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The Complete Guide to Budget Family Vacations That You’ll Never Forget

Taylor Bell

If you’re planning to travel with your spouse and kids, it can be difficult to know where to start — and you might end up spending more than you want to. But that doesn’t have to be the case if you map out your itinerary ahead of time and watch out for extraneous costs that might drive up your vacation bill. With this travel guide, it’s possible to stay on budget and plan an unforgettable family vacation.

Best Family Vacation Ideas

If you’re on a budget, it’s hard to decide where to go for a group getaway. Some of the most popular family vacation destinations can get expensive, especially during peak season. Take a look at some of the most cost-efficient family vacation ideas this year.

1. Cruises

If you’re looking to have a fun-filled vacation without the hassle of planning a costly itinerary for your family, booking a cruise can save you a lot of time and money. Your lodging, meals and onboard entertainment are typically included in your cruise fare. Also, many cruise lines offer all-inclusive packages that cover activities on and off the boat. For example, Celebrity Cruises offers a three-night stay at a four-star luxury hotel, a fully-guided evening city tour and a farewell dinner in all of its City Stay packages. 

“Booking a family cruise is a great way to plan an easy trip everyone will love,” said Holly Johnson, a travel blogger, and co-creator of Club Thrifty. “Most cruise lines offer kid’s clubs and activities along with casinos, nightly shows, included dining and more. Cruising is also easy to plan and budget for since your cruise cabin and meals are included in a single rate. If you can drive to a cruise port, that’s even better.”

In addition, some cruise lines offer free boarding for children. Johnson recommends booking a trip with MSC Cruises. The cruise line allows children ages 11 and under to sail for free when accompanied by two paying adults this winter. Also, kids can enjoy a variety of activities on board, including dance parties for teenagers and an arts and crafts station for children ages 3 to 11.

2. National Parks

Visiting a national park for your family vacation can be easy on your wallet and allow your kids to experience some of the world’s greatest sights. In fact, Yellowstone National Park is listed by U.S. News & World Report as the most affordable vacation destination for families, followed by the Grand Canyon.

Companies like RVC Destinations give travelers the option to rent a fully decked-out recreational vehicle, cabin or cottage in destinations across America — including the Yosemite RV Resort in Coarsegold, California. The company also offers a wide selection of activities, such as kayaking, canoeing, boating, trail hiking, mountain biking, charter fishing, swimming and zip lining, according to Sarah Beth of Morris Marketing. Depending on the number of travelers, you can currently book a stay at the Yosemite RV Resort for about $120.

3. Beach Cities

Popular beach cities like San Diego are perfect for family vacations — kids can enjoy various water activities while you relax, and there are often theme parks or other tourist attractions nearby. Many of those attractions are within miles of each other, so you don’t have to worry about making a major trek to keep your family entertained.

Moreover, you might be able to skip out on paying separate entrance fees for each tourist attraction. For example, the Go San Diego Card is an all-inclusive pass that grants free entry to 40 tourist destinations in San Diego for a starting price of $96. You can choose from popular attractions like the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Safari Park and the Legoland family theme park.

How to Cut Costs When You're Flying With Kids

Flights are already expensive when you’re vacationing on your own, but adding your children’s flights on top of everything else can take your travel expenses through the roof. Find out how to cut down on costs when you’re flying with your kids.

1. Look for Youth Discounts

Many airlines offer discounted — or even free — airfare for children, but these discounts are often overlooked. For example, children under 14 can fly for free on Frontier Airlines when you join the airline’s fare membership club, Discount Den. In addition, British airline Virgin Atlantic charges 50%-75% of the adult fare for children ages 2 to 11 for short- and long-haul international services. 

2. Pack as Lightly as Possible

Cutting back on the amount of luggage you need to bring is a great way to stay on top of your budget for your family vacation. Major airline carriers — such as United, Delta, Alaska Airlines and American Airlines — all charge $30 for you to check one bag. This price increases with every bag you check thereafter. American Airlines, for example, charges $40, $150 and $200 for bags two, three and four, respectively. 

If you absolutely need to check a few bags to accommodate your family’s needs, consider booking your flight with a low-cost airline like Southwest, which doesn’t charge passengers for checking their first and second bags.

