How We Pull Off Cheap Travel as a Family of 5

A family loading bags into a car in their driveway in preparation for a road trip.

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These are our tricks to affordable family vacations.

Key points

  • Travel can get expensive, especially with a family.
  • Hitting the road, avoiding hotels, and maximizing credit card points are just some ways to save money.

Before my husband and I had kids, we used to travel quite a bit -- and we were definitely willing to rough it in order to explore more corners of the world. But these days, roughing it is harder with three kids in the mix. While it was reasonable (if not a bit grungy) to book shared rooms in hostels when it was just me and my husband traveling, that doesn't really work when you have children.

Thankfully, though, my family has found ways to fit travel into our budget. Here are some of the tactics we use to keep our costs down so we can get out and do more.

1. We drive rather than fly

Sometimes, there's no choice but to hop aboard a plane to reach your destination. And seeing as how my family calls the East Coast home but my husband's family still lives on the West Coast, air travel is something we can't totally avoid.

But for trips that are doable by car, my family pretty much always opts to hit the road rather than book flights. Doing so often saves us a lot of money, and in some ways, makes travel a little less stressful. Sure, it can be tiring to drive for 14 hours straight. But taking the car also means not having to stress about packing too many things.

As an example of how driving can save us money, we're looking at going to Florida this spring. Flights for the week we're targeting would put us at about $1,900, and that's not including the cost of parking at the airport or checking bags (which we'll have to pay for unless we apply for a new travel rewards credit card that offers free checked luggage). By contrast, I'm estimating that driving will cost us under $500 -- and that includes the cost of gas, lodging, and meals along the way.

2. We rent private homes instead of booking hotels

Cramming a family of five into a hotel room isn't always comfortable or even feasible. Often, when we stay at hotels, we're forced to upgrade to a suite, which can be even more expensive.

That's why we tend to favor private rentals over hotels. Not only does that often save us money on our nightly rate, but it also gives us more space. Plus, when you rent a private home, you get access to a functional kitchen (whereas a hotel room may not give you more than a mini fridge). And while we do commonly like to dine out as part of being on vacation, we don't necessarily like to do so for every meal.

3. We use the right credit cards

Because we've cut back on air travel during the pandemic, we currently don't have a travel rewards card since many of the good ones impose an annual fee. For us, it isn't worth paying an annual fee right now. But we still do a good job of eking out cash back in the course of our travels.

Last summer, we took a beach vacation and went out for dinner almost every night (we prepared our other meals at our rental house). By using the right credit card at those restaurants, I was able to score extra cash back to offset our trip cost. We also have a credit card that offers extra cash back at the pump, and it's our go-to choice for those longer road trips.

While traveling as a family of five can be expensive, it doesn't have to be. These tactics have saved us a nice amount of money through the years -- which has been especially welcome now that the days of booking cheap hostel stays are long gone.

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