Print This Post

Ask DSM Readers: Vacationing for Less

by Tara Kuczykowski on July 22, 2010 · 41 comments

Saving Money on VacationPhoto by Trey Ratcliff

Every week I'll pose a question for you to share your experiences and tips. If you have a question that you'd like me to post, I'd love to hear from you!

Recently Fariba asked me on Facebook how I save money on family vacations, and it just so happens that we're heading to the Outer Banks next week! We've got some staples already packed, plus I've been scouring the grocery store ads and getting my coupons ready to grocery shop when I get there.

In the meantime, I wanted to open the question up for you all to share your tips. How do you save on family vacations? Do you camp, rent a house or stay in a hotel? Where is your favorite inexpensive destination? Do you go during the summer vacation season or off-season? How do you save on food and activities? And how do you balance your desire to save money with wanting to just kickback and enjoy the time away from home?

Join the discussion -- add your two cents to previous Ask DSM Readers questions too!

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

1 sara July 22, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Have a great time in the Outer Banks! My family and I have gone there the last 2 summers in a row and we love it. We live in Virginia, though, so it's not quite the trip it will be for your family :) If you're staying in a rental house as opposed to a hotel, be sure to hit the Walmart (in Kitty Hawk.) We saved a lot on the household goods that you usually have to self supply in the rental houses.


2 Julia L July 22, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Sara! I would love some Virginia Beach tips & ideas for our trip!


3 sara July 22, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Well, I've only been to Virginia Beach once and just for a short trip so I'm not much help there. I've spent more time in the Outer Banks (in North Carolina, a few hours south of VA Beach and a major vacation destination for Virginians as well as all over the eastern edge and midwest, too!) so I have growing knowledge of that area. The one tip I can give you about VA Beach is to, if possible, avoid coming or going on a Fri, Sat or Sun. Traffic is TERRIBLE on all of those days. We were bumper-to-bumper for about 50 miles- thank god we didn't have kids yet!!!


4 ShelleyB July 22, 2010 at 1:15 pm

If you know where you are headed with enough time in advance, request brouchures. Many of them come with coupons to the attractions in the area. Even the websites for the attractions can sometimes offer coupons.....just do a little homework in advance!


5 cwaltz July 22, 2010 at 1:18 pm

I'm so excited! Budgeting for Christmas has worked so well that I've been able to add vacation as a new expenditure line in our budget. I'll be putting $30 a payday away to buy season passes to Carowinds next year and maybe some annual zoo passes.

Our family likes to camp so our vacations have been pretty rustic so far. A great amount of fun for minimal money is gem mining in Hiddenite, NC
We spent $50 for the day and were able to find flourite, topaz, garnets, emeralds, sapphires(as souvenirs we had a sapphirecut as well as a garnet
)It was great fun sluicing and tromping through the creek and educational to learn the different qualiies and typical shapes certain gems come in.


6 Unintentionally Unemployed July 22, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Our frugal vacation plans include camping, bringing precooked meals, shorter trips (my least favorite), putting aside $$$ for the trip (we just sold some old gold and had a yard sale for an upcoming trip), if we do stay in a hotel, staying in an older, simpler, "off the beaten path". Have a great trip!


7 Emily July 22, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Hi Tara.....just wondering how long it takes you to get to Outer Banks? Do you drive?


8 Tara Kuczykowski July 22, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Yep, we're driving. It's about an 11-hour drive if we drive straight through, but we'll have to stop a few times with the kids and all. We're planning to leave early in the morning and spend the first night in Kitty Hawk.


9 Maggie July 22, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Before our trip to Sanibel Island in January, I purchased certificates at 80% off for a few restaurants to try. Also, if you leave your kids at their grandparents, you can save by not paying for them. :)~


10 Jen July 23, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Your joking about the grandparents, I hope.

I know a guy (jerk) who has his wife make the kids generic mac and cheese or hamburger helper in the condo then they sneak out and eat at a nice restaurant. Father of the year nominee.


11 Pudding February 14, 2011 at 10:15 am

I do not think is bad idea. First if people choose to have kids its not grandparents fault. Its ok to do some babysitting but get something in exchange. About they guy you know I do not think he is doing something wrong really. First, kids barely eat in restaurant and second is anoying trying to get a nice dinner with your spose and have a crying babies next table. certificates are awesome.


