Save Money on Travel with Kids (21 Top Budget Tips!)

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 families connect 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 family holiday. Follow my 21 top budget tips to save money on travel with kids!

Floralis Genérica in Buenos Aires is a free family-friendly attractions in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Many famous family-friendly tourist attractions are free, like Floralis Genérica in Buenos Aires
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

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Travel Mamas and Grownup Getaways sometimes receive compensation and/or hosted travel and sample products related to blog posts. This story may include affiliate links for which we receive a small commission at no extra cost to consumers. As an Amazon Associate, we earn money from qualifying purchases.

1. Travel off-season to score great deals.

If you have young children or are willing to pull older kids out of school for a few days, take advantage of bargain pricing by avoiding peak season. Typically, this means skipping popular travel times and school holidays like spring break, Thanksgiving, the last two weeks of December, holiday weekends, and summer.

You could bundle up for fun in January or early December in big cities with chilly winters, like Chicago, where you can take the kids sledding and ice skating. Or, stay warm at indoor attractions like the Mall of America in Minnesota.

Summer is shoulder season in some locales. Visit a Colorado ski resort like Vail in summer or Keystone off-season for outdoor activities like hiking, swimming, and zip-lining. Enjoy pool time aplenty at deeply discounted luxury resorts in desert destinations like Scottsdale, Arizona in summer or Palm Springs, California.

Save a lot of money at luxury resorts in Phoenix when you visit in summer
Save a lot of money at luxury resorts in Phoenix when you visit in summer (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

2. Make a detailed family vacation 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 all travel expenses, including flight prices, rental car charges, accommodations, meals and snacks, and entrance fees. That way, I am not surprised by the costs and am less likely to spend willy-nilly during my family trip.

Searching for souvenir post cards in Montpellier, France
My daughter shopping for post cards in Montpellier, France
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

3. Opt for affordable 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 — 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 their journey. At the end of each day, help young 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 also a good choice because they are useful articles of clothing and reminders of your family’s travels. Whatever you do, avoid buying bulky items that will require yet another expense—checked baggage!

Souvenirs on display at in a travel-themed kids bedroom
Travel souvenirs on display at home
(Photo credit: Shobha George)

4. Set spending limits for kids.

Rather than constantly fielding your children’s pleas to buy tchotchkes in every gift shop and snacks at every stop during your travels, set spending limits on souvenirs and treats before leaving home. Tell children exactly how much money they will be allotted before your vacation begins. This will help kids learn the value of money and how to budget properly. If they spend all their dough on the first trinket that catches their eye, they will need to deal with the consequences.

You may want to give older kids gift cards. That way, when the family splits up at a theme park or tourist attraction, tweens and teens can buy their own mementos and snacks. They can manage their purchases AND be responsible for not losing the physical currency.

Included hotel breakfast saves money on family vacation
Included hotel breakfast
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

5. Save money on breakfast.

Included breakfast saves money and precious vacation time. Look for hotels that provide free breakfast, like Embassy Suites, Howard Johnson, and Holiday Inn.

Otherwise, buy breakfast foods to eat in your hotel room or vacation home. Some easy options include fresh fruits, nut butter, whole grain bagels, cereals, and juice. If you have a refrigerator, then buy some milk and yogurts, too.

Eating lunch on the trail in Utah saves vacation money
Eating lunch on the trail in Utah
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

6. Pack your own travel snacks and lunches.

Buying travel snacks like ice cream cones and funnel cakes can be tough on your wallet (and your waistline). Instead, pack your own items like protein bars and trail mix.

After you arrive at your vacation destination, stop at a local grocery store to buy simple lunch fare and healthy snack foods. Of course, you may want to indulge a little while traveling, too. Pick up some chips or cookies to avoid paying a premium for these treats on the go.

My family likes to save money on lunches while traveling so that we can splurge on dinner out. Pack some sandwiches and granola bars in your day bag for a picnic in a local park or on the hiking trail.

Opard Sports Water Bottles
Opard Sports Water Bottles
(Photo from Amazon.com)

7. Don’t waste money on bottled water.

It’s important to stay hydrated for healthy travels with kids. But buying bottled water from vending machines, gift shops, and restaurants adds up fast. Instead, stock up on a bunch of bottled water during your grocery shopping. Better yet, bring a reusable water bottle for each family member for an eco-friendly way to save even more money.

