10 Tips for an Affordable Family Vacation

Here's how to keep costs under control -- and still have lots of fun.

Summer -- it will be here before you know it. So it is time to kick your vacation planning into high gear -- especially if there are kids in the equation. That's because you have to find a locale that offers not just what you want but what your children will find fun and interesting, too. On top of that, it has to be affordable. And that can be tough when you're buying multiple plane tickets, staying in hotels, dining out and shelling out cash left and right for rounds of mini-golf, and kids' souvenirs.

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Don't despair. It's actually a great time to find a good travel deal. "Every place has specials now," says Teresa Plowright, the About.com guide for Travel With Kids. "For bargain hunting, it's never been better." Our ten tips below will help you snag those deals and plan an affordable vacation. And our slide shows will give you ten fun and flexible destinations if you're traveling with infants or toddlers and ten great spots for families with children ages 5 and up.

1. Use the Web to find the best bargains in air travel and the cheapest rates for car rentals, hotel rooms and vacation packages, whether you travel in the U.S. or internationally. Our 25 favorite travel sites will help you get great deals. Also check sites that specialize in family travel. Travel With Kids lists promotions each month, as well as deals at major resorts, and has loads of vacation ideas and tips. Family Travel Network also is a good place to find a big list of bargains.

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2. Visit off-the-beaten-path destinations. You can save up to 70% -- and avoid the crowds -- by picking a vacation spot that isn't a tourist mecca. Check out these five spots where your dollar will stretch futher and our slide show of 12 trips on the road less traveled.

3. Do Disney on the cheap. Okay, so maybe you really want to travel to a major tourist destination, perhaps even one of the most popular family-vacation spots: Disney World. But you'll have to pay a pretty penny to spend your holiday with Mickey Mouse, right? Not necessarily. Walt Disney World has four value resorts, with rooms starting at $82 a night and packages from $1,600 for a family of four that include lodging for six nights and theme park tickets. You can use the free bus system to get to the theme park. Or for real budget accommodations, consider camping for $41 a night at the resort's campground. For more Disney discounts and deals, check out Mousesavers.com.

4. Travel after peak season. This might not be an option if you have school-age children. But families with infants and toddlers can take advantage of discounted rates by traveling in the fall. If you want to head south of the border, off-season comes conveniently during the summer months. Caribbean and Mexican resorts and hotels are much cheaper from April or May through the fall, Plowright says. And some have kids-stay-free promotions for children under certain ages during this time.

5. Be flexible. You can save money by letting the available deals on flights and lodging determine where and when you'll go rather than picking a location and timeframe then trying to find affordable flights and lodging there. For example, Airfarewatchdog.com lets you see the best airfares departing from your city, and you can sign up for e-mail notifications for deals from the airport nearest you. Farecast.com, which predicts whether fares on 2,000 domestic routes will go up or down, has a flexible search option that lets you see a range of prices for flying on different dates and from different airports. Enter your itinerary and the site will say whether you should buy your ticket now -- or if an even better fare is probably on the way. For international flights, try ITA Software's flexible search (click "Looking for fares," log in as a guest, then do a month-long search). If you're really flexible, you can find deals for last-minute travel (as late as three hours before departure) at Site59.com.

6. Don't fear flying with infants. Gone are the days when airlines offered discounted rates for all children. But most airlines still let you hold a child younger than 2 on your lap for no charge -- or pay a discounted infant fare for a seat for your tot. Plenty of us here at Kiplinger's have flown across the country -- an even the ocean -- with small children and survived the experience. Besides, attending to a baby for a few hours on a plane beats several hours in a car -- especially when traffic is heavy and you need to concentrate on the road, not your child. Learn more about airline policies for traveling with infants.

7. Pick spots within driving distance. Driving is a good way to save money, Plowright says. But it can be as expensive as flying if you drive a gas-guzzling vehicle and have to pay for a hotel room on the way to your destination. So the key is to pick a destination that's just a few hours' drive away. In addition to saving money, you'll minimize the times you'll hear that inevitable question coming from the back seat: "Are we there yet?"

8. Consider camping. If you're really pinching pennies -- or just want to keep your kids away from a computer screen for a week -- pitch a tent rather than book a room. It's a great way to experience the national parks. And even places like Disney World have campgrounds. You may even want to send the whole family to summer camp, which can be a great value vacation. See the American Camp Association's directory to find a camp that's right for your family.

9. Don't write off all-inclusives as too expensive. If you head south of the border, you can score big deals at Mexican resorts that offer everything -- food, drinks, transportation and a room -- as part of the package. Sometimes the deal even includes airfare. For example, we recently found packages with a weeklong lodging at an all-inclusive Cancun resort and airfare from Washington, D.C., for as little as $600 a person.

10. Don't be afraid of luxury locales. So maybe you want to treat yourself to a luxurious vacation but you're worried that your children won't be welcome. "Even luxury places are welcoming kids," Plowright says. Over the past ten years she has seen a trend toward accommodating families at hotels and resorts that once were the domain of adults only. "It's hard now to find a place that doesn't cater to families," she says. So if you want to stay at a boutique hotel when visiting New York City, go for it. By using Priceline.com's bidding system, you can find deals on luxury lodging. Bids of less than $100 a night on luxury digs are often successful. Two catches: Priceline doesn't disclose the name of the hotel you're booking until you buy, and it doesn't refund your money if you cancel.

Cameron Huddleston
Former Online Editor, Kiplinger.com

Award-winning journalist, speaker, family finance expert, and author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk.

Cameron Huddleston wrote the daily "Kip Tips" column for Kiplinger.com. She joined Kiplinger in 2001 after graduating from American University with an MA in economic journalism.