How to Plan the BEST Family Vacation on a Budget

Plan a Family Vacation on a Budget

Are you ready for a getaway? Need a change in scenery but wonder if the cost is worth it? Plan THE BEST family vacation on a budget!

I love to take family trips but don’t want to go into debt in the process. Here are 5 tips my husband and I have learned over the years that have allowed us to take affordable vacations with our family.

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1. Prepare Snacks and Meals Ahead of Time

We have learned to appreciate having the majority of our meals and snacks planned and prepared before we leave for a road trip.

The Best Travel Snacks

We do a big grocery shopping trip and stock up on things like trail mix, granola bars, applesauce pouches, pretzels, larabars, bananas, popcorn, and whatever else we see that would be easy to grab out of our snack bag or cooler. 

We got an awesome deal on some GoMacrobars at Kroger a couple weeks before our trip so we saved those and they were perfect for the van and also on our hiking days when we needed some energy boosting foods.

The ease of grabbing healthy snacks helps to cut out purchasing items off the shelves at the gas station when it’s time to fill up with gas.

For our cooler, we also like to have cheese sticks (for those of us who eat dairy), yogurt with granola, apples, carrots and hummus, blueberries, and sliced strawberries. 

We also like to make homemade laraballs before a trip. They provide great protein and fill the boys up quicker than some other foods.

Our youngest son is oat and dairy free so we made him some dairy and oat free granola to put on top of his yogurt. He loved it so much and it is very filling.

We keep a bag of paper plates, bowls, plastic silverware, and wetwipes readily accessible for snack and meal times. Our boys are 8, 10, and 13 and do a great job helping to get what they need. 

Travel Meal Ideas

We also like to make full meals ahead of time.

This trip, we made a couple pounds of sloppy joe (used over a couple meals), chicken salad, a stir fry meal (using some squash and chicken sausage that needed to be used before our trip), and chicken fajitas. 

We bring buns, shells, and tortilla chips to use with our different food sensitivities. 

I can’t tell you how much I love to take my precooked meal out of my ziplock bag and warm it up and have it ready to serve in just a few minutes. We made lots of fruit salads to serve and the boys gobbled everything right up. 

This meal went from fridge to table in about 10 minutes. Which was fabulous after a day of traveling.

We also pack bread, lunch meat, cheese, crackers, rice cakes, peanut butter and jelly, turkey dogs, chips and salsa, etc for snacks and lunches. Our youngest son is dairy, soy, gluten, and oat free so taking all of our food with us helps our budget and saves time (so we aren’t driving to 3 different grocery stores to get the food we need).  

I will be honest, the planning and prepping before the trip is very tiring, but it makes it so worth it when you are traveling. 

We ate our own groceries for every single meal except one. We ordered from Chick-fil-a. It was sure tasty and the boys loved every single bite. That one meal cost our family of 5 about $40. We enjoyed our meal but also pointed out to the boys the benefit of eating our own groceries and prepared meals.  

2. Research Blogs and Trip Advisor

The internet is extremely helpful when planning a trip to a place you have never visited or if it’s been a few years since you have. Our most recent trip, we took our boys out west to Colorado Springs. This is something we have wanted to do for years.

My husband booked an AirBnB about 7 months before our trip. The reviews on lodging are extremely helpful. He found us a place to stay that had plenty of space and was very clean. That’s important to me! I can never rest well if I am not feeling comfortable where we are staying. 

We also reserved a couple nights at a hotel for our traveling to and from Colorado Springs. In the past, we have driven straight through by getting the kids up in the early morning hours but this time we wanted to see each state. In the daylight. It was so fun. 

Another great resource is Tripadvisor. If you have never used it, it’s user friendly and loaded with great travel tips for places to stay, restaurants, things to do, etc. If you are on a budget, you can search for places that are free to visit as well as get many peoples’ reviews on that place. 

Simply googling the area you are visiting will provide tourism sights. They provide you with tips on how the weather will be at the time of the visit as well as other deals like coupons. 

We knew we wanted to visit Pikes Peak as a family. My husband found a coupon code for that which saved a couple dollars. It’s not much, but hey, it’s a couple more dollars to use elsewhere. 

That was the only place we visited that we had to pay for. (See below how we utilized our son being in 4th grade to help cut a travel expense). 

There are so many blogs dedicated to travel. I plan on writing a more in-depth post on the activities we did at a later time to help others who are planning a similar trip to Colorado.

One thing to note is that we planned this trip about 4 months into the Covid Pandemic. Most of the places we wanted to visit were open and running, but a couple were not.

