How to Save Real Money (and your Sanity) on Family Vacations

With Spring Break and Summer around the corner, it is time to think about traveling and vacations!  Traveling with kids can be tricky at times and often very expensive. I had the opportunity to interview Teri Gault, CEO of the to get tips on traveling with your family and tricks on how to save money. Teri is a lifestyle and savings expert and frequent flyer who travels over 150,000 miles a year.

picture of Teri Gault, CEO of the
Teri Gault, CEO of the

How can families save money eating while on vacation? With a family of 4, eating out 3X daily is expensive!

Eating out in restaurants three times a day is not only pricey but also a waste of valuable vacation time. Figure if you eat out once a day, you can enjoy waiting for your food. But three times a day, waiting for food wastes valuable time you could be lazing by a pool, or hiking to a beautiful waterfall! This is one reason we like condos for some of our vacations. That way, we make our own coffee in the morning, and a light easy breakfast, pack a picnic to take with us for the day, and eat out for dinner. Our picnic lunches are easy, as we stick to finger food snacks: salami, carrot sticks, string cheese, crackers, nuts, etc… Easy!

Also, I feel one of the worst things you can do to a little one on a vacation is to make them sit and wait for their meals in restaurants three times a day. Think about it. At home, when they sit down at the table, the food is already in front of them. To expect a toddler or baby to stay trapped at the table for thirty minutes before every meal, especially over the course of a week’s vacation, is unreasonable. Sure, you can bring toys, but playing at the table in restaurants isn’t a good thing to teach them anyway. When I’m with my husband, one of us would wait for the food, while the other played outside with our little wiggler! When “Daddy” wasn’t with me, I would order, and then tell the server “we” would be playing outside, and ask them to let me know when the food arrives. The servers appreciate it too!

An additional few trips for food when traveling with babies and toddlers… Get a backpack! You need hands free when vacationing with little ones. So leave the diaper bag at home, and switch to a backpack for vacations. Each morning, stock it up with a few different healthy snacks. Peanut butter filled pretzels were always our perfect treat, as well as apples, raisins, pretzels, and granola bars, depending on the child’s age. You can buy juice almost anywhere during the day. But pack a few juice boxes and water bottles as well.


For babies, avocados are my favorite staple on vacations. My kids ate only fresh food, not jarred baby food. We could order mashed potatoes, soup, and things that a baby could eat in restaurants. I became adept at mashing up a baked potato into some soup with a fork as well. I would ask for vegetables boiled in water or steamed until soft so I could mash with a fork. But for a healthy fresh snack on the road, I always threw in a nice avocado with a plastic spoon and knife. At any time, I could cut it open and spoon out the avocado from its natural “bowl”. My kids love avocados to this day, and still eat them the same way!


Like I mentioned before a condo is a great way to save on food and there’s ways to save money when booking condos. If you’re booking privately owned condominiums or a vacation home, shop around. Prices can vary and read reviews on the unit you’re interested in. If you don’t think it’s a high season or if the economy is still down check for several rental options regularly and wait until the last minute. I did this at the end of summer. I had my eye on about nine cabins on a lake. Each of the nine units were fine, and would have worked perfectly for us. I wasn’t going to go at all at full price, as it was just too much. But I kept logging in to check on the availability a few months before, hoping they may drop the prices since they weren’t renting very much. So I kept checking back and saw plenty still available. As long as there were lots of options, I kept waiting. All the way until three days before, there were still seven cabins un-rented that suited us. I called on the one I wanted most and asked if they would like to rent it at a lower rate. I got it for half off just for asking and waiting. I knew we wouldn’t be left in the cold, as there were so many available until the last minute!

A lot of money can be saved by booking an efficiency hotel for family vacations. Extended Stay America is one that has full kitchens and can be less than $50 a night depending on when and where you stay.

