If this year’s cold winter has provided any benefit, it’s that it’s made me think more about how I want to spend the spring and summer. While we all dream of the warmer sun vacations of years past, for many of us parents, travelling with children is a much different experience.
While I have yet to muster up the courage to pack my kids on an airplane for 8 hours (along with all the ‘baby and toddler equipment’), we have had our fair share of family road trips. Although, my wife has me convinced that 2015 will be the year.
Plan to spend less (by planning more)
Road or sky, the only thing more expensive than travelling with kids, is travelling with kids spontaneously or without doing a bit of planning. So do yourself and your wallet a favour and plan ahead.
With March break just around the corner, here are a few of the things you can do to save money when travelling with children and make the best of your family vacation.
Budgeting your travels. Ok, I know I said fun, but vacation costs can add up quickly, and can quickly get out of hand. As with any budget, I like to keep mine simple. I look at what the maximum is that I can reasonably afford. It’s also a good idea to budget in a comfortable 10-15% buffer, to cover any unexpected travel expenses. So, if $5,000 is your max budget, try working with a budget of $4,500. Once you have your number, you can make decisions about where you want to go, how you’re getting there, your length of stay and the amount of spending money you want to bring.
Then, searching the web, do an approximate cost estimate of what your ideal trip will cost. Be sure to include in your budget, what you expect to pay for your duration in:
Pre-trip buys (bathing suits and towels, sun care products, games, etc.)
Accommodation (hotels, cottages, or forego these costs by going camping)
Food & Drink (meals, dining out, wine, etc.)
Souvenirs (gifts and takeaways) and
Extra Spending Money (for excursions, admission fees and other additional entertainment costs you can think of)
If you’re over what you can reasonably afford, but you still have your heart set on a particular destination, you can decide to decrease your length of stay, the number of day excursions you plan on taking, or how you’ll be getting there. Keep it pretty flexible, but stick to your overall number.
If you’re looking for some destination ideas, be sure to check out Reader’s Digest list of 40 Affordable Destinations for a Family Vacation. Once you have your destination details sorted out, it’s time to look more in-depth and find other ways to save money. I can think of at least two reasons you want to do this:
To spend less on the trip and have more money set aside for other things (maybe even another vacation); or
To use the extra savings for extra spending money on your trip.
Save money on your stay by using price comparison sites. Sometimes there can be huge discrepancies between prices from one hotel booking site to another, often even in the same exact hotel and room. That’s where hotel metasearch services like trivago and Kayak come in. These websites compare the prices of many hotel and hotel booking websites (such as Hotels.com or Expedia) to bring you the lowest prices on one site. Think of these as the Google search for hotel searches. While they help you find the best hotel, when you finally decide to book, all your hotel bookings are still done directly with the hotel or hotel-booking site.
Check what the reviews are saying. Before I go on any type of trip, I usually scour user reviews of hotels from sites like TripAdvisor. They can really tell you a lot about a place and save you money. You’ll often find the most expensive hotels don’t always translate into the highest-rated.
Forget about the minibar, but don’t forget about parking. Concessions at the minibar are sometimes triple the cost of what you could buy within a 5-minute walk of the hotel. Or just plan ahead and pack your and your kids’ own snacks ahead of time. Also, parking fees are not normally included in the final hotel price either, so keep that in mind if you need parking and always weigh that against the final cost of the hotel.
Be flexible when you book. If you can book mid-week, you’ll usually get a better rate. Also, better rates are offered for longer stays.
Take advantage of your travel rewards. Whether through credit card rewards, other loyalty reward programs or through the hotel’s own reward program, look for ways to minimize or eliminate the costs on your trip. Hotels.com for example gives you 1 night free when you book 10 nights with them. Use your rewards and always search for promo codes before you book.
It’s always exciting when you finally hit the submit button and confirmed your booking. But ah, you have kids now. The fun has just begun. Gone are the times when you could just throw a couple of outfits together and off you went. But a little preparation can go a long way.
Get to know your city. Take advantage of all the city has to offer and find out about free or inexpensive events and activities in your destination city. Look for any family-friendly festivals and/or events that will be happening around the city and around the time you plan to be there. Most may even be free. Just keep in mind, that if it is a popular event, hotels will fill up quickly, and maybe more costly. So it’s best to plan ahead to get the best prices.
Look for city freebies. Before you visit, look for things that the cities already normally offer up for free. Some city museums, for example, maybe free on Tuesdays, within a certain time or some places may offer free admission to children under a certain age. I know that in Washington, D.C., for example, there’s free public access for all and to all their Smithsonian museums, every day of the year.
Bring stuff for the kids to do in the car. Trust me. You’ll thank me when your 8-hour road trip has suddenly turned into a 15-hour one. Do everyone a favour and plan things for your kid(s) to do throughout the car ride. This site has some amazing ideas to get you started.
And bring plenty of snacks! – For your stay and in the car. Feed the meter, or so to speak. It makes everyone happy and also helps minimize the number of stops – so you’re not throwing away money at anyone or anything that will entertain or feed your bored, noisy toddler. I’m not saying to not spend any money on the road, but spend it wisely. Spend your money when it’s going to give you memories and add to the holiday.
Get to know your hotel. Some hotels may offer amenities, activities, or special perks for the family that are not always listed on their website. When my eldest was only 3 months old, before our road trip, we called ahead explaining that we were bringing an infant and inquired if they offered any playpens or cribs for her. And they did. So it saved us from having to pack one more bulky thing and they also rewarded us with a free room upgrade, so we’d be more comfortable, during our stay. It always pays to call ahead and ask. Also, once you arrive to check in at the hotel, take 5 minutes to speak to the hotel concierge. They’re usually very helpful and may be able to direct you with suggestions for dining out options for the kids, and family-friendly activities in and around the city.
Take a leisurely stroll around town. You might not want to be ping-ponging from exhibit to exhibit, museum to museum, every day of your trip. So it’s also a good idea to look at what the area you’re going to, offers in terms of public beaches, parks, markets, walking/hiking tours, swimming pools, skating rinks, and other free recreational activities. Pick up a guide and pack a picnic to save your money and energy.
But most of all, plan to have fun
After all your planning and preparing, put down all the lists and take a deep breath. It’s time to have fun! Recharge, relax and make your trip a memorable one for you and the whole family.
Disclosure: While some links in this post may be sponsored material, the words and content are my own. I only share information on thriftydad.ca that helps my readers save money and make the best out of their income.