7 Tips for Cheap Family Trips

Let’s face it – we live in turbulent economic times. To me, that means that relaxing and spending time with the family have never been more important. I am a travel advocate and believe that no matter what, it’s important to take time off. Traveling is educational, helps support the economies of the places we travel and is terrific for the soul.


Donna Airoldi, editorial director of TravelMuse.com, says this is a great time for families to travel. "Airlines, hotels and tour companies are working harder than ever to earn your hard-earned vacation dollars, and discounts abound. In some respects, travel has never been cheaper."


The "Travel Detective," Peter Greenberg, a New York Times best-selling author and former San Francisco resident, says that, "Travel is in our cultural DNA, and it’s our right to travel no matter how tough these economic times get. Combine that with an unprecedented buyer’s market, and the answer is easy: when the going gets tough, the smart families travel."


Here are seven vacation ideas that won’t break the bank, and will help families assert the right to travel, even during these economically challenging times.


1. Shack Up, Swap, Rent

If you enjoy the comforts of staying in a home, why not shack up with friends, try a house swap or snap up a vacation home. We had always wanted to see Alaska, so last summer, with an invitation from friends who own a home in Alaska’s Inside Passage, we headed north to the Last Frontier. Using a combination of frequent-flyer miles and their hospitality, we spent eight days exploring Alaska at a fraction of the cost. For those who don’t have a friend in a desired travel destination, trading places and vacation rentals are also options. "House swapping is definitely on the rise – I think of it as the art of bartering elevated to a whole new realm," says Greenberg. A starting place for home swaps is HomeExchange.com. Renting a vacation home is another money saver, especially for large or extended families. Walnut Creek’s Joanna Sibley, a mother of two, has rented in locations such as Lake Tahoe, Todos Santos, Mexico, and the Tuscany region of Italy. "Sharing a house with a kitchen and all the amenities of a home is something we prefer over booking multiple hotel rooms with no shared spaces," she says. "It’s more affordable, more fun, and enables us to avoid some of the extra costs that accompany hotel stays." Homeaway.com or VRBO.com (Vacation Rental By Owner) are great jumping-off sites for vacation rentals worldwide.


2. S’moreville

Camping offers an affordable, fun, family getaway – whether you park your RV, pitch a tent, stay in a cabin, or try something more adventurous. "Since our kids were babies, our moms’ group goes camping together," says Oakland resident Sylvia Eggert, a mother of two. "It’s affordable, and we look forward to our trips, which include several close-knit families, divided meal duties, happy hour, campfire chatter and, of course, s’mores. There’s an added bonus of additional eyes to watch the kids."


ReserveAmerica (reserveamerica.com) manages a national catalogue of more than 3,000 parks with more than 150,000 campsites and cabins such as Crystal Cove Cottages, a charming collection of beach cottages originally developed as a South Seas movie set in Newport Beach, and yurts in Yosemite Lakes. Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp Resorts (campjellystone.com) offers something for everyone, including a few "for-kid" options other campgrounds don’t. Prices vary according to the location. But, on average, tent and RV camping ranges from $25-$50 a night. Cabins range from $80-$100 per night. Children under 3 or 5 years of age stay free, depending on the location.


Finally, pick up a copy of Bay Area Parent’s Summer Survival Guide – or read the digital edition online at BayAreaParent.com – which offers tips on camping with families as well as a guide to Northern California campgrounds.


3. Travel the ‘Net

The Internet offers families a multitude of resources. For example, if you like to travel and haven’t started tweeting, start now! Jamie Pearson, an independent family travel Web site publisher (travelsavvymom.com), says Twitter is a great source for "on-the-ground information from people around the world." Some other sites worth a stopover:


  • airfarewatchdog.com – Real people constantly scour the Internet to find great deals from your local departure cities.
  • gethuman.com – Shows you how to bypass the automated messages to talk to a human.
  • farecast.com – Plug in your route and it will tell you whether the price is expected to go up or down, based on historical data.
  • travelmuse.com – Not sure where to go? The Inspiration Finder considers multiple dimensions of travel information to identify best-fit family destinations.


4. Flexible Travel Times

Families flying together should consider off-season, off-day, and secondary airports to make the most of their vacation budget. "Flying a day or two earlier or later can sometimes save up to $100 per leg. Also, consider using secondary airports instead of main hubs," says Airoldi. So, try Oakland or San Jose International in place of SFO. Greenberg shared a secret when buying airline tickets: "Purchase tickets at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, as that’s when the airlines’ fare wars culminate." Also, consider a red-eye option for one leg of your trip.


5. Miles to Go!

We put everything on our United Visa. Groceries, utility bills – you name it, we charge it. Last year, we paid only a small administrative fee of $25 to use miles and book our annual trip to Hawaii during peak holiday-travel season. We paid nothing. To compare, the average full-price fare of a roundtrip ticket to Honolulu last Christmas on United Airlines was more than $600 per person. Greenberg says, "Do not wait. Do not stop. Do not pass go. Run, don’t walk, and start to redeem those miles any way you can, as fast as you can, and not just on your primary carrier, but also with its mileage partners."


6. Location, Location, Location

There are always top spots to get a deal – just know what to look for and what to ask. As Airoldi points out, "Just about every place is on sale right now, including the usual family favorites: Orlando, San Diego and Washington, D.C. Consider places where the dollar has gained, such as London – currency rates have improved upwards of 30 percent over last year." Greenberg also identified some destination deals, including cruises and all-inclusive resorts. "Head to the Caribbean or Mexico, and you’ll find great deals. The dollar is also stronger against the Canadian dollar. And because it’s a buyer’s market, you’re in a position to negotiate beyond just the advertised price or specific deals."


7. One Tank Trips!

Growing up, I did the whole "pack up the kids, crank up the car" road-trip adventure with my family. "It’s a great idea, and an American family tradition that we should hold onto, even if it turns into the Griswold family vacation," says Greenberg, referring to the National Lampoon "vacation" movie mishaps.


Your family vacation probably won’t be that bad, but remember, whatever you do, you are making lifelong memories for your children.


Dana Young is an Oakland-based freelance writer and the mother of 7-year-old triplets.