Your Family Vacation: Weird, Wonderful, and Inexpensive

Three children leaping into the air on a gravel path somewhere in nature.

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Forget everything you think you know about what a vacation is supposed to be. Make your own fun with these unique, affordable travel tips.

Forget everything you think you know about what a vacation is supposed to be. Make your own fun with these unique, affordable travel tips. 

If you're a fan of social media, you may have noticed the number of people posting photos of family vacations. Every picture is perfect. The backdrops look as though they should be in a travel brochure. Everyone is smiling, and the children appear blissfully happy.

But we all know what happens between those perfect sunset shots. At least one of the kids is slapping another, someone is whining (loudly), and everyone is hungry and tired. Just because they smiled in unison for a nanosecond doesn't mean the parents aren't questioning their own sanity, or the fact that they dropped so much money on a vacation when there were other bills to be paid.

Consider this: Recent estimates show that it costs a family of four approximately $5,726 for a weeklong visit to Disney World. That price includes airfare ($1,000), car rental and gas ($160), accommodations ($1,050), Disney tickets ($576), tickets to other attractions ($700), food ($840), and miscellaneous extras ($400).

I've been to Disney a few times, and while I love it as much as anyone, I would still say that the best vacations I've ever had were spent in out-of-the-way places that cost next to nothing to visit. My most vivid memories are of Roanoke Island, Gettysburg, Warren Dunes, Old Abilene Town, San Luis Obispo, and an Indian burial ground somewhere in the middle of Kansas. They are not of London, England or Mexico City or any of the extravagant places I've spent time.

And as someone who took her own children to look for Jesse James' grave in an overgrown cemetery and to explore the caves Mark Twain wrote about in Tom Sawyer, I can attest to the fact that fun is where you find it. No one can manufacture those experiences.  

Moreover, dropping more money than you can afford on a family vacation is the first ingredient in a recipe for financial disaster. Nothing is worse than needing to pretend to enjoy something, simply because you paid too much for it.

If you'd like to make memories with your own brood but don't want to break the bank, start by doing the math.

Build a vacation budget

Decide how much you can spend. That's the number you will build your vacation around. For example, if you already have $1,000 or $1,500 available, that's your vacation budget. If you don't have money put away but there's some wiggle room in your budget, save a little away each week for several months. Small changes add up. Brown bag your lunch, rent a movie to watch at home instead of going to the theater, double recipes and freeze half in order to get two meals out of one, and cut any subscription services you can live without.

Another money-saving trick involves moving to a (nearly) all-cash budget. Not only are we more careful about how we spend our money when we pay with cash, but we also appreciate the things we purchased more. Research by the University of Toronto Scarborough showed that spending cash is simply more painful than paying with a card. 

An all-cash budget is as easy as placing the money you normally pay toward monthly bills in separate envelopes. For example, school lunches would be in one envelope, groceries in another, and gasoline in still another. Dedicate one envelope to your vacation fund. Say your family decides to brown bag lunches one month rather than buy them, put the savings in the vacation envelope. Do the same if the water bill is lower one month or you return something to a store and have cash in hand.

If your budget simply has no wiggle room, take on a side hustle for a few months -- whether it's typing at home or watching kids after school -- and use that money for your family trip.

Remember those airline and reward miles you've been collecting? Now would be a great time to cash them in on airfare for the family, a rental car, or hotel stay.

Here's where math gets fun

For the sake of illustration, let's assume the grand total you've saved is $1,200 and that you want to do something totally unique. What about the Enchanted Highway in North Dakota?

The Enchanted Highway is a 32-mile stretch of highway in western North Dakota that features massive scrap metal sculptures. There are sculptures of grasshoppers, Teddy Roosevelt (complete with a horse-drawn carriage), deer, geese, a huge colorful bird, and the World's Largest Tin Family, made from empty oil drums. The tour begins in Gladstone, North Dakota and ends in Regent.

Once you know where you're going, use your budget to figure out how long you can stay. These numbers assume that you won't be using credit card miles for this trip and that you're traveling from in-state or a nearby state.

  • Transportation: $200 for gasoline
  • Hotel: Approximately $125 per night, including taxes.
  • Meals: The average family of four spends around $130 each day on meals.
  • Snacks: Figure in another $20 per day for treats -- one of the lessons traveling with family teaches is to bring plenty of snacks.
  • Other attractions: Budget $25 each day for nearby sites you need to pay to get into. For example, you might travel one hour south to visit the Petrified Wood Park & Museum one day, and 45 minutes north the next day so the kids could learn more about dinosaurs at the Dickinson Museum Center. Admission to the Petrified Wood Park is free, but you spend $25 on tickets into the museum. 
  • Souvenirs: Everyone wants at least one souvenir during the trip. Add $25 per day.  

The bottom line

First, subtract the cost of transportation from your total: $1,200 - $200 = $1,000.

Next, add your daily costs together:

$125 for hotel
$130 for meals
$20 for snacks
$25 for entry fees
$25 for souvenirs

With a total budget of $325 per day, you'll have enough saved for a three-day getaway with your family ($325 x 3 = $975).

With this method of holiday planning, you can have a fun and interesting vacation without needing to overspend or, worse, put it on your credit card.

And the U.S. is chock-full of unique vacation spots like the Enchanted Highway. Whether you want to see Painted Caves near Santa Barbara, California, visit the incredibly odd Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas, or take your older kids on a haunted trolley tour in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, they are all within reach.

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