I grew up in a family that traveled. As a military brat, I was exposed to new locales on the regular, and in between all those relocations, we traveled a good portion of the country. Occasionally, we even ventured outside US borders.
My family wasn’t loaded. Instead of dropping cash on the fanciest hotels and first-class plane tickets, my parents instilled a penchant for affordable travel, ensuring I’d have the skills to see more of this beautiful world on a budget.
Accommodations are one of the most expensive aspects of traveling. This is especially true when you’re traveling with your family. You need enough beds for everyone, enough space so you won’t drive each other up a wall, and enough money to make sure you’ll be able to cover it all.
It’s not an impossible task. In fact, here are four ways to save on your family summer vacation accommodations.
Staying with Friends and Family
Being from a military family meant we had friends all over the place. There was a guest room waiting for us almost everywhere we traveled. This effect was doubled by the fact that I have a large extended family, including twenty-some-odd cousins.
You may not have family at Myrtle Beach or in Maui, but there are still a few ways to utilize your network to travel.
First, you can plan your travel around the places you have family and friends. Visit your cousin in Chicago or stay with a friend in Hoboken. The Wasatch mountains outside your buddy’s place in SLC are gorgeous, and your mom’s retirement village in Fort Lauderdale might have enough space to accommodate you for a week or so.
If you have your heart set on a specific area where you don’t have familiar faces among the locals, you can still ask your friends and family if they’d like to reconnect briefly. Maybe the twelve-hour drive down to Disney seems intimidating, but if you stay with your sister - who lives halfway between the happiest place on earth and home - you can split the drive into two, six-hour days.
This saves you a bunch of money on airfare, and allows you to spend some time with family you don’t get to see too often.
Want to get the biggest bang for your travel buck? You may want to look into travel hacking.
Travel hacking typically involves using credit cards which offer rewards points. Usually, there's a signup bonus of tens of thousands of points. To get this bonus, you have to spend a set amount of money on your card within a set time period—usually a few months.
Then, you also earn points for each dollar you spend—sometimes in specific spending categories. These cards typically have fees waived for the first year, but you are likely to be charged an annual fee every year after that if you do not close the account.
I have used this method to get my family a week at an oceanfront hotel in Myrtle Beach at peak season for virtually nothing, free tickets to Disney World, two free tickets to Japan and multiple single-night stays for family events like weddings and funerals.
This method does not come without risks, though. If you spend more money than you have, you risk going deep into credit card debt in pursuit of rewards. If you don’t pay off your balance at the end of your statement period, you also risk getting hit with late fees and crazy-high interest charges.
If you know yourself well enough to know you can’t handle credit well, don’t try travel hacking. A free week at a hotel isn’t worth your credit score.
If you’re responsible with credit but still a little wary, there are tools out there that can help you earn rewards responsibly. One example is the Debx App, which automatically pays off your purchases every day in order to protect your credit score and encourage you to not overspend.
Book Directly with the Hotel
You know those hotel booking sites that give you a discount? Don’t skip them, but don’t book with them either.
Hotels offer those sites a discount because they can afford to take a small hit off their advertised price if it means they’ll get the room booked. A bigger secret is that they can afford to take an even bigger hit—and offer you a bigger discount.
To score that crazy deep discount, first look up various prices for the same hotel on various booking sites. Write them down as you’ll need to cite them later.
Then, call the hotel. Tell them you really want to stay with them, and that you’d like to book directly to save them the commission they would pay if you booked through one of these third-party sites. But in order to do that, you’re wondering if they can do better than the lowest third-party offering.
If you’re getting the front desk, they may or may not be able to help you. But many hotels have a separate department for booking and reservations. These reservation departments are usually ready to help you because by offering you a slightly larger discount and booking you directly, they’re seeing more of your money as they won’t have to pay a commission to the third-party site. It’s a win-win solution for everyone---except that third-party booking site.
I was initially extremely hesitant to book with Airbnb, but after using them quite a few times, I finally feel comfortable recommending them. I’ve saved a ton of money by booking through Airbnb, and have stayed in a range of accommodations—from a hostel-like booking all the way to a full house.
Before booking an Airbnb, I’d recommend picking a place that has a litany of reviews. Those reviews should all be positive. If there’s one or two outliers, I’ll look into the reasoning behind the negative review. Sometimes it’s just a particularly difficult guest, and the host has worked to ameliorate the situation. But if there are several negative reviews—or only a handful of reviews total—I tend to steer clear, especially if I’m bringing my children along.
That said, every time I’ve stayed with Airbnb applying those booking practices, I’ve had a positive experience. The accommodations are unique and can be cheaper than hotels. I’ve found that the earlier I book, the more likely I am to get a great rate. For example, Kyoto looked like it was going to be totally affordable—until I waited until late February to book a place during peak cherry blossom season.
You can also earn Airbnb credit by referring your friends to the service. Currently, your friend gets $40 for their first stay, and you get $20 for referring them. I’ve gotten several hundred dollars off my Airbnb bookings by using this referral program.
You can travel affordably with a family.
Traveling with your family can be affordable. Whether you’re reconnecting with old friends or using your credit card rewards to stay for free at a luxe hotel, you don’t have to be a millionaire to get out there and expose more this interesting world to your children.