12 Karen July 22, 2010 at 2:15 pm

We always rent a place. Whether the mtns of NC, NYC, or Key's so much cheaper to have a base to operate from and you get to experience the destination as real people, not tourists. If we fly rather than drive, we buy a cheap ice chest and keep reloading it (worked out great on our trip to the Grand Canyon) and count a meal out as a "splurge". We always let the kids pick one thing they absolutely just had to do wherever we were and also brought along lots of books, games and outdoor toys. We never carried a vacation balance into the fall and that way we weren't paying for summer time fun at Christmas! Have a great trip!!


13 Sarah S. July 22, 2010 at 2:20 pm

My husband and I signed up for the Choice Hotels rewards program a few years ago, and we earn points for each stay. You have to book through (instead of something like Travelocity) to earn the points, but we've found the pricing is not much different and is sometimes cheaper. We stay in hotels 2-3 times a year, and we've earned enough points to stay one free night in Atlanta and another free night in Virginia. The hotel staff has even put together a small gift bag with a bottle of water and snacks for our free night. The hotels may not be the most glamorous, but they are clean and roomy! And they're even better when they're free !


14 Julia L July 22, 2010 at 2:21 pm

We are heading to Virginia Beach on Saturday with our two toddlers! We are from Northern New Jersey. We are renting a cottage equipped with a full kitchen, bringing lots of stuff from home! I plan on making breakfast and lunches for the kids, to save on eating out. I am also going to get a savings card from the local grocery store and bring my coupons to save!

I'd love some ideas on what to do with little kids in Virginia Beach if you are from the area!


15 Karen July 22, 2010 at 2:35 pm

The aquarium at VA Beach is pretty good for kids - but keep in mind that kids tickets are $12 and adults are $17. Putt-putt is fun for all and there are several places there to play. In the evenings (usually begins around 7) there are entertainers of all kinds, many geared for kids, if you're willing to walk up and down both the boardwalk and Atlantic Ave. to see them. Take a kite to fly out on the beach one evening and some binoculars, too. Dolphins are really easy to see playing in the surf, but binoculars will help you get an even better view.


16 Jen July 23, 2010 at 12:53 pm

If driving and want to fly a kite, pick one up at Dollar General or some place similar before leaving. Much cheaper than at the beach.


17 sansan July 22, 2010 at 3:46 pm

not sure what time you're coming into the beach, but there's a fun event from 10-5 saturday called Chalk The Walk ARTxplosion. here's the link :
the aquarium is also lots of fun for kids... my 3 yo loves it. we're members so i'm not sure what the cost is to get in but it is worth it and not too far from the oceanfront. the city also has lots of entertainment along the boardwalk throughout the day and evening and that's all free. Have a great time... va beach really is a great family fun place!


18 Terri July 22, 2010 at 2:26 pm

Believe it or not, I've gone to the Caribbean and to Europe, all for the cost of airport taxes! How? If you have great credit, sign up for travel rewards credit cards. Those that still offer the promo often give you enough start-up points to get free airline tickets. Second, B&Bs are often less expensive with way more charm than hotels. Pack your own snacks and avoid airport food and hotel mini-bars. Contact city chamber of commerces, or even better, connect with locals once you get there. I've found some great (and reasonable) restaurants, activities, and "things to see" just by talking to the locals. You tend to see/do better stuff at way less money that way.

Take the train, if possible. I do, and it's a great way to kick back and relax while others do the driving. The cost is way beyond reasonable (round trip from Colorado to California for less than $200), and you get to see lots of stuff outside your window. Amtrak offers area fares that allow you to tour an entire zone of country for one fee. So stop where and when you want, see the sites, and then hop aboard again for another destination. Amtrak also offers free travel as a credit card incentive. So far, I've gotten three rewards just by using their card to buy stuff I had to get anyway.

If you have kids, call ahead to places you intend to visit and ask about discounts or special "deal days." Same goes for restaurants, attractions, etc. Make your plans as far in advance as possible and lock in great rates when you see them.

Check into travel clubs such as AESU for the younger set, for extreme discounts on group travel. They were able to get me round trip tickets from Colorado to New York for less than $100 (no kidding). Of course, this was before 9-11.

Cruises are a great deal now, and you can get them for less than $500; in some cases, less than $300!

Hope this is helpful. I am a seasoned world traveler, but I have been able to travel on the cheap and not once resort to hostels or anything cheesy.


19 Kristi at Spend Less and Save More July 22, 2010 at 2:31 pm

We are lucky enough to own a timeshare. We purchased long before we had kids and it has paid for itself several times over!

If you can be hotel loyal, I would suggest that you sign up for a hotel loyalty program like Marriot Rewards where you can earn points toward a free stay. My husband travels for business and uses them. Once points are built up, we get to enjoy the rewards with our own vacation!