Figure a family of four eating out three meals a day comes to about $150 a day in food. Booking a hotel with a microwave and minifridge takes care of breakfast every morning with instant oatmeal, cold cereal, fruit, yogurt, etc., There’s lots of options for families to save money on food in a hotel that has these amenities. Or “breakfast included” can save a family of four about $30-40 a day.  You also have the option to stay in the hotel one night, especially after a big tourist day, watch a movie and have microwave popcorn and snacks. Even call for pizza delivery, all of which costs less than going to a restaurant for dinner, out to a movie and buying popcorn and cokes.

If you stay in a hotel that doesn’t have a kitchen, you can even use the hotel room coffee pot for hot water to make things like hot chocolate, oatmeal for breakfast or ramen noodles for a snack. If there’s a microwave you can heat up frozen dinners that you can buy on sale with coupons or canned ravioli, soups, chili or almost anything fast and easy. Canned chili is a great meal and cheap on sale with coupons. Grab a bag of grated cheese and fritos to go with it.

Many hotels will provide a refrigerator at no cost, if you ask. Some may charge $10 a day for a mini fridge. But again an efficiency hotel has all of those amenities and more!

Bring or buy some supplies for quick easy snacks and meals in the room:

  • Plastic utensils
  • Plates
  • Napkins
  • Pocket knife

If you get an efficiency hotel find out if they provide paper towels and dish soap. Most do! And many provide dishes, plates, bowls, cookware, utensils, etc.

Do you have any tips on how to keep kids on a routine while traveling, ie bedtime?

Kids’ sleep patterns are integral to a successful and healthy vacation… and also important for adults. Stick to a normal schedule if at all possible. But don’t be regimented about sleep arrangements. A vacation is not a bad time to let kids snuggle up in bed with you, if they need to, in order to fall asleep. After all, they’re excited and their surroundings are different. I’ve always felt like vacations are a good time to break rules. It’s a different setting and we’ve never had a problem getting back to our routines and rules once we’re back at home. Kids are adaptable!

What are some low cost ideas on entertainment while on vacation when you don’t want to go to a theme park every single day?

There are SO many free things to do that are much more fun than theme parks and commercialized activities. Start by Googling “free things to do in ____” and fill in the city name. You’ll find more than you can do in a lifetime!

One of our favorite resources over the years for fantastic free family activities are offered by county, state, national and local parks. State park rangers, for example, have programs for nature hikes, even crafts and all kinds of things. We once took all our kids on a harbor kayak trip for almost a full day for absolutely free! It was through state park service and we all met the park ranger at a marina, got professional training on how to row, were provided with life jackets and two man kayaks and off we went. The ranger took us to see all kinds of wildlife. It was fun and probably worth over $100 a person if we had booked through a kayak tour company! We’ve done tons of fun things for free through the parks system. Offers vary, but use the internet to choose from a myriad of various activities for free!

When making your plans, don’t think you can do “adult” things with little ones on a vacation. If you absolutely must visit a museum, for example, just know that a baby in a stroller is only seeing things at knee level and will get antsy. So limit outings like that to two hours and carry the child in a backpack. Talk to them about everything you’re looking at and don’t push the limits. Just decide that your entire vacation must revolve around doing “kiddie” things for the majority of your time. Some resorts or hotels have daycare or babysitting services. We didn’t have a good experience with our first time trying one at a resort, so we never did again. Subsequent vacations, we enjoyed planning everything to be geared toward the kids having fun. After all, if they’re happy, we’re happy!

Avoid over stimulation and exhaustion. We have learned to do one destination per day, no more. So if we’re on a vacation where we need to plan outings or day trips, just one a day is all a young child can bear. And a day off just to lounge around the hotel pool about every third day is also a perfect plan. Bottom line is, don’t over book. In reality you can really only enjoy doing about half of what you used to do before you had young ones in tow.

Best advice for traveling in a car with kids for long distance?

Kids do best when they each have their own backpack full of entertainment for the road. It’s even better if they choose what they want to do. Coloring books are fun. And the internet is full of fun free downloadable and printable road trip games. Here’s a fun site: We have lots of games that we play that are variations of “I spy”. One that keeps us all busy for hours is the “Alphabet game”. We start with the letter “A”, and we all look for a word starting with the letter “A”. It gets really fun when you get to “Q” and finally “Z” for the grand finale. Everyone looks at signs, billboards, etc. License plates don’t count, unless it’s a title or quote on the license plate frame. Everyone screams when someone sees one that we’ve been working on for twenty minutes or more! “There it is on that truck!” Very fun.

