Are you looking for affordable vacation ideas? I know I always am! We have five children, so we understand how expensive a vacation can be. Our family of 7 is too large to fit in a typical hotel room, so when we vacation we have to either reserve two rooms or rent a house whenever we go away. That means we don’t go away often! But when we do, we travel on a budget, like the time our family went to Disney on a dime. It can also be really tricky to go on overnight stays when you have children with sensory concerns or mobility issues.
But even with our family size and limitations, we do take lots of trips and do tons of fun activities with our kids! Here are our top tips for how to make vacation days accessible and affordable for large families and families raising children with special needs.
How to Vacation on a Budget With a Large Family
*Disclaimer: Because of COVID-19, some of these options may still be more limited at the time of this publishing, but you can always pin this post and save it for later!
Take advantage of local options. Pretend you are a tourist in your own city. There are lots of things to do and see and many of them might even be free!
Think parks. Our family loves to take advantage of state and national parks. A few years ago we couldn’t afford to go on a beach vacation, so instead, we packed a picnic and drove about 45 minutes to a local state park. The kids spent all day swimming at the beach area around a lake and Eddie brought his fishing gear. We went on a Saturday so we didn’t even have to take any days off work. Other than the gas to get there (and possibly a small gate fee?), we didn’t spend any money at all. If you have a fourth-grader, you can print a family pass to enter all National Parks for free for an entire year!
If you do want to spend a few days away, lots of state parks offer campsites or even cabin rentals. Cabins are great for our family because they are very affordable and are meant for large groups, so we can fit our entire crew, and they have their own bathrooms and usually have air conditioning.
Do shorter trips. We are fortunate that my husband has a very flexible work schedule. Often he will work longer days Monday through Thursday in the summer to make sure he can have 8 hours off on a Friday without needing to actually take any days off. Throughout our marriage, we’ve taken lots of 3-day mini-vacations this way, which is much less expensive than longer trips.
We also do lots of day trips. Our home in Pennsylvania was about 4 hours from the closest beach. Although it was a long drive, there were several times when we drove to the Jersey Shore and back in one Saturday so we didn’t have to pay for a hotel or take time away from work. We would leave around 6 am, pack a cooler full of food, and get to the beach around 10 am. We spent the day on the sand and playing in the ocean, and would head out around dinnertime. The kids would usually fall asleep in the car from exhaustion. It only cost the price of a tank of gas and parking.
Where can you drive? Usually, with a large family, driving is the most economical way to get to your vacation spot. Where can you drive on one tank of gas? Maybe there are cool museums, or historical sites, or waterfalls. Maybe you have relatives to visit. Consider crossing state lines and even more possibilities will open. I have a few posts here on the blog documenting all the free or affordable things we did when we lived in the York/Lancaster, PA area. The two pictures below are of our family at Chocolate World and the petting zoo at Long’s Park, both of which are completely free.
RV Parks are a great option for affordable housing as well. We have stayed at the Tropical Palms in Orlando and Spring Gulch in Lancaster, PA. You do not have to own an RV to stay at either of those resorts (although they do have campgrounds). We are not big fans of camping, but we love RV resorts with the option to stay in rental houses. It’s usually more affordable than a hotel and you have an entire house to yourself with so many kid-friendly activities just outside the door within walking distance. We took advantage of the on-site amenities like pools, mini-golf, playgrounds, sports courts, concerts, fishing, etc. You can bring your own food and not have to spend any additional money on entertainment.
One of my favorite family-friendly travel tips is to stop at a grocery store instead of a rest area when you need a break. The store will most likely be cleaner, safer, have everything you need (bathrooms included), and it is much more affordable and healthy to pick up a bunch of bananas and a bag of pretzels at a grocery store than to buy a lot of over-priced gas station snacks. You can keep a large drink cooler in the back of your vehicle and fill it with a bag of ice from the store. It’s much cheaper to buy a bag of ice than drinks for our entire family. That way the ice melts as you go about your journey and you have plenty of cold water available for refilling water bottles.
On long trips we give each of the kids their own brown paper lunch bag filled to the brim with snacks and treats. Those are their treats for the entire journey, so they don’t even ask to buy more when we stop for gas.
We also don’t use suitcases for our children’s clothes when we are on long car trips. We put them together in a large storage tote, separated with pieces of cardboard I cut from Amazon delivery boxes. The storage tub takes up less space than several suitcases, is only one thing to load/unload, and we can easily stack a cooler on top of it in the trunk of our minivan.
If you have any other tips, I’d love to see them in the comments below!
In the meantime, check out these other posts on the blog for more family-friendly affordable vacation ideas!