Summer Family Vacation on a Tight Budget

Family on vacation

Your budget is tight but you still want to take the family on a fun vacation this summer. I can help you with that. This has been the story of my family’s summer every year, and we have found a lot of ways to save money on family trips.

The biggest expenses on the family vacation are transportation, lodging, food, and souvenirs, so I have a few thought how you can cut one or all of these costs to give your family a memorable vacation without a high price tag.

Lower Transportation Costs

The easiest way to cut your vacation costs is to stay closer to home. Do you live near a place others visit on vacation? Travel close to home and see the place like visitors see it.

If you want to travel away from home, go off-season. In the summer, go to an area known for winter vacations; in the winter, go to an area known for summer vacations. Sure, you will deal with weather, but that’s just fun.

Lower Lodging Costs

The biggest range of costs for your vacation is in where you stay. Even if you stay in a hotel or motel, you can often pull the costs down by checking discount websites or using a discount (CAA/AAA or military, for example).

The best way to save money on lodging costs on your summer vacation is to camp. Even if you don’t want to pitch a tent, a lot of campgrounds offer cabins. Cabins cost more per night than a spot to park a camper or put up a tent, but they cost less than a motel, and you don’t need to buy the extra camping equipment. You do need to be prepared with cooking (pots & pans) and sleeping equipment (sleeping bags or blankets), but cabins can save you money if you already have all of this.

Where to go? Why not just start big with the national parks of Canada. You can find spectacular beauty and sites of historic significance across the country.

Is camping a mystery to you? If you’ve never been camping and don’t quite know how, you can even find camping instructions on the Parks Canada site. They even have an app with recipes, checklists, and tips.

Lower Food Costs

One of the biggest expenses of traveling with the family is food. Feeding a family of four three meals a day can cost more than a hotel room.

Find a local grocery store and make your own meals. Even if you don’t have access to cooking equipment, you can have great uncooked meals. More than once my family has quietly rolled our cooler into a hotel.

Not only does making your own simple food save you a lot of money, you can choose high quality, whole foods rather than accepting the quality you get in an inexpensive restaurant.

Lower Souvenir Costs

Really, you don’t need souvenirs at all, but you will almost certainly hear the cries of “Mom, can I have this?” My strategy is to start out with a distraction that creates its own keepsakes. Rather than taking home stuff from the trip, we remember by taking photos.

When my kids were little, I bought them simple cameras so they could document the trip from their own point of view. The follow up at home was important. We would create albums or frame photos on their walls. I like how this gives my children freedom to frame their own experience, and it helps me see what they find significant. In the era of smart phones and tablets, you have a lot of options for equipment, but I still think it’s important to put the equipment wholly in your child’s hands.

Another idea for souvenirs is to collect small mementos of specific experiences. If you are heading to national parks or national historic sites, check out the Xplorer programs for children. When you arrive, you check in and get a booklet or equipment that leads children on activities designed to help their understand what that park has to offer. U.S. national parks have a similar program for Junior Rangers. We did a variety of activities from an hour to several days. When they returned with completed activity books, the park ranger held a little ceremony to award them patches. My kids collected those patches from their junior ranger activities and sewed them onto their backpacks. They still talk about the activities as they point out the patches.

Go Slowly

Make sure that you leave enough space in any vacation or staycation to enjoy your time together and unwind from the relentless pace of your normal life.

I’ve found that the activity that left my kids the happiest on most vacations was swimming in a motel pool. Simple, but it works wonders. Whatever you do, leave enough space that the kids can play and you can chill out. You don’t have to leave first thing every morning. A vacation shouldn’t feel like work.

The Really Cheap Summer Vacation

If you just don’t even have the option to travel because of the costs, you can still create that vacation feeling and fun summer memories. There is no requirement that you leave home each summer. Sure, it’s fun, but that pressure to do right by your kids can be stressful when you just don’t have the money to spare. You can make this a summer of fun without staying away from home.

Day trips. Take day trips to all of the tourist spots within a few hours drive. Even if you have seen the historic houses and scenic views around your region, for your children, a lot of this will be new. Help them see their own home for the first time.

Backyard camping. Have a weekly campout in the back yard. Cook your dinner over a fire and tell silly stories. Everyone will remember these nights more than random evenings spend in a crumbling motel.

Indoor camping. If you are more of the indoor type, you can still have a campout with the family. My family loves doing this. We pull the cushions from every couch in the house and cover the floor. Everyone brings their bedding, and we make one big nest. Then, we play board games, read aloud, watch a movie, or have a picnic. Anything you can do sitting on the furniture, you can do lounging on the floor. Difference makes the fun. It will seem completely silly to little kids, and they will love it.

Make Your Own Fun!

You don’t need to spend money to have fun with your family. You have a lot of choices to bring down costs and create beautiful summer memories for your children. Have fun!

Photo Family Enjoying View on Vacation – © Eric1513 |

Vacation Toy Strategies

Child with Soft Toy

When you are going on vacation or travelling for the holidays, you need a strategy to bring along enough toys for a small child without having to pack a whole suitcase for every toy your child has touched within the past year.

We have travelled overseas a lot with our children, and we had to figure out over time what worked well for us. Each child’s needs can be different, so be sure that you are sensitive to what your child will experience on vacation and how best to balance the comfort of familiar toys with the excitement of travel and new experiences. As your children get older they are better able to take what comes on a trip, but they still need a few comfort items. As we get ready for a month-long trip over the holidays, we’ve started talking about what we need to take with us.

These are a few of the ways we have kept the balance of toys under control as we travel.

