- Get off the beaten path. Things like food and lodging are always more expensive the closer they are to an attraction. If you get away from the main touristy areas or the interstates you’ll normally find better prices on food and hotels. Of course you give up some convenience of being close to what you came to the city to do, so I always try to balance it. Plus getting away from the main tourist draws gives you a better feel of the city and you’re more likely to find some great local places.
- Drive. I know that it takes longer to get to locations but I really think driving is still an amazing option. It gives you more flexibility and control over your trip (If you want to pull over and see a big ball of yarn, you can change your plans without a thought). It gives the option of packing more items versus having to buy stuff at your destination. It’s cheaper. The more people you have going the cheaper driving gets per person. It costs me the same for a tank of gas to drive myself as it does to drive myself and my whole family. Lastly there is so much to see in between each location.
- Ask the locales. Want to know who knows a great place to get good food that’s well priced: people that live in the city all the time. We like to ask the front desk clerks at our hotel where they suggest for dinner. Locals know what restaurants are good (and in our case which ones can really handle seating a large party). Plus most people love to share their town with you. They also know the shopping better than you. So again if you are looking for something specific or just some general advice, talk to the people that know the area the best.
- Hotel Breakfast is your best friend. I heard you groan. I know complimentary breakfasts have their flaws. They aren’t always the best food and the seating situation can be a hassle. However, hotel breakfast saves you big on time and money. First off they are free. Free is always good. I know they aren’t high class dining but most of them aren’t horrid (I’m not much of a breakfast eater anyway, I eat cereal most mornings) and some of the hot ones are honestly quite good. Learn what hotel chains serve a breakfast you like and try to stay there. These also are going to save you time. #1 the food is already ready and #2 the location is very convenient (have a slow eater? you can have one person pack the car while slow kid enjoys his waffle). We always eat the complimentary breakfast and normally grab an apple or banana to take with us for a snack later.
- Public spaces rule. Want to know the best thing about parks? Most of their operating budget comes from taxes which means fees especially when compared to other destinations like theme parks are WAY cheaper. Both National and local parks give you great options for destinations for very little cost. Plus what you get to see is amazing. Even if you aren’t into hiking most parks still have activities you can enjoy. Most parks have short and easy trails to sample the wild without being in great shape. Most parks have some sort of ranger or volunteer lead programs (even state and local parks). Some parks even have other amenities like pools or splash pads. You can allow the kids to roam (within reason) and they can really burn off energy. We love the outdoors and try to work in a park into every trip.
- Picnics are your second best friend. If you have the room for a cooler in your car picnics can save you lots of money and time. You can buy the fixings for sandwiches much cheaper than going out to eat. Plus you can enjoy your lunch without leaving whatever you are visiting.
- Cheap souvenirs for kids If your kids are like mine they want a souvenir from EVERY stop. I’m on vacation I don’t really want to argue with my kid at every stop. And while yes I could set a budget for my kid let’s face it there is still going to be whining when they run out of cash and beyond that I don’t want a bunch of stuff to drag home and add to all their other stuff. I learned the art of cheap souvenirs from my mother who was a master. My mom convinced a 7-year-old me that collecting postcards was lots of fun. So wherever we went I picked out one post card from that location. She was a genius. I mean today a post card only cost between $.25 to $1.00 so I can imagine in 1991 they were even cheaper. Post cards also take up nearly no room. I had a whole collection of them and they all fit in single shoe box on my closet shelf.
Smashed Pennies – This same genius discovered smashed pennies when my little sister got a bit older. I stole this idea for my daughter. Her whole collection fits into a small passport sized book that I found online for about $10. Now smashed penny machines are a little harder to find (although I never seem to have a hard time finding one at most tourist locations) so I try to note if we located one at that location. Smashed pennies are also very cheap. For $.51 my kid gets a great souvenir and we don’t spend 30 minutes looking at everything in the store because most machines only have four choices anyway. My daughter loves collecting pennies and quarters for months leading up to a trip. While traveling we store her penny supplies (quarters and pennies) in a mini m&m’s tube, then after she’s made a few she can store her new smashed pennies in the same container. Just a note old pennies work better. Newer pennies are shiny and all but they have less copper than pennies from before the 1980’s. Which means if you use newer pennies you’ll get silver streaks from the zinc filler. You can actually shine up old pennies with a little bit of vinegar.
Jr Ranger Badges – We visit a lot of locations that are managed by the National Parks Department. The vast majority of national park, monuments and historic sites have a great program for kids (and adults too, there isn’t an age limit on it) that is FREE. When you arrive at a location pickup a Jr Ranger booklet from the bookstore/ranger desk (some of them are available to download and print online. Check out nps.gov). Help your child complete the correct number of activities for their age group. Activities in the book very they are often items like reading a short essay and answering questions, word searches, crossword puzzles, hiking bingo or fill in the blank questions that can be answered by exploring the on site museum. Once completed have your child take the book back the ranger desk. The park ranger will check the answers (they really do check the work so no cheating), and then they will swear your child in as a Jr Ranger. They’ll give your child a certificate and badge that is unique to that park. We’ve discovered that a lot of parks have their own unique oath and each ranger has done a great job interacting with the kids. congratulations you have just got a free souvenir AND your kid has probably learned something on vacation (that’s a parenting WIN!).
National Historic Trading Cards – We’ve also found that a lot of National Historic Sites have free trading cards. Check online to see if where you are visiting does. To get the free cards, your child just has to walk up to the ranger desk and ask. The cards are the same size as a baseball card. They have historic pictures on one side and historical facts on the other side. What cards you get is random so if you visit a park on multiple trips stop and get new cards each time.
- Annual Passes – Lots of places offer annual passes (zoos, museums, theme parks, normal parks). If you plan on visiting several times, run the numbers and see if an annual pass would save you money. Some passes such as Federal or State Park Passes will get you into multiple sites with just one pass. Often these passes extended to all members of your family or even everyone in your vehicle. Additionally annual pass holders are often offered other perks such as discounts on merchandise or food purchases.
- Use your existing memberships – Do you have an annual membership to your local zoo or children’s museum? What about AAA or AARP? Look into your existing memberships and see if you can get a discount at any attractions that you are going to. We are members at our local zoo. There are hundreds of other zoos across the country that we can get into for reduced rates or even free. Be sure to see if you have membership perks that you could use. Same thing applies if you are a veteran, active military or even a student (US 4th graders can get free Federal Park Passes good for that school year and the summer following). Never be afraid to ask if there are discounts available with a valid ID.