If you have a laptop or ipad, it’s exciting to play games or games on a cell phone. Download lots of fun free apps for games. Just recharge everything at night.

We also love to go to the library and get audio books that you can play over the car stereo. We had a great time on a trip through New Mexico, Arizona and Texas listening to “Louis L’Amour” western stories. My these are plentiful at our library on CDs and also available on cassette tapes and even MP3. They come complete with great actor character voices, train whistles, horses neighing and stagecoach sounds. My kids sit riveted listening to it and you can almost visualize all of the scenes going on as you drive through the territories that really set the stage! Libraries are full of lots of other audio books of nearly every kind. But remember, almost every library has a number of these you can borrow for free. My kids have heard at least 20 of them and we all look forward to them!

I always keep snacks and water bottles and juice boxes in the car. Not only does this same money, but is convenient. Log on to to access all the best advertised and unadvertised sales and stock up on snacks for the road at about 67% off!

Some on the go snacks that are my favorites are easy for the car, and for pit stops:

  • Peanut butter to make sandwiches or spread on crackers
  • Granola bars
  • apples and oranges travel well, and don’t require refrigeration
  • pretzels, cookies, chips, Pringles – neater for the car, and don’t get crushed

Most fast food restaurants will give you ice for your ice chest for free and you can also fill your ice chest at hotels for each day of travel.

We like to freeze water bottles to keep the ice chest cool. If you stay in an efficiency hotel or condo you can fill water bottles halfway and freeze. Then top off with water for the day.

Some easy items for an ice chest are:

  • String cheese
  • Cream cheese (if you want to bring bagels or spread on crackers)
  • Yogurt
  • Grapes

Best advice for traveling by airplane with kids?

I have to admit to being a pro when it comes to traveling with children on airplanes. I managed to record the first year’s trips in my first son’s baby book: 22 flights, 6 states, 9 cities, and one foreign country. Yes, all in the first year! We continued with lots of trips into toddler years and beyond. Now as CEO of, I fly 150,000 miles a year and see lots of parents struggling through airports, hotels and dealing with little ones in restaurants.

Each child should have their own carryon rolling backpack filled with their favorite things to play with and read. When it’s there’s, filled with their choices, they’re usually happier about carrying it. Letting them choose and carry some of their own snacks takes a load off of you too! I also carry a backpack instead of a purse when traveling with a family. Being hands free is much easier in airports. I stock up on all kinds of treats on sale and with coupons in the weeks before a trip. Things like fruit snacks, raisins, granola bars, etc. Before the trip, I lay out all the offerings and let them choose what they want in their backpack for the plane. Stay away from caffeine and chocolate, as it causes hyperactivity and then sugar blues. So having some chips and crackers to choose from are also good. And in the end, limit the balance of high content sugar!

For getting through airports and all the subsequent travel destinations, we had a backpack for carrying our boys when they were toddlers and babies. An umbrella stroller is also important to have. But lots of places you go will not be conducive to pushing a stroller. So you absolutely MUST bring both!

After you go through security, buy an over priced water bottle for everyone in the family, and let them put it in their backpack. Often times, once on the plane, the flight could be delayed before takeoff on the runway for hours, in which time no drinks will be served! This is a rule that I adhere to strictly for all my travels. You may thank me later!

The number one thing I wish all parents knew is how to prevent those horrifyingly painful ear problems from pressure changes in airplanes! It’s SO simple! All the child needs is to be sucking on takeoff and landing, before the pressure changes and throughout the pressure changes. The worst and most painful is coming down. A pacifier, a bottle, or nursing works great to help a baby’s ears “pop”. Older children can chew gum. This is the only time we can have fun really smacking the gum to get the jaw moving. My kids thought it was fun! Older kids can also suck on a straw (pinch the straw while they suck to make them have to suck harder), and make “lion faces”. We used to play games, “How big is your lion’s mouth? Mine is bigger… ” Or playing biting games to get the jaws moving. But you MUST know when to start the “sucking” or jaw movements. And yes, definitely, even if your baby is sleeping, wake him up and get the sucking going, or your baby WILL wake up screaming!