It’s always great to check directly with the place you are visiting to see if they are in operation and what requirements might be made. Colorado was enforcing masks in all public indoor places. It was similar to our home state so that wasn’t out of the ordinary for us, but it’s always helpful to know what the state is enforcing before you take off on your trip.

>>>Also, get this REALLY cool app called Sygic Travel Maps to plan your itinerary for a lot of major cities. You can find the must-see attractions, as well as some hidden gems off the beaten path. It’s really nice to be somewhat familiar with your destination before you go, and it will help you plan out the order in which you do things so you’re not back-tracking.

3. Use your Local Library

We love our local library! We are “regulars” and each of our boys has his own library card. Before taking a big trip, we hit up the library to get books, audiobooks, video games, and (most recently) CDs. 

We check out several items that are available at our library and we have learned to make our requests about 1.5 to 2 weeks before our trip for items located in different libraries. That gives the libraries a little bit of time to get the items transported. We got the majority of our holds in for this trip but there were a handful that arrived after we left. 

Here is our stash of books/games/CDs/Playaways we got in preparation for our trip.

The boys packed their own bookbags and were in charge of their own media. We have grown to love Playaways. They are audiobooks that are portable, running on a single battery, that allow our kids to listen to a book with their headphones. They are amazing for long car rides! Just throw in a couple extra sets of earbuds from the dollar store and some extra batteries and you will be set.

My husband also hit up the CD section this time. Our minivan doesn’t have a working Aux cable so we were always scanning the radio to find some good tunes. That’s fun at times, but much better when you have the music you really want and it’s not fuzzy from static!

We checked out several CDs. Some classics and some old power ballads we knew all the words to from when we were growing up. The lyrics truly do come flooding back. 

Having these CDs made our trip so much more fun and we will do this every single time we travel in the future. Our favorite was singing the song “Always” from Bonjovi. We will forever remember Bon Jovi on our trip to the mountains!

4. 4th Grade National Park Pass

Did you know your 4th grader can get a free pass to visit several natural wonders and historical sites in the United States for free? www.everykidoutdoors.gov is a website from the United States Government that allows you to print a pass for your 4th grader.

Our middle son just completed 4th grade but still qualified for the pass. My husband got him registered, and in order to obtain the pass you have to bring your printed paper with you. Your child will then be given a pass that allows free entry to National Parks. For us, we used it to save $25 when visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. Please note, you cannot use this pass without your child.

What a wonderful resource to encourage kids to get out in nature and explore different locations in the United States!

The website is user friendly, so if you have a 4th grader or an upcoming 4th grader, you can obtain this pass and even plan your trip around visiting those Parks. It also shows you local places you can visit to get outdoors that maybe you hadn’t heard of before.

Rocky Mountain National Park was my favorite place to visit in Colorado. The beauty all around me took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes at the same time. There is something about being in God’s creation that can give you so much peace.

5. Driving versus Flying

Let’s be honest. Flying is much quicker. You will get to your destination much faster. Driving on the other hand, has been our choice for family vacations. 

What do we love about driving?

  1. We are on our own schedule

We love being on our own time. We love the opportunity to pull over and take a closer look at something if we want to. 

If we want to spend a little longer at one of our sights, we are able to. We don’t have to worry about being at a certain place at a certain time. 

This trip, we had a blast visiting several Goodwill stores throughout Colorado. We call this our mountain and thrift store vacation. The boys had so much fun shopping and we were able to grab a few Colorado souvenirs for really cheap. One of our favorite finds was a brand new thermos water bottle (still had stickers on it) at a Goodwill. It was exactly like the one our son was using and he got a brand new one for a couple dollars. It was awesome. 

I also grabbed a microwaveable dish for us to warm up our sloppy joe at the hotel. 

  1. We have everything we have need with us

We take a lot with us when we travel. If you are still reading, you saw how much we love to bring our own food and snacks! It is amazing to have all of that accessible as we travel. 

We have had cases of car sickness. We have needed extra clothes.

We have had injuries. We have needed our first aid kit.

Again, we have our groceries so we are saving time and money by not going shopping all throughout our trip.

  1. Driving is cheaper than flying

I do realize that flying is much more affordable right now than it has been in the past.

For us, we only spent about $220 on gas for our trip. Much cheaper than 5 flight tickets and a rental car. 

Sometimes driving far distances just isn’t possible because of time restraints, but it will save you expenses for sure.

Where Will You Go?

I hope these tips for How to Plan the BEST Family Vacation on a Budget have been helpful for you! To me, the trip seems much more enjoyable knowing that the money we have set aside goes a long way and we won’t have trouble paying our regular bills after returning back home.

What tips do you have for saving money on trips that I could add to the list? Happy (cheap) travels!

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How to Plan the BEST Family Vacation on a Budget

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