5 Tips for Planning an Affordable Vacation

Today’s article is by guest expert Terri Weeks. If you don’t think vacations are important, think again. The research demonstrates that vacations are important to your physical and mental health. Terri is going to give you 5 ways you can cut costs and make your trip memorable.


Vacations – a Need or a Want?

Although I’m a travel writer now, my family didn’t go on vacations when I was a kid. My father grew up during the Great Depression. He taught us that a vacation was a luxury. I couldn’t wait until I graduated from college and had a well-paying job so that I could travel.

My husband and I enjoyed traveling for several years before we had kids. When I became a stay-at-home mom, which significantly reduced our family’s income, we had to cut back on several expenses including our vacation budget. But eliminating our vacation budget entirely wasn’t an option.

By that time I had learned that getting away with my family was a necessity for our emotional and relational health. I also consider travel as a part of my children’s education. I was determined to learn how to plan reasonably-priced trips that are packed with memorable experiences. Last year we accomplished our goal to visit all 50 states. The memories we’ve made were well worth the investment.

If you’re one of those people who sees vacations as a luxury you can’t afford, I challenge you to think of it as an investment in your relationship with your kids.

Making vacations affordable

Once you’ve given yourself permission to go on vacation, you need to be careful not to overspend, which is so easy to do. The key is to make every dollar count while making your vacation memorable. Here are five tips for making the most of your money while on vacation:

  1. Drive to your destination instead of flying.

Airfare isn’t the only expense involved with flying to a destination. Unless you have someone drive you to the airport, you’ll have to pay either for parking at the airport or for a taxi to drive you there.

Once you arrive at your destination, you’ll have to pay to rent a car or for other transportation. Unless you are a master at packing light, you’ll probably have to pay to check luggage for your flight too. The price of gasoline for a family road trip usually pales in comparison to the cost of flying.

Driving leaves more money available for spending at your destination while you spend less getting there. My family and I have found interesting places to visit in every state. I promise that there are interesting destinations within driving distance of wherever you live.

  1. Don’t overspend on lodging.

I learned over the years that if we spent too much time in a hotel or motel room that my kids got antsy and started climbing the walls. (OK, so maybe not literally climbing walls, but literally jumping on beds.)

I started making a deliberate attempt to spend as little time in the hotel room as necessary. All we really need is a comfortable place to sleep and shower. That opens up lots of budget-friendly options. I check reviews of different hotels ahead of time. When you look beyond moderate priced hotels, it seems the more you pay for a hotel room, the less value it has—for example, they might charge extra for Internet and other services. Many moderate chains include free breakfast, making them a good value.

Although making reservations online is convenient, often you can get a better rate by calling the hotel directly. It’s also a good idea to see what options are available at or Sometimes rentals are less expensive than hotels with the added benefit of extra space and kitchen and laundry facilities. On our trip to Hawaii last year, we stayed in affordable rental units, including a beachfront condo for $125/night.

  1. Don’t overspend on food.

May5FoodAnother benefit to driving instead of flying is that you can pack a cooler and food which significantly reduces spending on meals and snacks.  You can also pack a few small appliances to make some warm meals in your room. You can heat hot water in a hot pot to make instant oatmeal or warm a can of soup.

We’ve packed our panini press on some of our trips. Crispy grilled sandwiches are an appetizing alternative to cold sandwiches. Cheese, crackers, and fruit make an easy lunch on the road. A little advance planning can help you avoid expensive snack bars at the attractions you visit.

Of course, staying in a rental with a kitchen makes it very easy to prepare meals. It would be boring to eat all your meals from a cooler (not to mention that moms need a vacation from cooking too), so plan for some restaurant meals. We try to find eateries that serve local specialties. is a helpful resource for finding unique local restaurants that are usually inexpensive too.

  1. Do research ahead of time to find creative alternatives to expensive attractions.

While the options will depend on your specific destination, look for budget-friendly options that give you a taste of what you are looking for while charging a fraction of more expensive attractions.

Can you create a DIY version of a tour? Here’s an example of an alternative we found on a trip to Alaska several years ago: We thought it would be fun to do some canoeing or rafting, but commercial outfits were charging $50-100 per person for a guided tour. Through research, I found a state park with a lake that rented canoes and kayaks by the hour. It wasn’t the same exact experience, but we had a fun and memorable boating experience that cost less than $30 for all of us.

One of the highlights of that trip was hiking on a glacier. On a previous trip to Alaska, before our kids were born, my husband and I had taken a helicopter ride that landed on a glacier where we were able to walk around. A helicopter ride for five people would have cost at least $1000 and was completely out of the question, so I was thrilled when I May5Beachfound a glacier that was accessible by car. For $25-50 per person, we went on a guided walking tour of the glacier—an unforgettable experience.

  1. Save where you can, then splurge on the activities that matter most.

Almost every destination has some parks, historic sites, or museums that are free. We usually include several of those on our itinerary. Hiking is a very budget-friendly activity that allows us to experience the natural beauty of our destinations. We have a membership to our local museum and with their reciprocal agreement, we’ve received free admission to many museums across the country.

Of course, there are some attractions that are pricey and there’s just no getting around it. Choose those attractions carefully, look for discounts or coupons, and then spend the money and enjoy yourself. Spending wisely on transportation, lodging, and food will help ensure you have enough left for a few splurges on attractions.


Years later, you probably won’t remember the amenities your hotel had or what you ate for lunch, but you will remember the attractions you visited and the memories you made together.

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