Explore. Imagine. Love.

Purposeful parenting amid a world of sugar, screens and schedules.

Family Vacations on a Tight Budget

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As a part of my Traveling With Small Children Series, I am going to talk about saving money while on a trip.  You might think that between hotels, food and attractions, it is so expensive that you might as well not even try to go on a family vacation.  It’s not true!  You might need to re-think the idea you have of a vacation, but you can have a great time with your family for not a whole lot of money.  These are some things that we do to make this happen:

  • Stay close to home.  You don’t have to go to Europe or DisneyWorld to have an awesome vacation.  There are probably some really fun places within 3-10 hours of where you live!
    • If you live in a smaller town, even a city that’s just a little bit larger can provide fun things that you don’t have…amusement parks, water parks, zoos, aquariums, science centers, museums, theaters with awesome plays or concerts, historical landmarks, professional sports, great restaurants, neat stores, etc.
    • Beautiful lakes, mountains, national parks and awesome places to camp are most likely within a day’s drive of where you live.  Go explore!  (I will write more about this further down in my camping section and I also plan to do a post specifically on tips for camping with small children)


  • Save Money on Food by bringing your own!  I love trying new food while I travel…and I know from experience that it is a very easy way to quickly break the bank.
    • One of the easiest ways to  save money while you are traveling is to cook your own dinners, pack sandwich fixin’s in your cooler, and to snack on fruit and veggies and  homemade cookies, muffins, granola bars, etc.  that you made before the trip.
    • Drink water 🙂
    • If you can, I like to budget for a designated number of restaurant meals and some ice cream stops and plan to eat frugally the rest of the time.  That way we don’t feel completely deprived and end up giving up on our goals and over- spending.
  • Save Money on Accommodations by…
    • CAMPING.  Camping does not have to be just for rugged, outdoor vacations.  You can camp anywhere.  Most state camp grounds have showers and so do national parks and KOA’s.  KOA’s are everywhere and although they are pricey as far as camping goes, they are much cheaper than hotels and how I grew up doing almost all of our family vacations.  A lot of them even have other fun things during tourist season like campfire cookouts, petting zoos, swimming pools, pancake breakfasts.  Every KOA is different so get on their website and see what is available in the spot you are thinking about going to.


    • STAYING AT TRUCK STOPS AND WALMARTS.  Ok, you have to be totally committed to being frugal to go this route.  It’s probably not so bad if you have an rv or camping trailer.  But we did it just with our van and I think most people (including me) would think that we are a little nuts.
      • PROS:  Truck stops and WalMarts allow over night parking and have security so it is safe.  It is completely FREE.  Sleeping in your vehicle is a great way to save money and can actually be quite comfortable.  My husband practiced packing everything in the front two seats of our van and strapping things to the ceiling before we left to make sure everything would fit.  We laid our preschooler down on the back seat, which we moved up against the front seats, and our toddler slept on the back floor with us on a memory foam mat.  We had sheets up in the windows so that people couldn’t see in.  Truck stops have nice bathrooms, coffee, gas, and fully expect travelers to come in with bed head to brush their teeth 🙂
      • CONS:  Although the light helps with the safety aspect, I find it very hard to sleep with so much light streaming through our windows.  So I bought one of those things that go on your eyes to keep light out.  Another thing is the noise- truckers coming and going, security cars driving around…and with my mommy senses I am always ready to bolt upright and defend my babies against someone trying to break into our car.  haha  I do NOT sleep well when we do this so we limit it to a few times each trip when there aren’t any decent campgrounds around.  But I think I would like it a lot better if we had a camper trailer or something.  Great way to save money if you have one.
    • STAYING WITH FRIENDS.  This is a no-brainer.  If you know someone who lives where you are going or on the way to where you are going, you can visit them and save money.  Win-win!
  • Save Money on Activities.  Disneyland, SeaWorld, etc…they are great fun but not for people with a super tight budget.  But just because you can’t afford popular tourist attractions doesn’t mean that you can’t go on vacation!
    • Find FREE things to do.
      • Find cool places to hike or walk to in nature.
      • Hang out at a lake or tidepools or a beach or a river.  One of the most fun things to do on a vacation, I think, and it’s free!


      • Research where a good place to see wildlife is.  There are some beaches, for example, where you will almost definitely see seals.  Then you can skip on spending money to go see, for example, the sea lion caves (which I think are over priced!)


      • Find a cool park.  Balboa Park in San Diego, for example, is huge and you can spend a lot of time just walking and enjoying the scenery.  Smaller, cool parks can be a lot of fun for the kids.  Especially if you’ve been driving a lot or doing a lot of tours and stuff- they need time to play!

This is a park we found in Eureka, CA. I thought this was such a fun town, really close to the Redwoods. This park had a great area for nature walks and even had a slide built into a tree.

      • Walk around downtown or at a neat mall or at a farmer’s market.
      • Do your research and find out what is going on at the time you will be there- free concerts, free museum days, etc.
      • Tour something…like a cheese factory (and you even get to sample some free cheese!)


      • Geocache!  Does your phone have a gps?  If not, maybe a friend has one you can borrow.  Get on geocaching.com, type in an area or zip code, and go on fun, FREE little treasure hunts with you family.
    • Find CHEAP things to do
      • As you are wandering, you might come across something that looks fun.  If it is affordable, do it!  We found a beautiful mini golf course on a nice day and hardly anyone was there.  It provided the whole family about an hour and a half of great fun.


      • Do your research- are there places that are normally too expensive but on certain days of the month are half off, free for kids under a certain age, offer AAA or military discounts or discounts for students?  What kinds of things are available where you are going?  If you sit in the cheap section of the baseball stadium, can you afford to go see a game?  Can’t afford a whale watching tour, but are there good whale watching points on land you can look for whales from?…bring some binoculars!
      • Can’t afford Sea World, but can afford a small aquarium?  Going on a long road trip through multiple cities and can’t afford the big zoo, but can afford the little zoo?  We were traveling all the way down the west coast one time and knew the San Diego zoo would be too expensive, but the Portland zoo was absolutely beautiful and so affordable.


      • Stores are free, but I will put them in the “cheap” section because you will most likely buy something.  Try to find some really cool stores where you are going.  For example, Powell’s in Portland is the most amazing book store you will ever visit…you can easily spend half a day there.  You can come out of there with a big bag of great used books for a really decent price.
  • Save Money By PLANNING and BUDGETING
    • I like to not have every moment of every day planned out.  I like to find fun things to do as we are out and about and have the flexibility to do those things.  But it is still a good idea to do a lot of planning before you go.  I like to make lists of all the free/cheap things I can find to do and have a tentative idea of what we’re going to do or not plan anything but refer to that list when we have some down time.  If you ONLY do the things you come across, you could miss out on some really fun things or end up doing things that cost more money than you had planned to spend.
    • Stick to your budget.  A certain amount of money allotted for groceries, for gas, for eating out, for attractions, etc.  Dave Ramsey’s cash system is great, but I understand not wanting to take a lot of cash on a trip.  So have some sort of fantastic way of keeping track of it all and stick to it.  If you run out of restaurant money, that’s it.  Stop eating out!  You should probably have a decent emergency savings account just in case, though.  You never know what might go wrong!

THANKS FOR READING.  Come back next week for a post about camping with small children!


Author: Explore Imagine Love


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