Every time I talk about a trip we’ve taken, I get questions about how we budget for vacation.
Budgeting is so personal for every person – travel might be the thing you’re MOST willing to spend money on or it might not be much of a priority for you.
And WHAT you’re most willing to spend on when you’re on vacation will be different for every person.
Maybe you’re a huge foodie and that’s what you care most about. Maybe the place you stay is everything for you on a trip.
When I think about budgeting for a trip, I basically see there being four slides scales (Transportation, Lodging, Food, and Activities) and you can adjust each of them to come up with a number that works for you.
And of course, they all work together – if you spend less money on one, you’ll probably have to make up for it by paying for more in one of the other categories OR by spending more time/effort.
And some trips might be higher on all four categories and others will be lower – we try to have a mix of the types of trips we take.
For instance, when we go to visit my parents in Las Vegas, transportation costs are two tanks of gas, the lodging is free, the food is free unless we go out for a meal or treat, and the activities are pretty much swimming in my parents’ pool (also free). So that’s a great almost free trip to mix in with trips that cost more.
When we went to Hawaii a few years ago, we had to pay for six plane tickets, a minivan rental car, a hotel, and every meal we ate. The only category that WASN’T very expensive on that trip was activities because we mainly hiked, went to the beach, and swam in the resort pools.
Here’s a breakdown of what I take into consideration for each of our trips in these four categories:
There are usually two parts of vacation transportation – getting to your destination and then getting AROUND at your destination.
If you can drive to your destination, that keeps your costs way down (with six of us, plane tickets to ANYWHERE add up really quickly) and then you have a car to get around once you get there.
If you fly somewhere and THEN need to rent a car, that can get pricey in about five seconds and you haven’t even DONE anything when you’ve gotten there.
Here are some things I consider when I think about transportation:
- Can I be flexible about the dates? I usually have a general sense of what trips we’re going to take in a year but most of them aren’t married to specific dates, so I keep an eye on Scott’s Cheap Flights and if something pops up, I can get a deal on plane flights (this is what happened when we went to Hawaii – I knew we wanted to go but didn’t care that much WHEN we went during the year and when $160 tickets popped up, I snagged them!).
- Can we drive instead of fly? Flying is really time efficient but adds up fast if you are buying more than a couple of tickets. We try to do a mix of trips where we drive and ones where we fly.
- Are we going somewhere that requires a car? If you’re visiting a big city, you can often get around without a car. And because parking in a big city can be so expensive and difficult, it’s often way more cost-effective to just Uber around as needed and walk a lot (plus, walking is one of my favorite ways to get to know a city!).
- Can we rent a car for just PART of our trip? Maybe you need a car to see things on part of your trip but not the entire trip and can cut your costs in half by picking it up when you need it instead of the whole time.
This can run the whole budget spectrum. When we went to Hawaii in 2019 and I was looking at places to stay, one of the ones Hotels.com suggested to me was . . . $22,000 a night. Um, no. Would I like to spend the equivalent of a small house on a week long trip? I’ll pass.
Here are some things I think about when I’m determining how much of our budget I want to spend on lodging:
- Is it possible to stay with someone for free? When we went to Texas for fall break, we stayed with my sister and her family for the first half of our trip in Dallas and then some friends for the second half of our trip in Austin. This naturally isn’t possible in all places, but when it is, it not only can save a ton of money, but often is a great time to spend quality time with someone. When Bart and I went to San Francisco for our fourth wedding anniversary, we were poor grad students and so we spent the first few nights in a hotel downtown and then the remainder of our trip staying with a college friend of mine and her husband who lived just outside the city. And guess what – spending time with them was one of the HIGHLIGHTS of our trip!
- How important is location? You might be able to get cheaper lodging if you’re willing to stay further away from main destination sites. This might mean you have to rent a car or spend more on public transportation or spend more time walking. Generally now we like to stay as centrally as possible so we don’t spend tons of time trying to GET to where we’re going. But for years, when Bart and I traveled, we often stayed outside the city and took public transportation in because we could save hundreds of dollars on lodging. With kids, it’s less appealing for me to drag them miles in and out of our destination.
