Family Vacation Ideas on a Budget

Edited by Kathy McGraw, Maria Quinney, Alma

Summer is a time for building childhood memories and with that happy season comes the time for family vacations and spending quality time with your kids away from the demands of work and home. However, with the high cost of gas and, well, just about everything else, finding the money for it is getting harder for many families who are struggling to make ends meet. Does this mean that the family vacations you remember from your childhood are an ethereal artifact of a bygone era? No, of course not! There are still many places where you can take your family on vacation for a relatively low cost, and if you get creative, you can make your own yard into a vacation spot full of fun and memories that your children will cherish for years to come.

Local Camping

Search online for campgrounds near your area. You can cut down travel costs by sticking close to home, and almost everywhere in the United States and Canada has lovely campgrounds not far from cities where you can get back to nature with your family. For me, it was Point Mugu State Park just north of Malibu in Southern California where I grew up, but almost every region has state parks and campgrounds within an afternoon's drive from home.

Day Trips to the Beach/Lake

I grew up in Southern California, and I spent many of my young days at the beach. Just a fifteen-minute drive away from home was the sun-drenched Pacific Coast with its long strands of sandy beaches. My mother would pack a lunch of sandwiches, fruit and a thermos of lemonade, some towels beach chairs and an umbrella, and off we would go for the day. I loved it! While you may not have a beach close at hand, you might have a lake that you can visit for the day. Pack plenty of sunscreen, sandwiches, fruit and drinks, like my mom did, and you and your family can happily spend the day on the sea or lakeshore playing in the sand and surf.

Backyard Camp Out

Turn your backyard into a rustic campground in the wilderness. Even if you don't have a tent, some sheets and poles of some sort will do to create a lean-to to sleep in. If you have a hibachi, turn it into a firepit for roasting marshmallows and making that campground favorite: smores. Gather around the fire and tell spooky stories to the delight of your youngsters and take them on a scavenger hunt through the "wilds."

National /State/Provincial Parks

Some of my fondest memories as a child were of the camping trips to Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Redwoods my family used to take. Although many years have passed since those days, and although fees have gone up during that time, National Parks still provide great value to families willing to "rough it" a little bit. If you pack your own food and bring a tent, you can enjoy a week's worth of camping at any national park in the United States for one tiny entry fee.

