Save while you’re planning. Relax while you’re there.
Family vacations can feel like a spending free-for-all, and that cuts into the joy and fun. But there are ways to cut costs long before you go.
Choose the flight less traveled. Families tend to be ruled by school schedules, but moving flights even a day forward or backward can cut costs, and in summer you’ll have lots of leeway. Regional airports can offer significant savings on airfare. While they add time to your driving, it can be worth it. You’ll find that early-morning first flights out are generally cheaper (and they’re often less likely to be subject to airport traffic delays).
When to buy. Buying in advance can help, but not too far in advance. “Generally airlines don’t manage their cheapest price points until about three months before departure domestically,” says Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com, although this doesn’t hold for holiday periods like Thanksgiving and New Year’s. For international flights, the timing is about five months ahead†. Most airlines release fare sales on Monday or Tuesday. Tuesday at 3 p.m.‡, when everyone else has matched that low price, is often the best time to book, but the window is short. Sales are typically gone by Wednesday, so set up a price alert on Hopper or a similar service.
No-frills flights can save money, but watch for hidden fees. Several major airlines have “basic economy” tickets, but there are often fees for assigned seats, overhead luggage and other amenities. For families who are loaded down with vacation gear or who must sit together, this may not work. With any airline, know the category of ticket you’re buying and read all the fine print before clicking “buy”—that ticket may come with a hefty change fee (but remember, you do have 24 hours to cancel a ticket with no fee).
Buy pricey necessities ahead of time. You’ll regret how much you pay for sunscreen at a beach town when you remember what it costs at the warehouse store back home. You can also take things like shampoo in your checked bags.
Rent your car anywhere but the airport. Getting your car at the airport can be the most expensive option, and your online travel site may not show off-airport alternatives. Companies often charge less if you rent in town, for instance. It’s worth the hassle of the short trip, and often you can rideshare to the rental location. Clubs like AAA and Costco grant members rental discounts. There’s even an Airbnb-like option called Turo, which lets you pick up cars from owners in some 4,500 cities at reasonable rates (for example, $28 a day for a Toyota Prius in Chicago||).
Skip the hotel. If you haven’t taken the Airbnb or VRBO plunge yet, their sites allow you to filter housing options by the number of rooms, price and location. You can also check references and pictures of the units. (And once there you can eat in for some meals, saving a lot.) As with hotels, options dry up in busy times, so book ahead—and check cancellation policies, which vary widely.
Don’t write off the all-inclusive. Vacation bills can seem like death by a thousand cuts with all those unexpected extras. The trick to saving on an all-inclusive deal is to read the contract to know exactly what is not included (usually flights, motor sports, some alcohol). Especially in Mexico and the Caribbean, where all-inclusive resorts line the beachfront, you can save a lot of dough.
Use your credit card to save money. Credit card rewards can help when you pay for travel. For example, if you have Huntington’s Voice Credit Card®§ with rewards and you select the Travel & Entertainment category, you can earn 3% cash back on the first $2,000 that you spend each quarter. Or, with the lower rate Voice card, you get a 2% lower APR than the rewards card, saving you finance charges. Paying for all or some of your travel with points can put a big dent in the cost of your trip. And once you’ve trimmed the costs and are ready to go, all you have to do is relax.