20 Tonya July 22, 2010 at 2:48 pm

I use (vacation rentals by owner) to rent vacation homes very cheap. We went to Kiawah Island SC last month and stayed for an entire week for $562! This is an exclusive island that is guarded and the only way on is to have a guest pass. VRBO has awesome finds for vacation homes in all destinations all over the world!


21 Jane November 21, 2010 at 4:00 pm

I looked at too for our trip to Quebec City this summer. Most were booked for the week we wanted, but I found a great studio rental on They were asking $450 for the week and we got a 15% discount for booking right away. I later found their listing at as well for the same rate. It was good to be able to eat in once in awhile, I hadn't realized how expensive food was in Canada.


22 Mindy July 22, 2010 at 2:51 pm

One word, Expedia! I am a single mom of two kids and I have found that one of the cheapest vacations I have found is Daytona Beach. I found hotel prices as low as $25 dollars a night and made sure the hotel had a stocked kitchen and we brought the food with us and cooked in every night. Since you are on the beach there is no need to for an entertainment budget the pool and beach are the entertainment. When the prices spiked over the memorial holiday weekend we stayed at a hotel that was in Ocala (about an hour away) and I found a great deal at wet and wild and silver springs where I was able to spend less than hundred for a full season pass for all of us to go to both parks so this kept us occupied through the four day weekend when the prices spiked. I haven't been able to find any cheaper place to stay on the beach than Daytona...we go every year.


23 2 Kids and a Coupon July 22, 2010 at 2:57 pm

If you have airline miles on an airline where you'll never have enough for a free ticket, contact the airline or visit their website to see if you can cash in the points you do have for something smaller. I recently cashed in a bunch of Delta and NW airlines miles for over $300 in free restaurant gift cards. We've been eating out for free for a couple months now!


24 July 22, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Big vacations:
We collect points on our credit card and save those up, and either cash out or redeem for a free flight when we go on vacation. Also my husband travels for business so he racks up frequent flyer miles, hotel points and frequent car rental points. We've scored free flights to Hong Kong, Bangkok and Australia 5 years ago. With the kids now it gets more expensive as we're paying for two more tickets but we're off to England soon and all flights were free using frequent flyer miles and credit card cashout. We're staying with my brother - so free lodging! Can you tell I love the word FREE.
For US vacations:
We pick spots where we have friends or family so we cut out the hotel costs. My friend has a great trick - she buys airline vouchers on craigs list and cuts 30% off her travel bill. I recently scored 4 tickets to Hershey Park PA for free. If there is a will there is a way - google is my best friend and of course my personal blog


25 Dana @ The Coupon Challenge July 22, 2010 at 3:17 pm

This is more for you Tara,
I wrote a post at a readers request about vacationing in the Outer Banks. I like in Chesapeake, VA and have vacationed there all of my life.

I hope it gives you a few ideas!
Have a wonderful trip!!


26 Nichole July 22, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Does anyone know of a promo code for American Airlines for flights between Aug. 22 and Sept 20, 2010? I have been searching for months with no avail. Codes either end before or after my trip. Thanks! :)


27 Deb July 22, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Our fav has to be Oahu. We've been 3 times-each visit saved a bundle getting a CHEAP flight deal from listening to consumer advocate Clark Howard here in Atl.
We've used Hale Koa (military hotel), VRBO and Parc Hotel on Waikiki.


28 Lynda G July 22, 2010 at 6:00 pm

I purchase an Entertainment book for the area I'm going to and save using these coupons.


29 Stacy V July 23, 2010 at 12:50 am

We just got back from a week in California visiting San Francisco and Yosemite National Park. It was a blast!

Ways we saved money:
1. National Parks/Beaches - great fun and the cost to enter the parks is a one time fee valid for 7 days - free to hike, picnic lunches, great family fun time and UNIQUE expericences. Ex. As we were leaving the park we almost hit a bear as it ran across the road. This was exciting for use since we live in Texas.
2. Hotel - I will look for the best deals on or orbitz but unless I have a promocode for that site I will find the best deal and reviews off those sites but then book at the hotel's main website for an even better deal. Camping is also a great way to save money. Sometimes we will take weekend trips, loading the car with ice chese full of food/meat and another with drinks and go camping!!! Our only expense is usually gas and maybe a camp fee. We usually buy a state park pass that allows you to get into the state parks free and camping discounts.
3. Food - hotel continental breakfast, Picnic lunches, and we used certificates for eating out and coupons for fastfood. My family of 6 was able to eat out pizza for only $18.66 including tip using our gift certificate and another restaurant for only $28.00.


