12 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Family Travel Budget

By Nancy Schretter, Editor

Parents in the midst of family vacation planning are always looking for ways to stretch their travel budget. In this article, the Family Travel Network staff reveals some of their best money-saving travel tips for family vacations and trips. If you're busy planning your family's next getaway, these twelve tips and insider secrets will save tons of travel dollars on your family's next vacation.

1. Be an informed purchaser, and keep an open mind. Being willing to try something new or different can result in an incredible bargain, not to mention great vacation memories. In addition to the usual warm weather U.S. beach destinations and popular theme parks, consider money saving options such as off-season destinations (ski resorts or the Caribbean in the summer, for example, or Jacksonville Florida in the fall or winter) as well as brand new properties that may have extra availability. City-based sightseeing trips are often great budget-savers.

2. Be flexible. It seems like constant airfare sales are here to stay. 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. If at all possible, try to plan your vacation timing around these restrictions. Each sale tends to be different, so read the rules and plan accordingly. Sometimes booking engines may have features to help you search out the best price, such as those available at Travelocity, Orbitz, Spirit Airlines and AirTran. 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. Make sure to sign up for the airline weekly newsletters, as they will alert you to weekly bargains and special one- or two-day sales. Bargain site newsletters such as those put out by Travelzoo.com and Smartertravel.com can alert you to some great deals, especially if your travel dates and destinations are somewhat flexible.

3. Do your homework. Education is a critical part of spotting a great bargain. It is important to determine the lowest available rate before moving on to comparison shopping. Good places to start are Travelocity, Orbitz, and Travelweb. Expedia and Hotels.com can also be excellent sources of bargain rates with savings of as much as 50% on hotels, but be aware that these sites can sometimes indicate that a particular property is sold out when it has plenty of space, so check directly with the source before giving up. All of these sites add service fees to their stated rates, so make sure to price out the purchase completely before comparison shopping against other sources. For quick price comparisons across a number of sites, check out TripAdvisor.com and Sidestep.com.

4. Go directly to the source. Many travel provider websites now provide "best price guarantees" in addition to other inducements for booking directly. For example, the Starwood and Wyndham websites prominently display a best rate guarantee, and charge no service fees. In addition, Starwood states that frequent guest club perks will not be provided unless customers book directly through their site. In addition, families may find special deals on hotel and airline sites, such as 50%-off on second room deals, food and beverage credits, kids stay and eat free, and free companion airfare specials. Consider dealing directly with the hotel's management or booking staff, and don't be afraid to mention competing offers, or ask if a better deal is available. Sign up for newsletters on hotel and cruise line websites, as special deals are often sent through this network on short notice.

5. Dig for savings. Online websites are full of deals, so make sure to shop around. The Family Travel Network's Hot Deals area is the Internet's most extensive source of free access family travel deals, so you'll be sure to uncover bargains there. Sign up for the FTN newsletter to receive the best family travel specials in your mailbox each month. In addition, check out bargain sites such as Travelzoo.com, Frommers.com and SmarterLiving.com. VacationsToGo.com is another good source for last minute family cruise bargains, while CheapCaribbean.com and Faredeal.com sometimes offer good resort specials. Sign up for the various sites' newsletters -- you'll get some great tips! In addition, if you're considering a beach vacation rental, make sure to check for special deals on the rental agencies' websites. Savings can range from several hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars on a weekly rental, depending on the price of the home and the proximity to the rental date.

6. Join the club and play your cards wisely. Joining frequent flyer and hotel guest programs can yield huge benefits, including free airline tickets, reduced room rates, room upgrades, and other incentives. For example, members of Starwood's free Preferred Guest Program can now receive 35% off room rates at over 125 hotels and resorts worldwide, as well as earn points toward future free stays. 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 and AARP 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.

7. Work with an agent. If shopping for deals hasn't yielded the rates you're looking for, sign up with Orbitz' "Deal Detector". This free service will alert you when fares for during your desired vacation period go below your target price. Travelocity also has an alert service that will generate an e-mail if the lowest available price to your specified destination decreases. This may also be an excellent time to call to your favorite travel agent to do some research and compare prices. A good travel agent is familiar with travel deals that may not be available to the general public, and can often save you time as well as money. In addition, travel agents can be excellent sources of information when comparing hotels, destinations and cruise lines.

