Traveling with kids can be expensive. Planning a family vacation means you need to buy additional flight tickets, attraction passes, meals and find larger hotel rooms – it all adds up in a hurry!
As full-time family travel bloggers, we aim to maximize our enjoyment while minimizing our expenses. We have years of experience of traveling on a budget with our family and are happy to share our tips to plan the best family vacations on a budget:
This post contains compensated links.
How find Cheap Flights for your Family
A huge part of planning inexpensive family vacations is finding cheap airline tickets. Buying airplane tickets for your family often takes a big bite of out any family travel budget. Given the size of this expense, we work really hard on finding a balance between getting discounts on flights and reasonably good departure and arrival times.
Here is the process we use to book cheap flights for our family:
Get Cheap Flights by Looking Early
If you know your destination, start looking at flights as early as you can. Get a feel for prices and which flights look best for your schedule. For this exercise, we use Google Flights as it’s an easy and powerful tool to compare flights.
Set a Price Alert
If you start searching early enough, set price alerts through Google Flights for the travel days which appeal most to you. Google will email you when the price of your flight has changed. To activate, toggle the “Track Prices” switch above your search results.
Test Different Travel Dates
If you have any flexibility in your travel dates, try looking at flights which leave 1-2 days earlier or later than your ideal travel dates. It is easier to get cheap flights with a flexible schedule, especially if you can travel mid-week. The best tool to compare flight prices on different days is the “Date Grid” tool within Google Flights. It’s found at the top of your search results.
Look at Nearby Airports
If you are flying into or out of a large city with multiple airports, look at flights from all the airports. This is done two ways:
1) When you type in “Chicago”, select the top option which says, “All Airports”.
2) There is also a “Nearby Airports” button above your search results.
Using an alternate airport to your preferred one is often less convenient (i.e. longer travel days) but can provide significant discounts on flights for your family. You’ll need to assess whether the savings are worth the extra effort.
Try Separate Tickets
When it seems like no matter how hard I search and I still can’t find cheap flights, I start getting creative. One trick which has resulted in significant discounts on flights in the past is to break up the trip into two parts.
Step 1: Look at flights from major flight hubs (New York, London, Singapore, etc.) to your destination.
Step 2: If you can a find a cheap flight from the hub to your destination, then look for a cheap flight from your city to the hub.
This strategy can be especially useful if you fly to Europe or Asia, where you can find local low-cost carriers to carry you to/from your final destination. We once saved roughly 50% on airline tickets to South Africa by using this strategy.
Travel with a Baby
If you are flying with a baby, get as much travel in before they turn 2 to take advantage of the free flights for infants. We once saved money on our trip to Norway when our son was 23 months old, simply by getting one last free flight!
We use Google Flights for almost all of our flight pre-planning, but when it comes time to book our family airline tickets, we cycle through the major travel agencies to search for flight deals which don’t show up on Google Flights. We typically cycle through Expedia, Skyscanner and CheapOair a few times a week.
When we find the deal we are looking for, we book our plane tickets through whoever is offering the best price. We recently saved over $1,000 on flights to South Korea, using CheapOair instead of Google Flights using this strategy.
It only takes a few minutes to look, but every now and then you’ll find big discounts on flights.
How to Find Cheap Accommodations for your Family
Finding an affordable hotel for your family is another huge part of family travel on a budget. When finding an affordable place to stay for our family, we try to find the right balance between a good hotel deal, location and amenities.
Here is the process we use to find family-friendly affordable hotels and vacation home rentals:
Decide What You Want to See
Take some time to research what you want to do on your family vacation. Make notes on a digital or paper map of the attractions you want to visit on your trip. Often a pattern will form on the map, and you’ll see a logical area to stay in.
Start with Airbnb & VRBO
Vacation rentals are the best accommodation for budget family holidays. There are many advantages to vacation rentals for families on a budget:
- They are often cheaper than similarly located hotels.
- Kitchen facilities allow you to cook meals and avoid pricey restaurant meals.
- Laundry facilities allow you to pack less clothes, which can help reduce baggage fees.
- Separate bedrooms means everyone sleeps better, which leads to a more enjoyable holiday for everyone.
Then Check for Hotels
I’d estimate that we book over 75% of our accommodations through Airbnb or VRBO, but we always check for hotel deals as well to make sure we are making a well-informed choice. We may be persuaded to book a hotel room for a great location, a good deal or a tempting free breakfast (our kids love breakfast buffets!).
We use Booking.com frequently as we love their excellent “Top Picks for Families” search filter.
Pricing & Ratings Strategy
We refuse to stay in a flea-ridden dump just to save a few bucks. To find a good place to stay at a good price, start by filtering by price.
Look at the unfiltered search results and estimate the average nightly price for your destination. Then create a pricing filter with the average price as the highest you’re willing to pay. Next, raise your lowest price to filter out the super-cheap places.
Lastly, if possible, add a search filter for average guest rating. On Airbnb or VRBO, we won’t look at anything less than 4 stars (out of 5) and on Booking.com, we avoid anything less than 8 out of 10.
Expand Your Search Area
The closer you are staying to the top tourist attractions, the more you can expect to pay for your lodging. If you are struggling to find an affordable place to stay, expand your search to include areas outside of the tourist centers.
Focus on locations which are well connected by public transit. This strategy is particularly effective to avoid high prices during high season. We’ve saved 50% or more on accommodations several times simply by staying a little further away and taking a short bus, subway or Uber ride to the tourist center.
