Welcome to summer. Your kids are on vacation and you’d all love to get away. Most of us are too busy to become a part-time travel agent, but you know that last-minute flights will kill your budget.
Take a look at our top four family vacation hacks for budget-friendly ideas that might not have crossed your mind yet. A little planning never hurts, but for the most part, our favorite ideas are grab-and-go. And in some cases, the more last-minute, the better the deal.
#1: Ditch the hotel
Hotels are easily the most expensive part of almost any vacation — especially if you’re planning a beach trip. Sure, it’s nice to have the amenities and consistency of a hotel, but sometimes those luxuries are not worth 100 or more extra dollars per night — at least not for most of us with kids.
Think back to your most pleasant vacation memories as a kid. Chances are that none of those memories are from the inside of a hotel room.
Fun fact: “motel” is short for “motor hotel,” which explains why motels are almost always located along major highways. In fact, the word “motel” did not exist before 1925, when it became practical for ordinary people to own cars. Motor hotels are designed for (you guessed it) motorists, not luxury travelers. That’s why motels are usually much cheaper than hotels.
Sure, motels aren’t as fancy as their upscale counterparts, but think of all of the luxurious things you can do with that hundred or more dollars you’ll save every night.
Use your smartphone to book a same-day room while you’re on the road. Just remember that around dinnertime, roadside lodging starts to fill up, and you may need to book a day or two ahead for weekend nights.
The place where you live and work every day might be a perfect setting for someone else’s vacation, and the place where someone else lives and works every day might be the perfect setting for yours. If only you guys had some way of knowing about each other, you could just swap houses for a week or two, and never have to pay for a hotel ever again.
Well, guess what. You’re in luck.
House swapping websites, such as HomeExchange.com and WorldSchoolerExchange.com, allow you to vet, chat with and coordinate with other frugal travelers who are willing to swap houses with you.
Other options for homey vacations include:
- WorkAway.info, where you can arrange a “working vacation” in a host family’s home
- HouseSitter.com, where you can arrange to look after somebody’s house while they are traveling
- CouchSurfing.com, where people open up their couches (or guest rooms) to travelers
…and, of course, if you’re not ready to embark on the adventure that is home swapping, you can always go with a safer option like AirBnB.com and VRBO. Just keep in mind that due to the popularity of these sites, getting the right place probably requires planning at least one month in advance, picking an offseason locale, or saving some money by staying a short drive from your preferred vacation destination.
Yes, you read that right.
Many religious monasteries offer reasonably-priced accommodations for guests — and you needn’t have any religious affiliation to be a guest at most of them. As you might expect, the accommodations are not fancy, but it is hard to imagine a better way to find peace and quiet.
Learn more in this Washington Post article about a New Mexico retreat.
If you’re the outdoorsy type, this tip will come as no surprise to you.
For those who do not usually think of themselves as rustic people, rest assured that camping does not always mean living like Rambo in a makeshift tent. Nor does camping in style mean glamping, because that can be expensive.
After all, the point here is to save money, not to use it as fire kindling.
If you own an RV (or rent one – see #3 below), a van, or any motor vehicle you can sleep in, you can take advantage of modern campgrounds (such as KOA) that offer essential amenities like hot showers, laundry facilities, clean restrooms, and even playgrounds.
If you really want to get away from it all, then camping is not only a way to save money; it is also the point of your vacation.
For more excitement, just find a campground within driving distance of the attractions you prefer.
Now let’s talk about other ways you can rock your vacation without breaking your piggy bank.
#2: Eat cheap
Most people want to eat in restaurants during their vacation. That’s understandable — but do you have to eat in a restaurant for every single meal? Probably not.
Right behind hotels, restaurant dining is one of the biggest traveling expenses. You can turn this major expense into a money-saver by preparing at least some of your own meals. This is easy to do if you stick with accommodations that include a kitchen.
A typical restaurant might add a 300% markup to the food cost of every meal it serves, so $900 worth of eating in restaurants during a week-long vacation would only cost $300 (or less) if you put the chef’s hat on yourself instead.
Consider for a moment all of the experiences an extra $600 might cover during your vacation, and you will probably find it easy to talk yourself into packing the fixings for a few sandwiches on the road.
Bonus: Preparing your own meals will help you avoid the kinds of unhealthy foods that cause many people to gain weight during their time off — and that can’t be a bad thing.
Speaking of time off…
#3: Take a one-way RV trip and fly home
If you’d like to hit the open road in comfort, drive an RV one-way.
Websites like Imoova, Cruise America, and Road Bear RV connect travelers like you with people or companies that need to relocate vehicles (including family-sized RVs) from one place to another. You get a dirt cheap road trip, and the owner of the vehicle doesn’t have to pay a shipping company or professional driver. It’s a win-win.
One-way RV rentals can cost as little as $1 to $5 per day, and some companies will pay you a gas allowance. You’ll pay out of pocket for the campsites or other locations where you choose to stop at night.
The length of time you can keep the vehicle varies. We found a 7-person RV with 20 days to drive from Seattle to New York. That gives you plenty of time to see the country, and plenty of savings to cover your homebound flights.
This idea is great for last-minute planners because vehicle offerings change daily, and some routes are snatched up quickly.
#4: Be an off-season expert (even in summer)
Everything is cheaper during the off-season, but the off-season doesn’t necessarily mean undesirable weather.
Visit a ski resort: For obvious reasons, summertime is the off-season at ski-resorts, so why not visit one in the middle of August? Many ski resorts are great for hiking, camping, golfing, and even paddleboarding during the spring, summer, and fall. Even though the peaks will still be open for warm-weather adventures, you won’t have to pay peak prices.
Feel the heat: Some places experience their yearly off-season when the local weather is hottest. For example, New Orleans sees a dip in tourism (and prices) during the summertime, because most people like to visit during the spring Mardi Gras season. If you don’t mind a little heat and humidity (which actually makes for very pleasant evenings), then why not visit places like New Orleans or Tucson?
Naturally, savings usually come with a few trade-offs, but those trade-offs are not necessarily as tough as you may think.
If you’re worried about the kids missing school: Since there is no standard calendar followed by all schools, you may find off-season deals at a time your kids are on break. Look at the public school calendar at your destination. It may be different from yours, and if school starts at your destination a week or two earlier than it does where you live, you can time your vacation to coincide with the beginning of the off-season.
Cut the cost, pump up the fun
Making a few off-season sacrifices might be no sacrifice at all if you think ahead just a little bit. You’ll save a lot of money, avoid huge crowds, and probably have a ton more fun knowing that you’re saving a ton of money.
The less money you spend on things like rental cars, accommodations, and food, the more money will you have for the things that make a vacation truly memorable. Zip line, anyone?
Before you start packing, start hacking. You will have a better time when you know you’re getting the best deal.
Nikolas Jintri is a writer, musician, mentalist, and educator who teaches rhetoric and critical thinking at Temple University in Philadelphia.