Traveling with toddlers is a good reminder of what we should all prioritize on our days off: taking naps, getting excited about food, and exploring new environments. When you’re celebrating the little things in life, planning affordable family vacations is easier than ever.
Whether you plan a beach vacation for spring break or you do a state park tour with the whole family, there are many ways to plan a cheap vacation. Remember, you don't need a lot of money to do family activities or create a memorable family trip. This guide will walk you through how to plan the best family vacations on a budget and how to make it fun for the whole family.
What Is the Best Vacation for a Family?
The best family vacations are less about a place than a feeling. It’s when you’re able to relax and unwind, enjoy family time, and try fun activities specific to each other’s interests. Because of this, you should prioritize personalized, affordable family vacations, especially while your kids are young. Do you guys love adventure? Try finding new hiking trails in your favorite state park. Prefer spending time on the water? Consider planning a road trip to a cute beach town. Whatever your next family vacation may be, make sure it's catered to your unique preferences as a group.
What Do Kids Care About on Vacation?
You may be surprised by what your child wants to do on vacation. Even if they don’t remember the experience when they get older, you’ll remember the way your child’s sweet, happy face looked forever—even if you’re just watching them at the waffle maker.
Communicating with your kids during the trip-planning process brings you closer together and sets you up for a positive (tantrum-free) vacation.
Listen to Your Little One’s Suggestions
In a study by HomeAway and FamilyFun Magazine, kids were excited about the idea of staying in treehouses, private islands, and castles. That may seem hard to pull off, but there are some crazy vacation rentals on the market today, and at the very least, you can easily find a children’s museum with a treehouse, plan a picnic on a lake island, or visit a fancy historic home.
Bring Their Friends (and Yours) Along
Once your little ones are old enough to walk, talk, and play on their own, they’ll want to be around kids their own age. You may want to invite other relatives or family friends on vacation with you, especially if you have an only child—bringing other adults you trust is a win-win because you can trade off parenting duties in exchange for kid-free date nights.
Think About the Traveling Process
If you’re looking for the best family vacations on a budget, your mode of transportation is a major factor. The decision to drive or fly really depends on where you’re going and for how long, but there are some other things to consider:
- Make health a priority – Putting the physical or mental health of anyone in your family at risk is never worth it (health is wealth!)—and yes, this includes your own pre-flight and on-the-road anxiety. Your child may have sensitive ears, which makes flying an issue, or you might be worried about driving because of motion sickness and rest-stop cleanliness. Listen to your gut. Then make a Readiness Checklist. Include all the necessities for travel that you can think of.
- “Lap infants” fly free – Children under the age of 2 don’t need their own plane ticket if you’re comfortable holding them throughout the flight. Plus, you get to bring a diaper bag, car seat, and collapsible stroller for free and can use a bottle cooler as a carry-on since TSA regulations don’t apply to your baby’s milk, formula, or food.
- You may still need to buy a kids’ ticket – There’s a strict ratio of 1 lap infant per 1 adult, so you may end up buying plane tickets for your kids—and if your kids are two or older, you’ll have no choice but to. Don’t let the “kids’ ticket” term fool you. Some airlines, like Southwest, offer reduced fares for children, but most will make you pay the same adult ticket price.
How Can I Travel Cheap with Kids?
Planning the best family vacations on a budget starts by picking a tentative destination and then following these steps:
- Price out travel essentials, flights, car rentals, and gas (using an online tool to get an estimate based on your exact car and driving distance).
- Check if this is the type of trip that offers all-inclusive vacation packages. If so, what do you get, and for what price?
- If you aren’t taking the all-inclusive route, look into places to stay and make a rough plan of how you’re going to tackle mealtimes with kids—if you need kitchen access, opt for a vacation rental rather than a resort or hotel.
What Exactly Is an All-Inclusive Vacation?
“All-inclusive vacations” are sort of a catch-all term for all-inclusive resorts and all-inclusive vacation packages. For resorts, you make one big payment that covers accommodation, food and drinks (either a set amount or all-you-can-eat), and some on-property activities and amenities, from scuba diving lessons to child care—however, it’s up to you to figure out how to get there. Vacation packages are usually a combination of all-inclusive resorts and airfare.
Like all things in life, you should always read the fine print before making a commitment. All-inclusive vacation packages may relieve some of your planning stress, but they definitely aren’t cost-effective for everyone.
Should I Book an All-Inclusive Vacation?
If these statements sound like you and your family, you’ll save money and have fun with an all-inclusive vacation package:
- You like to stay busy and active
- You stay on resort property for most of your vacation
- You’re comfortable befriending strangers and doing group activities
- You have growing kids that eat a lot and have tons of energy
- You like to unwind with a glass of wine
- You could use the help of child care facilities
What Are the Top 10 Family Vacation Spots?
