One of the most common questions we get is how we manage family travel on a budget. With 5 kids, it definitely requires a bit more planning and prep than just traveling as a couple.
To be honest, we were never sure we’d be able to manage big family travel. Not long after Dan and I got married, we planned in a summer of backpacking because we didn’t know if we’d have another opportunity to travel for a long while.
Then after our first was born, we took another “last hurrah” trip. We figured our time traveling with a lap child was coming to an end, especially since we were expecting our second child. But then when she was almost two years old, we took another “last hurrah” trip. We again wanted to take advantage of her lap child status and travel while we could, while only paying for one little kiddo.
It was only by the time we were traveling with our third kid that we figured out that maybe these weren’t just “last hurrah” trips – maybe we’d actually be able to manage family holidays on a budget even when traveling with a large family.
How We’ve Planned Budget Family Travel: Family Travel Tips
Since then, we’ve taken dozens of trips near and far with our 5 kids. We’ve done road trips, international trips, short trips, and multi-month trips. We’ve visited 6 continents with kids.
While of course the expenses, planning, and expectations have changed, we’re so thankful we’ve still been able to manage to travel. Here are some tips for how we’ve managed to find creative ways to save money for travel with a large family!
Credit cards sometimes get a bad rap, but they can be amazing not only for building up good credit, but also for getting big point bonuses that help with travel. You can use these points towards flights, hotels, and more. Even with a larger family, we’ve managed to use travel hacking to our advantage and save a ton of money on travel. Just be sure to pay off your balance in full every single month.
Here are some of our current favorite travel credit cards with terrific sign up bonuses.
Start Small with Inexpensive Family Travel
Not every adventure has to be super far away and last a long time. Some of our favorites are close by! Consider a staycation where you stay at home but explore gems around your area. Or start with a short trip to a nearby city or state. A month-long adventure will usually cost more than a short stay, so if you’re on a tight budget, focus on what you CAN do instead of what you can’t. And remember that whatever you choose, your attitude and interest can turn it into the best vacation for large families.
For instance, we never before considered an RV. But once we started looking into purchasing a used RV, we figured out that it would actually be an amazing way to do a lot of budget family travel. (Click here for more on our family RV budget.) There are a lot of out of the box ideas to travel cheaply with kids!
Here are some budget friendly family vacation destinations!
Watch For Flight Deals for Family Travel on a Budget
Monitor sites that share flight deals. My personal favorite is Scott’s Cheap Flights – the premium membership is only $49 for a year and is WELL worth the cost. Premium members get a notice ahead of the free subscription, which means you can often snag deals before they sell out. We’re also very willing to use budget airlines like Norwegian and like to follow their fare sales. Using credit card miles or hotel points, or booking through your credit card’s online portal, is also a great way to get deals.
Consider an Extended Trip
On the flip side, sometimes a longer stay is actually more economical. If you can get away with leaving for a month and staying in one spot, you can often get monthly rates on accommodations. You also may have a higher likelihood of being able to rent out your home while you’re gone. A longer stay may also mean you have more time to settle in and cook your own food instead of eating out all the time. It can make for great family holidays on a budget!
Get Creative with Type of Accommodations for Budget Friendly Family Vacations
Accommodations are one of the most difficult parts of budget family travel, especially when traveling with a large family. For instance, with 7 of us, there’s no way we can fit in a regular hotel room. So one of the best ways to stick to a budget when traveling with family is to get creative with accommodations options.
There are a few options to get free or cheap places to stay with a family. One that we used for years was Couchsurfing. It’s an entirely free platform to meet and potentially stay with locals around the world. We’ve both surfed and hosted on Couchsurfing and always had wonderful experiences. Still, Couchsurfing is generally not a feasible option when traveling with a lot of kids.
Doing a home exchange with kids might be a much better option when looking for cheap accommodations with kids. It allows you to hopefully stay in a family home with all its conveniences, while hosting another family in your home. And it’s all free! Here’s a bit more about our experience with doing a home exchange with kids. Or consider a home rental that may be less expensive than two separate hotel rooms.
