Traveling with kids can seem prohibitively expensive. Considering a family of four may have to pay for four flights, hotel rooms, activities, and food, a staycation may seem like the only type of travel that fits your budget.
But you could be missing out if you assume you can’t afford travel. While a pricey Disney cruise or European vacation may be out of reach, there are numerous affordable family vacation ideas suitable for stretched budgets. (See also: 9 Things You Must Do When Traveling With Kids)
Cruise the friendly seas
While cruising has been around for decades, it’s still one of the most cost-effective, family-friendly travel ideas around. Booking a cruise means letting someone else plan the bulk of your vacation for you. With meals, entertainment, and stops built in ahead of time, you can mostly just show up and enjoy the ride.
Of course, there are financial benefits that come with cruising. Your food, lodging, and entertainment are all included in the price, making this a smart travel option for families who hate surprises. Some affordable, family-friendly cruise lines like MSC Cruises let kids cruise free on select sailings, in addition to offering seven-night Caribbean cruises starting at $449 per adult.
But the savings and convenience don’t stop at the cruise fare. For many people, the fact that they can drive to a cruise port makes this option even more affordable. In fact, a report from the Cruise Lines International Association showed that 78 percent of ocean cruise customers choose cruising partially because they can drive to a cruise port and forgo airfare.
Obviously, not paying for airfare can be a huge financial boon if you live close enough to a cruise port to drive. (See also: 5 Affordable Vacations to Please Every Age Group)
Book an all-inclusive resort
Similar to cruising, all-inclusive resorts offer a ton of bang for your buck. For one nightly rate, you can score all your food, drink (including alcohol), and entertainment without having to worry about added costs other than tipping and airport transfers.
While this sounds pricey, there are many budget all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and the Caribbean. Even better, some all-inclusive resorts like Holiday Inn let kids stay free with paid adults.
If you’re savvy, you may even be able to score an all-inclusive resort stay with the right travel credit card. Some of the bigger loyalty programs like IHG Rewards Club, Hilton Honors, and World of Hyatt make it easy to rack up points on their co-branded credit cards, which you can then redeem for free stays.
The big downside with all-inclusive resorts is the fact that they are mostly outside the U.S. and you’ll need to fly there. The good news is, once again, you can use airline credit cards to rack up air miles and defray the costs of your flights.
Southwest Airlines, for example, offers a family-friendly option to the Caribbean with two free checked bags per person, and no limits on award seats. Several credit cards allow you to earn points directly on Southwest or transfer points to the airline’s frequent flyer program.
Book a ranch getaway
Ranch getaways are similar to all-inclusive resorts. The big difference is, these properties are typically nestled up in the mountains or in the middle of acres of forest or open desert. Many ranches are in states like California, Colorado, Wyoming, and Arizona for this reason.
Ranches also offer a different range of activities than traditional, beach-based all-inclusive resorts. Many ranches feature horseback riding, skeet shooting, hiking, archery, and kayaking.
As you search for a ranch vacation the kids will love, keep in mind these properties range from budget to luxury. While there are numerous affordable options, there are some pretty outrageous ranches that cost $4,000+ per person, per week as well.
Some budget options to consider include Southern Cross Guest Ranch of Georgia, which offers low season all-inclusive pricing starting at $135 per person, per night (kids eight years and under are only $50 per day, while kids ages nine to 15 years old are $110 per day).
Lost Valley Ranch in Colorado also offers affordable rates for families, with nightly stays starting at $175 per adult and lower rates for kids. You can also book a seven-night stay for $1,210 per adult (kids stay for cheaper rates, depending on age). While that may sound expensive, keep in mind that it includes your lodging, all meals, and activities like guided horseback riding, swimming, tennis, kids clubs, and access to 26,000 acres of national forest.
Camping is a budget travel mainstay, mostly because you can camp extremely cheaply if you’re willing to rough it. Many state and national parks offer camping sites that start at $12 per night, for example. If you borrow a tent and sleeping bags, bring your own food, and stay busy enjoying the great outdoors, you could have a relaxing family camping vacation for a very low out-of-pocket cost. (See also: 6 Essential Money-Saving Items for a Camping Road Trip)
Renting an RV can also be affordable, but you have to go about it the right way. Don’t just rent the biggest, baddest RV you can find. Instead, rent only what you need and bring your own amenities like bedding and dishes to keep costs low. (See also: How to Have a Family Road Trip Without Breaking Your Budget)
Visit a local theme park
Taking the kids to a nearby theme park can be a frugal fast pass to fun. No matter what anyone says, Disney World is not the only happy place on earth. In your local area or a state nearby, it’s possible to find theme parks that are tons of fun for kids without the excruciating costs of a Disney vacation.
Orlando, Florida, in fact, has its own share of parks other than Disney. Fun Spot America Theme Park and Aquatica Orlando Water Park are both less than $50 per person, per day to visit.
Six Flags Theme Parks, which are spread across the country, are also an affordable option. Six Flags Over Georgia lets you book season passes with free parking for $65.99 each if you buy at least four at a time, although prices are subject to change with sales.
Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana can cost as little as $29.99 per day in the offseason. In addition to low prices, the park also offers the two longest water coasters in the world, free sunscreen, and unlimited free soft drinks.
Wherever you live, don’t discount the local parks and attractions nearby. Not only can you drive to them, but you should be able to save more by staying in a basic hotel or Airbnb. At the end of the day, the kids won’t know how much you paid for their few days of fun — nor will they care.