How to Plan a Family Vacation You Can Afford

Kate Robinson
Greater Nevada Credit Union
Growing up in a large family, vacations were short and rare, as my parents often struggled to make ends meet. But I do remember a few – my parents went out of their way to invest in making memories with the family, even if they couldn’t afford much. As an adult, what stands out to me most is not the quality of hotels or price of the vacation package, but the sense of fun an adventure. Taking a break from busyness and demands on your time to escape with your family is an important part of life. It benefits your health and enriches your relationships.

So even if you’re on a tight budget, make sure you get some time away with your people, or even by yourself. Here are some creative ways to make it happen:

Blackout Staycation

If you just can’t afford a trip anywhere, you can still have a great vacation. The key to making this work is that you must treat it as if you really are out of town and unavailable. Turn of your cell phone (or ignore work calls). Batten down the hatches and spend a few days treating your home like a Summer Camp.

One night can be movie night, one night family game night and another night you can roast marshmallows in the back yard. Set up a tent out back or sleeping bags in the living room. Tell scary stories. Go hiking. Do a project together as a family – like building a model rocket and firing it off at the end of the “vacation”. My dad used to drive out to a field where there were no city lights and we would lay on the hood of his old station wagon and he would teach us about the constellations of stars. To this day it’s one of my favorite childhood memories. Family time doesn’t have to be expensive at all – it just takes the determination to allow no outside interruptions.

Go on an adventure

We are blessed to live next door to Lake Tahoe, one of the most beautiful places in the world. And the Sierra Nevada region is home to lots of other great locations for the adventurous family too. For outdoorsy families, camping, hiking, fishing, even hunting are all available in our great state without spending a fortune. As kids we often visited a forest we called “the hundred-acre wood” (our tribute to Winnie the Pooh) and explored for hours or days. All you need to have a great adventure is your family and a little imagination.

Not an outdoor person? No problem

I know most of these ideas involve the great outdoors – mainly because enjoying nature is free (or at least inexpensive). But if roughing it isn’t your thing, you should still be able to go on vacation too! I recommend choosing destinations during their off-season. Vegas or Phoenix in July, for instance, are much cheaper than in November. There are also many great theme parks such as the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz or Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, that are pretty affordable. For a more traditional vacation at a discount, visit GetAwayToday and check out their vacation packages.

Road trip

One of my absolute favorite pastimes is a road trip for the sake of a road trip. Road trips for the sake of reaching destinations are fun, but I find you miss a lot of the best things about road trips if you’re in a hurry to get where you’re going. Road tripping to nowhere in particular, on the other hand, means you can take your time, stop to sightsee, visit interesting towns, find hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and generally play it by ear. Those of you who love spontaneity will know what I’m talking about. No driving through Burger King in bleary-eyed exhaustion, trying to make it to Vegas by sunrise – just enjoying the weather, good tunes, each other’s company, and the sights there are to see. For you planners, this amazing web site helps you find all the attractions (mainstream and offbeat), entertainment, history, accommodations, food, and tons of other stuff along your route. Seriously… check it out.

Off the beaten path

Living in northern Nevada, we are surrounded by amazing, rarely visited places. My family loves to take day trips to local ghost towns to explore, and it’s a blast. But you don’t have to stay local either. You can save a lot simply by visiting non-tourist locations. Niagara Falls or Disneyland or the Grand Canyon are all fantastic destinations. But our country is rich in less visited destinations with lower hotel costs that can be even more fun. My mom and I stopped in a little town in Wyoming where we felt like we’d abandoned modern America with a population of something like 139, and zero stop lights. We passed a tiny main street with a town hall/tavern/post office and stumbled on a beautiful vintage hotel. 

Have any other ideas for how to plan a great vacation on a small budget? Comment here and tell us how it’s done!