15 Tips For Planning Wallet-Friendly Family Vacations

By Nancy Schretter, Editor

If you're just beginning to think about making your family's travel plans, you're not alone. According to researchers, most value-oriented families are waiting later to make their family vacation plans. If you're looking for family travel bargains and ways to make your family's vacation hassle-free, here are fifteen tips for saving time, cutting costs, and making great memories on your family's next trip.

1. Know your budget - and how far you're willing to stretch it for a good deal. If you find an appealing resort vacation option that is a bit outside your budget, consider staying for a shorter period rather than opting for a sub-optimal spot. Being willing to try something new or different can also result in a good value during peak school vacation times. In addition to the usual warm weather beach destinations, cruises and ski trips, also consider money saving options such as city-based sightseeing trips, resorts within driving distance, trips to college towns, or staying at a family-oriented bed & breakfast. Newly opened resorts may also yield good deals.

2. Sit down with your family and determine your preferences. The best family vacations aren't necessarily the most expensive ones. The most memorable trips are often those that revolve around family interests or vacations where each member of the family gets to do at least one thing they really want to do. When you have your family meeting, outline a few general options that fit your budget, such as: "We could go skiing at a resort a few hours away, or we could go on a 3-night family cruise, or we could go to a local resort where there would be lots of sports, activities, and a great indoor swimming pool." Be prepared to discuss budgets, expectations, and how you can work with the dollars available to plan an exciting family trip. If you're searching for ideas, check out Kayak's Buzz feature - a great idea generator when you're not sure exactly where you want to go. For spring break periods, be aware of which destinations attract large crowds of college students and choose your vacation spot carefully if you'd like to avoid this scene.

3. Be flexible. Avoiding holiday periods and traveling off-season can yield big savings. The same is true for taking advantage of airfare sales. Many of the biggest travel sales come with restrictions, such as advance purchase requirements, traveling on specific days of the week, blackout dates, Saturday night stays, minimum stay requirements, and other rules. Sometimes booking engines may have features to help you search out the best price, such as those available at Travelocity, Orbitz, and USA3000. Rather than stating specific dates, note that your travel dates are flexible on Travelocity and Orbitz and the booking engine will attempt to show you the lowest prices available during a specific month or travel period. If you'll be traveling by air, think about using airfare sales to help determine your family's vacation destination rather than the other way around. Sites like Airfarewatchdog and Kayak can help. Just plug in your departure city and check out the list of available deals.

4. Let family members do some of the research. Kids are often Internet research gurus, and they certainly want to have fun on their next vacation. If your kids are old enough, write down the results from your family meeting and enlist their research help. Make sure to give them general budget information, possible trip dates, destination ideas, important criteria for your vacation destination, and any other information that might be helpful. Once you locate some potential vacation options, check out sites like TripAdvisor.com, WheretoStay.com, Cruisemates.com and CruiseCritic.com for "been there - done that" reviews. Remember, a great deal isn't much of a steal if your destination is significantly worse than you expected.

5. Enlist some help. If you are the independent type who likes to pull together your entire vacation on your own, call some air consolidators who may be able to help you find a good airfare deal. If you don't want to do your own legwork, contact a great travel agent, ski tour operator, or cruise-only specialist. These professionals are particularly important when you're looking for a package deal or need to pull together airfares and lodging at the last minute. Instead of picking up the phone and saying, "I want to go somewhere great for my family's next vacation," tell them about your budget and the preferences you came up with at your family meeting. That will help the agent locate the options that best meet your needs. If you're looking for a travel agent, sites like Tripology and CruiseCompete can help.

6. Go direct to the source - and download their software. Airlines and hotel chains often save some of their best deals for their own sites. Make sure to check with the individual airline and hotel site and compare costs before booking elsewhere. In addition, several airlines and travel booking sites offer software that will alert you to sales and deals to specific destinations. These include Southwest Airlines' Ding software, American Airlines' DealFinder software, Orbitz' Insider Deals and Expedia's Fare Alert.

7. Search the Internet for savings. Online websites are full of deals, so make sure to shop around. Take a look at sites such as: www.travelzoo.com, www.bookingbuddy.com, www.kayak.com, www.vacationstogo.com, www.smartertravel.com, www.travel-ticker.com, www.shermanstravel.com, and www.bookit.com  -- all of which can help locate possible last-minute vacation options and save you money. Last year, we scored a great last minute spring break cruise deal using Vacations To Go. The Family Travel Network's Hot Deals area is also a good source for last minute bargains.

8. Learn to play the airfare game. Airlines typically have sales a few weeks before holidays and often offer deep discounts on remaining seats. If you opt for this travel strategy, you will likely end up with a very short stay and flights with less than optimal connections. If there is a fare war, those discounts are often blacked-out during holiday periods and require a Saturday night stay. Here's a tip: check Travelocity's Low Fare Finder by marking "my dates are flexible" Search for flights and fares. It's a great way to find the best price between two city pairs if you don't have firm travel dates. Expedia and Orbitz are other good bets. Also, make sure to check the websites of some of the low-cost airlines such as Southwest, USA3000, and others. They may have some reasonably priced options available for you, and their fares are generally not listed on the major booking engine sites. In addition, consider driving to an alternative airport - especially if it is served by a low-fare airline. A one-hour drive can often deliver savings of several hundred dollars per ticket, making your dream family vacation suddenly affordable. Check sites such as FareCompare.com, FareCast.com and Airfarewatchdog.com for deals and sign up for each of the airlines' electronic newsletters, so you can find out about sales as soon as possible. The Airfarewatchdog blog will also help you uncover money-saving airline promotion codes.

