A Frugal Vacation with Kids

The only time my husband and I ever went on a vacation where we did things even remotely “normal” was our honeymoon–and that was because it was a gift from our families.  In the 11 years following our only vacations have been cheap because we, in that time, have never had money to spare for extras like eating out let alone actual travel.  With vacation season upon us and gas and grocery prices sky rocketing, more people are trying to figure out how to do similar frugal vacations.  Most of it has been said better elsewhere but I thought I would share what has worked for us.

  • Research the trip (the internet makes this SO much easier–not only can you research travel prices but you can actually look up towns you will be passing by).  Figure out the cost of driving versus plane, train, or bus and travel accordingly.  The only time we have ever traveled by plane was when my husband’s company paid for it.  Even bus is usually more expensive than driving yourself.  Also, have you tried to deal with a layover with 3 screaming, whiny kids, or dealt with lost luggage with a baby who exploded her diaper, the clothes you packed in the carryon are suddenly too small, and the only store in the town you are staying only sells $50 baby clothes which is more than your budget for the entire trip?  No?  Well it isn’t fun, believe me.
  • Another benefit of research is knowing gas prices along the way (when I traveled the 12 hours between home and Mass. with my then two kids we knew every rest stop and how far I could go on one tank of gas, and where the cheapest gas was), knowing where scenic views and rest stops are.  You can even check for the towns with the lowest cost of living in the area you are going (for instance when we lived in Mass. there were several towns within a few miles of each other–three were tourist traps but one was MUCH more expensive than the others.)  Knowing where all the rest stops are is also a big plus of this.  When I traveled with the kids when they were small we kept a potty in the trunk for emergencies but seldom needed to use it sinc eI knew where the stops where and always let the kids stop and walk(run) around at each stop.
  • Visit friends and family.  Only twice in our married life have we traveled and stayed in a hotel–one was our honeymoon the other was when my husband’s company paid because they were moving us to the area.  Every other time we have stayed with someone or camped.  For instance, one set of friends lives in Mass. near where we lived, another lives in Washington DC, another in North Carolina, and my brother lives in Orlando, Florida.  Last year we traveled to visit my dad, who was renting a cottage on the ocean, and we stopped over with our friends in Washington DC.  The only costs we dealt with was food (which bought at the grocery store) and gas (which we had a yard sale to pay for.)    You can also take a tent and camp out-cheaper than a camp site and gives them their space.  Keep in mind–keep it short.  As my dad used to say, “Fish and company both start to stink after 3 days.”  Of course it depends on the friend (I have some I would LOVE to keep here when they stayed, others though, well 3 days is plenty.:))
  • Travel with friends or family.  We seldom travel alone.  Well, back when I was a homesick mom of two I traveled with my two babies the 12 hours to get home unless I could find a friend traveling the same direction, which I did on occasion.  Sticking together means that you both get to travel AND you split the cost, not to mention have help with the kids.  A note of caution however, make sure the person you are traveling with is not going to get horribly sick of the kids during travel–even grandparents can be affected by this. This can be VERY hard on relationships.
  • Traveling with friends.

  • Be prepared.  Pack for the weather but only take what you need. If you take too many clothes it is very easy to leave something behind.  We plan a few outfits per person that can all be mixed and matched.  One bag per person.  You can always wash something out in the sink and allow it to dry overnight.  Thi seleminates a lot of the mess that occurs when traveling.  If the kids only have 3 pairs of shorts and shirts they are less likely to strew them about the room or tent.
  • Stock up on what you will need before you go.  DO NOT travel light.  Okay, travel light in the clothes department but not in the needs department.  Take all the food and body care you will need with you if at all possible.  Have a cooler with drinks and non-messy foods (fruit and cheese and ready made sandwiches are good.  I also take a thermos full of coffee so I am not tempted to stop.  Unless you are traveling to a non-tourist place that is cheaper than your home town this is important.  If you don’t want to carry it all with you then stop in a small town before you hit the tourist trap.  For instance, last year we visited my dad in Ocean City–before we finished our trip we stopped at a Safeway and picked up all the food we would need, even getting their discount card so we got the best price.  This saved us a ton since Ocean City, Maryland has tons of little touristy shops but no big, normal, cheap grocery store in site, especially none that carry the specialty foods the kids need.  In other words, shop like a local but not necessarily locally.
  • Budget for “I am sick of the car and car food and want a hot meal and a rest”. We usually plan for a quick meal towards bedtime at an actual restaurant.  I try to choose a place where we can get a few cheap things to supplement our car food instead of whole meals as well as a place with a climbing play area and good bathrooms so the kids can change into pj’s if need be.  I usually let each kid pick one item on the dollar menu, get water, and let them run around and let off some steam.  This does a lot for everyone’s sanity.
  • A quick walk to pappap\'s house to jump on the trampoline is a favorite break.

  • Plan your souvenirs. Souvenirs are expensive, though if you plan ahead with the kids there are some cheaper things you can get that will remind you of your trip.  Magnets used to be a cheap souvenir though now at $5 a piece, well, no thank you.  If you must collect magnets stop at the local Walmart–they usually have local ones for much cheaper than the souvenir shops.  We usually stick with post cards and brochures.  Postcards are nice because you can keep them in an album and collect them at each stop.  We also found that brochures work well.  We collected them at every stop over the past few trips–they make fun reading material for the kids while driving and are a perfect way to record all the stops you made.  In fat, we kept ours in a photo album after our North Carolina camping trip and the kids still love to look at them to remember all we did.  My kids also love to pick up maps at the rest stops so they can keep track of where they are and where they have been.  This is also great for future home school activities–my kids learned a ton from all those brochures.
  • Plan around kids sleep schedules. When my littles were babies I would plan my trips around their nursing schedule.  Later I planned around naps.  Since my kids slept well in the car I would leave on my 12 hour trek right after an early lunch.  This meant the littles would sleep for a few hours at the start of the trip.  Then they would be awake for a few hours and then asleep for the rest of the trip.  It worked out really well.  Nowadays we leave after breakfast (one less stop) and listen to books on cd the whole way.  Investing in some Adventures in Odessy ($5 for the travel set) made all the difference traveling 9 hours each way last summer.  It kept the kids entertained and kept squabbling to a minimum.  I also do what my mom did when we made the same trip growing up–I keep a stash of stuff up front and have the kids keep a stash of things in back.  Each has books and activities they enjoy doing as well as a pillow for naps.
  • Finally got them to sleep.

  • When all else fails stay home.  When my husband takes his vacation time each August (for our combined birthdays) we don’t travel.  He HATES traveling so we stick close to home and plan a few fun activities locally.  We usually stay within an hour of home.  The kids also like to go camping at the pond where I grew up.  It makes for a nice change and if something happens we are only 4 miles from home.  You can also check out local campgrounds or go swimming at a local hotel (ours charges about $5 per person.)  Miniature golf, gocarts, or the local farm show or fair are all cheaper mini vacations than traveling.  Just think–for $100 you can get a pass to the local museums for the whole year instead of just the price of gas to one vacation spot.