How To Travel On A Budget: 12 Ways To Save




We love to travel. 


Love to travel.


Our family doesn’t wear fancy clothes, have tons of cool gadgets, or visit “high-falutin” restaurants all that often, but my oldest has visited over thirty six states in his first 15 years of life. (I know . . . that’s nuts!)


So, when we pinch those pennies in our grocery budget, a lot of what we’re saving goes towards our travel budget.


(In fact, we're traveling back home from a 9-day ski trip to Canada as I'm sharing this!)


And while we love it, it's an incredibly easy way to bust a family’s budget.  Here are a few tips that we’ve found have made traveling a little easier on our pocketbook.


1. Determine an annual travel budget.

There’s no way around it, traveling costs money. (And when you have a large family, it can cost a lot of money!)


About four years ago, we discussed where we wanted to go each year and divided our annual travel expenses into twelve monthly “payments”.  We automatically take that amount out of my husband’s paycheck each month, so if a deal on part of our trip comes up, the money is already there.  Here is a free budget printable for you to get started.




This has given us so much more freedom to get a deal while traveling.  Several years ago we had money in our vacation fund but were not expecting to travel because my father-in-law had become ill and we just weren’t sure we should go.  One Thursday in February of that year, my husband called me and found round-trip airline flights into Jackson Hole, Wyoming from Huntsville, Alabama for $179. (If you watch airline flights at all, you know that’s an incredible deal!)


The only catch was that we had to travel that Friday.  But since Jackson Hole was one of the places we’d always wanted to visit, we literally booked the flight that morning, packed up three kids, winter clothes, skis, and boots, and hopped on the plane the next day.  (We also got some great deals on accommodations because we were traveling so late!)  

Because the money was in our vacation fund, we didn’t have to question where the money would come from.  It was there, just waiting for a deal!


2.  Price driving vs. flying to your destination.

There’s no way that we could have driven to Jackson Hole for the same price we flew on that trip, because the airline deal was so good, and the cost of hotels, food, and gas along the way can get pretty pricey.  Especially if you’re traveling with your children, the price of driving often is much cheaper than flying.


However, make sure it is your very best price, and consider all the factors involved.  When we traveled to Colorado for Spring Break one year, we planned our trip and expected to save about $1000 by driving.  My hubby loves to drive, and there were several capitols that we wanted to show our kids along the way, so we decided it was worth it.  But when we factored in the crazy high price of gas at that time ($3.69/gallon for 3000 miles is a chunk of pennies!), I’m not sure our savings was quite what we’d hoped for!  We did have a great time though, and our kids undoubtedly will have some stories to share with their kids one day of our ridiculously long ride through Kansas. 😉


3.  Consider staying with family along the way.

We often will head towards our family’s homes as a breaking point in our trip if we’re driving.  It’s free, the kids love visiting family, and it breaks up a long trip into smaller chunks.


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4.  Check out Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO).

Vacation Rentals By Owner is a great way to save on family-friendly condos/houses as you’re traveling.  Because they’re condos, they usually have kitchens (which can save tons of money on food while you’re there!)  If you’re up for a little bargaining, you can often negotiate a better price by contacting the owner directly, and we’ve gotten some incredible condos through VRBO. (I highly recommend checking them out . . . we've always been pleased with them!)


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5.  In addition to VRBO, check out travel sites like, Travelocity, & Hotwire for airline tickets, lodging, and rental cars.

We’ve found our best prices on hotels and rental cars through Priceline, and have usually had good experiences.  (We do usually request a hotel with at least 3 or more stars when trying out Priceline.)


{Before booking through Priceline, read this ~ these 7 tips will definitely guarantee you a happier stay.}



6.  When you can, get creative with meals and in the room.

My kids tend to be picky eaters, so spending $30 (of lots more) to feed our family just makes me nuts!   They're usually happy with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and sometimes will splurge on a fun dessert instead of dinner while in a new town.  (Our one exception to this rule is Casa Bonita in Denver. . . if you've been there you know it's a must see for your kids ~ what a hoot!)

And, if you're driving, bring Mrs. Potts along to help out with the cooking. 🙂 

Also, while staying at a hotel, make sure to book one with a free breakfast.  When you are feeding a family of 5, it can be expensive, so having one meal paid for really can make a difference.