For families that are looking for flexible, personalized travel plans, here are 10 places where you can have the best family vacations on a budget.
#1 Phoenix, Arizona
If your kids are fascinated by the natural wonders of the world, visiting Grand Canyon National Park is a must. Whether you make it a road trip or get a rental car at the Phoenix airport (3.5 hours away), it’s worth it to spend some time in the city first. To really make your journey memorable, pack all the road trip essentials like snacks and games. This will not only help you save on your cheap family vacation, but it will also help to keep the kids entertained! You can visit museums in art, music, and Native American culture. Also, check out the science centers, famous zoo and aquarium, and the gardens and parks scattered throughout the area.
#2 Moab, Utah
Looking for another fantastic road trip idea? If so, Utah is an excellent choice. For all the dinosaur enthusiasts, fossil fiends, and sun lovers, Moab, Utah is the place to be—these are some of the things you can check out while you’re there:
- Moab Giants – An outdoor paleo-amusement park and playground featuring life-size dinosaur replicas, walking trails, and mini excavation sites.
- Arches National Park – Known for incredible views and giant all-natural sandboxes that kids love to play in.
- Teepee-style glamping – There are tons of accommodations that mix camping fun (like s’mores by the fire) with hotel amenities (like king-sized beds) that’ll keep you comfortable and engaged with one another.
#3 Port Angeles, Washington
Olympic National Park is one of the most underrated vacation spots. With three ecosystems to explore (mountains, rainforests, and coastal tide pools), you can take a shaded stroller-friendly hike, go for a warm mineral-infused dip in the Sol Duc Hot Springs, or stop for a picnic on the sand.
#4 Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Don’t know how to keep kids busy? Take them to the beach and let them have some fun in the sun! With lifeguard-patrolled beaches, outlet malls, amusement parks, aquariums, and tons of places to stay right on the water, this laid-back destination is a manageable drive for East Coasters, and has its own international airport.
To save some money, book a hotel away from the water—there are tons of fun resorts with lazy rivers, waterpark-style pools, and cute cabanas that you can easily snag a deal on without sacrificing kid-friendly fun.
#5 Ocean City, Maryland
For a livelier beach and boardwalk experience, Ocean City fits the bill. Your family will get to have the classic summer vacation with a huge beach, mini-golf (and regular golf) courses, quaint ice cream shops, and outdoor events you can walk between.
#6 Catskill Mountains, New York
The Catskill region is far from the star-studded party spot it was in the ‘70s and has since become a quiet, peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. If you’re looking for a change of pace, the Catskills are a great place to experience farm life. You’ll get to eat someone else’s delicious, all-natural, home-cooked meals for a change, and your kids will have the time of their lives learning about all the animals.
#7 Lake Champlain, Vermont
The standout all-inclusive resort on this list is The Tyler Place Family Resort in Vermont. There are programs for kids of all ages (even newborns), candlelit adult-only cocktails and dining, and tons of attentive parents’ helpers—every caregiver only watches 1-2 kids at a time.
With arts and crafts, water sports on the lake, indoor pools, bikes with baby seats, and teepees and treehouses, you’ll have a fun, safe, cost-effective way to have a family trip that really feels like a vacation.
#8 Williamsburg, Virginia
For all the little history buffs and amusement park lovers out there, Williamsburg offers a unique experience that’s exciting and educational, and has tons of packages (like the Kids Play Free Package) that combines your choice of hotel with free admission to a range of parks and museums.
#9 Captiva and Sanibel Islands, Florida
While Captiva Island, and its sister island Sanibel, seem like a higher-end option, there are great resort deals especially in the summer. This is the perfect destination for families that aren’t looking for lots of structure and just want to take a breath. Between the shorefront beach villas, swim lessons, and crafts center, and breathtaking sunsets, you’ll never want to leave.
#10 Riviera Maya, Mexico
There’s a seemingly endless list of all-inclusive vacation packages in Mexico, and this laid-back tourist-favorite is no different. The best rates for family packages are in the fall, which works out well because the temperature is a lot more enjoyable once summer has passed. Many resorts include special toddler and baby programs and offer on-call babysitting for an extra fee, giving you some time to yourself.
Travel Gear for the Whole Gang
No matter where you’re headed, BÈIS has all the luggage, bags, and travel accessories you’ll need to feel prepared and look stylish. BÈIS knows that as a parent, you wear many hats—caretaker, chef, problem-solver and travel agent.
We’ve all got baggage, but it’s not a bad thing when yours is BÈIS.
VRBO. Summer Travel; New Study Uncovers the Power of Kids’ Opinions on Vacation Planning. https://www.vrbo.com/info/media-center/press-releases/2017/summer-travel-new-study-uncovers-the-power-of-kids-opinions-on-v/
US Department of Energy. Trip Calculator. https://www.fueleconomy.gov/trip/