Ideas to Trim (or Slash) Vacation Costs

Spring break season is already upon us and summer vacation will be right on its heels, so now is a good time to start thinking about ways to cut costs on your next vacation.

Kings Dominion by AshBash! on Flickr

Travel in a Pack

It can be difficult to make travel arrangements for a group of friends or family due to conflicting work and school schedules, but if you can manage it, the benefits can be huge. My family has perfected the art of pack-travel, sometimes migrating in groups of up to 30 people of all ages. There are several advantages to this type of travel: saving on lodging, saving on meals, privacy, and companionship.

For example, on numerous occasions we have rented houses for our travels instead of a block of hotel rooms. Each family’s share of the house works out to be much less than a hotel room for the same number of nights. Having a kitchen at our disposal allows us to eat in and reduce or eliminate trips to expensive tourist restaurants and also to prepare foods for those in the group with special dietary needs. Lastly, having a house to ourselves affords privacy (at least from strangers) and allows us to share a new adventure with familiar faces.

Most rental houses are not residences and can be booked online like regular hotels. But today more and more people are renting their homes on and other sites, especially when there is a big local event, such as the Master’s Tournament in Augusta, Ga. Some states and municipalities restrict the renting of private residences, so check carefully to ensure the rental is legal before committing.

Groups may qualify for discounts on transportation, meals, park or museum fees, souvenirs, and more, further reducing costs.

Travel Off-Peak

Sure, April in Paris sounds grand, but you might wind up paying through the nose if you elect to travel at times of peak demand. For example, hotels in Costa Rica normally have three room rates: green (low) season, high season, and peak season (Dec 15 to Jan 15). Rates for high season are typically 50% higher than green season, and peak season rates can be more than double the low season rates. Weather during most of the green season is glorious, so it doesn’t make much sense to book during high season, much less during peak.

Airfares, like hotel rates, are also subject to peaks and valleys depending on demand. You may be aware that Fridays and Sundays are the most expensive days to travel domestically, but did you know that Wednesdays are cheapest? When you are researching fares online, be flexible, and always try out several departure and return dates to capture the combination that results in the lowest fare.

Dare to (Gasp!) Skip Disney

I know it borders on heretical, but consider skipping Disney for your family’s big vacation. Disney World and Disney Land and all the Disney-related parks do an amazing job on the collective consciousness of the American public, making us nearly powerless to say “no thanks” to their relentlessly marketed attractions. Children have a near-universal expectation that they will be taken to Disney at some point, and peer pressure reinforces this expectation.

Once, and with great dread and foreboding, I caved in and took my children to Orlando. I found it to be overpriced, overcrowded, and full of unhealthy food—in short a poor value for the money. I know the Magic Kingdom is dear to many hearts, but for my family one visit was more than enough.

Instead of shelling out money for steep entrance fees, expensive hotels, and bad food in Orlando, we now opt for an amusement park (Kings Dominion) that is closer to friends and family in our home state of Virginia. The entrance fees are a fraction of the cost of the Florida theme parks, the rides are as good or better, and the lines are much shorter, especially in the afternoon and evening hours.

By watching out for special deals online, we were able to snag deeply discounted tickets last year. We stay with friends and family and turn the trip into a mini-reunion. What is really nice is that my children (now 8 and 10) understand the value of this choice, and even feel empowered by it. They frequently make comments about how “our park” is better than Disney.

Editor’s note: I have to agree with Laurel about Disney World. Our family went last year and it was fun, but been there done that! If you decide to go, be sure to check out our list of Disney savings tips and lessons learned. Lots of good reader tips in the comments there, too.

Vacation Locally

Rather than fly to an exotic vacation destination, investigate local options that you can reach by car. Many of us are guilty of never visiting the major attractions that are in our own backyards. Sometimes these less-frequented spots provide the most memorable vacations. For example, the Lost Sea in Tennessee is an impressive cavern system with the largest underground lake in the United States.

There are thousands of similar attractions all over the United States and Canada. Go to state tourism board websites or local Chamber of Commerce sites to find visitor info for your state and neighboring states. Many of these sites also have special packages and discounts that will make planning a local vacation even easier on your wallet.

This article was written by contributing author Laurel Gray.


