase a Lego product, you have the chance to join the Lego Club for free by sending in the membership form found on the packaging, or you can join online. You may not be excited by the promise of free Lego Club magazines, but there are often special offers for discounted Legoland tickets. Also, look for special offers on combining tickets for Legoland and the Sea Life Aquarium, two popular family attractions.
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