Terri Weeks is a family travel writer from Cincinnati, Ohio. She and her husband are on a mission to take their children to all 50 states before they graduate from high school. She blogs about it at www.travel50stateswithkids.com. She is also one of the authors of Adventures Around Cincinnati: A Parent’s Guide to Unique and Memorable Places to Explore with your Kids, and has been attending Hearts at Home conferences since 2002.


I love the title of Chapter 15 in Jill and Mark Savage’s book, Living with Less so Your Family Has More. The title is “Holidays: Santa’s on a Budget and Vacation is Nonnegotiable.”

So why do I love that title?

While I think that God gave each of us a desire to get away occasionally, I also think many of us who are living on a tight budget feel guilty about spending money on vacation when there are so many other items that seem more important. I think many moms feel they need permission to spend money on vacations. Jill not only gives us permission to take a vacation, she practically mandates it! She lists the reasons in the first two sentences of the chapter:

Every family needs an opportunity to get away from the everyday. A break in routine is a necessity for emotional health, physical health and relational heath.

For many moms, this might be a paradigm shift. When you start thinking of a vacation in terms of an investment in the emotional, physical, and relational health of your family, it begins to feels wrong not to allocate some of your budget towards one. That doesn’t mean we need to go overboard, which is so easy to do.

The key is to making your limited dollars count while at the same time fitting in what is most important for your vacation to be memorable. Here are five tips for making the most of your money while on vacation:

1. Make it a road trip.

In addition to the obvious airfare, other costs must be factored into flying to your destination: Unless you have someone drive you to the airport, you’ll have to pay either for parking at the airport or for a taxi to drive you there. Once you arrive at your destination, you’ll have to pay to rent a car or for other transportation.

Unless you are a master at packing light, you’ll probably have to pay to check luggage for your flight too. Even with the rising cost of gasoline, the price of gasoline for a family road trip usually pales in comparison to the cost of flying. Driving leaves more money available for spending at your destination while you spend less getting there.

2. A hotel is a place to sleep, not a destination itself (in most cases).

I’ve found over the years that if we spend too much time in a hotel or motel room that my kids get antsy and start climbing the walls. OK, so maybe not literally climbing walls, but literally jumping on beds. So I make a deliberate attempt to spend as little time in the hotel room as necessary.

All we really need in a room is a comfortable place to sleep and shower. That opens up lots of budget-friendly options. I use the Internet to check reviews of different hotels ahead of time. When you look beyond moderate price hotels, it seems the more you pay for a hotel room, the less value it has—for example, you’ll pay extra for Internet and other services.

Many moderate chains include free breakfast, making them a good value. The breakfast offerings, however, can vary tremendously from lavish buffets to a box of donuts and coffee. Sometimes, though, it makes sense to choose a motel that does not offer free breakfast.

If you can find a motel room for $40 without breakfast and hotels with breakfast are charging $70, take the savings. You can certainly feed your family breakfast for less than $30. I’ve stayed in many budget hotels. Most of them are fine–fine, not luxurious–but that’s OK, because it I have more money to spend on the things that matter more.

Often, I’ll check websites like Hotwire.com and Priceline.com. I’ve used both with success. Typically you can get a higher priced hotel for a moderate price, or a moderate hotel for a budget price. Some websites, like Hotwire, allow you to enter the number of family members, ensuring that you get a room with two beds.

Others, like Priceline, make no guarantee on the number of people that can sleep in the room, so it’s possible your family of four could all have to share one king-size bed. I haven’t had a problem, but it is a theoretical risk.

3. The less money you spend on food, the more money you have to spend on attractions.

Another benefit to driving instead of flying is that you can pack a cooler and food which can save you money on meals. You can also pack a few small appliances to make some warm meals. You can heat hot water in a hot pot to make instant oatmeal or heat a can of soup.

On one trip, we packed our Panini press. Crispy grilled sandwiches are an appetizing change from yet another cold sandwich. Another alternative to sandwiches is cheese, crackers, and fruit, an easy lunch on the road.

It would be both difficult and boring to eat all your meals from a cooler, so we plan for some meals out. We try to find restaurants that serve the local specialties. Roadfood.com is a great resource for finding unique local restaurants that are usually inexpensive too.

Another option is to do a hybrid meal of restaurant food with packed food. On our trip to Alaska last year, we rented an RV and were able to prepare our own meals, but wanted to sample some of the seafood Alaska is known for. One night we ordered a single halibut meal and shared it as an appetizer, then prepared some additional food in our RV for the balance of the meal.

4. Do research ahead of time to find creative alternatives to expensive attractions.

While the options will depend on your specific destination, look for budget-friendly options that give you a taste of what you are looking for while charging a fraction of more expensive attractions. Can you create a DIY version of a tour? Is there a park that offers an experience similar to a commercial outfit?

I’ll give you some examples of some alternatives we found on our trip to Alaska last year. We thought it would be fun to do some canoeing or rafting, but commercial outfits were charging $50-100 per person for a guided tour. A nearby state park with a lake rented canoes and kayaks by the hour. It wasn’t the same exact experience, but it cost us around $20-30 total for all of us and was much easier on our budget.

There were also commercial sled dog operations that offered one-hour dog sled rides (in the summertime they are on wheeled carts, not sleds) for about $35-70 per person. Instead, we visited the Iditarod Headquarters which had free admission. We viewed the exhibits, got to play with sled dog puppies for as long as we wanted, then took a short ride for $10 per person.

It was enough to give us a taste of the experience without the hefty price tag of a longer ride. And lastly, one of the highlights of our trip was hiking on a glacier.

On a previous trip to Alaska, before our kids were born, my husband and I had taken a helicopter ride that landed on a glacier where we were able to walk around. A helicopter ride for five people would have cost at least $1000 and was completely out of the question, so I was thrilled when I found a glacier that was accessible by car.

For $25-50 per person, we went on a guided tour of the glacier for a couple hours. I blogged about it here: http://travel50stateswithkids.com/hiking-on-a-glacier-in-alaska/

5. Save where you can, then splurge on the activities that matter most.

Almost every destination probably has some parks, historic sites, and museums that are free. Don’t spend money where you don’t have to. But, there are some attractions that are pricey and there’s just no getting around it. Choose those attractions carefully, look for discounts or coupons, then spend the money and enjoy yourself.

Spending wisely on transportation, lodging, and food will help ensure you have enough left for a few splurges on attractions. Years later, you probably won’t remember the amenities your hotel had or what you ate for dinner, but you will remember the attractions you visited and the memories you made together.

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