  1. I’m a big fan of traveling a bit off-peak, and using services such as Priceline, Hotwire,etc. By doing so, you can save quite a bit of money. It just takes being somewhat flexible on times, and potentially on the exact hotels in which you stay.

    The Disney experience is one that’s looming for me, at least in the sense that it might happen soon. My oldest is 7 and I haven’t yet taken her. I went twice as a kid, and almost feel like it’s a rite of passage. At least that’s how I have felt historically, as now I’m trying to rationalize the idea that maybe Disney isn’t necessary. After all, it’s not a need, it’s a want. That said, indulging once for a memorable trip can be special.

  2. It’s very interesting to hear the kids we traveled with tell the stories of trips we’ve taken. Remember when the windshield wipers quit working and we had to hang out the windows and push them every once in a while? Remember that squirrel that ate french fries out of our hand? (their best memory of Disney). Flat tires, catching fireflys and awe inspiring views are featured in more stories than the mouse or any other commercial “let me entertain you” destination. Travel, especially with kids, is all about adventure. Locally one of our News stations does a segment “On a Tankful” that features many fun and inexpensive outings.

  3. I’ve taken our kids to Disneyland. Even with a local discount, it’s still double the price of nearby Knotts Berry Farm (a more traditional type of park with an actual California theme) and Six Flags (also nearby, in the opposite direction). Is it worth it? I suppose if you’re a Disneyaddict, as some people are. But I’d rather go to other places, other parks, with shorter lines, camping at a KOA or state site, and seeing the rest of the state.

    As Cassie said, it’s really not the big things the kids remember-they remember the small, memorable, this-happened-to-OUR family events. You know, the kind of memories that truly makes a family history.

  4. Disney is great, possibly very expensive if you don’t know how to say no…
    I’d suggest, if you like Disneyland and are near-by (Even a few hour drive) a season pass is golden. You go 3 times in a year and it has “already paid for itself”.
    I’m a big fan of Disneyland because it’s always so clean, safe, and accommodating. I also only live an hour out, 30 from work, so I go often (once a month at the least).
    It’s just like everything else, you have to choose what you value spending your money on.

  5. Travelling off-peak is a must. My friend just got back from a cruise he got half off because he went during the winter.

  6. We’re passed the taking the children stage, however as a teacher I am traveling over Spring Break. We are going to New Orleans using frequent flier miles, and found a great B & B for $99 per night for a suite. Not cheap, but reasonable!

  7. Oh! another good thing to take note is travelling off-peak. Yes you may not enjoy the essence of the season but travelling off-peak gives you more time to feel and indulge the ambiance of the place and the good views.

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    “We help Americans find jobs and prosperity in Asia.”

  8. One way that we have saved money on vacations in the past, especially when you basically *outgrow* a hotel room, was a site called (stands for vacation rental by owner) They have rentals all over the world and right in your backyard. We were able to land a 3br 2 ba condo a mile outside Disney’s back gate (less traffic) for $500 for 7 nights in high season. Had a pool and everything.
    Our kids enjoyed condos and house so much better than a hotel room! We have gotten houses on the beach, houses in the mountains. Lots of great opportunities there!
    Would starting a business help your work/life balance?

  9. We took our girls to Disneyland for the first time in January. Our girls are seven and four. We saved up our money, paid cash, stayed just for the single day, and the girls had a blast. From an adult perspective we found the place to be overcrowded (And this was going off season), too expensive, and just not really as magical as we remembered it.

    Instead we prefer to go to Gilroy Gardens which is 2 hours away from our house, it’s much cheaper (4 Lotsa cards gets us in all year for under 150.00 for the four of us) WAY less crowded, and it also has a nice water play area for those hot summer days and it doesn’t cost anything extra. I totally think that Disney is Hyped up and not worth the money, we won’t be going back there for several years.

    • Lillian,

      Totally agree with you about the hype. Another thing that rankled me was the fact that many rides force you to exit though the gift shop, causing constant battles for parents of younger children. This type of ruthless, cynical marketing really rubs me the wrong way!

  10. My best memories of family times were all the camping trips we made… we went to Disney multiple times and I don’t remember a single one of them distinctly. But I can sure remember the time my dad trapped a raccoon in a paper grocery bag full of popcorn!

