Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping and summer vacation is just around the corner. As a mom on a budget, this leaves me asking two pretty critical questions. First, how do I avoid planning family travel that leaves me more tired than when I started? And second, how do I plan a fun trip that does not entirely wipe out our savings account? Here are four ideas for cheap vacations and getaways that are enjoyable and won’t break the bank.
1. Take a staycation
You don’t have to wrangle both a stroller and screaming baby through a TSA checkpoint and deal with crying children during your flights. Your anxious chihuahuas will not freak out at the dog sitter. Your toddler won’t decide that sleeping in a new bed at the beach resort is actually a harbinger of the apocalypse. Also, you won’t come home to a pile of laundry that rivals the height of the Space Needle. (Yes, I may have had some bad family vacation experiences in the past.)
How to make a staycation fun and memorable:
The purpose of any vacation is to relax, recharge and spend quality time with loved ones. Unfortunately, staycations can become excuses to work from home… or on a bunch of home improvement projects. The key is to set some boundaries so you can focus on having fun with the family, even if you don't take flights to exotic destinations. So, leave your work laptop at work, don’t check email on your phone and ask your coworkers not to text. Also, make sure to schedule some time for a deep clean of your house the weekend before your staycation. That way, you only have to manage dishes, cooking and laundry during the week.
Most importantly, make an actual itinerary for your staycation, just like you would if you were visiting a new city. If your kids love science, this could be the perfect opportunity to do some bug observing or catching at the local park. If they love history, check out a local museum, national park or historical landmark. There are probably plenty of fun vacation spots right in your own town or city. A little online research can go a long way in coming up with fun, creative activities to try.
How much will a staycation actually cost? This depends on family size, number of days off, and what you choose to do. I’ve laid out a base budget for a family of four, staycationing for 5 days, below:
Staycation Budget for a Family of Four
Eating out 6 times. The average cost of a meal out is $11/person
Three days of park and museum admissions. This is assuming you’re not going to a theme park, which is much more expensive.
Splurging on a housecleaning service
Getting a babysitter for an adult night out (about 4 hours). Babysitters cost an average of $14/hr, according to HomeAdvisor.
Grand Total: $810
Bonus Activity: If you want to staycation but feel like sleeping in your own bed will be too boring, consider backyard camping. The best part? You still get to use your own shower in the morning!
2. Plan a weekend getaway
Weekend getaways are a great option if you are low on vacation days. They can also be a trial run for longer trips if you have small children or anxious pets. (Who said “fail fast” is just for work?) Fewer days away from home also means fewer dollars spent on hotels and eating out.
How to Make It Work:
There are two big risks with planning weekend getaways. First, travel time will end up making up a larger percentage of your total time spent away from home. For example, let’s say you plan on leaving home for five days (120 hours total). You drive for six hours to your destination while your toddler screams in his car seat. If you count the trip there and back, this is 12 hours of a toddler screaming, or 10% of your vacation. Now, let’s say you only go away for a weekend. That means you’ve only got 48 hours of vacation time. Now, 12 hours of toddler screams is a whopping 25% of your time away from home.
The other big risk of a weekend getaway is becoming overly ambitious when planning the itinerary. If you only have 48 hours in your vacation spots (minus travel and sleep time), you probably won’t get to see everything. Trying to squeeze everything in is likely to lead to sore feet and cranky co-travelers.
So, how can you make a weekend getaway fun? If you’re still using car seats, stay somewhere that is walking distance from food and entertainment. In our family, fewer car seat transitions mean lower blood pressure for me and fewer tears for my toddler. And that’s what vacationing is all about!
How much will a weekend getaway actually cost?
I’m basing my calculations on a family of four staying somewhere relatively close to home for two nights.
2 nights in a hotel or rental property. Approximately $160/night, according to data from ShareBetter
6 meals out (You can cut this down if you stay somewhere with a kitchen)
Two days of park and museum admissions
Cost of gas for a drive from Seattle to Portland (about 6 hours round trip) in a car that gets 35 mpg on the highway
Grand Total: $804
Bonus Savings: Consider renting a house together with friends. This can potentially save money on property rental, food, and transportation. It also practically guarantees quality time with friends, which can be hard when trying to balance a career and kids.
3. Go camping
You get to spend time discovering nature together as a family, perhaps in a local camping ground or national park, for little to no money. You can stargaze in an area where you can actually see the stars. And there is nothing quite so magical as food cooked over a campfire. It is also easier to unplug your devices if there is no wifi, no outlets, and no cell phone signal.
How to make it work:
When family camping goes well, it can make incredible memories for the whole family. However, this is one of those vacations that absolutely requires the right gear and extensive planning. Otherwise, you could be stuck sitting by a sputtering campfire while rain pours on your head and your kids are screaming that they’re bored and hungry. And this nightmare scenario does not even cover the additional safety issues that come up when camping with little ones.
This type of vacation will obviously be easier and cheaper if you have pre-child camping experience. Hike It Baby has a great list of tips and supplies that will help you stay organized, comfortable and safe. If you’ve never camped before, consider picking a location close to home and even renting a motel or cabin. This gives you an easy exit and lets you acquire gear (and camping skills!) over multiple trips.
How much will a camping trip cost?
Camping experiences can be cheap vacations, but this will be highly variable based on how much gear you already have and where you’ll be staying. MomGoesCamping provides some reasonable cost estimates for a huge variety of camping styles. Based on her calculations, a mid-range, five-day trip for a family of four (that already had gear) is about $1200. Purchasing gear would likely add about $1000 to that price (assuming you didn’t purchase the absolute highest-end gear).
4. Take a cruise
You don’t have to cook, clean or plan anything. You don’t have to drive anywhere. Depending on where you stay, you may not even need to pack diapers and wipes. Plus, you’ll probably have access to a giant pool, unlimited food and fun excursions in exotic locales like Cayo Santa Maria, the Riviera Maya, and the Caribbean... the possibilities are endless.
How to make it work:
Cruises can cost significantly less than staying in a hotel. However, they have some hidden costs that can feel like a nasty surprise if you’re not expecting them. Remember to factor in expenses like mandatory gratuities, excursion fees and alcohol when making your cruise budget. Another important consideration is that not all cruises are great at accommodating children under three years old. Check in advance with the cruise line about what activities and babysitting are available for your little one. Here’s a list of cruise lines that cater well to very young travelers. Finally, you may need to travel to the port from which your ship is departing. This may mean paying for gas, airfare, parking and hotels.
How much will a cruise actually cost?
Again, this is variable based on the cruise line, cabin and additional activities and services you choose. Cruiseline.com breaks down all the potential costs associated with a 7-day cruise. When factoring in travel to and from the port, they find that the average cost is $1500 to $2000 per person. This is $6000-$8000 for a family of four. That is obviously a lot more money than the other vacations listed in this blog. However, if you have the budget, the extra money may be worth it.
This article covers just a few ideas for how to have an amazing summer vacation you can actually afford. If you stay creative and flexible, you can have a memorable family trip without emptying your savings account. And, as with any activity involving small children, a sense of humor (and a high tolerance for messes) helps as well. Safe and happy travels!
Rebecca Fraynt has a PhD in Clinical Psychology and is an all-around healthcare nerd. She lives near Seattle with her husband, toddler, and two rescue chihuahuas. When she's not working or chasing her dogs or child around the house, she's guzzling coffee, reading, or binge watching Star Trek.