Budget Family Travel Guide
Take a Break Without Breaking the Bank
By Melanie Monroe Rosen
Family vacations should be about having fun and making memories, not counting pennies. By planning ahead with these clever ways to save, you can relax with your kids on a budget-friendly family escape.
Flying with your family doesn’t mean that your credit card bill has to soar, too. Here, find ways to get the best deals on airfares.
Plan, Plan, Plan Ahead. Did we mention you should plan ahead? For most families with school-age kids, vacations only tend to fall during peak travel times. Forget about crossing your fingers and hoping to find last-minute deals on spring break; start doing your research well ahead of time. George Hobica, creator of the website airfarewatchdog.com, a free low-airfare listing and alert site, recommends booking flights looong before you board the plane. “You have to book further and further in advance,” he said. “Not just the two to three months that used to be recommended; I would now suggest booking four to five months ahead of when you want to travel, especially as airlines cut routes and capacity is lowered.” Hobica acknowledges that there are sometimes bargains to be found at the last-minute, especially if an airline has added a new route that needs to be filled, but it’s not something to count on.
Check Your Mail. Don’t be shy about signing up for airlines’ e-newsletters or downloading airlines’ desktop applications like Southwest Airlines’ Ding! or American Airlines’ DealFinder, counsels Hobica. Airlines send out special alerts and coupon codes exclusive to newsletter subscribers that could net you discounts like two tickets for the price of one or thirty percent off tickets to a particular destination. Be sure to sign up for newsletters from travel search engines like Cheapflights.com as well, to make sure you don’t miss out on great package deals.
Check. Double-Check. Triple-check. “Airlines can change their fares up to three times a day on domestic routes,” states Hobica. The airfare you found at 10 am today may have gone up or down by tens or even hundreds of dollars by tonight when you actually find time to sit down with your credit card to book it. Is it fair? Not in our opinion, but there’s not much to be done about it other than check the fares frequently. According to Hobica, “The fare updates can happen at 10 am, 12:30 pm, and 8 pm. On weekends, the updates happen at 5 pm. It usually takes two to four hours for these fare updates to filter down into Travelocity, Orbitz, etc.” If you don’t have time to check fares with much frequency, or if you want reassurance that the fare you’ve found is a good one, check out farecast.com which predicts whether fares on major domestic routes will go up or down based on recent trends in fare prices and predicted changes in fares. It’s not foolproof, but it’s better than tossing a coin.
Ask For Help. Although there are ample resources available online for planning your vacation, there are sometimes so many to sort through that it’s overwhelming to know how and where to find the best deals. Why not turn to the professionals? Travel agents have strong working relationships with airlines, car rental companies, hotels, and other travel providers and do a much greater volume of business with these companies than a family ever could. Agents often have access to unpublished (and super low) fares that may come and go within a few hours’ time; hours of Internet research might not net you fares or deals even close (and the savings an agent can find you may more than make up for their fee). Some travel agents specialize in family vacations or budget travel, so make sure to look for one whose expertise matches your needs. If you already have an American Automobile Association (AAA) membership, take advantage of the auto club’s travel agency (the largest in the country) for no additional fees. If you’re not already a member, consider joining (the membership rates range from around $50-75 per year; in exchange you get everything from their emergency roadside service to discounts on travel, shopping, dining, theme park admission, movie tickets, and more). Visit aaa.com for more information.
Make It Meta. Check out travel meta-search engines like sidestep.com, kayak.com, vayama.com, farechase.com, and mobissimo.com. While sites such as Travelocity, Expedia, and Hotwire search only their own databases, aggregators like sidestep search airline websites, online travel agencies and other travel sites (including some international ones) to generate their list of best fares. You won’t actually buy your ticket through an aggregator; instead they’ll direct you to the site offering the lowest fare.
Be Flexible. If you aren’t tied in to specific dates or a specific destination, check out what the best deals are and let those guide your vacation. According to Hobica, “The best days to actually get on a plane are Tuesdays and Wednesdays because they’re the least popular with business travelers.” So, if you’re not tied to a Friday evening departure, play around with your search parameters and see if moving your trip by a day or two could result in significant savings. You should also look into flying out of and into smaller airports in nearby cities to see if lower fares are available there. Eileen Ogintz, a leading national expert on family travel and creator of takingthekids.com, suggests thinking off-season. “Florida or the Caribbean in the summer can still be great destinations, especially if your kids just want to be in the pool,” she says. Because most people want to go in the wintertime, you can save big bucks and avoid the crowds by going off-season. Ogintz also suggests checking out ski resorts in the summer, where “there are great accommodations -- plenty of condos with kitchenettes -- and lots of free or low-cost outdoor activities like hiking and mountain biking.”
Work Your Miles. Loyalty can still pay these days. Check out webflyer.com to get the best upgrade for the frequent flyer miles you’ve earned and learn how to maximize the value of your miles when you redeem them for merchandise or services.
Don’t Let the Little Items Add Up In a Big Way. Don’t forget about the smaller-ticket costs of flying. To find the best deals for airport parking, check out airportdiscountparking.com which maintains information about off-airport parking facilities as well as offering printable coupons for additional savings. To save money on meals both at the airport and on the plane, plan ahead and pack your own (this includes any snacks or gum your children may clamor for while stuck waiting in the terminal or on the tarmac)! Food from home is sure to taste better and cost less than anything available during the flight. Fortunately, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration now allows parents to bring formula, breast milk, and juice in quantities exceeding three ounces, and of course, you can always bring an empty water bottle for yourself and fill it once you’re through the security checkpoint. And finally, if at all possible, try not to over pack as airlines are starting to charge for checked luggage.