Paying with cash helps prevent over-spending
Paying with cash helps prevent over-spending
(Photo credit; Colleen Lanin)

8. Pay with a debit card 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 a debit card or cash to keep vacation spending under control.

Parents looking for an affordable and reliable rental car for their family vacation will be happy to learn that the Dollar Car Rental policy enables travelers to reserve vehicles using a debit card instead of a credit card. This is true at all Dollar locations throughout the U.S.

Dollar Car Rental makes travel with kids easier and more affordable
It’s easier than ever to rent a car with Dollar Car Rental
(Photo credit: Dollar Car Rental)

9. Use a travel rewards credit card.

If you are going to use a credit card, you might as well get points for future travels! With a travel rewards credit card, users earn points with each qualifying purchase to put toward hotel stays, flights, rental cars, and more. Be sure to get one without international transaction fees if you have travel plans to go abroad.

Over time, loyalty pays off when you get a hotel or airline credit card and stick to that brand when traveling. Other cards rack up general points for use on a wide range of travel services and brands. My favorite resource for travel hacking with credit cards is The Points Guy.

Search and save on travel  with kids
Search and save on travel
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

10. Search and book smart.

Aggregate websites, like Kayak or Expedia, provide a great way to check pricing for multiple travel providers at once. 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. Keep in mind that some major airlines, like Southwest, may not be included on these search sites.

Hotels.com sweetens the deal by rewarding members with one free night for every 10 nights you stay. What’s more, Hotels.com membership is free.

I always recommend checking directly with the provider before finalizing your reservation to make sure that you are getting the best deal. Often, the lowest price is the one offered directly by the hotel or car rental company.

Save money on airfare with Going

11. Sign up for fare alerts.

Some search aggregators allow travelers to set up fare alerts 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 plane tickets.

Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights) is my favorite way to save on air travel. After you become a member, Going sends email alerts when prices drop to destinations from your selected airports. A Limited Membership is free, too. For even more flight deals, enroll in an upgraded plan. Believe me, you’ll save more by booking one discounted flight than you will spend for an entire year of Premium Membership ($49/year in April 2024).

Many family vacation activities are free
Many of my favorite family vacation memories were free
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

12. 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. Then, you can easily see how many miles per dollar you’ll receive for your purchases. These mileage rates are displayed directly in your web search results for easy comparisons between stores.

Don't despair if your flight is canceled or delayed -- get compensated instead!
Don’t despair if your flight is canceled or delayed — get compensated instead!
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

13. Get compensated for delayed or canceled flights.

You might be eligible for compensation for a delayed or canceled flight in the form of airline miles, a flight voucher, or money. Be sure to file a claim with your airline or the Department of Transportation to receive any eligible money due to lost luggage, overbooking, tarmac delays, or other hiccups in your air travel experience.

Home exchange house in Minnesota
A home exchange house in Minnesota where why my family vacationed for free
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

14. Do a home exchange.

A home exchange is when you swap houses (or apartments or condos) with other vacationers for no or very little money. Exchange with faraway friends, extended family, or acquaintances. Or, pay a nominal fee to join a site like HomeExchange.com to trade with travelers in locations around the globe.

A home swap provides space to spread out and potentially gives separate rooms for each family member for better vacation sleep. Families may also enjoy conveniences like a fully equipped kitchen, washing machine for vacation laundry, and WiFi. Plus, if you exchange with a family with children, your kids will be treated to toys and games to play with during your stay.

My family has successfully done three home exchanges. Learn more about how to do a home exchange.

Modern kitchen at Magic Village Vacation Homes in Kissimmee, FL
Modern kitchen at the Magic Village Vacation Rental Homes near Walt Disney World in Florida
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

15. Stay in a vacation rental.

If you’re not ready to try a home exchange, booking a rental home provides many of the same cost savings and conveniences as a swap. Learn about the benefits of short-term rentals in this analysis of vacation homes vs. hotels.

Extras like a kitchen, laundry facilities, and on-site extras like a playground or pool add to the fun. A home rental means more room and privacy for the entire family. You can save extra money by preparing your own meals, too.

