Family travel can get really expensive really fast. For example, even if you find a round-trip flight for, say $200, you'll pay two, three, four or, in my case, five times that much when the whole family flies. The same goes for meals and entertainment. And you'll likely pay more for lodging, too, because you'll need enough space to accommodate the kids. As a result, you could easily shell out thousands of dollars for a family vacation.
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However, there are ways to keep the cost of traveling with kids under control. For starters, make sure you use travel sites that can help you find deals and consider cheap vacation alternatives to popular places. Then follow these five steps to lower your costs even more.
Look for freebies. Several hotel chains offer free meals for kids -- and for adults. Up to four children ages 12 and younger can eat for free at Holiday Inn restaurants. The children must be registered guests, order from the kids' menu, and be accompanied by an adult ordering from the regular menu. All guests at Comfort Inn and Suites and Hampton Inn get a free hot breakfast. Embassy Suites and Residence Inn offer guests a free hot breakfast and complimentary happy hour. In addition to a hot breakfast, Homewood Suites provides dinner and beverages to guests on weeknights.
Occasionally, airlines will offer "kids fly free" promotions, says Lissa Poirot, executive editor of Family Vacation Critic. Sometimes the promotions involve accommodations, too. For example, JetBlue and the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island, Bahamas, teamed up earlier this year to offer a free flight, stay and meals for kids ages 2 to 11 with an accompanying adult. Poirot suggests checking airline, hotel and resort Web sites -- not just airfare aggregator sites -- to find these limited-time promotions.
And some credit cards can help you score free admission to attractions. For example, Bank of America and Merrill Lynch cardholders receive free admission to 150 museums in 85 cities on the first weekend of the month. Participating institutions include New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, Chicago's Art Institute, Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, in Oklahoma City.
Take advantage of discounts. Train and bus fares for kids often are discounted. For example, kid ages 2 to 15 ride for half price on Amtrak (and children younger than 2 ride free). Greyhound tickets for children ages 2 to 11 are 25% off the regular adult price. The bus line also offers up to 50% off two companion tickets, including child fares, when you buy one adult ticket three days in advance of travel. Check for route and date restrictions.
Many museums and attractions also charge lower prices for kids. But you can save even more by getting discounts for the entire family. If you're visiting a big city, Poirot recommends purchasing a booklet of tickets to several top attractions through CityPASS to save up to 50% on the cost of admission. Also use daily deal sites, such as Groupon and Living Social, to save up to 50% on attractions and restaurants in the city you're visiting. Coupon site RetailMeNot has a section dedicated to travel savings, with coupon codes for rental cars, vacation packages and hotel rooms.
Pick a rental over a hotel. Condos typically are the go-to accommodation for family beach vacations. But don't overlook rentals for trips to other locales. You'll likely pay less than you would for a hotel room and you'll get more space if you rent a condo, apartment or house through sites such as HomeAway.com and VRBO.com. For example, you can find nice one-bedroom apartments (with sleeper sofas to accommodate the kids) for less than $200 a night in Manhattan on VRBO.com. Even on discount travel sites, such as Priceline, you'll be lucky to find a mid-range hotel room with just one bed at that price. Plus, you'll have access to a kitchen in a rental, which will help you save money if you cook rather than dine out. Poirot says renting also provides the opportunity to split the cost with another family if you get a big place.
Seek all-inclusive deals. Although the cost of an all-inclusive travel package may seem a bit high, Poirot says it can actually be a money saver and a great way to stick to a budget. There won't be any surprises because you've paid for accommodations, meals and activities upfront. And as a package, these amenities often come cheaper than if purchased separately.
Get a rewards credit card. The major airlines and hotel chains partner with credit card companies to offer rewards cards that let you earn points when you make purchases. The points can be redeemed for free flights or hotel stays. So if you're a disciplined credit card user who pays off your balance each month, you can use a rewards card to make daily purchases and quickly rack up enough points for travel freebies that can help lower the cost of a family vacation. See our picks for the best airline rewards cards and best travel rewards cards.
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