Vacations can be so important to the development and cohesion of a family. We try to vacation at least annually, and every time we’re on that trip back home, we find ourselves reflecting on all the memories made and lessons learned. But those trips don’t pay for themselves… So that’s when thinking about how to plan a family vacation on a budget comes into play.
Today I’m thrilled to bring you a post from Mr. Thrifty – an amateur arm wrestler (more on this below), a lover of Merle Haggard, a family man, and a connoisseur of all things thrifty in nature. Take it away, Mr. Thrifty!
Mr. Thrifty publishes Thrifty Enough at https://thriftyenough.com. Thrifty Enough provides an uncommonly common sense approach to thrifty living, including some of the thriftiest original and curated personal finance content out there. You can also find him on Twitter at @thriftyenough.
Mr. Thrifty lives in a small Midwestern town with his wife and a growing contingent of young children. They are on the path toward financial independence, but they enjoy stopping to smell a few roses along the way.
It’s rumored that Mr. Thrifty once lost three straight arm wrestling matches against Mike, which is what led to this blog post and Mr. Thrifty always calling Mike “Sir.” What’s known is that faith, family, friendship, and low-cost, diversified index funds are some of his favorite investments.
How to Take A Family Vacation on a Budget
When Mike and I decided to exchange guest posts, he gave me a mission: tell you, his readers, how to go on a 6-day, 5-night vacation as a family of 4 for under $750.
I’m not a traditional travel hacker, but I do have a family of four. And my name is Mr. Thrifty.
So, I accepted Mike’s challenge.
I Have a Confession to Make
Mrs. Thrifty and I have two little girls, so we haven’t done a lot of traveling lately.
With all the bathroom breaks, the crying, and the constant requests for snacks, traveling with young children can be challenging.
And I was just describing my own behavior on family trips.
But family trips can be awesome experiences for everyone involved.
It’s nice to “get away” for a few days.
And new experiences and traditions help us grow as individuals and within the context of our families.
Family trips also almost always come with some challenges or other forms of adversity.
Maybe the tire goes flat or a cooler gets eaten by a bear, or a tent stays wet for three days…and then gets eaten by a bear.
But those experiences, when not life-threatening, are often character producing and memorable.
All that to say even though traveling with a family isn’t always easy – or cheap – it’s worth it to us when we can afford it.
A Trip to the Zoo
Mrs. Thrifty and I took the girls to the Omaha Zoo in May and had a wonderful experience.
It was a 3 day, 2-night trip, and we spent less than $300.
It wasn’t exactly a 6 day, 5-night trip, but if you prorate that trip out, it is pretty much the same amount per day.
Here’s a breakdown of all our trip expenses:
Devaluation of Vehicle
I’m not a traditional travel hacker, so I don’t have any credit card tips to give you, but here are a few things about our trip budget that you might find interesting:
1- We got our zoo tickets at half price. We were able to do this because we’re members of a nearby zoo that has a reciprocal relationship with the Omaha Zoo. This wasn’t just a happy coincidence. We became members of the less expensive zoo because it’s close and we can go with friends or family any time that way. We also did the math, knowing we’d be going to Omaha. The amount we saved on our Omaha Zoo trip paid for our membership to the other zoo.
2- You probably also noticed we include devaluation of our vehicles in the trip budget. I believe in internalizing externalities, meaning trying to include the whole cost of something when budgeting. Every mile we drive is one less than Thrifty Family van will go, so there is a cost associated with that beyond the price of fuel. For us, our vehicle costs about 10 cents a mile to drive, which happens to be basically the same as fuel was in May.
3- We stayed at an Airbnb the first night. We love lodging options like Airbnb and VRBO when they’re available. Having separate sleeping areas for us and the girls and having cooking equipment for a comparable price to a hotel room is a real no-brainer for us. This is especially true when we plan to be in the same place for a few days. But where did we stay the second night? Read on to find out!
4- We only spent $20 on food? Are we crazy? People have debated my sanity, but Mrs. Thrifty’s isn’t in question. The $20 is the amount we spent above what we’d normally spend on food. Since we already budget for food on a monthly basis, only the amount of money we spend on food beyond what we’d normally spend has to come from the vacation budget. During the 3 days of our trip, we spent around $50 total on food. Since we normally spend about $10 a day on food, our vacation cost us an extra $20 in food that isn’t part of our normal monthly food budget.
For example, we spent $15 at Runza for dinner one evening. Mrs. Thrifty grew up not too far from Nebraska and loves their food. We also got ice cream for the Little Thrifties. We also had a special family meal on the first night of the trip. That night, we had a fancy pizza and some sides that set us back around $10. For the rest of our meals, we planned and packed our own food, which cost us about the same amount as normal. We also froze a couple gallon jugs filled about 2/3 of the way with water to save on ice expenses.
What I Learned from Our Trip
As I reflected on our trip to the Omaha Zoo thinking about this post, I came to a realization.
If you want to take a vacation on a budget, you are probably going to have to make some compromises
Now that you have seen all the line items from our zoo trip, we can talk more tangibly about how to vacation on a budget.
