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Budget-friendly family summer vacation ideas

With summer comes thoughts of family vacations: theme parks and beach stays and island cruises. For families on a budget, fancy resorts and international travel are likely to be costly to consider.

The good news is you don’t have to be rich to enjoy a great family vacation.

“A lot of people have in their mind that a family vacation has to cost a lot of money,” says Jody Halsted, who shares travel tips at Family Rambling and has been traveling with kids since they were babies. “It can cost a lot of money, but it doesn’t have to.”

How much a family vacation costs depends on a lot of variables, starting with how long you plan to vacation and whether you will drive or fly. Choice of lodging also makes a big difference, as does what you plan to do and where you plan to eat.

Here are suggestions for summer family vacations at three budget points: $500, $1,000 and $5,000. All vacation costs are approximated for a family of four, two adults and two children, although prices vary considerably based on where you live and how you travel.

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Family Summer Vacation on a $500 Budget

Camping

Camping is a favorite summer vacation choice for families on a tight budget. If you’re squeamish about sleeping on the ground, remember that not all camping requires pitching a tent. KOA and other campgrounds offer cabins, yurts and even tree houses and a caboose for overnight lodging, in addition to spots for RVs.

Not only is camping cheaper than staying in a motel, it’s a more interesting experience, Rich says, with lots of activities for kids. “At night, people aren’t holed up,” says Tamela Rich, an author who spends much of her time on road trips. “They’re out. They’re roasting marshmallows and whatever. … Kids get to meet up with other kids. That really enhances the experience.”

First-timer camper? Follow these tips for a successful and frugal camping trip.

State and national parks

You can also enjoy an affordable vacation at a national park. You can visit state and national parks for the day or camp for the night, staying in tents, cabins or lodges. Ohio, for example, has five state parks that are mini-resorts with water sports, pools and lots of activities. 

“For $500, families can have an amazing vacation at any national park,” says James Kaiser, who has written guidebooks to several U.S. national parks. He estimates the cost at $60 a day for a family, including the gasoline you’d use to get there. Check out these 11 free things to do in national parks.

To save money, look for parks without entrance fees, such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or plan your trip for when your child is in fourth grade and can get a free annual parks pass.

Water park resorts

Water park resorts, such as the Great Wolf Lodge chain and the lodges near freestanding water parks in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, can be a thrilling yet affordable summer vacation for families on a budget. Resort packages are a great option because they include lodging and admission to the water park. Sign up for deal alerts, look for off-season dates, and book ahead to save money. You might also want to bring your own food. (Many water park resorts are open in 2021, or will be by summer; use your judgment about whether you feel safe going.)

Visiting relatives

Traveling to see relatives who live within driving distance means you don’t pay for lodging and can eat at least some meals at home. (If it’s too much to stay with family for a week, look for nearby AirBnB rentals or ask if you could housesit for your relatives’ friends while they’re on vacation.) Thanks to the free room and board, you’ve got money to explore the attractions in that city. Check out these ways to save money on city attractions.

Family Summer Vacation on a $1,000 Budget

Cruise

A family cruise can be surprisingly affordable, especially if you don’t have to fly to the port. Summer is the off-season for the Caribbean, so prices will be lower. But you can also get cruises from places besides Florida and Texas, including New York, Los Angeles and Boston. Once you’ve paid your fare, all lodging, meals and activities are covered, and most cruise ships have baby-sitting and activities for the kids. Find out how to get the best deal on a family cruise. (It’s unlikely that cruises will be operating in summer 2021, but now would be a great time to book a 2022 cruise and get the best price.)

Vacation rental

Want to spend a weekend hanging out at the beach or hiking in the mountains? Pick a destination that’s interesting and affordable, and rent a house or apartment. For example, Daytona Beach, Florida, not only has pristine beaches but lots of fairly inexpensive things to do. No matter where you stay, you can find a house that fits your budget; you might have to compromise on number of bedrooms and bathrooms, proximity to town or attractions, or home amenities. Vacation homes are especially affordable if you’re traveling in a group, and can take turns cooking rather than eating out at restaurants. Book early for the most options.

RV Rental

If your budget allows for more than tent camping, you and the family can set off in a rented RV for just about anywhere in the country. Platforms like RVshare let you rent from the owner with certain guarantees, and allow you access to hundreds of choices from small camper vans to travel trailers to full-on Class A drivable campers.  National Parks, tourist hot spots, beaches – you can go to your dream vacation destination and take your lodging with you. Or you can arrange to rent an RV in your destination city and have the owners drop it off and set it up. Some of the newer recreational vehicles are pretty luxurious, with amenities like big screen TVs and full kitchens. Start your search at the RVshare page for your city and expand your search as needed. 

Off-season resort

Resorts in Arizona, Colorado, Florida and other winter destinations offer rock-bottom deals in summer. Yes, it’s hot in Arizona, but the resorts have great pools to cool down. While there’s no snow in Colorado, there’s still great hiking. Get a little creative with activities, and you can enjoy a vacation destination you ordinarily couldn’t afford.

Family Summer Vacation on a $5,000 Budget

All-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico

Winter is the peak season for Caribbean travel, meaning rates are much more affordable in the summer, says Sally Black, a travel agent who publishes Vacation Kids. Some resorts even offer “kids stay free and eat free” packages, as well as free child care. To avoid any surprise extra expenses, make sure you understand exactly what is included in your resort price and inquire about additional fees or activity costs. If you don’t already have passports, expect to spend more than $100 per person for those.

Be warned that summer is hurricane season in the Caribbean (another reason why prices are lower). Factor travel insurance into your trvel budget to cover your investment, should a storm sweep in during your intended stay.

Disney World 

Getting the best deal requires planning and knowing when to go, Black says. Prices are better in late summer than early summer; look for weeks when Disney offers its free dining plan. (Dates for 2021 have not been announced, as the promotion was canceled in 2020.) Websites such as Orlando on the Cheap can also be helpful. Here are other ways to save on a vacation in Orlando. Or check for discounts to Disneyland in California.

Family Theme Parks and Attractions

You can find discounts on theme parks and attractions across the country

All-inclusive U.S. resorts

Yes, the U.S. has all-inclusive resorts; they’re not just in the Caribbean! American all-inclusives include dude ranches and the Club Med properties that cater to families. Family resorts, such as Tyler Place Family Resort in Vermont, can be found all over the country and offer kids’ activities by age group for babies to teens. Discounts are available early and late in the season at many resorts. Try these ideas to save at all-inclusive resorts. 

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Here are suggestions for fun family vacations at three budget points: $500, $1,000 and $5,000. All vacation costs are approximated for a family of four, two adults and two children, although prices vary considerably based on where you start and how you travel. #budgettravel #summervacation #moneysavingtips #summerfun #frugalliving

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