9. Join the club and play your cards wisely. Joining frequent flyer and hotel guest loyalty programs can yield huge benefits, including free airline tickets, reduced room rates, room upgrades, and other incentives. There is absolutely no cost to join. Wyndham By Request offers similar savings, and many individual resorts such as Sandestin offer their own savings clubs. Membership in clubs such as AAA, AARP, Costco and Sam's Club can also generate benefits for families - make sure to inquire about reduced rates at the time of booking and bring your card along with you to the hotel. If you're planning on visiting a major city, purchasing an Entertainment Book or a card from Go Card USA can help you save money as well.

10. Search for packages and compare costs. Discount tour operators typically offer vacation packages - some with excellent savings. Check out sites such as BookIt.com, Funjet Vacations, Cheap Caribbean, Go-Today, Vacation Outlet, Apple Vacations, Vacation Express, Fare Deals and others. Compare the package price with the total cost of individual components to make sure you're getting a deal. Some resorts offer family packages and "kids eat free" specials, so make sure to take a look at resort and hotel chain websites to find these deals. All-inclusive resorts can be budget-savers for families as well. For ski trips, try to choose a resort offering "kids ski free" programs. At some areas, two kids as old as twelve ski free with a paying adult, while at others, children 5-6 years of age ski free with paying adults.

11. Bid at an auction. If you still can't find the price you're looking for, consider bidding for your air, hotel or car components - or setting a price and purchasing whatever is behind Door #1. Opaque sites like Priceline.com and Hotwire.com can yield huge bargains, but at a cost. You typically won't know exactly what you're purchasing until you've already paid for it. For this reason, it makes sense to approach these sites carefully. Families should be particularly cautious when bidding on hotel rooms, as the standard room offered is based on double occupancy and may not contain the bedding you require. Those who plan to purchase from Priceline.com should first visit biddingfortravel.com and Hotwire bidders should check out betterbidding.com. These sites will help you to better understand Priceline's and Hotwire's parameters, research your options, learn what bids have been successful, and become an educated bidder. Priceline also has a handy new feature called "Inside Track" that can provide you with information on successful bids for flights. Currently, it's only available for Priceline's 30 Most Popular Routes and Priceline's Routes with the Best Savings. Sites such as Skyauction.com and LuxuryLink.com can also be excellent sources of family vacation bargains. With these sites, however, education and research are important. Make sure to know what comparable packages would cost when purchased on other travel sites or directly from the source, and read the fine print for additional costs and surcharges. Skyauction.com packages may contain restrictions, surcharges for flights from alternate cities, or service charges of as much as $195 which will be added to your winning bid. Don't get caught up in bidding fever - set your maximum price based on your research and stick to it.

12. Consider renting directly from an owner. If you're finding that everything is either sold out or more than your budget can bear, don't give up. Go directly to the owner instead. Many highly desirable resort communities contain condominiums, villas, and vacation homes that are rented by their owners. Rates for these properties can be up to 40-50% less than those charged by nearby hotels. In fact, some Marriott and Westin resorts contain timeshare properties that may often be rented directly from the owners for the holidays. The Vacation Rentals By Owner website contains 110,000 listings of properties around the world. Other good websites to check include HomeAway.com, Zonder, FlipKey, Rentalo and 10Kvacationrentals.com. RedWeek.com is a good source of timeshare vacation rentals. If your dream rental is still out of your price range, consider bringing along some friends and splitting the cost. Vacationing with another family whose children are around the same age as your own provides built-in playmates for your kids, as well as additional hands to help with the cooking and chores.

13. Check with cruise discounters. Cruise specialists and discounters are excellent sources for family cruise bargains. Some of the agencies will even include special bonus offers such as free shore excursions, extra shipboard spending dollars, onboard coupon booklets, free upgrades, and more. Also look for special "Kids Cruise Free" deals offered by certain cruise lines, such as MSC Cruises. Active cruise specialists include VacationsToGo, CruisesOnly, ICruise.com, Cruise.com, and Ecruises.com. Once you narrow down your cruise interests, let almost 200 cruise agencies bid for your business anonymously at CruiseCompete.com.

14. Consider a home exchange. Free accommodations and even car rentals are possible anywhere in the world - if you're willing to do a home exchange. This option has been working successfully internationally for many families for over 14 years and numerous organizations are available to help. HomeExchange.com, for example, has over 25,000 listings and Intervac International Home Exchange has over 20,000 potential exchange homes in their database. Additional sources include the International Home Exchange Network and HomeLink.

15. Don't give up. If low-cost airfares aren't available, consider vacationing at other destinations within driving distance, such as family-friendly resorts, city hotels, B&Bs, state or national parks, and campgrounds. In years past, local family-friendly resorts and vacation options close to home were often likely to have last-minute availability -- sometimes at bargain rates. Sites such as BedandBreakfast.com and BnBFinder.com are good sources for family-friendly bed & breakfast and inn accommodations. If the resort of your choice is full, try to be flexible with your dates, put your name on their cancellation list, look for condominiums and vacation homes in the area, and check with the area chamber of commerce for last-minute possibilities.

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