Factor in Location-Dependent Costs
Not all travel locations are equally expensive. Some cities are just generally more costly than other areas for budget family vacations. But remember that stereotypically expensive locations won’t always cost you the most when on family travel on a budget. London and Washington DC are notoriously expensive for accommodations and food. But both have many free attractions. If you’re a big museum lover, those cities might be a great option to be able to visit many for free – perfect for inexpensive family travel. (Here’s a post on visiting London on a budget with kids!)
On the flip side, some areas really just area less expensive overall. India, for instance, may have lots of cheap attractions, food, AND accommodations (though transportation to get there may be more costly). In essence, don’t discount a place just because it’s stereotypically expensive OR cheap.
Remember Ground Transportation for Cheap Family Travel
Sometimes staying further away means you can find cheaper accommodations and can be a great option. But other times, staying far away means you’re spending a lot in ground transportation costs – either for a car or on public transport. Look into how much each of these costs (and how many people you’ll be paying for!) before settling on a location for accommodations.
Similarly, a big city may be more costly for some things, but you may be able to avoid the cost of a rental car altogether, unlike some more suburban or rural areas. Practice walking a ton so you can avoid subway or bus fares for shorter distances. Consider taking the bus instead of a taxi, even if it may take a bit longer. Or, on the other hand, look into whether a taxi might actually mean inexpensive travel for a big family and may actually be cheaper than the bus for a lot of people. Consider all the factors before nailing things down and look into creative ways to save money for travel.
Share Food for Inexpensive Family Travel
A 2-bedroom home rental isn’t usually double the price of a single-room hotel; there are usually some economies of scale when traveling with a big family. That is, the price of accommodation per person goes down. But that isn’t usually true for food – you don’t eat less the more people you have! So food is a great place to think of other ways to cut costs.
One great way is to cook and eat like a local while traveling. This is easier when you have a kitchen in your accommodations. And that doesn’t mean purchasing specialty items that remind you of home – something like American peanut butter will cost a LOT if you’re traveling in Europe. Instead, figure out what the locals eat, and try purchasing those items as they will likely be less expensive. What is in season? What are staples in the area you’re visiting? Cook that and eat together instead of separately.
Similarly, when eating out, it’s often less expensive to share bigger portions than to purchase a lot of smaller dishes. For instance, kid meals are often more expensive per quantity of food (not to mention are often less nutrient-diverse). Instead, purchase fewer family-style dishes and be sure to save any leftovers to eat later.
Consider Income Streams While Traveling on a Budget
Many of us need to stop working (and potentially stop being paid) for a time in order to travel. Is there a way you can continue to make money while traveling? Can you leverage paid holiday and vacation time? Can you rent out your home while you’re gone? That’s one of our personal favorite ways to cover a good chunk of our travel expenses when we leave home!
Or consider if there’s a service you can offer in exchange while traveling. Are you a photographer and can you take photos in exchange for a boat tour? Do you have a social media platform where you can offer to share about a restaurant? Do you have marketing experience to offer to a local hotel? It won’t always work, but it may be worth a shot to save money on family travel.
Choose Free Activities on Family Vacations on a Budget
Consider whether the activities you want to do are really worth the cost. Are you doing something just because it’s on all the tourist lists, but it doesn’t actually really appeal to you? For instance, riding the London Eye is on almost every tourist guide. However, it’s expensive for big family travel and it wan’t actually all that important to us. So we skipped it and used that money on food and instead visited the free British Museum, which we enjoyed much more and made for the best vacation for large families!
Each location also almost undoubtedly has a number of wonderful hidden gems. Instead of paying for San Francisco’s Coit Tower, for instance, consider going up Twin Peaks for free and getting a different but also beautiful view of the city. (Here are 101 hidden gems in San Francisco!)
Bonus: Mix in Some Free (or Almost Free) Budget Family Travel
Are there places you can visit that cost almost nothing? Can you borrow an RV from a friend? Can you drive to visit family? Can you camp? There are lots of ways to travel cheaply with kids and to enjoy family travel on a budget!