How to save money and stay sane on your summer vacation
As a mother of four kids and multiple pets, Beth McMeekin has probably been there and done that when it comes to traveling as a family. She now uses much of that knowledge as an independent travel agent specializing in Disney destinations, helping other families make the most of their vacation time and budgets.
“We traveled a lot when my kids were little, so I learned some tricks along the way,” she said.
It’s a given that the bigger your family is, the more expensive travel will be, but there are plenty of ways you can save money — or at the very least, get the most out of what you’re paying for, McMeekin said. And you don’t have to lose your sanity hearing endless questions from the backseat, such as “are we there yet?”
Tip No. 1: Plan your trip early
While it might be tempting to plan a vacation sooner rather than later, you’ll benefit the most if you start 12 to 18 months before your desired travel dates, McMeekin said.
“When it comes to Disney vacations, it’s a good idea to book at least nine months before a trip to any Disney property,” she said.
Booking early gives you the best opportunity to keep your costs down, she said, adding that airfare, rental cars, cruises and all-inclusive packages go up in price the closer your travel dates are.
You can also find great deals by planning a vacation during off seasons, which vary depending on your destination. For example, you’re likely to find great rates in Orlando in September. Keep in mind that since most families book vacations around national holidays when kids are out of school, hotels and airfare will be more expensive at those times.
Tip No. 2: Look for all-inclusive deals
McMeekin said popular all-inclusive vacations include cruises, Disney packages and resorts such as Sandals or Beaches. All-inclusive trips typically feature one flat fee for lodging, meals and certain activities. The only extra fees vacationers have to worry about are tips and add-on excursions.
“We did a Disney cruise, and it’s great,” she said. “I know they’re not for everybody, but cruises are all-inclusive and you get to see several different cities along the way. They also have kids’ clubs, so if you want to have an adults-only evening, you can sign the kids up for a kids’ club and they’ll be taken care of.”
She said all-inclusive deals are also ideal if you’re traveling to a foreign country.
“In foreign countries, you may be a little timid about exploring the local culture because it is foreign to you, but all-inclusives generally have a lot of activities on the property so you don’t have to leave the resort,” McMeekin said.
Tip No. 3: Destinations matter
If money is a concern, you can still find places to visit that won’t break your budget.
“Washington, D.C. is great because so much is free,” McMeekin said.
The city is filled with monuments, museums and other attractions rich in history and learning that don’t charge admission, she explained. Plus, it is easy to navigate because of its subway system.
“There are a lot of affordable hotels near the Metro that make it even more affordable to visit with a family,” she said. “You don’t even have to rent a car.”
Keep in mind that weekdays in Washington, D.C. are more expensive because congress is in session and hotels charge more.
“Hilton Head is also a good option,” McMeekin said. “It’s a quieter beach than Myrtle Beach. It’s very low key, and they have lots of public beaches. It’s also extremely dog friendly.”
Other family-friendly suggestions for those on a budget include Atlanta and Savannah in Georgia, Nashville and Chattanooga in Tennessee, and St. Augustine, Florida.
“A lot of those cities have hop-on, hop-off trolleys,” she said. “You pay one fee and ride the trolley all day. My suggestion is to ride the trolley all the way around once so you know what all the stops are. It’s a very economical way to see the sights.”
Find a list of all Old Town Trolley stops at www.trolleytours.com.
Tip No. 4: Prepare your kids
Much-anticipated family vacations can morph into tedious getaways when children turn into impatient, volatile and wild creatures, making mom and dad grumpy, too.
The best way to nip this in the bud is to plan ahead so the kids are preoccupied during travel time, McMeekin said.
“Cookie sheets make great coloring trays or workstations if you’re traveling in the car,” she said. “Whatever you do, don’t take crayons. They melt too easily and cause a mess. Crayola Color Wonder is a better alternative.”
If you have a son with a weak bladder, invest in a camping jug, which can easily be emptied at a rest stop. Also bring wet wipes — spills will happen — as well as plenty of spare outfits. McMeekin recommends investing in I Spy tubes to keep kids preoccupied and calm, and don’t hesitate to use Google for ideas.
“Google is your friend,” she said. “You can find great ways to occupy your kids while traveling from other moms and dads who have been there.”
Tip No. 5: Don’t do it all on your own
Don’t underestimate the value of seeking help.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of using a professional travel agent to plan and book your trip,” McMeekin said. “I know families worry that it costs more, but if nothing else, it’s somebody on your side if something goes wrong.”
She said one of her clients was a mom who didn’t book an appointment for her daughter at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, the "salon" where cast members transform little girls into "princesses" at Disney World.
“She didn’t think her daughter would be interested, but when her daughter got there and saw other girls going, she wanted to go, too,” McMeekin said. “I got on the phone and made it happen while that mom got to enjoy the park with her kids.”