Save money on your family vacation with a road trip

By Denis Langlois on May 18, 2011
Some call it cheap.  Or stingy. Or tight-fisted. I prefer thrifty or frugal. I keep a tight watch on the family’s spending. My wife does, too. It’s a necessity, really. It’s the result of continuously rising costs in a reliably unreliable economy. But our frugal ways don’t stop us from having fun.

This past spring, as the icy fingers of winter dug into our family, my wife and I packed up our two sons – Adam, 11, and Braeden, 6 – hopped inside our luggage-filled, four-door sedan and headed south for warmer temperatures, greener grass and a brighter sun.

We crossed the Canadian-American border at Niagara Falls, Ont., traversed the snow-covered Appalachian mountains and spent seven days in the warm Florida air.

Before setting off, I set an ambitious, perhaps seemingly impossible, budget of $1,000, vowing to spend only $500 in cash and $500 on my credit card. I am thrilled to report that not only did we accomplish our financial goal, but we also had a blast on our much-needed vacation. Sticking to our shoestring budget proved both challenging and rewarding. It required discipline, careful planning, ample preparation and several nights in a campground under the stars. Over the course of our trip, I stumbled upon several tips to save cash, while also having a fun, memorable vacation.

Here are my Top 10 suggestions for getting the best bang for your buck and saving cash:

1. Plan a budget and stick to it

Outline each anticipated expense – fuel, food, lodging – and set aside extra cash for ‘fun.’  Jot down strategies to meet these goals, such as staying a night at a campground instead of a hotel. Invite the kids to be part of the budget-making process. Make budgeting fun and a challenge, and brainstorm ways to see and do things that cost little or nothing.

Tip: Our kids wanted to dig for ‘fossils’ at a pricy children’s museum. We came up with a much cheaper way. Buy 10 toys or ‘dino eggs’ at the dollar store and bury them for your kids to find in a plot of sand at the beach. It’s a much better place to have fun.

2. Use cash when possible

Many major credit card companies charge an exchange fee on purchases made in the United States. Many major banks do the same. This can be an unsettling surprise when you return home and open the first bill in the mailbox. Cash is a tangible reminder of how much money I have and how much I am giving away. I am much more responsible when I have only a $20 bill in my pocket then when I use my debit or credit card.

Tip: Leave your credit card in the car (locked in the glove compartment) when visiting a gift shop or roadside store. You are more likely to spend only the cash in hand.

3. Make friends with the Internet

I booked all of our hotels and campgrounds on the Net. It’s a great place to find the best deals for accommodations. But, be sure to read the fine print. Choose websites that offer an escape clause – for transfers or cancellations. Road trips can be unpredictable. You need flexibility. The Internet is also a place to scour for coupons and find and research free or cheap travel destinations. The Net can also save you money on maps and guides.

Tip: We used websites, such as ontariogasprices.com, to determine the estimated cost of fuel for our trip and to find gas stations along our route. Try gasbuddy.com to find prices in other provinces and states. Hotels.com was our favourite for booking affordable hotels. They offer transfer and cancellation options and you get to see the name of the hotel before you book. We also used: familyfriendlyamerica.com, free-attractions.com and, of course, mapquest.com.

4. Scour for coupons and use them

We stocked up on piles of flyers, brochures and free travel books to find useful coupons. Some offer visitors a free souvenir, like a teddy bear, just for presenting it to the cashier. Others save people a dollar here or a dollar there, but it all adds up. Flipping through coupon books can also point you to cheap, yet interesting, spots along your route. We found one coupon that offered free tours of an orange grove. Very popular with the kids.

Tip: Great news if you’re heading to any of the following major cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Hollywood, Houston, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Toronto. They all participate in CityPass.com, which allows you to pay for admission to top attractions at a steep discount with the purchase of one pass.

