035 | How a family of 5 travels for $2500 a year

Heidi shares several trip itineraries and the corresponding travel expenses, with tips to consider when planning both the travel budget and designing the travel experience as a family.

I wanted to walk through our travel journey and highlight the way we approach travel and design our travel budget.  You will see our growth and progression of what we value and tricks we have learned along the way.  Below are three travel itineraries over the past 14 years as we grew as a family, focused on value-based experiences and learned tricks to spend differently.  

August 2007: Our 10 day road trip to Yellowstone on the Motorcycle
2,792 Mileage * .0385= $1,074.92 (Note this mileage rate is for a car, a motorcycle gets much better gas mileage).  

Left on a Tuesday night after work headed to LaCross, WI and stayed with a friend
Wednesday, drove to Mitchell SD (stayed at hotel $59)

Thursday-Saturday (Camped in Sturgis: $40/n * 3= $120)
Day drives
– Needles Highway/Custer Park
– Devil’s Tower, just went to town not into the Park
– Cody, WY beautiful drive, temperatures dropped so much we needed to put leathers on.

Sunday- Thursday: tent camped in Yellowstone in West Thumb ($28/night * 3n = $84) Park pass to Yellowstone for Motorcycles = $25
– old faithful, geyser Basin,  moose falls
– Grand Tetons day trip- Jenny Lake hike to hidden falls, Cascade Canyon
– Tower Falls- Exit NE corner of Montana to Bear tooth Pass

9. Stayed outside of North Dakota ( $49 room)

10. Stayed outside MN ($50 room)

11. Pushed all the way to Western Wisconsin to stay with family

12. Sunday came Home

Notes: Food.  We packed snacks and would usually eat at the campsite for breakfast and have a late lunch.  On the motorcycle you are so exhausted after riding we would almost drink exclusively water and would have snacks occasionally.  We did go to Broken Spoke or Full Throttle on this trip and had a drink.  We also had 1 or 2 at the campground on other nights.  Didn’t keep receipts or track all of my expenses but generally speaking we budgeted $50/food per day and I remember being way below budget. $500
Total Cost: $1,950

*if you eat out plan earlier meals such as as a late lunch

* camping and staying with friends is a great way to save on accommodations

* We were so tired on drive days we always found the cheapest hotels.  My standards are a little higher now, but all we needed at the time was a bed and sometimes a shower.  

June 2013: Seattle
Had two kids ages 14m and 3.5 for a 6 days

Flights: Under 2 is free.  $213/person * 3= $939 (Car seat, stroller and sometimes even pack n play fly free)
Airport parking $8 * 6= $48
Stayed in West Seattle: Home Away $99/night x 3= $336
Car Rental: $37/day x 6 (dodge charger) $262
Groceries: $89

Entertainment: look for free or low cost.  International Fountain was one of our favorites, we looked at the space needle, and the monorail, drove around Lake union, walked through pike’s Place market, free children’s museum day,
Seattle Mariners game $8 seats, $25 parking  Go for the pre-game warm ups (give away was socks that the kids finally fit into) and we allow a snack at 3rd inning and b/c it was a night game we left after the 7th inning. 

Hosted family for dinner they brought flank steaks and cake pops instead of eating out.  

Drove out of the city and stayed with family in LaConnor for 2 nights.  Took the ferry to San Juan Islands, we didn’t take the car so it was $32 total, kids were free. Once on San Juan there was a shuttle bus that would drop off and pick up ($30) We really enjoyed the lavender farm and bought a couple things, but mostly took pictures and smelled the loveliness.  

This was the trip where I packed all the kids clothes in individual ziploc bags, and I made goody bags for the airplane neighbors to try to earn their grace.  I was a Pinterest mom then.  This was also the trip mid-stride when it clicked with my husband and he understood why we travel. 

Total Cost: $1,835

1. Travel when the kids are young- under 2 fly free and most of the admission start to charge between ages 2-4. 

2. Don’t plan to spend a lot of money on attractions once there.  The flying fish, rubbing the pig, and seeing the fresh flowers at pikes place were highlights.  Running around the International Fountain was mesmerizing.  The water plays to all different songs, we were there well over an hour. Had a cooler packed for our picnic.  

3. Think of the experience through a 4 YO lens.  My son loves baseball but the batting practice and snacks were still the highlight of the game. In the 17 MLB stadiums we have visited thus far we generally don’t spend more than $25 for tickets.  Look for family discount days or community programs that you might utilize.  

4. This was our first home rental (back when Home Away was still an option) we stayed in a Mother-in-Law suite in the basement of someone’s home.  We intentionally stayed outside the city.  We only had a 1 BR with a pull out couch, but the kids were young enough that we could put kids to bed early and enjoy the patio outside for some quiet adult time.  What is “just enough” to have the space you need to be comfortable.  The separate bedroom and full kitchen was a game changer for us going forward.  

