Destinations, accommodations, things to see and taste—all key factors in finalizing travel plans, all factors complicated by throwing young travelers in the mix. Who better to un-complicate our notions of traveling on the cheap with children than award-winning travel writer Tim Leffel?
On Leffel’s aptly named travel blog, The Cheapest Destinations Blog, he shares firsthand knowledge of how and where to travel well for less. Here, he answers our burning travel questions, sharing essential tips tailored to planning a budget-conscious vacation the whole family can enjoy.
Smarty Cents: What are your essential tips for planning a family vacation on a budget?
Tim Leffel: Vacationing as a solo traveler, couple, or family requires different strategies, especially for the big expenses of flights and accommodations. As a family, if you can drive somewhere, it makes a lot more sense because each person requires a separate flight ticket, whereas adding one more passenger in a car doesn’t add any more expense.
If you’re going somewhere really cheap, however, the longer you stay the longer those costs will even out. For example, flying the family to Guatemala or Nicaragua for two weeks will, in the end, be cheaper than driving to Florida for two weeks.
The other key strategy for families is to rent a house or apartment whenever possible instead of cramming everyone into a hotel room. You will also get a kitchen this way, which can save money, instead of having to eat out for every meal. In some cases, renting a car or hiring a driver can be just as cheap and more pleasant than buying three or four local bus/train tickets each time.
A strategy for couples that can also work for families is to make use of half-price deal coupon sites like Groupon or Living Social. This can really bring down the cost of meals and activities in the destination.
SC: In your experience, are there any cheap travel destinations that stand out as especially family-friendly?
TL: Smaller cities in the USA are a better value than big cities and resort areas, yet most have a children’s museum, parks and plenty of activities for kids, especially in the summer. Most of Latin America is very kid-friendly—except Argentina, where restaurants are empty for dinner before 10pm, and the same for Spain in Europe. But really, most destinations are plenty kid-friendly if you avoid the places known as big party destinations: Ibiza, Ko Phangan or Pattaya in Thailand, Prague, etc. After all, kids live everywhere—you don’t have to go to an expensive resort.
SC: What, in your opinion, is the biggest mistake you can make (financially speaking) when planning a family vacation?
TL: Trying to do too much in a short time or traveling too quickly from place to place. Not only is this something that will make your kid(s) cranky, it also increases costs quite a bit from all the moving around. Related to that, trying to schedule every hour of every day is a recipe for disaster. Aim to do one, maybe two planned activities each day and leave the rest of the time open to go with the flow, depending on how everyone is doing and what you discover locally. Often you’ll discover free or cheap things to do after arrival that are more fun that what you could have planned in advance.
SC: Do you ever recommend staying in a hostel when traveling as a family, and if so, what is your advice for determining if a hostel is family-friendly?
TL: Unless they’re specifically marketed as family-friendly, this can be a risky move. The schedules of partying 20-somethings backpacking around the world are very different than the schedules of families. And if your child is a baby, other guests may not take too kindly to your crying baby at 4 in the morning, audible to everyone through the thin walls.
Many hostels do accommodate families though—and sometimes you can get a dorm room to yourself. Check around, and do the math: often a suite at a cheap hotel will be a better price than four dorm beds charged per person in a hostel. Unless you’re somewhere super expensive like Norway or Japan.
SC: Do you have any favorite resources for travel deals?
TL: Established sites like Travelzoo, SmarterTravel, and Budget Travel are good, but it depends a lot on where you’re going and what you want to do. Sites like CheapCaribbean.com are good for all-inclusive deals, for example. Sites like HomeAway, VacationRentals.com, and AirBnB are good for finding an apartment or house to rent.
And again, use Groupon and LivingSocial for places you’re planning to visit. HotelTonight can be good for last-minute hotel deals, though you’ve got to find the right bed configuration if you’re a family. I’m also a fan of the old-school coupon books you find at rest stops when you’re on a road trip in the USA. Often those rates beat anything you’ll find online because they’re not paying a commission to Expedia or Hotels.com.
SC: Anything we missed?
TL: I think that covers most of it except to use every opportunity out there to earn frequent flyer/frequent hotel guest points you can cash in for vacations. The best strategy is to get a hotel and/or airline card to get a big sign-up bonus and then use it for recurring bills you can pay off every month, like cable, phone, and utility charges. The points add up fast and can literally save you thousands of dollars when you use them.
Tim Leffel is the award-winning author of four travel books, including The World’s Cheapest Destinations and Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune. See more bargain travel tips on Tim’s blog, CheapestDestinationsBlog.com.
For more thrifty travel tips, check out our Q&A with Matt Kepnes of travel blog Nomadic Matt.