- How much time will we be spending at our lodging? Often, when we’re traveling with children, I’m willing to spend more of our travel budget on our lodging because we’ll spend a fair amount of time there. Between naps and early bedtime that keep us at the hotel or Airbnb for more hours of the day, I don’t want to spend it all cramped in a place I don’t like at all.
- Can you split the cost with someone else? Often, the base price to stay somewhere won’t move below a certain amount but doesn’t go up at the same rate as you add more people. When our family goes to St. George, there is the price we can get for a place that comfortably sleeps the six of us. But if we get a place for 12, the price doesn’t double – it only goes up a bit. So if we invite another family, it’s less expensive for both families to go together than if we both went separately.
- Am I willing to camp? Frankly, for me the answer is usually no because the trade off is so much effort and preparation but for some families who are less lazy than I am, this can be a terrific way to keep the lodging costs of a trip way way down.
I love food and enjoying a great meal is often part of the fun of a trip for me. On the other hand, I quickly get tired of eating out for every meal and with kids especially, it can feel like more work than it’s worth.
Here are some ways we keep our food costs down when we travel:
- Rent a place with a kitchen or kitchenette. This is a huge money saver for us. It’s very rare for us at this point to travel as a family and stay somewhere that DOESN’T have a kitchen. Even if we only eat breakfast there, it’s really nice to be able to have some cold cereal and milk or some yogurt and fruit or some toast and jam and not have to eat out EVERY single meal.
- Find a happy medium between eating out and fully home-cooked meals. I’m not very interested in spending my whole vacation cooking, but I also don’t love eating out every single meal. If there’s a Costco near where we’re going, we’ll usually pick up a couple of prepared meals (like their chicken Alfredo or meatloaf and mashed potatoes) that we can easily warm up. It costs a fraction of what it would cost to eat out, it’s on our own timeline, and it requires nearly no effort on my part. When we go to St. George, I usually do a crockpot meal or two so that we can swim or hike all day and come back with dinner ready to go. Some other easy favorites when we travel are frozen potstickers or rotisserie chicken. Even adding a couple of meals that you do at your lodging instead of eating out can add up to hundreds of dollars saved.
- Be clear on what meals or treats are important to you. If there is a restaurant I really want to visit or a famed ice cream shop or an incredible farmer’s market, those are great places to spend my dining dollars. But I don’t want to eat a bunch of overpriced mediocre meals just because I’m traveling. When I’m clear on what food I DO want to spend on, then I can save on the meals that don’t mean much to me.
- Pack your own snacks. Nothing adds up faster with kids than a bunch of snacks on the go. When we were in London, we stopped at one of the local grocery stores and picked up a bunch of crackers and cookies and other fun snacks that we could toss in the stroller so that we didn’t have to scramble on the go to get something to eat.
And, of course, once you get to your destination, you actually want to DO something. Sometimes the destination is all about the activity (like visiting Disneyland) and sometimes there is a LOT of flexibility in what activities you might choose to do.
Here are some of the things I think about:
- What are the FREE activities we can do? I always like to do as many free activities as possible on a trip – visiting the beach, free museums, playgrounds, outdoor concerts, etc. Usually a quick Google search will bring up lots of free options for any major city.
- What paid activities do I really care most about? Just because everyone else loves something doesn’t mean you will or that it’s worth your time or money. When we go on a trip, we usually make a list of the top 3-4 things we MOST want to do while we’re there that will be expensive and then plan around those.
- Are there days that are cheap or free? Many museums or attractions have a free day during the month or an evening with a discount. If you can plan around those, you can save a lot of money! When we went to London, Winter Wonderland was high on our list to visit and when we looked at dates, it turned out that going in the mornings on a weekday was free instead of paying an entry fee in the afternoons or evenings and an even HIGHER entry fee on weekends. So we arranged our agenda to go on a weekday morning, it cost us nothing to get in AND we had the place pretty much to ourselves. Win-win.
- Groupon is your friend. I love using Groupon when we travel – you can often get a big discount on attraction tickets (plus cash back on Rakuten). When we went to Miami last year, we bought our tickets for our airboat tour on Groupon which saved us quite a bit of money.
Budgeting for vacation is always a balance between not overspending and not being so cheap that it’s not even worth it to go, and every trip is going to look different.
If you have questions about budgeting for vacations, I’m happy to answer! Let me know in the comments how I can help.
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