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Smart Tips for Saving Money While Traveling with Kids

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Kids are expensive. There are groceries to buy, bodies to clothe, birthday parties to host, and college funds to save for. It’s enough to make you consider skipping this year’s family vacation. But traveling together helps parents and children connect with each other and create lifelong memories. Besides, what’s the point of working so hard if you can’t enjoy life? You deserve AND can afford that much-needed vacay. Just follow these tips for saving money while traveling with kids!

Follow these tips to save money when traveling with kids

Follow these tips to save money when traveling with kids (Photo credit: golyak, Depositphotos.com)

This story is brought to you in partnership with Dollar Car Rental.

1. Travel off-season to score great deals.

If you’ve got young children or you’re willing to pull older kids out of school for a few days, you can take advantage of bargain pricing simply by traveling off-season. This means skipping popular travel times like spring break, Thanksgiving, the last two weeks of December, holiday weekends and summer. Instead, plan your trip for mid- to late-September, October, the first two weeks of December, or January. (Psst…take advantage of Kids Free San Diego savings every October!)

Prices dip drastically during off-season in many popular vacation destinations. Bundle up for January fun in big cities with chilly winters, like Minneapolis or Chicago, where you can take the kids sledding and ice-skating. Or, stay warm at indoor attractions like the Mall of America in the Twin Cities or the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.

Alternatively, skip the snow and visit a ski resort like Vail during the summer. Your family will enjoy outdoor activities like hiking, swimming, and zip-lining. You could also spend plenty of time poolside at deeply discounted luxury resorts in desert locales like Phoenix and Palm Springs during summer months.

You can often save big money at luxury resorts like JW Marriott Desert Ridge in Phoenix when you visit in summer

You can often save big money at luxury resorts like JW Marriott Desert Ridge in Phoenix when you visit in summer (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

2. Make a detailed travel budget.

Before embarking on your family vacation, set a strict budget…and then stick to it. I like to make an Excel spreadsheet that details every expense including flights, rental car, accommodations, meals and snacks, entrance fees, and souvenirs. That way I am not surprised by the costs and I am less likely to spend willy-nilly during the trip.

Make...and stick to a strict travel budget for less stress and maximum enjoyment

Make…and stick to a strict travel budget for less stress and maximum enjoyment (Photo credit: pogonici, Depositphotos.com)

3. Pay with debit cards or cash.

It’s easy to get carried away and rack up big credit card debt when traveling. Why not treat the kids to dessert and upgrade to the suite? But then the outlandish credit card bills arrive after the trip is over. That’s why I like to pay with cash or debit cards to keep spending on vacation under control.

Parents looking for an affordable and reliable rental car for their family vacation will be happy to learn that Dollar Car Rentals’ new policy enables renters to reserve vehicles using a debit card instead of a credit card. Because Dollar is committed to making renting a car effortless and more transparent for traveling families, they’ve lowered the incidental hold amount from $350 to $200. Young parents will be happy to know that Dollar also lowered their rental age restriction when using a debit card from 25 to 20 years old, too. The new policy is valid at all Dollar-owned locations across the U.S. For more information, visit www.Dollar.com.

Dollar Car Rental makes travel with kids easier and more affordable

Now it’s even easier to rent a car with Dollar Car Rental (Photo credit: Dollar Car Rental)

4. Search and book smart.

Aggregate travel websites provide an easy way to check pricing for multiple travel providers at one time. Nowadays, the Mac Daddy aggregator for air travel is Google Flights, which shows the cheapest dates to fly to a destination during a given month. Keep in mind that some airlines, like Southwest, may not be included on these search sites.

Through these types of travel sites, you can often bundle your travel options by booking your flights, hotel and rental car all together to take advantage of a discount. I always recommend checking directly with the provider, though, before finalizing your reservation to make sure that you are getting the best deal. Often, the best price is the one offered directly from the hotel or car rental company, for example. Learn about travel scams to avoid when booking travel online.