30 Tricia July 23, 2010 at 9:50 am

I always check the tourism websites- they often list free community activities , days that are free at museums, etc. We also look for parks where we can enjoy a walk.


31 Chelsea July 23, 2010 at 10:55 am

Have fun! We vacation down in Avon every year! I love it there! If you renting a house, check with the realty company, the one we use offers great perks. They have a pool, tennis courts, and putting free to renters. They also have story telling in telling in the evenings which is fun. The lifesaving station in Rodanthe has hisorical reinactments which I always think is cool. The food lion in Avon has a shoppers card which is aweome. Ocracoke is always a blast. Especially if the water is rough on Hatteras. Take the free feery ride over to Ocracoke, swim in the afternoon, go for lunch at Howards pub. They have a wild pony pen on the way into town thats free to visit. Then after the feery ride back, stop at one of the marinas to see the charter boats bringing in their catches. And if you decide to go out on a headboat, we always go on the Miss. Hatteras. The captain is great, he entertains everyone on board, the deck hands are there to take care of everything. They are the least expensive as well. He also has nightly pirate cruises, and sunset dolphin cruises! Have fun!!


32 Rachel W July 23, 2010 at 11:13 am

This may sounds crazy, but I refuse to go to the grocery store on vacation. So I make a tentaive menu before we go and pack everything into a cooler. Yes - it means a BIG cooler that's loaded, but it forces us to be creative with our meals if we run out of something. The best part - NO GROCERY STORE on vacation which saves us tons from buying impulsive things!


33 Jen July 23, 2010 at 1:02 pm

I'm considering doing the same thing. When we grocery shop at the beach we spend a fortune between the 4 of us. We tend to get the attitude "well it's vacation, we may as well buy this".

Last year we went to Cape May, NJ. The grocery store we found charged to park and the prices were horrible.


34 Tara Kuczykowski July 23, 2010 at 1:35 pm

Oh my goodness -- they charged to PARK?!?!


35 Jen July 29, 2010 at 3:24 pm

If you were out in less than 15 minutes or 30 minutes (can't remember which) it was free. We hurried and bought less than we would have otherwise. Cape May also charges for beach passes to go on the beach and the place we stayed The Montreal Inn charged for extra people over the amount of 2. So we had to pay extra for our children.

It was very nice there and we like to go to that beaches you can walk everywhere (except the somewhat near grocery store in Cape May) and not have to drive the entire visit.

We thought Rehoboth Beach was expensive, but compared to Cape May it was much more affordable. Rehoboth dosen't charge for daily beach passes either. The only downside to Rehoboth (for the parents) is the amusement park on the boardwalk next door to the condos. Our kids constantly are wanting to go back. But it is good memories.


36 Dana November 10, 2010 at 5:15 pm

trying to plan a trip to Disney, the least expensive way possible. Not sure of the month, tossing up May, but afraid it may be too hot. Other option is beginning of March. Any tips on best time, best deals? Any other great tips?


37 Tara Kuczykowski November 10, 2010 at 5:20 pm
38 casey November 26, 2011 at 7:41 am

I have learned to use to find cheap condo's direct beachfront. Just found one for 7 nights on the beach in panhandle of FL for 525 for 7 nights. I like a condo because I prepare simple meals and we can make our own salads, etc. We eat out for lunch a few times. I can take my 2 girls for a 9 day trip for under 1200$ total.


39 Amy November 6, 2012 at 11:46 pm

We went to Cape Cod (Dennis Beach) this past summer (July) with a toddler. We rented a 2 bedroom stand alone cottage that was walking distance from the beach for $800 for the week. It was lovely. We did grocery shop, ended up eating out for 1 meal a day. Went to (I think?) and bought a groupon-like deal for one of the restaurants before we arrived. Also picked up their tourist like magazines in a gas station when we arrived and used lots of coupons from there as well. It was a long drive from PA (9 hours 1 way), but an easy one. I think we'll probably go back again :)


40 Alicia January 13, 2013 at 5:56 am

If you're headed for Disney, know that Disney has an (unadvertised) policy that any food place in any of their parks will give you cups of ice water for free, if you ask.

This saves you having to buy drinks or running back out to your car or a locker at the front of the park to get stuff from your cooler.


41 Russell Matthews June 6, 2013 at 12:29 pm

National parks and low cost camp sites have to be my favorite. Getting away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life rarely happens, especially for children. It is nice to disconnect and enjoy the outdoors, no phones, no internet, just great people and real living.


Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Previous post:

Next post: