How to Plan a Fun Family Vacation Without Going Broke

Are you already thinking about Spring Break or your next summer family vacation? It’s not too early to begin your planning. We have been thinking about a family road trip to San Francisco for a couple of years now and the time has finally come. The kids are big enough that they won’t topple out of cable cars and can walk (and drive) longer distances. Here are some of the things we are doing to help plan for and defray the cost of our family vacation.

Start a vacation fund. This is as simple as having an envelope that you stuff with cash. The kids are encouraged to contribute too. We put bottle return money, found money (including cash found in the laundry), craigslist sales proceeds, garage sale funds and any other unexpected windfalls in the envelope. This won’t pay for the whole vacation but it will help and it keeps everyone invested in the project. It’s surprising how fast this money will add up.

Start looking for inexpensive activities. All cities have things to do that don’t cost money. In San Francisco we plan on seeing the Cable Car Museum (free) where you actually get an underground view of the cables running. For the Star Wars fans in the family we are going to see the Yoda statue at Lucasfilm Headquarters in The Presidio. If you are a member of your local science museum or zoo, you may find that you are eligible for free admission to other cities’ comparable museums. Check your local museum for details. Another money saving idea is to check out Citypass. If there are enough activities on the Citypass that you are interested in doing, it may make sense to buy it.

Think about transportation. Do you plan on driving or flying? Flying can get expensive so we plan on driving. If you have an older car or don’t want to put a lot of miles on your car, think about renting. A weekly car rental through the name your price program at Priceline may cost a little up front but could reap savings in gas mileage and wear and tear on your vehicle. Once you get to your destination, look into mass transit options.

Plan your food. Since we are driving, I plan on bringing plenty of breakfast/lunch type food to last for a day or two. Instead of stopping and eating at a restaurant, we prefer to stop at a park and picnic so the kids can run around before getting back in the car. Once you arrive at your destination, scope out grocery stores and delis. These help keep costs down and also save a lot of time. A great website to visit is It is a great way to find restaurants where locals like to eat. It’s also a good idea to keep handy snacks in your purse or backpack. It’s often easier to have a clif bar or apple on hand rather than settling on any old place to eat.

Where will you stay? One great way to find an inexpensive high end hotel is through Priceline. Clark Howard has a great technique for doing this at this link. Since we are driving to a big city, having free parking might be even more useful. In San Francisco there are some family owned motor inns that offer great locations and free parking. They are also pretty reasonable in price. It’s a good idea to check out hotels you are thinking about staying in on Trip Advisor will give you a consumer point of view of what the hotel is really like.

Be flexible and spontaneous. Some of the best activities you can find on a vacation might be the unexpected ones. If you stumble across a festival, farmers market or street fair, keep an open mind and be willing to change your plans. Family Vacations shouldn’t have rigid agendas, just general guidelines.

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