12 Tricks for Traveling on the Cheap with Kids
Traveling with kids is so much fun – but it can be expensive! Gone are the days of your income being dedicated exclusively to you and your hobbies. Pre-kids, leaving on a trip meant throwing a few bags together, either hopping in the car or catching a flight, and having the (responsibility-free) time of your life!
Why not lessen the financial load of traveling with kids and instead prepare to head out on the cheap? It’s totally doable!
Here are a few tried and true tricks to help you out:
Preparation is Key!
Plan like crazy before ever leaving. Preparation is key! It’ll be worth it in the end and still allow for some degree of spontaneity when you finally get where you’re going. Check out the tourist bureau websites for information. Look up free places and affordable restaurants. Don’t forget local libraries and bookstores that might have fun kid activities on the cheap. Research the area where you’ll be staying – look for “kids stay free” hotels, free additional crib and/or cot, and look to see what’s fun to do within walking distance. A little knowledge goes a long way!
Hydrate for Less
Hydrating is important for everyone – kids and parents alike! We don’t want any “hangry”, dehydrated passengers in the car. But plastic water bottles can be expensive at the corner store or museum. Spending between $1.50-$4 per bottle starts to add up quickly. (There goes your child’s university tuition!) You could always bring your own refillable bottle but chances of finding clean drinkable H2O on the go is pretty unlikely.
Instead, once you’ve settled into your hotel neighborhood, stop at the local superstore (think Walmart or Target) to buy a 24 of water. At a much cheaper price than purchasing each bottle separately, you’ve ensured that everyone stays healthy, hydrated and happy without breaking the bank.
Cutting Coupons and Costs
You know the pamphlets lining the walls as you walk towards the airport’s baggage claim area? Or the brochures offered for free in roadside rest stops? Don’t just walk by! Stop and check out any that apply to hotels. You can cut your room rate by more than half when you opt for one of the hotels featured in the coupon mags. Just pay attention to which nights are offered at the published rate (often Sundays through Thursdays). Weekends can still be cheaper than regular rates but hotels tend to add an extra $15-$40 for the more popular days. Often featured in the coupons is information about amenities:
Continental breakfast included? Just reduced your food budget.
Pool or hot tub? Fun activity after a long day of sightseeing.
WiFi/cable? You want these included so parents can have something to do after kids conk out early and you’re stuck reading in the dark.
Don’t forget to ask for a complimentary crib or cot delivered to your room before your arrival. If you’re delayed and your kids are fussy upon reaching your destination, you’ll likely appreciate the ready-made beds so everyone can catch a quick snooze.
Kids Eat Free
Take some time to research restaurants around your hotel or areas of interest. Specifically look for restos where kids eat free on certain nights. If you have more than one child and they usually eat you out of house and home, you’ll appreciate the cheaper bill at the end of a meal. It just takes a little planning to pinch a few pennies.
Some family-friendly restaurants that offer Kids Eat Free deals include:
- Famous Dave’s BBQ
- Pizza Hut
- Moe’s Southwest Grill
- Ruby Tuesday
(*Please check online or call restaurants directly to get local information. These deals vary according to location.*)
Which kids’ museums allow children under 3 in for free? Which have free entry every Thursday afternoon? Do any nearby cafes or restaurants have little play areas too? Does the local movie theatre have an early bird special or a kids’ presentation the week you’ll be around? Will your kid really enjoy the more expensive Imax option or would they be just as happy to play in the discovery area? By pinpointing the vibe you want your trip to have, it becomes easier to prioritize outings and then look at affordability. What do you want your kids to remember about this trip? The long lines? Stressed-out mommy and daddy? Or would they be excited with the simpler options?
When you hit the hotel pool or nearby beach, you’ll no doubt want to have a ball, floaties, tubes and toys for your kids. Instead of getting caught up in the tourist shops, wasting time searching to buy these things and paying a small fortune, bring your own. Inflatable beach things are easy on the wallet and even easier to fold into a suitcase. They’re light, compact and it won’t matter if you lose them or they break.
