Keeping Family Vacations Affordable

by Gladys Strickland

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Does the thought of taking a family vacation make your wallet cringe with fear? After arranging transportation and lodgings is there little money left for sightseeing, eating, and purchasing souvenirs? Don't give up on the idea of a family vacation because there are ways to keep them affordable.

The first, and most important, thing to do is set a budget. Decide how much money is available for your vacation, then decide how much to allocate for transportation, hotels, food, admission prices, souvenirs, etc. Now that you know how much money you have available, use the following tips to cut costs and make you budget stretch.

  1. Ask at the visitor's information center or your hotel about any publications that list discounts and coupons. Most major cities have a city guide listing restaurants, attractions, and performances; these publications often include coupons.
  2. Check to see if museums and attractions offer free admission one day a week. If not listed in the city guide or local paper, call and ask. Please note that many museums in one area may have the same free day. Do not try to do all of them in one day since it can overload both kids and adults. My advice is to decide which sight or sights you want to see the most, and consider paying to see them, then hit others on the free day. Another option is to select the attraction with the highest admission fee and go on the free day, and pay for others. Many museums are closed on Mondays, making that an ideal time to visit other free sights. Remember: free days can mean bigger crowds so choose carefully. If you want to linger in front of a painting you have longed to see, realize many others will have the same idea.
  3. If you are a member of your local zoo or museum, see if your membership entitles you to free admission at similar sites in the city that you are visiting. If your membership information did not include a list of reciprocal sites, call and ask for one. We have saved by using our zoo membership on trips to Dallas, and Chicago.
  4. Be on the lookout for other discounts. While waiting in line to buy tickets to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, my husband noticed that any educator with an ID received a discounted admission. Since he is an academic librarian and had his ID with him, he received the discount. Discounts may be available to members of the American Automobile Association (AAA), and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) among others. If nothing is posted, ask.
  5. If you are using public transportation, look for multi-day passes designed for tourists. These are handy since you prepay for the pass and don't have to worry about carrying exact change.
  6. Ask the hotel staff for affordable recommendations for meals; they can often point you to a wonderful restaurant that tourists never find. Remember, however, to specify a price range - each person's idea of "affordable" is different.
  7. Avoid restaurants located in or near tourist attractions and enjoy some local cuisine instead. Going a block or two off the main streets may provide plenty of restaurants with lower prices. Coffee shops and deli's offer good meals for less money, as do many restaurants located in ethnic neighborhoods.
  8. Check out restaurants that offer free children's meals. There may be some restrictions, but it can add up to big savings. Also, if you have a child that doesn't eat a lot, consider buying an entrée for yourself and asking for an additional plate to split the entrée with your child. There may be a charge for the additional plate, but it should be less than ordering another meal, and the food won't be wasted.
  9. If available, get a hotel room with a small refrigerator and microwave. Sandwich makings, snacks, and leftovers from restaurant meals can be stored and heated later. If there is a coffee maker in your room, you can heat water with it for instant soups.
  10. Look for restaurants with a breakfast or lunch buffet. Eating a breakfast buffet may fill you up enough to skip lunch; a lunch buffet may mean you only need a snack at dinnertime. By eating a big meal early in the day, you give your body energy to take you through a day of sightseeing.
  11. Carry around your own snacks and bottled water. Packages of crackers and peanut butter, small bags of chips or dried fruit, along with bottled water, should keep everyone from starving and allow you enough time to find somewhere you want to eat, not just grabbing the nearest fast-food. I find it easiest to carry everything in a backpack. The bottled water goes into an outside pocket for easy access, while snacks, wipes, maps, umbrellas, etc. go inside.
  12. I want my son to have something to remember our trips by, but I cannot justify paying tourist prices for a T-shirt he will quickly outgrow. I finally hit upon the idea of purchasing magnets. These are displayed on our refrigerator and he loves to look at them and talk about what he remembers of our travels. I also pick up a handful of postcards so that I don't have to worry about the gorgeous beach scene or impressive skyline coming out in my photos.
  13. If you are going to a popular tourist destination, such as a theme park, see about picking up souvenirs at garage sales before you leave home. These can be handed out a little at a time to prevent a run on the budget if all your kids want T-shirts, key chains, etc. Also, consider having older kids use some of their own money to purchase these items at the destination.
  14. If your children are old enough, have them keep a written journal and collect ticket stubs, brochures, postcards etc. for a scrapbook. If they can't write, ask them to describe what they remember each day and write it down for them. Journals and scrapbooks provide a lifelong memory of a vacation and don't cost a lot of money.

Finally, to help keep kids happy, allow some time each day for them to play. If the weather is nice find a park or playground; when the weather doesn't cooperate, consider a library or book store Story Time, or a visit to a fast-food restaurant with an indoor play area. After a morning at the Art Institute in Chicago, we headed to a beach near the Navy Pier for playtime and sandcastle building. My son handled the afternoon sightseeing much well after this break. Happy, cooperative kids are always a bargain!

Don't let the fear of expensive entrance fees, overpriced souvenirs and eating out keep you and your family from traveling. With careful planning, you can have a fun and affordable family vacation.

Gladys Strickland is a freelance writer. You can contact her at

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