In the seasonal surge to the skies and roads, spring break promises a recharge — and a financial pinch. That’s especially true this year, when flight prices are up 20 percent compared with last March and April, according to the travel booking app Hopper, and hotels in the United States are averaging $316 a night, up 64 percent in the same time frame.
Naturally, even eager travelers are nervous. A recent study from the nonprofit Family Travel Association found that while families are keen to travel — 85 percent of parents said they were very likely to travel with their children in the next year, compared with about 70 percent in 2019 — budget concerns are top of mind.
“Affordability has always been the No. 1 challenge for families,” said Peter Bopp, the director of research for the association, adding that the pandemic’s effect on family finances and inflation have heightened that concern.
“Everything is higher,” said Lauren Masarik, a travel agent based in Jackson, N.J., who runs Vacations by Lauren.
To help families stretch their vacation budgets, agents, analysts and bloggers offered the following 12 tips for saving money.
1. Budget for travel
Conscientious spending allowed Antonia Grant, a Minnesota-based publicist and writer for the blog Families Love Travel, her husband and 8-year-old to spend a month in Italy last summer. They are planning a similar trip to Scotland this year.
“After our mortgage and groceries, travel is our third budget item,” said Ms. Grant, who sets aside roughly 20 percent of the household’s budget for travel. She added that the family has one car and “not the best car or biggest house” because “travel is what we prioritize.”
2. Start with flights
Flights are often the biggest travel expense, so experts suggest tackling them first.
“A lot of time, instead of saying, ‘I’m going to Paris,’ I’ll start with the flight,” said Colleen Lanin, the founder of the family travel blog Travel Mamas.
She has a $49-a-year membership with Going (formerly known as Scott’s Cheap Flights) that alerts her to inexpensive flights from her selected airports. Based on a sale notification several years ago, her family went to China for $450 a person, round-trip from Phoenix.
“I set up price alerts when I get the school calendar,” said Kate Williams, the chief communications officer for the travel search platform Kayak and the mother of three boys, referring to a Kayak tracking tool that notifies users when prices drop or rise. Her latest tracked flight recently came down $65 a ticket for an April trip to Arizona.
Since many airlines have relaxed penalties for canceling trips and often return the value of a canceled ticket in the form of a flight credit, travelers who find a lower fare after they’ve booked can cancel and rebook using the flight credit, assuming both reservations are with the same airline.
When hunting for flights, use basic flight-search budget strategies, including searching for alternate airports near your departure and arrival destinations, and using flexible dates to show the lowest fares.
The online travel agency Expedia recommends flying domestically on a Wednesday to save 15 percent on average and booking at least a month out to save 10 percent.
Read the fine print on budget carrier sites. Their ticket prices often don’t include things like carry-on bags or seat assignments, as do most fares from larger airlines such as American, Delta and United, except for basic economy fares. Add those fees in when comparing prices.
3. Find alternative destinations
As with flights, be flexible about your destination, advised Lauren Doyle, president of the Travel Mechanic, an agency based in Raleigh, N.C. For savings, she recommends Belize in place of Costa Rica, and St. Lucia over Hawaii.
Consider visiting more popular places during their low seasons. When Mexico beach resorts were expensive last Thanksgiving, Gunjan Prakash, the founder and chief executive of the Families Love Travel blog, and her family went to Paris. This year they plan to go to Porto, Portugal, for Thanksgiving — another place that is not busy in November — booking round-trip flights for about $300 a person from New York City and a hotel room for four for $200 a night.
In summer, when U.S. national parks can be overrun, consider a secondary preserve. The 16,000-acre Harriman State Park in eastern Idaho, for example, lies within the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, and has 22 miles of trails, and rental yurts from $82 nightly.
4. Cash in on the dollar’s strength
One way to get more for your money is to travel to a country where the dollar is strong. It is currently worth about 0.94 euros; by comparison, it was worth 0.81 euros in early 2021. Mexico and Canada have also recently offered favorable exchange rates, as have countries in Asia, including Thailand and Vietnam.
Mr. Bopp of the Family Travel Association noted that closer destinations “make a lot of sense because it’s not expensive to get there.” Asia may have some great deals, he said, but “it’s expensive to fly there.”
Mexico, of course, is among the closer international destinations for U.S. travelers, but it has experienced a recent wave of violence that is deterring some travelers. Still, it was the top international destination in the Americas among families, according to the association’s 2022 survey. Be sure to check the U.S. State Department’s detailed travel advisory when planning a trip.
5. Save on city stays
Full-service hotels in some big cities such as San Francisco and Washington have not fully recovered from the pandemic crash, which might yield some deals, according to Jan Freitag, the national director of hospitality analytics at CoStar, a real estate analytics firm.
“Be aware of the meeting calendar,” when hotels are likely to attract business travelers, he added.
Scrimp on urban accommodations if you’re unlikely to spend a lot of time in the room.
