10 Steps to Planning a Great Family Vacation on a Budget

For most families, vacation comes but once a year if it even comes that often. For that reason, you want your family vacation to go smoothly, be fun and most importantly be memorable for all the right reasons. You don’t want to look back at your family vacation and remember all of the things that went wrong. You want to remember all of the things that went right.

Storms happen. (photo by Andrew A. Shenouda)

No matter how much you plan and how organized you are, things will almost certainly go wrong. If you are taking your vacation somewhere that isn’t your home, much of your experience will depend on other people – the staff and other guests at the hotel, other campers at the campground – and whenever other people come into play, you lose the ability to control things completely. That’s okay though. Sometimes the little things that go wrong can make for great stories down the road.

'Family Photo at Glacier Point' by Peter and Joyce Grace.

The best way to make sure your vacation is memorable is to plan ahead and make sure you’re as prepared as possible but to take those little mishaps that come up in stride. Your vacation won’t be perfect, but if you do it the right way, when you look back on it in the years that follow, you’ll remember it that way.

'Money and Calculator' by Images Money.

10: Figure out your budget realistically.

Figuring out exactly how much your have for your vacation is important, but it’s also important to remember that there will likely be expenses that come up along the way. If you’re driving, you want to have a little extra money in case your car breaks down. You want to have money to do a little shopping or to eat out at a restaurant you hear good things about. Don’t spend all your money getting to and from your destination. Although you might not be able to go to your dream destination, but if you’re willing to do a little research, you can likely find something just as appealing at a lower cost.

'Campsites and Canoeists on River Vlatava' by John Williams.

09: Be realistic and open to alternatives when looking at possible destinations.

Traveling within your state or province is a great way to go when you’re planning a vacation on a budget. You might have your heart set on a big, elaborate beach vacation in some tropical destination or a fancy big name theme park, but you can often find something your family will enjoy just as much. Staying closer to home will also really help with the budget and help your vacation money go a lot further.

Search online for vacation destinations in your home state. You might be surprised at how many come up. Look for events, festivals or carnivals happening in or around those destinations and determine whether or not there will be fun activities available your family will be able to do together. A smaller town carnival might not be quite as exciting as a big name theme park, but it can be just as fun, much less expensive and you won’t have to spend all day in line waiting for the best attractions.

'County Fair' by wlashbrook.

08: Find activities the whole family can enjoy.

Boredom is the enemy of any good family vacation, but it’s important to remember relaxation and boredom are not the same thing. If you try to cram too many activities into your vacation, you’re going to accomplish nothing but wearing everyone out. Find activities you can do as a family that everyone can enjoy. Don’t try to force your kids to do something they don’t want to do. Museums, water parks, public parks, sports centers, theaters and things of that nature make excellent activities for your family depending on what your family is interested in.

'Laptop Trackpad' by Danijel Zivkovic.

07: Do your research.

The internet is full of people who love to share their opinions and experiences. Take advantage of that. Look up each potential destination and possible activities to see what people who have actually been there are saying. No matter how awesome a destination is, there is always someone that will find something to complain about. Ignore one or two bad reviews. What you’re looking for is the overall tone of what people are saying. If the majority of the people commenting are saying bad things or talking about one particularly bad experience, you can pretty much expect to have the same experience.

'Family Decision Making' by Seamus Holman.

06: Choose your vacation destination as a family.

With your budget, reviews and potential activities in mind, narrow down the best potential destinations, print off any information you can find (including information on the activities) and take that information to your family. Make sure you include any pictures you can fine. Let your family look over the possibilities and choose as a family.

Anyone with more than one child knows it can be extremely difficult to get children to agree on everything and where to go for your vacation is no different. Get everyone’s opinion and try to find a middle ground. There is always an option that everyone will enjoy if you’re willing to take a little time to look for it.

'Antler Luggage' by Sean MacEntee.

05: Pack carefully and use a check list.

