Tips for Planning and Budgeting a Family Vacation
My family loves to travel. With the weather warming up and summer just around the corner, I wanted to share some lessons I've learned (sometimes the hard way!) from my vacation planning experience. Use these tips to make your next vacation stress-free.
Start with the Basics
We usually visit the same few places, but sometimes we travel somewhere new. It’s always when we travel somewhere new that I learn what it really means to budget for a family vacation. Traveling somewhere familiar, you generally know what to expect. Traveling somewhere new can mean unexpected expenses you didn’t plan for. For example, once I planned a road trip with my kids to visit a friend who moved to Pennsylvania. I didn’t know that the Northeast has a lot of toll roads and ended up spending $150 on tolls. Thankfully I was in a rental car, so I received the toll bill after the trip or it really would have hurt my 10-day travel budget.
The three most important factors in planning a vacation are deciding where you're going, when you're going, and how you're going to get there.
1. Where you’re going
What do you want to do on your family trip? Relax? Have fun? If you know where you want to go, great! If not, search online for top [theme park, snow resort, beach] destinations. Think about how far you want to travel and remember that you can often save money staying closer to home.
2. When you’re going
Once you choose a place to visit, figure out when is the best time to go. Most places have on and off-seasons. I highly recommend visiting during the off-season. You’re likely to spend less money (peak seasons are more expensive) and have fewer crowds.
We visited Gatlinburg over the Christmas/New Year break once and it was not enjoyable. There were 3-4 hour waits at all the nearby restaurants and traffic was bumper-to-bumper all day, every day. When we’ve visited at other times of the year, we enjoyed it a lot more. We didn’t spend hours each day sitting in traffic, so we had more time to do what we wanted.
Visiting during the peak season can also be more expensive. I am planning a trip to Disney for our family this year. We originally planned to go over Easter break, but the trip was more than we could afford. I checked the first week of June and the trip will cost half as much. Even if you have to plan around school breaks like me, you can still find great times to vacation when it’s not as expensive.
3. How you plan to get there
If your vacation is within driving distance, weigh the pros and cons of driving your car. You might save money over flying, but you might not. You can rent a car, but that may also be more expensive than the cost of putting miles on your car. Remember that a new oil change or any other car maintenance before your trip can take away from your vacation fund, so budget for it.
Do Your Research
Once you have the basic when, where and how of your trip outlined, it's time to start digging into the details. If you want to have a stress-free vacation, do your research. I cannot stress this enough!
We love to go to Disney World and prefer to stay on the Disney property. Once I used a discount site to book an off-property resort, thinking I was getting a great deal. When we showed up to check-in I learned there was a $30 per day parking fee and a $30 per day resort fee. That $60 extra each day for our five-day trip cost me $300. Ouch! I didn’t end up saving money after all. Now I always read the fine print, and I’ve learned that a lot of hotels hide resort fees or cleaning fees. If you’re aware of them, you can budget appropriately. You may be able to afford to stay somewhere nicer for the same price by the time you pay additional fees. You have a lot of options when it comes to where you stay – hotels, Airbnb, and even nearby family or friends. If you do book a hotel room or Airbnb read the fine print before securing your room.
I also prioritize great cancellation policies. We've had to pay the first night of a room we didn't use because we had to cancel last minute, and I learned from it. With three kids, someone is always getting sick. We've also successfully postponed trips before and it didn't cost us because of hotels offerings 24-hour to 3-day cancellations.
Remember to Research Things to Do
Everyone vacations differently but a, "we'll figure it out when we get there" attitude can have some drawbacks, especially for your budget. We love going to Disney because we pay for the tickets, we pay for the room, and then all we have to budget for is food and souvenirs. Inevitably we always overspend, but the big stuff is still paid for in advance. The first time we went to Gatlinburg I was in Disney mode. I was used to not budgeting for tickets. I researched all the places I wanted to go – museums, goofy golf, the aquarium, arcades, and the snow resort. But I was so excited, I didn’t pay attention to the prices. We had two kids at the time and easily spent $75-$100 on tickets everywhere we wanted to go. We could have saved money buying tickets in advance or bundling tickets to various places together through their local sightseeing pass.
Budget for the Unexpected
You’re going to spend more than you plan to on vacation. It’s just so easy to do. Food at tourist destinations is often more expensive. The same Starbucks drink you get at home is $2 more, and that $2 adds up over the course of a day. It’s so important to plan for a higher budget and come in under. Unexpected vacation expenses include:
- Parking fees
- Snacks and drinks
- Toiletries you forgot at home
I provide more detailed budgeting tips here to help you maximize your vacation dollars.
Vacations are expensive. There’s no way around it. Getting ahead of your vacation with good planning, research and budgeting will most certainly save you money on your next vacation. People ask me how we afford to go to Disney as often as we do – at least a couple of times a year. But that’s what we choose to spend our extra money on. You may have to cut back in other areas of your life to make a vacation fit into your budget this year. Remember, a great vacation doesn’t have to be a full week. You can save money by going somewhere for a long weekend and still have a great time.
Katy Hebebrand is a mom of three and freelance writer working in Pensacola, Florida. She earned her Public Relations BA from the University of West Florida and her Media Design MA from Full Sail University. She was born and raised in Pensacola and spent the first ten years of her career working in Pensacola before shifting to doing contract work full time in 2018.