5. Design an experience to connect with friends and family you don’t see often.  I had several cousins in the area and we were able to work out a Thursday night dinner and because we had a grill they came to us.  Some of our greatest memories with extended family are while traveling, just don’t abuse it or stay too long.  

Florida 2017
March, 9 days, 3 kids ages 7, 4, and 19m 
We drove to Kissimmee and rented a house with another family
Drove 3200 mi //Gas $308.04
Airbnb was $170/night= $2065 (Cleaning fee $150, Service fee $158, Taxes $117, pool heat $100) split with another family = $862.50 was our share.  (they stayed an additional night).  

Thursday afterwork Stayed on the south side of Chicago with Family woke up at 3 AM and drove to Louisville
– Louisville Slugger Museum (stop on the way)

Arrived LATE Friday night in Kissimmee

Saturday- Lounge around the house/pool in the fenced in backyard  (down day) get groceries

Sunday- Clearwater Harbor and Clearwater beach (Dolphin Tale)

Monday – community pool, Walmart for Disney items

Tuesday- Wild Florida for Gators, Airboat tour 

Wednesday- Natural Springs in Central Florida (Wekiwa Springs- hike and swim), explored Disney Springs

Thursday- Magic Kingdom $265. 46…note health insurance gift cards*

Friday- headed to a friend’s to stay
Saturday- Stopped in Nashville on the drive home to meet a cousin and have ice cream and a park. 

Stayed at a hotel near Indianapolis $112.82
Eating out/Treats: $349.19
“Gifts”: $252.23
Groceries: $370.12
Lodging (total with split): $975.32
Parking $26.25

Entertainment/Admission $485.70
– Clearwater
– Louisville Slugger Museum
– Wild Florida
These 3 totaled $220.24 + $265.46 for Magic Kingdom

Total:  $2,766.85

– Attractions are built to get you to spend.  We were typical tourists during this experience and caved to the pressure of the gift store (My husband would say I caved to the gift store). We have gotten much better at a price point and the kids now use their money for vacation gifts. 

– I bought all of our Disney shirts at Walmart in Florida.  Often T-shirts or other items are a fraction of the cost at Wal-Mart (also experienced this in Alaska).

– We had a benefits program through our health Insurance where we could redeem wellness points for gift cards.  My husband maxed out our total points and each redeemed for $100 Disney gift cards.  Seeing that hack was actually the only reason I agreed to this trip.  Sometimes you find motivation in interesting places.   The only reason we went a second time was I was able to get 4,1-day park hopper passes at a silent auction for $200.  

– We packed lunches everywhere we went, including Magic Kingdom.  Refillable Kanteens and bringing your own food can be a huge savings

– There are HUGE homes in Florida. We traveled with another family and split the 9 bedrooms and the cost of the house and the kids really enjoyed having a mix of friends to play with back at the house.  We drove and went our own ways to the same attractions, but didn’t plan to spend all of our time together.  

– Long Road trips with kids can be tricky: We had travel games, and brown bag surprises at every state (or whenever they needed an energy boost).  Planning stops mid-way to get out of the car for a couple hours is always helpful for us to keep the energy.  Some of our favorites are pipe cleaners, dry erase boards, and fun surprises like ring pops or sleep masks.  

Key Takeaways
1. Know what aspects of your travel budget are negotiable.  Finding the balance between value and cost are helpful, high price does not always equate to high value.

2. Tourism is designed to play on your emotions.  They know when people are on vacation they expect to pay more money.  How can you get the benefits from a vacation experience without the added vacation price points?

3. Build on your network to get insights into local and free options for attractions and safe areas to stay off the beaten path.

4. Don’t fight the crowds, your budget will thank you for it. Traveling and eating during non-peak days and times can help save money. 

5. Look for ways to optimize your budget to design the experience.  How might you hack gift cards, gift experiences for birthdays or holidays, or research options within the attractions.  While the example shared was from a health insurance benefit, you can often find gift cards savings through other sites or benefits. We have also gotten free baseball game tickets by completing a kids science program.

6. What aspects of your travel budget actually qualify as a vacation expense versus living expense.  If you maintain a similar lifestyle while on vacation you can maintain the spending in your traditional budget categories.  For example, groceries and gas might be similar to your typical living expenses.  

7. Try to align expectations through the lens of the kids.  Many of the aspects of vacations that parents imagine will be outside the conscious minds of your kids, especially at earlier ages.  Try to engage the kids voice in the planning and decision making when appropriate.

8. Travel with infants and toddlers is relatively inexpensive.  Their tickets and admission are free or discounted, and often don’t add much to the cost of accommodations.  While traveling at every age is fun, don’t discount travel with infants. Infants can’t retain the books we read, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do it.  Travel can support many aspects of their development.  

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