There are at least five things you can spend your hard earned money on during a trip:
Unless you have an unlimited amount of money to spend on vacations, you will probably have to compromise (delay gratification) in at least one of these areas when you travel, maybe more.
Let’s take a deeper dive into each of these categories and how to take a look at how we compromised to keep our trip under budget.
Travel, or getting from Point A to Point B, is one of the most expensive parts of most vacations.
Our destination was less than half a day’s drive away, and it ended up being over a third of our budget.
If you need to fly somewhere, that number usually grows even faster.
As a family, it’s important to consider some of the economies of scale that’s gained by driving somewhere with multiple people.
What I mean is driving 5 people somewhere costs basically the same amount as driving one person somewhere in the same vehicle. The same is not true of planes.
That said if driving makes the trip 3 days longer than flying would, you have to remember to include the total cost.
For example, lodging and food costs on the road, in addition to lost vacation days, are all huge opportunity costs of taking a long drive.
Regardless of how you get where you’re going, you may have to compromise on travel – and on where you’re going – to stay under budget.
Lodging is pretty expensive, too.
In fact, if we’d stayed in the same place both nights, we would have gone over budget.
So, where did we stay on the second night of our trip?
Well, it happens that Mrs. Thrifty has a brother in Nebraska about an hour from the zoo… a brother with 7 kids.
Compromise, that’s the name of the game
We spent two days at the zoo, and at the end of the second day, we drove up to see Mrs. Thrifty’s brother and his family.
I use the word compromise lightly because they’re awesome folks, and they have a big house.
Mrs. Thrifty and I had our own place to sleep, and the girls got to play with their cousins.
But if we had to stay in a hotel or Airbnb both nights, our budget would have been blown.
Do you love to eat out? I do, and I especially enjoy trying out new places.
But eating out is expensive.
For example, we went to Cracker Barrel recently and spent $28 on a meal.
Earlier that week, I’d decided not to buy bison meat as a splurge item for $8 a pound, but I could have bought 3 pounds of bison meat and sides for $28.
I’m not against eating out; we even did it on the trip.
But it’s a significant cost, and it’s another place you might have to compromise to keep a family vacation under budget.
One of the easiest ways to save money on food when traveling is to either find a place that includes a good continental breakfast as part of lodging, or to bring things like cereal, oatmeal, and fruit along.
If you can keep a meal like breakfast under budget, there’s more food budget money left over for fun meals.
We do usually try to eat out at least a time or two per vacation to have the experience. Eating out every meal for several days is tough on the pocketbook and the waistline, though.
That’s why it’s important to compromise on food.
The whole purpose of a vacation is going somewhere you don’t normally go to do something you don’t normally do.
So entertainment is almost a non-negotiable part of a vacation, but it doesn’t have to be expensive.
For example, Omaha has plenty of things to do for free that could have filled up two or three days.
In fact, it may seem hard to believe in our ad-saturated society, but most places have lots of free things to do, and many of them are even fun.
We wanted to go to the zoo, though, so we decided to include money for tickets as part of our vacation budget. The best deal for tickets we could get was 50% off because of a reciprocal membership with our local zoo.
Omaha also has plenty of other things to do that cost money, and that’s where the compromise comes in.
When you’re vacationing on a budget, the world is not your oyster, and you have to focus on the best values for entertainment.
If you’re going to a beach or state or national park, sometimes the entertainment can be free or very cheap.
But if you’re going to pay to be entertained, it’s important to be intentional in considering what you can afford and how that spending fits into the overall trip budget.
I don’t really like shopping, so I don’t spend much money on it. Mrs. Thrifty is probably even less of a shopper so there’s no conflict there.
When we go somewhere really neat, we might buy a postcard or two for a scrapbook.
But I realize some people go on vacation to shop, or at least like to go shopping on vacation.
It’s cool if shopping is something you enjoy; you just have to make sure to budget for it.
And the compromise you have to remember with shopping is that every dollar you spend on shopping is one dollar less you can spend on the rest of the vacation.
Tying it All Together
So, how do we vacation on a budget? In a word, you’ve probably got it down by now…
You can cut spending within the five major vacation budget categories of travel, lodging, food, entertainment, and shopping.
We even choose to forego one or more of the major categories all together on most trips.
Unless and until you’ve achieved financial independence, your vacations will probably always have budgets. And by the time you achieve financial independence, you’ll probably already have mastered the art of compromise on a family vacation.
It’s also worth noting that learning how to compromise also comes in handy on the trips themselves.
As a dad, I’ve already compromised with the girls many times when listening to a Silly Songs or Veggie Tales CD for the hundredth time instead of that awesome song with Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson on the radio.
Or at least that’s what I try to explain to them when I decide to leave Pancho and Lefty on…
So, where do you stand – are Willie and Merle really worth listening to…? Ha – jkjk. Have you had similar experiences while trying to take a family vacation on a budget? What are some things you’ve done that Mr. Thrifty didn’t mention and where do you align with the Thrifty vacation plan? I think their team makes some great points here, you agree?
Thanks for reading!