Almost everyone has laughed at the classic movie "National Lampoon’s Family Vacation." Perhaps part of the fun was reminiscing about our own childhood experiences while traveling with family.
For most of us, travel today is very different from our younger years. The change is even more dramatic when we realize we’re the adults charged with the responsibility of creating a fun, unforgettable vacation experience that will become our children’s childhood memories. Even so, it’s important to remember that great experiences don’t have to become great expenses.
Family vacations, like other family expenditures, can quickly break the bank unless the first step involves planning. According to MSN Encarta’s dictionary, the word vacation means “a break: a period of time devoted to rest, travel, or recreation.” That means a break from the routine and the stress of everyday life. Going into debt and facing big credit card payments when returning home defeats the purpose of a family getaway.
Here are some tips to consider when planning your family’s vacation:
- Set a budget and stick with it. Before pulling out the travel brochures, determine how much is feasible for your family to spend and choose destinations that fit your budget.
- Make saving for vacation a family event. Toss loose change into a jar marked “vacation fund” and encourage your children to contribute as well.
- Travel during off-peak times. The lines at the attractions are shorter, and prices for airfare, hotels, and meals may be lower.
- Shop for the best deals on airfare and hotels. Hotels.com, AirFareWatchdogs.com, Priceline.com, Kayak.com, and other websites make it easy to shop. Compare those prices with hotel and airline Internet sites; they frequently post unadvertised specials.
- Compare online prices with your local travel agent. While the Internet offers some good values, travel agents may have discounts or specials at lower prices—especially when buying a package deal.
- Check with your employer about potential partnerships or deals. Depending upon the company, employers often have travel contracts or discounted tickets to amusement parks available. Information should be available from your human resources staff.
- Stay at kid-friendly hotels. Hotels with kitchenettes, in-room refrigerators, “kids stay free” offers, and similar features can reduce the cost of your vacation.
- Compare the cost of a hotel in the hub of your selected activities with one further away. It may be more cost effective to pay a higher hotel bill than to pay the additional cost of traveling back and forth, especially if it requires you to rent a vehicle.
- Spend a day away from expensive tourist attractions. The kids may enjoy a day at the hotel swimming pool, the beach, or a nearby museum or park. Shopping centers and other areas generally have play areas for children, allowing for quality time together at little or no cost.
- Compare the cost of using local transportation to renting a car. Hotels in major cities generally charge steep parking fees. Depending upon your location and planned activities, consider buying a multiple-day pass on public transportation instead.
- Carry a portable DVD player and DVDs. It helps pass the time while traveling and offers low cost, in-room entertainment in the evenings.
- Pack your family’s favorite snacks and drinks. Whether traveling by air or by car, having your own snacks available is much less expensive. Also, take individual refillable water bottles. A family of four can easily spend $50 a day on between-meal refreshments. If traveling by air, you may even consider a quick trip to the local grocery store for breakfast or late evening treats in the room.
- Stock up on necessities before you travel. Travel pillows, sunglasses, sunscreen, toothpaste, and other essentials cost more at hotels, airports, and convenience stores.
- Purchase souvenirs at “off site” locations. The prices at theme parks and tourist attractions are generally higher than purchasing from a local merchant. Also, consider the cost of transporting those souvenirs back home. Most airlines charge for a second bag and overweight luggage.
- Download pictures from your cellphones for a scrapbook instead of buying souvenirs. Giving each child his or her set of photos can help extend the vacation fun and last longer than most of the souvenirs.
- Most importantly, remember you’re vacationing to build memories. A family vacation is more about spending time together than spending money.
Sue Lynn Sasser, PhD, is a professor of economics at the University of Central Oklahoma.