Budgeting for family vacations is essential, and these expert tips will help you cut costs and maximize your travel dollars 

Summer vacation season is here, and families are looking forward to spending time together. Given today’s travel costs, making family vacations affordable is a high priority. Here are 10 great tips to help you save money on your next family trip. 

Be Flexible About Your Destination 

While it’s important to set a firm budget when planning family vacations, it pays to be flexible when choosing your destination. Opting for a less expensive vacation spot can easily save hundreds of dollars. Consider multiple locations within a convenient driving distance, or even further afield if you can find cheap flights. Budget airlines, including Frontier Airlines, Avelo Airlines and Breeze Airways, have been adding new flights, resulting in lower fares along those routes. Check Google Flights, SecretFlying.com, Kayak.com and the Hopper app to keep tabs on rates. If you’re considering several alternative dates for your family vacation, check the flight costs for all options before booking. 

For those who can truly be flexible, visit Skyscanner.com and do an “everywhere” flight search for your travel dates. You may be surprised by all the great options and airfare deals that appear. Airbnb’s new search function now offers similar opportunities to explore a wide variety of vacation options. Search by category, such as “lakefront” or “beach,” to uncover a wealth of reasonably-priced accommodations in appealing locations.

Families can shop online for savings on vacation accommodations. Photo credit: Nancy Schretter

Families can shop online for savings on vacation accommodations. Photo credit: Nancy Schretter

Compare Prices on Resorts, Hotels and Vacation Rentals 

Many online booking sites offer deals on hotels and resort accommodations. Review the rates at websites such as Kayak.com, Expedia.com, Booking.com, Trivago.com, Trip.com and TripAdvisor.com. The Hotel Tonight app has good prices for last-minute travel. Make sure to compare final prices before booking, since hotels and resorts often add extra fees. 

Hotels sometimes offer special booking codes for great savings. Check out websites such as RetailMeNot.com and HotelCoupons.com to see what’s available. Groupon.com’s Getaways Collections category provides hotel and resort deals as well. 

Once you’ve done your research, compare prices with those available on the hotels’ websites and call hotels directly to ask for their lowest room rate. Many hotels advertise a best price guarantee. Speaking directly with a hotel staff member may yield a better rate and additional savings like a room upgrade or reward points.

Families may also wish to look for deals with no cancellation or re-booking fees. Carefully read the fine print and contact potential resorts and hotels to make sure you understand the cancellation policies for any properties you’re considering. Find out whether you will be receiving a cash refund or a credit for future use should a cancellation become necessary, and learn if there are black-out dates for rescheduling your trip.

If you’re considering vacation home rentals, compare listings on Airbnb, Vrbo, HometoGo, Expedia and Booking.com. Some rental properties may have different rates on multiple websites. Make sure to check final booking prices since added cleaning and service fees can be substantial. 

Use Your Memberships Wisely 

Membership in clubs such as AAA, AARP, Costco and Sam’s Club can generate significant savings on accommodations at hotels and resorts. Check for discounts on hotel websites, or ask about reduced rates by phone. Some frequent travelers also sign up for credit cards affiliated with certain hotel chains, allowing them to earn points for future free stays. Many membership cards also offer special discounts on theme park tickets and other attractions. 

Sign Up And Earn Rewards

Join guest rewards programs and sign up for their email newsletters. There’s no cost to join, and the benefits can be significant. Hotels and resorts often send out email newsletters with special savings offers. In addition, loyalty program members can earn additional perks such as free Internet, room upgrades, continental breakfast, and late checkouts. Some hotels and resorts offer special rates via social media so make sure to follow your favorites. Cruise lines occasionally advertise discounts to loyalty program members as well. 

Signing up for fare alerts can save families hundreds of dollars on roundtrip airfares. Photo credit: Nancy Schretter

Signing up for fare alerts can save families hundreds of dollars on roundtrip airfares. Photo credit: Nancy Schretter

Shop For Low Airfares 

Finding affordable flights for family vacations can be challenging. Typically, flights on Tuesdays and Wednesdays often have the cheapest fares. If you have some flexibility, check flight costs on these days and compare them with any other travel dates you have in mind. 