7.  Plan for your trip a few months out as you’re grocery shopping and avoid last minute purchases at full price. 

Watch for deals on sunscreen, bug spray, portable snacks and juice boxes before your trip, so that you're not stuck at the last minute paying full price. Also, request all those free samples of laundry detergent because they're great to have on hand when traveling, and are so convenient instead of trying to pack laundry detergent if you're planning to do a load or two on the road!



8.  While eating on the road, bring a Frisbee or football and take a break at a rest area.

Taking a break for a picnic lunch at a rest area and skipping the drive thru is probably my favorite way to saveI asked my kids if they’d rather pack a lunch (including Cheetos ~ we never buy those!) or make a quick drive thru McDonald’s, and they all agreed rest area lunches are one of their favorite road trip stops. Love, love, love saving $25-$30 at the drive thru at each meal, and giving them time to stretch their legs a bit!

We often pack sandwiches to eat for at least one of our meals as we're driving, and the kids love stopping in different areas of the country to play. You won’t miss McDonald’s at all, and you’ll get some much needed fresh air while you’re there.



9.  If big vacations just aren’t in the budget, take a mini excursion close to home.

While traveling far away is great to see new places, we didn’t start out that way when our kids were little.  If there’s a large city within a few hours from you, go for just one night and visit a free museum, or choose one destination spot while you're there. For us, we’ve found that just being away from home for a few days (or even just an all-day trip!) is such a good way for our family to enjoy each other, and gives us a break from the busy-ness of everyday life.


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10.  Don’t pay for roaming charges.

If you’re traveling outside the US and know you will need access to your mobile phone – look into changing your plan for the month.  It will usually only cost you and extra $10-15 to upgrade to an international plan, just remember to change it back when you get home.


You can also check cell phone carriers that offer data plans for Mexico, Canada and international locations ~ some offer unlimited data and texting so it's worth it to compare your options before you switch or travel out of town.


When we've traveled to Canada we've chosen to put our phones on airplane mode for the entire length of the trip (using free wifi at restaurants and our hotel), which can also work. (The only downside is you won't have a way to get incoming phone calls in case of emergencies, however most text messages and emails will continue to work, so you can have access to family from home without paying any additional fees.)


11.  Stay just outside of your destination if it's an expensive city.

You can save a LOT of money if you say right outside of your destination, especially if it's an expensive city like Los Angeles or Miami.  If you want to absorb the culture of your destination (i.e., London or Paris) spend one or two nights but find other culturally rich places just outside of the city.  I promise you will save!  Make sure to price your transportation costs to and from the city if you plan on being there the entire time to visit – this way you can make sure you are getting the very best deal.

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12. Be sure to spend your miles and points.

While I don't recommend credit cards (ever!), after many many years of never using a credit card we did choose to get a Southwest Visa several years ago to earn points. Because my husband's job requires him to occasionally purchase things that get reimbursed the following month, we use the Southwest Visa to pay only for those thing and then pay them off the following month when his company reimburses him.

(Note ~ we never ~ ever ~ carry a balance. The only way I would ever recommend you use a credit card is if you absolutely-1oo%-always-always-always pay it off each month. Just to be clear on that!) 🙂 


A few times we've also put major purchases on that card to earn points as well ~ always knowing that we had money in our savings account to cover the purchase. Those points really do add up, and we were able to purchase 5 round trips to Seattle, Washington this week for “free” using those points.


We also had 1 free night's stay in a Marriott because of other traveling he's done for work. Definitely take advantage of those special ways to earn ~ they really can add up (and saved us a whopping $2500 this week alone. Success!)



And as always, remember, we are not all at the same place.


My hubby and I have been married for(ever?) and have taken almost twenty years to get to a place financially where we can afford to travel more often with our family. (And believe me, there’s been quite a bit of penny pinching along the way!) But, if you do love to travel, look at ways to make it work for you, and determine to save ahead of the trip so that you don’t come home to a credit card bill. I promise, you can do this!


What other ways do you save when traveling to pinch a penny as you go? I’d love to hear your suggestions!


Dreaming of a trip to Hawaii? Don't miss these  17 Secrets You Need to Know Before Planning a Trip to Hawaii. I'm dreaming of one with you! 🙂




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  1. Please. When staying at a relatives home along the way leave a Thank You note w $100 in it in the bed. Taking the family out to eat does it get it!! We live in Atl and that is half way between north and Fla.

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