Kelsey Sheehy from NerdWallet
My family didn’t travel much when I was a kid, but when we did, my parents rushed to cut costs.
On a trip to Disney World, for example, our family of six hotels changed. All. Night. My mom worked for a hotel chain and could get one free night per property.
Did my parents save money? Yes. Did it add to the mental burden of traveling with four children? Absolutely.
As an adult now, planning a trip with my own child, I fully understand how expensive – and difficult – it is to travel with children. Planning and packing need to account for naps, snacks, tantrums and blowouts. And you plan for an extra plane ticket, a bigger rental car and extra accommodation.
You can save money on family travel while having peace of mind. To find out how, I consulted two experts. Here’s what they had to say.
PAY WITH POINTS
The secret of savvy travellers? They don’t pay for airfare and accommodation. Instead, they’re using rewards credit cards to turn their everyday purchases into free flights and hotel rooms.
“Make your money work for you,” says Preethi Harbuck, a San Francisco Bay Area-based travel writer and originator of the Local Passport Family blog. Harbuck’s family of seven (soon to be eight) travels almost exclusively with credit card points. “There are more expenses when you have kids, but you can leverage that for greater benefits.”
Map-hopping can net you big points from sign-up bonuses, but can be tricky to manage, says Jamie Harper, mother of four and author of travel blog Fly by the Seat of Our Pants. To keep things manageable, stick to one or two main cards.
Harper and her husband alternate between Hyatt, Marriott and Hilton cards, which offer perks like free breakfast, Wi-Fi and anniversary nights.
LIGHTWEIGHT — AND SMART PACK
Overpackaging can be a disaster on many fronts. First, you need to lug it all around with you and keep track of it along the way. The chances of losing a comforter are high.
Second, checked bags are expensive – around $30-35 per piece, each way.
Harbuck and his family stick to one checked bag or a few smaller carry-ons. Rather than a new outfit for each person, each day, they wear new outfits and generally do laundry on each trip.
“Pack clothes that are light, pack well, and dry quickly,” she says, noting that woolen items are great for colder temperatures.
Having layers is also crucial. If you skimp on that, you could end up spending $50 per child on souvenir sweatshirts to keep them warm, Harper says.
CHOOSE ACTIVITIES IN CONSIDERATION
Prepare your itinerary with free activities, such as local parks, hikes, beaches or free museums.
You can also take advantage of the benefits included with memberships you already have – to your local zoo or children’s museum – or invest in passes that you can use again and again.
When paying for experiences and excursions, consider your family’s life stage. Rather than taking your toddler to an art museum, for example, opt for an outdoor sculpture garden where they can run around or a kid-friendly museum with lots of interactive features at their level.
Your family’s travel priorities should also guide you, says Harbuck. Knowing the culture and history of a place is important to his family, so they spend money on activities that achieve this goal and avoid the more popular tourist attractions.
“We’ve been to London several times, but we’ve never taken the London Eye,” she says. “It doesn’t help me feel connected to the culture, and it’s super expensive.”
PACK SNACKS, GROCERY
There’s no rule that says you have to eat dinner at every meal when you’re on vacation.
Instead, choose one meal a day to eat out. Lunch is a good option, as it is usually cheaper than dinner (which in some countries starts later than most children’s bedtime). By packing your dinner or eating at home, you avoid an overpriced meal where the kids melt or sleep at the table.
Harbuck’s family goes to local markets to stock up on food when they land in a new town. Going on a road trip? Keep a cooler with food for rest picnics.
“If we don’t eat out twice, we save $100 a day — and it’s the cheapest meal possible,” Harper says, noting that her kids are picky eaters. “Once we spent $7 per kid on buttery pasta. It was the worst experience of my life. They didn’t even eat it.