  11. Have to agree 100% on the Disney insights and my wife does too. Although she loves Disneyland; however, we live in SoCal and can get some great deals during the off peak season mid week which equates to shorter lines. The other big tip is to pack your own food when going to Disney.

    I am a big fan of vacationing locally; we’ve coined the term “staycation” for this.

    • I thought they had a no-food policy, Mark, where you weren’t allowed to bring in any food? At least, that’s what it was a couple years ago. I know Six Flags has a no-food policy, and Knotts will allow you to bring in food if it’s for a young child or you have dietary restrictions.

  12. You had me at the picture!! We too are that family that works hard to travel off season, avoiding peaks and crowds at all cost.
    We also have done Disney, it’s great, but we prefer the roller coaster parks ourselves. I knew I liked you Frugal Dad!!
    We have not traveled in a crowd, mostly because we don’t have a big extended family, but I bet you score some great deals!!

  13. Guess I’m lucky…I grew up in Kissimmee (next to Disney), still have family there and have several family members that work at Disney. Very cheap for us! 🙂

  14. The Costa Rica advice is good, but to that I would add – go off the beaten track, for some adventure and to save some travel money. There are many wonderful small hotels and places to eat in under-tourist developed Costa Rica, all of which have a story and will result in lifetime memories.

    – Tee

    Tee is the founder and senior editor of Costa Rica CLOSEUP a Travel Guide to Costa Rica with Events, Articles and Information for everyone traveling, retiring and/or purchasing real estate in Costa Rica. Please visit for more information.

    • Thanks Michele–We have already been talking about giving Busch Gardens a try this year. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it.

  15. Having lived in Clearwater, Florida for most of my life we were lucky enough to be a day’s trip away from Orlando, so we skipped the hotels all the time. Now that I am older I find I enjoy Epcot and Universal more than Disneyland, but Seaworld was a favorite. Now they have the Wizarding World of Harry Potter down there at Universal Studios which is apparently awesome. Universal can be entertaining for kids, too since there are a lot of popular movie rides. The Magic Kingdom is great for kids (my favorite ride was the teacups), Animal Kingdom was super lame, but Universal and Epcot are worth checking out imo. I used to like MGM, but they have since closed the hand drawn animation department which was the most interesting part 🙁 Last time I was there they were drawing Pocahontas as we took a tour.

    If you’re gonna go to Florida you should try Clearwater/Tampa (the weather was awesome last October and it was DEAD on the beach). The beaches are very popular in spring and summer, and Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa is so much better than the one in Williamsburg. Williamsburg is beautiful in the spring and Florida doesn’t have the flowering trees, but Florida has some killer roller coasters and a huge amount of animals. I’ve been to both, but I’m probably biased. Adventure Island in Tampa was also one of our summer favorites as kids. We went to Six Flags in Georgia once and I remember that being fun and different than home.

  16. Two words: Cedar Point.

    By far one of our favourite spots to visit. I’ve been all over the US to different amusement parks and this one beats them all, hands down, if you love roller coasters. It’s reasonably priced and we’ve found that it’s pretty much deserted on Memorial Day weekend, so we always plan an annual trip that weekend. It’s about a 4 hr drive for us but well worth it. Six flags looks like a elementary school playground compared to how many coasters Cedar Point has and how amazing those coasters are.

    • You are right. We have flown from Oregon twice now and will probably go again in the next year or two. Best park ever!!!

  17. The travel in a pack hint: Make absolutely sure that all issues are nailed out in advance–meaning, who buys food, and how often; how sightseeing is going to be arranged and how much freedom is expected.

    My mother recently had a horrible experience on a group “friend” trip. The first one she’d been on with the same frieds was wonderful, and they enjoyed the trip to France. This time, it was horrible, because someone else was in charge of renting the house, and the group dynamics were bad. She left France a week early.

    My father’s side of the family had a group vacation in the mid80s. Let’s just say it’s never happened again. A house full of strong personalities tugging at different issues made for a bad break for many of the family. There were some explosions of the interpersonal kind, and the family was never the same again.

    So, I’m just saying, be really careful you know what you’re getting into with a family vacation or an expensive vacation with people you consider friends. Spell everything out first, and never assume that what you want is what others want.

