8 Ways to Stretch Your Vacation Dollar

There are plenty of well-known ways to save money on your vacation, such as booking flights and hotels online, cashing in credit card rewards, or eating the free breakfast in your motel. But there are also some less obvious ways to save money on your family vacay… many of which you might not have considered.

Here are a few of our favorite tips, so you can make every dollar stretch just a little bit further on your next getaway.

Keep track

Simply keeping track of your outgoing cash flow is a surprisingly effective way to save money. All you have to do is keep a notebook and write down how you spend every dollar immediately after you spend it.

This practice does two things. First, it helps you stay on your budget because you will no longer estimate how much money is left in your wallet. Second, you will quickly see how much money you’re frittering away on worthless claptrap. These two effects are purely psychological, but you’ll be amazed at how well they work.

Put the kids (and yourself) on a souvenir budget

You probably enjoy indulging your kids when you’re on vacation. But rather than whipping out your wallet every time the kids ask, give them a budget for souvenirs. It will force them to make better choices, and it will limit the nick on your budget. Let them “save up” the budget if they want something big on the last day of your trip, of if they’d rather carry the cash home.

To be honest, though, you might also like the idea of picking up special little mementos along the way. For instance, my mom always used to get us keychains whenever we went to a new ski resort as children. Maybe you’re the type to grab a snow globe to remind you all of that trip up Mt. Rainier. But think about it for a moment… where are those knick-knacks going? Will those really be the things that spark memories of your family travels, or is there something less commercial (and cheaper) that will have more nostalgic value?

Put your hard-earned money away, and try to only spend it on the truly special keepsakes. Set a budget for yourself, and don’t go over it, no matter how enticing that tchotchke may be. (However, definitely splurge for that overpriced photo at the entrance of Disney — how often do you really get your entire family in one picture, smiling and wearing mouse ears?)

Learn More: Teaching Kids About Money

Go for the free souvenirs

Completely eliminate the souvenir budget by collecting the countless free souvenirs you can find on nearly every vacation. These can be as simple as you want, and are often the things that we look back on fondly anyway when revisiting our travel memories. Some great (free) ideas include:

  • restaurant menus
  • ticket stubs
  • brochures
  • hotel room key cards
  • hotel soap
  • foreign currency
  • drink coasters
  • labels from local foods
  • receipts
  • seashells or neat stones
  • other local flora and fauna, etc.

These little things will carry much more meaning than that cheap roadside t-shirt anyway. And imagine how fun it will be to stick these mementos next to your vacation photos in your scrapbook or on your dresser. (Just be sure that you have permission to take these items before you tuck them in your fanny pack!)

Pack a lunch

Yes, when you’re on vacation, you’re going to eat out. But you don’t have to do it for every meal!

If you pack sandwiches for just one meal a day, you can cut your food budget by a quarter. Even if you’re staying in a hotel room without a refrigerator, pack one daily meal of fruit, granola bars, and other non-perishables. You’ll save money, and each restaurant meal will be more special.

Save at the restaurant

Most restaurant meals are big. When you eat a big restaurant meal in your hometown, you take the leftovers home in a doggy bag. You can’t always do that on vacation, though.

With that in mind, here are two money-saving restaurant tips. First, consider eating just two meals: a big breakfast and dinner. You’ll be plenty full, and on vacation you’re busy enough that you probably won’t even miss lunch. Second, consider splitting those giant entrees. Growing teens will clean their plates, but most younger kids and adults would be perfectly content with half a meal, especially when they eat the bread and other stuff that precedes the meal.

If you’re staying in a hotel, check with the front desk to see if they have coupons for local eateries. Check Groupon before picking your restaurant, as hot spots may have discount offers available online. Oh, and if you’re military, a student, or senior citizen, you can probably swing other deals, too.

Get Rewarded: Best Cash Back Credit Cards for Restaurants

The best things are free

What do your kids remember most from your last vacation: the $250 visit to the run-down amusement park, or the day you spent on the beach for free? How many times have you heard about the kid who remembers the hotel pool way more fondly than the endless museum?

The bottom line: sometimes, the best things about a vacation cost you nothing. The memories and time spent together are the most important part.

If you’re in a big city, check out free cultural events such as parades, art festivals, and concerts in the park. Or, you can just walk through the funky neighborhoods or ethnic areas. If you’re in a resort community, take advantage of public beaches, state park hiking trails, and hotel ping-pong tables.

You’ll have fun, and your wallet will be fatter on the return trip.

Think minor

Major League baseball games are expensive. Minor league games are not, and they can be loads more fun. Similarly, Broadway shows can break your budget, but storefront theaters produce some of the most fascinating, cutting-edge drama anywhere… for way less money.

Wanna hear a concert? Skip the big-name reunion tour at $250 a ticket, and hear the best local garage band in an intimate atmosphere for a $10 cover. Unlike the owners of major sports teams and theaters, the owners of minor league sports teams, small theaters, local music venues, and similar cultural institutions know that they need to treat the customers well in order to win their business.

Pay in advance

There’s no better feeling when you’re checking out of the hotel than to hear the clerk say the bill is already covered. And you will almost certainly get a better deal on anything you order if you pay in advance (theme park tickets, for example, are almost always cheaper in advance than at the gate).

Best of all, if you pay for your car and hotel room from the comfort of your home six weeks before your trip, you are much less likely to get hit with surprise, budget-killing extra fees.

Related: How to Budget for Family Vacations

These are just a few ideas to get the conversation started. What’s the best low or no-cost deal you’ve found on a family vacation?

For the money you do spend on vacation, make sure you’re using a great travel rewards card to start earning points for your next holiday:

3 Responses to “8 Ways to Stretch Your Vacation Dollar”

  1. The “free” souvenir ideas are a little strange. Foreign currency isn’t free. Receipts necessarily mean you bought something, so that really isn’t free either. Restaurant menus and hotel room key cards aren’t free either—that’s called stealing.

  2. Anonymous

    We don’t have kids, but our go to vacation is usually camping or backpacking. We camped back country once and had a gorgeous beach all to ourselves for two days for just $5 for the permit and the cost of groceries to pack in.

    Growing up my family would rent cabins and my best memories are of splashing around in the lakes and streams near by. So much fun as a kid and pretty cheap too.

  3. Nickel

    If you have kids (or even if you don’t, I guess) the “penny smashing” machines that you see at zoos, museums, etc. can be a good option for a cheap (albeit not free) souvenir. They usually cost $0.50 + the penny that you crush, which is way better than hitting the gift shop. As an added bonus, they don’t take up much space.

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