4 ways to beat the average cost of a family vacation

Mom and baby play on the beach, mother swooping the child upside-down

How much did you spend on your last family vacation?  A 2013 American Express© survey pegged the average vacation expense per person at $1,145. And even though some expenses are more cost-effective per-person for a family (a hotel room, for example), NerdWallet said that the average family with kids under 18 planned to spend more than $2,200 on vacations in 2018. Many people go into debt to finance all or part of a vacation, but you don’t have to.

I’m a married dad of six kids. At last count, that means eight travelers on our family vacations. I’ve discovered a few ways to keep family vacation costs down, and they aren’t for expert travel hackers only. Here are four ways to cut costs that anyone can try.

How to hack your transportation

A huge portion of vacation costs is eaten up by transportation. My family has used a few strategies to combat the high cost of getting there.

Credit card welcome offers. We take advantage of welcome offers to stockpile points and miles and use them to defray our costs. This strategy requires good credit and careful money management. It can make sense to leverage credit card offers to help fund travel, but be realistic about your ability to avoid ongoing credit card debt, and make sure you understand the terms and conditions of any offer you apply for.

I first entered the world of credit card rewards about five years ago. Our extended family was planning a family reunion in Lake Tahoe, and I knew that the eight plane tickets were going to cost me $3,000-$4,000. That probably meant we would not be able to attend.

We didn’t want to miss the event, so I did some research on new credit cards that I could apply for. I ended up earning and using a companion pass and enough Southwest Rapid Rewards points to fly my whole family from Chicago to Nevada and back.

More road trips. Another strategy to bring the cost of your vacation down is to skip the airfare.  For our large family, the economics skew heavily towards driving, since all eight of us can fit in our vehicle, and a tank of gas of gas is nothing compared to cost to fly. Even if we get eight free plane tickets, the taxes and fees alone exceed the amount we spend to fill up the tank just once.

Of course, the decision to drive depends on your destination, how much vacation time you have, and considerations particular to your family. But assuming everyone in your group can handle the long ride, consider this – you can make the road trip part of the vacation. It’s especially affordable if you’re able to use hotel points (which you might also be able to get through credit card rewards) for any lodging.

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How to hack your lodging

For most of us, the other huge vacation cost is lodging. Depending on the size of your family, you could be looking at hundreds of dollars a day (or even more).

This is another area where I really like to use credit card rewards and hotel points to take a big chunk out of our vacation costs. In addition to the welcome bonus that may be available to new cardholders, many hotel credit cards offer annual free night certificates and/or points for every purchase that you can later redeem for free nights. For some hotel loyalty programs, just owning a branded credit card is enough to get you into a membership tier that is higher than entry-level, and that could get you benefits like the fifth night free on award stays.

How to hack your food costs … really

Another big vacation cost driver is food. One way to save on meals is to stay in a vacation home instead of a hotel room and take advantage of having a full kitchen. But I’m usually able to hack much or all of our lodging in hotels, and anyway, who wants to spend their vacation time cooking and cleaning?

We eat out a lot more when we travel. Here are my favorite big-family tips for slashing food costs while on vacation:

  • Many credit cards come with free or discounted airport lounge membership. Programs like Priority Pass™  can help cut down on food costs on days you’re flying. While the lounge might not be your ideal choice for dinner, the food might tide you over until you can get out of the airport (and find something cheaper).
  • Our family loves extended stay hotels like Residence Inn by Marriott®, Homewood Suites by Hilton® or IHG’s Staybridge Suites®. In addition to free breakfast, these hotels sometimes offer a manager’s reception or evening social. It varies by hotel, but we often get a full free dinner at these lobby events. Free breakfast, free dinner. That’s 16 meals a day that we don’t have to shell out more cash for.
  • If you’re driving to your destination, consider packing some of your food with you. This could be snacks for between meals while you’re out, or groceries for meal prep on arrival. In an extreme case, our family has been known to pack a rice cooker and cook our meals in a hotel room that had no kitchen. I don’t recommend this for everyone, but we had spaghetti, salad, and a chocolate cake using only the rice cooker and paper plates.

Think out-of-the-box for your activities

Once you’re on vacation, many times there isn’t a ton you can do to save money. If your family is set on going to Disney World®, then you’re going to Disney World and the tickets are going to cost what they cost. In my experience, using miles, points and credit card rewards to save on flights and lodging allows us to afford more on activities.

Still, I rely on a few tricks to help keep expenses down. Some things our family likes to enjoy:

  • Public transportation.  Unless you live in an extremely urban environment, you may not be used to it. We live in a big city but we pretty much always drive where we need to go. Kids love trains, so taking a subway (or even a public bus) can be an exciting part of a family vacation. And since our family almost always needs two Ubers, the price for public transit looks even better.
  • Church. We like to go to church while on vacation if our schedule allows it. We’ve always been warmly welcomed. Through conversation, you might even get some great tips from local parishioners about what to do or where to go.
  • City pass. Many cities have tourist-marketed city “passes.” It’s a package of admission tickets at discounted prices. Explore passes as options, but make sure the value is there for the activities that you’re truly interested in. Even though the pass might offer big discounts on specific attractions, the discount is meaningless if you aren’t planning to visit many places on the list. If you’re only planning on visiting two or three of the included attractions you may save money paying full price for the things you want to do.
  • Treats and splurges. Don’t be afraid to splurge a little on vacation. Remember, the point of a budget is to save money in areas that aren’t as important to you so that you can spend money on the things that are more meaningful.  You chose and planned your vacation. Don’t beat yourself up for spending a little more money while you’re away from home.

I hope that these tips have given you some ideas on how to keep your next family vacation below average costs and that you are inspired to learn how to travel more and explore the world without breaking the bank.

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American Express is a copyright of the American Express Company.

Priority Pass is a trademark of the Collinson Group.

Residence Inn by Marriott is a registered trademark of Marriott International.

Homewood Suites by Hilton is a registered trademark of Hilton Hotels & Resorts.

Staybridge Suites is a registered trademark of the InterContinental Hotels Group.

Disney World is a registered trademark of The Walt Disney Company.

Dan Miller runs PointsWithACrew.com – a travel site focusing on helping families (especially larger families) travel for free/cheap. Since 2013, he has used miles and points to travel with his wife and 6 children to California, Yellowstone, Puerto Rico, Disney World, Sweden, Greece, Peru, and more.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. Haven Life Insurance Agency offers this as educational information only. Haven Life Insurance Agency is not affiliated with, and does not endorse the companies discussed here, or offer the products, services and/or strategies discussed here.

Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (ICC17DTC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. Policy and rider form numbers and features may vary by state and may not be available in all states. In New York, Haven Term is DTC-NY 1017. Our Agency license number in California is OK71922 and in Arkansas, 100139527.

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