By Molly C. Herndon
Photo by Ruth and Dave
A family vacation is an annual tradition for many families but for those on a tight budget, it may be an unnecessary expense. Here, I’ve collected many of the the discounts available to military families that can help make a fun-filled getaway more attainable.
Like any big purchase, a vacation requires planning. Many vacationers are shocked when they receive their credit card bill after returning from a vacation; the time to create a spending plan is before you leave, not after you return. Creating a budget creates parameters that guide vacation plans. Knowing how much you can realistically afford to spend and how much you have yet to save creates the timeline for your trip as well. Using a goal-setting spending worksheet may be helpful. Professional financial planners can help families by suggesting to clients with wanderlust that perhaps the big family vacation to Disney World can be a goal for next year, and while saving up, the family might enjoy a shorter trip closer to home this summer. Some considerations for determining cost are listed below.
Train, plane or automobile? While packing the family into the minivan and setting out on a road trip might seem like the most economic choice, the cost of gas and car maintenance must be factored in to the budget. The AAA Fuel Cost Calculator and the Fly or Drive Calculator take into consideration the make and model of a vehicle as well the distance and any overnight trips that might bump up the cost of a road trip.
Finding last minute airfare deals can be a great way to save on air travel, but booking well in advance can reap better prices, too. Additionally, it may be difficult for families to to take the risk of finding a cheap deal at the last minute, especially if traveling within a specific date range for an event or due to a work schedule. If flexibility is an option, military families may want to look at flying “Space-A” on military flights. During mission assignment flights, empty seats are offered up as available to eligible travelers, and these tickets can be at a very-low or no cost to passengers. Of course, destinations are limited to military terminals and registration is required in advance, but the possibility of flying across the globe for free makes this option one worth looking at more closely.
Traveling by train is often the cheapest option. Amtrak schedules offers train trips at convenient times and to destinations throughout the United States, and military Service Members receive a 10% discount off fares. If travel destinations fit within a train route, consider this option, but also consider the added cost of a rental car if one will be required at the final destination.
Websites like Groupon and LivingSocial often post deals for hotels in tourist destinations, and clubs like AAA offer discounts at many hotel chains, but military families may want to consider the option of using military lodging facilities to save on lodging expenses. Like “Space-A” travel these accommodations are only open to eligible vacationers as space is available, and advance reservations may or not be possible. These options range from accommodations on military installations to top-notch resorts and hotels with special space and pricing reserved for military members. Military OneSource suggests planning these trips well in advance and calling their offices to speak with a consultant at 800-342-9647.
Food costs eat up a lot of the vacation budget. Staying in a hotel with a kitchen or refrigerator can help cut down on expenses by keeping restaurant costs at a minimum. Tourist guidebooks often offer coupons for many area restaurants, but be aware that restaurants in tourist areas are generally more expensive. It helps to plan ahead; by researching area restaurants you can plan in advance for a special dinner out while saving on dining expenses the rest of the week. Hotels that include a free breakfast each morning can also be a great deal. Sharing entrees and cutting back on alcohol are also good tips to reduce the bill. Of course, many restaurants offer military discounts, so it never hurts to ask!
Photo by emrank
Thinking about the fun things you’ll do on vacation is the best part of vacation planning. Think about who will go on this trip: young children? Teenagers? Elderly relatives? Try to match activities with what makes the most sense for your group. Finding deals in advance online can be a huge help. Sign up to receive daily emails from coupon sites, like Groupon, in your vacation destination city during your planning to see what deals are out there. Also, consider the “free” activities available in your vacation destination, like public parks, beaches, street fairs, and festivals.
After taking into consideration all the costs associated with traveling, it’s likely that this summer is a good time to begin planning a family vacation for next summer. But that doesn’t mean this summer can’t be full of family fun. “Staycations,” camping, and visiting and staying with relatives can be great, fun, and inexpensive ways to spend time together and save money. Here are some additional ideas about saving money on family trips.
Share your own vacationing on the cheap ideas in the comments section below!
This post was published on the Military Families Learning Network blog on June 24, 2014.