Google Flights, Momondo.com, Kayak.com, Skyscanner.com, Travelzoo.com and the Hopper app can be good sources for low fares. In addition, consider signing up for newsletters and airfare alerts from search sites including Airfarewatchdog.com, SecretFlying.com, Scott’s Cheap Flights, TheFlightDeal.com and others. Their best finds can save families hundreds of dollars on roundtrip airfares from major cities. 

You may also wish to consider driving to an alternative airport, particularly if it is served by a low-fare airline. A one-hour drive can often deliver significant savings for families, making your dream vacation suddenly affordable. Examples of alternative airports might include checking flights to/from Baltimore/Washington International airport in addition to Washington Reagan and Washington Dulles or Fort Lauderdale in addition to Miami. 

Cut Costs With A Vacation Package 

If you’re planning to fly to your vacation destination, it’s wise to look into vacation packages. Purchasing flights and hotels together can save as much as 30-40% on vacation costs. Including rental cars and activities in vacation packages is also possible, but the savings on those don’t tend to be as substantial.

Check sites such as CheapCaribbean.com, Travelzoo.com and FunjetVacations.com. Many airlines offer vacation packages and some provide bonus miles with purchases. Shop on sites such as JetBlueVacations.com, AAVacations.com, SouthwestVacations.com and others.

Consult With A Travel Advisor 

Travel agents can often find excellent deals on accommodations, including some that may only be available through their channels. They can expertly evaluate vacation packages as well. In addition, travel advisors are often aware of unique money-saving strategies and can alert you to potential issues with cancellation and rebooking fees. 

More importantly, a good travel professional can identify the best options for your needs and help you plan the best travel experience for your family. Travel advisors can also be excellent risk navigators, double-checking key details and getting the inside scoop on properties. They are also great advocates to have if problems arise on your trip.

Reserve rental cars in advance and use membership discounts when available. Photo credit: Nancy Schretter

Reserve rental cars in advance and use membership discounts when available. Photo credit: Nancy Schretter

Save Money On Rental Cars.

Rental cars are in high demand during peak vacation periods, and rates over the last few years have been extraordinarily high. To save money on rental car costs, make your reservations well in advance and check rental car rates outside the airport. Taking a ride-share or taxi to a rental car location a few miles from the airport can result in sizable savings.

Membership discounts can also provide lower rates, including those found through AAA, AARP and Costco. AutoSlash.com is another excellent tool for finding lower rental car costs. Recent AutoSlash bookings have saved hundreds of dollars on week-long rentals. 

Today’s gas prices can easily consume a significant portion of the family vacation budget. If you’re planning a family road trip, download the free GasBuddy app to identify the lowest gas prices along your route. 

Book With Points 

Booking hotels, resorts, and flights with points can be an excellent way to save money on family vacations. Credit cards such as the American Express Cards, Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, Capital One Venture Rewards Card, and hotel- and airline-affiliated credit cards offer affiliate programs that allow members to use points earned through credit card purchases. Airlines offer membership rewards programs as well. 

Members can use points for flights, hotel and resort accommodations, upgrades and other perks. Certain credit card and airline programs also allow members to buy down rates for flights and hotel stays. If you’re a member of one or more of these programs, check the options for using your points and compare them with the best prices available for your travel dates. 

Plan ahead to save money on family vacation meals. Photo credit: Pexels

Plan ahead to save money on family vacation meals. Photo credit: Pexels

Plan Your Meals Carefully 

In addition to transportation and lodging, meals often account for a large part of the family vacation budget. Save money by staying in a property with kitchen facilities, or seek out hotels and resorts offering complimentary breakfasts and “kids stay and eat free” programs. Some hotels partner with local restaurants and provide special dining discounts for guests.

It’s always wise to bring along refillable water bottles and plenty of snacks, no matter where your vacation takes you. Some theme parks will allow guests to bring backpacks filled with snacks, and lockers are available to rent. 

Plan for family meals before your trip, and search online for dining venues within your budget. Coupons in destination-based Entertainment coupon books can be a good source for 2-for-1 and 50% off discounts on meals and attractions in vacation destinations. Groupon.com, convention & visitors bureau websites and destination-related social media pages also post local restaurant deals and discounts.

By Nancy Schretter, Contributing Editor