Top Ten tips for paying for Vacation‏!

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Our family of 6 (Mom, Dad, and kiddos ages 10, 8, 5, 2) just got back from a week in St. Petersburg, Florida.  We had a great time and even went into Orlando for b2ap3_thumbnail_j7.jpga couple of days.  Planning for a vacation with a bigger family can be tricky and costs can add up quickly if you don’t plan ahead.  We made the decision about a year ago to pay for this vacation in cash and there was nothing like being able to come home knowing we weren’t still paying for the vacation we were no longer on.  I compiled a list of some of the things we did to make our trip affordable and how we paid for our vacation in cash!


1. Figure out how much you need!  In the initial planning stages of any trip it’s important to be realistic and even dream a little.  We started by making a spreadsheet of everything we would want to do and trying to put a semi-accurate dollar amount next to it.  For example we knew that we wanted to try and do something with dolphins on this trip, go to an amusement park, etc.  You can put anything you want on this list and can always eliminate as you need to if the money isn’t quite there.  We also added categories for the necessities (hotel cost, gas, food, dog boarding).  We even had a category for souvenir money.  You may have no clue how much to put into each category at first, but looking up general amounts of things will give you a starting point.  Once you have a rough total you can figure out how much you need to save monthly to arrive at your goal by the time you hit the road.  For some people, using your tax return as a vacation fund is a good idea to set aside a lump sum.  As you get things booked and have more exact numbers, continue to update your spreadsheet on how much you still need, how close you are to your goals, etc. and make adjustments as needed.  You may find you have enough to go to the amusement park but have to eliminate the dolphin swim, or you may be closer to your goal than you think and be able to add in something extra.  If you are close to your goal consider having a yard sale or selling things on craigslist to get you to that final goal.

b2ap3_thumbnail_j3.jpg2. Where to stay?  The options on where to stay in Florida are vast from five star luxury hotels to affordable campgrounds.  Knowing what the needs of your family are and what you’re comfortable with are very important.  We knew for this trip, that we have four kiddos so a standard hotel room with just two queen beds won’t work for us.  Options like renting a house, unused timeshares, or hotel suites were all taken into consideration.    Ultimately, because we were traveling in the summer we ended up deciding a hotel suite was the most affordable option.  Even these can be very diverse.  Places like the Comfort Suites or Residence Inn have very comfortable rooms with two beds and a pull out couch and some kind of kitchenette.  They usually range in the $100-$200 range.  Unfortunately there aren’t usually too many of those right on the beach.  If this is important to you, which it was for us,  we had to explore the “suite” type rooms that were oceanfront.  Had we been willing to stay a little further in and drive to a beach each day our cost savings could have been greater.  Also, things like if a hotel has a pool, kids activities, free breakfast, etc.  should all be taken into account when booking.   I suggest pricing out two or three different options and based on the average monthly savings you can do, choose what is right for you. 

3. Save your change!  People don’t often think about how much loose change they accumulate.  Every time you buy a starbucks or pay in cash for anything you are left with random coins.  Toss them into a jar at home and every month or so you can roll them and cash them in at your bank.  My older kids (10 and 8)  loved counting and separating the coins and helping to roll them.  It was also a good avenue to talk to them about how quickly savings can add up!  We saved about $200 in change that we could put towards our vacation this year.

4. Buy things in advance.  This sounds like common sense, but little things you may not think of can end up costing you way more than necessary if purchased at a hotel gift shop or in Florida in general.  One example of this was sunblock.  We had used coupons and purchased a ton of sunblock at home before leaving to pay less than $5 a bottle.  In our hotel gift shop a bottle of sunblock was $15.  Another example is sand toys and boogie boards.  I kept my eye out at yard sales and consignment sales and was able to score tons of sand toys for $2-3 to take with us.  In florida, a small set can run upwards of $15-20.  Two weeks before we left, Michaels Craft store of all places had boogie boards on clearance for $5.  We got two for $10.  In one of the surf shops on the strip in St. Petersburg we saw the exact boards for $20-25 per board.  Things like swimsuits, sunglasses, hats, etc. can all be purchased on clearance in the off season if you plan ahead to avoid paying outrageous prices once on vacation.