3. Use Travel Rewards

One way to cut costs while flying with your kids is to take advantage of travel rewards through an airline credit card or airline rewards card. For example, Southwest Airlines offers its Companion Pass, which allows you to bring one passenger on board for free if you meet certain credit card spending requirements.

“One of the best ways my family has been able to save on travel is with the Southwest Companion Pass,” said Eric Rosenberg, founder of the finance blog Personal Profitability. “While it takes a lot of miles to earn it (I got mine through Southwest credit cards), that Companion Pass gives you two-for-one flights any time you book a flight no matter how you pay for it, including with Southwest with Rapid Rewards.”

Packing Essentials for Your Family Vacation

When you’re planning a family vacation with your spouse and kids, it’s important to find the balance between overpacking and not packing enough. To make your trip go as smoothly as possible, brush up on some must-haves when it’s time to head out on your family trip.

1. Plastic Bags

Whether you’re taking a road trip or flying across the country, keeping plastic bags on hand is a must when you’re traveling with children. In an article for the travel site The Points Guy, contributor Jessica Lawler underscored the importance of traveling with zip-close bags.

“A handful of large Ziploc bags can truly be a lifesaver,” Lawler said. “I found myself in too many tight situations — a soiled diaper with no garbage can in sight, a wet swimsuit, a leaky tube of diaper rash cream — before finally realizing I should have Ziploc bags on hand at all times. Not only are they lightweight, but the bags lock out moisture and smell for the most part.”

2. A Backpack

To make sure you have immediate access to everything that your children might need, you should get a lightweight travel backpack in which your kids can place their electronics, medication, souvenirs or snacks when it’s time for the family to head out and do some exploring. You can score a travel backpack by Venture Pal for $17.99 on Amazon.

3. Collapsible Water Bottles

Plastic water bottles can take up valuable space in your bags, and they aren’t environmentally friendly. Not to mention, water can cost a pretty penny when you’re traveling. The price of one  Dasani water bottle at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, is $3.99. If you’re a family of five, purchasing water for everyone will cost nearly $20.

So, consider getting a reusable and collapsible water bottle, which shrinks in size when you’re finished with it and can be easily stored away in your child’s backpack. For example, a set of two collapsible silicone water bottles retails for $14.97 on Amazon. 

Kid-Friendly Activities in Every City

You might not be restricted from many activities or events as an adult on vacation, but there aren’t as many options when you have children in tow. Take a look at some of the most cost-efficient and kid-friendly activities you can share with your children on your next trip.

1. Visit Museums

Depending on your destination, going to museums can be one of the easiest ways to entertain your family on vacation. Before you book your flight, do some research and see which museums are available in your destination. You might be able to get a package deal to visit multiple museums for free.

For example, if you become a member of the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) Travel Passport Program, you’re eligible to receive free general admission to other science museums across the country.” In the past 14 months, our family of four has saved more than $1,300 by visiting museums that are part of the ASTC passport program,” said Laura Barnard of Kid Vacation Critics. “During this time, we’ve visited eight museums that are part of the program.”

2. Go on Walking Tours

You can also get a full day’s worth of entertainment for cheap by taking your kids on sightseeing tours. In fact, there are many free walking tours available across the country. Check out sites like GuruWalk if you’re not sure what tours are available near you.

I am a big fan of taking free walking tours in new destinations — which is a great family and budget travel activity,” said personal finance and travel expert Nora Dunn. “GuruWalk is a site that lists free walking tours around the world. To take the walking tour concept to another level, and involve the entire family in an interactive learning and discovery experience, my budget family vacation tip is to do a scavenger hunt!”

3. Check Out Local Street Markets or Fairs

Heading to the local market is a great opportunity to spend quality time with your family and experience the local culture without breaking the bank. If you’re in a foreign country, you can use that time to buy souvenirs or strike up a conversation with locals.

You can also score some travel savings by taking your family to a city fair. For example, Malaga Feria is a weeklong city fair in Spain that includes free concerts, fireworks displays, rides and performances — and entrance is free.

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This article originally appeared on GOBankingRates.com: The Complete Guide to Budget Family Vacations That You’ll Never Forget