BYOB for Realz
While on a trip, we all want our kids to have fun and make memories. But let’s not forget that it’s our hard-earned vacation time too! Enjoying a glass of wine or a cold local brew after a day of sightseeing might sound fun but it can drive up your restaurant tab in a hurry. Instead, hit up the beer store, the local brewery that sells by the bottle, or quickly venture into a nearby Target (…maybe while you’re picking up your pack of water bottles!…) and see what wine choices they have from the area. This option is way more affordable and allows you to sip while sitting on your hotel balcony after the kids are in bed. Just ask your hotel’s front desk for a wine opener and be prepared to drink out of plastic cups!
Stock Up Locally
Speaking of stocking your hotel room with your favorite beverages, you’ll find your stay simpler when stocking up on local groceries too. Check out what’s in season and what’s grown nearby. This can even become a great family outing! Head down to a nearby farm and pick your own. Or head to a local farmer’s market to take in the smells and sights while picking out your supper! Go to a local health grocer and stock up on foods that will leave your family feeling energetic and ready to explore!
Besides the fact that you’ll likely discover a whole bunch of fun and fresh bites (oranges in Florida, peaches in North Carolina, strawberries and avocados in California, strawberries in Quebec, mangos in Mexico, fine cheeses in France, fresh pasta in Italy…), you’ll also find it affordable to dine like kings! Grab extra plastic cutlery on one of your restaurant visits to slice and dice on the go. Check out dry food options too for easy kid snack choices.
Pass It On
Do you already have an annual museum pass in your hometown? Are you a member at the local YMCA? Take time to check if there are any affiliate programs included in your membership. Some places allow for free or reduced visits to national or international organizations. For example, the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) Travel Passport Program allows for free general admission (with local membership) to hundreds of science centers around the world. Don’t forget to bring your local membership cards and ID along with you on your trip or you’ll likely be stuck at the door, expected to pay full price.
Free Parks & Rec
What kid doesn’t prefer an afternoon at the park over a visit to another coffee shop? Granted, mom and dad need to keep their fuel reserves up but another cortado? Really?
Time to check out the local parks. Parks are free and, most importantly, outdoors! Your kids can run to their hearts’ content, climb, swing and enjoy the wide open spaces. Research shows the connection between being in the outdoors, physical activity, and a child’s overall wellbeing. In an effort to keep everyone happy throughout your trip, plan frequent park visits so you and your little ones can breath in the (local) fresh air.
Play Hard to Get
When booking a hotel room for your brood, don’t hesitate to play a little hard to get. Unless you’re visiting during peak season (and even then, it can’t hurt to try), hotels want your business. Whether you’re going in with a hotel coupon, walking in off the street or dialing up prior to departure, avoid booking directly online and instead talk to a real. live. human being. Negotiations cannot take place with a computer. Take the time to research similar hotels in the area and then start referring to them in your negotiations. Be ready to walk away and book the next spot if a certain hotel won’t budge on their price. But chances are the hotel clerk wants to book all his rooms every night, so you might just be in luck. That extra money saved on a room can go towards an afternoon at the waterpark or more local brews for mom and dad!
Let’s get real – All you really need in a hotel room is a roof, 4 walls and a bed or 2. But what are the extra amenities that you can score for free and help you save money? Ask the hotel about rooms with a mini-fridge. It’s perfect for storing leftovers from your restaurant visits – which make for a quick, cheap breakfast the next day! Stash your local brews in the fridge for after hour enjoyment. You have way more options at the farmer’s market or local grocer if you have a fridge: fresh guacamole, cheeses (yum!) and deli meat are all family favorites!
Does your hotel have any rooms with microwaves? Or do they have a kitchen where you can heat things up? This can come in handy when reheating those leftovers, prepping baby food, or making some quick lunches (think cup of soups or mac&cheese).
Finally, if it’s (s)low season, can the hotel offer your family a free upgrade to a room with a balcony? If so, pop the kids in bed and enjoy reading while sipping your wine outdoors. Or start a new web series while watching the moon rise. Or listen to some local bands on your iPhone without having to wear headphones. It will offer you a taste of vacation while you still care for your little ones snoozing nearby.