5. Eat breakfast cheap!  Most mornings on vacation my kids are excited to get up and hit the beach/pool.  They don’t want to waste a ton of time eating, and I don’t want to waste a ton of money.  This is one of the easiest meals to keep affordable on vacation.  We went to Costco and Wal-Mart before leaving and purchased, muffins, bagels, pop tarts, cereal, etc.,  to have for breakfast in the room and took them with us.   When we got to Florida, we bought a gallon of milk for the week at a local grocery.  If you choose a hotel with a complimentary breakfast you can save even more.  Also, if the thought of going to the breakfast buffet at the hotel or another nearby restaurant sounds great, plan to splurge on a big breakfast one day.  But for us, shelling out $50-60 for the first meal of the day wasn’t to appealing. b2ap3_thumbnail_j6.jpg

6. Make a daily food budget!  At home we have a pretty strict weekly grocery and eating out budget, so there is no reason to completely throw that out the window on vacation.  However you will need to plan on spending more than typical if you plan to eat out for a lot of your lunches and dinners.  Our family planned $130 for meals per day.  We figured that breakfast was taken care of from #5, above.  So we had lunch and dinner to take into consideration.  My younger two children (5 and 2) rarely finish their meal and we often times leave restaurants with so much food left over and even my older two kids can be bad about this at times.  Having them share a meal is cost effective and less wasteful.  Many restaurants have their menus already posted online so we could get ideas about what 2 adult entrees would cost and 2-3 kids meals.  Based on the prices of the restaurants we wanted to go to and eating cheaper lunches some days (like Wendys, Subway, ordering a Pizza), we came up with the number that worked for us.  $130 times 10 days, which included our travel days provided us with more than enough. 

7. Similar to the shopping ahead, was buying drinks and snacks ahead of time.  We looked for the best prices before we left on sodas, capri suns, and bottled water, chips, apples, carrots, fruit snacks etc.  All of these things came with us and saved a ton.  We weren’t running to the pool snack bar every time someone said they were hungry or thirsty or stopping at gas stations while traveling.   Knowing that I paid about .30 cents per drink or bag of chips instead of $3-4 was fantastic. 

8. Seek out free things in the area.  Part of the reason we chose our hotel was that it offered several activities at no additional charge for kids and adults.  Things like paddle boats, a large inflatable slide, mini-golf, a life size chess set, tennis courts, ping pong, etc.  where all offered at our hotel.  If the kids needed a break from the beach/pool it was great to have other free activities they could do.  On that same note, a lot of hotels offer children’s activities and crafts that you can drop your kids at and go.  Be leary of these because they can be very pricey and your kiddos end up with dollar store crafts that you pay $20 for.  A couple of the restaurants we went to also offered kids eat free nights, so call ahead, find out when these things where and plan your meals accordingly. 


9. Consider multi event passes or rate discounts for booking several attractions.  One example of this for us was our biggest vacation expense/splurge for this trip.  We knew we wanted to swim with dolphins.  The best place for this activity is at Discovery Cove in Orlando, but it is pretty shocking when you first see the cost for the day.  However, when we took a closer look some things helped us decide that this splurge was worth it.  Included in your Discovery Cove day, is a full gourmet breakfast and lunch as well as all your snacks, drinks, etc for the day.  So dinner that night is the only meal you have to pay for that day.  In addition to this Discovery Cove gives its visitors free admission to Sea World and Aquatica for two weeks surrounding your stay.  They also gave you the option of adding Busch Gardens to your trip for just $5 per person extra.  Knowing that we were not doing the Disney route on this vacation, we basically got three days worth of entertainment and amusement parks for the price of Discovery Cove.  We did Discovery Cove on Monday, Busch Gardens on Wednesday, and Sea World on Saturday without having to pay additional at the second two parks.  Had we had more time or wanted to we could have done Aquatica Water Park for free also.  There are a lot of these type of group discounts or city passes even if Discovery Cove is not your thing.  Just shop around ahead of time and include the total cost in your planning budget. 

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10. Use an envelope system and stick to your plan.  The week or two before you leave take all the cash you’ve been saving and separate it out into envelopes for each category.  We had envelopes for the hotel we were staying in in Georgia on our drive down and back, dog boarding, food, our florida hotel, souvenirs, gas, etc.  We put the amount we knew we needed in each envelope.  I usually try to keep a trip binder with all necessary paperwork in it as well.  So for example there was a divider for dog boarding with a clear sleeve that allowed me to put all of our dogs shot records and paperwork about where the dog would be boarded right with the envelope and the money.  Once we paid the money, I simply added the receipt to the clear sleeve and knew it was taken care of.  We did this for each category  and as we spent money at a restaurant, on a souvenir etc. we would file the receipts in that section.  If you stick to your plan and don’t let the excess spending get out of control you can have a great trip.  We would look at our days spending each night and if we didn’t spend all the food money we could roll it over to the next day and maybe go somewhere nicer that night or treat everyone to ice cream.   Lastly, trying to cut back on spending at home during the weeks and months before a trip can be fun if you get everyone involved.  Telling your kids, we aren’t going to buy that right now because we are saving for our super fun vacation and having a visual countdown that they can see helps make waiting easier and builds anticipation.  I’d love to hear your thoughts or ways that you make vacation affordable!