Consider your destination and make a check list of all the things you will likely need once you get there. Give every family member a copy of the checklist and make sure they use it. Tell them not to cross anything off the checklist until they have physically have it in their hand and put it in their luggage. This prevents the most common problem families face on vacation – arriving at the destination and realizing they forgot something important. The following should be on every vacation packing checklist:

  • Any seasonal clothing you’ll need by item (if you need bathing suits, for example, write ‘bathing suit’ on the checklist)
  • Clothing for warm days, cold days and rainy days
  • A camera
  • Memory cards or storage devices for the camera
  • Batteries for any battery operated devices (write each time of battery with each device)
  • Cords for anything you need a cord for
  • Cell phone charger
  • Laptop accessories (spare battery, cords etc)
  • Games, books, or other activities for downtime
  • Clean underwear and socks for each day of the trip
  • Deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss
  • Feminine hygiene products
  • Soap and shampoo (especially if someone in your family has sensitive skin)
  • Any and all prescriptions

Your destination will determine whether or not you need anything else. Make sure you think about your checklist carefully before you call it finished. Your checklist will make sure you don’t have to spend your vacation money replacing items forgotten at home.

'Road Trip' by Melissa.

04: Plan for the road trip.

No matter where you go, your family vacation will probably require spending an extended period of time in the car. With kids, especially younger kids, you’ll need to find things for them to do during that time. Games can definitely make things easier. Come up with a few good games you can play with your kids to keep them – and yourself – entertained on the long car ride. Offering prizes can keep your kids interested in the games even if they’re tired of traveling. Some great ideas for prizes include:

For Younger Kids:

  • Plush animals
  • Dolls or action figures
  • Toy cars

For Older Kids:

  • iTunes gift certificates (even small denominations work well with iTunes)
  • Batteries (for iPods or handheld games)
  • Cell phone covers or accessories
  • Hats or t-shirts

Remember, if buying toys don’t buy anything that shoots balls, arrows, darts or any other projectiles as they’re definitely not ‘car appropriate’. Also, most of the prizes for younger kids can be given for shorter games and can be purchased at discount stores. For older kids, you can have a tournament style game with one larger prize being given out at the end of the road trip. Have a runner up prize so everyone gets something.

Me with the 'Cows' cow in Charlottetown, Price Edward Island (2010).

03: Make the journey to your destination part of the vacation.

If you’re going to be driving to your destination, look up any notable attractions along the journey route. Zoos, wildlife parts, roadside attractions and things of that nature can make fun little pit stops along the way and break up the monotony of long journeys in the car. Stop at diners instead of fast food restaurants along the way so you can have a more unique dining experience. Your family can have a burger and fries at a fast food restaurant any time. Make vacation meals special.

'Lunch Money' by marya.

02: Plan for meals and look for coupons or specials online.

One of the most overlooked aspects of family vacation planning is the expense of eating out. You need to factor meals into your budget. If you don’t, you’re going to run into trouble. Set a meal budget and stick to it. Remember that restaurants in popular tourist spots are probably going to charge a lot more for meals but you might find yourself with little other option. Look for specials or coupons online either before you leave or when you get to your destination if you have internet access. Most places will have some sort of offer available to you and your family. Even so, budget a bit on the high side for your meals. If you budget too high, you’ll have a little money left over at the end of your vacation which is always a great feeling.

'Road Trip' by Breahn Foster.

01: Don’t stress out – this is a vacation!

If you set a budget and stick with it and carefully plan as much of your vacation as you can, the whole thing should go off rather well. Again, there are always unexpected surprises, but with a solid plan in place, you should be able to weather just about any storm. If you feel yourself getting upset or stressed out, take a breath and remind yourself that no matter what is going on, thing could always be worse – you could, after all, still be at work! Have a good time, relax and take lots of pictures. This is a time you should look forward to. Don’t let the stress win. Everything will be fine.