  18. Great article. We have found that cheap vacations can be just as fun as expensive ones. We like to go tent camping and take day trips, and we always have a great time at attractions close to home. The pack-travel has worked for us too, taking trips with extended family (which is BIG!). Thanks for the good post.

  19. Another tip that I find really helpful especially if you’re flying is to consider the cost of several different locations before deciding. We were debating a vacation to Rome, but when we realized it was much cheaper to fly to Milan instead, we easily found new places to visit and see. So if you’re wiling to be flexible with your destination, you can probably save even more.

  20. If you have to fly online airfare aggregaters can help you find the cheapest flight quicker. I used one recently and ended up going to the airlines site and finding a better deal. Being able to fly anytime of the day will help keep costs at bay as well.

  21. As a child who came from a modest upbringing, I never knew the “status” of Disney until I became a parent of two boys. It just never crossed my mind at how a Disney trip has become such a “Keepin’ up with the Jones'” destination. I made the mistake of going to one of the school outings of my oldest son and striking up a conversation with an “uppity” parent. She mentioned that she was taking her small children to Disney in a few weeks and how excited they all were. I mistakenly asked her, “Oh, is this their first time??….” (I asked because all her children were under the age of 7.) Well, you would have thought I asked her if she used Food Stamps for her groceries…She looked at me and said, “Are you kidding me? They’ve been there so many times that I’ve lost count!” I then made another mistake and told her that I had never been there, nor had I taken our boys there. Well, you also would have thought that I also shared my heroin needle with our youngest son, because she was absolutely astonished that I hadn’t been there and was doing our kids a disservice for denying them those “precious childhood memories.” She also had to add, “Well, my husband does pretty well, so money is not an obstacle…” (I’m serious, these were her exact words!)

    So, it was at that very moment when I finally understood the “status” of that place and also understood that I would NEVER take my kids there before I visited at least 4 or 5 national parks, climbed a mountain (small, of course), visited the birthplace of at least 3 presidents, and given them some other cultural experiences that didn’t include Disney….Don’t get my wrong, I’m not some snooty, condescending, holier-than-thou parent…I just stick my nose up to the whole “keepin’ up with the Jones'” parents in my area. It just makes me hold on to my 10 year-old car a little bit longer, put in a wood deck (God-forbid we don’t put in a “stamp-concrete” model!), buy my kids “North Farce” jackets (not the $175 version), but a look-alike version, and live frugally other ways.

    Anyhow, the bitter-sweet revenge came just a few weeks ago when I ran into that same parent who told me that they were moving due to a foreclosed home, and “massive” credit card debt when they continued to live their lives as though her husband still had a $200K job per year…(This was all information that was not asked of her, she freely let this be known to a large group of us…I guess, she was looking for sympathy; which she did receive, but not from me….)

    • This comment really hits the nail on the head about Disney ”status” issue. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  22. Is there a resource to find out when off-season is for a certain location? is a great resource for planning Disney Trips. They have discounted tickets, when to visit, and what park to visit each day to avoid crowds.

    I’ve used friends’ timeshare when visiting Disney. Only paid $400 for the week’s maintenance for a suite.

  23. Do you know what I remember from my Disney experience? My shoes hurt my feet. All day, I was forced to stand in line and walk around with some painful flip flops on.

    On that same vacation, we were traveling with my aunt and her 2 daughters that were close to my age. I do remember walking around with them after a rain shower with one of the old fashioned cassette tape recorders giggling and recording our voices as we talked through a air conditioner fan. We also had a journal that I still have to this day. Although I wrote in it during the car ride, nothing in there refers to Disney World.

    Neither of my boys have been. That doesn’t mean we will never go, it just means we have other things we figure we enjoy just as much, if not better.

  24. I have read the article many times and it just makes me wanna share again. Me and my friends went to a beach over February which is still not summer here in our country. Result was, we had the full view of the beach and even its neighboring islands with the not so crowded shores. We also enjoyed low rates on hotel accommodations and transport fares. And lastly, we still enjoyed the place even if it was not yet summer and I guess the fun will just be the same even if it was the peak season.

    “We help Americans find jobs, prosperity and explore Asia. For details, visit