My family didn’t travel much when I was a kid, but when we did, my parents jumped through hoops to cut costs.
On a trip to Disney World, for example, we switched our family of six hotels. all. night. My mom worked for a hotel chain and could get one free night per property.
Did my parents save money? Yeah. Has the mental burden of traveling with four children increased? definitely.
As an adult now planning a trip with my child, I fully understand how expensive – and difficult – it is to travel with children. Planning and packing requires counting naps, snacks, tantrums, and outbursts. And you budget for extra airline tickets, a larger rental car, and extra accommodation.
You can save money on traveling with family and enjoy peace of mind. To find out how, I consulted two experts. This is what they had to say.
Pay with points
The secret of smart backpackers? They don’t actually pay for airfare and accommodation. Instead, they use rewards credit cards to turn everyday purchases into free flights and hotel rooms.
“Make your money work for you,” says Preethi Harbuck, a San Francisco Bay Area travel writer who works for the Local Passport Family blog. The Harbuck family of seven (which would later become eight) travel almost exclusively on credit card points. “There are more expenses when you have children but you can take advantage of them to achieve greater benefits.”
Jamie Harper, a mother of four and author of the travel blog Fly by the Seat of Our Pants, says hopping between cards can earn you big points thanks to sign-up bonuses but can be hard to manage. To keep things under control, stick to one or two basic cards.
Harper and her husband alternate between Hyatt, Marriott, and Hilton cards, which offer perks like free breakfast, Wi-Fi, and anniversary nights.
Light package – and smart
Overloading can be a disaster on multiple fronts. First, you have to carry all those things with you and keep track of them along the way. The chances of losing a blanket are high.
Second, checked bags are expensive – about $30-$35 per bag, each way.
Harbuck and her family stick to either one checked bag or a few small handbags. Instead of wearing new clothes for each person, they re-wear every day and usually do the laundry on every trip.
“Pack lightweight, well-drying clothes quickly,” she says, noting that woolen clothes are great for cold weather.
Having layers is crucial, too. Minimize this, and you could end up spending $50 per kid on keepsake sweaters to keep them warm, says Harper.
Choose activities carefully
Fill your itinerary with free things to do, like local parks, free hikes, beaches, or free museums.
You can also take advantage of perks included with memberships you already have — to your local zoo or children’s museum — or invest in passes that you can use over and over again.
When you’re paying for experiences and trips, consider your family’s life stage. Instead of taking your child to an art museum, for example, opt for an outdoor sculpture park where they can run or a children’s museum with lots of interactive features on their level.
Harbuck says your family’s travel priorities should guide you, too. Learning about the place’s culture and history is important to her family, so they spend money on activities that achieve that goal and skip more popular tourist attractions.
“We’ve been to London a few times but have never rode the London Eye,” she says. “It doesn’t help me feel connected to the culture, and it’s very expensive.”
Snacks, grocery store
There is no rule that says you should eat every meal out when you are on vacation.
Instead, choose one meal a day to take out. Lunch is a good option, as it is usually cheaper than dinner (which in some countries starts later than most children’s bedtimes). By packing your own meal or eating at home, you avoid an expensive meal where children melt or fall asleep at the table.
The Harbuck family arrives at the local markets to stock up on food when they land in a new city. Taking a road trip? Keep food cooler for picnics and rest.
“If we don’t eat twice, we’re saving $100 a day — and that’s the cheapest meal possible,” Harper says, noting that her kids are very picky about eating. “We spent $7 per kid on buttered pasta once. It was the worst experience ever. They didn’t even eat it.”