When the pilot announces “Flight attendants, prepare the cabin for landing”, it’s usually too late, less than 30 minutes before landing, and the descent has already been going on long enough for babies’ ears to start hurting. Some flights start a “long descent”, which can be over the course of an hour before landing. I’ve done so much flying that I have learned to identify the moment the plane begins to descend, as the pitch and volume of the engine lowers. I always wish the flight attendants would make an announcement for parents to whip out bottles and pacifiers! Because within about 10 minutes after we begin the descent, the poor babies begin to cry out in pain! Some flights descend for only about 30 minutes. If you don’t think you will know when the plane initially starts the descent, ask a flight attendant to alert you, so that you can get your baby sucking BEFORE the plane makes any drastic changes in pressure!

Is it less expensive to lodge in cities outside of major attractions?

If you have a car, this can be an option. But, some vacations are less stressful when you can walk to your destinations.

What days are the best days to fly?

The time of day you travel, as well as the time of day you purchase tickets can be the difference between saving $100 and not. Traveling on off peak days and times of the weeks can give great savings on flight costs. Typically, travel on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday are cheapest. Another suggestion is to pay attention to what time of the day you look for flights, if the price seems too high try searching for it at a different time of the day. Flight prices fluctuate depending on the hour. is a straightforward sight that helps navigate when and where flights are at their cheapest.

At the very least, consider alternate airports when flying. If you’re renting a car anyway, check the rates on “nearby airports” on websites like You might be amazed at the difference in price, which could be hundreds of dollars less per person. I’ve also discovered that sometimes, the last connecting flight actually takes less time to drive, by the time you wait for the connecting flight. So if you’re renting a car anyway and that last connection costs more you could opt to save money and even time! Plus, a one to three hour drive to your destination can be fun and interesting to see!

Thank you, Teri for your helpful advice and hints on how to save money. I have learned a lot of great tips that we will put into practice on our next family trip! Visit Teri for more money saving tips at

Comment Via Facebook
Founder and Lead Blogger at Akron Ohio Moms
Cindy is the top Akron Blogger with her own take on awesome brands for families, where to vacation for families, a beat on local activities and family fun, a knack for getting moms to share , and a house that is always 2 weeks away from a complete remodel!
Sign up for our Ohio Specific Newsletter- Each Email Focused on Only our best Fabulous Local News and Ideas!
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

4 thoughts on “How to Save Real Money (and your Sanity) on Family Vacations

  1. Penny D says:

    A note on buying the overpriced bottles of water at the airport. An cheaper alternative is to take an EMPTY water bottle in your carry on and fill it at a water fountain or sink on the other side of security. 🙂

  2. Knowledge Seeker says:

    I’ve been trying out a new little device that really seems to help them relax during the more mundane aspects of travel. They are very intelligent kids and both are very active in science and history, they both take after their Mom! With an understanding of how special the opportunity is to have the means to travel, they have been very appreciative for all the investigating they get to do. Because I travel quite a bit for work through Dish Network, I’ve accumulated quite a few frequent flier miles which helps get us abroad. After some serious though and commitments from the kids, my husband and I decided to get a Dish Sling Adapter and an iPad for each. There are so many children’s channels it’s really great plus both of them spend a lot of time watching the Science Channel, National Geographic, and other learning stations. This little bit of distraction seems to really help ease their busy minds when they get antsy and need something to focus on when we are not physically doing anything. I’ve been really happy with their response as they both understand the rules and are pretty respectful to those rules. When Mommy or Daddy says it’s time to put the technology away they know their toys will disappear if they don’t comply. Our trips together are so enlightening that it’s really not an issue regularly and we all have such a lovely time together.

  3. Pingback: How to Save Real Money (and your Sanity) on Family Vacations | TravelSquare

Leave a Reply

Share via