When to Splurge and When to Save on a Family Vacation

U.S. News & World Report

When to Splurge and When to Save on a Family Vacation

For many families, summer offers the perfect opportunity to embark on a memorable vacation. But here's the thing: Family vacations aren't always cheap. This isn't news for anyone who's ever planned a trip but what may be more revealing is exactly how much that getaway can take out of a family's yearly budget. According to a 2014 American Express survey, Americans spend an average of $1,246 per person on summer travel. For a family of four, that's $4,984. That figure may be discouraging for anyone trying to plan a budget-friendly getaway, though it doesn't seem to be stopping some families from forging ahead: According to an Orbitz survey conducted in March, 68 percent of respondents plan to take a summer vacation this year.

To help you avoid spending a small fortune on your family vacation, U.S. News enlisted the help of Kyle McCarthy, co-founder and editor of the Family Travel Forum, as well as Colleen Lanin, author of "The Travel Mamas' Guide" and founder and editor of TravelMamas.com. They shared their advice for planning a fun family trip that doesn't break the bank.

A hotel can often make or break a vacation, which is why, according to McCarthy, it's worth splurging on. All-inclusive resorts, with their affordability, plethora of on-site amenities and kids clubs, can offer a lot of perks for families. But McCarthy warned that you should approach all-inclusive resorts offering rock-bottom prices with caution because in the end, subpar food, cramped rooms and a mediocre beach aren't worth the savings. "Instead, look for quality, and if it's a little out of your price range, make up for the cost by cutting your vacation a day or two short," she advised.

Lanin agreed, emphasizing that upgraded rooms can make a big difference in everyone's overall comfort. "When traveling with babies or young children, I highly recommend splurging on a hotel room with a balcony or patio, or a suite with two rooms so parents can still enjoy their vacation during naps and when the children get tucked in before sunset," she said.

Another easy area to save: breakfast. "Either book a hotel with included morning meals or stop by the local grocer to pick up your own breakfast fare," Lanin said. "Eating in not only saves money, but also gives your family more time to explore the sites, theme parks or hotel pool."

Along with a comfortable hotel room, McCarthy suggested devoting some of your vacation budget to the sights that are unique to the destination you're visiting. "If you're in Paris, maybe that's buying a ticket to the top of the Eiffel Tower," McCarthy said.

If there's not a particular attraction that defines a destination, maybe there's an experience. McCarthy shared that on a trip to Miami, her family opted for a Miami Duck Tour around the Biscayne Bay — a memorable experience that appealed to the whole group. McCarthy also suggested signing your kids up for lessons in a new activity or sport that they've expressed interest in. Whether it's something like skiing, stand-up paddleboarding or mountain biking, kids will often pay more attention when someone they're not related to is offering instructions, and it might spark a lifelong interest for them.

Both McCarthy and Lanin suggested signing up for airfare price alerts with sites like Airfarewatchdog and Kayak as soon as you know your travel dates. "I have saved beaucoup bucks on airplane tickets by nabbing fares when they dip drastically in price," Lanin said.

For hotels, McCarthy recommended using trivago to compare several different booking sites at once. Or, you can ditch the hotel altogether and try swapping homes with another family, as Lanin has done using sites like HomeExchange.com or HomeLink. "You get much more space, separate bedrooms for all, and a full kitchen at a fraction of the cost of a hotel," Lanin said.

No matter where you decide to hang your hat, Lanin advised signing up for any available rewards program that might come in handy during your trip. "You just might be surprised at how quickly your points rack up, and sometimes you receive upgrades and other perks just for registering," Lanin said.

Airfare can often be the biggest hurdle to planning an affordable family getaway, which is why you might be better off looking into a different mode of transportation. If you're pondering a road trip, McCarthy recommended downloading the GasBuddy app, which helps users locate the cheapest gas prices in their vicinity.

Or if you'd rather let someone else do the driving, consider taking the bus. McCarthy said she and her family, who are based in New York, often take the Megabus instead of the Amtrak train for weekend visits to Washington, D.C. While you can't bypass traffic like you can on the train, charter buses like those operated by Megabus do offer some of the same conveniences as Amtrak trains, including free Wi-Fi, seat plug-ins, panoramic windows and tables for work or play. Plus, the ticket prices (some as low as $1) are unbeatable.

For many families, visiting relatives or friends is a cost-effective alternative to a full-blown vacation: you and your kids still get away for a few days, but you won't be hit with a stack of hotel or restaurant bills. The only downside: it can be difficult to really get into vacation mode. If you're planning to visit relatives this summer, McCarthy recommended approaching the trip like a tourist. Do some research before you arrive and see what the destination offers visitors, whether it's outdoor concerts or a story time at the library. This ensures your kids aren't sitting on the couch watching TV for the entire vacation. Plus, it may allow your hosts to gain a new perspective of their own city.

Whether you're looking to splurge or save, there are a few general pieces of advice McCarthy and Lanin offered to ensure a smooth family vacation. "My No. 1 tip is to get everyone involved in the planning process," McCarthy said. "If you involve your children and let them drive some of the activities, they'll feel like they have a stake in the vacation."

While your kids help plan the activities, you can strategize ahead for those extras that often bust a well-conceived budget. "Tipping, cab fares, subway tickets, entry fees and souvenirs add up fast!" Lanin said.

While it pays to budget and plan ahead, McCarthy also suggested leaving a little room for spontaneity.

"Don't underestimate the value of time spent together. Our lives are so overscheduled, and a vacation doesn't need to have every minute planned," McCarthy said. "Look at your itinerary and cut it in half. Sometimes, the things you remember the most aren't the activities you planned, but the moments in between."

About the author: Ann Rivall is a Travel Editor at U.S. News. You can follow her on Twitter, circle her on Google+ or email her at arivall@usnews.com.

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