Use travel search aggregator sites to find deals on hotels, flights, rental cars and more

Use travel search aggregator sites to find deals on hotels, flights, rental cars and more (Photo credit: Daviles, Depositphotos.com)

5. Sign up for fare alerts.

Some search aggregators, like Kayak and Airfarewatchdog.com allow travelers to set up a fare alert for specific destinations. As soon as I know where and approximately when I want to fly somewhere, I sign up for a fare alert. This option makes it easy to track fluctuations in pricing for airline tickets.

You may also want to sign up for Scott’s Cheap Flights newsletter. Basically, they’ll send you fare alerts when flight prices drop drastically. Thanks to Scott’s Cheap Flights, I scored roundtrip air tickets from Phoenix to Paris with my kids for less than $400 per person, including tax, fees and baggage! I signed up for Scott’s Cheap Flights paid newsletter with even more targeted flight alerts, but there’s a free version that’s great, too.

Get goodies like free hotel WiFi just for signing up for rewards programs

Earn travel rewards just for shopping online (Photo credit: Syda_Productions, Depositphotos.com)

6. Earn airline miles for shopping online.

Once you’ve enrolled in an airline rewards program, activate your account to receive points for shopping online. Simply log into your frequent flier account with a particular airline and then shop for things you would purchase anyway through their shopping portal. With every purchase you make from one of their approved vendors, you will receive airline points that can be used toward flights and so much more. You need not have a rewards credit card to take advantage of this benefit, either!

Some airlines have made earning points for shopping online even easier with a browser extension that allows you to shop and earn miles at partner stores without needing to start at the airline website. Once you’ve activated the extension from within the airline’s shopping portal, you will receive an alert from the airline every time you access one of their partner store websites, showing how many miles per dollar you’ll receive for purchases made there. These mileage rates even display directly in your Google search results for easy comparisons between stores.

Get to your next flight faster by shopping online

Get to your next flight faster by shopping online (Photo credit: 06photo, Depositphotos.com)

7. Get compensated for delayed or cancelled flights.

You might be eligible for compensation for a delayed or canceled flight in the form of airline miles, a flight voucher or money. If you don’t have time to figure out how to file a claim (and who does?!), there’s an app for that. It’s called Service and you’ve got to get it ASAP.

Once you download the app and create an account, Service will scan your emails over the past 12 months to see if you may be eligible to submit a claim with an airline. This whole process took me less than two minutes. Then, every time your flight is delayed or canceled, Service will automatically reach out to the airline for you to see if you’re eligible for any remuneration. There’s no fee, either. Rather, Service will take a small cut of any compensation owed to you. Learn more about how to use the Service app.

Don't despair if your flight is cancelled or delayed -- get compensated instead!

Don’t despair if your flight is cancelled or delayed — get compensated instead! (Photo credit: ArturVerkhovetskiy, Depositphotos.com)

8. Eat breakfast in.

Kids wake up hungry and don’t have the patience to wait for parents to shower, dress, and pack a day bag before heading to a restaurant to wait some more for food to be prepared. That’s why hotels with included breakfast are a family’s best friend.

If you’re not staying somewhere with free breakfast, save precious vacation time and money by packing or purchasing breakfast foods to eat in your hotel room. Fruit, nut butter, whole grain bagels and juice are just some affordable and easy options.

Stock your hotel fridge with easy breakfast items to save money when traveling with kids

Stock your hotel fridge with easy breakfast items to save money when traveling with kids (Photo credit: rojoimages, Depositphotos.com)

9. Do a home exchange.

A home exchange is when you swap homes (or condos or apartments) with another family either simultaneously, or as the case may be with people who own vacation homes, at different times. You get lots of room to spread out and potentially separate rooms for each family member, which allows for better sleep. Families also enjoy the conveniences of home like a fully equipped kitchen, all for no (or almost no) money. Plus, if you exchange with a family with children, your kids will be treated to a slew of toys with which to play during your stay.

