Over the last year, we have taken family vacations to different cities in Mexico, Jamaica, and Florida. Add onto that, my husband and I traveled alone to Barbados, Grand Cayman, Italy, and Greece.
Since I write about travel all over the web, our trips are always part work and part play. But that doesn’t mean it’s all free.
While writing about travel means I get tax deductions for some of our expenses, I still need to pay for the bulk of our trips upfront. And for every freebie I get, there are 10 fun (read: expensive) experiences I feel like I cannot live without.
Since we live on a tight budget, travel is one area where we constantly run the numbers looking for ways to compromise. It’s important for us to travel and experience the world, but as always, our family’s financial health must come first.
How We Save on Family Travel
Fortunately, saving on travel isn’t that hard if you’re willing to make trade-offs. A few hours of research each month easily yields thousands of dollars in savings for us, and of course we use travel rewards to save even more.
None of our strategies are rocket science, but they help us stretch our travel budget so we can go farther and actually enjoy the experiences we crave. Here are my favorite ways to save on travel, most of which anyone can use:
Have some flexibility in terms of where you go.
If I could only offer one piece advice, it would be to keep your mind open as you explore travel options. If your mind isn’t set on an exact destination for each trip, you can easily save hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars, even if most of the other variables (like travel dates and climate) are the same. This is especially true when it comes to booking flights. Because the price of airfare fluctuates all the time, you could wind up with a rotten – or awesome – deal depending on where you’re going and when you book.
Let’s say you’re angling for a beach getaway, but don’t want to travel too far from the U.S. I would start by making a list of four or five options to consider. Maybe you love the east coast of Florida, but would also consider the state’s west coast, the Bahamas, or even South Carolina or the Gulf Coast. By at least considering more than one option, you’re expanding your options to save.
Once you have a list of travel “maybes,” start by comparing flight options to each of your spots. After that, you can narrow down your list by pricing out hotels or rental condos. Depending on your dates, you might find that Bahamas flights are on sale and flights to the Myrtle Beach area are absurd, or vice versa. Or maybe you’ll find that Tampa or Fort Lauderdale are super cheap through a discount carrier like Southwest or JetBlue. When you add accommodations, you can see which one of your options is the best deal overall. You can also add in other travel expenses like food costs, rental cars, and activities to come up with an even better idea of how much you’ll spend.
By comparing prices for several destinations you’re willing to consider, you can take advantage of destination-themed sales and score the best deal possible. But if you only consider one, you’re stuck paying whatever prices the market will bear.
Travel off-peak when you can.
While having kids in school can spoil your off-peak travel plans, it’s still possible to save by traveling outside peak travel times. You might be stuck traveling during certain weeks of the year, but you can still mix up your dates and times to save.
Here’s a good example: My kids get two weeks off for winter break, making winter an excellent time to travel. Unfortunately, winter break is easily one of the busiest and most expensive travel times of the year. To save money, we opt to travel after Christmas instead of during or before. That means this year’s trip is at the beginning of January instead, but we’ll still return before school starts back up on January 9th.
Another way to save is to travel during the least busy days of the week. Out of our home airport in Indianapolis, that usually means Tuesday to Tuesday. We also pick the first flight of the day, which can lead to even more savings.
Take advantage of free breakfast.
In expensive cities especially, I always go out of my way to book a hotel or inn that offers free breakfast. A lot of times, having a large breakfast helps us avoid a large meal at lunch. So really, we’re getting two or at least 1 ½ free meals every day.
Depending on where we go, getting free breakfast can mean booking at a bed and breakfast or an overnight stay at a small inn. It can also mean booking a night at the Holiday Inn or another small chain hotel that includes continental breakfast as part of your stay.
Book rental condos instead of hotels.
Rental condos might be the perfect option for families with kids. For our beach trips, we almost always book a rental condo. With our own kitchen, we can cook some of our meals at home and save money on dining out. And with a living area to ourselves, we can spend time relaxing in our condo without feeling the need to go out and spend money.
Most of the time, we eat breakfast and lunch in our condo and only go out to dinner when we’re able. This strategy easily helps us save $50 – $100 per day, and we often save more since rental condos are often more affordable than hotels in the first place.
- Related: Renting a House as a Vacation Option
Pay attention to flash sales, and be willing to plan ahead.
If you’re flexible with your dates and destinations, watching out for flash sales can help you save on both airfare and hotels. Just last week, I booked flights into Madrid and out of Paris for my husband, myself, and the kids for fall break next year. Our cost? Only $1,723 round-trip for all four of us — less than $450 per person, including taxes. The only reason this was possible was because I took advantage of a flash sale that only lasted a day. Oh, and I was willing to book airfare nearly 11 months out, which is not for the commitment-phobic.
In addition to watching for great sales on international fares, I also check for sales on my favorite domestic airlines. Southwest Airlines has all kinds of lucrative sales all year-long, as does Frontier Airlines, Allegiant, and JetBlue. By watching for sales and having the money saved up, you can pounce when the price is right. Again, this does require some flexibility and the ability to book at a moment’s notice.
Fortunately, you don’t have to shop for flights manually to save. If you want help spotting the best deals as they com up, set up price alerts on airfare sites like and check websites like and frequently.
Consider all-inclusive resorts.
While the value you’ll get at an all-inclusive resort depends on where you stay and how you normally spend money, I’ve found that all-inclusive resorts can be an awesome deal for families. We’ve been to several of them with the kids, and I find they make planning a breeze.
At the Holiday Inn Resort in Jamaica, for example, room rates start at around $188 per night for our family of four. We’ve been there two years in a row and already have a third trip planned for next year. Since food, drinks (including alcohol), and entertainment are included, you seriously cannot beat it. Even if you count the “room rate” as $100 of each night’s stay, that means we’re eating three meals, enjoying an awesome beach and pool, and watching nightly shows for $88 per day for four people.
Even without kids, all-inclusive resorts can be an awesome deal. Later this month, I’m heading to in Nassau, Bahamas with my sister. The nightly rate at this property is extremely affordable, and it includes everything – food, drinks, non-motorized water sports, entertainment, and even tips. By booking a property that includes everything you need, you can save money and avoid a surprise vacation bill when you return home.
Get serious about credit card rewards.
While we do spend our own money on travel, my family also relies heavily on credit card rewards. We hoard airline miles for the bulk of our air travel, then cash in flexible travel points or hotel points for our stays. We also use cash-back rewards to cover some incidentals like train travel, public transportation, and entries into museums and attractions.
My favorite rewards program by far is Chase Ultimate Rewards. With Chase Ultimate Rewards, you have a lot of flexibility in how you use your points. For example, while you can book hotels, airfare, rental cars, and activities directly through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, you can also transfer Chase points to popular loyalty programs like British Airways, Southwest Rapid Rewards, United MileagePlus Explorer, Marriott, Hyatt, Ritz Carlton, and IHG at a rate of 1:1.
There are plenty of great travel credit cards to consider depending on your family’s travel style and spending habits. Make sure to shop around before you decide on the best card for your needs.
- Related: Best Travel Credit Cards
Travel isn’t cheap, but there are plenty of ways to save if you’re willing to compromise. If your budget is a huge concern, don’t be afraid to consider multiple destinations and think outside of the box. Most of all, it helps to start planning early and be ready to pounce when a good deal comes along.
You never know when an amazing flight or hotel deal will pop up, but you’ll only be ready if you keep your eyes and ears open.
Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of . Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at .
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What is your favorite way to save on travel? What was your favorite cheap trip so far?