How to Save Money on Food while Traveling
People love to eat good food on vacation, so it’s easy to let food costs get out of hand while on vacation. Follow these simple tips to save money on food while traveling:
Is it Worth It?
Some of our favorite travel memories involve food: eating BBQ ribs in Charleston, SC, the red curry while traveling in Thailand with kids, eating pasta in Italy, introducing the kids to sushi in Japan and the delicious tacos al pastor during our family trip to Mexico.
If the local food is a major part of why you are taking your family to a destination, allocate more of your travel budget to enjoying food. But if the food isn’t anything special, don’t waste money unnecessarily at high price, low quality tourist restaurants.
If you follow our advice and rent a vacation home rental, you’ll enjoy huge savings on food by having the ability to cook your own meals. When at a vacation rental, we eat breakfast at ‘home’ and pack a healthy lunch to eat while out.
When traveling somewhere exotic, this has the additional benefit of being able to serve familiar food to your kids.
Limit Restaurant Meals
Unless you are somewhere where restaurant food is super cheap (Thailand, etc.), limit yourself to one restaurant meal a day. We usually go to restaurants for dinner as we don’t like to waste sightseeing time going to a slow tourist restaurant in the middle of the day.
Avoid Tourist Hotspots
We never go to restaurants near major tourist attractions as the prices are high and the quality is low. We use Google Maps to find highly rated restaurants 1-2 blocks away from the tourist hotspots. These restaurants are still geared towards tourists but need to work harder on quality and price to entice travelers to walk an extra block or two.
Save Money on Transportation
Making smart decisions on your transportation is important for budget friendly family vacations. Sometimes, a rental car is essential to enjoying a family trip, but if you can, try to avoid renting a car. Here is how we save money on transportation on our family trips:
We love walking from place-to-place while on our family holidays. It has the obvious benefits of saving money and getting good exercise, but it almost always leads to some unplanned adventure or discovery.
Walking does take longer, so make informed decisions – don’t waste a ton of sightseeing time walking through uninteresting parts of town; sometimes it makes most sense to pay to take the bus or catch an Uber.
Chose a Walkable Destination
Choose a destination which allows you to avoid renting a car. Most places in the world outside of North America fall into this category. One of the things we love best about Europe with kids, is the ability to walk everywhere.
You’ll be able to take a bus or subway from the airport to the town center. From there you’ll be able to walk everywhere.
Be Informed When Renting a Car
If a rental car makes the most sense for your family vacation, make a well-informed decision on your choice of rental car and company.
I’ll be honest, the process of picking up a rental car is always my least favorite part of any vacation – it seems there is always some unpleasant surprise or extra charge that wasn’t clear at the time of booking.
To mitigate this risk, I’ve switched to RentalCars.com as they have a large selection of rental car companies to choose from and I find they do the best job of taking the fine print and making it easier to find and understand, avoiding unpleasant surprises.
How to Save Money on Attractions
Find Free Things to Do
It’s amazing how often the best stuff to do on a family vacation is free. You’ll often find admission to museums is free and you can find free guided walking tours.
Another free activity we love is walking; most major cities have very interesting walking routes and sometimes you can even reach some good hiking with public transportation.
Cluster Your Attractions
If you are without a rental car, try to visit the attractions which are nearest each other to minimize your overall transportation cost & time.
Buy an Attraction Pass
If you are going to a popular tourist destination, check out the deals offered by a multi-day attraction pass. These passes offer free admission to most of the main attractions, often with the ability to skip the line. Depending on how much you do, you can often save up to 50%.
The main sellers of multi-day discount attraction passes are:
- CityPASS offers discounts in 14 cities across the United States and Canada.
- The Sightseeing Pass serves 17 cities, mostly in the USA.
- Go Card offers discounts in 26 tourist hotspots in the USA and around the globe.
Reduce Your Phone Bill while Traveling
If you are traveling internationally, beware of roaming charges from your cell phone provider. If you have an unlocked phone, pick up a local SIM card as soon as you can after landing. Almost every destination has a prepaid phone plan designed for tourists. These plans are usually for 7-31 days and include local calling minutes and data.
If you’d prefer not to bother with getting a SIM card while on vacation, you can buy a multi-country international SIM card on Amazon before you go. We typically wait until we arrive to buy one – it’s usually a pretty quick process.
Destination Ideas for Family Vacations on a Budget
Looking for the best cheap family vacations? These five destinations were our cheapest family vacations on a cost per-day basis:
- Road trip to Utah’s Five National Parks: We loved camping in Zion National Park with kids and the hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park with kids was incredible.
- Eastern Europe: Try a road trip to these family friendly places in the Czech Republic or visit Croatia with kids.
- Mexico: We paired up Mexico City with kids and seeing the monarch butterfly migration in Valle de Bravo. We also spent a month exploring all the best beaches and attractions around Playa del Carmen.
- Thailand: We loved everything about our trip to Thailand, which included visiting Chiang Mai with kids and exploring some of the most family friendly beaches in Thailand.
We hope these tips help you plan your best family vacations on a budget!
Dan Brewer is an intrepid family travel blogger with a passion for exploring the world's most captivating destinations. With 58 countries under his belt and a sense of wanderlust that knows no bounds, he has made it his life's mission to share his travel experiences and insights with fellow families who love to travel.
When Dan isn't traveling with his wife and kids, he's either out enjoying the Canadian Rockies he calls home or working on one of his three travel sites (Family Can Travel, Travel Banff Canada and Ultimate Sports Road Trip).