When I talk about my family vacations I often get "How do you do it?" Sometimes this "how do you do it? is in wonder and appreciation (my ego really prefers those). Sometimes it is a snottier "How do YOU do it?", meaning that somehow we don't deserve nice holidays. On the surface a family of six living on a single income should not be able to afford as many nice trips as we take. Christopher does not make a huge income, and we are not in huge debt. The easy answer... I plan. An amazing vacation does not have to put you into debt if you plan it properly. The word spontaneous is not in my vocabulary. Our vacations require hours and hours of planning time (by me) and research. This may sound like it takes all of the fun out of a family vacation, but honestly for us it enhances it. My research educates me about what there is to see, and that way we don't miss anything.
I begin our family vacation planning with a destination in mind. A few years ago we took a trip to Boston, Massachusetts. That trip came from an unlikely source. At that time Gracie loved American Girl dolls, movies, books and of course the magazine. Childhood is this beautiful glimmering thing, but it's gone so quickly. I take the attitude that we have to live and love as much of their growing up as we possibly can. Christopher and I will have time when the kids are all grown up to take vacations that are just about us. Right now our philosophy is that life is about the kids. Vacations are a chance for us to be together with no distractions from the outside world. It allows us to explore their interests, and give them fun educational experiences. We planned a trip to Boston because it had the closest American Girl Store to us. From there I researched Boston and it's surrounding area.
2. Set Your Budget
The next, and most important decision is to set a budget. The budget determines where we stay, what we eat, what activities that we do. The budget is everything! We set our budget and then we divide it into how many days that we will be somewhere. For example if we have a budget of $1000.00, we would decide that $600.00 would go to accommodations. That leaves $400.00 for food, activities and souvenirs. I will then further divide that into envelopes for the day. It sounds type A, but it really helps us to stay on budget and have an amazing vacation.
3. Book Your Hotel
Once we have decided on a destination, and a budget, I get to work getting us accommodations. I learned the hard way how important this part of vacation planning is. If you leave your accommodations to the last minute you will not get the best deal. Having said that .... when we travel in the States we like to pick up discount hotel booklets at the rest stations. These booklets contain coupons that get you great hotel rates. One time we stayed at the Four Points Sheridan in York, Pennsylvania for $60.00. Normally that same hotel room would have run us $140.00 at least. The premise for this booklet is that if the hotels have not sold their rooms by a certain time, they will give it to you at a discounted rate. It is better to get some money for a room, than none. This saves a lot of money... but and there really is a big but to this one, but it's a fickle system. I have seen us travel to five different hotels and none of them can honour that price. To get that price you have to arrive after a certain time, and it depends on how many rooms they have left. Basically what it boils down to is if they are having a slow night you can get that rate, if not, well you pay full price. By calling and booking ahead you have bargaining power. I have found that the earlier I book, the better my rate is. To get my best possible rate I play a little game that I call "the best rate game". I do not call the 1-800 number. That puts me in touch with a central booking system, they know as much as you do about that hotel. They only know the facts are that are written down. I call the actual hotel that I am interested in staying at. I ask for their rate, then I ask for their "best" rate. Next I ask for their CAA / AAA rate, and finally I ask if they are currently running any promotions or have any managers specials. It feels often times like you have to ask the right question to get the answer. For some reason they never give you the best rate right off the bat. Quite often I will ask if they can include breakfast if it is not already included, more often than not they will. Not paying for breakfast saves us a lot of money and makes our stay a little more fun. Free breakfast sounds stupid to say it's 'fun', but it's outside of our norm. It's a little adventure for the kids to eat breakfast in a restaurant. Another important thing to ask the hotel is what kind of amenities are included. This sounds silly, but it tells you a lot about where you are staying. For example if they do not have a pool, we will not stay there. When I booked our Virginia Beach vacation, I found out that the hotel/ resort offered free laundry service. You read that correctly... "FREE". This little piece of advice allowed me to pack light for our vacation, and not return home with that dreaded bag of dirty laundry that you really don't feel like doing after an amazing vacation.
Our hotel also boasted a movie theatre and was right on the ocean. Those amenities allowed us to save a lot of money, and still have an EXCELLENT time.
4. Where To See / Play
After the hotel has been booked I begin researching things to do while we are there. Sometimes the best place to start is the hotel website. Very often the hotel website lists area attractions. I also will do a generic web search for the name of our vacation destination. If I discover an attraction that I feel would suit our family, I then search "discounted tickets". Some museums allow free entry on certain days and after certain hours. We discovered that with our Toronto Science Centre family membership we gained free entrance to hundreds of other science centres around North America. Many attractions offer discounted ticket prices to CAA/ AAA members. Sometimes you can get seriously discounted tickets through your local CAA/ AAA office. Sometimes the hotel itself offers either room/ ticket special packages, sometimes the hotels have discounted tickets available. We really love Provincial / State Parks. The admission to these parks is small, and often they have great activities that are free with your parking pass. We paid $4.00 to go to First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach. This had a visitors centre with maps and a display telling the history of the park. In Myrtle Beach, the State Park has alligator exhibits, with real baby alligators (and no scary alligator mom). Your admission allows you almost unlimited time during the day and countless things to see.
Meals can get pretty costly on vacation. I like to search the internet for places to eat and restaurant reviews. I also will post a message on my facebook page asking my friends who has been there and where they would recommend. I am addicted to Food Network Magazine, and in every issue there is a section that shows must eat places in each of the states, this has given us ideas. We generally plan, plan, plan. I almost always get a hotel that offers free breakfast, that in and of itself is a HUGE savings. For lunches I will pick up a cheap loaf of bread and peanut butter. These are not luxury foods, but they sure keep the budget down! I like for us to have one really nice dinner out at a nice restaurant. To do this we skimp on the other meals. If there is a barbecue on the premisses, we will make burgers. Sometimes we will pick up a "meal to go" from the local grocery store (you know the baked chicken with rolls and a salad and sometime pop or water). In Virginia Beach, we discovered this really amazing grocery store that offered gourmet meals to go, at really inexpensive prices.
6. Explore Where You Are
Although I am really prepared on our vacation, I do leave a few things to chance. Very often in the lobby most hotels have racks of brochures of local attractions. Sometimes they have coupon booklets, these often have really great coupons. We have often saved as much as half price. We will also ask people at the hotel what places they would recommend going. We ask them where they like to go to eat. This allows us to skip the tourist traps, and most times save money.
So there you have it, my budget friendly vacation planning tips. The most important thing about planning a family vacation is to plan it to suit your family and their likes. Not everything has to be the cheapest thing out there. Some splurges are completely worth it, if it brings you joy. I just try to mix our splurges with economy in almost equal doses. The bottom line is that we always have amazing vacations without breaking the bank. We are making memories.
If you have any great tips, please feel free to share them.