Budget-Friendly Winter Family Travel
By Melanie Monroe Rosen
For families with a bit more time and financial flexibility, there are plenty of options for budget-friendly longer getaways this winter.
Ski Resorts: One of the top winter family destinations year after year, ski resorts don’t have to be mind-numbingly expensive. Suzanne Rowan Kelleher of WeJustGotBack.com suggests a handful of ways to make such a trip affordable:
• Book early to take advantage of early-bird deals.
• If possible, go mid-week, e.g. Monday-Thursday instead of Thursday-Sunday, as weekend lift tickets and lodging are more expensive.
• Travel off-peak (but look for a resort with snowmaking capability if you’re traveling late in the season).
• Look for “kids ski free” and “kids fly free” deals.
• Shop around for equipment rentals. Compare offers on sites like SkiCoupons.com against prices at the resort (and also know that you may save by booking rentals online in advance).
Lodges: If your family is an outdoorsy bunch, staying at a lodge in winter may be just the money-saver for you! During the summer season, it’s almost impossible to find a room at a state or national park, but there are a number of parks that host visitors year-round (and offer great deals in the winter months!), notes Ogintz of TakingtheKids.com. Winter activities include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, animal tracking, building a snow shelter, and snow coach touring. For more information about winter deals at national parks like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Zion, check out the website of the parks’ concessioner, Xanterra Parks & Resorts. On the East Coast, the Appalachian Mountain Club has some great winter weekend offerings for families. Esther Lee, co-founder and CEO of Trekaroo.com, a family travel reviews website, recommends Allegany State Park in western New York, the largest in the state park system, which offers groomed cross-country and mountain biking trails, 90 miles of groomed snowmobiling trails, and plenty of hiking as well as over 150 winterized cabins.
Indoor Water Parks: If a water slide is more appealing to your kids than a snow tubing track, an indoor water park might be just right for your family. Because you can go for a shorter getaway (folks don’t normally go for a whole week), it can be a relatively inexpensive getaway, according to Kelleher. And, with new parks and resorts opening across the US, you may find one with easy driving distance. If do you choose to spend the night, you’ll often get water park admission for two days as part of your lodging fee. (Bonus points: many rooms are equipped with a mini fridge and microwave, potentially saving you additional money on dining out.) The one caveat: Kelleher notes that most parks have a minimum height requirement of 42 inches (around the height of an average five-year-old). If your child doesn’t meet the height requirement, he or she may be relegated to a much smaller section of the park (maybe as little as 10 percent). To find a water park near you, refer to IndoorWaterParks.net.
Warmer Climates: If you’re determined to hit the beach, Florida, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Mexico are probably on your mind. If you don’t particularly care where you end up -- just as long as it’s warm -- Ogintz of TakingtheKids.com recommends booking an air-hotel package through a website like Travelocity.com, where you can save on airfare, lodging, and a rental car, if needed. But, if it’s Disney or bust for your family, be sure to check out Mousesavers.com or the Orlando Travel and Visitors’ Bureau for valuable discounts.
Cruises: Both Kelleher and Ogintz agree: a cruise can be a great vacation for a family, provided you do your research and pick both your cruise line and cruise ship wisely. Be sure to investigate what “all-inclusive” really means and how child-friendly the company and vessel truly are, as facilities can vary dramatically within a cruise line. Are there baby-sitting services offered at an hour you would actually use them? Additionally, most cruise lines don’t allow children who are not yet potty-trained in any of the pools -- not even in a baby pool, not even in swim diapers, notes Kelleher -- as they all share the same water supply. Finally, cruise cabins generally mean tight quarters -- so be sure that you’re up for that level of togetherness. To find cruise deals for your family, check out iCruise.com or CruiseCompete, and be sure to check passenger reviews on Cruise Critic before booking.
Email Newsletters: Take away some of the effort of researching travel deals by letting them come to you! By signing up for airline e-newsletters and alerts from travel websites like Airfarewatchdog.com, Farecast.com, Farecompare.com, Kayak.com, Orbitz.com, SmarterTravel.com, Travelzoo.com and Yapta.com, among others, you’ll be one of the first to know about deals on domestic and international airfares (some of which are fleeting, unadvertised sales) as well as phenomenally discounted travel packages. If your winter travel schedule is flexible, make sure to sign up for Airfarewatchdog.com’s flexible date search which can potentially help you save hundreds of dollars by showing you fares on nearby dates.
All-suite Hotels: All-suite hotels offer great savings potential for families. A hot breakfast is generally included, and suites typically have a kitchenette with a refrigerator and microwave, allowing you to save money on snacks and drinks for the kids as well as being able to store kids’ leftovers in the fridge for later. Of ultimate importance to your kids, however, is whether or not the hotel has a pool (which you should consider free entertainment), reminds Ogintz of TakingtheKids.com. Among our experts’ top picks? Doubletree Suites, Embassy Suites, Homewood Suites, and Marriott Suites. And, while not considered an all-suite hotel, the Best Western chain offers good value, adds Graff of OntheGowithAmy.com, as 90% of their properties have a swimming pool (many of them indoors), and the majority offer free breakfast and free parking.