Exchange with faraway friends, family members and acquaintances, or pay a minimal fee to join a site like HomeExchange.com or to trade with other travelers hailing from locations around the globe. My family has successfully done three home exchanges. Learn more about why and how to do a home exchange.

Save big money on accommodations by doing a home exchange

Save big money on accommodations by doing a home exchange (Photo credit: SashaKhalabuzar, Depositphotos.com)

10. Go camping with kids.

Camping is a wonderful way to connect not only with each other, but also with nature. Campsites are available to rent at affordable rates throughout the world. You can opt for RV-camping, tent-camping, or cabin-camping. Often campsites come with added extras for kids like arcades and organized family activities. Don’t own camping gear? You probably have a friend who would be happy to lend you theirs.

If you’re intimidated by planning a family camping trip, many U.S. parks offer family sleepovers for a nominal fee so you can get the feel for camping before braving the wilderness on your own. When my family camped in a local park one summer, we paid a total of $25 for the whole family, which included a spaghetti dinner, s’mores and campfire stories, and a pancake breakfast.

For additional information on camping as a family, take a look at these expert tips for camping with kids.

Camping is an affordable way to travel with kids

Camping is an affordable way to travel with kids (Photo credit: JuliaSV, Depositphotos.com)

11. Save on souvenirs.

Consumerism takes hold of children at a young age, as any parent who has ever visited a zoo or theme park gift shop knows too well. Rather than spending a bunch of dough on expensive souvenirs, encourage children to start an affordable collection to remember their travels. Flattened pennies are a cheap and easily packed option. You know the kind — you put one penny and a few quarters into a machine and your child gets to pick which design to imprint into the coin. A penny “passport” provides an easy place to store and display the treasures.

Postcards make excellent souvenirs, too. Encourage children to choose one postcard for each day of your journey. At the end of each day, help kids write a summary of the day’s activities. Then pop the cards in the mail. When you return home, a stack of fun memories will be waiting in your mailbox — with a postmark from your various destinations. You can easily turn these into a scrapbook or post them on a bulletin board.

T-shirts are a good choice as well because not only are they are reminder of your family’s travels, but also they are useful articles of clothing. Whatever you do, avoid buying bulky items that will require yet another expense — checked baggage!

Postcards provide a fun and affordable way to remember your family's travels

Postcards provide a fun and affordable way to remember your family’s travels (Photo credit: pakmor)

12. Enroll in every rewards program.

Always enroll in free rewards programs offered by airlines, hotels, restaurants, and car rental companies. Dollar Car Rental’s rewards program, for example, offers all sorts of benefits with no fees or contracts. Dollar Express Rewards enables members to skip the counter and go straight to the lot to get their rental car. Members also enjoy quicker reservations and priority counter service. Plus, enrollees earn free rental days! Join Dollar Car Rental’s rewards program now.

Some brands don’t make it abundantly clear that they offer a reward program. Be sure to ask, even if you don’t think you’ll use that brand again. You might be surprised by how quickly you rack up points for freebies and discounts. Often hotels provide free WiFi and other goodies to reward members and sometimes you’ll even receive an award just for signing up.

Be sure to sign up for rewards programs, like Dollar Express Rewards

Be sure to sign up for travel rewards programs, like Dollar Express Rewards! (Photo credit: chaoss, Depositphotos.com)

Keep these Tips for Saving Money While Traveling

Be sure to keep these money saving travel tips. Just pin the image below to Pinterest. Go ahead and follow Travel Mamas on Pinterest while you’re at it!

12 Smart Tips for Saving Money on Traveling with Kids

A Note from The Travel Mama: I will receive compensation from Dollar Car Rental related to this post.

What’s your favorite tip for saving money while traveling with kids? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

About Colleen Lanin

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of her book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show, NBCNews.com, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

Comments
  1. We often stay with friends or family members when we travel – even if only for a day or two. It breaks things up, saves us a little money & gives us a chance to enjoy a good meal. 🙂

  2. My family never did a home exchange before, but it seems to hold a lot of promise.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Frances – We have had great luck with our home exchanges. I hope you’ll give it a try sometime!