Take Comfort Toys

Each of my children has gone through stages of needing particular toys, pillows, blankets, and books with them. The soothing effect of having these is worth the space it takes to pack them. If your child talks, you might ask, “Which toys do you need to have with you at grandma’s house?” If this results in two important toys, perfect. If you have 21 stuffed animals, board games, and giant pillows lined up, work to narrow the choice down to a few. The younger a child, the higher stimulation an unfamiliar place might bring on. Familiar comfort toys encourage some down time to recover before heading back into the adventure.

Take Creative, Quiet Toys

Whether you will be travelling by public transport or in your own car is important in determining what kind of toys you need. Dings and beeps and clickity-clacks don’t work so well on a plane, when other passengers are already looking sideways at you, wondering if your child is going to disturb them. Quiet toys that hold the attention work well on the plane. This might mean cloth books, drawing materials, fuzzy felt story scenes with movable characters, finger puppets, or other small, soft toys that encourage long periods of play but won’t create more noise if they are banged on a tray. If you are driving, the noise level depends on what the other passengers can handle. A noisy, singalong car trip certainly has its appeal.

Play with Daddy’s Old Toys

Whether you are stopping in with the grandparents for an extended stay or just for Thanksgiving weekend, you children will likely be interested to know what you played with when you were their age. Of course, this only works if your parents haven’t cleared out those old toys years ago. In my husband’s family, they have generation after generation of toys still out, from Dobbin the mid-19th century rocking horse (whom all grandchildren ride) to bagatelle, a pinball game from the 1920s, and Granny’s own dolls from the 1940s. If you are travelling home for the holidays, ask your parents or parents-in-law to gather a few old toys that your children might be interested in. It’s great fun to watch as your children realize you really were their age long, long ago.

Encourage exploration

You don’t always want your child to be focused down on a toy. Encourage looking around, watching people, taking in the scenery, even just looking at license plates. Not every moment has to include toys for entertainment. At Granny and Grandpa’s house, my kids create a whole new world of games in the huge garden, and they spend time talking, reading, and exploring with their grandparents. We don’t want to recreate home on vacation, but we do want to have a few familiar toys to give a child an anchor during the adventure of travel.

Image © Blackcurrent1 |

Diaper Service for Extended Vacations

Mother and baby traveling by car

If you are planning an extended vacation in one place or you are attending a long event, you can travel with cloth diapers without actually having to take your own diapers with you. Look for a local diaper service.

Though it is possible to fill your suitcase with dirty diapers and bring them home to wash (many of us have done this), wouldn’t it be more convenient to have someone else wash the diapers while you are busy all day?

Coming up in the next two weeks is the biggest baby product trade show in North America. A thousand vendors will be there, and many thousands of retailers will be shopping for new products for their stores. A lot of the attendees are parents who will have babies in arms. A lot of those parents use cloth diapers, so they want to find a way to continue using reusable diapers while away from home. Talking with some of these parents as they prepare to travel with babies, I have heard that they have plans to make travel much easier. They are using the local diaper service.

What a brilliant idea! (Because I didn’t ever think of it myself when I traveled.)

Most diaper services are able and happy to deliver fresh, clean diapers to your hotel when you arrive and pick them up when you leave. You keep your baby in reusable diapers, and you support the local economy where you stay. It’s a good deal all around.

Tips for Using Diaper Service on Vacation

  • Look up a diaper service that delivers where you are going.
  • Call the diaper service well in advance to make arrangements and reserve your place.
  • Call your hotel to make arrangements for drop off and pick up.
  • Bring your own covers.
  • Bring a few of your own diapers for travel to and from your destination.
  • Encourage the diaper service to leave a few pamphlets for the hotel to let other guests know about this option.

Image © Nadezhda1906 |

Daycation Exploration with Toddlers – Simple Travel with Children

Many families I know are planning daycations and staycations this year, staying at home or close to home during their vacation time. If you have toddlers, how can you make the most of your daycations while keeping in mind that most toddlers have abundant interest in the world but limited attention? Keep day trips simple.

Explore close to home and you avoid several sources of anxiety for yourself and your child. The expense of gas, food, and lodging for you and the discomfort with new surroundings for your toddler.

Explore close to home. Start by going to your local visitors’ information bureau. Even if you think you know all about your local area, you might find out about new events or opportunities near you.

Set a schedule. Will you take a week off and go on day trips every day? Would you rather go every Monday for a month? How will you schedule your daycations? Limit the time and prepare to leave daily cares at home.

Keep a running list of ideas for day trips. Most toddlers are completely willing to be amazed by the world around them. If your child is fascinated by animals, go to the zoo, aviary, farm park or wildlife park. If your child loves plants, go to botanical gardens; if history, go to a living history farm.

If you are looking for a fee-free daycation, consider skipping the organized activities and going hiking or exploring. What is available will vary wildly depending on where you live. I live within a day’s drive of more than a dozen U.S. National Parks and monuments. This year, the National Park Service has scheduled fee-free weekends on July 18-19 and August 15-16. What a great opportunity to explore the world around you without feeling that you need to pack in all in at once to get your money’s worth.

Limit trip length. For most toddlers, four hours of activity will be about as much as they can take before they become too tired to enjoy it. Keep the experience positive, and your child will anticipate the next trip. A lot of trips will probably include a contented nap in the car on the way home.

Limit coverage.
Rather than trying to see the whole park in one day, focus on one area and really watch the animals or other attractions. Talk to your child about what you are both seeing. Engage your child in learning and thinking. Listen so you can follow your child’s own interests rather than trying to fill him up with facts.

Remember this is vacation. Treat this time as you would any vacation. Take photos and video, don’t sneak a peak at your email, and don’t sit around watching television. Focus on your family more than the schedule. Watch your toddler explore the world as she calls out, “Look, Mama!”