Ah, summer. Family vacations. Road trips. Relaxation. Sounds great, but when you're focusing on your finances, how can you get out of the house to do something fun, without breaking the bank?
First of all, if you're heavy in debt and you're struggling to pay your regular monthly expenses, it goes without saying that anything more than a stay-cation might not be possible.
If you stay-cation, the kids will probably still have a good time if you end up pitching the tent in the backyard and making s'mores at home (teenagers may disagree). It wasn't really "camping," but long ago, in the days before flat screen TVs, my sister and I ran an extension cord out to the tent in our backyard so we could "camp" and watch TV on her little 13-inch screen. It was only on summer nights with zero chance of rain. It was a lot of fun, and it still makes me smile today.
Best tips for saving money on a summer vacation:
Plan responsibly and be realistic.
If you're paying off debt or are really focused on saving every dollar you can for a big goal, do you really need a full week at a big theme park like Disney? The big name theme parks aren't just big names... they're big dollars, too. Could you have a great time and go somewhere cheaper? Here are some ideas-
- State or national parks (Fourth graders can get a free national parks pass that will get everyone in the car in for free... check it out!)
- Day adventures, like ropes courses, regional family fun parks, etc.
- Is there a recreational place in your state that's new to you, or feels like a vacation?
Here in Washington, we've got the luxury of being a half-day's drive to the Pacific Ocean, a few hours to the mountains, and very near lots of beautiful lakes. One of our favorite lakes is about three hours away - enough to feel like we "took a trip," but not too expensive, as we can camp out there. The lake is our entertainment, and the kids are in it all day, every day. Think outside the box.
Is it possible to road trip so you can save money?
Granted, if you're trying to go from upstate New York to San Diego in a week, or from anywhere in the mainland U.S. to Hawaii, this isn't possible. But can you plan a fun road trip that is so much cheaper than flying somewhere? Here are some things to think about when considering a road trip-
- What is your car's condition? Is it very high mileage and you're worried about a breakdown on a long drive? Or is it lower mileage and would do just fine?
- Is your vehicle big enough for the planned trip, or would you be forced to fit a family of four, a dog, a cooler full of food and all your luggage into a tiny hatchback?
- What's the cost of gas along your planned route, and how much would it cost in total? I've used both apps like "Gas Buddy" as well as my mapping apps on my phone to figure this one out. Use your general mileage to see how far you'll get on your route before you'll need to gas up. Search for gas stations in that area, and see how much you'd spend to fill the tank. OR, an easier way to do this would be to map your planned total mileage and then do the math using a single figure for an average cost per gallon.
Use travel websites and apps to compare prices.
This one requires some advance planning, but even when you're on the road, you can use them to find an affordable hotel up ahead of you.
So plan ahead. Starting as early as you can, use travel websites and apps to search for the best prices. Priceline, Booking.com, Kayak... you name it, I've checked it out. These sites will give you an overview of the hotels in the city and will put them in a list that makes it easy to see where the best deals are. They'll also compare flights and rental cars. Priceline has a VIP club that gets you some discounted hotel rates if you sign up, and while you get a bigger discount the more "points" you rack up with them (in other words, the more you've spent while logged in), but you still could get a break even without any prior purchases.
Pro Tip: If you haven't paid for the thing yet, you might be able to use these sites to get a cheaper rate as your vacation gets closer! I once saved $150 on a rental minivan when I canceled an earlier reservation in favor of a lower rate just a week before we headed out of town. Just book the lower rate offer before you cancel the existing one, so you don't get stuck without a car if there's a technical glitch!
Flexible travel dates may save you money.
Avoiding Saturday night stays, and two-night minimums for weekends or full-week minimums around holidays can really save you some cash on hotels. If you're able to take some days off of work and travel mid-week, you are less likely to run into those two-night minimums. Plus, mid-week hotel rates are almost always cheaper than weekends!
In terms of activities, take a look at the websites of any of the attractions you might want to go visit. Water parks and movie theaters tend to have cheaper rates if you go on their low volume days, and you also get to avoid the crowds.
Can you be flexible with where you stay?
Flexibility doesn't just mean stars for the hotel, but location and type. Can you snag some serious savings by staying about 20 minutes down the road? I've seen even a 10-minute drive translate into a $20 per night savings on a hotel, and it was a much nicer one at that. Use the map feature when you're looking up hotels in the search engine, and expand your radius if you're using a travel website like one of those listed above.
Have you considered using Airbnb or VRBO? Those sites give you the option of renting houses. If you're going as a group, this could actually turn into a much more affordable way to stay, as you can split the cost between the families. You also get the opportunity to cook for yourself rather than depending 100% on restaurants.
Get creative! We've had amazing vacations out at a favorite lake by camping at a private RV park. The tent reservations made it so we could stay right on the shore for several days, all for about the same price as one night in a hotel back home. We've also alternated camping nights and hotels while on a road trip. We saved a bundle, had some great family time, and still got hot showers and plush beds on some nights!
A word of caution - a camper rental might not be as cheap as you think. If you're considering it, you'll need to add up all your costs. Is there a mileage limit per day? If so, what's the per mileage cost if you go over it? What's the gas mileage for the vehicle, and how far do you have to drive? How much will it be to gas it up? How much will you need to pay each night for an RV campsite?
Cook for yourself as much as you can.
Feeding a family on vacation can cost a lot. Try to find ways you can cook for yourself to save some cash. Can you take a cooler with you and make sandwiches for lunches? Will you have a kitchen or a kitchenette available to you? What about taking some single-serve cereals and milk along for breakfasts, or packing some bagels and cream cheese? Did you know that a $5 Costco rotisserie chicken is $5 at any Costco, even in Hawaii? What could you build around that for dinner?
Think about it. Just factoring in drive-throughs, which are among the cheapest fast food options, you're looking at probably $20 for breakfast for a family of four, potentially $30 at lunch, and another $30 at dinner. That's $80 per day, just on food... and on food that depending on where you go and what you order, food that might not be very healthy.
Pack your snacks, and get them from a grocery store, rather than the more expensive convenience stores. Granola bars, cut fruit and veggies, and drinks are always good to have on hand. Plan to restock somewhere at a grocery store if it's practical.
If you're relegated to staying in a hotel, try and get one that provides breakfast, and do an internet search for "cheap eats in <city>" to get some ideas for food that won't cost an arm and a leg.
The bottom line = Plan Ahead.
With some advance planning, it's possible to get some "vacation" time and not break the bank. All of these tips have been tested by my own family, and they do work in the right conditions. Get creative, and get saving!