8. Check low fare airlines and alternative airports. Sometimes a little drive can save a lot of money. Before purchasing your lowest fare air ticket, check the websites of low-fare airlines such as Southwest.com, Spirit.com and JetBlue.com. Be aware that these airlines will generally not show up on third-party provider sites such as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. 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 vacation suddenly affordable.

9. Stay at a family-oriented Bed & Breakfast. Today's Bed & Breakfast inns are catering to families with spacious rooms and suites, special amenities for children. Many also offer family packages, providing discounts on second rooms, free meals for children, and special rates on nearby activities. The Family Travel Network provides unbiased reviews of family friendly B&Bs, and BedandBreakfast.com is another excellent source of bargains, package deals and information. Using the Advanced Search feature of the BedandBreakfast.com website will yield listings of family-friendly inns in your target area, as well as specials and sports-oriented options.

10. Rent from an owner. If you're finding that everything is either sold out or out of your price range, 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 your desired weeks. The Vacation Rentals By Owner website (VRBO.com) contains 21,000 listings of properties across the country and around the world. Other good websites to check include CyberRentals.com with 11,500 listings, Greatrentals.com, and 10Kvacationrentals.com. If you'd prefer to have the comfort of third-party inspections, easy check-ins and onsite customer service, work with a rental agency. ResortQuest.com can be a one-stop shop with agencies in vacation destinations across the country, but others can easily be found by typing the name of your destination and "vacation rental" into your favorite search engine. If your dream rental is still out of your price range, consider bringing along some friends and splitting the cost. Taking your vacation with another family with children 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.

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. Sites like Priceline.com and Hotwire.com can yield huge bargains, but at a price. You will often not know exactly what you're purchasing until you've already paid for it. For this reason, it makes sense to approach these sites very carefully. Families should be particularly careful when bidding on 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 www.biddingfortravel.com and www.betterbidding.com. These sites will help you to better understand the parameters for Priceline and Hotwire, research your options, and become an educated bidder. Sites such as Skyauction.com and LuxuryLink.com can also be excellent sources of family vacation bargains. Many resort family favorites such as The Homestead, the JW Marriott Ihilani, Disney's Grand Californian Hotel and Loew's Ventana Canyon Resort have been featured in auction packages on LuxuryLink. With these sites too, 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. Even with all these caveats, you can still get some great travel steals. Don't get caught up in bidding fever - set your maximum price based on research and stick to it!

12. Consider the exchange rate when making travel plans. Popular destinations in Europe are likely to be expensive at the current exchange rates. As a result, many families heading to Europe are considering cruise options, apartment or villa rentals by owner, low-cost airlines, and other potential money-saving alternatives. Other international destinations, however, offer a favorable exchange rate and can make those U.S. dollars stretch farther. Consider travel to Canadian city destinations such as Montreal or Vancouver, travel to the beautiful parks and areas in the Canadian Rockies, or look into trips to resorts such as Whistler and Tremblant. Caribbean destinations such as the Dominican Republic also offer excellent values, both in vacation package prices and in the prices of souvenirs.

Remember -- even the best deal isn't much of a bargain if the hotel is a dud or the package doesn't meet your family's needs. You want a vacation to make great vacation memories - not bad ones. Before committing the money to a particular destination, hotel or cruise line, seek out some unbiased reviews (such as on FTN) as well as the opinions of those who have "been there, done that." Sites such as TripAdvisor.com and WheretoStay.com are also excellent sources for this type of information, but make sure to read a large number of the reviews and consider the sources carefully. Much has been written lately on hotels and resorts seeding review sites with highly favorable reports. If you make sure to read a large number of the reviews, however, you can often get a feel for the true pros and cons of the destination as well as some helpful tips.

In addition, make sure to consider the needs of your family carefully when purchasing your vacation. Some resorts and destinations are great for teens, while others cater to the younger set. If a superb beach, reasonably priced restaurants or entertaining children's activities are critical to your stay, make sure to research those attributes in advance.

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