5. Brown bag it when possible

We saved hundreds of dollars by packing a cooler full of food. Instead of stopping at fast food joints along the 22-hour route, we picnicked on pre-made sandwiches, snacked on granola bars and sipped on apple juice and bottled water. When we arrived at our final destination, we stopped at a grocery store to stock up on snacks and food. Each trip to a fast food place will set you back about $25. Restaurants are far more costly – sometimes up to $50 for a family of four. A sandwich and a yogurt is a much more cost-effective (and healthy) way to eat lunch than a buffet-style feast.

Tip: Remember that American restaurants tend to offer larger portion sizes than many Canadian diners. We saved money by buying two meals, instead of four, and using a coupon or two.

6. Choose hotels with a free continental breakfast

Some hotels offer a huge buffet-style breakfast, free with a $45-a-night stay. It can include waffles, pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, fruit and beverages. This was a bonus for us on our way to Florida. We would eat a huge breakfast before setting off, then sandwiches for lunch and share two meals at a restaurant for dinner (see above).

Tip: Grab whole fruit or packaged breakfast bars for snacks later that day.

7. Stay away from tourist traps

Everything is more expensive, from food and fuel to hotels and campgrounds. Instead, sniff out the best-kept secrets outside major areas. Remember, one of the benefits of a road trip is that you have your car and don’t need to stay in the heart of the action.

Tip: Plan your route carefully. My theory – if my kids don’t know it exists, they aren’t missing anything. It’s much harder to explain why you aren’t spending $500 at an amusement park as you are driving past it than avoiding the bright lights and huge billboards altogether.

8. Plan trips to free/cheap destinations

Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centres offer an inexpensive or free opportunity to get an up-close look at fascinating animals, such as sea turtles, dolphins,birds and alligators. Nature conservancy centres can also provide a memorable experience. We paid just $1 to visit a manatee protection park. Here, we saw at least 30 peaceful manatees lying still in the clear water, then bobbing to the surface for a deep breath. We also got an up-close look at a blue crab and several exotic birds. We had a blast trekking on boardwalks in search of wild reptiles, even though we didn’t find any.

Tip: Most beaches are free, and admission to many municipal or state-run museums is just a few dollars. Many parks, state-owned monuments and historical sites are free, informative and fun. Many cities also have free guided or self-guided walking tours.

9. Take advantage of state and provincial Welcome Centres

Stock up on free maps and scour for coupons, activity guides and magazines.

Tip: Welcome centres are a great place for a pit stop. The washrooms are usually clean and you don’t have to feel guilty about not buying anything.

10. Dollar stores are valuable

Stock up on cheap supplies, including camping gear, rain ponchos, and games and activity books for the kids.

Tip: Try buying souvenirs here, instead of expensive gift shops.

Road trip sanity savers:

It’s not easy being trapped in a car for eight hours a day, three days straight – especially if you’re a child. It’s even harder on the drive home.

Here are some of the tricks we learned to survive the 48 or so hours logged on the road:

Stock up on video games, DVDs, activity books, puzzles and cards for entertainment. Store them in a bag in the front seat and only hand over a new item when the old one becomes “boring”.

Be prepared to bribe – terrible, I know. The typical “If you’re good until the next rest stop, we will get you a small treat from the vending machine” spiel does buy you some peace.

Talk about what you expect to see and do upon your arrival. The prospect of a swimming pool at a hotel or an evening at the beach helps.

Take advantage of as many rest stops as possible. Our kids were always better behaved for the hour or so after getting out of their seats to use the washroom, stretching their legs and snacking on a sandwich.

Break the trip into bite-sized pieces. This made a huge difference for us. We would leave around 6 or 7 a.m. and let the kids sleep for a few hours, then end the day around 3 p.m. when it was still daylight. Once there, we would hit the pool or beach for a few hours before retiring for the night.

Denis Langlois is a writer in Owen Sound, Ont.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, June/July 2011.

By Denis Langlois| May 18, 2011

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