We are a family that loves to go on vacations. It is important to block off some time each year, to mix things up and break up the daily grind. We love to see new places, have new experiences, and make new memories together as a family. It’s also great to have a Vacation lurking out there on our calendar, to give us all something fun to look forward to.
With all of that said– when you are a family of five, planning a big vacation can be a huge challenge. The largest obstacle of course, is the cost of airfare. We live right square in the middle of America, and even with the cheapest Southwest fares, the cost to fly all five of us to the coast can often climb to around $2000 (round trip). This is pretty much a non-starter for us, in all but the best of years.
Since airfare is off the table, most of our vacations end up being road trips in the family vehicle. Of course there are a two distinctly different kinds of road trips.
The Cross-Country Clark Griswold Trip
The first type of a Road Trip Involves packing up the car and crossing multiple states on your way to one or multiple destinations. On this type of trip, you might end up spending more time in your car than you actually do at your ultimate vacation spot. In a way, the road trip *becomes* your vacation, and you need to find a way to make the time in the car together as enjoyable as possible. You need to block off a fairly large amount of time for a trip of this time (7 days+), which means you’ll be burning through a lot of vacation days at work. In general, we try to avoid these type of trips.
The Quick Weekend Trip
The second type of road trip involves a much quicker drive (6 hours or less) to a location that is fairly close to your home city. In this scenario, your goal is to find a destination where you get to spend more time exploring an area and its attractions, and less time in your vehicle. Because of the short drive, we often take these trips over a long 3 or 4 day weekend. We enjoy each other’s company, have some new adventures, and experience some new sights and sounds. Here in the Midwest, there are a number of cities that are a quick drive away, and we plan on hitting a few of them this year.
Below are a few tips for those that are looking to plan a quick weekend vacation without spending a ton of cash.
The Cheap Hotel
When you take airfare out of the equation, the next largest travel expense is lodging. One option is to try to find a friend or relative to stay with, or to potentially opt to stay at a local campground. However, more often than not, we tend to opt for an affordable hotel room. It just doesn’t feel like a relaxing vacation unless we have a soft bed to sleep in, and somewhere to take a shower.
With that said, we always shop around when it comes to hotel rooms. We almost never end up in a hotel right near a city’s downtown, instead opting for a spot out in the suburbs for 1/3 the price. There are many decent hotels that offer clean rooms for a good price, and many even provide a free breakfast! One other option that we sometimes take advantage of is to try and find a rental house on AirBnB or VRBO. Renting a house for a few days can sometimes cost a fraction of what you would pay for a top-notch hotel.
Plan Ahead For Your Meals
Planning meals ahead of time can be huge money saver on your vacations. When you have five mouths to feed, and a couple of those mouths belong to growing teenage boys, eating out at restaurants can be a major expense. Instead, we try to bring a cooler full of food with us when we hit the road. We almost always have sandwiches on the road for our first meal of the trip, and usually try to fill in the gaps with some Turkey & Cheese or PB&Js.
We also sometimes look to stay in a hotel or rental house that includes a kitchen, which will allow us to cook a few of our meals. We can typically whip up a nice and healthy hot meal for the family for under $10, which is obviously impossible to pull off when eating out.
Look For Free Entertainment
We typically do try to hit some of the top attractions whenever we visit a new city. This is especially true if a city offers something that we can’t currently find in our hometown. For example, our city doesn’t have a major aquarium, so if we visit a city that *does*– we will try and find time to swing by there. We also love science museums, botanical gardens, and of course– theme parks.
But with that said, a visit to a city doesn’t have to be limited to the expensive pay-to-play options. We always do our research online (using TripAdvisor or other sites), and try to find a few free options as well. Many museums offer a few free days each month, and we have been known to try and time our trips to match up. In addition, there are often some amazing parks or spots for a nice nature walk that are completely free to visit. If you do it right, you can really get a flavor for a town without spending through the roof.
Don’t Fear Change
We saved the most important tip of this article for last. It is great to spend some time planning your vacation, but you must be willing to accept the fact that everything will not always go according to plan. You must be willing to adjust your itinerary, or you will be setting yourself for stress and disappointment. Sometimes the place you planned on going to will end up closed or just too crowded to pull off. Sometimes your kids will be tired or overwhelmed and just need a little downtime, or perhaps some time in the hotel pool. Sometimes you might even need to bail and leave a day early because somebody is not feeling well (this happened to us on a recent trip).
You should never think of a vacation as a list of check-boxes that need to be crossed off. Instead, just enjoy the time together, and focus on the experiences that you do get to have, instead of any that might end up having to miss. With all of that said, vacations can be a wonderful bonding time for your family, and I highly recommend planning your next trip today!