How to save thousands on your family vacation

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Ten years ago, within the span of a couple of months, my now husband and I moved to a new city, bought our first home, started new jobs and got married. Tackling four major life events in under 60 days was very exciting, but it was also incredibly expensive, leaving us with little money to fund a honeymoon.

But we were young and in love and in need of a break. So instead of completely forgoing a vacation, we bought a tent, packed up our Toyota Matrix and embarked on a 2,000 kilometre road trip to the West Coast.

This summer, to celebrate our 10-year anniversary, we decided to take a similar vacation — only this time, we’d be travelling with three little passengers in tow. We wanted our kids to share some of the experiences we’d had. We wanted to hear their breath catch in their throats as we travelled through the heart of the rocky mountains and see the excitement on their faces as they sidestepped crabs and jellyfish in the Pacific Ocean.

With a little planning, we were able to do all this and more, and keep our costs in check in the process. Here’s how.

Use reward points to pay for accommodations

With three kids, including a five-month-old, we had to break our daily travel into manageable chunks. We spread the 2,000 kilometre journey over an 11-day stretch, with overnight stays in six different locations. Instead of tenting, we chose to stay in hotels this time around. This saved us time (no campsites to set up or take down), reduced the amount of stuff we needed to pack and was a hell of a lot more comfortable.

But hotels aren’t cheap. Out of pocket, accommodations alone would have cost us more than $1,500. But we were able to book all but one night for free by cashing in our credit card points.

If you find a card with a good rewards system and use it for all of your purchases, it won’t take long before you have enough points or rewards to offset the cost of your vacation, including flights, hotels and more. Just make sure that if you opt for a traditional credit card, you pay it off each month to avoid interest charges.

We stretched out points by booking the cheapest rooms we could find to meet our needs. For example, we didn’t book hotels with pools for nights we knew we’d be arriving late and leaving early because they tended to cost extra. We did, however, make sure that each hotel room we booked offered free cancellation. It cost us about $20 more per room, but knowing that we wouldn’t lose all of our points (or money) if we had to cancel the trip or cut it short was worth the extra expense.

If you don’t have time to earn points before your next big trip, there are plenty of other ways to save. If you have family and friends in the area, ask to spend a night or two. You might also find cheaper accommodations via Airbnb or by staying at a locally-owned hotel or motel instead of a more well-known chain establishment.

Save money on food and drinks by packing your own and buying local

Unless your staying at an all-inclusive destination, food and drinks can become one of your biggest vacation expenses. Plus, paying for a coffee, snack or meal at a time makes it really hard to keep track of how much your spending overall.

We saved money on food and drinks by only booking at hotels that offered a complementary continental breakfast. Continental breakfasts are great because they’re ready when you are and don’t require you to sit down to eat. It’s perfectly acceptable to grab what you want and go. In fact, I once watched a trucker load the entire contents of a continental breakfast into two grocery bags before leaving and the hotel staff didn’t even blink an eye. We didn’t take it that far, of course, but we did take fruit, yogurt and/or pastries for the road, particularly on days when we had to leave early and the kids weren’t ready for breakfast.

We also packed a cooler bag and kept it stocked with lunch items and snacks bought at local grocery stores and fruit stands. If the kids got hungry while we were on the road, all they had to do was reach into the bag and grab a snack.

And, for the most part, instead of stopping at fast-food joints, we did things like enjoy a picnic lunch beside a waterfall in Banff, Alta, and eat cake by the ocean in Nanaimo, B.C. We’d planned to have a few nice family dinners along the way, but eating in parks and at the beach turned out to be a lot more fun than sitting in a restaurant.

Overall, we spent about as much on food and drinks while on vacation as we normally do while at home.

Look for coupons and discounts on entertainment and souvenirs

We had a good idea of what we wanted to do on this trip before we left home, including what each activity would cost. This allowed us to set a fairly accurate budget for our trip and to look for online discounts and coupons in advance. However, it only takes a few minutes to find coupons online. We saved 20 per cent off our admission to the Calgary Zoo by downloading a coupon while standing in line to pay. Check out tourism websites for the area, look for Groupons online or just do a quick Google search.

We also saved money by keeping an open mind about what we wanted to do each day. In fact, some of the best moments of our trip cost next to nothing, like the rainy evening we spent at the Nanaimo Aquatic Centre, the afternoon touring the Parksville sand castle contest and collecting seashells on the beach, and the lunch hour hiking alongside a waterfall in Banff or the roadside ice cream break at a dairy farm near Sicamous, B.C.

Shells on rock

In an effort to avoid our kids’ constant requests for “stuff,” we gave them an opportunity to earn their own spending money before the trip by selling some of their old toys online. This inspired our kids to be a little more picky about what they wanted to spend money on and they ended up with some great souvenirs instead of the candy and cheaply made toys that they normally wanted to buy.

Nothing puts a damper on a great vacation like coming home with vacation debt. By taking a little bit of time to plan and look for opportunities to save, we not only enjoyed a fantastic family holiday, we made it home with our bank accounts still intact.