Vacation Rentals: There is a world of lodging possibilities beyond hotels! According to TJ Mahony, Founder and CEO of FlipKey.com, generally speaking, vacation rentals (renting a condo or house in lieu of staying in a hotel) deliver a 30% cost savings over hotels. According to a recent survey by FlipKey.com, more than two-thirds of travelers surveyed were families traveling with kids, and 82% of travelers with children found staying in a vacation rental an easier option than staying in a hotel. Vacation rentals are available worldwide (including top international destinations like London and Paris as well as some of the most coveted family vacation spots in North America, like the Magic Kingdom, sunny Mexican beaches and activity-filled San Diego). They offer the comforts of a home while your family is away on vacation, including the ability to cook meals in a fully-equipped kitchen (you’ll save on eating out with the trade-off of having to go grocery shopping and prepare meals on your vacation), living rooms, pools, multiple bedrooms for kids, backyards and more.
Approximately 90% of vacation rentals are family-friendly, says Mahony. He suggests that one of the first steps of finding a good deal on a vacation rental (beyond looking at the property’s sleeping capacity, of course) is to call the owner or property manager to ask for more specifics. Often, he explains, there are additional values to be uncovered in such a phone conversation, when the homeowner or manager might offer special incentives to travelers like free lift tickets, admission to a local amusement park, or the ability to secure a travel crib for your stay. According to the FlipKey.com survey, more than two-thirds of homeowners are discounting prices or offering special incentives to travelers, with almost 90% of property managers offering deals.
Ultimately, a vacation rental can be a great option, especially if you’re traveling with other family members or another family and can split the cost even further. “The expenses of snow vacations add up fast, but kids love snow. If you can bear to share a house with another family, this is a good time to do it. It's best to start out small. A three-day weekend is plenty of time to test drive the co-habitation concept,” says Jaime Pearson of TravelSavvyMom.com. An added bonus, suggests Ogintz of TakingtheKids.com, is that you can also share childcare costs or allow each set of parents some adult-time while the others look after all of the kids.
Home Swaps: If you like the idea of having the comforts of home while away on vacation but want to cut costs even further, consider a home swap. You’ll not only get free lodging during your vacation, but you may also benefit from insider knowledge of your destination, courtesy of your swap partners. In exchange, though, you’ll have to open your home to others in your absence. Additionally, should you live in an area off the beaten path, you may have some difficulty finding a swap partner. Home exchange websites like Digsville.com, HomeExchange.com, HomeLink.org, and Intervac.com, generally offer access to their database of homes for a low annual fee (typically $100 or less). In an ideal home swap, you’d be able to exchange homes with a family with similarly-aged kids – meaning having to schlep much less in the way of toys and gear as well as learning about the best child-friendly restaurants, nearby playgrounds, and more.
Airfare Savings: If you’re determined to fly somewhere this winter, here are some money-saving guidelines to help you get the best fares possible and avoid additional fees:
• Search regularly and diligently, advises George Hobica, Founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. Airlines can change their pricing up to three times per day on weekdays (usually at 10 am, 12:30 pm, and 8 pm) and once a day on the weekends (usually around 5 pm), in addition to adding or subtracting available seats, he reveals. The fare updates usually takes two to four hours for these fare updates to filter down into the big travel search engines like Expedia and Travelocity.
• Sign up for Airfarewatchdog.com alerts and let the professionals help you. The staff of Airfarewatchdog.com (yep, that’s right – people, not computers) performs exhaustive searches including airline-site-only fares and promo codes and posts the best deals they find. You can also sign up to be notified when a great deal pops up from your home city, to your favorite destination, or along a specified route. In addition to his own site, Hobica says that other alert systems have something to offer, too. Check out FareCompare.com, Yapta.com, Kayak.com, and Farecast.com.
• Plan ahead. Although last-minute deals may always pop up, it’s best to buy tickets a minimum of 21 days in advance, recommends Hobica.
• If you can, be flexible. By adjusting your travel dates by a day or two in either direction, you might save yourself hundreds of dollars. Try Airfarewatchdog.com’s flexible date search, for example.
• Check your particular airline’s policy regarding baggage fees. Do they charge for checked bags? Checking online vs. checking at the counter? What are the weight restrictions?
CVB Savings: One of the greatest travel planning resources in your arsenal should be the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau of your destination, states Kelleher of WeJustGotBack.com. Check out the “deals and discounts” or “special offers” page of the CVB in your destination of choice and take advantage of coupons on everything from hotel rooms and restaurant meals to city tours and amusement park entry fees. You can also find loads of other deals for your destination with the purchase of an Entertainment Book. The books generally cost $35-45, but with loads of 2-for-1 deals and 50%-off coupons, you can often make your initial investment back in a single day!
Kids Eat Free Deals: Even if your family decides to stay at a vacation rental or all-suite hotel or participate in a home swap, chances are your vacation will include at least a few meals out. To locate restaurants where kids can eat for free, check out MyKidsEatFree.com, KidsEatFor.com (which offers an app for the iPhone and iPod Touch for $2.99) or CouponDivas.com, among others. And, if you choose to stay at a hotel over a vacation rental or home swap, Kelleher recommends the Holiday Inn chain in the US and Canada as a great family choice because of its Kids Eat Free program for kids ages 12 and under.