Planning a Family Vacation: How to Get the Most for Your Money

Planning a family vacation is never quite as simple or as straight-ahead as parents might hope it will be. You want to have fun, and to select a destination, accommodations, and activities that will please everyone. You want to create positive family memories for your kids, and to a large extent you’re happy to pay any price to make that happen—but then again: You do have a family budget to think about, and you need to stretch your vacation dollars as far as possible.

In short, you want value—but getting it can prove tricky. How can you ensure that your family vacation is smartly budgeted, offering maximum enjoyment for all parties, neither breaking the bank nor cutting any corners?

Getting There

Some of the biggest expenses come from actually traveling to your family vacation destination. If you are driving an hour north to spend time in the mountains, that’s one thing; for longer trips, some decisions need to be made.

You might assume that driving to your vacation spot is the cheapest way to go, and you’re likely correct—but don’t just assume it. Run the numbers on how many tanks of gas you will need; on meals you’ll have to buy on the road, and additional hotel costs if the trip takes more than a day. Think about the wear and tear on your vehicle, as well.

Work up a basic figure for driving costs, then head to the Web to comparison-shop. Look at some of the big travel websites that offer package deals on airfare and hotel rooms. Driving may still be the affordable route, but don’t make that call until you do your research. Additionally, think about whether many hours spent in a car represents a better value for your family than taking a plane and getting there sooner.

Measuring Meal Costs

Something else to plan in advance—something else that tends to eat into the vacation budget—is dining out. Some hotel chains offer kids-eat-free deals, which are well worth taking advantage of and factoring into your total vacation budget. You can also research restaurants that offer kids-eat-free options on certain nights of the week, and do a bit of advanced planning in this way.

You might also consider taking some supplies for breakfasts and/or lunches in your hotel room. Make sure to get a hotel room with a refrigerator and necessary kitchen features, should this be the road you take.

Also note that even if you’re making your own meals rather than eating out, you can still make it fun and special: Try a family picnic at a well-known local park, on the beach, or somewhere else that’s scenic.

A final tip: If you do really want to experience a nice meal at a fancy restaurant, plan on doing so for lunch. Get the full experience for just part of the cost.

Planning for Entertainment

Obviously you want to plan some fun activities on your vacation, but perhaps it would be prudent to make a few of those activities low-key and inexpensive. For example: If you know your hotel room has a DVD player and a microwave, you can pack a couple of favorite family movies, a box of popcorn, and plan on having one family movie night.

For the other things you want to do—theme parks, aquariums, zoos, or what have you—research ticket prices in advance, and buy family passes online if possible. Almost always, you can save some money this way, as opposed to buying your tickets at the gate.

Finally: Don’t overthink things! Does your family love relaxing or playing on the beach? Then you may not need to spend too much money on entertainment; just take ‘em to the sand and shore!

Family vacations are meant to be fun—and your job in making the budget is to ensure optimal fun through optimal value.

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