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Budget Travel

How to plan a summer vacation on a tight budget

By Marguerite Cleveland

Summer is upon us, and it is time for that annual rite of passage—the summer vacation. It can be an expensive extravaganza or you can choose a more frugal option. Some of my best memories of family vacations are the ones that were the least expensive. With a little planning and creativity you can have a fun vacation that won’t break the bank.


The staycation is the ultimate budget vacation, but you have to make some rules first to ensure it is a vacation. The rules are: Decide the length of the vacation, determine a budget, stick to it and lastly no work. This last one is tough and must be agreed upon by all parties. No family yard work, no house projects and no working from home.

Plan activities for each day and visit local attractions. Maybe invest in a family membership that you can use all summer at a local aquarium, museum or pool. Turn your backyard into a summer playground with fun yard toys. It’s low tech, but running through a sprinkler never gets old. Rent an outdoor movie screen for summer movies under the stars and purchase movie candy from the dollar store. The key is to spend time together as a family and just have some fun.

At the end of the week, invest in a night at a waterpark hotel. For a family of four the cost is about the same as a day at a waterpark. Many hotels will let you check in early to use the waterpark and stay later the next day after you check out to swim some more. Make sure to bring snacks to save money, as nothing builds an appetite like swimming.

Summer Road Trip

Road trips are one of the more economical ways to travel with a family versus the high cost of plane tickets to a destination. The first rule of thumb is to plan how far you want to drive. For a weekend trip plan no further than a three- to four-hour drive. If you are planning for a weeklong trip, venture out about a seven- to eight-hour drive. Consider more scenic routes and research fun stops along the way. Next decide if you want to go to multiple destinations or make a base at one location. The more relaxing route is to pick a location and then venture out from there.

When traveling with family, a cabin or vacation rental can save you money. You may pay slightly more than a hotel room but you can cut costs by cooking some of your meals. For budget lodging check state parks or campgrounds for low-cost cabin rentals. Websites like or VRBO also offer options for economic vacation rentals. Spend some time researching your options and look for any specials at your destination. Often resorts will offer a free night if you stay for a certain number of days.

Plan to eat breakfast at your lodging, have your big meal at lunch at a restaurant where lunch prices are less than dinner, bring back leftovers and supplement with other foods for an easy dinner. Purchasing local favorites or specialties makes a fun meal. Plan easy cookouts. You can also cook and freeze meals to bring with you. This allows the cook in the family to vacation without spending lots of time in the kitchen. For the car pack a snack box and a cooler with cold drinks. During the summer heat, beverages can quickly add up in costs if purchasing on the road.

For savings on lodging, some surprising places offer deals. Groupon is a go to for local deals, but did you know they offer travel deals as well? (formerly offers cashback on hotels and vacations. A quick search revealed offers from 3 to 10 percent cashback on hotel websites, and discount sites like Expedia and TripAdvisor. You can double dip by going through Rakuten to access Groupon. You will get cashback on your Groupon discounted purchase—a win all around. Also, when searching for lodging, check the pricing on different dates. For example, in big cities with lots of business travel, rates are often more expensive during the week, and they offer specials on the weekend whereas a resort area is more costly on weekends than on weekdays.

Summer Cruise

A cruise is a more expensive endeavor, but if you are willing to wait until the last minute there are deals to be had. is one of the best websites for discount travel. Although prices may be the same on other sites, they often have onboard ship credits and other perks available only through VacationsToGo. The key to making a cruise a good deal is you must be able to drive to the port, and the ship needs to start and end at the same port. Last-minute airfare for a family of four defeats the cost savings of booking last minute. At the time this article was written, the site had many Alaska cruise deals out of Seattle and Vancouver for as much as 79 percent off. This deal offered a price of $749 (not including taxes) per person for an ocean-view cabin with a brochure price of $3,498—and also threw in a $175 per cabin onboard credit. The less expensive cabins sell first, so oftentimes last minute you can pick up a great deal on an ocean-view or balcony cabin. One offer was less than $400 (not including taxes) a person for a seven-day Alaskan cruise.

Once you are on your cruise you can save additional money by taking the time to plan your trip. Take advantage of all the things your cruise includes. Plan your shore excursions so that you eat all your meals on the ship. Shore excursions in Alaska are pricey, but by researching the ports of call you can save money. Many Alaskan ports are walkable. You can spend your time in port seeing quite a bit on your feet. One thing to be aware of if you book an excursion through the cruise line: They will make sure you are back or will wait for you if it is delayed when the ship is due to depart. You do not have this guarantee when you book a shore excursion through another business.

When shopping look for unusual options for souvenirs to reduce your costs. In Sitka, the Russian Orthodox Church had a wonderful gift shop with very good prices; many under $10. When on the ship, look for deals that can save you money. Drinks can be pricey, but one cruise line offered a pub crawl through all the areas on the ship that served mixed drinks for not much more than the cost of one drink. At each stop you received a cocktail or shot themed for that stop. Some ships will offer wine tastings for a set price.

When planning a budget vacation, the Internet is your friend. Research, research, research. This is the key to finding great deals. Read forums on websites. Facebook has travel pages and groups for every interest. The website for your destination is also a wealth of information. Send away for free area guides. Do a web search for coupons for an attraction you want to visit. Use Groupon for the destination you are traveling to for discounts on food, activities and even spa treatments. If you are willing to put the work in beforehand, it will pay off by lowering the cost of your vacation.

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