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How to Plan a Family Dream Trip With No Budget

Top travel-planning tips from a family-travel veteran


Published on: March 10, 2016

Otto Beach - Little Corn Island - Nicaragua. Flickr CC. Brian Johnson and Dane Kantner
Otto Beach - Little Corn Island - Nicaragua. Flickr CC. Brian Johnson and Dane Kantner

As parents, we dream of taking our kids to see the world. We want to give them every advantage through exposure to new languages, food and cultures. But how to afford the dream trips you'd like to realize before your kids leave the nest? It's possible with small cutbacks and a little savvy travel planning. Here's how.

Stick to a budget and save

If you are serious about your travel goals, get serious about saving. Build a simple budget in an Excel spreadsheet (or a software program such as Quicken or and stick with it. Sit down with your checkbook and credit card statement, and look at how and where you are spending your money. You'll find that if you skip your daily Starbucks; you can save $25–$50 a week. Packing your lunch, instead of buying it every day, could save you even more. Make a grocery list so you only buy the things you need and you don’t waste money on impulse buys. Figure out where you can cut back and what is essential. 

Set up an auto-save function on your savings account

Once you have your budget, look at how much you can afford to put aside each pay period. Set up your bank account to auto-debit that money into a savings account where it will be safely tucked away. Do not touch that account until you are ready to book your trip. Tip: There is an increasing number of free savings-oriented apps (from Level to Unsplurge) that can help you make a budget, stick to it and save. 

Set aside a slush fund

Budgeting is tough, especially if you want to be able to buy an occasional ice cream cone or other treats for your kids. Have an envelope of fun money (it can be virtual or real) as a slush fund each month for treats, but once that money is gone it is gone.

Get your kids involved

It’s hard to save money for your dream trip when your kids are begging you for money to go to the movies, buy the latest video game or get a new Lego set. But if you involve your kids in the decision to take a trip, and the accompanying excitement, the budgeting will make more sense to them. If you put them in charge of some of the planning, even better. Give them guidebooks and help them look up your location on the Internet. Encourage older kids to make lists of activities they want to do and what they might need to bring. Even toddlers can get excited about pictures of the things they may see. Next time your kids ask for something that isn’t essential you can remind them of your upcoming trip.

Set your travel budget

Once you have your travel fund in the works, start thinking about a realistic trip budget. How much will you need to spend on flights, lodging, activities and food? For local trips, look up the distance you'll travel and calculate the amount of gas money you will need, as well as hotel costs. Europe or other far-flung destinations are trickier, of course, because of the airfare. Luckily, you can find deals on house and apartment rentals. (See below.) Once you are on the road, apps like Trail Wallet and Trabee Pocket can help you track your spending and stick to your travel budget.

Rack up miles to buy tickets

Make sure you're earning as many airline miles as you can through everyday purchases on cards such as the the Chase Venture card: From dining out to grocery shopping and gas, you should be earning as many points as you can. Other easy ways to grab miles are through e-mile surveys, donating to specific charities (check airline websites for details), buying flowers from sites like FTD, and even opening an investment account, according to

Score the best airfare with flight deal sites

Airfare costs are constantly in flux, but websites like and track airfare trends and can alert you via email when ticket prices drop for specific destinations. has a handy function that allows you to plug in your travel dates, home airport and “everywhere” as your destination. This will give you a plethora of flight ideas and price ranges to start planning your next vacation.

Also, travel on off-peak days to save money. Avoid leaving on Mondays, and you can save a bundle. Flying midweek (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) and on Saturdays are generally the cheapest days to take off. (The cheapest day to actually book travel is Tuesdays at 3 p.m. EST according to Check whether flying from nearby cities such as Vancouver, B.C. might be cheaper than from Seattle.  

Find budget destinations

Start by looking at the exchange rate. Right now Canada’s dollar is low compared to the U.S. dollar, making Canada a much cheaper destination than it was a few years ago. Also look for destinations where your dollar actually buys you more, such as some Central American and Asian countries; this can offset the cost of your plane tickets. Once you arrive you can save a bundle on hotels, food and activities.

Lantern festival Ying Peng in Thailand family travel destinations Photo by John Sedrick on Flickr CC

Rent a house or an apartment

Renting a house or an apartment can save money on food, provide more space for kids to play (essential), and, if you bunk up with other families, can save on housing costs. Check sites such as,, or for family-friendly properties in the best locations. If you're traveling in the off-season, look at the rental calendar and see if there are a lot of open dates around your travel dates. You may have a chance to negotiate for a better rate. It never hurts to ask.

When you're traveling, look for free fun

Many cities, and even smaller destinations, have free activities that can save you cash. Search out free museums, or fee free days at local attractions. Take a walk in the local park instead of paying the high fees of a botanical garden. Many attractions have midweek deals or offer two-for-one coupons on specific dates. A great local resource is a parenting magazine — find the city's equivalent of the ParentMap calendar.

And remember: Your kids may qualify for certain discounts and deals depending on their ages. Fourth graders get free entrance into U.S. National Parks. Most cities offer free museum admissions on certain days or for certain ages (for example, see Seattle's free museum days). In Europe, kids can get into museums free sometimes up to age 6 and even up to 18 for the Louvre in Paris.


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