Roasting marshmallows for s'mores at Cannon Beach, Oregon Beach
Many campsites offer fire pits for roasting s’mores
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

16. Go camping with kids.

Camping is a wonderful way to connect with nature on vacation. Campsites are available around the world to rent at affordable rates. Opt for RV camping, tent camping, or cabin camping. Often, campsites come with added extras for kids, like arcades and organized family activities.

If you’re intimidated by planning a family camping trip, many U.S. parks offer 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 less than we would for a restaurant dinner in exchange for a tent spot, spaghetti dinner, s’mores and campfire stories, and even a pancake breakfast the next morning. For additional information, check out the best tips for camping with kids.

Don’t own camping gear? You probably have a friend who would be happy to lend you theirs. Learn what to borrow and what to buy for your first camping trip.

Hawks Cay Resort lobby with aquarium
Always ask about rewards programs when checking into a hotel
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

17. Enroll in every rewards program.

Always enroll in free rewards programs offered by airlines, hotels, restaurants, and car rental companies. You might be surprised by how quickly you rack up points for future purchases. Plus, brands often give discounts and freebies to members.

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. Sometimes, you’ll receive an award just for signing up, like a room upgrade at a hotel or a free appetizer at a restaurant.

Dollar Car Rental’s rewards program 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!

Free summer concert at the Washington Park Amphitheater
Free concert in Portland, Oregon
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

18. Look for free things to do.

Most vacation destinations offer free activities for families. Many public beaches, city parks, and hiking trails don’t cost a thing and are super fun for families. Look for free outdoor concerts, movies on the lawn, and farmer’s markets, too. Often, museums and other attractions will offer free admission on specific days, so check ahead and plan accordingly.

Do a web search for “free things to do” in your destination before you go. I bet you’ll like our picks for the best free things to do in Atlanta and these free activities for families in New York City.

Kids playing at a waterpark on the Mississippi Gulf Coast
Look for discounts on water parks and other vacation activities
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

19. Find discounts on the go.

Before leaving home, check Groupon for discounts at your destination. You might find coupons for water parks, museums, spa treatments, restaurants, and other attractions.

CityPASS bundles top attractions for a discounted flat fee. This program is offered in 15+ locations in the U.S. and Canada, from San Diego to Toronto.

An America the Beautiful National Parks Pass grants entry to over 2,000 parks, monuments, and other federal recreation sites. The fee covers the driver and passengers in a personal vehicle, up to four adults. Military service members and kids under age 15 are free. Generally speaking, the pass pays for itself if you plan to visit three or more U.S. national park sites within one year.

Planning a theme park vacation? Look for discounts on tickets for amusement parks and hotel packages from Undercover Tourist and Get Away Today for Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Universal Theme Parks, and more.

Picazzo's Mama's Meat-Za Balls and Baked Brie in Scottsdale, Arizona
Happy hour is fun and affordable for adults and kids
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

20. Hit up happy hour.

Many family-friendly restaurants offer happy hours in the afternoons with discounted drinks and appetizers. Children often need to eat early anyway, so take advantage of affordable happy hour menus. Embassy Suites offers an evening reception for hotel guests with free drinks and simple snacks, too.

Swimming at Four Seasons Scottsdale Resort & Spa
My son swimming at a hotel in Scottsdale during our family staycation
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

21. Stay close to home.

You need not spend tons of money on airfare for a vacation from the ordinary. Instead, choose a destination within driving distance. A family road trip is a good way to maximize your travel budget. Your family could even check into a local hotel for a fun staycation in your hometown. It’s amazing how separating yourself from nagging household chores and errands brings the whole family closer together!

A friendly Frontier Airlines staff member assisting my kids at the airport
Save money on travel with kids with budget airlines like Frontier
(Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Explore More

Learn how to save money by flying Frontier Airlines with kids.

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Find out how to save money on Disney Resort hotels.

Earn money for your next trip by renting out baby gear.

Best Ways to Save Money on Family Vacation with Kids

Save These Family Travel Budget Tips

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

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

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28 Comments

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

  5. 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 ; )

  6. 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!

  7. 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. 🙂