We just got back from a week of visiting friends and family in Orlando, Florida. Lots of people we talked to about the trip asked us: “So you’re going to go to Disney World, right?” They were surprised (and even, in a few cases, offended) when we said that, no, we weren’t going to go to Disney. We simply can’t afford it right now.

But you know what? We had a fantastic family vacation. And we didn’t spend a ton of money. There are lots of ways to get creative about pinching pennies on trips; I’ll share what helped us this past week, and then open up the floor for readers’ suggestions!

Visit the Library Before You Leave Home

Your local library has a great selection of family-friendly audiobooks (and, of course, regular books, for kids who can read in the car). We listened to TumTum and Nutmeg and a lot of Sandra Boynton music on our trip.

A well-read audiobook helps the time pass more quickly, and even if the reading level of the book is above some of your kids’ ability, they’ll still enjoy the story.

You can also pick up a travel book for the area you’re going to.

Good Food on the Road

You’re coming up to an unfamiliar town, and everybody’s famished. Sometimes a quick stop for fast food makes sense. But at other times, you know you need a more restorative meal — one that won’t leave you feeling like you need a nap. Ideally, it would also meet some other criteria:

  • you want the meal to be tasty
  • you want it to be relatively quick
  • you want it to be reasonably-priced

Yelp has a great app that we used multiple times each day. It helped us find local coffee spots (surprisingly hard without Yelp!), a great, super-cheap Tex-Mex place buried in a mall, a cute soup-and-sandwich joint in a converted Victorian house, and an affordable-but-delicious burger place to take our cousins out to dinner.

Because Yelp’s app knows your phone’s location, it’s trivial to ask it to show you what’s in your vicinity. You can filter by price, distance, and rating. And if you’re on the road, you can just scooch the map over a bit and redo the search, so you know what’s coming up in the next town you’ll hit.

Cheap Gas

I always get frustrated when I stop for gas and then, a few miles down the road, see it for significantly cheaper. We used a free app called GasBuddy to check in on the prices all along the road we were on, to see what the best deal was. (A lot of people like another one called Waze.)

ProTip: If you’re below half a tank, and you’re getting close to a state line, use GasBuddy to see what the prices are like on both sides of the state line. Because of state taxes, one will usually be a much better deal.


Use Your Memberships

AAA Cards, Sam’s Club / Costco Cards, Veteran’s Administration ID Cards, and even some credit cards: all of these groups have membership benefits that can give you significant deals when you’re on the road.

If you’re already a member, you should be sure to get all of the benefits that come with your membership. Spend a few minutes on the organization's website and you should find a “benefits” section that tells you about the deals you can get.

One of the best purchases our family makes each year is a membership to a nearby science museum. The museum itself is actually a few hours away, and so we don’t get to go there as often as we like, but it’s a partner institution with science museums all around the country.

Where it would normally cost around $70 for a family of 5 to go to one of these museums for a day, we spend $125 once, and have a full year where we can go to any science museum in the country. It’s great for vacations, since we can explore new museums for free.

Vacations are important for family bonding and for making great memories together. And whether you go on vacation in your own hometown or across the country, a few simple steps can help you save a lot of money.