“The key is a good location to walk to places, but you’re just crashing,” said Ms. Prakash, who, instead of staying in an expensive hotel, rented a bargain two-bedroom Airbnb in Rome last April for $100 a night.
6. Book family rooms
Finding spacious rooms suitable for the entire family takes some digging. The booking site Hotels.com has a “family friendly” filter to identify properties with multiple rooms and amenities for kids like clubs or child care.
Or consider a hostel. Design-focused groups like Generator, with 15 locations mostly in Europe, and Freehand, in four U.S. cities, have rooms with multiple beds that families can book privately. The Freehand Chicago recently had rooms with four beds from about $145 and the Generator London offered them from about $234.
7. Rent a vacation home
Since the pandemic began, travelers have embraced home rentals for privacy and space. Airbnb said its family business has grown 60 percent compared with 2019, with the average price per person on family stays globally at $52 a night.
In a recent survey of 1,000 Americans commissioned by the short-term rental service Vacasa, 65 percent of respondents said renting homes offered the best value. The service identified its best domestic bargains in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (around $104 a bedroom per night, including rentals with multiple bedrooms), and the Great Smoky Mountains ($116).
Travel between April and early June to get prices averaging 20 percent less than summer rates, according to the rental platform HometoGo. On Vrbo, filters for a “weekly discount” and “new listing discount” help renters find deals on the site.
Check GetawayGoGo for last-minute deals. The new platform, which is working with more than 46,000 properties in 39 countries, offers sales on vacation home rentals available up to 14 days in advance. Recent listings included an eight-bedroom villa in the Dominican Republic at 34 percent off for $300 a night.
8. Invest in travel perks
Rob Taylor, a co-founder of the L.G.B.T.Q. travel blog 2TravelDads and the father of two children, uses the American Express Platinum Card, which has an annual fee of $695, to gain access to airport lounges with complimentary food and drink.
“If you have lunch at the airport for four, plus adult drinks by the time you board, you’ve spent $150. In one trip that’s $300,” he said. “A family of four or five can recover the cost in two trips.”
9. Cruise without the views
Historically, a Caribbean cruise was about half the price of seeing the region by land, according to Ms. Masarik, the travel agent. But ship business is booming and the cruise lines are not giving as much away in deals.
“The best way to save on a cruise is going on an older, smaller ship,” she said. “You can do a smaller ship with fewer bells and whistles for a third of the price of a new ship.”
Another way to save money on a family cruise is to book an interior cabin, instead of an ocean view room. Over Christmas, Ms. Lanin of Travel Mamas and eight other family members took a Caribbean cruise.
“If you want to save money, you don’t need a room with a balcony because you’re never in the room,” she said.
10. Rent a tent
Spending time in the great outdoors doesn’t require a huge investment. Services like Arrive Outdoors and OutdoorsGeek allow occasional campers to rent gear. Instead of spending more than $200 on a high-quality, four-person tent, OutdoorsGeek rents North Face models for $49 for up to three days, or $62 for a week.
Glamping sites with platform tents often have high rates. But the affordable French company Huttopia operates more than 60 sites globally and recently made its North American debut with sites in Quebec, New Hampshire, Maine, New York and Southern California. Canvas-and-wood tents with kitchens and accommodations for up to five people start at $140 a night.
“We are working to make this easily accessible in price, but also accessible for families who don’t know how to camp yet, don’t have the equipment, and want to do it in a safe and accessible environment to educate their children,” said Margaux Bossanne, the business development manager at Huttopia.
11. Avoid theme park pitfalls
For theme park vacations, “I always tell people don’t put money into your hotel because you’re never there,” Ms. Masarik said. Instead, opt for cheaper accommodations with easy access to the park.
For instance, in Florida, Disney World resorts like Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge start above $500 in early April, while the nearby Caribe Royale Orlando has rates from about $200, including shuttles to the parks. Buy advance park admission from BestofOrlando.com, run by the local tourism office, to get discounts. Recently SeaWorld Orlando tickets were selling for about $100 a person, compared with nearly $148 at the gate.
For some parks, a season pass can be a better deal than paying a daily rate. At Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., season passes start at $164, compared with $89 by the day, worth it if you spend two days at the park.
12. Spend selectively and nearby
Economize on food by eating breakfast in your room or rental and packing picnic lunches. “In the evening, you’re tired and ready to have someone serve you, so we do restaurants at dinner,” Ms. Lanin of Travel Mamas said.
Get creative with souvenirs. Instead of buying $25 T-shirts at each stop, Ms. Lanin suggested having children select a postcard from each gift shop, then writing about their experiences and mailing them to relive the trip back home.
Finally, you don’t have to go far to be exposed to new things and to bond.
“Emphasize the experience of the journey,” Ms. Grant of Families Love Travel said. “When it comes to traveling, the most important part is making memories and you can do that close to home.”
Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column. Follow her on Instagram @eglusac.
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