  3. Claudine says

    We took our first road trip last summer and brought food with us in the car so we had snacks/water and stopped at rest areas to eat our meals. We also stayed at a hotel with complimentary breakfast (a very good one I might add) so we never had to figure out where to eat in the morning. And, because we all had a great breakfast, we were able to wait until late afternoon/early evening to eat again (late lunch/early supper) so we only paid for one meal per day. This might not work well as well with smaller children, but it worked great for mine (ages 5-10). I recently took advantage of the special sale Entertainment Books was having around tax filing day ($10.40/book) and bought the book for the city we are visiting in just a few short weeks. Tons of coupons for food and visitor attractions. And, when we head home, I’ll leave the book behind with my brother and sister-in-law so they can use the coupons, too!

  4. Joann Woolley says

    Love the eating breakfast in – that alone can be $20 for a family of 5 trying to even do an inexpensive fast breakfast to McDonalds – every little bit counts ; )

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      So true, Joann! It’s all of the little things that add up during a vacation that drain our bank accounts.

  5. Mary @ The World Is A Book says

    Great tips, Colleen. We’ve never done a home exchange. I think I’m too paranoid of strangers being in my house. We usually try to rent apartments or aparthotels when traveling. It does cut down on eating out expenses. If it’s a hotel stay, we try to choose ones with ccomplimentary breakfasts. We used to travel in the off season all the time but it gets harder to pull them out of school as they get older. Happy Mother’s Day!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Happy Mother’s Day to you, Mary! Thanks for the great tip to rent an apartment to save money when traveling!

  6. We do many of the same things that your readers suggested, such as staying with friends or family, bringing our own snacks and drinks, and staying at hotels that have complimentary meals. Also, as you suggested, we always take advantage of internet specials. Since we’re big museum fans, we love reciprocal museum passes. Many of them are good across the U.S. and beyond. We’ve saved a ton with them!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Lori – Love the tip to use reciprocal passes for museums! Reciprocity is often available for other memberships too – like botanic gardens, zoos and aquariums.

  7. Yes! I should have mentioned that, Colleen! : ) We also make full use of our zoo & botanical garden memberships at reciprocal places as well. So worth the cost for us!

  8. Hi Colleen, Thanks for the info. I’ve been reading your site for a while now and am a fellow San Diegan…

    We just returned from a road trip across California and our toddler enjoyed many a breakfast made from that one-jar peanut butter and jelly concoction and bagels. I just brought plastic silverware so I could make it on the go. We also usually stay in hotels like Days Inn or Super 8 that have continental breakfasts so we can stock up on goodies for the day like cereal. It can be hard to travel cheaply but still stay in clean enough places for our toddler who touches everything.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Katie – thanks much for following Travel Mamas! Good for you for exploring with your young one – travel does not have to be expensive to be fun! Plastic sliverware is a great idea for trips – will have to remember to bring some along on our next vacation.

  9. These are all great tips. I’m totally on board with the rewards programs. I joined every one I could possibly find a long time ago, and I always look for new ones. You never know where the best deal is!

  10. Brianne Manz says

    Thank you so much for these tips! I have three kids, and my husband and I love to travel with them. That’s five people. That gets pricey!

  11. Lora Frost says

    Totally blown away by Scott’s Free Trips, thank so much for the suggestion. I signed up and just scanned though the prices, so excited!

  12. We love using reward programs to get free hotel rooms and discounted flights. As for souvenirs , we like to collect fridge magnets from our travels. My daughter will also grab a small snow globe from wherever we go to. These are all such wonderful money saving tips. Travel is expensive, so every little bit saved helps!

  13. I dont have kids but I know they are expensive. I think Groupons and Living Social are great ideas to save money and discover new things to do in your city.

  14. Autumn Murray says

    This is a great travel list! I am always looking to save money on my traveling experiences and I learned a thing or two from this article.

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