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    Yellowstone National Park. Treat your children to the experience of a lifetime at Yellowstone National Park. With moose, bear, deer, and bison in residence and sights like the Old Faithful geyser that blows every hour on the hour, there is much to do and see. Park staff provide guided nature walks and presentations every day for your family's enjoyment and edification.
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    Yosemite National Park. From the iconic vistas of El Capitan and Half Dome to impressive Bridalveil Fall, which spills 617 feet down into a misty pond and memorialized by Ansel Adams, Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada mountains of central California is a magical place. Another must-see site is Mirror Lake, which reflects the granite cliffs above in the water.
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    Everglades National Park. Featuring miles of mangroves and saltwater marshes, the Everglades National Park represents an abundant wetlands ecosystem of an amazing variety of plants and animals. Among the residents of the park are the leatherback turtle, the West Indian manatee, and of course, alligators. Take a stroll with the family along the elevated Anhinga Trail to stay out of the reach of those aforementioned alligators while enjoying the verdant beauty of the Everglades. There is also fishing, and airboat rides available, as well.
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    Arches National Park. Over 2,000 sandstone arches dominate this rocky national park in the state of Utah. The iconic Balanced Rock is located in Arches National Park as well. Hike along trails around these massive geologic structures that erosion and tectonic drift created while appreciating the contrast the red rocks make as they reach into the blue vault of the sky.
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    Grand Canyon. Cut by the path of the mighty Colorado River over the millennia is this monument to the power of erosion: the Grand Canyon, 10 miles across on average, one mile deep, and 277 miles long. Displaying layers of rock in shades of red and tan all the way down to the bottom where the river still flows freely, cascading over rocks and creating rapids that if you and your family are intrepid enough, you can raft over. To get to the bottom, you can hike down, or the safer option for children is to ride mules down from Bright Angel Hiking Trail.
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    Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Carlsbad Caverns National Park is located in the southeastern portion of New Mexico and preserves a large network of caves and caverns, including the famous Big Room, the fifth largest room in the United States, at 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide, and 255 feet tall. Stalagmites rise from the floor to meet the stalactites growing down from the ceiling to create natural art out of the limestone substrate. The caverns are also home to 17 species of bats, which you may see departing the cavern at night in search of food.
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    Crater Lake National Park. Formed when the great volcano, Mount Mazama collapsed after a devastating eruption that spewed ash over half the continent about 7,700 years ago, Crater Lake is a nearly 2,000-foot deep caldera lake. It is the deepest lake in the United States and is a stunning deep blue color. Inside the lake are two islands, Wizard Island, and Phantom Ship, which are cinder cones that formed after volcano's collapse. The park has hiking trails around the crater, and Rim Drive encircles the lake, providing stunning views of the huge lake.
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    Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks. The twin parks in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains preserve the beauty and the majesty of the towering Sequoias and the old growth forests that sprawl across the mountain slopes and valleys of the region. Most notable is The General Sherman Tree, which is the largest living tree on the planet, towering almost 275 feet above the ground and a circumference at its base of 102 feet.
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    Banff and Jasper National Parks. The famed Banff and Jasper National Parks in the Canadian Rockies is a stunning location. From the lovely turquoise waters of Lake Louise to the sprawling ice of the 3.7 miles long Athabasca Glacier, they are great spots to teach your children about the effects of climate change, as evidenced in the real world. Explore hiking trails at every level of difficulty and watch out for grizzly bears in this pristine wilderness sanctuary.
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    Waterton Lakes National Park. Near the border of Alberta and Montana sits this jewel of a national park. The eponymous charming town of Waterton is filled with ice cream shops, charm, and tourist kitsch, and the surrounding campgrounds are quiet and offer unparalleled views of a night sky that's so clear that you can see Milky Way. White-tailed deer are abundant and may enter your camp, giving you the opportunity for great photos to remember your trip in the years to come.
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    Custer State Park. The Black Hills of South Dakota feature a national monument, Mt. Rushmore, and breathtaking landscape. Custer State Park is located in the center of all the scenery. Camping and lodging facilities are located within the park. There are miles of trails/driving loops to track buffalo or other wildlife as well as many "easy" hiking trails. Early evening is the best time to see buffalo/wildlife on the loop trails. Fish in one of the many lakes/streams within Custer State Park. Towns surrounding the park include Deadwood which has an old west resemblance. Visit the Crazy Horse Monument. One of the most popular times to visit is during the week of Independence Day. Mt. Rushmore features fireworks although, this is dependent on fire danger/weather. Plan for at least a week to explore Custer State Park and the surrounding area. Make time for The Badlands National Park and a donut/coffee at Wall Drug which is an iconic stop outside of The Badlands.
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Money Saving Tips for Theme Park Visits

Of course, every parent wants to treat their kids to a visit to their favorite theme park, whether it's Disneyworld, Universal Studios, or SeaWorld. However, a trip to the theme park doesn't have to break the bank. With a little careful planning, you can treat the whole family to a theme park vacation that your youngsters will not soon forget.

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    Buy tickets online. Theme park tickets and passes are often offered at a discount when purchasing them online, and it's convenient, too.
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    Go in the off-season. Plan your trip during the off-season that is October through February, will save you on ticket prices, airfare if you plan to fly, and hotel room fees and the weather will be a little cooler, too.
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    Avoid park concessions. Food and drink are always overpriced inside the park. Instead, get bread and sandwich meat from the grocery store and prepare sandwiches in your hotel room. All rooms come with a mini-fridge to keep the meat and condiments refrigerated.
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    Bring your own water. Instead of buying overpriced beverages within the park, including water, fill water bottles or jugs for each family member from the tap at the hotel and carry them in with you.
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    Set a souvenir budget for each child. After food, theme park merchandise can take a heavy bite out of your budget; however, it isn't necessary to deny your children their souvenirs if you plan for it beforehand:  
    1. Before you leave for your trip, do some research on merchandise pricing at the theme park you plan to go to. Based on your research figure out a suitable merchandise allowance for your children.
    2. Don't be too stingy with it; make sure that it's enough to allow your children to purchase one big item or two or three smaller items.
    3. A day or so before you leave, sit your children down and tell them that they each have x amount of dollars to spend on toys or souvenirs during the trip. Explain to them that if they spend it all, that there will be no more money forthcoming.
    4. When you arrive at the theme park, parcel out the funds to each child and remind them that this their allowance for the trip. Tell them that they can spend it on anything they want, but that once it's gone, it's gone.
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If you have problems with any of the steps in this article, please ask a question for more help, or post in the comments section below.

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Categories : Travel & Leisure

Recent edits by: Maria Quinney, Kathy McGraw

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