How to Plan a Family Vacation on a Budget

Vacations are something we look forward to the whole year. They provide a rare chance to wind down, go on fun adventures, and spend quality time with the ones we love. Unfortunately, vacation expenses add up, and planning a trip in the most cost-effective way can be overwhelming. In fact, New York University’s 2017 Family Travel survey revealed that 30 percent of the middle-income families and 25 percent of the high-range income families who participated found affordability to be their main challenge when planning a trip.

If both groups of respondents found affordability to be a challenge, what does this mean? Low cost is not necessarily the ultimate goal; the expected “bang for your buck” is. Whether that translates into using only credit card points for a flight with a ton of legroom or finding a decently priced hotel room with a great ocean view, planning an affordable family vacation is a daunting task.

So how do we maximize our families’ fun without dipping into our savings? Read on for insider advice from leading travel experts.

More Bang for Your Buck

There are many travel-planning websites, apps, and services. In fact, their sheer numbers can make the process harder to navigate than airport security. Lyla Gleason, an NYC mom and the brains behind, has whittled down the travel-planning sites and apps into an easy-to-navigate A list:

TripAdvisor: By comparing the prices of more than 200 websites, this site helps families to book the best hotels, airlines, attractions, and restaurants for the lowest cost. TripAdvisor also hosts an online travel community, providing a place to read reviews and ask questions about your upcoming trip.

“TripAdvisor is my favorite website for planning a vacation in terms of activities and lodging,” Gleason says. “I love reading hotel reviews to gain the inside scoop on rooms to request and rooms to avoid.”

Travelzoo: This site recommends deals that pass Travelzoo’s high quality standards from the best companies. The deals listed are not based on what the travel companies pay Travelzoo; they’re featured because Travelzoo considers them to be genuinely good travel or entertainment deals.

Groupon: The deals offered on Groupon are available in 15 countries and more than 500 markets globally, including savings on activities, attractions, and dining. Users can buy deals on the site or the app.

When you’re visiting a new city, the best thing to do beforehand is check Groupon for discounts on amusement parks and other family-friendly local activities, according to Gleason.

Hopper: If you want to know the best time to buy a flight, this mobile app will clue you in. You can even “follow” a flight, enabling notifications when the price changes.

“I always use the Hopper app to track prices and alert me when to buy,” Gleason says.

HotelTonight: This mobile app makes it easy to book last-minute hotel rooms at amazing rates for tonight, tomorrow, and next week. The unsold rooms in a hotel go onto the app, which can score you some heavy discounts, Gleason says.

If you’re not looking to risk it with a last-minute deal, Gleason recommends booking your travel plans at least three to six months in advance for vacations during a school break or holiday week.

“If you’re planning a big holiday trip or family reunion, a year or two in advance is the norm for popular hotels and cruises, especially for Christmas,” Gleason says. “Always be flexible when booking air and hotels because sometimes moving a trip by a day or two can save hundreds of dollars. It isn’t always doable, but you will get the best deals when you travel mid-week.”

You can also score various deals through corporate employee discounts. Ask the human resources contact in your office if your company is partnered with any corporate discount websites such as Plum Benefits for deals on shows, theme parks, hotel stays, and more. 

There are also lesser-known discounts that you may not have considered, and they’re easy to claim. Birthday, senior citizen, teacher, military, and kids eat or stay free discounts are a no-brainer! Costco and AAA sometimes offer special travel savings to their members as well. If someone in your family is a museum junkie, ask your local library if members can receive any free museum offerings, and do a quick search online to see if any museums at your destination offer pay-what-you-wish or free-admission days.

For even more savings, cash-back sites like and will pay you a percentage of what you spend on certain other sites. Some of the above resources, such Groupon, frequently partner with these sites. These online resources compare deals from many different places, virtually eliminating the taunting wonder, “could I have done better?”  

Planning with Points

The plethora of options we now have for garnering points and deals when traveling makes it almost irresponsible not to take advantage of them. You’re going to spend money on your vacation, so why not get rewarded for it? The best part is, these days you don’t even need a credit card to earn rewards.

“Although credit cards are the fastest way to rack up points and miles, you can earn them just by flying, shopping, dining, and more,” says Emily McNutt, news editor at The Points Guy, the travel advice blog. “If you have a frequent-flyer account, you can earn miles by flying with that airline or partner airlines. Or, if you want to earn miles without flying, you can do online shopping through an airline shopping portal, granting you bonus miles for every dollar spent.”

This is good news because while credit cards require certain credit scores, credit balances, and other qualifications to apply, none of that applies to collect miles through an airline’s program. And while you’re at it, check to see if the airline has retail partners. For instance, if you link your JetBlue TrueBlue account to your Lyft app, you can earn miles each time you take a Lyft to an airport. 

Of course, don’t write off credit card rewards either. Some  cards, such as the IHG Rewards Club Premium, offer a free one-night hotel voucher each year if you spend a minimum annually, according to McNutt. Chase Sapphire Preferred and Amex Platinum have travel perks including baggage fee coverage, credits for Uber, and refunds for TSA Pre Check enrollment, says Gleason.

“Points and miles are a currency, and should be treated with the same value in mind that you have when dealing with cash,” McNutt says. “Usually, you’ll get the best value out of redeeming your points or miles for free travel—flights or hotel stays. However, you can use them for other things. For example, several programs offer experiential redemptions.”

When planning a Disney trip, the Chase Disney credit card is very convenient, according to Lauren Holt, a member of Disney Parks Mom’s Panel, a group of people that are experienced in planning Disney trips. For every Disney trip you book using this card, you get six months to pay it off, interest free. The card also helps you garner Disney reward credit at the park, including discounts on tours, restaurants, and merchandise.

What many people don’t know is, not every travel rewards program locks you into a certain airline based on the travel card you have. While certain cards, such as a Delta co-branded Amex card, only allow you to fly with that particular airline, many offer greater flexibility. Chase has a credit card that allows you to use points and miles the way you need to, according to McNutt.

While planning ahead can help you save money and stress, Holt suggests leaving some room during your trip for spontaneity.

“The planning can be very helpful, but don’t feel like you need to have an itinerary for every single minute,” Holt says. “Leave room for unscripted moments, be flexible, and leave downtime for the things you couldn’t plan.”

The unexpected fun you may have will add extra value to your already affordable vacation!